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.