Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The decline of the wage system

My girlfriend is setting up her own business. It is something she had always wanted to do, but her being laid off in the wake of the current economic downturn – as we have come to call what might very well the new economic normality – kickerd her into action. She is hardly the only one in this situation. All over the country there is a flurry of new business creations. In normal times, this would bode well for a country which has indeed coined the word "entrepreneur" but had forgotten it quite a long time ago. We are not in normal times however, and this unprecedented wave of entrepreneurship tells in fact of an deep economic insecurity which can only increase with the coming energy descent. It also announces the end of an economic arrangement which had shaped the western social landscape for nearly a century : the wage system.

Wage labor has become so common, so "normal" in today's society, that we have forgotten how marginal – and despised -it was before the Industrial Revolution. In agrarian societies wages were what farmhands, servants and journeymen got – and for the last category it was considered temporary. All respectable working people were self employed, either owning or renting a land or running a small – or even not so small – businesses. Living on wages was something you did when you had no other choice, and, socially speaking, that put you a mere step above a beggar or a slave. It is particularly revealing that in Latin, the word for wages has the same root as the word for prostitute.

There were, of course exceptions, but they were not seen as such. Journeymen lived on wages but, at least theoretically, it was, for them only a temporary step on the way to mastership and self-sufficiency. Civil servants and officers – privates were seen, not without reason, as the scum of the society – also received a salary, but considered themselves as servants of the king in a relationship reminiscent of the old vassalage system. In many countries they bought their offices, which emphasized the fact they could live without it, should the need arise.

It was not before the spread of the factory model during the XIXth century that the wage system ceased being marginal, and this evolution was bitterly opposed by large sections of the societies. As the late Christopher Lasch pointed out in The True and Only Heaven, one of the early labor movement's goals was to stop and reverse the move toward "wage slavery". Karl Marx is often quoted in that matter, but his archenemy, the anarchist Proudhon held similar view, even if he favored a social organization based upon small property and cooperatives. Both in Europe and America, the abolition of the wage system was a major theme in early socialism.

As the artisan model became restricted to a few professionals and farmers became a tiny minority, this theme lost its strength, however. Union's focus shifted to getting higher wages, better career prospects and working conditions. With the sweeping reforms enacted by European governments after WWII, the status of wage laborer became more and more comfortable, since, along with a relatively high income, it offered some security and the ability to plan long term. It had indeed become costly of a company to fire somebody without a very good reasons – the unions were ever watchful – and in France at least lays off were subject to a prior authorization from the state.

The result was that wage labor became synonymous with job security and the ability to own a house and decently feed one's family.

This system began to unravel after the first oil shock, as companies looked for workarounds, so they could dispose of unneeded workers. Of course they found them – ironically while in France a so-called socialist held the presidency. They began to resort to fixed term contracts and interim workers. Large firms, such as my home town's shipyard shifted their manpower to contract manufacturers, retaining only core employees. Ironically , but not without reasons, this move out of "wage slavery" was, and is, as bitterly resisted by unions and left wing parties as the spread of the wage system had been in the XIXth century.

The ongoing collapse of the world economy has triggered a new step in this process. Many small businesses have gone under and most large companies are struggling. My home town's shipyard, for a contractor of which my girlfriend worked, is starved for work and is down to laying off a significant part of its core employees. The result was that a lot of people found themselves jobless – less than in America since a large part of the French manpower works for the State or one of its subsidiaries and is essentially unfirable, but quite a lot nevertheless.

Those people – the majority of whom with very specialized skills – turned to business creation out of desperation, because they felt they had no other way to make a living. Many will fail, of course, and slip into permanent poverty – independent workers have no unemployment insurance in France. Other will eke out a living with a few underpaid contracts – something the government has made easier by creating a special "self-entrepreneur" status for small businessmen , which basically means they can dispense with any decent accounting provided they pay a 21% tax and have revenues smaller than 32.000€ a year. A few will thrive – I expect my girlfriend to be among them, of course – but what will matter is that the wage system will have been dealt another blow.

As we advance further in the energy crisis and economic expansion becomes a thing of the past, we can expect wage labor to become increasingly restricted to a small core elite. Even the administration, the stronghold of job security is no longer safe. Whole branches have been quietly sold out and while today's civil servant are sure to keep their job for life, barring some dramatic political upheaval, they will eventually retire, and they will be increasingly replaced by temporary workers or independent contractors.

Eventually, the bulk of the population will be self-employed, which, for most people will mean surviving hand-to-mouth by contracting either with whatever business remains or with local authorities ... until, at some point, some crisis sweep both away, and with them the last remnants of the wage system.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Progressivism without progress

It's pre-election time in France. Next year, we will renew regional councils – the rough equivalent of State assemblies albeit with far less power – and, of course, all political parties are busy negotiating and jockeying for places and positions. A lot of people's jobs are at stake, and not only the councilors – they have assistants and advisers, remember, and a significant part of any party's resources come from its elected officials' wages. No matter what papers and politicians say, strategic considerations play more part in deciding who will ally whom than ideology. Yet, the old left-right divide stays surprisingly effective. It is particularly telling that we dismissed out of hand an alliance proposal from another home rule party because it was on the other side of this age-old fence, a decision I supported. This may sound absurd, as the policies right and left parties disagree upon are pathetically irrelevant to the predicament of industrial society. It reveals, however, older, deeper divisions, and asks a question all peak-oil activists should reflect upon : how can one be a progressive, without progress.

The modern concept of left and right emerged out of the French Revolution. Even their very names come from it. The first “leftists” were those who, refusing to grant Louis XVI the power to veto legislation, sat on the left at the first French constitutional assembly. The matter became quickly irrelevant as the head of state lost his own but the name stuck and the world “left” became associated with the followers of the various ideologies born from the enlightenment ideas while their opponent – a rather diverse bunch, by the way – coalesced under the “right wing” banner.

History of ideas is a very complex thing but on the long run, and despite temporary setbacks, the left won, which led to surprising results. As the partisans of the old absolutist or feudal order became more and more marginalized, conservative came to embrace the ideology of progress, reluctantly at first, then more and more heartily as the old aristocracy faded out of power. The left, on the other hand won more and more things to conserve.

The end result is that in modern European democracies, it is the right, which pushes for reforms, while the left opposes them without proposing much, except radical changes aimed a building paradise on Earth, which amounts very much to the same. Both have the same goal : building a future shinier than the present. Even the Greens do it, tellingthat by building windmills and solar panel all over the country they will enable us to perpetuate the upper middle class lifestyle most of their leaders follow.

Of course, this goal is utterly at odd with the reality of the coming energy peak. What we face is a long decline toward a more sustainable, but also far poorer, future and no amount of progress worshiping is going to save us from it. What we need is to focus upon the institutions which will enable us to survive the coming decline and save what can still be saved : local communities, neighborhoods and families. That most policies associated with the left, and indeed its very main goal, are obsolete, does not mean, however, that the core value underlying them are.

A number of thinkers on the fringes of the radical right have remained, or become again quite skeptical of progress. Americans will think of the Southern Agrarians or of modern paleoconservatives. Being an European, I will rather speak of the so-called New Right and of its leader : Alain de Benoist. While the New Right was born from an attempt of the far right to break with the string of defeats it experienced since the fall of the Petain regime de Benoist himself can hardly be called a fascist or even a traditionalist. He claims not to be a racist, and I have no reason not to believe him – a politician can lie about his opinions for electoral gain, not an intellectual whose only aim is to found a philosophical school. What de Benoist advocates is a world of local communities based upon non-mercantile values and with a renewed relationship with nature. Each one of those would have an inalienable right to its own culture and local, concrete, liberties inside the general framework of a loose European federation. He has recently written a book to support the idea of degrowth, which shows he understands, somewhat, the predicament of industrial society, even if his support for large-scale geopolitical constructs proves that he does not yet understands all its consequences.

The question is, of course, why do I fee so ill at ease reading him ?

I am hardly the only one in this situation. Supporters of degrowth were horrified by de Benoist's endorsement of their ideas, but for bad reasons. One can hardly blame de Benoist when he refuses to follow the degrowthers when they claim that by implementing their pet political project, they will get the perfect, classless, society two centuries of leftist revolutions consistently refused to give them. The fact is that degrowth is very bit as infused with progress mythology as the growth ideology of the old, traditional, left. They just differ on what is should be measured by.

The problem is elsewhere.

The ideology of de Benoist and his ilk may not be racist – at least in its pure form, most of its supporters are – it is definitely anti-egalitarian. We tend to assume that anti-egalitarianism is necessarily racist, because it is how it manifested itself during the last century. It is a mistake, however. You can base your anti- egalitarianism on virtually anything and de Benoist bases his own upon the idea of an intellectual elite, whose supposedly innate superiority would have its root in genetics. This means, of course, that he refuses democracy, since democracy is based upon the idea that every man is, at least in theory, able to formulate an informed opinion about the way public affairs are run.

It is also a celebration of closed society. Every society, must have some kind of closure, lest it dissolves away and it is likely that post-peak societies will be more closed than our own. There won't be any large state apparatus to hold them together, so they will have to rely upon organically enforced shared values for cohesion. There is however a difference between accepting this as a lesser evil and turning every culture into a kind of ethnic island where any departure from tradition would be ruthlessly punished.

De Benoist's utopia, is in fact Sparta reborn, with its insular economy and culture, its heroic, freedom-loving, armed citizenry... and its helots.

Most peak-oil activists, even those who consider themselves conservative, would find De Benoist's project abhorrent, and that is where lies the possibility of progressivism without progress. In a world of scarce resources, it is no longer possible to dream of the shining futures of the last century. It would even probably be dangerous to do so. This does not mean, however, that must renounce the ideal of a common human dignity beyond and above cultural, religious and political boundaries. By this, I do not mean the false universalism and real ethnocentrism the West imposed upon the world, and which is still popular down here, just this very simple idea : every man should be respected as such, no matter his condition.

This is this idea which lies under the failed utopias of the left and no matter how bad the coming decline turns to be, it is still worth defending

Sunday, August 30, 2009

There won't be any separate peace

Last week the Oil Drum featured an article about the very wealthy making preparations for whatever catastrophe the post-peak future has in stock. Many commentators have pointed out that mercenaries understand very quickly there is more money to be done by cutting their rich but helpless employers' throat than by defending them. The very fact than some people – including a few billionaires, apparently – believe a doomsday gated community is a viable response to peak energy tells more about the preconceptions and fantasies which stand in the way of a successful adaptation to the changes peak oil heralds than about the realities of the future societies.

Mercenaries' dubious loyalty is, of course, the first obstacle to the building of reasonably enduring billionaires' lifeboats. Basing one's security on hired sword is one of history's most popular losing bet, even if on the short run it is not necessarily a stupid one. All rulers in history have faced the same conundrum : if you can't enforce your decisions, your power is basically worth nothing, on the other hand, if you give your enforcer too much power, he may well replace you. That's why rulers who didn't trust their own people, relied recruited their soldiers and advisers abroad or among despised minorities : because they won't have the connections to stage a coup.

Of course, on the long run it rarely works. Sooner or later, mercenaries entrench themselves within society, become a part of it and put themselves in position of kingmakers... at the very least. That's why I write this in English and not in some variant of Breton, because the Germanic mercenaries Vortigern and his peers hired to defend themselves from their rivals (and probably their own population) integrated within the sub-roman power structure before subverting it to their advantage.

More than a bad understanding of history, however, the billionaires' dream of buying themselves a “separate peace” in some high-walled private fortress shows a bad understanding of how society works.

A billionaire's enclave, whether it be in some forlorn island or in some rural backwater, is nothing more than a survivalist's cabin writ large. There probably will be more ammunition and of an heavier kind. There will also be more supplies, and a lot more people to use them up. Needless to say, the residents' lifestyle will be far less spartan. It is based upon the same isolationist fallacy, however.

And it is every bit as (un)likely to work.

Rich people do not draw their wealth from some innate genius, but from their ability to divert a part of society's energy flow into their own pocket, so they can enjoy a disproportionate amount of its surplus. It can be done in various ways, that's why there are in modern, complex, societies many competing elites. To do this successfully, however, you need a working society. If energy flows go down, so will you ability to divert some part of it. If society as a whole collapses, so will your power.

Of course, elites can, and do, pressure a declining society and keep their affluent lifestyle by impoverishing everybody else. One can even say that is what they are doing albeit unconsciously, today. It is just another case of depriving the periphery of resource to keep the center going. The burned down temples of Teotihuacan show it never works on the long run.

Now building a billionaires' enclave amount to stockpile a part of today's surplus so one can survive bad times without surrendering one's lifestyle could seem a good strategy to some people. The problem is that this is the product of a very complex society and is dependent upon a intricate worldwide economy. Cut of from it, an high-tech enclave will not only have to be self sufficient in energy and food, but also in raw materials, spare parts and expertise. Even a medium-sized country such as France or Britain couldn't, let alone a private island.

Our billionaires – or their security guards – may be quite successful, at first, and escape the worst of the decline, but only so long. Eventually they will run out of ammunition and spare parts. Their machines will break down and their skilled servants will die. They will then find out that backwater areas are backwater for a reason and that tropical islands are rarely resource rich. They will then devolve into a pirate nest or into another provincial community with delusions of grandeur.

When the descendants of those who will have accepted the decline and adapted to it will finally find them, they will be very unlikely to be impressed.

Those who, during pas collapses, managed to come out at the top, where not those who tried to isolate themselves from the troubles behind high walls, but those who rode them out and adapted to changed circumstances. Those were those who provided their fellow citizens with valuable services and guidance in difficult times, not those who hid out in the hope the storm will somehow forget them.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Alter Breton Plan

Politics is a frustrating job. Most of the time you battle windmills and spend an indecent amount of time discussing what you know to be non-issues because they happen to matter to some faction you need to stay in office. It has its rewards, however, especially for those who, as I do, specialize in spreading ideas rather than in fighting for lofty but ultimately empty positions. A few days ago, my party released an energy plan for Brittany – the Alter Breton Plan – which got some attention from the local press. The Alter Breton Plan is basically a green tech plan, to use Holmgren's terminology, but the most important thing is the way it came to fruition, for it tells a lot about the way we peak oiler can act in the world of politics.

As I said, the Alter Breton Plan is a Green Tech one. It plans to significantly reduce Brittany's energy consumption – to 9.8 millions toe a year – while converting it to a relocalized economy based upon renewable energies. It quotes the Meadows Report – which is as sulfurous down here as in America – and envisions a long descent due to both peak oil and global warming. As such it is quite different from official plans, which are all about “Green growth”... even if, as often, the journalist missed the point.

I didn't write this plan. Its author, Gwenael Henry, is far better at crunching numbers than I am, and he definitely works harder. He has also a better knowledge of history and was able to dig up an old alternative energy plan from the late seventies – just before the Plogoff nuclear plant was ditched under popular pressure.

What I brought was the idea.

A thing a discovered when entering the foggy world of politics is that political organizations – especially small ones – are hungry for new ideas. Of course, it is not true of all organizations. Marxist sects – and there are quite a lot of them around here – will gladly expel anybody who does not fit party line. Identity-based parties are generally more open and flexible – at least in western Europe. While they may favor a particular of societal organization - ours is some kind of very vaguely defined socialism – their core values are elsewhere : the defense of a particular culture and territory. It will far easier for them to reconsider their vision of the future than for, say, a hard-line marxist or libertarian, or even a mainline european green whose job depends upon the continuation of the present system... with just a little more solar panels.

Another thing I discovered was that inertia could be your ally. Most political organizations, those days have little in the way of ideology. They have values of course, but their vision of the future are very vague. Even the extremists most often repeat mantra-like speeches about how evil the “system” is and how happy the world will be after “the Revolution”. That means that anybody with an efficiently told story can push forward his ideas without much resistance. Not of course, that my fellow members of the political bureau believes in Greer's long descent or Kunstler's long emergency. I suspect a significant part of them view my predictions as the Trojans did Cassandras'. They are, however, willing to go along the somewhat mitigated version of it defended by the ecological faction because it fits the general intellectual climate... and because they feel they have no other option.

What this means for us, Peak Oiler, who are so desperate to attract the attention of the powers-that-be is that it is totally pointless to write to such or such public figure. If you are not inside the political game, you are basically a non-player and your proposal will be dismissed. The only way you can make a difference, no matter how slight, is by becoming an insider, if possible in a small party.
I don't say, of course, you should enter a regionalist party. Political opinions are intimate by nature. Any small organizations can do. What is important is entering the structure, becoming a player and spread ideas. Hopefully, someone will pick them up.

Of course the Alter Breton is very unlikely to be implemented. It would be even if we were in charge of the country. The time is too short, the inertia of the society to big. Even a beginning of implementation could help however, as would the realization by even a small part of the population that the glorious future they are still told to expect belong to the past.

And if to get that you have to spend hours debating about jail libraries or modern art festivals... it is the price you have to pay.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Peak energy and cultural fragmentation

Last week, I went to Paimpol with my girlfriend to attend the Sailor Songs Festival. An engineer by trade but from a working class background, she has no political experience to speak of, yet is more insightful than many seasoned politicians. As we were strolling along the wharves amidst a joyful crowd, she told me me “we're no longer in France”. The fact that the greater part of what makes the region so un-french is fairly recent does not make her remark less pertinent. In fact it makes it even more so as it highlights a particularly important factor in the coming energy descent : cultural differentiation

It is often believed that industrialization caused an unprecedented wave of culture death. It is true, but less so than most people think. Industrialization opened previously closed areas to western colonization , New Guinea for instance, but those people who suffered the most from European invasions were decimated by sword and musket  armies. Even in Europe, the greater part of the recently deceased minority languages were already extinct or on the verge of becoming so when industrialization started.

Cornish is a typical example of how things worked out. A Celtic language close to Breton and Welsh, Cornish became a separate language after Ceawlin defeated what was probably a successor state to the Dobunni tribe at Deorham in 571. Ceawlin was probably British in language and culture but the polity he headed – the future kingdom of Wessex – was becoming more and more Saxon. Cornwall remained independent, on a shrinking territory, for a few centuries before falling to an united England somewhere during the tenth century. The native nobility probably outlived the kingdom but was eventually dispossessed or assimilated into mainstream English Culture. As a result the Cornish tongue became more and more restricted to the peasantry and the lower clergy. Its domain slowly shrank, both socially and geographically as people shifted to higher prestige English. This process accelerated after the Reformation as an English language liturgy was substituted to the older Latin language one and by 1700 Cornish was no longer spoken but in a few villages around Penzance. The last known native speaker died in 1777.

All of this happened before industrialization, and without any disruption of traditional Cornish society. Of course, Industrialization, by destroying traditional agrarian society, destroyed the social networks which keep many minority languages alive but it could do so only because they were already dominated and spoken only by the lower classes. Had industrialization not taken place, the process of extinction would have taken longer, but the result would have been the same.

On the other hand, Industrialization, by creating the conditions for the emergence of a large middle class and by pushing the nobility out of the historical stage., triggered a renewed wave of interest for hitherto marginalized languages and cultures.  Both classes found in ethnic nationalism and revivalism a way to further their interests. It was not the same kind of ethnic nationalism, mind you. While the nobility viewed itself as the defender of the traditional society, and therefore of the traditional culture, the emerging middle class, especially when its social promotion was hindered by cultural discrimination, considered itself as the vanguard of local modernization.

It has to be said that ethnic nationalism met with varied successes. Brittany stands somewhat in the middle ground. While nationalist parties failed to establish themselves as major players, cultural revivalist have managed to build a modern Breton identity around a mixture of cultural leftovers from a disintegrating peasant society, foreign imports (the pipe bands which so much impressed my girlfriend) and modern reinterpretations.

The coming peak energy will change the situation however.

First, it will destroy, or at least severely weaken the middle class, since the society will be less and less able to create the surplus it needs to sustain itself. Second it will cause states to radically decentralize as they become less and less able to keep a complex bureaucracy. Eventually, the society will revert to a far more local and far less integrated organization.

This is likely to have complex consequences. To begin with, less established revivalist movements are likely to wither away as their social basis disappear. This will obviously be the case for such projects as Old Prussian revivalism which are basically intellectuals' hobbies, but movements with far more credentials are quite likely to go the same way. The Occitan movement comes to mind. It is particularly telling that my girlfriend, who came from an area where this language is spoken doesn't relate at all to it and associate “unfrenchness” not with her own most certainly Occitan speaking ancestors, but with the Basques. Having failed to create a strong local identity, the Occitan movement is probably doomed to become a footnote in history.

Things may go differently, however, in areas where this local identity has been established or maintained. As the nation-state become less and less adapted to a world of increasingly scarce resources, it will be replaced by more local forms of governance. These structures, whatever they may call themselves will need some kind of legitimacy, however. Americans look very fond of talking about secession despite being quite homogeneous culturally speaking. European, on the other hand, are very wary of it. A Free Vermont movement, for instance, would be unthinkable in France, and even in areas where independence could have some legitimacy, it is rarely claimed. The party I belong to, for instance, is adamantly against secession and demands only a large internal autonomy, similar to the one American states enjoy, within a federal Europe, and we are quite typical in that matter. Only extremists, or the very successful, fight for outright independence.

Yet some kind of independence is bound to come. The French state, as it exists today, simply cannot survive peak energy. At some point in the future local authority will take over even if they still pay lip service to a rump central authority. The problem is that without some kind of shared identity, those successor polities will be weak and likely to fight among themselves. This is probably what doomed, culturally speaking the lowlands sub-roman Britons : their tribal identity still living but weakened by romanization they were subverted by Germanic speaking who converted them to their language and culture.

Where some kind of ethnic identity has become mainstream – even in a non-nationalist way – as in Brittany, whoever inherits the power after the ultimate failure of the nation-state, is likely to emphasize it and to push forward the symbols and narratives developed by the revivalist movement. Contrary to the common opinion, this kind of polity is less likely to be authoritarian and warlike. As it will be able to rely upon a shared identity to mobilize its population and legitimate its rule, it won't have to use brute force. Besides, it will far less likely to engage in botched unification wars, even if , of course it will try and reconquer what it thinks to be its historical territory – which promises for interesting times around my own town.

It is that, the building of reasonably stable entity apt to take over from failing states, which is at stake in the defense of minority cultures and identity, not the defense of traditions, which, in many cases, are not so traditional. It is clear that in many places, viable local identities will have to be built anew the way they were in Dark Age Europe : around successful warlord states. It is worth fighting so that as many places as possible don't need it.

And it is as true in America as in Europe

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The demise of the middle class

It has been pointed out that collapses are hard on ruling classes. It is a fact that they are far more dependent upon the continued existence of a complex society than the average subsistence farmer and when the said complex society unravels, they tend to be brutally replaced by people more adapted to the new situation. That is why the Kingdom of Kent was ruled by Germanic warlords, not by sub-roman aristocrats. The burned down temples of Teotihuacan and the toppled statues of Easter Island show that when things go really bad, it is the patricians' heads which end up on a pike. This is why there is nothing more stupid than the conspiracy theories about some malevolent elite leading the world to its ruin. Why would anybody want to destroy the very system that feeds them. There is, however, another, less talked about, casualty of collapse : the middle class.

The large, affluent, middle class of modern western society is something of a novelty in world history. There certainly was a class of reasonably well-to-do craftsmen, merchants and bureaucrats in traditional societies, but it was tiny by today's standards. Even the richest empires could not afford more than an handful of them and the bulk of the population remained made up of peasants with a thin overlayer of priests and nobles.

This, by the way, had to be expected.

All human societies are based upon work specialization. The problem is that specialists, even though they don't produce any energy, need as much of it as your average peasant. This means that to keep a permanent body of specialists, whether they be clerks, blacksmiths, soldiers or ladies-in-waiting, whoever produces energy – that is food until very recently – in a particular society had to produce enough of it to feed them without starving himself – at least most of the time. In virtually all pre-modern societies, this put drastic limits to the development of the middle class.

Before the industrial revolution and the advent of chemical fertilizers, agriculture was very labor-intensive and produced barely enough to feed the nobility, a relatively small middle class of servants, craftsmen and clerks and the peasants themselves – in that order, by the way. The discovery of fertilizers – first guano then the Haber-Bosch process enabled us to greatly increase the productivity of agriculture and create enough surplus for a middle class of civil servants, small entrepreneurs a intermediate managers to emerge. This middle class became larger and larger as the number of people directly involved in energy extraction shrank and their productivity increased. Today, it does encompass the majority of the population of developed countries... as well as myself.

There is a catch, however.

This was made possible only by our using fossil fuels, an energy source more concentrated than anything available before. Without them, the productivity of agriculture would have remained what it was during the XVIIth century and most of our society's manpower would have been locked down in the fields. The supply of fossil fuels is finite, however, and bound to decline in the near future – it has already begun to do so for oil – and this will have tremendous consequences for the social structure of our civilization.

As the net energy available to society declines, so will of course the amount allotted to each social group. The poor will suffer, of course. The working class in European countries has already lost most of what it had won during the sixties and the seventies as employers turned to the mass use of interim workers and renewable fixed duration contracts. Even the administration is no longer the stronghold of workers' right it used to be. The bulk of civil servants are still protected by law in France, but many low rank jobs are now taken by temporary workers. This, of course, will become more and more common as the current generation retires, no matter who is in office in any particular township or minister. It is just a resource problem.

There is more, however. As we slide down the descending slope of the Hubbert's Curve, the complexity of our society will begin to go down. Many professional niches will disappear, simply because an impoverished civilization will no longer be able to afford them – the advertising and marketing sectors come to mind, as well as the entertainment industry. Even the administration will eventually cease to provide a shrinking middle class with a living as catabolic collapse forces us to revert to simpler and more local forms of government.

That is where we enter the foggy realm of politics, for even though politics are not entirely class-based, they still have a strong relationship with them. The fact is that, even in Europe, where they are far more powerful, the greens are still overwhelmingly upper middle class, that is the social category which will suffer the most from the coming crisis. This means that the social basis for that unlikely mixture of liberalism and environmentalism that are green politics is bound to dwindle as catabolic collapse progress.

This does not mean, of course, that environmentalism will cease to to be a concern – the resource crisis and global warming are too big problems to be shuffled back underground. The liberal part of the green agenda, is however, likely to be quickly forgotten. Both struggling working classes and failing middle classes tend, almost naturally, to turn to authoritarianism. Historically it hasn't be the same authoritarianism, mostly because not being a worker has always been a major element in middle class identity. Middle classes therefore supported fascism rather than communism when times became really hard during the early thirties, at least in Europe.

Fascism is dead as an ideology and even in France, hard line communism is down to a few fractious sects. The programmed death of the middle class, will however open the way to new radical ideologies, of which Jay Hanson's War Socialism is but a foretaste, an unholy combination of anti-capitalism, nationalism , pseudo-egalitarian authoritarianism and environmentalism. The BNP is undoubtedly moving in this direction, even though its white supremacist roots – and Nick Griffin's definite lack of charisma – will probably – and fortunately – keep it far away from any kind of power. The danger can also come from the left, however, and the adoption of the "degrowth" ideology by some sections of the French hard left – the so called "Left Front" for instance is definitely bad news in that matter.

Developed countries on the other side of Hubbert's peak might look like debt and shortage ridden early eighties Poland. If we don't manage well the demise of the middle class, it might also have the same kind of politics.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why Science won't save us

Last week one of the three main French trotskist group – Worker's Struggle – published an editorial denouncing "degrowth" as "reactionary". I am no fan of French style degrowth. Most of the time, it is hardly more than revolutionary mythology repackaged as ecology and in my humble opinion, anybody telling that the best way to solve today's society's problems is to destroy it entirely is better off the farthest away possible from any real power. Yet the red hard-liners' reaction is interesting because it highlights one of the industrial world's most pervasive delusion : the faith in science as an all-powerful mean to manipulate reality.

Workers' Struggle's argument is twofold. First they say the decreasing economic activity is unacceptable because it will destroy industrial jobs and reduce general prosperity. This is indeed the whole point but since all those industrial jobs depend upon a clearly unsustainable system, which will collapse no matter what we do, it is probably a better idea to tell people to prepare for the inevitable. The writer probably realized this, so he added there was nothing to fear from the Limits to Growth because technological and scientific progress will lift them (once the evil capitalists will have been overthrown, of course, but since this particular group is called Worker's Struggle, this was to be expected.)

Worker's Struggle is a marginal group, but the faith into the all-powerfulness of science is not, especially among the various political, economical and cultural elites which set the policies of this country. One owes to the truth to say that Reverend Malthus' predictions were ill-timed and that science played a major role in making sure of that. This led most people – including some who should have known better – to consider science as a kind of working magics.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Science, and its offspring technology, is definitely not some kind of mystical product of human creativity and intellect. It is, to paraphrase Joseph Tainter, an investment into problem solving complexity. It has proved quite a good investment and it certainly beats other popular choices such as erecting giant anthropomorphic statues but it has its limits.

Saying that scientific and technological research is an investment means that pouring resources into it is roughly the same thing as buying, say, a new mechanical saw for your sawmill. You spend money – or some other kind of resource – and get capital in return. With some luck this capital proves to be productive and enables you to get more money to invest. Of course, sometimes you miscalculate and end up with nothing but bills, but that's not the real problem.

The real problem is, of course, Reverend Malthus' law of decreasing return. It is relatively easy to raise massively one's productivity by investing into easy solutions, but that works only so far. Afterward, however, making further progress becomes increasingly harder and costlier, so you must steadily increase your investments lest you see the pace of your advance slow down to a grinding halt.

Tainter and Huebner have shown that this applies to science as well as to car plants or sawmills. No matter how we measure it, the productivity of science is decreasing since at least the beginning of the XXth century. At that times it was quite possible – and fairly common – for a lone man to make major discoveries in his basement workshop. That is what Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein did. This possibility still exists in marginal domains – for instance the deciphering of dead languages – but everywhere else, including in computer sciences, it has essentially vanished. Science today is done in teams, with very costly equipments in never funded enough institutions.

Another problem comes from the fact all capital needs maintenance, and it is as true for the immaterial capital that are science and technology as for a tractor plant. Mastery of science and technology is not innate. It must be taught again with each passing generation, lest it becomes lost as did fire making did among Sentinelese. As our body of knowledge grew so did the need for a very complex – and very costly   specialized education system. Moreover, this education system is subject to the law of diminishing returns. It is relatively easy to alphabetize a population, but going farther becomes harder and costlier as the general level of education rises.

So far we have compensated by pouring ever more resource in our scientific and educational system, and managed to continue advancing … at the price of having more scientists and teachers alive today than during the whole rest of human history. This was possible only because fossil fuels enabled us to produce very large surplus and keep them, and their support institutions, well funded enough to remain productive.

The situation will change as we slide down the far side of the Hubbert curve. In fact, it already has begun to change. As the amount of net energy available to our civilization decreases, the quantity invested into science and technology will decrease too. Whole programs will be quietly put on hold as scarce resources are focused on the keeping afloat of the "essential" ones. The pace of progress will slow down then stop. It may even go backward, as costly technologies are abandoned the way civilian supersonic flight was after the Concord disaster.

Resource scarcity is also likely to affect the education system. I don't think schools will be closed down, or that children will quietly drop out, before quite a long time, at least in European countries. What will happen is that the quality of the teaching will go down as funds grow scarce and affluent people migrate toward private schools. Irrelevant – or seemingly irrelevant – technologies will stop being taught and will be forgotten or kept frozen in libraries. This, of course, will harm our ability to exploit efficiently the resource we are left. The productivity of the society will decrease, which will cause the funds allotted to research and education to decrease further.

Those who follows the peak oil debate will have recognized the basic mechanism of John Michael Greer's catabolic collapse – and rightly so for science is every bit as subject to it as the rest of our civilization's immaterial capital. And of course counting on science to stop a process of which the decline of science is an integral part is an exercise in futility.

In Dark Age Britain the rulers of what had been a highly urbanized and literate society could not have signed their names to save their life. In late bronze age Greece, the very idea of writing was lost with the collapse of the palatial economy. The only question worth asking about technology and science in the age of the energy descent is how much of it will we lose ?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A problem of security

A week ago the French government announced that it was canceling the planned recruitment of 5000 policemen. This has hardly been a cause for debate, even in France, for understandable reasons. President Sarkozy, a former Minister for Police, is big on law and order and such an announcement does not really fit within what he claims to be his policy, as for the left opposition, even if it wasn't busy tearing itself to pieces – which it definitely is – it does consider policing as a dirty job, something which must be done but which decent people should not talk about. Yet, and even though it is quite unlikely to make the front page of any remotely meanstream paper, the event is definitely worth discussing, for it highlights an important aspect of the energy descent.

Since it was taken away from townships after WWII, law enforcement, in France, is a central state function. Policemen are civil servants, recruited for life on a national basis. Since they, too, age and retire, failing to do so any particular year means that the numbers of policemen in French streets will drop, probably dramatically. Of course, there are other law enforcement agencies in France : the gendarmerie, a military police in charge of rural areas an the Internet, and various municipal polices but they are still of lesser importance and certainly cannot make up for the National Police's deficiencies.

The immediate reasons of Sarkozy' decision are quite obvious. Like everybody those days, he is desperate for cash and due to European regulations he cannot run too large a deficit or print. Budget cuts, especially those kinds of budget cuts, are hardly absurd. They can help create some maneuver room and liberate resources for more vital, or politically more important, domains.

The problem is that it works only for temporary crisis, something the one we face is definitely not. While its immediate cause has been the subprimes debacle, it is fundamentally a manifestation of our colliding with the Limits to Growth the Meadows Report highlighted thirty years ago. Our economies are dependent upon a steady inflow of high grade energy only fossil fuels can provide and the supply of those is stagnating and will soon enter terminal decline. This means that the resource available to support state apparatus – whether or not they are as bloated as the French one – will become scarcer and scarcer.

Of course, we should not imagine a state suddenly collapsing under its own weight. It never happened in the past, it won't happen this time. What will happen is that states will focus their remaining resources upon maintaining what they see as vital services, at the expenses of the others – the same way a human body immersed in cold water will concentrate whatever heath it is left around vital organs, even if that means letting one toe or two freeze. As I said, it is not an absurd strategy on the short term. There is, after all, little point in subsidizing , say, classical music when you are at risk of being overrun by a foreign invasion.

The problem is, of course, that budgets cuts which are relatively safe in the short term can land you in a sea of trouble if the crisis lasts. Underfunding road repair cans sound like a good idea for a resource-short government. After all, roads take time to deteriorate and even if they do, it won't stand in the way of your reelection. Besides there are always ways to put the blame on somebody else shoulders – for instance the company you sold the said road to. On the long run however, you will end up with a very bumpy, and nearly useless road network.

The same is true with administration in general and security in particular. As their resource based declined, past civilizations tended to scrap services they deemed unessential. Of course that rarely meant security. No matter how powerful kings and emperors were, there was always some neighbor more than ready to part them from their throne. That could mean, however, abandoning peripheral territories or trusting local authorities with the organization – and the funding – of their own defense. That is what the late Roman Empire did. It did abandon Dacia and Britain, and hired Germanic tribal warlords to defend its borders. Let's say it was not a resounding success.

Such a fate is unlikely to befall us. Abandoning territory is taboo in our political culture, unless said territory really wants to go away, as for settling foreign mercenaries under their own laws... no matter what conspiracy theorists say, it is as likely to happen as an invasion of flying pigs. It is just incompatible with the ruling paradigm of the nation-state.

What will probably happen, however, as we slide farther and farther on the road to catabolic collapse, is a slow but irremediable loss of control by the state. Even though it is not all powerful, modern states exert an unprecedented control upon their own society. It is not because they are particularly power-thirsty, of course. Ivan IV would have been as totalitarian as Stalin it he could have and some Chinese emperors were very fond of intrusive laws and secret polices. They just didn't have the means to fully control their territory.

Modern states have. Their economy creates enough surplus to fund huge administrations and police forces able to reach down to the remotest part of their territory. Those are very costly, however, and as states focus their dwindling resources on their core functions, they will grow thin on the ground. This may take various forms, of course. Administrative service, among which, security, may be sold out to private agencies which will only partially assume them. They may be devolved to local authorities, without the means to assume them. They may become so chronically underfunded they become both ineffective and corrupt.

The end result will always be the same. The state will lose the control of the peripheral parts of its society and territory. Of course, it will still be able to crush any open revolt, but it will no longer be able to provide any effective day to day administration. Local authorities will have to step in – arm their municipal police and use it as a real law enforcement agency, for instance – and in some places ganglords will become de facto rulers. Of course this will hinder the states' ability to efficiently mobilize its remaining resources, which will trigger another round of budget cuts and loss of control until the state itself become a mere fiction and is replaced by whatever really controls the territory.

Another consequence, is that we may see the rebirth of that rural banditry which plagued pre-industrial countries and is still very present in the Third World. We have forgotten how common highwaymen were in pre-industrial Europe, how they could defy the central power for years and even wage small wars against it. As public authorities become less and less able to police their territory they may very well be reborn and accelerate the post peak version of the withering of the state, whether it be by depriving it of much needed resources or by encouraging locals to step in.

During the seventies, the Breton singer Gilles Servat sung about what he thought would be the 2000s

Il y avait encore des grands chemins
que les bandits fréquentaient guère
Aujourd'hui on croirait la guerre
Les embuscades au petit matin

There were still highways
Bandits didn't roam
Today one would believe to be at war
Ambushes at dawn

He may have been wrong only about the timing

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Aella's complex

Most of you probably haven't' heard about it but France has recently gone through another round of debate about the "Islamic veil". A bunch of members of parliament have petitioned for the creation of an inquiring committee about the burqa. Like all such proposals, this one tells more about its authors than about the handful of burqa wearing women living in France. It is no accident that one of the proposers is an unreconstructed communist openly supporting Castro's regime. This affair does more, however, than throwing an unforgiving light upon the reactionaries tendencies of some parts of the French society. It highlights some of the difficulties modern complex societies will experience as they slide down the slop of Hubbert's curve.

One of the most overlooked characteristics of modern industrial societies is how they have replaced external, geographic, diversity by internal, societal, diversity. Pre-industrial societies were as diverse as our own, but this diversity was made of a collection of very homogeneous local communities. There was, for instance a Breton culture, embedded within the mainframe of French culture, and divided in a a number of local cultures – Bigouden, Poher, Leon, Tregor – each one of them with its own dialect, dances, music and approach to religion, and so forth down to the village level. Within them, however, diversity was very low, social conformity, at least at the outside, very high, and adhesion to Christianity almost mandatory – even if following its precepts was not necessarily, as shows the high number of "virgin births" in my family line.

This diversity survives – the villages of the marsh area just outside of my home town were still held by the communist party not so long ago – but it is – or rather was – fading and has been replaced by a larger but more heterogeneous national – or sub-national – society. While local differences are less pronounced, there is a considerable number of sub-cultures of various origin, and far more allowance for individual dissent or eccentricity. This evolution has not been an easy one and it is not yet complete. A long struggle has been necessary to widen the boundaries of acceptable opinion and for gays, for instance, it has been won only recently – in France, I mean.

The problem is that this internal diversity is a consequence of the emergence of a society complex enough to accommodate literally thousands of social niches, and that this society is dependent upon a constant inflow of high grade energy. Only fossil fuel can provide it and as their name implies, they exist in limited quantity. As their supply declines, so will society's complexity, probably catastrophically so.

This decline, also called catabolic collapse, does not mean, however, that we will magically revert to the statu quo ante, no more than the fall of the Roman Empire mean that Druids would roam the forest again and that people would going back to speaking Gaulish again. What will happen is that the society will unravel into its constituent part and that local culture will coalesce back around left over from the pre-industrial period, imports from overseas or totally new creations.

This may mean that in some areas Islam may become the new local norm, and even spread further from there. It is perfectly possible that in one or two centuries from now will be Muslim and while this would make it differently Breton, it would not necessarily make it less so. This would not be the first time such a thing happens either. While collapses do not always translate into religion shift, they make them easier by destroying the web of interconnected institutions and beliefs around which the society is built. Taken off-balance, faced with the obvious failure of long-held beliefs to explain the situation, people are more prone to convert to foreign or new ideas.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire, the newly, and probably superficially Christianized British tribes recovered their independence and began to war among themselves. As was relatively common at the time they imported Germanic mercenaries they settled along their respective borders and to whom they apparently gave high positions in their armed forces. In Kent, the leader of a mercenary band seemingly seized power from the local cronies of the western British warlord Vortigern, probably with the locals' support. In neighbouring Sussex however, things went differently. The local Germanic leader Aella, never became a king and modern research suggests he remained faithful to the Regnenses tribe and integrated within the local aristocracy.

Yet, one century latter English was spoken in Sussex, not some cousin of Welsh or French, and the main religion was Anglo-Saxon paganism, not Celtic Christianity. There had been some immigration from the mainland, probably more than in neighbouring Wessex and Mercia where first "Saxon" kings had unmistakable British names. Even there, however, it was insufficient to swamp the native element. What happened is that native Bretons converted to Anglo-Saxon language, way of life... and religion.

It certainly was a complex phenomenon, and it was bitterly resisted by some, as one can see from Gildas' xenophobic rant De Excidio Britanniae, but probably not so much as latter interpretations would lead us to believe. VIth century warfare in Britain was about tribal politics and personal ambitions, not about ethnicity or religion.

A similar evolution can take place in part of today's industrial world, with Islam, but also Wicca or whatever religion you care to imagine. It is neither a desirable nor an undesirable process, even if one may have reservations about the particulars of such or such religion. It is just something which happens when civilizations collapses and societies reshape and rebuild themselves. What is important, however, is to make sure that the resistance of new Gildas won't trouble more what already promises to be a very troubled time and that if somebody manages to follow the steps of Aella, he does so in a rather smooth and orderly maneer. A solution could be to separate religion from identity and to found communities upon shared values rather than upon a shared faith. That is what secularism should be about.

The French deputies' initiative does not bode well in that matter, and whenever I see a scarfed woman in the street I think of Aella... and of Gildas... and of Badon Hill.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A tale of two festivals

Summer is festival time in France and Southern Brittany is no exception. We even happen to have two of them running at the same time – the Hellfest metal festival and the Estuaire concept art festival. I won’t attend any, of course. I simply don’t have any time for that, but I will have to deal with the political aspects of both of them. Most of them are quite petty – Christian right wingers complaining about metal musicians "insulting" their religion, for instance – but not all and the differences in the political treatment of both events provide us with quite an interesting hindsight upon the mindset of our ruling elites … and something of an explanation why they fail to address the peak energy problem, or even to see there is a problem.

The Estuaire festival is a contemporary art exhibition every two years between Nantes – the city where I work – and Saint-Nazaire – the city where I live. The main attraction, at least from the media point of view is La Meute by Stéphane Thidet. It is supposed to be a work of art. In fact it is just a bunch of wolves let loose in a large pen at the feet of the Ducal Castle. I personally fail to see the difference with the deer’s pen in the nearby botanic garden, or for that matter with the aquarium in my living room… but I know better than saying it to the mayor or one of its underlings.

The Estuaire festival has, indeed, be created by and for the township of Nantes, and its funding comes entirely from corporate or taxpayers’ money. This has two interesting side effects. The first, of course, is that popular success is totally irrelevant to its continued existence. What matters is the continued interest of politicians and senior corporate leadership. The second is that we have no really mean to measure popular interest, which is probably as well since most people who pass by the exhibited works probably wouldn’t have pay a single cent to see them in a museum.

The Hellfest, on the other hand, is a grassroots initiative which got successful – not an uncommon occurrence in Brittany. In 2002, a couple of people set up an extreme music festival in Rezé, near Nantes. The Furry Fest lasted until 2005, then died due to financial difficulties, only to be resurrected as the Hellfest the following year and has experienced a growing success since then.

The Hellfest receives some funding from local authorities, but most of its money comes from paying spectators. Should they stop coming, so would money, even public money, and the whole thing would close down. Success is also very easy to measure. You don’t happen to pass by a performance by Amon Amarth – quite a good band, by the way – you have to pay to listen it… and a lot of people did it.

Yet politicians pay little attention to the Hellfest, not even in private. Last time we had a lunch together the delegate for cultural action among new publics, who happens to be one of my bosses, and who is very big on cultural self-empowerment, didn’t even mention it. It was all about Estuaire.

One could see there a typical spenglerian rent between popular and elite culture in a declining society, and it would be at least partly accurate. There is more to it, however.

Nantes is firmly left wing, and most of its leadership is, as I am, of middle class origin, the sons and daughter of those who took advantage of post-war growth to lift themselves out of poverty. Most of my bosses, including the Mayor, are hardly elite and are often a mere generation away from fields or factories.

So what ?

One thing to know about the elites’ world is that it is intensively competitive. No matter how united a party or a town council look from the outside, its members are always jockeying for position, endlessly fighting for a better place within the giant pecking order that is political or corporate world. I am no exception, of course, even my belonging to a small party means my success or failure depends upon factors I cannot master.

Advancement can be seemingly random, but most of time, it is tied to one’s usefulness and loyalty for one’s patron and to one’s ability to forge alliances among one’s peers. The problem is that in modern democracy, ideology is central in the self-definition of political factions. Of course modern politicians can be every bit as cynical as a feudal baron – hell, I certainly can – but behind their actions there is always some dearly held ideal or belief.

The Mayor of Nantes has a very respectable political project : turning a somewhat sleepy provincial town into a cultural and economic metropolis. Estuaire serves this project because it enhance his and his city’s prestige among Parisian intellectuals. The Hellfest don’t. And of course that means to advance in rank within the municipal leadership you have to share his goals. This is of course less true of junior partners, such as my own party, but similar mechanisms are at work within them.

The end result is of course that our ruling elites, or to put it more accurately, the people in charge of the intricate web of rival power centers which define our societies’ policies, are at least partly ideology selected. Of course one can fake one’s beliefs to rise in the hierarchy, but such a strategy is generally untenable. Masks sticks to the skin when one wears them too long, as those Trotskyites who tried to infiltrate mainstream parties have quickly found out.

John Michael Greer once said that a party proposing to drastically cut down our income to avoid total collapse – as we should do – would be very unlikely to achieve power. That is true, but only partly. People can bear much hardship when they feel it is necessary and governments have ways to impose drastic measures when they really need to.

The problem is that politicians are even less receptive to the notion of peak energy and catabolic collapse than other people. Joe Average can be convinced of the reality of peak oil, even more so in France where pretty much everybody aggrees that the future will be worse than the present – whether he will act upon it is quite another matter, of course. Politicians and corporate leaders will resist with all the strength of their deeply entrenched ideology. That's what they have been selected for.

Of course, the situation is not hopeless. Elites can and do change, even if it is at their own rhythm. They can afford to ignore reality longer than laymen but even they must yield to it at some point, lest they be overthrown and replaced by more pragmatic people.

The question, of course, is can we afford to wait for them to do so ?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Return to Babel

There has been some talk in the peak oil community about leaving some kind of legacy to post-peak societies – Lovelock's "scientific equivalent of the Bible" comes to mind, as well as John Michael Greer's essays. This is a subject worth discussing. It becomes increasingly obvious industrial society will undergo some kind of collapse. It is probably too late to prevent or even significantly delay it, but saving some of our civilization's achievements so that our successors – whoever they might be – are left with something else than ruins in the jungle is certainly something worth fighting for. The problem is that bequeathing them a hoard of textbooks written on acid-free paper won't be of much use if they don't understand them... as it is very likely to be the case.

Imagine, for instance, that your are a 31rst century scholar looking for information about antibiotics. After much research you have managed to find a book about it, stored in some half-forgotten library at the other end of whatever your country is called. After a long, dangerous journey across untamed wilderness you finally get to it and under the suspicious stare of some red-robed wiccan monk open it to read what for you amounts to :

Antibiootti on synteettinen lääkeaine, jota käytetään bakteerien tappamiseen tai kasvun hidastamiseen. Antibiootit ovat isäntäeliölle suhteellisen harmittomia, joten niitä voidaan käyttää bakteerien aiheuttamien tulehdusten hoitoon. Termiä käytettiin alun perin tarkoittamaan vain toisista elävistä organismeista saatuja kemikaaleja, mutta se on laajentunut tarkoittamaan myös synteettisesti valmistettuja molekyylejä. Antibiootit ovat pieniä molekyylejä (paino alle 2000 daltonia) eivätkä ne ole entsyymejä.

Languages change, and they never change more swiftly and more completely than during times of collapse. Of course, this is partly because writing obscure linguistic changes, even in the eyes of those who undergo them. The French language you may have learned at school if you had some time to waste is so different from what is effectively spoken in the street of Paris that it could be considered a completely different tongue, yet French people hardly notice it and continue to think that their language marks plural with a -s suffix while it does it through a combination of liaison and verb and article agreement.

That is not the whole story, however, and French is probably an extreme case. Most of the time, linguistic change tend to be delayed by the influence of ruling class dialect – generally quite conservative – of the administration, of the media and of the education system. The same influences tend also to erase local and regional differences and to replace them by an standard form of speech, generally based upon the upper class variety.

When societies collapse, however, so does the administration and all the institutions in charge of slowing language change. After peak oil, the net energy available to complex societies to fuel their complexity is bound to decrease, which means that there will be ever less resource to keep them working. Literacy becomes restricted to a shrinking minority as the education system unravels. Upper classes fragment and are gradually replaced by warlords with little interest in high culture and language. This is a slow process of course, more an orderly retreat than a route, but on the long run, it means that linguistic change undergoes a tremendous acceleration. Moreover, since the structures holding the society together can no longer be maintained, it begins to differentiate geographically, as it did historically with Latin, every power center developing its own version of the once common language and raising its local vernacular to the status of literary or state language.

Besides, as markets and polities fragment and human horizon shrinks, the chances that a local war or migration results in a snowballing language shift greatly increase. What is not possible in a modern nation state – a linguistic minority becoming a local majority and imposing its tongue – is clearly in a post collapse polity (or non-polity) and there is little doubt it will happen.

Contrary to what most people believe, there was no population replacement during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The invaders were few in number compared to local populations which had not changed since the neolithic. They just took advantage of the chaotic political situation to seize power, which sometimes, but not always, resulted in culture shift. That happened in Eastern Britain, where the incoming Anglo-Saxons were never a demographic majority but seemingly merged with the local aristocracies which converted, or were converted, to their culture while mostly retaining their tribal identity. The sub-roman British kingdoms mostly survived. They just changed nature - the Cantiaci became the Jutish kingdom of Kent, the Iceni became East-Anglia, the Regnenses became the Kingdom of Sussex – and it was not always the result of a violent take over. Hengest seized power through a coup, but Aelle was never a king while Cerdic and Penda were obviously Britons with British names.

History doesn't repeat itself but it often rhymes and similar events can definitely happen in the post-peak future, with the most likely heroes – remember, the English were quite a marginal people in the fifth century. America's most spoken language in the 31rst century may very well descend from Pensylvanian Dutch, Inuktikut or Navajo. While small tribal languages will probably die out or be swept away by mass migrations or political upheaval, some may experience the same kind of explosive growth English did historically. Widely spoken languages, among which English, are likely to differentiate into a chain of languages as dissimilar one from another as Romanian is from Spanish, but the can also wither away, shrink to small enclaves, some of which may be located outside of their original domain.

In fact, it is the whole linguistic desk peak oil and peak energy will reshuffle, as happened every time a major cultural or economic discontinuity has befallen the world. The consequences of the return to Babel won't be light – we are well placed in Brittany to know it. Even when it is slow and progressive, language shift is always a rupture. A deep rent open between the last generation of speakers and their descendants and whole parts of their heritage and culture is buried away, possibly forever. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Catholic Church preserved the use of Latin but there is no guarantee a similar institution will do the same for French, English or Spanish and those tongues may go the way of Old Brythonic, Etruscan or Classic Maya, leaving cryptic inscriptions or weird-sounding loanwords as only traces of their existence.

If we don't preserve them, and a score of other less spoken ones which are often the only keys to very specific but very important local lores, all we will leave to our descendants will be the haunting memory of what we have lost

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Julian's tragedy

As most of you probably know, there was an European election last Sunday during which conservative made significant gains. As you probably don't know – no matter what French people like to think, France is hardly the center of the world – the French ecologists scored a major success, finishing just behind the socialists. In Brittany they even beat them, becoming the first left wing force.

We were a part of the green coalition and participated to the campaign, so this victory is also ours. Yet my pleasure is mixed. It is not only that the foundations of this success are fragile – they definitely are – or that traditional parties are very likely to engage into heavy tokenism – they have already begun – to remain in office. The hard truth is that even if we had won every election and seized state power, we would probably be unable to stave off the impending collapse.

There is of course the timing problem. We might have muddled through to some kind of sustainability during the late seventies and the early eighties, but with peak oil probably already past we are very likely to have lost this opportunity for ever. If we are to believe the Hirsch report, and it is very conservative, we need twenty years of intensive preparation to mitigate the effects of peak oil. It is obvious we do not have those twenty years.

Even if we had them, I am not sure it would change anything

The problem is that complex societies are, well, complex and the ability of the supposedly leading elites to change them is limited. In fact, there is no such elites, only an insanely intricate web of competing groups, lobbies and power centers alternatively competing and collaborating with each other. The ability of those groups to resist change is amazing, and I am not speaking here only of corporations or of political lobbies but potentially everybody's neighbor who, no matter what he voted, can be counted upon to oppose every measure, no matter how necessary, which will substantially reduce his life standard or go against long held beliefs.

Of course one could break this resistance, force sustainability upon people literally at gunpoint and some people in the peak oil community could be tempted to follow this way. This kind of eco-stalinism would be a costly mistake. Revolution is to social reform what rape is to romance : it is violent, ugly and both participants are unlikely to live happily ever after. Every time this “solution” has been tried in the past, the only tangible result was a rather impressive body count. Besides, it would almost inevitably lead to the formation of a security apparatus which would siphon most remaining resources, making sure the average citizen is far well off than he needs to be.

That is what one could call Julian's tragedy, or the powerlessness of power. For those who don't spend hours reading Edward Gibbon (or more prosaically Wikipedia), Julian II (331 – 363) was the last pagan roman emperor. He seized power from his murderous Christian uncle and tried to restore classical paganism as the dominant religion in the Empire. Despite his governing skills and his initial popularity he soon found out that you cannot just decree away peoples' beliefs. Rulers, no matter what they privately think, are every bit as trapped in the web of competing power centers and beliefs as the rest of us, and if he disregards them, he is quite likely to end up as Julian did, dying from a Persian arrow in the Iraqi desert while his lieutenants prepared the unraveling of all he had fought for.

Does that mean that we peak-oiler should abandon the political field and focus upon personal and community preparation ? Of course not. First because community preparation is politics, even if at the local level. In fact, you can't really prepare a community to the hardships of the post -peak era without entering local politics, directly or indirectly. That is not the whole story, however, for if we, peak-oil activist, can no longer save the Empire, we can cushion its fall in some area and prepare the way for its successors, so that the post-peak dark age be shorter and brighter than it would have been otherwise.

Science-fictions geeks will have recognized Hari Seldon's logic, and it is not a bad logic in our situation, even if it makes for a poor electoral propaganda. For the other, I will sketch what is, in my opinion, one of the best Science-Fiction series ever : Asimov's Foundation's cycle. In an archetypal galactic empire a no less archetypal lone scientist works out a way to calculate what the future will be. It turns out that this future will be very bad for the Empire. Rotten to the core it will ultimately collapse into a chaotic mess of warlord states and won't reform for 30.000 years. Faced with this rather unappealing reality, Hari Seldon decides, not to try to save the failing empire, but to create in some far away back water, the core of a new empire which will reunify the galaxy after only 1.000 years.

It is, of course only a novel, but it offers a good rational for us to enter politics. Nobody can predict what shape will take the future, and even if we can be pretty sure the present world is going to collapse, its demise will take time and it can be succeeded by a lot of things, not all of them pleasant. We cannot really predict the the results of our action, either, history is the realm of complexity and unintended consequences and our best efforts may turn out to be futile. Yet we can work to cushion the decline and make sure that whoever will succeed us will inherit the best of what we have. That may mean paying lip service to hop we know are false or supporting projects we know will fail but will make more likely that, in centuries from now, our descendants, which will probably as alien to us as modern Mexicans are to Aztecs, will have something to build upon. That may means dirtying oneself or engaging into apparently pointless power play

This is not a very rewarding job and it is as likely to fail as to succeed. Sometimes it will leave you with a bitter aftertaste and even victories will sometimes feel empty, but it certainly beats replaying Julian's tragedy.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Areva's difficulties and the nuclear illusion

Yesterday the chief editor of our party's journal asked me to write a paper about the financial troubles of Areva. I accepted, of course, and not only because I have become the in house peak oil specialist. Areva is no ordinary company. It is the nuclear arm of the French state, in charge with the building and the supplying of French nuclear plants. Even though it is technically a corporation, it is owned by the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique, a public agency whose director is appointed by the French President who has occasionally sold nuclear plants on its behalf.

Areva, supposedly the "jewel" of the French industry is in real troubles. Even though it sells more than ever, its benefits have plummeted and it has been forced to cancel a mining project in Canada. According to the "Réseau Sortir du Nucléaire", Areva needs 3 billions euros, mostly because of the costly failure the Olkiluoto EPR has proven to be. The Finnish third generation nuclear plant, which should have been put online this year has been delayed due to technical difficulties and costs are sky-rocketing – 5.4 billions instead of the original 3 billions. Moreover, South Africa has recently cancelled the building of 12 nuclear plants while the "sells" announced by the French presidency (4 plants in Italy and 2 in India) remain virtual – nobody know how they are going to be funded.

Areva is presently clamouring for public funds. It will probably get them, no matter how loud we, and others, protest. France, trapped as it is by its own nuclear strategy, simply cannot afford to lose the control of its uranium supply.

That is hardly the whole story, however. What this affair highlight is how problematic is nuclear power at the eve of catabolic collapse. A nuclear plant is very costly and takes a long time to build. Besides, it is of absolutely no use as long as it is not completed. The end result is that to launch a nuclear program you have to immobilize a lot of capital – human, natural and financial – without any hope of anything looking like a return of investment for quite a long time.

One of the consequences of the resource crisis – and of the catabolic collapse it is triggering – is that capital of any kind will become scarcer and scarcer. In fact, the whole thing is a giant capital purge which will end only when said capital will be back to sustainable level. This a problem for all energetic conversion programs, but far more so for nuclear ones, and we can bet that Areva won't be the only victim of this predicament. Add to the lack of capital, the lack of uranium reserve and the lack of electricity-using cars – problems the resource crisis will only make worse, one of the consequences of Areva's trouble has been the cancelling of a mine, remember – and it is not difficult to see any nuclear program large enough to matter is doomed to failure.

Areva's difficulties pose, however, another, often overlooked question : what will nuclear plants will become after the nuclear industry fails. In a number of countries, it may happen sooner than one thinks. We don't know whether we have passed peak uranium, but it is a fact that the world uranium production is insufficient to supply all existing plants – let alone the planned one. Recycled military uranium and plutonium has made up for the difference so far, but it can last only so long. There will be necessarily a point in the not so distant future when uranium supply will become a major limiting factor for the industry. Only those lucky enough to have uranium deposits on their territory – France is no longer on the list, by the way – or the military or political might to use uranium deposits located on somebody's else territory will remain supplied. Even those lucky few will, at some point, be forced to close their plants down, either because their reserve are exhausted or because they have become too old and too unreliable. Needless to say, the process of catabolic collapse will probably be too advanced at that point, for them to fund the building of new ones.

And then what ?

Dismantling a nuclear plant and disposing of the wastes are very costly operation. Will the impoverished societies of forty years from now be able to afford them ? One can seriously doubt it. In fact, in a situation of worsening energy and capital shortage, one can expect them to operate their ageing nuclear plants to very end – the way the Ukrainian government did with Chernobyl – then let them decay away.

The result, needless to say, won't be good for the neighbourhood, albeit not the way the doomers of the seventies envisioned it. Abandoned nuclear plants will leak but they will no more create radioactive wasteland than Chernobyl did. Nature will thrive around it as most animal will die of natural causes before radioactivity can make a difference. There will be problems, however, for K-selected species with a long life cycle.

And human are a K-selected species with a long life cycle.

Those who want to plan for the post-peak future, should therefore take into account the position of nuclear plants, both existing and planned, and keep in mind most are located near rivers, the waters of which carry radioactivity quite well.

This, by the way, can have interesting geopolitical consequences in countries such as France which are littered with nuclear plants.

The activists who, in the late seventies, have made sure no nuclear plant would ever be built in Brittany may have won their far descendants more than what they thought.