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The specialization trap

Few ideas are quite as unpopular nowadays as the suggestion that the fate of past civilizations has something to teach us about the likely destiny of our own. This lack of enthusiasm for the lessons of history pervades contemporary culture; what makes this interesting is that it is also among the most fruitful sources of disaster in the modern world. The ongoing implosion of real estate prices around the industrial world is simply one example out of many.

Long before the phrase “condo flipper” entered common usage, one thing should have been obvious: anybody who claims that an asset class can keep on increasing in value forever is shoveling smoke. From the 17th century Dutch tulip mania to the internet bubble of the late 1990s, financial history is littered with the blackened ruins of speculative booms that crashed and burned while in hot pursuit of the fantasy of endless appreciation. None of this kept investors in the last few years from betting the future on the belief that this time was different, and real estate prices would keep rising forever – or from lambasting those few spoilsports who suggested that what went up would inevitably, in due time, come down.

Those of us who insist on reading today’s headlines about peak oil in the light of history risk a similar reaction. Still, it’s a risk worth taking. The logic that insists that while all other civilizations have risen and fallen, ours will just keep rising forever, differs not a whit from the logic underlying the late real estate bubble; the only difference is one of scale. It’s for this reason among others that I try to keep up with scholarship on the decline and fall of past civilizations, and that was what brought me to Bryan Ward-Perkins’ valuable book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford UP, 2005).

Those of my readers who don’t keep track of current fashions in historiography may not know that for several decades now, such phrases as “the Dark Ages” and “the fall of Rome” have been nomina non grata in scholarly circles. The transition that turned western Europe from the crowded, cosmopolitan Roman world into the depopulated, impoverished patchwork of barbarian chiefdoms that succeeded it has been recast by several influential writers as a process of positive cultural evolution that just happened to feature such awkward incidents as, say, the sack of Rome by the Visigoths.

Now it’s only fair to say that, like most revisionist histories, this one made a necessary point. An older generation of historians had gone so far in the other direction – demonizing the barbarians, ignoring the real cultural achievements of the centuries following Rome’s fall, and paying too little attention to the survival of the eastern Roman Empire during the years when its western twin imploded – that a reaction was overdue. Like most revisionist histories, however, the reaction pushed itself to the point of absurdity, and Ward-Perkins’ book is a useful corrective.

One of the tools he uses to document the real scale and impact of the western empire’s collapse is the humble but eloquent voice of pottery. The Roman pottery industry was huge, capable, and highly centralized, churning out fine tableware, storage vessels, roof tiles, and many other goods in such vast quantities that archeologists across Roman Europe struggle to cope with the fragments today. The pottery works at La Graufesenque in what is now southern France and was then the province of Gallia Narbonense, for instance, shipped exquisite products throughout the western empire, and beyond it – goods bearing the La Graufesenque stamp have been found in Denmark and eastern Germany. Good pottery was so cheap and widely available that even rural farm families could afford elegant tableware, sturdy cooking pots, and watertight roof tiles.

Rome’s fall changed all this. When archeologists uncovered the grave of a sixth-century Saxon king at Sutton Hoo in eastern Britain, for example, the pottery found among the grave goods told an astonishing tale of technical collapse. Had it been made in fourth century Britain, the Sutton Hoo pottery would have been unusually crude for a peasant farmhouse; two centuries later, it sat on the table of a king. What’s more, much of it had to be imported, because so simple a tool as a potter’s wheel dropped entirely out of use in post-Roman Britain, as part of a cascading collapse that took Britain down to levels of economic and social complexity not seen there since the subsistence crises of the middle Bronze Age more than a thousand years before.

Ward-Perkins’ book contains many other illustrations of the human cost of the Roman collapse – the demographic traces of massive depopulation, the way that trends in graffiti track the end of widespread literacy, the decline in the size of post-Roman cattle as a marker of agricultural contraction, and much more – but I want to focus on the pottery here, because it tells a tale with more than a little relevance to our own time. Cooking vessels, food containers, and roofing that keeps the rain out, after all, are basic to any form of settled life. An agricultural society that cannot produce them is impoverished by any definition; an agricultural society that had the ability to produce them, and loses it, has clearly undergone an appalling decline.

What happened to put such obviously useful items out of the reach of the survivors of Rome’s collapse? As Ward-Perkins shows, the post-Roman economic collapse had its roots in the very sophistication and specialization that made the Roman economy so efficient. Pottery, again, makes an excellent example of the wider process. Huge pottery factories like the one at La Graufesenque, which used specialist labor to turn out quality goods in immense volume, could make a profit only by marketing their wares on a nearly continental scale, using sophisticated networks of transport and exchange to reach consumers all over the western empire who wanted pottery and had denarii to spend on it. The Roman world was rich, complex, and stable enough to support such networks – but the post-Roman world was not.

The implosion of the western empire thus turned what had been a massive economic advantage into a fatal vulnerability. As the networks of transport and exchange came apart, the Roman economy went down with it, and that economy had relied on centralized production and specialized labor for so long that there was nothing in place to take up the slack. During the Roman Empire’s heyday, people in the towns and villas near Sutton Hoo could buy their pottery from local merchants, who shipped them in from southern Britain, Gaul, and points further off. They didn’t need local pottery factories, and so didn’t have them, and that meant their descendants very nearly ended up with no pottery at all.

Even where Roman pottery factories existed, they were geared toward mass production of specialized types, not to small-scale manufacture of the whole range of pottery products needed by local communities. Worse, as population levels declined and the economy contracted, the pottery on hand would have been more than adequate for immediate needs, removing any market for new production. A single generation of social chaos and demographic contraction thus could easily have been enough to break the transmission of the complex craft traditions of Roman pottery-making, leaving the survivors with only the dimmest idea of how to make good pottery.

Trace any other economic specialty through the trajectory of the post-Roman world and the same pattern appears. Economic specialization and centralized production, the core strategies of Roman economic success, left Rome’s successor states with few choices and fewer resources in a world where local needs had to be met by local production. Caught in the trap of their own specialization, most parts of the western empire came out the other end of the process of decline far more impoverished and fragmented than they had been before the centralized Roman economy evolved in the first place.

Map this same process onto the most likely future of industrial society, in turn, and the parallels have daunting implications. In modern industrial nations, the production and distribution of goods are far more centralized than anything Rome ever achieved. Nearly all workers at every level of the economy perform highly specialized niche jobs, most of which only function within the structure of a highly centralized, mechanized, and energy-intensive global economy, and many of which have no meaning or value at all outside that structure. If the structure falters, access to even the most basic goods and services could become a challenge very quickly.

Food is the obvious example – a very small number of people in any industrial nation have the skills necessary to grow their own food, and even fewer could count on access to the land, tools, and seed stock to give it a try – but the same principle holds for every other necessity of life, not to mention countless other things that would be good to have in the deindustrial dark age that looms up ahead of us in most of our possible futures. Consider the suite of skills needed, for example, to locate and process suitable fibers, spin and weave them into cloth, and make the cloth into clothing. Not many people these days have any of those skills, much less all of them; the tools needed to do most of them are not exactly household items in most homes these days, and the ability to build and repair those tools are even more specialized.

Our situation is thus far more precarious than Rome’s was. On the other hand, we have an advantage that the Roman world apparently lacked – if we choose to use it. The possibility of a future dark age apparently never entered the cultural dialogue in Roman times, but it has been raised repeatedly in ours. Preventive action – the deliberate revival of nonindustrial ways of providing necessary goods and services – is well within the reach of individuals and local communities, and indeed some of this work has already been done by hobbyists and people involved in historical reenactment societies of various kinds.

A great deal more of the same thing will be needed, though, to keep the decline of industrial society from leaving the same sort of economic vacuum in its wake that Rome’s fall left behind. I am coming to think that one of the most useful things anyone concerned about the future can do is to adopt some practical craft that produces goods or services useful in a deindustrializing world, and get skilled at it. If we are to get much of anything out from between the jaws of the specialization trap, projects such as this are a crucial step.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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