A Shattered Sphere of Reality – Part 1
Adapted from Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book “Creativity, Catastrophe and the Renewal of Civilization” , this article brilliantly dissects the reason for Rome’s fall – decline in its sources of energy, and how it has its parallels in the rising fuel prices, and violence, along with political disorder
We’re awed by Rome’s buildings because they were built to inspire awe. The empire derived its authority partly from its fabulous engineering—and from its everyday display of precision and power with mere rock. Engineering ideology helped justify the construction of the Pont du Gard, just as it justified the Colosseum. That the aqueduct was built in a remote corner of southern Gaul only reinforced its underlying message of timeless accomplishment: we have the power and the will, the Romans were saying, to do the work of gods wherever we choose.
But today another, very different and even contradictory, message—a message about the ultimate limits of human power—hides inside the aqueduct, where most people don’t see it. When Romans no longer properly maintained the aqueduct and its water turned brown, the layers of limestone along its interior became soft. So when I touched this limestone and it crumbled under my fingers, I touched the story of Rome’s disintegration.
Some people would say that it’s absurd to draw a parallel between Rome’s fate and the prospects for today’s world. Far from seeing the disintegration of world order, they’d say, we’re actually seeing its progressive reinforcement and increasing coherence, as global trade advances and as countries (with some notable exceptions) sign treaties to manage global problems from genocide to climate change. And, they would go on, despite high-profile conflicts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan—and an upsurge in Islamic terrorism—violence has, in reality, steadily declined around the world for a decade, as war between Cold War proxies has ended, democracy has taken root, and the United Nations and other organizations have intervened to stem conflict in poor countries.
This is a dangerously simplistic view. Not only does it downplay the reality that dozens of societies around the world are still experiencing vicious civil conflict, but it also extrapolates a few positive trends linearly into the future. However, complex systems don’t advance in a straight line. They develop with progress and setbacks, thresholds and flips, and sudden shifts in direction. In human societies, periods of relative calm that might seem permanent are sometimes interrupted by extraordinary turmoil, when deep stresses combine to release their energy with sudden force.
Today, just as in the late Roman empire, deep stresses are rising and system resilience is declining. Just as was true then, too, the coherence of world order depends critically on the economic, political, cultural, and military might of a single superpower. The foundation of this might is access to abundant energy. “More than in any other modern nation,” writes the eminent energy specialist Vaclav Smil, “the United States has acquired its power and influence largely through its extraordinarily high use of energy.” And America survives, as the ancient city of Rome did, on lifelines of energy from distant regions….
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