Monday, March 22, 2010

The failure of republics

There were elections in Brittany yesterday. The result was, let's say, interesting for us, but that would be hard to understand for people not familiar with the French voting system and with the arcana of Breton politics. To make a long story short we ended up a left wing opposition to the left wing president of the regional council. This local oddity is not, however, the main lesson of yesterday's vote. The very low turnout is, and this tells a lot about the way our political system does and will react to the ongoing energy descent.

Yesterday, barely more than half the registered voters actually voted, and that was nearly 6% more than during the first round. While this may seem reasonable by US standards, for France, it is very low. There are objective reasons for that. Right wing electors are deeply dissatisfied with the government's policies as well as with local infighting, so they staid home to show it. There is, nevertheless, a pattern of decreasing turnout over the last decades, which tells of a deeper problem.

Republics are based upon the idea that citizens must only consent but participate to the government. Today, it is mostly done by voting, and by not doing so in increasing number they undermine the legitimacy of whoever rules the country. Of course, even an abysmally low turnout won't bring about the collapse of a government, but it will make it more brittle, more vulnerable to the actions of those who do not care whether the people consents, or not, to their rule.

One of the problem, as my girlfriend insightfully stated, that mainstream parties basically all tell the same things while demonizing each other over small policy differences. Even the green alliance, of which we are a part, remains within the “business as usual” paradigm. They don't question the unsustainable exuberance of industrial civilization. They just want to power it with renewable technology and, of course, preserve the equally unsustainable individualistic lifestyle of the urban upper middle class.

Needless to say, it is impossible. The coming peak energy means that the resources available to society to fulfill the need of the population are decreasing. Moreover, the fact that all governments on the planet are committed to growth means than none can willingly disengage from globalization. It would be tantamount to unilaterally disarming in the middle of a war : an economical and therefore political suicide. All the ruling elites can do is trying to stay afloat in more and more troubled water and delay the crisis while hoping that growth will somehow save them.

As for the sensible thing : planning for austerity and resilience... it is ideologically and politically impossible. Any politician putting forward such agenda would immediately relegate himself into the fringe. Besides, politicians are not different, ideologically speaking , from the population they represent. It is only in the mind of conspiracy theorists that senators and councilmen conspire to hide the true state of the world from the people and enslave it into some nightmarish New World Order. In the real world they are every bit as mired in the business as usual ideology as anybody else.

The problem is that this quasi-systemic impotence becomes more and more obvious to the layman and that more and more people become convinced that no matter whom they vote into office, nothing will ever change, or only for the worse. This feeling is bound to become more and more widespread as the crisis deepens and the rift between the voluntarism of the speech and the impotence of action becomes more and more apparent.

This may fuel the growth of extremists groups, but also disillusionment and a slow retreat into private life which will progressively reduce republics to empty shells. Of course, this can happen only because those institutions which once participated to the formation of public opinion have either disappeared or degenerated into lobbies controlled by their own internal bureaucracy. Even here, in Brittany, where collective life has been better preserved than elsewhere, we are more and more bowling alone.

The results for our political systems is likely to be devastating. Of course, soldiers, policemen and civil servant won't cease obeying because the president has been elected by only 10% of the population, but it will be very easy for extremist or regional groups to contest the legitimacy of the state. Besides, as the effective support of the population becomes less and less obvious, the various factions vying for power within the framework of the institutions, will be more and more tempted to resort to violence, and more and more likely to succeed, should they do so.

Today, in nearly all democratic states, if a top elected official attempted to stay in office despite being voted out, he would be immediately arrested by his own police. Should state institutions become a mere arena for factional interests with the real people a mere observer, things could become very different.

Such things have happened in the past. In France for instance, as every leftist who has read the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte should know, the then president Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup in 1852 to stay in office beyond his term and met with little resistance in a country tired from revolutions and radicalism. In Haiti, it was legally elected president François Duvalier, who, in 1964, sought a second term in blatant violation of the constitution without anyone in the country to resist.

France recovered and became a republic, whose policies, sometimes questionable, were rooted into a network of local clubs and organizations, which gave her the strength to resist the political upheavals caused by the Great Depression. The same was true of Britain where the monarchy combined with unions and fraternal organizations doomed Mosley's efforts from the very start.

What the yesterday's low turnout tells us, however, is that this network, is failing or is increasingly disconnected from the political world. In a world of decreasing resources, this not only ensures that somebody will, at some point, play the Duvalier or Napoleon the Third game, but also, that there will be little left to rebuild a new republic on after his inevitable downfall.

This make all the more urgent to build, locally and regionally, alternative networks, where republican traditions could be reborn and adapted to an age of hard ecological limits.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rising tides

Most people across the pond probably haven't noticed but Western Europe was hit by a particularly murderous storm at the end of February. In the French department of Vendée, the waves, associated with high tide, broke through two centuries old sea walls and flooded residential districts, killing 35 and forcing hundreds to evacuate the area. Closer to home – at least mine – the sea overran the sea walls north of Saint-Nazaire, flooding many coastal villages and devastating the salt flats around the historical town of Guerande. Such storms are not uncommon in Western Europe. The last ones – Lothar in 1999 and the unnamed tempest which laid wast to Brittany in 1987 – were, if anything, more violent. What made Xinthia so efficient a killer was the combination of strong winds, high tide, badly kept sea walls and irresponsible mayors who allowed people to build one-story houses in areas below sea level. Sea level rise was also a factor, however, and that tells a lot about some of the challenges we will face as the age of exuberance ends.

Most of French sea walls were built during the reign of Napoleon, at a time when sea level was more than twenty centimeters lower than today. This is not, by the way an uncommon situation. The Galveston sea wall, for instance, was completed in 1903. The lands they protected were often coastal swamp or shoals, which, even at the time, were seriously threatened by erosion and storms. The sea level rise made them more vulnerable, and this vulnerability is bound to increase as the ongoing global warming – or weirding – slowly melts Greenland and Antarctic icecaps.

Of course, we won't see the tsunamis of Hollywood apocalyptic fantasies and we can be reasonably sure no dolphin will swim down the drowned streets of Paris or London any time soon. A sea level rise of two meters over the next 90 years is however clearly possible. James Hansen even suggests it could reach five meters. This doesn't sound a lot, but this would doom many coastal cities and force them to enclose themselves behind high walls.

Xinthia has made the French government, as well as local officials, to realize that something had to be done – or at least said – about the situation. The under-minister for Ecology, Chantal Jouanno, has announced a “sea wall plan”, the objective of which will be to repair all French sea walls within five years.

And that is where peak energy comes into play.

Sea walls are very expensive – from $4,000 to $7,000 a meter – and it is highly doubtful that the cash-starved French state will able to find this kind of money. The situation will only get worse as we move farther down the slope of Hubbert's curve. Indeed, as the amount of net energy available to the society decreases, so will the part of which any state will be able to mobilize for any large project, until all available resources are used up by – mostly inadequate – maintenance operations and the capacity of the society to react to a major crisis becomes essentially zero.

The usual way out of this conundrum was for the state to borrow, but is is becoming more and more difficult as the burden of the debt becomes heavier and heavier. European regulations – and common sense - keep France from running too large a deficit, besides, France's public debt has reached 75% of Gross Domestic Product, a level even politicians deem unsustainable.

Another solution would be to give the job – or rather the responsibility not to do it – to local authorities. They are, however, as cash-starved as the state, as most of their resources come from it and are decreasing in real terms. Moreover, as most of them are small, they often lack the expertise to manage large projects and are more likely to yield to local lobbies.

A third option would be to trust corporations with the task of repairing and maintaining the seawalls, probably within the frame of some “partnership” or “public service delegation” contract of the same kind of those which are used for water distribution – at least in France. The chosen firm would keep the sea wall in working order and make the needed investment in exchange of the right to collect an often sizable fee from the protected population. Of course this will only work as long as the said population has enough resource for the firm to run a benefit. When it becomes too small or too poor, the corporation will be forced to curtail operations, investment will be stopped and maintenance reduced to a minimum until the inevitable happens. But of course, neither the state nor whatever local authority will be in charge of the work will be responsible.

The problem is that our societies is gradually losing the capacity to maintain the infrastructures fossil fuels enabled it to build, a situation which can only worsen with time. The sensible thing to do would be abandoning – gradually of course – non-crucial infrastructures and use resources thus spared to build simpler but more resilient systems, which could be managed by a poorer and more decentralized society. This is what suggested the President of the Vendée departmental council when he said the destroyed houses should not be rebuilt - which proves that even far right fundies can say intelligent things from time to time.

This is unlikely to happen, however, at least not in a concerted way. This is simply not compatible with the prevailing “progress ideology”. What will happen is that states will try to put the burden – and the blame for failure – on somebody else's shoulders. Infrastructures, including sea walls will continue to quietly decay. System failures such as the one we experienced last month will become more and more common The population will slowly settle into a new normal of unreliable grids, broken roads and flooded streets while resource starved authorities will make up for their growing impotence by making noisy speeches about “sea wall plans” and the obvious inability of such or such local official – usually from an opposing party – to assume his responsibilities.

And of course, they will divert a significant part of whatever resources they are left into pointless but spectacular projects such as nuclear plants

Eventually infrastructures will be abandoned. Coastal plains will turn into shoals, swamps or even shallow gulfs. Poor, then not so poor, households will drop off the grid. More and more people will rely on local resources for food, but also clothing and transportation, then will take maintenance of locally vital infrastructures into their own hands, making the state more and more irrelevant in the process, and at the end a new, relocalized, society will emerge.

The problem is that it won't be painless. The progress ideology is simply to strong for authorities – whether national, local, or international – to plan for decline. Instead, they will suffer it, squandering their resources into delaying the inevitable, and ensuring there will be many more Xinthias.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Requiem for a dying city

A few days ago, I attended a demonstration for the defense of my hometown's shipyard. For me, as for any politician, it was as much business as activism, a part of the electoral campaign I am involved in and an occasion to show my leadership I know the place and am reasonably well known in it. All the unions were there, as well as all the local leaders of the Socialist Party – for those not familiar with French politics, it is the rough equivalent of Labour – but what stroke me was the glaring out-of-touchness of the whole exercise at the beginning of the Age of Decline.

Saint-Nazaire is located at the mouth of the Loire river. It is your typical industrial town, born during of the nineteenth century around its shipyard and its deep water harbor. The local economy is heavily dependent upon the port – which includes a major refinery – the shipyard and the network of more or less independent contractors surrounding it. Needless to say, the city is greatly suffering from the ongoing crisis. The shipyard – owned by a Korean corporation – is literally begging the government for orders and has laid off most of its temporary workers. Small business are closing down in groves and the flow of money which had enabled the township to engage into a massive building program has suddenly dried up.

The chances of Saint-Nazaire recovering are slight, of course. The shipyard had specialized into ocean liners – the RMS Queen Mary 2 was built there – and there is little place for such monsters in a world of scarce resources. Moreover, as peak oil and peak energy force globalization into reverse, the demand for big ship is bound to decline. Most local businessmen are aware, if not of peak oil at least of the necessity to find another economic engine for the region. These days, they are betting on off-shore wind farm. It is doubtful, however, that the cash starved French economy will find the funds it necessary to build even the relatively modest amounts of investment needed for the – largely insufficient – existing project to go somewhere.

Add to this the fact that Saint-Nazaire is caught between the sea and a large coastal swamp, and it becomes obvious it is bound, on the long term, to become again the fishing village it was before the industrialization. In that perspective, the only decent policy is to cushion the decline by helping people to acquire new skills and by diversifying the economy to make it more resilient.

Of course, this is not a discourse locals are willing to hear. Most unions in their pre-demonstration speeches were clamoring for the nationalization of the shipyard. A few days before, a group of striking workers had prevented a just finished liner to leave the port, which jeopardized the signing of a vital contract. This kind of radicalization and scorched earth policy is becoming more and more common in France, and this bodes ill for the coming long descent.

The union men I demonstrated with were no radicals, and while there were a few leftist among us, they were far from being the majority. Most attending politicians belonged to the very tame Socialist Party or to the now quite fangless Communist Party. They had no intention to storm any Winter Palace.

The problem is that industrial workers were promised a future of continued betterment. During the growth years of the sixties and the seventies, when France changed from a predominantly rural nation to an industrial and urban one, they could expect their condition to get better and better with the years and their children to climb up the social ladder. This would not necessarily be easy – there were violent strikes in this time too – but at least, it was within the realm of the possible.

Unions, very much like the bulk of the population, are still trapped in this ideology of perpetual progress, yet cannot help noticing the continuous degradation of most people's living conditions. The result of this cognitive dissonance between the grandiose expectations of the ideology of progress and the bleak reality, is a curious combination of helplessness, despair and anger.

As the society more and more often fails to deliver the promises made during the growth years, the common people feels betrayed. Most often, this leads to cynicism and a steady retreat out of the public square toward family life – not necessarily a bad strategy, by the way. Among those involved in what one can call the “professional dissent” - in a country where unions are chronically short of activists (only 8% of French workers are unionized) - radicalization is pretty much inevitable.

While this anger is understandable, the result of this radicalization is likely to be more and more bitter and more and more violent labor conflict, which will hinder the transition toward some sustainability and make it far more costly than it ought to be.

At this point it is probably pretty much inevitable. There is no way to save large scale industries such as Saint-Nazaire's shipyard, and no way to prevent the loss of jobs. The only thing we can do is try to limit to consequences by developing self-reliance and increasing the domain of the domestic economy... without telling it, for it would mean admitting the inevitability of decline and the vacuity of the ideology of progress.

The fate of Saint-Nazaire will probably be the same as the one of many east-german towns. As the shipyard and the surrounding industries fail, the city will empty. Only old people and those who are too poor to leave will remain. Whole districts will have to be abandoned and when the sea will finally rush into the Briere swamp and turn the city into a near island most of its territory would have become fields and wood again, with the shipyard, the refinery and the German submarine base sunken ruins shrouded with mystery and legends.

The only question is : when will locals will accept, and begin to constructively adapt to the inevitable, instead clinging to a failing model, and sinking with it.