Rome Tuesday

The late-afternoon Italian sun is low in the sky, but still hot. In the shade of a tree, I'm enjoying a blessed moment of tranquillity. I'm perched atop the stubby base of a pillar among the ruins of the Forum in Rome—the center of political, religious, and public life through much of Ancient Rome's history.

I look northwest toward the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Temple of Saturn. In front of me is a broad expanse of wild grass that shimmers green and gold. Here and there stand pitted and cracked imperial columns, crumpled brick arches, and bits and pieces of travertine steps— broken remnants of Rome's triumph and power.

A breeze ruffles the grass.

I'm visiting Rome on a journey to better understand the complex problems we face—problems like energy shortages, climate change, disease, and economic crisis. And while it may be a moment of tranquillity for me, in mid-May 2003 much of the world is in turmoil. In the past weeks, a string of suicide bombings ripped through Israel. Terrorists attacked Western targets in Riyadh and Casablanca. Indonesia launched a war against rebels in the province of Aceh. The United Nations warned of a new genocide in northeastern Congo. A virulent form of pneumonia, SARS, caused near panic from Beijing to my home city of Toronto. And the United States and its allies achieved a lopsided military triumph over Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. The victory seemed to confirm the United States as an imperial power, certainly the greatest since the Roman empire, and perhaps—in terms of the gulf between America and its nearest competitors in military and economic strength—the greatest of all time.

All this turbulence makes it seem as if nothing is dependable. Shocks and surprises seem to rush toward us faster than ever before. As I sat among the Forum's scattered ruins, trying to imagine what the place must have

The Roman Forum looked like two thousand years ago, I asked myself, Did the Romans ever have the same feelings? Were their certainties ever challenged, and did events ever seem out of control? I wondered whether the pressured, chaotic circumstances of today's world are in any way like those that existed when the western Roman empire crumbled in the fifth century. How could anything that seemed so permanent and consequential, as Rome must have seemed in its heyday, be reduced to these scraps of rubble? Of course in the centuries since Rome's fall, countless others have asked the same kind of questions, but I suspected we'd learn something new by asking them again now, in light of new studies ofwhy societies sometimes collapse.2

Isn't everyone intrigued by the idea of the fall of Rome? As a boy, I was fascinated by it. I marveled at Rome's feats of conquest and engineering. They were the stuff of wonder. Rome's legions subjugated Europe and North Africa and reached deep into western Asia, while its engineers built roads, aqueducts, temples, baths, and amphitheaters across the empire's landscape. But what really drew me to the story was what it revealed about our human frailty. There was something both spectacular and eerie about this civilization that so dominated much of the world—and then almost completely disappeared. Rome's vast influence on Western cultures endures, but we can see today only scattered fragments of its incalculable physical effort. For a ten-year-old on the cusp of adolescence, this tale was mysterious and subtly frightening. It hinted that—in the sweep of time—all our striving and building and all our passion about issues of the day are almost wholly inconsequential; that when viewed across thousands of years, even our most prodigious achievements will seem ephemeral.

At the very least, Rome's story reveals that civilizations, including our own, can change catastrophically. It also suggests the dark possibility that our human projects are so evanescent that they're essentially meaningless.

Most sensible adults avoid such thoughts. Instead, we invest enormous energy in our families, friends, jobs, and day-to-day activities. And we yearn to leave some enduring evidence of our brief moment on Earth, some lasting sign of our individual or collective being. So we construct a building, perhaps, or found a company, write a book, or raise a family.

We seldom acknowledge this deep desire for meaning and longevity, but it's surely one source of our endless fascination with Rome's fall: if we could just understand Rome's fatal weakness, maybe our societies could avoid a similar fate and preserve their accomplishments forever.

Of course, an infinite number of factors—most of them unknown and some unknowable—affect how our societies develop, and we can only rarely influence even those few factors we know about. So rather than resisting change, our societies must learn to adapt to the twists and turns of circumstance. This means we must sometimes give up our accomplishments. If we try to keep things largely the way they are, our societies will become progressively more complex and rigid and, in turn, progressively less creative and able to cope with sudden crises and shocks. Their collapse—when it eventually does happen—could then be so destructive that there would be little of the prior order left behind. And there would be little left to seed the vital process of renewal that should follow.

Here we have ancient Rome's real lesson. Most of us who recall a bit of history think that constant barbarian invasions caused the western empire to disintegrate, but actually these invasions were only the most immediate cause. In the background were more powerful long-term forces, especially the rising complexity of all parts of Roman society— including its bureaucracy, military forces, cities, economy, and laws—as the empire tried to maintain itself. To support this greater complexity, the empire needed more and more energy, and eventually it couldn't find enough. Indeed, its increasingly desperate efforts to get energy only made its bureaucracies and laws more elaborate and sclerotic and its taxes more onerous. In time, the burden on the empire's peasants became too great, while rising complexity strangled the empire's ability to renew itself. The collapse that followed was dramatic: populations of cities and towns fell sharply, interregional trade dwindled, banditry and piracy soared, construction of monumental buildings and large-scale infrastructure stopped, and virtually all institutions—from governments to armies—became vastly simpler in their operation and organization.3

In this book I'll argue that our circumstances today are surprisingly like Rome's in key ways. Our societies are also becoming steadily more complex and often more rigid. This is happening partly because we're trying to manage—often with limited success—stresses building inside our societies, including stresses arising from our gargantuan appetite for energy to run our factories, heat our homes, and fuel our cars. Eventually, as occurred in Rome, the stresses may become too extreme, and our societies too inflexible to respond, and some kind of economic or political breakdown will occur.

I'm not alone in this view. These days, lots of people have the intuition that the world is going haywire and an extraordinary crisis is coming. Some people, particularly those of a religious disposition, think we're entering end times. Parallels between ancient Rome and the modern world are common; and fiction, religious preaching, and even scientific analyses abound with apocalyptic images of doom. Much of this stuff is nonsensical, which makes it easy for our "experts" to dismiss it with a patronizing wave of the hand. But I think that non-experts' intuition is actually largely right. Some kind of real trouble does lie ahead.

That trouble doesn't have to be calamitous in its ultimate results, though. If we're smart and a bit lucky, we have a good chance of avoiding a terrible outcome. In fact, just as happened after the great San Francisco lire—when a new and more resiliant city rose from the ashes and America's banking system was made far more resiliant too—catastrophe could create a space for creativity that helps us build a better world for our children, our grandchildren, and ourselves.

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