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The American infrastructure, ancient Rome and ‘Limits to Growth’

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 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…

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