Posted in Empire, History, Resilience, War

Resilience in the Face of Climate Change and Epidemic: Ancient Rome and Today’s America

Tell me if you think this sounds familiar:  In its latter years (500-700 ACE), the Roman Empire faced a formidable challenge from two devastating environmental forces — dramatic climate change and massive epidemic.  As Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

During our own bout of climate change and ravaging disease, I’ve been reading Kyle Harper’s book The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of Empire.  The whole time, rhymes were running through my head.  We all know that things did not turn out well for Rome, whose civilization went through the most devastating collapse in world history.  The state disintegrated, population fell in half, and the European standard of living did not recover the level it had in 500 until a thousand years later.

Fate of Rome Cover

So Rome ended badly, but what about us?  The American empire may be eclipsing, but it’s not like the end is near.  Rome was dependent on animal power and a fragile agricultural base, and its medical “system” did more harm than good.  All in all we seem much better equipped to deal with climate change and disease than they were.  As a result, I’m not suggesting that we’re headed for the same calamitous fall that faced Roman civilization, but I do think we can learn something important by observing how they handled their own situation.

What’s so interesting about the fall of Rome is that it took so long.  The empire held on for 500 years, even under circumstances where its fall was thoroughly overdetermined.  The traditional story of the fall is about fraying political institutions in an overextended empire, surrounded by surging “barbarian” states that were prodded into existence by Rome’s looming threat.

To this political account, Harper adds the environment.  The climate was originally very kind to Rome, supporting growth during a long period of warm and wet weather known as the Roman Climate Optimum (200 BCE to 150 ACE).  But then conditions grew increasingly unstable, leading to the Late Antique Little Ice Age (450-700), with massive crop failures brought on by a drop in solar energy and massive volcanic eruptions.  In the midst of this arose a series of epidemics, fostered (like our own) by the opening up of trade routes, which culminated in the bubonic plague (541-749) that killed off half of the populace.

What kept Rome going all this time was a set of resilient civic institutions.  That’s what I think we can learn from the Roman case.  My fear is that our own institutions are considerably more fragile.  In this analysis, I’m picking up on a theme from an earlier blog post:  The Triumph of Efficiency over Effectiveness: A Brief for Resilience through Redundancy.

Here is how Harper describes the institutional framework of this empire:

Rome was ruled by a monarch in all but name, who administered a far-flung empire with the aid, first and foremost, of the senatorial aristocracy. It was an aristocracy of wealth, with property requirements for entry, and it was a competitive aristocracy of service. Low rates of intergenerational succession meant that most aristocrats “came from families that sent representatives into politics for only one generation.”

The emperor was the commander-in-chief, but senators jealously guarded the right to the high posts of legionary command and prestigious governorships. The imperial aristocracy was able to control the empire with a remarkably thin layer of administrators. This light skein was only successful because it was cast over a foundational layer of civic aristocracies across the empire. The cities have been called the “load-bearing” pillars of the empire, and their elites were afforded special inducements, including Roman citizenship and pathways into the imperial aristocracy. The low rates of central taxation left ample room for peculation by the civic aristocracy. The enormous success of the “grand bargain” between the military monarchy and the local elites allowed imperial society to absorb profound but gradual changes—like the provincialization of the aristocracy and bureaucracy—without jolting the social order.

The Roman frontier system epitomized the resilience of the empire; it was designed to bend but not break, to bide time for the vast logistical superiority of the empire to overwhelm Rome’s adversaries. Even the most developed rival in the orbit of Rome would melt before the advance of the legionary columns. The Roman peace, then, was not the prolonged absence of war, but its dispersion outward along the edges of empire.

The grand and decisive imperial bargain, which defined the imperial regime in the first two centuries, was the implicit accord between the empire and “the cities.” The Romans ruled through cities and their noble families. The Romans coaxed the civic aristocracies of the Mediterranean world into their imperial project. By leaving tax collection in the hands of the local gentry, and bestowing citizenship liberally, the Romans co-opted elites across three continents into the governing class and thereby managed to command a vast empire with only a few hundred high-ranking Roman officials. In retrospect, it is surprising how quickly the empire ceased to be a mechanism of naked extraction, and became a sort of commonwealth.

Note that last part:  Rome “became a sort of commonwealth.”  It conquered much of the Western world and incorporated one-quarter of the earth’s population, but the conquered territories were generally better off under Rome than they had been before — benefiting from citizenship, expanded trade, and growing standards of living.  It was a remarkably stratified society, but its benefits extended even to the lower orders.  (For more on this issue, see my earlier post about Walter Scheidel’s book on the social benefits of war.)

At the heart of the Roman system were three cultural norms that guided civic life: self sufficiency, reciprocity, and patronage.  Let me focus on the latter, which seems to be dangerously absent in our own society at the moment.

The expectation of paternalistic generosity lay heavily on the rich, ensuring that less exalted members of society had an emergency lien on their stores of wealth. Of course, the rich charged for this insurance, in the form of respect and loyalty, and in the Roman Empire there was a constant need to monitor the fine line between clientage and dependence.

A key part of the grand bargain engineered by Rome was the state’s responsibility to feed its citizens.

The grain dole was the political entitlement of an imperial people, under the patronage of the emperor.

Preparation for famine — a chronic threat to premodern agricultural societies — was at the center of the system’s institutional resilience.  This was particularly important in an empire as thoroughly city-centered as Rome.  Keep in mind that Rome during the empire was the first city in the world to have 1 million residents; the second was London 1500 year later.

These strategies of resilience, writ large, were engrained in the practices of the ancient city. Diversification and storage were adapted to scale. Urban food storage was the first line of redundancy. Under the Roman Empire, the monumental dimensions of storage facilities attest the political priority of food security. Moreover, cities grew organically along the waters, where they were not confined to dependence on a single hinterland.

When food crisis did unfold, the Roman government stood ready to intervene, sometimes through direct provision but more often simply by the suppression of unseemly venality.

The most familiar system of resilience was the food supply of Rome. The remnants of the monumental public granaries that stored the food supply of the metropolis are still breathtaking.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we in the U.S. could face the challenges of climate change and pandemic as a commonwealth?  If so, we would be working to increase the resilience of our system:  by sharing the burden and spreading the wealth: by building up redundancy to store up for future challenges; by freeing ourselves from the ideology of economic efficiency in the service of social effectiveness.  Wouldn’t that be nice.

Posted in Pandemic, Resilience, Systems

The Triumph of Efficiency over Effectiveness: A Brief for Resilience through Redundancy

The current covid-19 pandemic has shown a lot of things that are wrong in American society, including terrible leadership, a frail social safety net, and a lack of investment in public goods.  But one that has particularly struck me is the way our socioeconomic structure has been taken over by the logic of efficiency over the logic of effectiveness.  In the name of efficiency, we have focused heavily on keeping costs down in both our economy and our health system.

Industry does this by developing global supply chains that take advantage of cheap third world labor and the low cost of shipping and also by instituting just-in-time delivery of supplies to factories.  The former puts us at the mercy of events on the other side of the world, and the latter leaves us with no inventory to tide us over until supplies resume.  As we have seen, the result is that that production can shut down over night, with no easy way to get it going again any time soon.

There is a similar pattern with health care.  In the interest of cost efficiency, we have reduced the number of hospital beds and the amount of critical care supplies to what is needed during ordinary times.  Excess capacity, in both production and health care, is deemed wastefully inefficient.

The core problem with this strategy is that effectiveness depends on a certain degree of inefficiency.  To be effective, a system of production or medicine needs a cushion of excess capacity in order to tide it over during difficult times.  Both need a store of supplies that is considerably in excess of what is required under more routine circumstances.   And both need a certain amount of redundancy:  multiple suppliers of the same goods, multiple hospitals providing the same service.  For a system of production, health care, or national security to be resilient in the face of extreme demands, we have to be willing to subsidize the kind of excess capacity that we will need in a crisis.

The military has long understood this, so it is continually preparing for war in times of peace.  When a threat emerges, you don’t have time to spend a year of two getting up to speed with training, munitions, transportation, and — yes — hospital beds.  Because of this, we now see naval hospital ships gliding into the harbors of New York and Los Angeles to provide a small assist during our severe shortage of medical capacity.  What have the ships been doing for the last few years?  Preparing for a future emergency.  That’s very inefficient, but it’s also critically important for national survival.

Hospital ship

A healthy society — one with a strong survival instinct — needs to be willing to provide public subsidies for health emergencies that may be infrequent but are totally inevitable.  We need to build up excess capacity in the face of future uncertainty.  Industry already seems to be getting the idea that the fetish of lean productive capacity may be hazardous to the survival of many firms.  It seems likely that in the future firms will recruit multiple suppliers instead of one on the other side of the world and will build up inventory.  They can’t afford another disaster like this one.

What worries me is that our system of health and public welfare may not take the same prudent steps in planning for an uncertain future.  In the last 50 years, our public sector has been hard-wired to the ethic of efficiency, in which prudent capacity building is seen as reckless waste and where major responsibilities of government are outsourced to private providers.

But if we show a little foresight, we might learn the lesson of the current pandemic and shore up our public capacity for withstanding future shocks to our system.