By 167 BC, so much revenue was pouring in from conquered territories that Roman citizens no longer had to pay taxes. 140 years later Caesar Augustus, faced with stiff resistance from Germanic tribes, wisely put an end to expansion. Lacking new sources of plunder and tasked with maintaining rule over a sprawling empire, Augustus was forced to reinstate taxation in Rome. Still, as long as Egypt fed the empire and poor Romans received cash assistance, life was good.
By the middle of the 3rd century AD, the state was spiraling into bankruptcy. Romans were constantly at war, not only abroad but among each other. The middle class was under siege, inflation and crime out of control. Civil services and public works were falling into disrepair while commerce declined. Only the rich flourished under the new conditions of desperation.
In 284 Diocletian transformed the empire, ramping up both the army and bureaucracy while adding roads and fortresses. In an atmosphere of conformity and obedience, the state directed people into occupations, much as the Soviet Union would do 17 centuries later.
But all this only delayed collapse. Because taxes were high but not progressive, ordinary working people were hit hardest, and family farms couldn't survive without going into debt. A single bad year could result in foreclosure, at which point farmers became tenants on land they'd previously owned. Still taxed mercilessly, when they couldn't pay they were jailed and their children sold into slavery. With productive land deserted, nearby cities suffered. By the time the “barbarians” were at the gate, they were welcomed with open arms. The once proud Roman people couldn't wait to get the empire off their backs.
The Romans dug their own grave. As Edward Gibbon put it, “the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest.” One-time windfalls were followed by centuries of costly rule until “the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.” Rome was sacked for the last time in the summer of 476.
From day one, the United States was envisioned as a new Rome, only this time things would turn out differently. For starters we'd maintain the republic, and ordinary people would prevent elites from sabotaging our collective future. Moreover we'd pursue economic growth and technological development as a means of overcoming the stagnation that precipitated Rome's collapse. But the same underlying factor that brought down Rome is at work even now in America, quietly consuming the foundation of our prosperity.
The enemy is entropy.
As the Russian people discovered by the end of their 74-year Soviet experiment, you can't place the entire economy under central command, abolish poverty — with factories and tower blocks for all — and everyone lives happily ever after. This is not a steady state world. At all times we're either moving forward or falling back. The problem is that every instance of progress sets the stage for regress. Nature gives freely of its limitless wealth, but the more we grab, the more those riches drag us down.
This is not an ad hoc observation about human society but a principle of physical existence, codified in the second law of thermodynamics and commonly expressed in the phrase, “nature abhors a vacuum.” If Y is empty but X and Z are brimming with energy, before long the excess energy of X and Z has flowed into Y, eliminating the gradient between them. Because nature likes everything evened out, any system that swiftly breaks down gradients is rewarded with energy.
Heat a pot of water on a stove, and a temperature gradient emerges between the water and the air above it, causing heat to rise off the water. But nature is impatient; it wants to close the gap now. The result is convection, which efficiently conveys heat through water to its roiling surface and the air beyond. Though molecular movement is ordinarily random, in a convection cell millions of molecules act in tandem. The same is true of a whirlpool, which systematically drains water 30 times faster than letting it simply fall straight down. Nature encourages complex energized systems so long as they promote evenness by annihilating gradients. But as soon as gradient-reducing systems begin hoarding energy, they themselves become a target of entropy.
A convection cell and a living cell have a lot in common. Both are shaped by the energy flows unleashed in the act of reducing gradients. The difference is that the living cell “selfishly” stores some of the energy it harnesses, enabling it to continue thriving even when the external gradient is no longer present. Turn off the flame under the pot of boiling water, and convection disappears. Not so for living things. Life is continual struggle because hoarding energy generates a gradient between ourselves and our surroundings, and nature doesn't like gradients.
To live is to be out of balance with the environment, and the further out of balance a system is, the more energy it takes to keep it there. We maintain our boundary and our highly specialized internal conditions by harnessing and channeling energy. But energy, according to the first law of thermodynamics, is neither created nor destroyed, which means it's still there even after it's been used to perform work. This sounds great until we take into account the second law. Because of entropy, energy degrades during use, no longer concentrated enough to do anything beyond heating things up. For whirlpools and convection cells, this is no problem because they dissipate energy in the act of freeing it. Whatever energy is drawn into a vortex is instantly distributed elsewhere. When energy stored as fat or sugar is later used and degraded, it has to be exported, requiring even more energy.
The job of a tree is to draw water from the ground to circulate through its branches and twigs and leaves. Circulation is very important because energy that's been degraded, whether through maintenance of old tissues or stimulation of new growth, must be removed. If we could detect infrared, we'd see a fountain of heat carried on vapor streams from the top of every tree. Without water to dissipate degraded energy, trees heat up and die.
It takes energy to circulate the water that dissipates degraded energy. The bigger a tree gets, the more energy it can harness from sunlight but also the more degraded energy it has to get rid of. Life is a balancing act. You want lots of energy but not so much that it can't all be exported once it's degraded. Not just the bowels of an animal but any living system can get constipated, clogged with the waste energy accruing from prior activity. This is why all successful species limit their growth and intake of energy.
Somehow the human race has unlearned this all-important lesson. Cities and empires have a long history of periodically going off the rails. As William Ophuls observes in his nifty little handbook on the end of the world, Immoderate Greatness, every civilization originates in a living web and dies in a Petri dish, choking on its own waste.
Entropy hits us twice, not only in the form of garbage and pollution from current activity but decaying infrastructure left over from prior development. Infrastructure yields huge returns at first but gradually transforms into a cost. In the fight against entropy, we never stop paying for prior development. The bigger our cities and power grids and irrigation systems and networks of roads, levies, sewer lines and aqueducts, the bigger the drag. A never-ending succession of problems is met with ever more complex solutions involving new technologies, specialties and bureaucracies. In the end we're running just to stay in place.
As a mode of transport a car may seem far preferable to a horse, but there's a catch. In contrast to a horse, which grows naturally from an egg, a car has to be built in a factory. A horse needs only hay, water and oats to operate, whereas a car requires oil wells, refineries, tankers, gas stations, mechanics and paved roads. From a thermodynamic standpoint, a horse is all paid up. Energy that goes in is quickly dissipated in the form of eco-friendly liquid and solid waste. A car, on the other hand, carries a huge load of thermodynamic debt. The toxic waste accruing from a car-friendly transportation system takes decades to process, long after the car itself is junked.
Petrochemical fertilizers seem like a miracle, but they amplify entropy by increasing the quantity of energy consumed per unit of output. As Ophuls puts it, industrial agriculture is a "biological machine that turns petroleum into calories at a ratio of approximately ten to one." Traditional agriculture delivers food not only far more efficiently from an energy standpoint but without the burden of the associated infrastructural, ecological and medical costs of Big Ag.
Historically the response to the crisis of overdevelopment is more development. This is why so many civilizations undergo their most intensive building activities in the final years before collapse. New investments in complexity help pay off the entropic debt load accruing from prior development but at the cost of even more debt until it's too big to pay.
Aside from maintenance costs, infrastructure casts a shadow on the mind, limiting our perception and flexibility. According to Ophuls, "entrenched habits, patterns, structures, institutions, ideologies, and interests prevent adaptation to altered circumstances." Rather than abandon costly diversion of water to Central Valley agribusiness, for instance, the state sets about diverting even more. Never mind that baby salmon have to be captured and trucked past pumping stations to the ocean. The costs of maintaining a system profitable for the elite are simply deferred to future generations.
The underlying problem is exacerbated by capitalism, which fragments society into competing private interests concerned only with immediate gain. Unable to coalesce into a public body rationally charting our collective course, we're locked into the suicidal trajectory of empire.
As bleak as this sounds, collapse is far from imminent. In fact prospects for the current century look promising. Though the power elite are fighting it tooth and nail, the inevitable transformation to a post-carbon energy system, already underway, will trigger a new round of growth and complexification, making us richer than we've ever been though even more vulnerable to collapse.
A truly long term strategy requires not just renewable energy and organic agriculture but decentralization. Right now we're suffocating under the weight of centralized systems in energy, food and manufacturing. This is not by accident. Capitalists like everything centralized because it concentrates social power under their command. Contemporary "monopoly capitalism" is much like the old Soviet Union, which abolished the soviets — the worker councils that briefly coordinated a decentralized economy after the 1917 revolution — in order to consolidate power under a state bureaucracy destined for collapse. Mammoth corporate bureaucracy is hardly a sound alternative.
Global civilization is a succulent slab of concentrated energy just waiting to be devoured. Challenging elite power isn't just about social justice; it's about collective survival. Politically, we can fight federal subsidies for Big Ag and fossil fuel industries while demanding environmental protections that punish polluters and reward the responsible. Economically, we can divert our dollars to local, small-scale producers. The goal is to reduce our reliance on top-heavy, complex systems that leave us vulnerable to the ravages of entropy. Only with the left hand of political agitation working in concert with the right hand of economic self-reliance can we rediscover our human capacity for self-determination. Otherwise we're just cattle being fattened up for slaughter.
(Ted Dace is author of Escape from Quantopia, an impassioned plea to restore our integrity and sense of reality in a world reduced to numbers.)