Sunday, May 16, 2021

The American infrastructure, ancient Rome and 'Limits to Growth'

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 of 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.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Ugo Bardi said...

Hello, Kurt, I posted a link to your post on the "Seneca Effect" group on Facebook, and also forwarded it to the members of the Club of Rome. Congratulations for your good work!

Ugo Bardi

september 16 said...

Complex infrastructure maintenance is the Achilles heel of modern civilization. Fossil fuels have greatly leveraged our ability to do work and when they go away because of depletion and cost and we have to rely on weak sources of energy (i.e. renewables) to do that work (think of repaving the millions of miles of roads for example) we'll find it impossible to keep things going. We continue to believe that somehow growth can continue on into the indefinite future. Just look at any graph of resource utilization and extend that line out horizontally even without any growth and you can see how absurd this situation is. It's the high rate of throughput that is the problem. We should be planning a degrowth strategy where resources are rationed so that there will be something left to do a much smaller level of vital work (i.e. growing food). It will certainly be a different world especially for the high consumers of the Western world. The alternative will be us driving off a cliff.

Jacopo Simonetta said...

I agree, but the same is for all the main countries. China included because, also if its infrastructure is much younger, large part of it have been built with poor quality materials.
Anyway, my idea is that urgently we need to class our infrastructure in four classes: 1- vital, 2 - useful, 3- useless, 4- noxious. Then, to give the main priority in the maintenance of the first class and the demolition of the fourth; and to give the secondary priority to the second class and to abandon the third one.

AA said...

Byzantium was just a city state for the last two or three centuries so I'm not sure it's correct to say that the Byzantine empire endured for another thousand years. It endured for another five or six centuries.

Joe Clarkson said...

Great post!

Another part of the increasing burden of infrastructure maintenance is caused by reducing the functional life expectency of infrastructure through "functional obsolescence". Poor planning often means that infrastructure must be demolished and rebuilt in another form or another place. Major Roman infrastructure was built to avoid this problem and was built to last. Roads and aquaducts the Romans constructed have lasted for thousands of years. Very little of modern infrastructure can say the same. Only well buried plastic electrical and water conduits will perhaps have a chance at lasting a thousand years.

Many people in past and even now in what we would call poor countries realize the benefits of spending more time and effort up front to build something that will last many generations. Stone houses might take much of a lifetime to build, but they will then last many lifetimes. Careful planning must go into the planning of buildings that will last centuries. Having gone to all that effort, no one wants to have to abandon it and build all over again somewhere else.

I well remember watching an old man and woman building a stone patio in Cyprus. The carefully chosen 6" thick stones were carefully bedded in a thick bed of mortar. This patio was for pedestrian access and dining tables, but it could have easily supported heavy trucks. It will last for centuries with little to no maintenance.

It's only our profiligate use of fossil energy that has allowed us to indulge in the short term planning and acceptance of functional obsolescence that pervades modern civilization. Once that energy supply begins to decline rapidly, we will have even more opportunity to see how poorly we have built our infrastructure.

september 16 said...

Since just about everything in our built world has a fossil fuel input, there are myriad examples of the built environment that will have a hard time surviving. Take the example of roofing materials. We've been on a building binge for decades and most of the roofs are covered with asphalt shingles, tar paper (for roofs with little pitch) and now even rubber. What happens when petroleum is in decline mode? There are substitutes like wood shingles (usually cedar) and slate (very heavy) but petroleum products are the overwhelming choices of most builders. As Jacopo says, we're going to have to figure out ways to allocate depleting resources in some manner, but the sheer size of the undertaking is daunting. Roof integrity is critical to the survival of building structures but because fossil fuels have facilitated our ability to overshoot our natural base of resources, we'll be hard pressed to find enough substitutes.

ChemEng said...

I take an interest in railroad safety. The recent derailment of a train in Iowa, followed by a bad fire (fortunately, no injuries) is an example of the need for maintenance. Preliminary reports say that the accident was caused by the failure of a bridge.

How many of our bridges are in a vulnerable state? If we build a high speed rail network we will have even more bridges to take care of.

aaron said...

Typo in 3rd paragraph: “ There's more it every day.”

We’ll be Asterix’ & Obelix’ Gaul Village to their Rome : )

RE: necessary downsizing of expectations and infrastructure, as with difficulty feelings as Mr. Rogers taught, “Anything mentionable is manageable.” I’m in! Thanks for your work to make the unthinkable thinkable.