Summary: Like Rome’s ancient grandeur, today’s economy is supported by human ingenuity. Rome’s technological marvels such as the aqueducts were threatened by barbarians who sought destruction and ultimately achieved it. Modern sources of flourishing are likewise under fire. Today, the “degrowth” movement advocates for radical reductions in energy use. But like the Ostrogoths destroying aqueducts, this new form of regression underestimates human ingenuity as our source of prosperity.

In ancient times, the city of Rome was home to a million people—an achievement not to be repeated in Europe until the 19th century. The city flourished because of extensive Mediterranean trade networks, rule of law, and security provided by the far-flung legions. But Roman life would have been impossible without its aqueducts. These magnificent symbols of human ingenuity and progress brought water to the city, nourishing its population and lubricating its economy.

Rome began its long slide from preeminence in the 3rd century. By the 6th century, Rome was a shadow of its former self. It was then that the invading Ostrogoths sped up the process of decline by cutting Rome’s aqueducts and eventually capturing the city. Fast-forward to today and consider the “degrowth” movement, which advocates for slashing energy use in modern economies.

Degrowthers argue that to avert environmental catastrophe, we must drastically reduce our consumption of energy, particularly fossil fuels. They envision a future where economies shrink, energy use plummets, and humans adopt simpler, less resource-intensive lifestyles. While their intentions sound reasonable, their proposals are as destructive to our society’s prospects as the Ostrogoths’ actions were to ancient Rome.

The aqueducts of Rome were engineering marvels, bringing fresh water from distant sources to the heart of the empire. They enabled the city to thrive, supporting public baths, fountains, and private households. When the Ostrogoths cut these aqueducts, they didn’t just disrupt the water supply; they struck at the core of Roman life. In a similar vein, energy is the lifeblood of modern economies. It powers our hospitals, schools, factories, and homes. Cutting off this supply, as degrowthers propose, would not only slow our economies but would also unravel the fabric of our society.

Consider the immense benefits that energy has brought us. Over the past century, access to abundant and affordable energy has lifted billions out of poverty, extended life expectancies, and driven unprecedented technological progress. Our reliance on energy has enabled us to build skyscrapers, develop lifesaving medical technologies, and connect the world through the internet. To cut energy use drastically would be to turn our backs on these advancements and the potential for future progress.

The degrowth movement fails to appreciate that human ingenuity and technological innovation can solve the very problems they aim to address. Just as the Romans used their engineering prowess to build aqueducts, we can develop new technologies to create cleaner energy sources. Our use of solar and wind power is growing by leaps and bounds. Nuclear power is undergoing a renaissance, while geothermal and fusion energy hold much promise for the future. We’ll likely be able to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels without necessitating a return to pre-industrial lifestyles.

Put differently, degrowthers overlook the dynamic nature of human progress. Throughout history, humanity has faced and overcome numerous challenges. The Industrial Revolution, for example, caused significant environmental damage, but it also set the stage for the technological advancements that would eventually lead to a cleaner environment and greener energy sources. By embracing innovation rather than retreating from progress, we can continue to improve our quality of life while addressing environmental concerns.

It is also crucial to consider the global impact of degrowth policies. Developing nations, which are still striving to reach the levels of prosperity enjoyed in the West, rely heavily on energy to fuel their growth. Imposing stringent energy restrictions would stifle their development, thereby exacerbating global inequalities. Instead, we should focus on ensuring that these countries have access to affordable energy, enabling them to grow and share in the benefits of progress.

Degrowthers’ vision of a future with less energy consumption is a step backward, akin to the barbarians who, lacking understanding or appreciation for Roman civilization, sought only to destroy. Just as Rome’s aqueducts were symbols of human achievement, our energy infrastructure represents the potential for a brighter future. Let’s not let the modern-day barbarians cut it off.