Implementing the Second Virtue: Feel the Emotions Which Fit the Facts 2021-05-09T05:47:31.587Z
The Fall of Rome, III: Progress Did Not Exist 2021-04-25T05:54:44.406Z
The Fall of Rome, II: Energy Problems? 2021-04-23T17:58:23.877Z
The Fall of Rome: Why It's Relevant, And Why We're Mistaken 2021-04-23T12:15:44.902Z
How We Failed COVID-19 2020-12-02T21:29:50.532Z


Comment by LukeOnline on The Fall of Rome, III: Progress Did Not Exist · 2021-04-26T11:08:09.548Z · LW · GW

The European wars of religion included among others the Thirty Years War which killed one-third of the German population. It's mentioned as a period that caused a lot of human suffering, but not as something that seriously harmed the long-term development of Europe. To the contrary, this happened during Europe's ascendancy as a global superpower. Crisis, war and mismanagement is certain in nearly all periods of human history. They're not sufficient causes of long-term decline. 

"Full", "empty" and "population pressure" are very relative terms. New technological inventions, new systems of agriculture and new organizational forms constantly change the balance. That makes it very hard to assess the actually "felt" pressure at a certain moment in time. 

I've heard that some coal was used by Romans, but also that it was always a very niche activity. Do you have sources about coal being used by blacksmiths 'often'?

As the title states, I don't think "progress" existed (exists?). Not as a monolithic thing that simultaneously boosts population size, population density, economic activity, individual well-being, intellectual development, real-world power/dominance/influence and cultural legacy. Think of the internet today. 20/25 years ago, it was a niche activity for highly educated, relatively wealthy tech experts. Nowadays, it's used by the masses. The average IQ of the average internet user has probably declined significantly. Better technology and years of development have given us new possibilities; tech monopolies and bad habits like declining attention spans and polarization have made other things worse. The internet of 2021 is not superior or inferior to the internet of 2001 in all aspects. 

I believe the Europe of 1000AD was significantly more densely populated than the Roman Europe of 1AD (or 300AD). This led to fuel scarcity and an enormous decline in fuel-intensive luxuries like bathhouses, concrete, bricks and roof tiles. I also believe an ever increasing population pressure (and probably declining standards of living for many individuals!) was a vital trigger for the Industrial Revolution many centuries later. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. That makes it really difficult to talk about states being 'sophisticated". 

Comment by LukeOnline on The Fall of Rome, III: Progress Did Not Exist · 2021-04-26T10:39:32.931Z · LW · GW

Thanks a lot! 

  • In regards to your last point: I'll certainly concede that naval mobility must have been very helpful to the Greeks. As a Dutch person, I'm well aware how helpful sea-based trade was, historically :)
  • In regards to the third point: are you aware that early farmers were shorter and had significantly worse health than hunter-gatherers? I don't believe it was an amazing new invention, it's a thing desperate, hungry people do when 'wild' food resources run out. It allowed for sedentary life and higher population densities, and in the very long term that's crucial for 'civilization', but it was not an improvement for the individual. 

    I believe that trade-off didn't happen merely at the start, when the first hunter-gatherers switched to agriculture, I believe that trade-off to have increased gradually as agriculture became more intensive. 

    I'm going to be deeply unfair here and it's easy to criticize these emotional arguments, but look at this drawing of a Bronze Age farm versus Victorian London homes, at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Victorian England had way more advanced technology, and as an empire, it had very impressive stats. But I doubt I wanted to live there as a middle-class or poor individual. (Not saying the Bronze Age was awesome, but day-to-day life may have been more tolerable). 

    I think Ancient Egypt must have been similarly terrible for individuals. Long hours of hard physical farm labor in dense, crowded villages. It creates mighty nations, but I doubt it was good for individual well-being. Consider Zvi's writings on slack.

    Make sure that under normal conditions you have Slack. Value it. Guard it. Spend it only when Worth It. If you lose it, fight to get it back. This provides motivation for fighting things Out To Get You, lest you let them eat your Slack.

    I believe our ancestors were human beings just like you and I. They valued slack as well. And they guarded it as well. There is a lot you can do to optimize crop yield. They weren't desperate for technology and knowledge, they were desperate for time and energy. They didn't plough and do all the other requirements of the most intensive agriculture unless absolutely forced to by necessity - by population pressure and land scarcity. 

    Think of COVID. (Disclaimer: The Netherlands has sky-high infections, overwhelmed ICs and a relatively low amount of vaccinations) We act like we're doing 'our best', like we really care, and like we really want to end this pandemic. But we don't. 99% of infected people survive, only the elderly have a serious chance of dying, so a lot of people act like it's pretty much a flu and are not going to put their lives on hold for that. 

    I'm 100% certain that if a way more deadly disease entered the Netherlands, we suddenly were able to take more drastic measures and actually stop that virus in its tracks. Which means we currently are not doing our best at fighting the pandemic according to our full pandemic-fighting potential, we are doing our best according to "we consider this to be a very serious flu"-potential. 

    I don't think our ancestors were 24/7 operating on their actual this is our crop yield if we put all our effort in it potential. They were guarding their slack and trying to enjoy their lives, and they were not using all potential agricultural technology and knowledge. Ester Boserup has countless examples of this. German colonists in Argentina quickly dropped their intensive agriculture because they weren't so land-constrained there. Sparsely populated Indonesian islands had extensive contact with other densely populated islands without adopting their agricultural technology, only doing so when their own population grew. 
  • In regards to your first point: consider the text above. I don't believe humans tried to optimize for population density, because it decreased their quality of life. I agree that Europe could have been become a lot denser, a lot quicker if people were rationally aiming for that, but they weren't. 
  • Sure, if it was just concrete that disappeared, I could believe that. But simultaneously, nearly all fuel-intensive luxuries disappear. And a lot of them, including concrete, suddenly reappear when new cheap fuel sources become available. That makes it really plausible to me that fuel is indeed the crucial element.
Comment by LukeOnline on The Fall of Rome, III: Progress Did Not Exist · 2021-04-26T09:45:34.087Z · LW · GW

Sure! I don't think the fact that Dutch history books end in the Netherlands is good evidence that the Netherlands is the most significant place in world history :) 

But Ancient Egypt, Classical Greece and Classical Rome do seem to be of global significance. Greek ideas and inventions, from Aristotle to the Antikythera mechanism, do seem to be lasting and unique. And a bit harsher: the Greeks conquered Egypt. The Romans conquered Greece and Egypt. The balance of power actually seems to have shifted in that direction.

Comment by LukeOnline on The Fall of Rome, III: Progress Did Not Exist · 2021-04-25T09:20:17.910Z · LW · GW

Thanks for the long reply! 

You're describing a lot of local contrasts. The city of Rome vs the provinces. The Western Rome Empire vs the Eastern half. Charlemagne vs the Umayyads. While certainly interesting and worthy of discussion, the trends I try to perceive and explain happen on more of a global level. 

Look at the shipwrecks and lead pollution graph or the social development graph from the first article. I'm pretty sure the lead pollution was measured from ice cores in Greenland. It's pollution from all of Europe (and perhaps even more distant), not just pollution in the vicinity of the city of Rome. It was barely existant in 600BC, peaks enormously in the first century AD, and it's at ~10% of its former peak in 600AD. 

The social development graph follows the most advanced civilization in either the western or eastern half of Afro-Eurasia. If one culture declines and is taken over by another, it switches. Look at this example of Western maximum settlement sizes:

100 CE: Rome, 1,000,000; 9.36 points 
200 CE: Rome, 1,000,000; 9.36 points 
300 CE: Rome, 800,000; 7.49 points 
400 CE: Rome, 800,000; 7.49 points 
500 CE: Constantinople, 450,000; 4.23 points 
600 CE: Constantinople, 150,000; 1.41 points 
700 CE: Constantinople, 125,000; 1.17 points 
800 CE: Baghdad, 175,000; 1.64 points 
900 CE: Cordoba, 175,000; 1.64 points 
1000 CE: Cordoba, 200,000; 1.87 points 
1100 CE: Constantinople, 250,000; 2.34 points 
1200 CE: Baghdad, Cairo, Constantinople, 250,000; 2.34 points 
1300 CE: Cairo, 400,000; 3.75 points 
1400 CE: Cairo, 125,000; 1.17 points 
1500 CE: Cairo, 400,000; 3.75 points 
1600 CE: Constantinople, 400,000; 3.75 points 
1700 CE: London and Constantinople, 600,000; 5.62 points 
1800 CE: London, 900,000; 8.43 points 
1900 CE: London, 6,600,000; 61.8 points 
2000 CE: New York, 16,700,000; 156.37 points

As you suggest, in 800 AD, the author is looking at the Umayyads and not Charlemagne. While they quantatively exceed Europe in that time period, they don't exceed 'peak-Rome' in these statistics. 

I'm not trying to say that Rome was inherently awesome and good and virtuous. It's probably true that they were parasitic and exploitative. But it seems that the first century AD certainly was an era of unprecedented economic activity in the West. Trade and pollution and building happened on a huge scale. And this just.... vanished. Of course, there were still large countries and empires, some even bearing some of the titles of the former Roman Empire. There were still cities and economic activity and inventions. But the scale of the first century AD, and a lot of specific Roman practices like concrete, large public bathhouses and the mass use of brick, seems to have completely disappeared until the Industrial Revolution. 

Comment by LukeOnline on The Fall of Rome, III: Progress Did Not Exist · 2021-04-25T08:06:44.032Z · LW · GW


In regards to the bucket metaphor: the 'width' is the amount of fertile land available to its inhabitants.

 Water only starts 'stacking', going 'up', if it can't go 'down' or 'to the sides' anymore. The walls of a bucket prevent sidewards expansion and force the water level to go up. 

Like water, pre-industrial humans had good reasons to avoid 'stacking' as well. Population density forces farmers (which is 90%+ of the population in pre-industrial times) to adopt more labor-intensive practices. So when humans had the chance, they preferred to spread out. 

When hunter-gatherers cannot find enough food anymore, and all surrounding lands are exhausted by other hunter-gatherers, 'spreading out' ceases to be a viable method. 'HumanWater' has spread as far as it can, and now it will start to 'stack': hunter-gatherers will adopt slash-and-burn agriculture, raising the potential population density. When slash-and-burn agriculture has spread through the entire 'bucket' (all reachable fertile ground), the next agricultural step is implemented. The easiest one: they don't go from slash-and-burn agriculture to plowing, irrigating, weeding and spreading manure in one generation. It happens step by step, starting with the least labor intensive 'upgrade' and only escalating when forced to. 

I hadn't really considering overflowing buckets, but for example, the Greek colonisation might be a good example of that happening:

I love the blog you linked! Funny to see the screengrabs from Game of Thrones, that exact problem bothered me as well :)

Comment by LukeOnline on The Fall of Rome, II: Energy Problems? · 2021-04-23T21:13:42.824Z · LW · GW

Cutting trees on hillsides could easily lead to erosion and the destruction of the soil - agreed. But we're looking at a process that impacted all of Europe, from ~300AD to ~1800AD. I doubt a large cause of that is 'Permanent Roman Forest Destruction'. It seems most plausible to me that the land was used for other purposes. 

Comment by LukeOnline on The Fall of Rome, II: Energy Problems? · 2021-04-23T20:43:38.573Z · LW · GW

Thanks! I definitely don't want to imply that the average Roman lived in an awesome villa built out of bricks. But in regards to for example bathhouses: 

Small bathhouses, called balneum (plural balnea), might be privately owned, while they were public in the sense that they were open to the populace for a fee. Larger baths called thermae were owned by the state and often covered several city blocks. The largest of these, the Baths of Diocletian, could hold up to 3,000 bathers. Fees for both types of baths were quite reasonable, within the budget of most free Roman males.

While the baths were enjoyed by almost every Roman, there were those who criticized them.

And the army, with its advanced equipment, was open to the average citizen as well. They would not have profited equally from all Roman luxuries, but it seems clear that the Roman civilization as a whole was more prosperous than the Early Medieval one, at least in a lot of material aspects.

Comment by LukeOnline on The Fall of Rome: Why It's Relevant, And Why We're Mistaken · 2021-04-23T20:30:10.055Z · LW · GW

I definitely agree that it is wrong to assume that Rome was superior to Medieval Europe in all ways! I think they definitely outclassed Medieval Europe in a lot of aspects - but also that Medieval Europe outclassed Rome in a lot of other aspects. 

Comment by LukeOnline on The Fall of Rome: Why It's Relevant, And Why We're Mistaken · 2021-04-23T20:24:01.883Z · LW · GW

From the Wikipedia article on the Fall of the Western Roman Empire:

The fall of the Western Roman Empire (also called the fall of the Roman Empire or the fall of Rome), c. 376-476, was the process of decline in the Western Roman Empire in which the Empire failed to enforce its rule, and its vast territory was divided into several successor polities. The Roman Empire lost the strengths that had allowed it to exercise effective control over its Western provinces; modern historians posit factors including the effectiveness and numbers of the army, the health and numbers of the Roman population, the strength of the economy, the competence of the Emperors, the internal struggles for power, the religious changes of the period, and the efficiency of the civil administration. Increasing pressure from invading barbarians outside Roman culture also contributed greatly to the collapse. The reasons for the collapse are major subjects of the historiography of the ancient world and they inform much modern discourse on state failure.[1][2][3]

In 376, unmanageable numbers of Goths and other non-Roman people, fleeing from the Huns, entered the Empire. In 395, after winning two destructive civil wars, Theodosius I died, leaving a collapsing field army, and the Empire, still plagued by Goths, divided between the warring ministers of his two incapable sons. Further barbarian groups crossed the Rhine and other frontiers and, like the Goths, were not exterminated, expelled or subjugated. The armed forces of the Western Empire became few and ineffective, and despite brief recoveries under able leaders, central rule was never effectively consolidated.

It seems "barbarians" are explicitly mentioned as one of the influential and clear causes of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The second paragraph in the quote isn't a random paragraph from the article; it's the second paragraph of the article itself. Causes like "the economy / population / competence of the Emperors declined" are pretty vague. They seem more like parts of an interdependent process than clear causes. 

I don't want to imply other historians only look at barbarians! But I've never encountered a clear theory that properly explains why the late-Roman / Early Medieval Period is such a unique and devastating period of decline. The short story is "stuff was bad and barbarians invaded", the long story is "here is a long list of everything that went wrong". But things like "they had incompetent Emperors" seem like bad explanations to me: all periods had bad rulers and they didn't cause 1000 years of decline and stagnation. 

Comment by LukeOnline on The Fall of Rome: Why It's Relevant, And Why We're Mistaken · 2021-04-23T18:07:30.562Z · LW · GW

From Ian Morris' companion book Social Development

I define “East” and “West” as the societies that have developed from the original core areas in the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers and between the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers where agriculture began developing after the end of the Ice Age. 

Comment by LukeOnline on The Fall of Rome: Why It's Relevant, And Why We're Mistaken · 2021-04-23T18:02:58.652Z · LW · GW

Agreed, there are plenty of historians who argue for an internal decline. Bad leadership, infighting, civil war, corruption, decadence, etcetera. I won't deny they play a role, but personally, I was never strongly convinced by these arguments. The Roman decline is exceptional; incompetent politics and corrupt humans seem to be universal. 

Comment by LukeOnline on How We Failed COVID-19 · 2020-12-03T11:19:27.977Z · LW · GW

These are all good points! They remind me of the "Swiss Cheese Model" in regards to COVID. No single solution is 100% effective, but combine enough layers and there won't be any 'holes' in the strategy anymore. 

Comment by LukeOnline on How We Failed COVID-19 · 2020-12-03T11:17:00.564Z · LW · GW

I fully agree that there is a strong lack of proper communication with the public! If all/most citizens have a decent grasp of the "COVID basics" and best practices, ending the pandemic would be a lot easier. 

Except for general information about the virus itself, there should also be some kind of "weather forecast" about the prevalence of the virus in your local vicinity. AFAIK, South Korea was very strong in this regard, at least at the start of the pandemic. Citizens received local reports of how many cases were confirmed in their area.