Ancient Rome offers lessons on the importance of sustainable development

Interesting bit of history:

A changing climate reduced the empire’s resilience to a variety of shocks, including pandemics. Smallpox struck in the second century, and a virulent outbreak that may have been Ebola followed in the third. In the mid-sixth century, the Plague of Justinian—the first known incidence of bubonic plague—probably killed half of the empire’s population.

Recent evidence shows the role of climate change. The decade before the outbreak of plague saw some of Europe’s coldest temperatures in two millennia, brought about by a sequence of massive volcanic eruptions. This likely forced gerbils and marmots out of their natural habitats in central Asia, causing the bacteria-bearing fleas they carried to infect the black rat, whose population had exploded along Rome’s expansive network of trade routes.

To be sure, 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 impinging on the human world was a major culprit.

Weakened by these hostile forces of nature, the empire started to unravel in the third century. This was a period marked by persistent political instability, pressure on the frontiers, and a fiscal crisis compounded by currency debasement. After a genuine economic revival in the fourth century, the natural environment intervened once more—severe drought in Eurasia spurred the migrations of the Huns, whom Harper calls “climate refugees on horseback.” This started a domino effect of mass migration across the Roman frontier, ultimately leading to the collapse of the western empire in the fifth century. That was followed in the sixth century by the ugly trifecta of climate-change-induced crop failures, catastrophic plague, and ruinous war. It was during this period that Rome’s population fell to a mere 20,000—and the Roman forum became the campo vaccino , the cow field.

We may be far more wealthier compared to Romans but broad similarities cannot be ruled out:

The Roman Republic and the Roman Empire both fell because they failed the sustainable development test. There is a cautionary lesson for our own times in how that failure played out—a breakdown in time-honored social norms, entrenched political polarization driven by economic inequality, repudiation of the common good by elites, and environmental havoc leading to disease and disaster.

We should take this lesson to heart, especially as we hear history rhyming in ways that are eerie and disconcerting. This demonstrates the utmost urgency of achieving 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 fail to act.

There are some important differences between our economy and that of ancient Rome, of course. Ours is vastly wealthier, healthier, more inclusive, and more resilient. The Romans did not have the ability to eliminate all forms of material deprivation, even though they could and should have better handled the inequalities arising from their own experience with globalization. We have it within our power to do both.

We also have it within 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 activity was not the driving force behind the shifting climate, so they could do little to slow or stop its march. But since human activity is causing climate change today, it can be fixed by changing our behavior—delivering a zero-carbon energy system over the next three decades.

The bottom line is that sustainable development is of enduring importance—whether we are talking about 130 BCE, 530, or 2030.

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One Response to “Ancient Rome offers lessons on the importance of sustainable development”

  1. Anantha Nageswaran Says:

    Let us accept the premise that the IMF economists are right: that humans today have the power to do better than Asian Romans could or did, to respond to climate change.

    But, are they exercising that power at all? For example, to what extent has IMF policy advice contributed to economic policy decisions that have contributed to unsustainable economic growth?

    In other words, it is easy to advice others and write homilies. Is everyone doing whatever is in their sphere of influence to mitigate what they see as ‘dangers’?

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