On the fall of Rome, part two

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

Last week, we took a (very brief) look at how and why the Roman empire in the west fell, or rather faded away. The executive summary is that while there were certainly external pressures, the empire’s demise was due to the ruling elite’s failure to deal with those pressures. There was no single disaster, just a series of cock-ups and bad breaks until the situation was too far gone for anyone to retrieve.

This ought to come as no surprise. History in general tends to go like that. What looks inevitable in hindsight rarely did at the time. Of course, it was inevitable that the empire would collapse at some point: that is what empires do. The Western Roman empire actually had a pretty good innings, as these things go.

Trite as it may be, this is really the lesson to take from the fall of Rome. The decline of an empire, or more generally of a civilisation, is just one damn thing after another. Things that break somehow never get fixed – look at New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or more prosaically at the potholes in the road. Every generation of politicians is a little bit more corrupt or inept (or both) than the one that preceded it.

I am old enough to remember the resignation of Lord Carrington on the grounds that the British Foreign Office, which he headed, had failed to predict the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. There was no suggestion that he personally had screwed up, but it was his department and therefore his responsibility. It is hard to imagine any current member of the British Cabinet resigning for such a reason, or indeed for any reason short of launching a leadership challenge.

(I speak here of British politics because that’s what I’m familiar with; I’d be very interested to hear in the comments about the trends in other countries. Perhaps some places are even improving.)

The mineral resources on which industry depends are gradually depleting. For example, we are now extracting copper from much lower-grade ores then we used to, which is more expensive; hence the price of copper is on an inexorable upwards trend. (Former mining engineer and academic Simon Michaux has an excellent presentation on this and some of its implications.) Copper, of course, is in everything electrical, not least the much-vaunted electric vehicles. Other conductive metals are of course available, but I don’t imagine that substituting gold for all that copper would make electrical goods very affordable.

Unsurprisingly a similar situation exists for the rare earth metals required for things like smartphones and solar panels – unsurprisingly, because the clue is in the name. Many of these have no known substitutes, and the substitutes that are known are not as good. Nor are deposits of these metals evenly distributed around the world: most of them are in China, with something between 40-50% of global production coming from one small region of Inner Mongolia. What could possibly go wrong?

Discoveries of crude oil reserves peaked in the 1960s, and have been below consumption since the 1980s. Many of the uses to which we put oil cannot be substituted: good luck using renewable electricity as a feedstock for plastic, for instance, or as a source of lubricants. Nobody has a solution for this problem, which is slowly but surely killing the industrial model on which our entire way of life is founded. Cheap long-distance transportation is going to go away, to mention just one glaring example. Industrial agriculture will be another casualty.

One could compare this to the decline of agriculture in the later stages of the Western Roman empire, which was also in its own way a fuel crisis. The empire became dependent on food from its North African provinces, and when these were lost to the Vandals the end was clearly in sight. Part of the issue seems to have been topsoil loss, which is also a huge problem today. The Romans failed to cope with this, and we are not showing much sign of doing so either.

Economic equality was likewise an issue for the Romans, just as it is for us. The rich became phenomenally rich, with vast estates in Italy and Gaul, while further down the social scale life became progressively tougher. I’m not even talking about slaves. The provincial well-off originally used to compete for public office, with the ambition of becoming a decurion or town councillor. As time went on, it became more onerous than rewarding, and eventually the office became compulsory, passed down from father to son.

At a lower level still, the small farmers who had originally been the backbone of the army were squeezed out by the growth of latifundia – large estates worked by slaves. This obliged the army to seek recruits from outside the empire, with the unfortunate results that we discussed last week. It may or may not have detracted from the effectiveness of the army – opinion is divided – but certainly the later Roman army was a very different beast from that commanded by Caesar or Scipio Africanus. Perhaps more importantly, this development also gave the average Roman subject much less of a stake in the empire.

Economic polarisation is a defining characteristic of our own times. When I was a child in the 1960s, my family was unusual in having both parents working full-time. Most households could manage reasonably well on a single working-class wage. That arrangement, which was the norm just a few decades ago, is almost unheard-of today. Although income inequality in the UK is said to be more extreme than in other industrial nations, the same holds good for many other countries. The explosive growth of shanty towns in the USA is hardly a sign of a healthy economy.

Personal debt is another problem we have in common with ancient Rome. At least in modern first-world countries there is no legal mechanism for reducing debtors to literal slavery; still, the plight of a great many ordinary people is not much better. These depressing statistics are for the UK; this table gives a wider picture, with startling figures for most of the large industrialised nations. It is increasingly the normal pattern for people to be indebted essentially for their entire working lives, if not beyond. One must borrow in order to study at university, and borrow more to purchase a home; more again to buy a car.

As the economist Michael Hudson succinctly puts it: “Debts that can’t be paid, won’t be paid.” (Killing the Host (ISLET, 2015), page 25.) As incomes decline, the ability – and willingness – to service debt decline as well. A point will be reached at which the downsides of the current arrangements for the average person outweigh the upsides; at that point, any alternative to the status quo will begin to look attractive to the mass of the population. That is a very dangerous place to be. Remember this guy?

None of these things are making the headlines, or do so only occasionally and are soon forgotten. Yet if there are historians a thousand years in the future, looking back on us from a similar distance as we look back on Rome, I expect many of them will be cited as reasons for the “inevitable” decline and fall of industrial civilisation. Perhaps some future Edward Gibbon will sit musing among the ruins of Manhattan or Canary Wharf, if any such are still standing. More likely, people will have better things to do.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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