James Fallows lives in DC and has thus been ground zero for two substantial power outages in the last year. First, for Hurricane Irene, and then for last week’s derecho. He wonders why the power grid is so fragile:
How can it be that in the imperial-capital city of the richest nation the world has ever seen, people are told that it will probably be a full week* before electric power is restored?
Fallows connects it to America’s imperial decline. If we can’t keep the lights on in DC, how can we be a great power?
While the argument seems compelling, the historical record shows almost exactly the opposite. Imperial cities at the height of their power regularly have disastrous infrastructures, brittle and messy. Rome is justly famed for its sewer system, but never had any useful garbage collection, with the result that even during the widest expanse of Empire, people would simply open their windows and toss out their garbage, leading Juvenal to note that going out in public meant taking one’s life in one’s hands:
Cracked or broken pots fall out of windows…[and] dent the pavement. Anyone who goes out to dinner without making a will is a fool.
The result was a Rome in which large parts were piled high with stinking piles of refuse. Ever a practical people, when the garbage got high enough, the Romans would simply build a new street on top of it. A Roman James Fallows might have wondered how “in the imperial-capital city of the richest nation the world has ever seen,” the garbage couldn’t even be taken away?
London in the 19th century–the height of the British empire–was similarly awful. An observer, Arthur Beavan, standing on Wandsworth Bridge described seeing “nothing but groups of hideous mills and factories flanked right and left by chimneys vomiting clouds of smoke.” London air was justly famous for its homicidal properties, never worse than during a London fog. The fog of 1873 was reputed to have killed 273 people (Jack the Ripper was an amateur by comparison).
Perhaps that is not quite infrastructure, but electric lighting is, and the electric lights on the Embankment, Beavan noted, had just been repaired when he was writing (circa 1901). They had been out since 1884, a power outage that puts anything in DC to shame.
Nor was London’s sewer and water system any better. The city had grown so quickly in the early 19th century that it outran its sewer system. The result was that much of London sewage was dumped into the river Thames, which also supplied a fair amount of the city’s drinking water. The combination inevitably led to serious and regular outbreaks of cholera, notably in 1854 in Soho.
The constant factor in all these is a growing population and thus an increase in demand on infrastructure. The populations of both Rome and London exploded as the respective empires grew, and the social services were unable to keep up. So, too, Washington: the population of the District itself is growing rapidly, and the metropolitan regions (DC plus VA and MD suburbs) as well. The result is that energy consumption has grown rapidly (the best figures I could find suggested that DC energy use grew by 20% in just the five years from 2000-2005 [WARNING: PDF!]). The blackouts, it seems to me, are the result not of the decline of a system from previous capacities, but the breakdown of a system being overstressed by higher and higher demand. That is, actually, exactly what happens in the “imperial-capital city of the richest nation the world has ever seen.” In fact, I’d suggest that one of the markers of growing imperial power is exactly this kind of breakdown.
And I say that having just lost a car to the storm.
Lionel Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, Rev. and expanded ed. ed. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 40.
 Arthur H. Beavan and Hanslip Fletcher, Imperial London (London New York: J.M. Dent & co. E.P. Dutton & coy., 1901), 325.
 Ibid, 328.