When Constantine became sole ruler of the Roman Empire in 306, it appeared that Rome had weathered the storm of corruption and collapse that had dominated until the reforms of Diocletian (who ruled from 284-305). The Empire had reorganized, and Constantine began to build a city in the East which would later govern the eastern Roman Empire (usually called the Byzantine Empire) until 1453. Constantine granted religious tolerance to all with the Edict of Milan in 313, and Theodosius I would make Christianity the state religion of Rome in 380.
The Roman Empire had been a success, spreading prosperity and peace – so called “Pax Romana” – from Britain to northern Africa, from Spain to Turkey. Yet in the 400s the western Empire slowly disintegrated. Barbarians (a term meaning simply ‘foreigners’) were given land within the Empire and charged with protecting Rome; in the end they formed their own Kingdoms as the power of the western Empire evaporated. To don the cloak of legitimacy they embraced the Latin Language and the Christian church. Later they would spread Christianity to Germanic tribes not part of the Empire. By the time of the Emperor Justinian (ruled in the East from 527 to 565), the West was essentially lost. His effort to recapture the Italian peninsula created massive destruction, and the glory of the Roman world faded.
We all know what came next – the so called dark ages. Politics became local, learning subsided, the kingdoms that adopted Latin soon were speaking very bad Latin as their linguistic practices atrophied (we call that bad Latin ‘French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese’). The Church had central authority but lacked the ability to project power; secular rulers had inconsistent efficacy, as the roads, buildings and grandeur of the old Empire fell into disrepair.
The “dark ages” weren’t truly dark; there was a lot of politics, intellectual activity, and cultural development. But there was also a sense that a great civilization had ceased to exist, and life had become more difficult and poor. The great cultural accomplishments of the Greek and Roman world were all but forgotten. Today, when one takes into account global warming, poisons in our food and air, and the fact that our global society is held together by virtual connections that would be thrown into chaos with a loss of power and cheap transportation, people have been predicting a similar decline for decades. Are they right?
First, it’s possible. If you stood in Rome as late as the fourth Century you would not think all could collapse – even though the collapse, which was more a slow transition, was already happening. Our planet of over 7 billion relies on a network of food, transportation, and communication that could be threatened by global warming or other disasters, natural and human made. Nuclear war is most obvious potential culprit, but global depression, energy crises and political unrest could go along with climate change to destroy the nexus of goods and services we rely upon.
However, unlike Rome, we are a society of rapidly evolving technology. The Romans never really did expand their technology. They were superb builders, but once they lost their military edge, they simply could not maintain the system. Our technological progress creates possibilities for solutions that are unique to the modern era. Collapse is not inevitable.
Moreover, the knowledge of science and the ability to communicate via basic radio waves means that we are unlikely to have to rely on passing minstrels for news updates, and probably won’t put our loyalty into a religious institution that rejects progress, claiming that attainment in this world keeps us from doing what we need to to assure an afterlife in paradise.
The most likely outcome, even if the doom and gloomers are right, is a world more fragmented and less prosperous – with many regions of famine and disease – but yet one that will find a new equilibrium and avoid the kind of decay and collapse the western Roman Empire endured. How bad it becomes depends on the choices made in the coming decades; my generation messed things up, today’s youth will determine how bad it becomes, or if they can turn things around.
The dangers: CO2 production, factory farms that are unsustainable, reliance on inefficient foods like beef and chicken, reliance on fossil fuels, spiraling debt (both public and private), and a belief that things will simply take care of themselves. History suggests that if you ignore warning signs, you pay a heavy price.
The solution is still unclear. Foremost it will involve new thinking about political organization (the sovereign state as we know it may be obsolete) and economics. Environmentalism is not “concern for the earth,” but a self-interested effort to make sure our planet can still sustain us. The earth will be fine, it’s our place on it that is in question. I’m convinced we are entering a period of dramatic transition as old practices and beliefs become unsustainable and counterproductive. While we need new actions, we also need a new way of thinking.