Thermodynamics of Empire

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The Thermodynamics of Empire


"The thermodynamics of empire is an underlying theme in Homer-Dixon’s discourse, particularly in relation to ancient Rome, although parallels are drawn with the present day. Homer-Dixon has a talent for vividly illustrating his descriptions of Rome’s dominance and subsequent decline with examples from his own travels and experiences – from calculating the land required to support the building of the colosseum to observing the deteriorating quality of the limestone deposits lining a Roman aqueduct in southern Gaul, to discussing the large error margins built into Roman engineering and their consequences for resilience.

Rome’s success depended on its ability to extract energy surpluses, in the form of food, from the imperial territories and concentrate them at the centre, where they enabled the development of a tremendous degree of organizational complexity. However, the EROI of imperial energy tributes declined over time to the point where the complexity of the centre could no longer be maintained without drastic action being taken. That action – an elaborate, highly intrusive and draconian regime of taxation in kind - was taken during the rule of the emperor Diocletian, but its rejuvenation of the empire’s fortunes proved to be temporary as stressors continued to build against an empire declining in resilience as it burned through its own capital – productive farmland and peasantry. Eventually, “the empire could no longer afford the problem of its own existence”. Homer-Dixon argues that industrial civilization may be approaching the exhaustion of its means of supporting its current level of complexity, and that we too may be faced with making adjustments comparable to those made in the fourth century. However, these measures could represent merely a temporary reprieve unless we conceive of different organizational principles addressing our own stressors." (