A tale of three cities

I’ve returned to the U.S. after a trip to Italy. My goals for the trip were three-fold: (1) Visit the heart of western civilization before we complete our ongoing trip to the new Dark Age and then the neo-Neolithic, (2) collect anecdotes about the collapse of a large, powerful, seemingly invincible empire, and (3) try to determine if the hatred for a living Earth by Homo sapiens, which at this point is nearly all-consuming, was initiated — or at least accelerated — by the Renaissance. These goals echo the general themes I’ve considered throughout the history of this blog, so they seem appropriate to my one hundredth post.


I was part of a 28-member tour that met in Venice. From Venice, we took a bus to Florence, the heart of the Renaissance, and then took a bus a Rome. We spent slightly more than three days in each of the three cities, with an incredibly knowledgeable guide providing highlights and then setting us free to explore each city on our own. Before our guide turned us loose, the group walked ten to twelve miles daily. Obviously, the group was comprised of people with above-average fitness, at least for Americans.
We visited the three cities of Venice, Florence, and Rome in increasing order by size and human population and thus by increasing imperialism. My comments follow the same order, with a few final comments about my return to the ultimate contemporary empire.
We met in Venice, a city of about 60,000 people and a similar number of daily tourists. During our initial meeting, our guide asked to what we attributed Italy’s fame. After several expected responses, including “the Renaissance,” “pasta,” “fresh food,” “art,” and “Vatican City,” he let us know the real answer: chaos. Yes, he said Italy is famous for civilization and also for chaos. Apparently he knows how similar they are, and that civilization has always been two days away from chaos.
Nice start, I thought.
Venice is a lovely island city known for seafood, a stunningly low crime rate, and durability. In addition, it is commonly called the best-preserved city in Europe. The complete absence of automobiles, motorcycles, and bicycles throughout the history of the city clearly has a lot to do with it. This city relies on a well-developed system of canals and an abundance of bipedal motion for all its transportation needs. The water comes from the Alps via an aqueduct that pre-dates the industrial age. The food comes from the surrounding Adriatic Sea and also from the nearby inland plains, as it has for millennia. And a 300-year-old floor is called “new” by the locals, who are somewhat embarrassed because they couldn’t keep the old one going a little longer.
As if these attributes are not enough, I would be hard-pressed to name a city with a more durable sense of community than Venice. The city’s 2,300 named streets meander through mixed-use neighborhoods with residences atop shops. I was lost half the time I was there, but I never felt threatened. The people are generous and kind, the crime rate is near zero, and I was surrounded by good food and even better gelato. A few-minute walk in any direction leads to an iconic structure from which even I could find my way anywhere else on the island.
While in Venice, I kept searching for something from the United States, other than tourists. I came up with three exports: pop music, Hollywood films, and globalization (i.e., disaster capitalism).
On to the birthplace of the Renaissance, a city of about 400,000 Vespa-driving Florentines working hard to run over American tourists. Although reason arose in Greece, it was lost during the Dark Ages as the Catholic Church exerted its considerable power. The Renaissance saw few ideas that were truly knew, but it was awash in a rebirth of ideas and principles held in ancient Greece. That is, the Renaissance reinitiated our love affair with culture (i.e., with ourselves). As such, it kick-started our hateful, hate-filled relationship with Earth. It was a time for exploiting technology and people in the name of escaping our relationship with the living Earth.
Consider, for example, the extended conversation I had about religion with a new-Earth creationist. She and her husband view Earth as a miserable “test” through which, if we “believe” in events and ideas that have been completely discredited as faith-based junk science, and then we’re “saved,” we will land in heaven. She hates Earth. But she thought I was a kindred spirit because she confused my message with the Rapture.
It’s the apocalypse, silly. And also a new Renaissance, one which will require us to re-learn how to live as part of the planet and part of our community. Yes, there will be redemption. But we will not experience the Rapture of this woman’s fantasies.
I also had a long conversation with a self-described rationalist at a famous exhibit featuring Galileo (and, comically and appropriately, his upraised middle finger). He actually understands we’re in the midst of an economic collapse, and he understands the underlying reason — the rationalist, not Galileo, for whom I cannot speak — and he hopes we’ll keep exploiting the planet and its poor for a few more years, until he’s dead. I guess his teenaged sons will have to fend for themselves.
Finally, I had a short conversation with an engineer. As I’ve come to expect from lovers of technology, he dismissed the notion of energy decline and consequent economic collapse with a comment about the TechnoMessiah arriving in the form of nuclear power and biodiesel as soon as the all-knowing market indicates these solutions are necessary for economic growth.
Which leads naturally to my take on the Renaissance and our current condition: I think the rise of reason led to a separation of our species from the Earth on which we depend for our lives. Even self-proclaimed rationalists, secular humanists, and other people with world views anchored in reality think our species is special, something justifiably apart from the natural world. I am not ignoring our big brains, nor our ability to reason. After all, humans are the most rational of animals: We can rationalize anything. But our big brains and ability to reason do not allow, much less require, us to act as if the other species on the planet are ours to exploit. And don’t get me started on the suffering we bring to other humans in the name of God and culture.
Reason led us astray. Perhaps science is the big lie, after all, instead of technology, as I’ve long believed.
At this point in time, Florence is a shining example of (consumer) culture. The few living things in the city are tolerated, but hardly revered, by harried, hurried, Vespa-addicted citizens.
As we entered Rome, a city of some five million people, our first sight was police in riot gear. Our guide explained the necessity of having police in riot gear everywhere in the city, essentially all the time. After all, Rome is the very heart of civilization, hence chaos. It surrounds the city with the highest crime rate in the world, Vatican City, so perhaps those police officers are trying to keep Romans safe from the priests and nuns.
During the good old days of the Roman Empire, the Coliseum was used to appease the masses with free food and increasingly violent displays of aggression against humans and other animals. Between weekly to monthly events, the ruling class constantly reminded the sheeple how easy were their lives, especially the citizens who stayed out of trouble (i.e., those who did not threaten the property of the ruling class). Our excellent local guide pointed out the obvious parallel with contemporary television. She also explained the thousands of small holes in the walls of the Coliseum: As the Empire collapsed, the iron used to attach marble to the walls was stripped and re-used. We see the same pattern today as abandoned big-box stores are stripped of copper and other metals. Seems history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.
And here’s something to think about as industrial civilization draws its final gasps: The human population of Rome declined from more than a million during the days of Empire to less than 20,000 during the Middle Ages. The aqueducts were destroyed by the barbarians (who also go by names such as “terrorists,” “marauders,” “criminals,” and, depending on their success, “freedom fighters”), forcing the Romans to drink from the polluted Tigris River. The choices were to die of thirst or die of cholera. The reduction in the human population exceeded 98%.
To recap, then, the brief history of western civilization: We traded oppression by the state for oppression by the Church, thus cashing in imperialism for, well, imperialism with an imaginary reward. The subsequent rise of reason led to a convoluted mixture of oppression by the state and oppression by the Church that continues to this day. We call this mix “culture,” and we usually don’t even pretend there is a separation between church and state. This cultural milieu, variously known as “reality” or the “culture of make believe,” depending on one’s perspective, has produced bonds that are far stronger than anything observed in the prior history of the West. After all, only two-thirds of Romans were enslaved.
Along my journey through Italy, it became embarrassingly easy to pick out people from my home country. I spotted one in a Florentine church that banned bare shoulders and knees: A twenty-something woman sporting a baseball cap (no, that’s not bad enough) emblazoned in bold letters proclaimed, “WHAT THE FUCK.” Then there was the teenaged dipshit in St. Peter’s Basilica with the following statement on his tee shirt: “whileyoureadthisIamstaringatyourtits.” Although I find the Catholic Church and its ostentatious displays of stolen riches to be horribly offensive, even I am offended by these individual actions. I guess I’m getting old.
Back in the U.S., barefoot and beltless as I navigated our woefully reactionary security “system,” a quick glance around the airport suggests the Master of Metaphor was correct: We are indeed a nation of overfed clowns. Never has an empire been filled with such ill-prepared, overweight people. And yet we are entering an era in which the intellectual and physical challenges will be great. Will we be overwhelmed by these challenges? At this juncture, how could we not be?
I conclude with the toast given by our guide as we dined together for the final time: “To lying, cheating, stealing, and drinking. [pregnant pause] May you lie to save a friend. May you cheat death. May you steal the heart of the one you love. And may you drink with many friends.”

Comments 15

  • Prof Em Guy welcome home.
    It was difficult keeping the restless natives in line in your absence,but I did my best.As you can see they went on strike for a week,when my castigation woke em up.
    Wendy has a great sense of humor,and helped in this endeavor.
    As you said the beginning of the end began with agriculture,and all that stuff in Italy just
    helped it along.
    Frank

  • It’s great to hear about your thoughts on civilisation Guy. Although I’m only leaving a comment for second time, I read the site very regularly and enjoy all the comments and usually look up all the books and other sites mentioned.
    I’m also keen on gardening and some degree of self-sufficiency and so I read the very fascinating ‘bible’ of self-sufficiency by John Seymour (an incredibly wise man)and a book he wrote back in 1985 which I think you and all the bloggers of Nature Bats Last would like – called “The Ultimate Heresy”. It encapsulates what you mention there Guy about our thinking we are superior to the rest of the flora and fauna of the world and says that is how we began to manufacture our own downfall. What mankind needs is humility and a sense of awe at the wonderful world around us and if we then acted with respect, we would never have got ourselves into this terrible mess. It’s quite simple, everything is already naturally recycled if we don’t cock it up by using plastics and sythetics. We’d got sun, wind and water for power, it’s all just there. Nature is wonderful.
    It makes me wonder if we as a species don’t actually deserve the crap that is coming to us. However unfortunately it is not the exploiters who will actually suffer, that’s the irony.
    I read (with annoyance and difficulty) the Black Swan book that Matt in Aussie mentioned but couldn’t really get to grips with it or see the point of it, and of course, it was your site that led me to the wonderful grump James Howard Kunstler, whose site I also love. I also read half of the terribly depressing book The Road by Col somebody (sorry I’ve forgotten and I daren’t look it up or all this will vanish).
    So please keep posting recommendations, everyone, about the books you’ve read and learnt from.
    It’s wonderful to know that there are a few like-minded souls out there.

  • just looked it up -“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. Just too harrowing. Brings to mind the old Leonard Cohen and free razorblades joke.

  • Welcome home Guy —
    I am not sure that I would make too much emphasis on Reanaissanced Italians not understanding ecology or focusing on it. I am sure their versions of the Bible taught them to have in subjection all of the resources under their feet and to be fruitful and multiply.
    I do think it is interesting to compare some of their culture and civilization to ours:
    they had Leonardo da Vinci and his flying machines — we have Leonardo di Caprio and the Titanic
    they had Michaelango and the finger of God in the Sistine Chapel — we had Michael Jackson grabbing his own crotch and squealing
    they recycled Greek philosophy — we recycle Greek sex
    they gave us Giotto’s tower, which stands beautifully after hundreds of years — we gave us the Twin Towers, which lasted three decades
    Methinks that the single greatest problem with the decline of modern Italy is our influence on them and their desire to be more like us and less like their classical ancestors.
    Stan Moore

  • Daphne, I’ve got a copy of that book sitting on my cot. Good book, quite graphic, but a bit short.
    They’re making it a movie that’s supposed to come out later this year.

  • Stan, thanks for this perfect comparative analysis!

  • Frank, sorry for the oversight: I failed to thank you for keeping the comments alive during my extended absence. When you pay a visit to the mud hut, I’ll buy you a drink. And you’re correct about Wendy’s sense of humor, as I’ve known for 32 years.
    Daphne, thanks for the comment, which provides encouragement to all those in the blogosphere hoping to learn from others. I read The Road like a newspaper in the near future. Except, of course, we won’t have newspapers then.

  • Prof Em Guy:
    matt(sic) also has a sense of humor,as does Turboguy,and even Charlene.If we’re all doomed we might as communicate with grace and levity.
    Sun City,Arizona is a very low class community with the Yuppie Scum social class in the surrounding sloburbs.This makes the Phoenix area an excellent living sociological
    laboratory.Add to that we are “The Kidnapping Capital” of America according to the mass media.Every evening news brings new graphic and gory details of murder,mayhem,
    kidnapping,incest,car jacking,robbery,infanticide,suicide,theft,larceny,sexual assualt,drug wars,arson,burglary,child abuse,smuggling(most especilly of humans).
    No where else are the effects of the collapse of capitalism seen in such gruesome detail.Most fires here are meth kitchen mistakes.The depredations to the human psyche,
    and it’s inability to handle “civilization” are very evident here.
    You can buy a nice 2 bedroom,2 bath 1200 square foot house,on a quite street for $60,000. There’s one across the street with 3 tall (20 to 30 foot) , beautiful saquaros in the front yard.It’s bank owned as are many others around here.
    Come on down so I can personally welcome you to paradise.
    Frank

  • Prof Em Guy:
    Wendy gave you your new nickname–clever she is.
    Thank you for the invitation,I can’t wait to see the mud hut and I’ll take you up on the offer of a drink.
    Frank

  • The medicici’s (a renaissance criminal organisation)
    formalised and legitimatised the banking system
    (created modern banking) with the support from the pope.
    This factor along with the highly organised and mercantile
    nature of the Dutch saw the birth of
    modern day capitalism. As stated previously
    ‘profit’, ‘interest’, ‘yield’ etc is all enviro draw down.
    Exponential growth is not ‘reason’able.
    Early Christians would rather pay interest to the
    shylocks (jewish community) of their day rather than earn interest.
    They preferred a life of poverty and debt than
    be the beneficaries of usury. At least they were
    assured a place in heaven. However, the church and the
    medicicis conspired to create a
    doctrinal loophole to allow the profits of a
    banking system to flourish and consequently foster
    the exploitation of trade with the newly discovered
    ‘new’ worlds.
    The Road is the bleakest book I have ever read. I read it
    while I was following the ‘Tour Down Under’ staying in Adelaide
    with a bunch of fellow bike nuts. It was my night time reading,
    it was a wonder I could sleep at all. The peak oil/collapse thingy
    is not for polite conversation, on the one hand you can have trivial
    conversations with friend and colleagues, and then privately
    you read doomer blogs and books. Lucky I am equally
    obsessed with riding and racing. Complere exhaustion is
    assured when my head hits the pillow
    I am half way through Orlov’s book, equally he makes me
    feel uneasy. He is predicting hyper inflation.
    Like Guy, I was thinking of taking some more professional development,
    (landscape/urban design), spend the money while its still worth
    something. Any ideas?
    Turbo, what are you doing in Iraq? I hope your in
    communications, pr, or perhaps your working
    as the ‘affirmative action liason officer’ ;).
    The weekly honour call on the PBS news hour
    is depressing. Stay out of harms way.
    Interesting, you found more kinship with
    the aussies than the brits.
    Frank, your ‘cranky’ charm has brought everybody back
    from the oblivion/anonymous (somewhat) nature of the internet.

  • matt,
    Thank you.
    Orlov,and everyone else who predicts inflation are wrong. Depressions always brings Deflation.The US government issued zero interest rate or even negative interest rate
    debt during the Great Depression.With deflation running at 10%,your real yield on zero % paper would be 10%.
    Deflation destroys wealth and capital.
    Frank

  • Welcome back, Guy. 🙂 Thank you for sharing the results of your research with us. So many powerful civilizations have come to ruin due to the arrogance of man. “Let he who stands take heed lest he fall.”
    Hope you get your internet issues at the mud hut fixed soon!

  • a great piece, enjoyed reading that

  • Hello all,
    First time poster and current student of Guy here. I felt the need to post since I don’t feel that Guy gave a complete picture of the sense of community in Italy.
    As a (reformed?) red-blooded American intimate with all of the aspects of Western culture usually discussed in this blog, i.e. lack of community, unfulfilling corporate work, blatant wasting of resources, addiction, etc., I usually agree with most of the material on this blog. However, I don’t feel that an admittedly touristy visit to another country can give true insight into local culture, even if it includes a few brief discussions with locals.
    Six years ago, I married an Italian citizen, and the subsequent life experience with both my wife and her family has been indescribably amazing. I am fortunate enough to have spent some time in Italy on several different visits.
    Here are my direct (and indirect) observations of community and family there:
    The concept of family still exists quite strongly there, where children aren’t booted (or choose to leave) at 18 and will still drop what they are doing to help their parents/grandparents (I have learned over the years how truly different the concept of family that I developed is from that of my wife). Cuisine is still highly localized, and there is rarely a night that goes by (at least not in my experience) where neighbors aren’t stopping by to chat for hours after dinner (I actually thought it annoying when I first experienced it, goes to show my culture), and alcohol is consumed in moderation with food. All of these aspects of community are deteriorating with the younger generation as Western “culture” (especially alcoholism) invades. Admittedly, the last statement is an indirect observation and possibly hearsay. However, I do think that when the industrial age comes to an end, the city folk over there will have an easier time of it than American city folk given their roots in community.

  • Todd, thanks for the first-time comment, which is well-informed and informative. There is a moral here, for those of us who base our writings on a “snapshot” in time. Neoclassical economists, take heed.