Imperialism played and continues to play a critical role in the global economic growth. It is conventional wisdom that the Roman Empire was one of the most successful and enduring empires in world history. Until its collapse in the fifth century, the Roman Empire “subjugated Europe and North Africa and reached deep into Western Asia, while its engineers built roads, aqueducts, temples, baths, and amphitheaters across the empire’s landscape” (Homer-Dixon 2008). After its collapse, Britain took over in the 19th century through colonization. Britain had colonies in Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. They also collapsed and a new empire arose in the form of the Soviet Union which existed for less than a century. Consequently, throughout history, there were stories of rise and fall of empires and the same is true for modern empires.
In understanding the meaning of imperialism, the concept of what an empire is has to be construed. An empire has been defined to mean the geopolitical manifestations of relationships of control imposed by a state on the sovereignty of others. Empires, thus, combine a core, often a metropolitan controlled territory, with peripheral territories and have multiethnic or multinational dimensions. Therefore, imperialism can be defined as both the process and attitudes by which an empire is established and maintained. Two authors compare the emergence of modern empires and pre-industrial ones and address similar characteristics in both.
Both authors examine the current system of imperialism and establishing of empires both in modern society and in pre-industrial one. The basic example of pre-industrial empire is the Roman Empire which the authors rely on in understanding the modern empire. Both authors agree that any modern empire is built on similar ideals to the ones of the pre-industrial empire. They contend that both the modern and pre-industrial empires are built on a backdrop of historical lessons. Greer argues that our current civilization, just like the medieval world, is haunted by an extraordinary awareness of historical change. Similarly, Hormer-Dixon asserts that civilizations, both modern and medieval, can change drastically. The authors, thus, agree that both empires are founded on essentially similar characteristics. The common feature is that the modern empire is following the same well-won path that has led other civilizations to decline, a path that involves much slower and more complex transformation. Consequently, it is a common feature in both the “Long Descend” and “the upside down”, that every empire is built upon the ruins of the previous one upon its collapse. The concept of collapsing is, therefore, a common feature for every empire, both modern and pre-industrial (Hudson, 2003).
There must be four common elements that facilitate the construction of any empire and these are resources, capital, waste and production (Greer 2008). These factors were present in pre-industrial empires and were relied upon by the Romans in building the Roman Empire. Resources refer to the materials available in the environment which can be extracted through the tools and technologies but which have not yet been exploited. These resources include such materials as iron ore which is available in the earth’s surface but which has not been extracted or coal which has not been mined. The existence of resources is critical to empire building. Greer, thus, provides that resources do not refer to material objects only but also to human resources, that is, the existence of people not yet included in the workforce. Discoveries yet to be made also form a part of resources. The scholar defines capital as an entity consisting of all the factors that can be incorporated into the society’s flows of energy and materials that can be put into further use in other applications. Capital, thus, includes such physical objects as tools, food, human capital which refers to laborers and scientists and social capital such as social hierarchies and economic systems. Greer defines waste as the matter consisting of all factors incorporated into the society’s flows of energy and material that are already fully exploited and have no potential for further use. Production, on the other hand, refers to the process by which existing capital and resources are combined to create new capital and waste. These four features are the essential building blocks of both the pre-industrial empires and the modern ones (Said, 2012).
The authors argue that empires have to be built through the combination of these four factors in order to achieve economic growth. The existence of resources and the ability to exploit these resources plays a critical role in the building of an empire. The pre-industrial empires, like the Roman Empire, exploited the existing resources to the maximum in order to sustain their dominance and control. Modern empires thrive upon the exploitation of resources in order to continue dominating. Increase in technology which facilitates the growth of mass media aids the flow of information Modern empires thrive on superior economies and well-developed factories that produce high quality products. Essentially, modern empires have very few features that might separate them from the pre-industrial ones. These differentiating aspects may relate to the growth and development in technology which has facilitated the industrial revolution through increased production of high quality goods. However, the essential factors of resources, capital, waste and production are common for both the pre-industrial and modern forms of establishing the empire.
Both Homer-Dixon and Greer argue that imperialist empires have terminal limits which lead to their collapse. Every empire in history grew to a certain extent and then collapsed spectacularly. The common point is that as an imperialist empire continues to grow, it reaches a certain stage; this is its peak, where it cannot grow anymore and becomes more and more complex, which inevitably leads to its collapse. Homer-Dixon (2008) focuses on the collapse of the Roman Empire and argues that the empire did not collapse because of the constant barbarian invasions, but rather the barbarian invasions were only the proximate cause of it. He asserts that the Roman Empire had grown to a level where it became difficult to run it as a range of powerful forces combined to frustrate its running. The empire tried to maintain itself and became complex in every facet including bureaucracy, military forces, cities, economy and laws. The increased complexity required more energy for the running of the empire which was not available. The desperate efforts to obtain more energy only made its bureaucracies and laws more elaborate and sclerotic and its taxes enormous. This led to the empire’s collapse.
Greer similarly recognizes the fall of the Roman Empire as a result of increased complexities which were triggered by an empire operating at its peak. Collapse has been defined in “Long Descent” “as a process of marked sociopolitical simplification unfolding on a timescale” of no more than a few decades” (Greer 2008, 4); in this process “an unsustainably high level of complexity is replaced with a lower, more sustainable level”. Therefore, imperialist empires have the terminal limits of developing to an extremely complex point, requiring more energy for their effective management. The complexity in management is the cause of the collapse of these imperialist empires. According to Homer-Dixon (2008), there are five tectonic stresses that are common in imperial empires and ultimately cause their collapse. Firstly, there is the tectonic stress that relates to population stress. The latter arise from the differences in the population growth rates between the rich and the poor strata and from the spiral growth of megacities in poor countries. Population stress is common in imperial empires as the demand for human resource and human capital is critical for the maintenance of the empire through the provision of services. However, the continued development of the empire leads to increased population growth rates that the empire may not be able to sustain leading to population stress. Continued increase in population eventually overpowers an imperial empire leading to its collapse (Warren, 1980)
The second tectonic stress that Homer-Dixon (2008) looks at is the energy stress which is also addressed by Greer. Energy is a critical resource in the maintenance and development of an empire and is vital to its survival. Both authors emphasize the importance of energy in modern imperial empires and acknowledge the role it has played in the collapse of a lot of them. Energy essentially refers to the conventional oil which is used in almost every sector of the economy, hence, becoming a critical tool in the modern empire. However, the concept of peak oil as discussed by Greer looks at the point at which the world runs out of places to drill oil as a result of overexploitation of existing reservoirs. Consequently, energy stress refers to the point where the oil pools are decreasing leading to increased prices of oil products (Homer-Dixon 2008). This energy stress eventually leads to the collapse of modern imperial empires.
Thirdly, Homer-Dixon (2008) looks at the environmental stress as a terminal effect of imperial empires. Indeed the greatest risk to humanity in coming decades is the risk that we may continue to damage our environment to a degree incompatible with our current standard of living or even our existence. The growth of imperial empires has led to increased exploitation of the environment which has affected the latter negatively. Fourthly, climate stress is another tectonic stress which threatens the imperial empires. Climate change occurs as a result of changes in the makeup of the atmosphere resulting in changes in the weather patterns which affect the way imperial empires can plan. The continued exploitation of the resources and the overexploitation of the environmental resources results in unpredictable climatic conditions which are unfavorable for planning. Finally, Homer-Dixon (2008) argues that the fifth tectonic stress is the economic stress which results from instability “in the global economic system and ever-widening income gaps between the rich and the poor” strata.
These five tectonic stresses presented in the “Upside of Down” by Homer-Dixon are similarly captured by Greer in his analysis of the book “The Limits of Power”. Greer reckons that unlimited growth on a finite planet provides extreme levels of disaster. He asserts that as population increases and economic growth unfolds, the world has to provide ever greater supplies of food, water, energy, and raw materials for the industries. The finite nature of the earth means that the amount of water, minerals, energy and other supplies that exist will run out at some point. Greer, thus, points out that where the pressures that the earth will face are well within its supplies, all the demands will be met. However, where the demands placed on the earth exceed its carrying capacity, the available resources will be stretched. The carrying capacity of the earth refers to the available resources that exist on the planet and can be available to a given number of people. Consequently, Greer (2008) presents that where the growth outstrips the carrying capacity, resources become scarcer while demanding rises and the costs of supplying the economy with what it needs increases steadily. The two authors, thus, highlight the terminal limits of imperial empires and the exact reasons of their collapse. When an empire has grown to a given extent, it begins to exceed the ability of the earth to support it leading to its collapse.
The authors recognize the vital role that energy plays in the establishment and maintenance of modern imperial empires. Fossils fuels are recognized as natural resources which, when timely identified and properly exploited, result in vital energy products which serve imperial empires to the maximum. Consequently, modern imperial empires thrive on the existence of fossil fuels and careful exploitation, hence generating the power and resources they need to dominate over those that may not have such resources. Fossil fuels have played a critical role in modern empires particularly due to the concept of globalization in the modern capitalist economy. Globalization has enabled the increased exploitation of resources by imperial powers in other countries in the pretext of development (Mommsen & Falla 1982). Greer looks at the importance of energy in today’s imperial empires extensively and he places emphasis on the study of the peak oil theory.
In his book, the scholar captures the importance and critical role of oil for the modern society asserting that oil is almost the perfect energy source as in its original state, upon its discovery, it existed in huge amounts. Similarly, oil contains huge amounts of energy per unit volume and the method of extraction from the ground is affordable and inexpensive. In addition, the method of transportation of oil from one place to another is not complicated and it is equally easy to store. These characteristics of oil made it very vital to the establishment of imperial empires and their subsequent development and maintenance. Consequently, the availability of oil is one of the greatest distinctions between modern empires and the pre-industrial ones, which relied on other forms of energy. Greer (2008) asserts that the fungible characteristics of oil make it even more critical for the modern imperial empires. This is because the burning of fossil fuels allows it to produce heat which can be used to power motors, fuel cars, or planes, generate electricity among other uses. Greer stresses the importance of fossil fuels in the maintenance of imperial empires though his study of the peak oil theory which is a theory that provides that the world shall run out of pools to drill oil from in the coming years. This theory has already been proved to be true in the case of the United States of America. The peak oil theory, thus, threatens to bring the imperial empires which hugely rely on the natural resource of fossil fuels to an end.
However, Homer-Dixon (2008) does not pay much attention to fossil fuels even though he recognizes that energy stress is one of the critical pressures which threaten modern imperial empires. Energy stress, thus, will include the diminishing supplies of oil products, which has resulted in their high costs.
In conclusion, both writers agree that there are no fundamental distinctions between the pre-industrial imperial empires and the modern ones: both of them are built on similar features and concepts. They assert that imperialism has terminal defects of developing extreme levels of complexity which leads to its collapse. These complexities are the results of increased population pressure, energy stresses, environmental strain and extreme weather and climatic conditions. Similarly, the authors assert that modern imperialism is critically dependent on the existence of fossil fuels for its survival and development.