Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Rome, Tunisia and sustainability

Having had a bit more of a night out than intended yesterday, I'm slowly seeing my final day in Rome. Woke up thinking not of my next destination, Croatia, but distilling all the nerdy Roman history I've been filling up on in the last fortnight. How does it fit together?
What does it tell us about how we live now and why do I take such an interest in something that happened 2000 odd years ago?
Having gone to the Colosseum on Monday, I went to the Forum yesterday - see pic. For 500 years this small area was the centre of the Western World. Caesar moved here when emperor; it was the Westminster of its day, where all the political discussions occurred and decisions were made; where Caesar himself was cremated and Mark Anthony read out his will. An empire whose legacy has left us with a huge influence on language, architecture, political and legal systems, culture and more. What did the Romans ever do for us? ;-)

I'm supposed to be trying to write a piece or two on Sustainability and slow travel for whilst I'm on this trip and I was thinking about how I could tie together lessons from then with now. As we know, the Romans were known for plundering what they could as well as providing the countries they invaded with straight roads, central heating and baths etc. After all, having an empire doesn't pay for itself...

Then I logged on to see the news, and the headline in the Guardian today reveals that the WWF (environment folk not the Wrestling fraternity) are warning that the UK has become the 6th largest importer of water in the World, a total derived not only of what we consume and use daily at home but also includes 'virtual water' used in the production of imported food, textiles and the like. Apparently this figure totals something like 4500 litres a day per person.

And this is where it got me thinking about the legacy of the Romans. According to the report, Spain, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, Israel, Pakistan and Uzbekistan face acute water stress and yet supply the UK with substantial exports of their water through producting stuff for us. We've been aware of food miles for a number of years, but maybe this report demonstrates the scale with which it is impacting the countries we rely on most and their natural water levels.

We think about environmental damage such as this as perhaps recent phenomenon, but I saw in Tunisia the effects of excess want from Europe 2000 years ago causing just the same pressure that the WWF report identifies now. After defeating Hannibal and the Carthiginians in 146 BC, the Romans built up huge wheat growing plains in the North of the country. By the 1st Century Tunisia was supplying 60% of the Empires grain requirements. Huge tracts of forest were felled to provide land. From the cleared jungle and surround, the countrys elephants, lions, tigers, cheetahs etc were whisked away, to the Roman centres such as El-Jem in the South and the Colosseum in Rome to sate the populations appetite for the sport of the day.
After the Colosseum was completed in 80 AD, the Emperor Titus ordered 100 days of continual games. An estimated 9000 beasts were massacred and of course over the next 500 years various breeds of animal were rendered extinct.

Thing was though, that after the beasts and jungle had gone, the Empire only managed to get a couple of hundred years worth of grain production from the soil before it became desert. When I was travelling in these areas the Earth was scorched. The only thing I saw growing were Olive trees pretty much. What was really noticeable when I got into Rome, ironically enough, the deep dark soil looks so much more fertile. What was growing everywhere I looked? Wheat of course!

So where does that leave us? Leaving aside Gladiator fun and games, it shows how short sighted dependence without a sustainable plan in place leaves a once rich resource redundant. With some scientists warning of freshwater dependency as 'the new oil', seemingly we'll have to act swiftly, as individuals and consumers to ensure we don't make the same mistakes the Romans did.

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