Plant trees, disband the army, work together: the Tuscan way of surviving collapse

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Plant trees, disband the army, work together: the Tuscan way of surviving collapse by Ugo Bardi.

Rob writes: Ugo Bardi is a Professor at the Dipartimento di Chimica at Università di Firenze in Italy, and is also President of ASPO Italy, who so ably hosted ASPO5 in Pisa earlier this year. In this article, Ugo delves back into the history of his region of Italy, Tuscany, and identifies strategies and lessons of relevance to societies in their attempts to respond to peak oil. Having lived in Tuscany myself for a couple of years, it is a part of the world I am very fond of, so here is an article which mixes post-peak solutions and Tuscan history, and offers some very useful points in so doing:

The fall of empires is a subject that has fascinated us from the time of Gibbon’s 18th century classic “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” More recently, in “The Collapse of Complex Societies” (1988) Joseph Tainter reports the case of 18 societies in history that declined and disappeared. Of these, the Roman Empire is still the one we know best and that fascinates us the most. Its fall was a major discontinuity in history; it was not just a reduction in population, nor just the disappearance of a political system. It was the loss of most of what we call “civilization”: government, laws, justice, art; everything. The science and the literature accumulated over nearly a millennium would have been completely lost had not been saved, in part, in the Irish monasteries and the Islamized East. It was the kind of collapse we fear for our own civilization.

But not all societies collapse so completely. There are cases in which a society manages to contain decline and to keep its structure, its traditions, and its way of life. One may be the decline of Tuscany after the great expansion of the Renaissance, a case that had many points in common with the fall of the Roman Empire, but which was not so abrupt and devastating. Centuries of history are a complex story to summarize in a few pages but, as a Tuscan, I think I can at least sketch the main elements of what happened in Tuscany after the start of the decline, around the end of the 16th century. From this story, perhaps we can learn something useful for us today.

Historians don’t agree on what are the causes that make societies decline; Tainter cites 11 different explanations in his book. However, we are starting to understand that the main cause of decline is the lack of resources which are, almost always, provided by agriculture. We can still see how agricultural decline brought down the Roman Empire when we look at the city of Antium on the Tyrrenian Sea. Today, Antium is an inland city but, in imperial times, it had been the gateway of Roman commerce; the riches of the Empire went through its harbor. The disappearance of Antium’s harbor tells us the story of an agricultural disaster.

We know that the Roman Empire reached its maximum expansion in the 2nd centurty A.D.; afterwards, without the riches that came from plundering its neighbors, it started declining. The only answer that the Romans could give to stop the fall was military; war was what they knew best, what they had built their empire on. They strenghtened their legions, they built new fortifications, they developed new and better weapons. In this way, they managed to keep the Empire together for a while. That, however, put a terrible strain on their agriculture. The land was overexploited; erosion progressively destroyed the fertile soil and transformed it into the silt that flowed with the Tiberis River and buried Antium’s harbor. Other silted port cities show that the problem was widespread all over the Empire. Eventually, erosion became so serious that agriculture collapsed and the Empire disappeared, destroyed by famines and depopulation.

Tuscany had been part of the Roman Empire and it had collapsed with it. But, in the period that followed, the Tuscan land was left in peace for centuries and could recover its fertile soil. In the Middle Ages, Tuscany could again produce enough food to sustain a growing population. The great economic expansion of Tuscany of the Renaissance came from industry and commerce, but it couldn’t have been possible without a healthy agriculture. But nothing can keep growing forever. With the 16th century, Tuscany started showing all the symptoms of agricultural overexploitation. Today, if you look at the city of Pisa on the Tuscan coast, you’ll see that it is an inland city. But, once, Pisa had been one the seafaring republics of the Middle Ages. In the 15th century, Pisa’s harbor is reported to have been already silting from sediments carried by the Arno River. In the 17th century, silting became so serious that the harbor had to be abandoned. The destiny of Pisa was the same as that of Antium centuries before. Overexploitation of the land had led to the loss of agricultural soil, carried to the sea by rivers. The sediments that destroyed the harbor of Pisa were once the rich soil that had supported the Tuscan population.

One of the reasons for the erosion of the Tuscan land was overpopulation, another was the the development of firearms. Firearms are made in steel and to make steel charcoal is needed. Charcoal comes from trees and when trees disappear, erosion appears. More wars meant that more trees had to be cut and that meant losing more fertile soil. The Tuscan agriculture was following the same path of decline of the Roman agriculture of several centuries before. With the decline of agriculture, the Tuscan economic system started imploding; commerce and industry could not survive without food.

The Tuscan cities declined also in terms of military strength. As it had happened to the Romans long before, Tuscany was invaded by more powerful neighbors. The free cities of Tuscany fell one by one. The republic of Florence fell to the Spanish Imperial Armies in 1530. The republic of Siena fell to the combined armies of Spain and of the Florentine Medici in 1555. Tuscany became a province of the Spanish Empire, independent only in name. In 1571, Tuscany still had enough resources to send galleys to fight alongside the Spanish ones at the battle of Lepanto, against the Turks. They brought back home some glory but nothing else. At the end of the 16th century, the proud citizens of Florence, the city that had been called the “New Athens,” started going hungry. According to a chronicler, in 1590 Florentines were reduced to eat a kind of bread that “in older times would have been given to dogs, and perhaps dogs would have refused it.” The whole 17th century was a disaster for Tuscany; the chronicles report famines, epidemics, locusts and all sorts of calamities. Tuscany had become one of the poorest regions of Europe; the situation was so bad that, in the last years of the century, the government was forced to forbid the export of all kinds of food as a last resort for fighting famines.

But Tuscany didn’t make the mistake that the Romans did, that of seeking for military solutions for their troubles. The Grand Dukes of Tuscany preferred instead to concentrate their resources on agriculture. They had new land reclaimed, they experimented with new techniques, and they continued the ancient medieval tradition of caring for the trees. In this, they were perhaps following Saint Giovanni Gualberto (995-1073), the Tuscan saint who spent most of his life planting trees. The first Duke who really made these policies the focus of his activity was Ferdinando 1st, who took over in 1587 and reigned until his death in 1609.

A modern image of St. Giovanni Gualberto, (995-1073) the Tuscan saint who spent his life planting trees.

Ferdinando favored agriculture and spoke of Tuscans as “worker bees” (“api operose”) meaning that they had to work hard all together. His motto was “Maiestate Tantum”, meaning that his reign was based on “dignity only” and not on miltary force. Some warlike spirit remained in Tuscany during Ferdinando’s reign and the Tuscan fleet managed to defeat the Turks in some minor battles. But the Dukes who followed progressively reduced military expenses. The navy was disbanded in 1646 and the army was reduced and strength until it was formally disbanded in 1781. Tuscany simply couldn’t afford war. Her borders had to be opened to invaders; it caused less harm than fighting them. It may not have been a glorious strategy but it worked. After the fall of Siena, in 1555, Tuscany didn’t see her cities besieged and bombarded until 1944.

The “Working Bees”, (“Api Operose”) symbol of Ferdinando 1st (1549-1609) Grand Duke of Tuscany, 1587-1609). Image on the monument in Piazza SS. Annunziata, Firenze.

Not everything was perfect all the time and the rules that protected trees were relaxed more than once. It is reported that, in 1780, a group of woodcutters fell on their knees in front of Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo, pleading hunger; this resulted in a decree liberalizing tree cutting. Later on, when Tuscany was already part of Italy, a new wave of deforestation started. But every time the mountains were reforested and agriculture remained a focus of the policy of the government. Pietro Leopoldo 1st was especially active in this field and, in 1753, he created the “Georgofili” academy with the specific task of promoting agriculture. The academy still exists today and its motto is “For the sake of public prosperity”.

The symbol of the Georgofili Academy esablished in Firenze in 1753. The writing says “In favor of public prosperity” (“Prosperitati Publicae Augendae”)

It took time, but eventually caring for agriculture had its effects. From the 18th century onward, agriculture managed a comeback. Famines didn’t disappeare but could be contained while commerce and industry restarted with a new network of riverways and roads. With the 19th century, Tuscany was back to a modest level of prosperity and the last recorded famine in Tuscany was in 1898. Even during the worst period, the old spirit of freedom and intellectual independence of the Renaissance had survived in Tuscany. In the early 17th century Ferdinando the 1st had created a safe haven in Leghorn for the Jews fleeing from Spain; Tuscany kept her universities and academies and, in 1786 Tuscany was the first European state to officially abolish torture and the death penalty.

Today, Tuscany is still one of the most forested regions of Italy, but times have changed. The present Tuscan administrators seem to be convinced that it is a good idea to pave the land with houses, highways, parking lots, and shopping centers, all in the name of “development”. Because of this building frenzy, some of the once fertile areas of Tuscany are starting to look like suburbs of Los Angeles. With a population four times larger than it was at the time of the Renaissance and with the oil crisis looming in the near future, Tuscany is facing difficult times. But we have a tradition of caring for the land that has helped us in the past. It will help us also in the uncertain future.

Can Tuscany be sees as a model of “soft collapse” for other regions of the world? Perhaps; at least it gives us a recipe that worked. We may summarize it as three rules from the history of Tuscany of the time of the Grand Dukes:

Plant trees
Disband the army
Work together

It doesn’t seem that the world is exactly following these rules, right now. But we may have to learn.

2 Responses to “ “Plant trees, disband the army, work together: the Tuscan way of surviving collapse” by Ugo Bardi. ”

Ugo Bardi says:
December 12th, 2006 at 11:45 am
Rob, I didn’t know that you had lived in Tuscany. Does your experience fit with the way I described the situation? Did you notice the “Los Angeles” style of the new developments?


Rob says:
December 12th, 2006 at 3:09 pm
Where I was living was very rural, a small village in the hills, and it was before Toscana became very desirable, at that point (1990) it was still a few hippy folks from the city buying up ruined farmhouses. Beautiful place, I loved it very much. I haven’t been back for many years apart from a quick dash to the ASPO conference and back. I lived in a small village called Pomaia, nr. Santa Luce, just inland from Cecina. I still dream about it often.

Lindianne says:
December 12th, 2006 at 5:10 pm
Ugo, Thanks for this excellent article. Tuscany’s experience is very relevant to what Tucson, Arizona and the Sonoran bioregion (once a fertile agricultural region) are going through right now as we gear up for sustainability, lest we face collapse. Your article will be posted on our website.

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