E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


When in Rome, learn from the Romans

By Charles Francis
The Prairie Writers Circle

(Friday, Jan. 24, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Indianapolis is a capital where history abounds in monuments among the glass and steel structures of a modern economy. On a recent visit, I saw symbols of where our society has been. I also saw where it is bound if we do not change how we live and connect with our food.

Jogging one evening, I discovered the Scottish Rite temple, Masonic Hall and a three-block march of war memorials -- fitting tribute to the values of the Founders and those who died for this country. The elegant capitol connected to functional state office buildings. Near the gleaming downtown was Canal Walk, an upscale neighborhood that replaced slums. Traditional values seemed to shine in the food-producing heartland.

Next day I retraced the route in predawn darkness, and took entirely different impressions. I was transported to Rome. The Scottish Rite and Masonic temples became symbols of the institutional church, whose conquests replaced indigenous faiths. The state office buildings were cold, square reflections of Mussolini’s drab concrete power icons that commemorated the rise of nation-states.

Tucked among the steel and glass monuments to today’s market and world-straddling corporations were garages for the chariots of people who worked in nearby offices or stayed in costly hotels where most employees -- read slaves, with the widening gap between rich and poor -- could never afford to sleep or eat.

The memorials commemorated the nation-state era’s many armed conflicts. Close by was a modern Coliseum where Lions are set upon Colts. Nowhere was there a monument to peace, nor to people producing food or protecting natural resources.

Roman civilization, with highly centralized control, used up the topsoil on which it was begun. It extended its supply lines until unable to sustain the infrastructure. Then it lost control and collapsed.

Nation-states’ power has grown and ebbed, though flags remain at the borders of societies transformed from agrarian to urban. Now, using infrastructure built by governments, multinational corporations transcend geography. Allied only with stockholders, they draw raw materials from around the globe and send its wealth to rich countries. Most people do not equitably benefit, though they often labor to keep the machine going. Meanwhile, though some people are better fed, they are isolated from natural areas and sources of their food.

Military power assures long and open supply lines for nation-states and corporations to pursue their agendas. The United States has a military policy for rogue states and terrorism. But it has no consistent policy to protect natural resources, nor to assure a food supply.

Like ancient Rome, our society has not come to grips with long-term challenges. We need an ecological strategy, looking to nature for guidance in designing an economy and food system. Can we morally continue to generate five times more carbon dioxide than vegetation can recapture? Can we sustain a society with growing inequities in wealth and access to food and other basic necessities?

The city-state, the nation-state and the multinationals have all operated as exploiters, as miners, accumulating resources with little regard to stewardship. It is time to re-evaluate national and personal priorities, to recognize dependence on the complex natural world, and to preserve soils and other resources.

A city should be linked closely to the land, with nearby farms meeting most food needs. Monuments should celebrate peace and our connections with the soil and natural ecosystems. Governments should serve democracies, not companies. Private corporations and cooperatives should be local rather than international. Society ultimately should be decentralized and reorganized into viable and sustainable communities.

We owe this to future generations, starting with the Iroquois philosophy of considering the effects of our decisions for seven generations. We should not do as the Romans did.

About the author: Charles Francis is professor of agronomy and horticulture at the University of Nebraska, and a member of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of the Land Institute, a natural systems agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan. It is devoted to developing an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that of annual crops.

This essay is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Land Institute. The institute reserves the right to reprint Prairie Writers Circle work in its own publications and website.