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.


  1. You've painted a vivid portrait of the impact of "the new normal." Merci, Damien.

  2. I am concerned about the future of unionism in Canada, as the first whiffs of pension clawbacks waft around. I think the future of unions lie in the past--rather than fighting for more, they must fight for equality. Wage gaps are literally at feudal levels, CEOs present a target it would be hard to miss. Unions can host the discussion of who we want to be.

  3. Very poignant, please continue posting.

    People are fearful, but they first must feel a part of a group before they can move toward such a huge change as we will need - and I say that as an Yippy-Ki-Yay independent, individualist, American.

    Good luck with your election "we" need more leaders willing to speak the truth.

  4. Arabella, you are welcome.

    Ruben, banding together to defend one's professional interests is a very old occupation - remember the medieval guilds for instance - so we can be sure that even if Union disappear - which is likely on the long term - they will eventually be reborn. As for the necessity of fighting inequalities, you are right, of course, but unlikely to get anything but empty rhetorics.

    Pops, unionized workers, are a part of a community, with a strong organization. The problem is that they are caught in an ideological trap. Some communities need dissolving, you know.

    As for the election, I am too low in the list to be elected, but it has never been the point. The objective is to be in a good position for the departmental and municipal election. French politics are based upon coalitions.

  5. I read the line where you say that people will need to learn new skills and I thought that they will also have to learn a lot of old skills too.

    Good essay, thanks for taking the time to think it through and write it out.

  6. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

    The core message is (regrettably) applicable to many communities, large and small, across the industrial world: only the specifics have to be changed in retelling the story.

    Even more regrettably the effort to "sustain the unsustainable" (h/t to JH Kunstler) will squander the remaining - and rapidly depleting - public resources. Witness in the u.S. of A. the astronomical bailouts of the manufacturers of vaporwealth, the financial "industry" and the "Happy Motoring" industry.

  7. As a Socialist, I've come to the sad conclusion that most Socialists, and certainly all so-called revolutionaries, don't have the capacity to analyse and understand the dynamics of energy depletion and the affects this will have on traditional economic systems. To an extent, this is not surprising. Afterall, Marx largely accepted the underlying economic assumptions of Ricardo and Smith with regard to aggregation of resources and technological innovation.

    None of these gentlement could have predicted the use of oil to generate undreampt of commodity creation and attendant innovation; so they couldn't have foreseen the affects of oil's depletion after a mere 100+ hundred years. The compression of time related to resource transformation into commodities via technological innovations made possible by cheap oil wasn't within their scope of understanding. You can't understand what hasn't happened. Therefore, much Socialist thought is stuck in a rut of orthodoxy from which it can not escape.

    Socialist politicians are the same as business oriented politicians. They are constrained by the same language and narrative. They are required by the common narrative to promise that "progess", "innovation" and "growth" must happen at any cost to be understood and elected. Their methods may differ, but the results will be the same.

    Democracy, like Socialism, has to operate within the material world and its attendant constraints. A community based political-economic system will develop as more individuals are rejected by or choose to reject the growth at all costs narrative. Of course the best and brightest of society have never been in a better position to enrich themselves at the expense of society at large. The average citizen is by necessity limited by their fractionalised labour inputs in a complex economy and often prevented from obtaining relevant information and data with which to make rational economic choices. The Irish govt, for example, has during the last decade created numberous obstacles to obtaining information including legal restriction for private citizens to access to data; farming out govt policy to private corps who aren't obligated to divulge their data collection; and making it financially onerous for citizens to take court cases against the state.

    Strangely enough Sarkozy implemented a group to review accounting procedures which included Joe Stiglitz. They indentified the need to cost and account for such things as the environment and social dislocation. Of course a recovery in the global economy, however anemic, will push these recommendations onto a figurative dusty book shelf.

  8. Bonjour,

    Ravi de trouver des personnes au courant de la crise énergétique, des liens avec la crise financière, etc.

    Cela fait quelques années que j'essaie d'informer autour de moi ici dans les Alpes, quelques conférences ici et là, mais très peu de personnes comprennent vraiment et encore moins agissent.

    Pourquoi publier vous en anglais ? Avez-vous un blog en français ?

    Connaissez-vous Loïc Abadie :
    Excellente analyse financière, mais il ne comprend pas l'aspect catabolique.

    ou TAE :
    Énorme source d'info (à laquelle je contribue), mais en anglais. L'équivalent en français manque, mais il faudrait 48 heures par jour pour le faire.

    Enfin, ravi de vous avoir trouvé, je partage largement votre analyse et voudrais vous lire en français !

    Salutations cordiales,
    François Bartsch

    P.S. Le système exige que je poste en tant qu'anonyme. Désolé.

  9. St. Nazaire's location doesn't look to bad to me (in GoogleMaps). In the future there could be a lot of trade going on in the harbour and the shipyards: maintenance of short and long distance sailing ships based in the region. And fishing and Marais salants, why not? Mining salt will quickly become commercially no-viable.

  10. Dear Sir

    Your observations about the ingrained behaviours of an industrially pampered population are quite true, and i think that deep down, people cannot actually accept that the easy life is over.........or is it?

    As far as i'm concerned, a switch to a hemp based economy would not mean misery and toil, but happiness and health. Hemp provides sustenance, material and wealth for those that grow it. As one era declines, another should rise to balance it.

    All Governments have to do is accept they are not above nature and people to realise nature loves them, and reclaim their right to live free and happy.

    A stroke of a pen and Hemp is back on the menu, unless of course we decide to try and hold on to the bar of soap called industrial society. The tighter you squeeze...................

  11. Frank, that's quite true, many of the skills people will have to learn are “survival skills” their parents practiced out of necessity. Now, there are also a few new things under the sun. My great-grand-mother never had a wind mill in her backyard and some of the crops I intend to grow in mine would have seemed very weird to her.

    Rdatta, that is indeed a major problem. Most politicians down here – including Greens – are big on investment and stimulus program while we should invest in resilience instead. Doing so would entail a major short term cost, monetary, social and political, that is why we can be pretty sure it won't be done.

    Blagroll, the first major study on the the effects of resource depletion was written by William Stanley Jevons in 1865, and Marx must have known it. The problem is that the mythology socialist thought was built around is incompatible with the idea of limits. The objective was basically the same as the sixteenth century Anabaptists : building the Kingdom of Heaven of Earth. It is something you cannot do in a world of scarce resources. Marx was pretty much aware of it, and that is why he battled with Malthus.

    His successors, as often, were less aware of this, mostly, I think, because the ideological school Malthus represented had been vanquished and that the ideology of “growth” and “progress” had been internalized.

    Now, that doesn't not mean that socialist ideals are not worth pursuing, only that, as you said, they must be within the strict constraint put by nature.

    As for Sarkozy... the guy talks a lot and does a lot less.

    François, as a Breton, I do not feel a strong loyalty toward French and the fact is that English enables me to reach more people – that is why I reply in this language, few people could read my answer otherwise. I do have a website in French (, but you'll find it is more political, which is normal given my position. Note that I also work to promote awareness about peak energy within my organization. In my experience, the problem is not that people don't understand, it is that they understand at a theoretical level, but don't change their way of thinking.

    I know of Automatic Earth, not about Loïc Abadie (thank for the link). I am not so sure the debate between deflation and inflation is so significant. My opinion is e can have both, depending of the country or even the market.

    Joerg, that is the difference between the map and the territory. Next to Saint-Nazaire lies a very large swamp, separated from the Loire river by a narrow – and low-lying strip of land. When the sea will rise, this swamp will turn into a shallow gulf, cutting Saint-Nazaire from the mainland. The port will be drowned and while shallow waters are good for fishing, they are very bad for anchoring ships. There are flat salts north of Saint-Nazaire (well, there were before last week's storm) but they too will be drowned. Others may be created, but farther east. Saint-Nazaire will become isolated on a rocky near-island.

    James, while hemp may be useful, I frankly doubt one can build an industrial civilization upon it.

  12. Bonjour,

    Le débat sur la flation (inflation ou déflation) est critique car, selon l'analyse, le résultat conditionne et détermine toute politique.

    Si la France et l'UE s'orientent vers l'inflation, alors c'est moins grave de s'endetter comme nous le faisons.

    Mais si nous nous orientons vers la déflation, comme j'en suis persuadé, alors les dettes que nous accumulons feront probablement capoter tous les régimes sociaux (SS, retraites, etc.).

    D'aucuns remarqueraient que les régimes sociaux vont échouer de toute façon, c'est probablement vrai à long terme, mais entre-temps, il y aurait beaucoup à faire pour amortir les chocs.

    En cas de déflation, qui à mon sens a déjà commencé, l'actuelle politique de relance est une absurdité très couteuse.


    Une remarque sur la flation. Tout dépend bien entendu de comment nous définissons les termes, mais si nous sommes d'accord que l'inflation/déflation sont des phénomènes monétaires, alors il est impossible d'avoir les deux en même temps au sein d'une même entité économique.

    En revanche, il est parfaitement possible (et courant) d'avoir d'abord l'une, ensuite l'autre. Selon mon analyse, nous nous engageons actuellement dans la déflation et elle durera de nombreuses années, le temps d'apurer les avoirs douteux des banques et des créanciers en général. Sur le chemin, nous pouvons nous attendre à ce que le marché obligataire (d'État) connaisse une crise majeure. Une fois la liquidation achevée (5 à 8 ans ?), l'inflation devrait revenir en force (le contrecoup des sommes investies actuellement dans la relance).


    Une remarque sur le choix de langue. J'avais déjà entendu que les Bretons étaient si fâchés avec le français qu'ils étaient prêts à s'allier à un danger plus grand encore...

    Je comprends ceux qui veulent promouvoir les langues autres que le français en France. L'histoire de l'imposition du français est effectivement insupportable. Je suppose que vous avez lu Duneton, ex. Parler croquant.

    Mais je trouve votre choix très dommageable car il manque cruellement de sites en français sur la triple crise (eco/fin, énergie, environnement). Vous dites que les gens comprennent sur le plan théorique. Je suppose que cela dépend des personnes rencontrées, mais mon expérience (issue notamment de plusieurs conférences données sur le sujet) est que les gens ne veulent pas admettre les nombreux liens entres les différents aspects des trois crises et surtout tirer une conclusion d'ensemble.

    Vous dites que vous toucherez plus de personnes, mais il existe déjà beaucoup de sites sur le sujet en anglais. Les anglophones sont largement servis. Ce n'est pas le cas pour la France et il me semble que vos électeurs et concitoyens ont besoin de mieux comprendre. Ce que vous avez à dire (dont le style d'ailleurs me fait penser à John Michael Greer, que vous devez connaître) leur serait utile.

    Cela étant, je comprendrai si vous préférez ne pas publier cette réponse sur un site anglophone. Mais je vous engage à réfléchir à un autre site en français.

    Salutations cordiales,
    François Bartsch

  13. Should it really be this bad? While monster-ships, the big cruise liners, the too-big-for-panama container ships and the super tankers, are all headed for decline, there ought to be more of a market for smaller variants of all these. In the US, the Great Lakes system is on the up-swing. We're even reviving the Erie Canal system. One should be able to find some niche for Saint Nazaire in the new economy.

  14. Anonymous, that is definitely a possibility and some local entrepreneurs are thinking about it, but this kind of activity won't support the same population as today's shipyards. Besides, Saint-Nazaire is not necessarily well located for this as the Loire river is dangerous to navigate on after Nantes and its mouth is likely to be flooded as the sea rises. The Vilaine, a bit farther to the north would be a better choice as it is connected to a working canal and has a lot of infrastructures for small boat – for tourism, of course, but that will change.

    François, it is relatively common for states to inflate their debts out of existence, even if most of the time, it is not on purpose. The Roman did, for instance, albeit in a cruder way. In that particular case, the results were not good, but that is not necessarily a given.

    On the short term, the choice between inflation and deflation will be very significant for the everyday life of our citizens, but remember that states are not individuals. They can stop inflation by creating a new currency – Germany did during the twenties. They can default on debts – that is what Iceland is doing right now. They can unilaterally change their retirement and social system. Of course they may not be willing, or able, to pay the political price for it, but that is another problem.

    Now you are right, a large scale deflation will drastically increase the burden of both private and public debts, that is why I don't think it will be allowed to happen. It is, after all relatively easy to avoid : you just need to print money.

    Both inflation and deflation are purely monetary phenomenons as long as the supply of physical goods remains constant, which we both know won't be the case. Besides, as some parts of the monetary system are more or less disconnected from the physical economy, so you can theoretically have inflation in what Schumacher calls the tertiary sphere – financial products mostly – and deflation for raw materials.

    I agree with you that there are too few good sites about peak oil in French – Oleocène is not so bad, however, and Wolf at the Door has a French translation. Now there are only so many hours in any given day. Besides, I am not exactly uninvolved in the political scene, so whatever I write in French can – not will, I am not so important – become a subject of polemics. Writing in English removes this problem. I principally work inside my organization, with some success at the theoretical level but unfortunately, as I said there is an abyss between accepting the end of growth at a theoretical level and effectively change one everyday worldview.

    As for John Michael Greer, he indeed greatly influenced me, as did Heinberg and Odum.