Sunday, August 12, 2012

"Peak Civilization: The Fall of the Roman Empire"

That's the title of a fascinating article by Ugo Bardi, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Florence in Italy.  It's very long, but it's well worth the effort to read it.  Prof. Bardi analyzes the decline and fall of Ancient Rome and uses it as an analogy to examine our own times - with some surprising and disturbing consequences.  Here are a few excerpts.

Let's start from the beginning ... with the people who were contemporary to the collapse, the Romans themselves. Did they understand what was happening to them? This is a very important point: if a society, intended as its government, can understand that collapse is coming, can they do something to avoid it? It is relevant to our own situation, today.

. . .

Let me start with Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who lived from 120 to 180 A.D. He was probably the last Emperor who ruled a strong empire. Yet, he spent most of his life fighting to keep the Empire together; fighting barbarians ... Marcus Aurelius did what he could to keep the barbarians away but, a few decades after his death, the Empire had basically collapsed. That was what historians call "the third century crisis". It was really bad; a disaster. The empire managed to survive for a couple of centuries longer as a political entity, but it wasn't the same thing. It was not any longer the Empire of Marcus Aurelius; it was something that just tried to survive as best as it could, fighting barbarians, plagues, famines, warlords and all kinds of disasters falling on them one after the other. Eventually, the Empire disappeared also as a political entity. It did that with a whimper - at least in its Western part, in the 5th century a.d. The Eastern Empire lasted much longer, but that is another story.

. . .

Marcus Aurelius ... was a "philosopher-emperor" who left us his "Meditations"; a book of philosophical thoughts. For instance, you can read such things as:

Though thou shouldst be going to live three thousand years, and as many times ten thousand years, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than this which he now loses.

That is the typical tune of the book - you may find it fascinating or perhaps boring; it depends on you. Personally, I find it fascinating. The "Meditations" is a statement from a man who was seeing his world crumbling down around him and who strove nevertheless to maintain a personal balance; to keep a moral stance. Aurelius surely understood that something was wrong with the Empire: during all their history, the Romans had been almost always on the offensive. Now, they were always defending themselves. That wasn't right; of course.

But you never find in the Meditations a single line that lets you suspect that the Emperor thought that there was something to be done other than simply fighting to keep the barbarians out. You never read that the Emperor was considering, say, things like social reform, or maybe something to redress the disastrous situation of the economy. He had no concern, apparently, that the Empire could actually fall one day or another.

. . .

I think it is enough to say that the Romans did not really understand what was happening to their Empire, except in terms of military setbacks that they always saw as temporary. They always seemed to think that these setbacks could be redressed by increasing the size of the army and building more fortifications. Also, it gives us an idea of what it is like living a collapse "from the inside". Most people just don't see it happening - it is like being a fish: you don't see the water.

. . .

The point that Tainter makes, quite correctly, in his book is that it is hard to see the fall of such a complex thing as an empire as due to a single cause. A complex entity should fall in a complex manner, and I think it is correct. In Tainter's view, societies always face crisis and challenges of various kinds. The answer to these crisis and challenges is to build up structures - say, bureaucratic or military - in response. Each time a crisis is faced and solved, society finds itself with an extra layer of complexity. Now, Tainter says, as complexity increases, the benefit of this extra complexity starts going down - he calls it "the marginal benefit of complexity". That is because complexity has a cost - it costs energy to maintain complex systems. As you keep increasing complexity, this benefit become negative. The cost of complexity overtakes its benefit. At some moment, the burden of these complex structures is so great that the whole society crashes down - it is collapse.

. . .

Our Druids may be better than those of the times of the Roman Empire, at least they have digital computers. But our leaders are no better apt at understanding complex system than the military commanders who ruled the Roman Empire. Even our leaders were better, they would face the same problems: there are no structures that can gently lead society to where it is going. We have only structures that are there to keep society where it is - no matter how difficult and uncomfortable it is to be there. It is exactly what Tainter says: we react to problems by building structure that are more and more complex and that, in the end, produce a negative return. That's why societies collapse.

There's much more at the link.  Highly recommended reading, and very thought-provoking.


1 comment:

Chris said...

I actually think the causes of societal collapse are very simple. Those with power and privilege will do whatever it takes to hang on to it, even when it hurts society as a whole. Heck, most of the time they see what's going on and what needs to be done to stave off collapse, yet refuse because they might have to give up something.