Finance & Development, March 2019, Vol. 56, n ° 1 PDF version
Passed as a prologue
Ancient Rome offers lessons on the importance of sustainability
Sustainable development sums up the idea that material progress must always go hand in hand with social inclusion and respect for the environment. Separating economic growth from the other two pillars would be an act of self-sabotage. Ancient Rome offers us a case study of how tragedy could unfold and how it can be avoided.
The Roman Republic lasted 500 years because its institutions were flexible enough to accommodate two great challenges: internal conflict between aristocrats and masses and external conflict with rival states and the integration of conquered peoples. Despite constant tensions, the Romans were bound by common values: a sense of honor rooted in public service and a commitment to their conception of the common good.
For generations the center held out – until it didn’t. At first the changes were subtle. Territorial expansion – at the beginning of the 2nd century BC. A new class of super-rich Romans have created financial instruments to package debt, resell it, and invest the profits in infrastructure projects. Seems familiar? In many ways, this was an ancient form of globalization, both commercial and financial. And boom times drove Rome’s population to nearly a million in the first century BCE, making it the first city in the world to reach that milestone.
Influx of slaves
But all was not well. The new wealth was not widely shared. A massive influx of slaves turned the job market upside down and left soldiers and citizens jobless and increasingly angry. At the same time, as Edward Watts notes in his new book, Mortal republic, the accumulation of wealth began to supplant personal virtue and service to the state as the main measure of success. And the elites didn’t spend their newfound wealth just on villas and luxury goods. Unlike their ancestors, they engaged in large-scale bribes and corruption to gain political honors and office, as well as judicial impunity.
Perhaps no one embodies the dynamics of the times better than Marcus Licinius Crassus. His fortune, largely generated by corrupt real estate speculation, was so vast that it matched the entire Roman treasury. And as a bankroll for hundreds of politicians, he has gained unparalleled influence from his wealth.
It didn’t take long for the fault lines to break. In previous centuries, elites responded to popular discontent by sharing power and rebalancing the political balance. But under the grip of self-interest and corruption, the consensus collapsed.
The same pattern has been repeated over and over again during the last century of the Republic – populist anger has turned into patrician intransigence, leading to overruns on both sides, often resulting in violence.
The cycle began with the brothers Gracchus, Tiberius and Gaius. Tiberius pushed for the redistribution of land to the poor. But his reform plan sparked conservative opposition and he was clubbed to death. His younger brother, Gaius, has taken up the torch, focusing on social protection – in the form of subsidized grains – and fighting corruption through judicial reform. He too was killed.
After the chaos, Gaius Marius established himself as the champion of the poor, riding a wave of popular disgust at senatorial corruption. But he eventually allied himself with those who were prepared to use violence for political ends, sparking a patrician backlash and Sylla’s dictatorship, which did the unthinkable: lead an army through the Roman city limits. His reign was that of mass proscriptions, the confiscation of property and the sterilization of plebeian power.
In the years that followed, unscrupulous patricians such as Cataline and Clodius sought to advance their own careers by exploiting popular frustration, including the occasional resort to violence and intimidation.
All of this paved the way for Julius Caesar, who used tough tactics to push through populist reforms. But after his victory in a civil war, Caesar too assumed the title of dictator and became increasingly autocratic. His assassination caused another round of civilian bloodletting, effectively killing the Republic.
In the fateful last century of the Republic, a succession of rulers shattered norms previously considered inviolable. Political violence has become routine. State institutions have been armed to persecute opponents. The crowd grew increasingly angry. In turn, strong men offered to restore order. All because of the festering wounds of inequality and corruption.
After the collapse of the Republic, Rome experienced a remarkable resurgence, although peace was secured in part by the removal of democratic institutions. Edward Gibbon, the great chronicler of the fall of Rome, considered the peak of the empire in the 2nd century AD to be the period in history when “the condition of the human race was happiest and most prosperous.” .
What Gibbon did not know was that good fortune owed much to a favorable climate. As documented by Kyle Harper in a remarkable new book, The fate of Rome: climate, disease and the end of an empire, the period between about 200 BC.
But by the third century, the climate became cooler, drier and more unpredictable, with more frequent droughts and crop failures. By the middle of the 5th century, the Little Ice Age of Late Antiquity had arrived.
A changing climate has reduced the empire’s resilience to a variety of shocks, including pandemics. Smallpox struck in the second century, and a virulent epidemic that could have been Ebola followed in the third. In the middle of the 6th century, Justinian’s plague, the first known case of bubonic plague, probably killed half of the empire’s population.
Recent evidence shows the role of climate change. The decade leading up to the plague outbreak saw some of the coldest temperatures in Europe for two millennia, caused by a sequence of massive volcanic eruptions. This likely forced gerbils and marmots out of their natural habitat in Central Asia, causing the black rat to become infected with the bacteria-carrying fleas, whose populations had exploded along Rome’s vast network of trade routes.
Certainly, the fall of Rome had many fathers. It remains perhaps the most overdetermined event in human history. But it seems increasingly clear that the natural world encroaching on the human world was a major culprit.
Weakened by these hostile forces of nature, the empire began to crumble in the third century. It was a period marked by persistent political instability, border pressures and a fiscal crisis compounded by the depreciation of the currency. After a real economic revival in the 4th century, the natural environment intervened again: a severe drought in Eurasia stimulated the migrations of the Huns, whom Harper calls “climatic refugees on horseback”. This triggered a domino effect of mass migration across the Roman border, ultimately leading to the collapse of the Western Empire in the 5th century. This was followed in the 6th century by the terrible trio of climate change-induced crop failures, catastrophic plague, and ruinous warfare. It was during this period that Rome’s population fell to just 20,000 – and the Roman Forum became the campo vaccino, the field of cows.
The Roman Republic and the Roman Empire both fell because they failed the sustainability test. There is a cautionary lesson for our own time about how this failure played out – a disruption of time-honored social norms, entrenched political polarization driven by economic inequality, repudiation of the common good by elites and elites. environmental devastation leading to disease and disaster.
We should take this lesson to heart, especially since we hear the story rhyme in a weird and bewildering way. This demonstrates the extreme urgency of reaching the Sustainable development goals, the global call to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure peace and shared prosperity. The Roman experience offers a window into our possible future if we do not act.
There are of course important differences between our economy and that of ancient Rome. Ours is much richer, healthier, more inclusive and more resilient. The Romans did not have the capacity to eliminate all forms of material deprivation, although they could and should have better managed the inequalities resulting from their own experience of globalization. We have the power to do both.
We also have in our power to solve the problem of climate change, by far the greatest challenge of our generation. The Romans were very much at the mercy of nature. Their business was not the driving force behind climate change, so there was little they could do to slow or stop its progress. But since human activity is driving climate change today, it can be corrected by changing our behavior – providing a zero-carbon energy system over the next three decades.
The bottom line is that sustainable development is of lasting importance, whether we are talking about 130 BCE, 530 or 2030.
ART: GETTYIMAGES / NASTASIC
The opinions expressed in articles and other materials are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect IMF policy.