Past and Present Times….
“Bread and circuses” is a well-known figure of speech from the late Roman Empire. The words refer to how public appeasement was generated through superficial entertainment and spectacle such as gladiator fights, briefly distracting them from the social and economic issues that the Empire faced: inflation, corruption and an ever increasing economical strain on the population. Today, in the wake of the economic crisis and an ongoing extinction of the ecosystem, we mimic the behavior of the Roman crowds by willingly ignoring the outside world in favour of celebrity gossip and violence and sex on TV.
In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, the historian and anthropologist Joseph Tainter describes how civilizations faced with problems are forced to solve them by increasing their complexity: increased bureaucracy, import and use of more resources (via for example warfare) and new inventions such as aqueducts and maintained highways. Tainter however also shows that the marginal revenue from increased complexity in civilizations diminishes as it grows, meaning that complexity eventually has to increase just in order to maintain status quo. In other words, civilizations eventually reach a peak in their progress at which the costs for maintaining the present are exponentially increasing every day. When this happens, civilizations inevitably start to collapse. Throughout history, several civilizations on decline have shared the same characteristics: A powerful economic elite that shields itself off from the rest of society, worsened living standards for the population with increased social unrest as a consequence, and large-scale exhaustion of the surrounding environment.
Today, certain characteristics of the United States show increasing similarities to one of the most well known cases of collapsed civilizations in history – the Western Roman Empire. In academia, a study from Princeton University recently found that the preferences of the average American citizen have near zero impact on public policymaking while the preferences of the most affluent Americans, the so-called economic elite, have a very strong impact. The United States thus shows more characteristics of an oligarchy, meaning a society ruled by an economic elite, than a democracy, and the authors indeed end the paper by seriously questioning the democratic self-image of the US.
After Julius Caesar’s death in 44 BC Marcus Tullius Cicero, considered one of Rome’s greatest orators and a prominent politician, advocated a return to the traditional republican government in favour of Caesar’s imposed dictatorship. The ensuing power struggle made him enemies with Marc Antony, after Cicero publicly accused him for taking liberties with interpreting Caesar’s intentions for the future of Rome. After Antony seized power together with a religious leader and Caesar’s adopted son Octavianus (later named Augustus), Cicero was declared an enemy of the state and forced into hiding. Despite support from large parts of the population, he was eventually intercepted and executed. Marc Antony ordered his hands and head cut off and put them on public display in the Forum, the central square of Rome, presenting his catch with the chilling words “He will never write or speak again”. Marc Antony later played a crucial role in transforming the Roman republic into the authoritarian Roman Empire, with Augustus as its first Emperor.
In a similar pattern, political opponents and critics of the US have often been persecuted with legal or deadly consequences. Countless civil rights actions have been fought back by brutal force. Black Panther leaders were assassinated by the FBI. Assumed communists or socialists were imprisoned or harrassed during the Red scare after World War II. Osama bin Laden’s sexual habits were quickly and thoroughly exposed in the media after his death. And just recently, Edward Snowden had to flee the country after leaking information about the NSA monitoring the US population.
Following the trend of civilizations approaching collapse, as the Roman Empire expanded, so too did its effect on the environment. Agriculture was initially the economic base for the Empire, but with the expansion came an increased strain on the soil and it was soon overworked and exhausted. Farmers were taxed higher to cover the loss. Another standard supply was wood, being used for both buildings and heat generation in the industry. This inevitably led to deforestation of adjacent areas and an increasing need for import from distant provinces, where the process was repeated. To quote the writer G.T. Wrench, ”province after province was turned by Rome into a desert”. Warfare initially paid off as neighbouring societies were annexed, but as new conquests became further and further away and the size of the Empire expanded, so too did the cost for military and bureaucracy. Thus, the law of diminishing returns came into play for the Roman civilization: While expansion remained a necessity, the profits inevitably declined with each mile. Rome eventually became entirely dependent on Egypt, conquered under Augustus’ rule and the last profitable province to be seized by the Empire, to provide corn for the starving population back home. To manage the complex bureaucracy of such a vast empire, Rome had to be split into an Eastern and Western part at the end of the third century. Over the following centuries, when the outskirts of the crumbling Western Roman Empire was invaded by barbarian tribes from central Europe, in many places they were greeted as liberators by the local population.
The US had its Peak Oil domestically in the 70’s and has since had to expand to the Middle East for new oil fields. Globally, companies extract the planet for metals and oil sand at enormous costs, leaving behind a blackened moonscape that can never be restored. And in South America, the Amazon rainforest is being decimated to make room for crops and cattle, to feed the ever hungrier western population. The global destruction of the environment is a fact: Scientists call it the sixth extinction and refer to how species go extinct today at the same rate as the dinosaurs – the fifth extinction. There is little questioning whether the cause is human expansion or not. Yet we sit mostly still, momentarily distracted by new apps and reality shows, drooling idly as governments and corporations work together to scrape off what is left of the Earth. Perhaps, like for the people of Rome, the looming collapse of the American empire is where our hope lies.