Monday, May 19, 2014
When Rome fell
When the Roman Empire fell, a lot was lost. Literacy became rare. Many manufactured goods disappeared. Engineering techniques were lost. We forgot how to make concrete. Marine navigation made no progress for a millennium. Roman ships had the equivalent of modern cruising guides with port descriptions, water depths and a type of latitude and longitude system. Medicine, and science of all sorts were lost.
The same thing could happen to us. How? Civilization is like a chain of links leading down through the ages. Break one link and its gone. When the Roman empire collapsed there were all kinds of people who knew how to keep Roman civilization going. The problem was that they were occupied with more pressing matters -like trying to stay a live. With the collapse of Roman agriculture and food imports, keeping fed was hard to do. Add in the collapse of Roman military might and personal safety got pretty iffy. All those nasty barbarians waving swords around didn't make for a stable work environment. Nobody had much time or energy for the finer things.
Then there was the problem of specialization. To make anything complex requires that industries and systems can function together. If too many of those links break then work arounds can't be found fast enough to keep things going. A man might know how to make a good pottery glaze, but had no idea how to get the clay, build a kiln, turn the pot, or transport all the materials.
Fortunately, knowledge was preserved in monasteries. Not everything, but quite a bit. Much of the knowledge had no practical application for hundreds of years so it wasn't used. Another fortunate thing was that Rome was not the whole world. Much of what was important was saved by other cultures and empires.
Now our civilization is global. Either everything that's important works or nothing works. Many of our complex devices need materials and expertise from all over the planet.
Two generations of illiteracy and civilization is gone. The kid who spends his time learning math and science loses out to the kid who's studied how to shoot and knife fight. The family that tries to keep the arts alive starves while the drudges who farm all day endure.
Much of our knowledge only exists in electronic format. We have already lost information as the machines that read the data become obsolete. Imagine how bad it would be if we lost global manufacturing and electricity?
I hope there are still some monasteries stockpiling books.