Many learned men smarter than me have sought to explain why the Roman Empire fell. Some have blamed the lead pipes they used to carry water to the upper rooms of their houses and others have said it was due to the invading barbarian hordes being driven westward by the Mongols. And still others attributed Rome’s decline to the over-specialization of the Roman elite and their dependence on imports and subsidies from the provinces. Edward Gibbon interestingly placed the blame on the Christian Church. Now, from my perspective, it doesn’t appear any of these or any of the dozens of other popular theories are right at the expense of the others; in short, all of them played some part, however big or small, in the decline and fall of Rome’s empire.
My own theory is a mixture: namely that as Rome’s power spread further and further from the city itself, the technological limitations of the day–primarily the speed of travel and communication–created a system which was unsustainable. Furthermore, the continued success of the empire was intimately dependent on continual expansion and conquest in order to supply the flow of human and economic capital needed to maintain the prosperity to which the Roman upper classes were addicted. As these conquests and the empire itself became ever more expensive to maintain, its eventual collapse was really inevitable.
Actually, to say that Rome collapsed is somewhat inaccurate; it would be more appropriate to say that when Odoacer compelled the abdication of the emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476 A.D., it was the mere snuffing out of one of the empire’s last flickering embers in the west. The eastern half of the empire would of course continue until 1453, though it was only “Roman” in an esoteric sense.
So many people have spent so much time pointing out similarities between the modern First World (primarily the United States of America) and Imperial Rome that it’s become cliché. In fact, labeling the comparisons cliché is itself cliché. Even so, I’d like to take a moment and make such a comparison, hopefully in a somewhat new and fresh approach.
The 235-year history of the United States has been one of explosive growth. In less than two and a half centuries, a small, rag-tag conglomeration of sparsely-populated colonies became the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. Even in the course of human history (let alone natural history), 235 years is a tiny blip. The U.S. led the way in many of the technological developments of the last century and has created a quality of life and a standard of living that surpasses any historical precedent. Average earned wages increased every decade for a hundred and sixty years from the 1810s. But, not just the U.S.: this prosperity has engulfed nearly the entire Western world.
And that, I submit, is the problem.
Allow me to explain: growth and prosperity are not intrinsically the problem; rather, they are the primary symptoms of the real underlying issue, which is that the First World has a blind, almost religious devotion to growth.
Consider for a moment the indices used to measure economic health. We’ll use the example of gross domestic product, which is the monetary value of all final goods and services produced within a country over a period of time (in most cases, a year). In 2010, the United States GDP was roughly $14.7 trillion. At the very real risk of over-simplifying a highly complex concept, it is generally considered bad when that number decreases and good when it increases. Politicians lament the loss of output and boast when production goes up.
People who spend any time at all listening to most of the leading voices of today on matters such as this will hear an almost maniacal obsession with growth, increased efficiency, greater output, et cetera. But, there’s one question they all seem to have forgotten—or neglected—to ask: is continual growth a good thing? I can only imagine the blank stares I would receive if I shouted that question in a room full of businessmen. To them, I assume, it would probably be the height of stupidity.
Nevertheless, the question needs to be asked because it forces us to examine why we work and why we produce. What, exactly, are we working for? For what purpose, ultimately, are we producing these goods? The answer isn’t a number, it isn’t a monetary sum, and it isn’t an efficiency ratio. It strikes at the root of the modern philosophical understanding of work. My assumption is that most current economics courses offered at universities are meant to equip students to succeed in the current economic model; no one, it appears, is stopping to ask if the current model is the right one.
So, is continual growth a good thing? Well, that depends. There isn’t a right or wrong answer because it’s a values judgment and, therefore, subjective. That concept is going to be revolutionary to many people; we’ve arguably become so immersed in the endless quest to preserve or improve the status quo that we’ve neglected to step back to see whether or not the system is doing what it was intended to do. It will be that appraisal, more than anything else, that determines how human civilization moves forward.