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Civilization Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card December 3, 2006

How Our Civilization Can Fall

There's a right way and a wrong way to learn from history.

The wrong way is to make an analogy between some event in the past and our present situation, and then assume that everything will work the same.

For instance: Rome was the hyperpower of the ancient world, and it fell, so we're going to fall, too!

Analogies might make an interesting point or raise an intriguing possibility, but they prove nothing. America is like Rome in some ways, and radically different in others. You can't just ignore the differences and think you've said anything smart.

What's the right way? It's to discover general principles and then see if they work out consistently over time.

Let's take Rome again. First, a lot of people will point out that the Roman Empire didn't actually fall until the 1400s -- there was continuity between the Roman Republic, the great Mediterranean empire that it became, and at last the decrepit "empire" of Byzantium that consisted primarily of the single city of Constantinople when the Turks took it out in 1453.

Fair enough -- but when we talk about the "fall of the Roman Empire," we mean the utter collapse of the western half -- the part that became Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Italy, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. That fall took place in the 400s, a thousand years before Byzantium finally fell.

There are all kinds of theories about why the western part of the empire fell -- and the east, which was under many of the same pressures, did not.

From lead in the Roman drinking water to population-crashing plagues, from barbarian invaders to overtaxation, from Christianity's "softening" effect to crushing bureaucracy to repeated civil wars to sheer loss of civilizational energy, there are all kinds of theories about the fall of Rome.

There is even a book that claims that Rome didn't "fall" at all. Europe After Rome: A New Cultural History 500-1000, by Julia M.H. Smith, makes much of the fact that the invaders all regarded themselves as successors to the emperors, and the styles of Roman culture continued, changing only gradually and not becoming barbarian.

Fair enough -- the barbarians weren't trying to destroy Rome, they wanted to inherit it, to throw out the emperors and sit at the top of the tax chain themselves.

But in his incisive (and much shorter) book, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Bryan Ward-Perkins takes on Smith's (and others') claim that there was no "fall" at all and eviscerates it by an appeal to evidence.

The problem with the "it didn't really fall" thesis is that it is inspired far more by contemporary multiculturalism than by any new evidence. In fact, reading Smith quickly becomes an exercise in public narcissism, as page after page her book seems to be far more about her than about the period of history she's supposedly writing about. Smith is working from the old evidence and, in best Deconstructionist fashion, reworking it to fit the new narrative she is committed to finding.

In her view it is only the political rhetoric of Renaissance Europe that labeled the period after the fall of the West "the Dark Ages." In our modern sensitive multiculturality, we don't use pejorative names. They weren't post-empire, in other words, they were differently-empired. Not uncivilized, but civilization-challenged. (Though of course she does not use those terms.)

Ward-Perkins acts like a real historian. He uses the archaeological evidence to discover what life was like in the late Western Roman Empire. What he discovers is that the benefits of safe and profitable trading spread throughout the empire.

Quality Goods

Archaeology is limited, of course, to examining the artifacts that survived. Fortunately, one of the most survivable artifacts is pottery -- and pottery was vastly important to life and to trade. It was in huge ceramic jars -- amphorae -- that wine and olive oil were transported from one end of the empire to the other.

In addition, pots were to the Roman world what Tupperware, RubberMaid, and Calphalon are to our society -- a vital part of the daily life of those who cooked and stored food and drink. So there was also a thriving trade in fine-quality pots that were turned on potters' wheels, fired at the perfect temperature, and painted and glazed with the most beautiful designs.

For instance, in Britannia there was a thriving center of pottery production that spread its wares throughout the island; other centers thrived elsewhere; and the remarkable thing, according to Ward-Perkins, is how thoroughly this high-quality pottery penetrated the whole society, even down to the peasant class that worked the land.

In other words, the economy was so robust and prosperous for nearly everyone that even those near the bottom of the economic ladder (but not at the bottom -- that would be the slaves!) had access to goods of high quality. That meant that the balance between prices and earnings was favorable by the standards of the day.


Ward-Perkins also cites the example of a Syrian village that thrived in rocky country whose soil was good only for growing olive trees. This village sustained a ridiculously high population for many, many years -- a population that was far higher than could be supported from the agricultural yields of that area.

So what were they living on? Trade. They grew their olives and shipped the oil abroad. Apparently their oil was so highly regarded throughout the Mediterranean that it enabled them to import almost all the food and wine they required to sustain their population.

They had specialized. It worked very well for them -- until the whole system of trade broke down and there was no way for them to get their goods out to their potential markets. Either it was no longer safe enough to transport their oil and sell it profitably, or the markets had dried up because of the crash of the economy elsewhere. Whatever the immediate cause, the result was predictable: Without the revenues to let them import food, the population crashed back to the very low levels that could be sustained by the miserable local farming.

The Roman Army

What people overlooked was that everything depended on the Roman Army. The army wasn't carrying the goods, it wasn't even actively protecting the trade. The army was mostly stationed at the border, while the economy boomed in an empire so safe that none of the cities had walls. But the economic system that offered so much prosperity could only last as long as merchants could trust in the safety of the goods they transported, and as long as people could remain in place to do their work instead of having to flee barbarian invaders.

It was a robust system. Ward-Perkins points out that there were lots of crises over the years, from plague to invasions to civil wars, and none of them brought the system down, except for local crashes from which the economy soon recovered.

But it takes time and space to recover -- years, and the presence of nearby robust economies that can help restore the area that was hard hit.

When you have crash after crash in close succession, and the nearby economic centers are also just as beleaguered as you, there is neither time nor space for recovery.

So when the Roman Army got caught up in civil wars ("If that legion can make their general emperor, we can make our general emperor!") so that it was distracted and weakened, the emperors began the horribly self-destructive policy of buying off the bad guys on their borders.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, of course. You give the barbarians a lot of money and they go away. It saves lives.

Except that they run out of the money and now they know how to get more. If you crush the barbarian army in battle, they think twice before coming back. If you pay them for showing up and threatening you, and you don't kill any of them, then coming back and threatening you again will be very popular with the barbarian footsoldiers. You'll see them a lot more.

But money isn't infinite -- the barbarian invaders shrink the tax base as they interfere with trade, both directly ("Let's loot this city so they'll know we're serious!") and indirectly ("The barbarians are coming! Let's leave our city and run away to someplace safe!").

So the emperors took to giving them land. They settled the Alans here, the Ostrogoths there. Of course, the land they settled them on was already occupied, so the Germans came in as overlords -- essentially, they became the new tax collectors, only they kept the taxes for themselves.

Thus the government was now giving away its tax base. Meanwhile, the Germans were lousy governors. They knew about taking taxes -- but their taxation wasn't the usual corrupt system of the Romans, it was much more direct and brutal. In many places it was indistinguishable from looting. They took so much that the people didn't have enough left to allow them to buy quality goods from abroad. So they were removed from the empire-wide trading system.

Also, the Germans did not understand or accept the burden that had been borne by the Roman Army in the areas they now occupied. They did not maintain public safety. Newly impoverished people and other tribes of invaders harassed merchants so that through large swathes of the empire, it simply wasn't profitable to ship things anymore. Either brigands or barbarians would seize your trade goods along the way, or there'd be nobody with money to buy your goods when they reached their destination.

The robust Roman economic system could absorb a little of this, but not a lot, and not for long.

In the Crash, You Fall Farther

In Britannia, the crash was sudden and complete. Within just a couple of decades, the population had crashed -- and peasants were using miserable lumpen homemade pots, badly fired, easily broken, ugly. This was true even though Britannia had recently had pottery-making centers that did work so good it was exported; now those pottery works were shut down.

Here's the shocker: Before the Romans ever invaded, Britannia, despite its battling tribes and kingdoms, had maintained a robust economy. It was a wealthy land, by Celtic standards, with strong cultural influence across the Channel in Gaul.

But when the Roman system collapsed in Britannia, the level of the culture fell far below what had existed prior to the Roman conquest. Not only could they not recover to Roman levels, they couldn't even restore the old British system. It was all gone.

This was partly because the Germans that invaded Britain came in greater numbers and tended to enslave or slaughter or drive out the local population -- the Anglo-Saxons weren't coming to take over Roman Britain's existing system, they were coming to take their land and live on it as Germans.

It was partly due to the fact that while the Anglo-Saxons were attacking in the south and east, the Irish were attacking from the west and the Picts from the north. There was simply nowhere to hide long enough to recover.

But what the British experienced all at once, the rest of the Western empire experienced only a little more gradually. Pockets of prosperity remained in Gaul and eastern Spain -- partly because for many years Africa remained safe and prosperous. It provided the cushion that allowed Italy and southern Gaul and eastern Spain to recover from the economic shocks that had hit them.

Then came a new wave of Germans and wiped out the cushion. The Vandals swept across the strait of Gibraltar and conquered north Africa. They may not have been worse than any of the other barbarian invaders -- but they had a worse effect, because without Africa's peaceful production and trade and tax base, there was simply no way for Roman Italy to sustain the costs of empire.

Then the Franks swept into Gaul and the Lombards into Italy and it was over. The invaders might pretend that what they ruled over was still "Roman" and "imperial," but it wasn't. Every region had to live on what it produced itself. The new kings might occasionally mint some coins to prove they were as good as the emperors they had replaced, but in fact coins did not circulate and a local barter economy prevailed in most areas.

Here and there you'd have a small economic recovery, and of course there were artisans -- for a while at least -- who could still practice the old crafts at a high level. But who could afford to pay for them? It took a powerful economy and the taxes of a huge empire to fund vast public works like aqueducts and irrigation systems and networks of roads.

What remained called itself Roman and showed only gradual decline in the quality of its goods; and if you're a determined multiculturalist, you could claim that this wasn't a "fall" into "dark ages," it was merely a "cultural transformation" or "evolution" that was just as "valid" as what went before.

Try telling that to the people living in a village where there had once been a city. The people now making their own lousy little pots down by the river, where once they had been able to buy excellent ones from traders who came through all the time. The people who once were free citizens of Rome and now found themselves serfs, bound to the land as if they were slaves, and forced to serve barbarian chiefs masquerading as "kings" but unable even to speak Latin or read.

The record is clear: It was a dark age by any rational measure, and it took a thousand years to bring the economy back to the level it had been at under the protection of the Roman Army.

Is This a General Principle?

Ward-Perkins's analysis of the fall of Rome is piercing and explains the evidence better than any of the competing stories. But that doesn't mean there are any general principles here for us to learn from. We have no vast hordes of barbarians waiting to invade and take over. (Quiet, you who think Mexicans are the barbarian invasion. They're just another wave of immigrants.)

It happens that there are other examples of this kind of collapse. In the opening chapter of Michael Grant's The Rise of the Greeks, Grant, like Ward-Perkins, looks at the archaeological evidence surrounding the fall of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations.

They did not fall at exactly the same time -- but then, the different parts of the Roman economy did not all fall at once, either. What Grant finds, though, is that an international economic system that functioned smoothly throughout the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, despite blips like the Trojan War, staggered to a complete collapse.

Starting in the late 1200s bce, a "prolonged series of destructive movements of peoples" (i.e., barbarian invasions) swept through the area. It seemed to be closely related to the fall of the Hittite empire in Asia minor, though whether the barbarian invasions toppled the Hittites, or the fall of the Hittites provided a power vacuum into which barbarians swept is hard to determine from our present vantage point.

What is unarguable is that a high level of arts and crafts staggered downward, getting shoddier all the time; meanwhile, pollen counts showed a drastic drop in crop production, suggesting an equally drastic crash in populations sustained by local farming.

Once again, as with the fall of the Roman West, there were areas that held out a little longer or that recovered more quickly. But in this case, the collapse came in an international system. In other words, it wasn't a single empire falling, it was a mutually dependent system of neighboring nations and city-states that plunged into chaos.

The whole eastern Mediterranean felt the shock. Egypt and Syria had the economic wherewithal (and the robust neighbors) to absorb the shock and recover -- though the invading Philistines remained a permanent feature of the Palestinian coast (that's where the name "Palestine" comes from).

So it wasn't just Rome. It has happened before, and the footprints of collapse look remarkably similar.

Trade breaks down as merchants lose confidence and markets are disrupted by barbarian invaders. When this happens, specialization becomes impossible, local areas must become agriculturally and militarily self-sufficient again, and between disease, famine, war, and emigration, populations crash.

Could It Happen to Us?

For a century, America has been the great cushion to absorb the shocks that might have brought down western civilization. In the Great War (WWI), Europe crashed its own population through war and then crashed further through the influenza epidemic. But the American economy provided the means for France and Britain -- but not Germany -- to recover. Arguably, it was the failure to include Germany in the recovery that led to repeated economic crises, and when America finally joined Europe with its own Depression in the 1930s, the stage was set for the next barbarian invasion.

It wasn't inappropriate for Hitler's Germans to be called "the Hun." They may have claimed to be conquering, but in fact they were destroying. Yes, they built factories in some of their conquered and allied lands, but they were chewing up the Slavic population by enslaving and slaughtering them, and they were eliminating much of their own intellectual and merchant class by killing the Jews, who had been disproportionately responsible for the German economy and culture.

In the aftermath of WWII, once again America was the economic cushion -- only this time the portion of Germany under western occupation was included in the economic recovery, as was Japan.

The result, over the past sixty years, has been a pax Americana covering much of the world. And the world has prospered fantastically wherever the American military sustained it.

Let me say that again: As with Rome, the American military has been the wall behind which a system of safe trade has allowed an extraordinary degree of specialization and therefore mutually sustained prosperity.

America has not been imperial -- we have not been stripping other countries. On the contrary, those nations that were able to sustain the internal peace necessary for production, and that have joined the economy presided over by America, have all been able to join in the prosperity as equals.

We don't tax them -- quite the opposite. We have taxed ourselves to pay for the military protection that maintained the safety and perception of safety that allowed the European community and Japan to flourish. Their welfare economies are only possible because they did not have to pay for their own defense at anything like the levels we have paid.

People talk about America's enormous defense budget as if it were a menace to the world. But our enormous defense budget has allowed Japan and Europe -- and Taiwan and South Korea -- to thrive without having to invest much of their gross domestic product in defense.

For a long time, the Communist nations remained holdouts, remaining outside the wall of American security and struggling to subvert the economic system that was bringing prosperity to the free world.

Russia and China both had the delusion that they could simply choose to join the system, and we've certainly cooperated. But Russia failed to maintain the basic internal public safety that would have allowed trade to flourish and the economy to boom -- it was simply too corrupt and too dangerous to do business in Russia. Putin's response to this problem has been to restore dictatorship in all but name -- and to recentralize the economy instead of providing the law enforcement to allow a decentralized market to function properly. The result will be further economic decline -- which will, of course, be blamed on America.

China took a different road, maintaining ironclad control over their population. But, as Mark Steyn points out in his convincing and entertaining book America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It, China is heading toward a demographic crisis. Because of their one-child rule and the people's response of aborting girl babies, they have a generation that has nearly two men for every woman. This is a recipe for revolution and/or aggressive war -- it is safe to say that China will not have the right conditions for peaceful trade in a few years, for one reason or another. Naturally, they will blame America too.

Isn't it odd that they all blame us for everything wrong in the world? But that's the price you pay for being the most generous, patient, beneficent empire the world has ever known. We have not taxed anyone but our home population; we allow them to be self-governing and thumb their noses at us; we pay them for the privilege of putting the troops that protect them on their soil.

Only a handful of nations -- most notably Britain -- have shouldered any part of the burden of defense against the barbarians.

For the barbarians are at the gates again. No, they're inside the gates. Throughout Europe, as Steyn demonstrates with his piercing analysis of demographics, Muslim radicals are already holding public policy hostage. Enslaved as they are by Muslim-controlled oil, European nations cannot afford to resist the increasingly absurd and civilization-destroying demands of their large and growing Muslim minorities.

Meanwhile, the Muslim world is reproducing at an enormous rate, while Europe and Japan are committing demographic suicide, producing less than 1.5 children per family -- a rate that halves the population each generation. How long before the Muslim minority becomes the majority? How long before Europe is either Muslim or fighting a vicious war to expel or destroy the Muslims they have invited among them -- Muslims who are committed to destroying every aspect of Western culture that produces the prosperity they moved there to take part in?

Welcome to My Nightmare

Here's how it happens: America stupidly and immorally withdraws from the War on Terror, withdrawing prematurely from Iraq and leaving it in chaos. Emboldened, either Muslims unite against the West (unlikely) or collapse in a huge war between Shiites and Sunnis (already beginning). It almost doesn't matter, because in the process the oil will stop flowing.

And when the oil stops flowing, Europe and Japan and Taiwan and Singapore and South Korea all crash economically; Europe then has to face the demands of its West-hating Muslim "minority" without money and without the ruthlessness or will to survive that would allow them to counter the threat. The result is accommodation or surrender to Islam. The numbers don't lie -- it is not just possible, it is likely.

America doesn't crash right away, mind you. But we still have a major depression, because we have nowhere to sell our goods. And depending on what our desperate enemies do, it's a matter of time before we crash as well.

Why? Because we're that Syrian village. Except that what we make is food -- enough to feed half the world.

What we don't make for ourselves anymore is ... everything else. We don't produce steel. We don't make most of our own computer equipment. We have exported our textile industry.

Some of these industries could recover. But they would be producing only for domestic consumption. We'd have nowhere to sell anything except to ourselves. That's when we find out just how much of our new "service" economy is smoke and mirrors, dependent entirely on the surpluses generated by the global system of trade.

And our own oil production cannot meet the demands of transportation and production at current levels. Rationing will cripple us. We will not be able to maintain our huge fleet of trucks. Air travel will becoming shockingly expensive and airlines will fail or consolidate. We won't even be allowed to drive our cars on long trips because gasoline will be rationed.

We will go back to the rails. Only we won't have the money to rebuild and refurbish the railroad system -- it will only be able to limp along.

It will look, even inside the United States, amazingly like the shrinkage that happened at the time of the fall of Rome.

Then, and only then, will America look -- and be -- vulnerable to any kind of intervention from the south. Economies that are still somewhat primitive will recover faster than economies that are absolutely dependent on specialization.

It takes two generations for the dark ages to reach America. But they will come, if we allow this nightmare to begin. Because once you reach the tipping point, there's no turning back, as the Emperor Justinian discovered.

Our global economic system is a brilliant creation, imperfect of course, but powerful and effective in creating more prosperity for more people than ever in the history of the world. It is a creation of America's military and America's benign government of the world -- so benign they pretend we don't govern it.

Our enemies and most of our "allies" and many of our own citizens are working as hard as possible to bring the whole thing crashing down, though that is not at all what they intend.

They just haven't learned the lessons -- the principles -- of how great economic empires are maintained. They only look at the political dogmas du jour and spout their platitudes. People like me are ridiculed for seeing the big picture and learning the lessons of history.

And if we're lucky, and get out of this intact -- i.e., if we go ahead and continue this war, break the power of Iran and Syria, and inflict crushing defeat on radical, expansionist Islamicists (which will require that Europe do the same with their own increasingly revolutionary Muslim populations, either expelling them or crushing their radical, Saudi-funded leadership) -- then I will still be ridiculed, because there will be no evidence that I would have been right.

Well, I'll be happy to be ridiculed for being such a doomsayer, if we are able to avoid collapse. I want to be wrong.

Read these books for yourself:

Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Many of his pages are devoted to refuting books you haven't read and needn't bother reading, like the Julia M.H. Smith book. But by the end, his analysis is as clear and as fully proven as anything in Jared Diamond's pivotal book Guns, Germs, and Steel -- and should serve Americans as just as much of a wake-up call.

Mark Steyn, America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It. Steyn is a gun-totin' anti-big-government conservative, and especially toward the end, he tries to tie his whole belief system into the argument. Ignore that -- it takes about five seconds to tear apart his "individuals do it better than governments" nostrums with actual thought. (For instance: Do you really think we'd protect our borders better through vigilantism? Can't wait for the lynchings, can you?)

What counts in his book is his piercing, well-supported argument, based on demographics and evidence about what Muslim populations actually believe and are allowing to be done in their name. It is impossible to make useful predictions without the information he presents here.

Meanwhile ... merry Christmas. Remember to eat, drink, and be merry.

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