Sunday, January 17, 2010

The French blackout and the Byzantium delusion

The American press probably hardly noticed but southern France has experienced a major blackout around Christmass and in my own region – Brittany -local authorities have urged people to reduce their power consumption, lest the whole regional grid catastrophically fails. The lights are still on in the small Breton village I am writing this from, but it is probably a matter of time before they go off. No matter what nuclear power fans say on the other side of the Atlantic, French power plants are not aging well. They need more maintenance, and this takes longer. To make things worse, EDF, the French national power company has outsourced most of said maintenance to independent contractors whose employees are less paid and less well treated than its own. The result has been a row of strikes, which paralyzed operations and forced EDF to delay maintenance until the end of the year.

France, which used to be a major power exporter has now become a net importer and since the grid is undersized, this is becoming a real problem for those of us who don't live near a power plant. In Brittany, where the population has refused – and is still refusing – nuclear power, this has become a major political subject – we are nearing a regional election, remember – and local politicians push for the building of a gas power plant on the northern coast. Another – built in a low-lying coastal area - will be put on line in a few days, but everybody agrees it won't be enough and that we are only a cold day away from darkness.

There is more to this than the failure of a short-sighted energy policy, however. It is not unusual, indeed, to see France, and its all-nuclear policy, proposed as a model for a supposedly oil-addicted and oil-starved USA. It is also not unusual to see Europe considered as a kind of new Byzantium, set to survive, because of its sensible energy policy, a doomed America.

Needless to say, this has nothing to do with the reality of the European situation. It is true than European economies are more energy efficient than the American one, but there are reasons to that. With the exception of the North Sea, European resources are long exhausted. France, the country I know best, has no oil, almost no uranium and gas, as for its coal mines, they have all closed down. Moreover, its agriculture is heavily dependent upon fossil fuel... and European subsidies.

The mass transit network is certainly more extensive, and more efficient, but it is also very brittle and quite dependent upon foreign resources – uranium or gas mostly. Should the lights go off, so will train. Besides, the quality of the local services – vital to local economies but rarely if ever talked about in papers – is steadily decreasing.

Europe has another problem, which largely monoethnic America tends to overlook. It is not culturally homogeneous. America certainly has varied regional cultures and a number of dispersed minorities, but on the whole it has the same general culture from Boston to Los-Angeles. The territorial minorities are tiny and far between. The only sizable one is the Navajo nation, numbering 180.000 and while American routinely talk about secession and civil war, very few regional entities have enough legitimacy and political clout to actually secede. As for the secessionist organizations which sometimes surface in the news... let's say that my own organization is present in the regional government, and we are not particularly big by European standards.

Europe, on the other hand, is divided into some thirty nation-states and a larger number of stateless nations, people and territorial communities, some of them quite large. As the amount of resource available to European societies decreases, this mix of deep-rooted internal divisions and of very advanced depletion may prove deadly. The existence of reasonably large sub-state territorial communities will provide future post-collapse polities with a stability those born from the beak-up of an homogeneous society will lack, but conflicts between a failing but still control-avid state and its territorial minorities can be incredibly destructive, especially if the border are not well defined or in areas of mixed identities or ethnicity.

In fact, if Europe has a counterpart in the late Roman Empire, it is poor, dependent and tribal Britain.

This fascination with an Europe which is quite likely to collapse quicker and deeper than America, tells in fact more about the delusions of some activists than about the supposed advantages of the European model. Those who feel that the current system doesn't give them what they deserve – and those are often the same as those who wishe it to collapse – often look away to some far away country – the farther the better, which, in their eyes, embodies all the virtues their homeland supposedly lacks.

Needless to say, it is not very conductive to community building, something which has to be done with local people holding local values shaped by a long local history. Projecting one's fantasies on some distant country which share none of this and trying to impose them upon a local community which most likely wants nothing of it is the surest way to failure.

Community building is about doing what has to be done here and now, not about dreaming about some fantasy Byzantium, which is nothing more then the projection of our failure to act.