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The American infrastructure, ancient Rome and ‘Limits to Growth’

The American infrastructure, ancient Rome and ‘Limits to Growth’ thumbnail

Infrastructure is the talk of the town in Washington, D.C. where I now live and with good reason. The infrastructure upon which the livelihoods and lives of all Americans depends is in sorry shape. The American Society of Civil Engineers 2021 infrastructure report card gives the United States an overall grade of C minus.

Everyone in Washington, yes, everyone, believes some sort of major investment needs to be made in our transportation, water, and sewer systems which have been sorely neglected. There are other concerns as well about our energy infrastructure and our communications infrastructure—both of which are largely in private hands. The wrangling over how much will be spent and on what is likely to go on for months.

What won’t be talked about is that the cost of maintaining our infrastructure is rising for one key reason: There’s more it every day. We keep expanding all these systems so that when they degrade and require maintenance and replacement, the cost keeps growing.

There is a lesson on this from ancient Rome. Few modern people understand that the Romans financed their expansion and government operations using the booty taken from vanquished territories. That worked until it didn’t. When Rome reached its maximum expanse, when it no longer conquered new territories, the booty stopped coming. With the borders of Rome the longest the empire had ever had to defend, it now relied primarily on taxes to finance a large army and administrative presence across the empire in order to maintain control.

Our modern-day version of booty has been cheap energy, much of it supplied by the oil, natural gas and coal fields of America and later its uranium mines. That cheap energy and other previously cheap resources have been increasingly elusive since the year 2000 even though periodic collapses in prices have given us the illusion that somehow we will get back to the status quo ante.

Moreover, we kept adding infrastructure of all types including the traditional—roads, bridges, ports, airports—and the advanced—fiber optic, satellites and wireless. We stand where the Romans were at the peak of their empire. The cost to maintain our infrastructure keeps climbing.

We have a modern piece of analysis that puts the problem in relief though most people have misinterpreted its message. The message comes from Limits to Growth, an assessment of our economic prospects based on resource use and capital constraints. What Limits to Growth foresaw is now unfolding. The limit the writers were talking about wasn’t, strictly speaking, a limit on resources, but rather a limit on available capital.

This is because before a system can expand, it must first be maintained. What is happening right before our eyes is that our infrastructure is degrading and we are falling further and further behind in maintaining it. Instead, we are living off our capital, so to speak. At some point all of our capital expenditures will go toward simply maintaining the current system with no funds left over for expansion. That is the primary limit on growth. And, that is the inevitable outcome for an economic system that is based on the idea of perpetual expansion. To quote economist Herbert Stein, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” (The same holds true for the broader industrial, commercial and residential infrastructure.)

The idea that we might need to downsize our expectations and our infrastructure to avoid a sudden destabilizing reversal is not only unmentionable in the mainstream media and in policy circles, it is unthinkable.

But Rome did the unthinkable. Having become ungovernable because of its vast size and complexity, Emperor Diocletian split the empire in two in 286 A.D., appointing a co-emperor to rule the Western Empire while Diocletian ruled the Eastern Empire. This may be the only example in history of an empire voluntarily splitting itself into parts—in this case, explicitly to increase stability and improve governance.

The downsizing and splitting of power seemed to work. The Western empire lasted almost another two centuries, falling to invaders in 476. The Eastern Empire—which became known as the Byzantine Empire—endured until 1453, nearly a thousand years beyond its sister empire.

The solution to America’s infrastructure crisis does not lie in further expansion. Consolidation and decentralization might be a better course if we can define what that means and create a fairer system for distributing the resulting fruits.

But, alas, I do not think consolidation and decentralization are on the menu this year in the infrastructure debate. If we look to history, we can see where heedless expansion leads, namely to a forced decentralization and fragmentation that is far more wrenching than the voluntary bifurcation classical Rome experienced. It seems America—with the world following close behind—will continue a policy of endless expansion until expansion cannot continue. What happens after that, history tells us, will not be pleasant.

Energy Bulletin –by Kurt Cobb

3 Comments on "The American infrastructure, ancient Rome and ‘Limits to Growth’"

  1. Anonymouse on Sun, 16th May 2021 3:05 pm 

    KC is (mostly) correct about Rome. The Western half, run by a motely collection of proto-xtian fanatics, Oligarchs, jews, and future catholic pedophiles, barely lasted another 150 years before being overrun, ironically, by ‘Christianized’ barbarians.

    The wealthier Eastern half, as we know fared much better, though its fortunes waxed and waned over time. Even tried to re-conquer the western half, but failed due to the plague of Justinian*.

    Clearly Justinian didn’t learn much from history. Had he succeeded in re-uniting the empire back into a single entity again, this time managed from Constantinople, that the same factors that lead to the split in the 1st place, wouldn’t reassert themselves. I guess the glory of empire is hard to resist though eh?

    *Side note: Back then, plagues were fairly common, and REAL, and were not centrally managed pysops using ‘viruses’ that either do not exist, or are are simply existing ones rebranded as pretexts.

    Reading above, it sounds like Kurt does not exactly think the uS needs to split in 2 in the manner Rome did, which even for him, seems to be unthinkable. He does seem to think something called ‘amerika’ can remain intact, provided it reigns in complexity and stops trying to pile on ever more ‘new’ infrastructure and layers of government.

    Clearly, this is his preferred solution, and while something like that could happen I suppose, it simply wont in amerika. Place is too corrupt, mismanaged with too many power centers built up over time that will refuse to simply melt away of their own accord. And of course, amerikans are not well known for their education or skills. They even lack the ability, let alone the will, to simplify their mess voluntarily to the degree necessary.

    The end will come when the world (finally) stops buying amerikan debt, when the virtual printing presses of the uS shut down for good and there is no more, or very little credit to had, wages and bills wont be paid, and future contracts and commitments cannot be honored. When that day comes, the uS will get that sudden destabilizing reversal Mr Cobb is so concerned about.

    Lastly, I found it funny Mr Cobb never once mentioned the uS war machine. The western empire, had a huge expensive military machine that hastened the collapse. The uS has a complex, resource draining military (that cant even win wars) on a scale even Rome, unified or not, never had to contended with. This war-machine overhead, is dragging everything else down along with it and will keep doing so no matter how much, or little, infrastructure work amerika commits to (or not).

  2. makati1 on Sun, 16th May 2021 4:39 pm 

    Speaking of limits to growth…

    ONE TRILLION — 1,000,000,000,000
    The human mind has trouble wrapping itself around something so big. So let me try to put it into perspective using seconds.

    One million seconds ago was about 11 days ago.
    One billion seconds ago was 1989.
    One trillion seconds ago was 30,000 BC.
    So that’s how big a trillion is.

    Every trillion the government prints and spends, adds $3,000 to the tax bill of every man, woman and child in America.

    If you spent one dollar every second, it would take 30,000 years to spend it all, but The federal government spent $6.55 trillion in FY 2020 alone. $6,550,000,000,000. or twice the money taken in. Can YOU spend twice your income every year?

    BTW: One trillion plus of that goes to the military/security complex. $1,000,000,000,000+

  3. makati1 on Sun, 16th May 2021 4:45 pm 

    “The end will come when the world (finally) stops buying amerikan debt,…”

    Absolutely correct Anon, and that day is fast approaching as the value of the dollar shrinks faster and faster because the Fed is printing fake money like crazy. The world is beginning to see that the US is dying. Will it just fade away or will there be war? We shall see.

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