On the longest day

If eternity had a season, it would be midsummer. Autumn, winter, spring are all change and passage, but at the height of summer the year stands poised. It’s only a passing moment, but even as it passes the heart knows it cannot change.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Edward Gibbon begins his epic history of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by considering what he takes to have been its high point: the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD). I wonder what historians of the future might take to be the equivalent moment in the decline and fall of industrial civilisation. If Roman history were a year, that would be its Midsummer’s Day. From that point onward, the nights only got longer.

My guess would probably be somewhere around the 1960s. Oil, coal and natural gas were all freely available at reasonable prices. The industrial gospel was being actively spread across the world, into places like Hong Kong and South Korea. The world might have been divided politically between the communist East and capitalist West, but everyone was busily building factories, mechanising, and merrily screwing up the environment on heroic scale.

It’s a pretty safe bet that nobody is going to be looking back on the twenty-first century as any kind of golden age. Or at least, nobody adopting the point of view of the industrialised nations. The historian James C. Scott writes of a “golden age of the barbarians” – partly, he claims, to be provocative, but I think he’s onto something. The fifth century was a pretty sweet time to be a Vandal, after all, living high on the hog in some of the richest (former) provinces of the Roman Empire.

The Summer Solstice reminds us that these things always go basically in cycles. In the sixth century, it got considerably less sweet to be a Vandal when a resurgent Eastern Roman Empire reconquered North Africa. So it goes. When civilisations fall, they replaced by something else. It may be better in some respects and worse in others, but we can say with confidence that it will be different.

It will have to be different, if only because we plainly cannot carry on doing what we’re doing indefinitely. As the saying goes, that which is not sustainable will not be sustained. Unfortunately that includes a number of things we fondly imagine to be sustainable, such as EVs, biodiesel, and the Internet.

But to think exclusively in terms of loss is to overlook what there is to be gained. It’s true that we won’t be gaining GDP, but that matters less than you may think. (The economist who invented it as a measure was very clear that GDP should not be taken as a simple “score” of national prosperity, despite the fact that it is invariably treated as exactly that.) There can be plenty of positive results when empires fall. The Roman Empire was notoriously based on slavery; when the Western Empire fell to the barbarians, slavery pretty much went away in their former territories.

Industrialism is not so openly based on classic chattel slavery. but there is a very large amount of unfreedom involved. I’m not just talking here of the sweatshops documented (for example) in Naomi Klein’s excellent book No Logo (Picador, 1999). It is increasingly the case that the majority of the population, even in notionally “wealthy” nations like the UK or USA, cannot survive without government assistance even when they are employed – even, in may cases, when they work multiple jobs. This is now extending to the middle classes, many of whom are now resorting to food banks.

It’s not even as if the jobs these people are doing are in any way rewarding. I am by no means the first person to point out that a mediaeval peasant worked shorter hours, with more job security, and under far less rigorous supervision than the average modern worker. Being a serf gets a bad rap these days, but I’m not sure that it compares that badly with working for Amazon on a zero-hours contract.

And I’m not even going to start on the tax system. In the glory days of the Roman Empire, citizens paid no tax at all. Nothing. Not a bean. In fact, those who lived in Rome (and later Constantinople) were entitled to free food – the original dole, a ration of grain officially termed the Cura Annonae which was the “bread” component of the famous “bread and circuses.” (The circuses were free as well.) As things began to go downhill, however, and the nights got longer, the tax burden increased dramatically. Roman citizenship had originally been a jealously-guarded privilege, as you can imagine, but in 212 AD it was extended to all non-slaves, with the motive – according to the contemporary historian Cassius Dio – of maximising the number of people who would have to pay taxes.

Returning to our mediaeval peasant: he was obliged to contribute a certain fraction of his output to his lord, which was taxation of a sort. This might be goods or labour or some combination of the two, and what was expected of him would usually remain constant over time – over generations, typically. It might not be written down anywhere, and given that most non-clergy were illiterate it wouldn’t have made much difference it it had been, but everyone knew where they stood.

I’m not claiming for a moment that this kind of social order would be perfect, still less advocating that we return to it or even predicting that it lies in our future. (Although something like it may well be; this sort of thing has arisen in many times and places, and this is just the version of it we’re most familiar with.) What I’m saying is that autumn and winter are not to be feared. They will, after all, be followed by spring again.

And yes, there will be another midsummer. So it goes.

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

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