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The Collapse of Civilization, Part 5 

Decline and Fall

Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. Cullen Murphy. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

Are we Rome? Will the United States fall, just as Rome fell, and just as (more recently) the Soviet Union fell? Cullen Murphy sets out to address this question, and gives us a lot of interesting history, but in the end doesnít provide us with a good answer to the question.

There are plenty of analogies here, and Murphy examines the capitals, the military, the relationship between public and private enterprise, the relationship between the empire and the rest of the world, and the problem of dealing with the borders. So if you want to go digging for these historical analogies, or just want a good historical read, Murphyís book is a nice place to start.  

But what if you want to know the actual answer to the question "Are we Rome?" The parallels which Murphy discovers are all basically political. All empires, ancient or modern, have capitals, borders, armies, and bureaucracies. They also have certain element of myopia and corruption.  What exactly does this prove? Does having capitals, borders, armies, and bureaucracies mean that the empire will fall? Even if it will eventually fall, how do we know where on the trajectory we are? Whatís underlying the politics of empire here?

Murphy suggests that corruption in government and ignorance of the outside world are significant factors we can avoid, but I seriously doubt that either of these was fundamental in Rome's fall.  There is no indication that ignorance in any absolute sense was less in earlier Rome during its rise (or early America) than in later Rome (or present-day America). Societies in their decline often produce some of their greatest thinkers -- think of Socrates, Plato, and the decline of Athens, for example, or Porphyry, Tertullian, and Augustine during the decline of Rome.

"Corruption" is an even vaguer category. Corruption arises because there is a divide between private interest and public duty, and that the former dominates the latter. But if times are good, private interest and public duty typically coincide anyway. That's what it means to say that "times are good": you don't have to deal constantly with any heart-wrenching decisions and make any noble sacrifices and constantly repeat the Horatio-at-the-bridge thing.  That's because your society is not in a perpetual state of crisis.  If your society is in a perpetual state of crisis, eventually someone is going to give in to temptation.

So that corruption became a problem in Rome (or America) is just another way of saying that "times were bad," which is saying nothing. Moreover, what replaced the Roman Empire? Nothing. The Roman Empire was not "taken over" by the barbarians; it simply disappeared, and nothing really analogous to Rome was really attempted for over a thousand years, with the possible exception of Justinian, who bankrupted his empire trying to recapture Rome's legacy.  

If a corrupt emperor (or two or three) had caused Rome's fall, some barbarian would surely have eventually figured out how to do the same thing right.  Thus we have the "myth of Rome": that all it would have taken would have been a strong-willed, competent, and honest emperor (or a series of such emperors) to set things right.  Rome had a number of strong-willed, competent, and honest emperors, including Marcus Aurelius and Diocletian.  They were not able to save the empire, because they were unable to deal with the underlying problem.  Murphy seems determined to invent a similar "myth of America," that a strong-willed, competent, and honest President or group of Americans could set America right again.

Now, Mrs. Laycock in my high school world history class, as well as in Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies, offered an obvious explanation: Rome fell for economic reasons, Rome had no industry. Nothing that the Romans or their subjects did that was fundamentally and notably better than what the barbarians did, it therefore lacked any economic reason for existence. This sort of industrial or trade base is the sort of thing which only happened much later, with the rise of modern Europe.

Given this lack of an economy, the real problem is not explaining Romeís fall, but explaining its rise. And here the explanation is -- military might. Rome became great not because it was an efficient producer or trader of things which made life better, but because it was a great military power and could confiscate the things which made life better. Rome became rich by looting and pillaging.

However, looting and pillaging has limited economic utility. You can do it once, but eventually youíre going to run out of nations to loot and pillage, or they are going to become increasingly distant and difficult to subdue (Judea, Parthia). You can then raise taxes, but this too soon reaches a point of diminishing returns. You can rest on your laurels for a while -- in Romeís case, for several hundred years -- but you wonít be able to continue raking money into the treasury at anything approaching the rate you did as you founded your empire. You can economize, maneuver, and delay but you canít get around this basic fact in the long run.

Well, the United States doesnít go around looting and pillaging other countries to get its wealth, does it? Isnít there a fundamental dissimilarity here? Iraq and Vietnam are sometimes held out as examples of our empire-building attempts. Maybe, but so far Iraq has not been particularly profitable, thereís less oil produced now than under Saddam, and there wasnít anything strategic in Vietnam to begin with. So doesnít this analogy break down?

But thereís another angle here: while we havenít looted and pillaged other countries so much (well, not very effectively, and thatís certainly not how we became great), we have been looting and pillaging nature. And like Romeís adventure in empire, our industrial empire will soon hit the law of diminishing returns, because thereís only so much fossil fuel to pillage. Think: American society is built on the exploitation of natural resources generally and fossil fuels in particular. Think: this is non-renewable or unsustainable or both. Think: this is happening on a vast and previously unimaginable scale.

Cullen Murphy could have written a great book if he had focused on the fundamental reasons that Rome fell, and then tried to argue the pros and cons of whether these reasons apply to the United States. Instead he has written a book that focuses on more superficial similarities and ignores the underlying problems. Too bad.

Someone else may get a shot at writing such a history, but weíre running out of time. Crude oil production peaked in May 2005 and while we might, just might, see a slight uptick sometime later, itís only a matter of time before the whole basis of modern industrial society enters a period of decline.  Itís entirely possible that the United States will be deep in crisis, or worst case actually disappear, before some historian manages to point out the obvious and get it published.

Keith Akers
November 24, 2007

Related articles on "The Collapse of Civilization":

Part 1: Collapse -- Coming Soon to a Civilization Near You!
A review of books by Jared Diamond, J. R. McNeill, and Joseph Tainter, on the collapse of civilizations and the current state of our own.

Part 2: Reviews of Better Off and The Long Emergency
Reviews of two books by James Kunstler and Eric Brende which offer alternative visions of possible futures.

Part 3: Is Peak Oil Here?, reviews of books by Ken Deffeys and Matt Simmons on peak oil.

Part 4: Five More Good Books on the Collapse of Civilization!  Reviews of books by Jeremy Legget, Lindsey Grant, Ronald Wright, John Howe, and Julian Darley. 

Part 5: Decline and Fall, a review of Are We Rome?

Part 6: Peak Oil at the Movies, a review of A Crude Awakening, Crude Impact, and What a Way to Go