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.


  1. What I gathered from the german press: One of the main reasons for the energy crisis in France seems to be the prevalent electric heating which obviously drew a lot of power when winter set in. That and aging infrastructure.

  2. Interesting that Brittany has taken a firmer stand and said "No" to Nuclear power. Here in Wales, alas, we have been a little more lax, and there are proposals to renew the life of a nuclear power station in the north. One of the main companies I believe is EDF.

    Very interesting blog, by the way! Good to hear a continental, particularly a Breton perspective on these matters, particularly against the wider backdrop of Peak Oil.

  3. You make some interesting points here. As a counterpoint to the "monoethnic America" model, take a look at "The Nine Nations of North America" at (a summary of Garreau's book).

  4. Joerg, the preference for electric heating is a consequence of the French power policies since the eihgties. Basically France bet on nuclear power, which enabled her to produce very cheap electricity and made electric heating a very interesting proposition... for a time. The problem is that the bills are coming due

    Draig, during the late seventies, the State tried to build a nuclear plant in Plogoff. Locals resisted as they always do and the local left rallied around them. It was a huge fight which polarized local politics for years. In 1981, the left won the elections and cancelled the project. Plogoff has since become a defining moment for the left so nobody hoping to be elected will open this can of worms again.

    As far as I know, Wales did not have such mythology building moment - the equivalent would be a fight against a nuclear plant supported by local Labor and Plaid won through an electoral victory. Of course, it can have one in the future

    Dwig, I have heard about Garreau's book, but the differences he highlights are of the kind which exists betwwen two French or German regions. In Vannes all sign posts are bilingual and Scotland is ruled by an openly secessionist government. You won't find anything of this kind in the USA.

  5. From where I sit in the United States, we do not look as monolithic and homogenous as we might to those across the water.

    As it happens, we have a seperate "nation" forming within the United States, that made of those of hispanic origin who identify much more strongly with their native countries than they do with other Americans. Additionally, the U.S. has many festering regional animosities that will probably come to a head and tear the country apart along regional lines as resource shortages- oil and water- make it impossible to continue to maintain megacities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and perhaps even Los Angeles, which are heavily dependent upon water diverted by dozens of large hydro dams. It will be impossible to maintain the massive Colorado River plumbing system that made our deserts habitable, but the denizens of the west are in complete denial about this, and as we proceed down the slope and these areas slide into complete failure, the regional competition for dwindling resources will become brutal.

    Meanwhile, the American south is still, in the hearts of its denizens, fighting the Civil War, and the Great Lakes states have, with some Canadian provinces, signed one of the most protective water pacts ever, which is designed to protect the Great Lakes from encroachment GL watershed. There is also the racial divide, and a greater class divide than ever.

    So far, our relative plentitude of resources has smoothed out the bitter racial, ethnic, and regional animosities, but I don't expect the peace to last very long when essential oil and water resources become scarce and expensive in the years ahead.

  6. I do not think you are right in the assumption that Europe will collapse first (if it indeed collapses).
    We just do not know. Surely, Europe has depleted its fossil resources more than any other region on earth. But it also has advantages that are absent from the US. The main one of these is local food production. In almost all European countries food production exists on a local level. In the US, food travels a lot more and large industrial farms have a much larger share than in Europe.

    The other advantage that Europe has is transportation. Water transport is the cheapest of all options and Europe with its ragged shoreline has a lot more options than the US.

    And the 3rd one is adaptability. While the US has enjoyed a continuous development, Europe underwent several world-wars, regime changes and survived it.

    As for the US being a united culture - it is simply not true. There are hispanics and afro-americans and various other immigrant groups. These groups are not even separated geographically.
    Other US disadvantages include: huge distances, low population density, non-walkable neighborhoods, the utter dependence on cars, hundreds of millions of firearms in private hands.

    The future is not knowable and speculation about collapse is just that: speculation.

    If there is a sudden collapse, population will collapse quickly as well. Wars will not erupt between nation-states, but between neighbours and communities.
    Survivors will have plenty of land left and there will be no point in waging wars for quite some time.

  7. hi,

    good article! Enjoyed reading it.
    In case here is my longer article about the peak load stress problem
    in France and Europe. It matches well with the most recent
    news in France and the little blackout on December 21.

    regards Michael
    (ps.. the date of the article was just happening like that)

  8. North Coast, such regional rivalities do exist in Europe - there is a real water problem in Spain, for instance - but between areas where nationalism - whether national or regional - is a real force. If Wisconsin refuses to provide Nevada with water, it will be egoism and borderline treason. If Catalonia does the same, it will be national self-affirmation.

    The same with migrants. We have migrants too - mostly muslims which makes things more complex. The historical norm, however is for migrants to become assimilated as they climb up the social ladder. Thre are exceptions, of course, but even when immigrants do take over, as the Anglo-Saxons did, they do so within the framework of existing polities.

    To seccede, a minority needs a territorial basis and a coherent, reasonably autonomous society. Immigrants don't have anything like that, at least not to the extent Welsh or Navajo have. As for loyalty to another country, there is nothing new, remember the Fenian raids or the German American Bund.

    The South might have been another matter, but I am skeptical. Dixiecrat parties are fairly marginal and the lost cause rhetoric sounds very much like folklore to me.

    Anonymous 1, I am afraid you are overly optimistic. While a fast crash is and will remain a fantasy - unless we are hit by a meteor - a slow collapse is pretty much inevitable at this point, and Europe is ill prepared to it.

    European may be still based upon small farms by American standards, it is every bit as industrialized as yours. Brittany is a major farming region of a major farming country, but our farmers do use a lot of oil and ship their products all over the continent. Should oil stop flowing, our agriculture would collapse.

    It is true that we have a ragged shoreline - especially here in Brittany - but this offers oportunities only for coastal towns. To transport goods inland, you still have to use train or car... and remember that before the oil revolution, "inland" meant "farther than five kilometers from the coast"

    I can also tell you than our cities are not very walkable - unless you are wealthy enough to live downtown - and the working class is heavily dependent upon car. As for weapons... hunting is very popular in the countryside.

    In fact, I am afraid you project your wishes upon Europe without knowing much of its everyday reality. Jung would talk of shadow.

    Anonymous 2, thanks for the link, I will put it to good use.

  9. Damien, don't think for a minute that the Great Lakes States won't be "treasonous and egotistical" when it comes to protecting our fresh water supply. There is spirited resistance to recent proposals to pipe Great Lakes water out to the west, best summed up by the attitude that "if you want sun, move out west; if you want water, move back to the midwest".

    Other localities are involved in similar disputes over shrinking water supplies, and I predict that as oil depletion gains traction, and it becomes impossible to pay for the maintenance of the dozens of dams on the Colorado, that these disputes lead to a fracturing of the country along regional lines. I also predict that the parched western states will lose most of their population, especially mega-city areas like Las Vegas and Phoenix, which would never have attained their current size were it not for the massive water-reclamation projects of the past 80 years. As it is, vicious disputes over water are erupting in the southeast, where too many communities have overlapping claims on over-tapped water supplies. I suspect that many of these communities will become unlivable over time and their denizens will migrate to places with better native resources.

    This is really OK- it means that the population will re-organize itself in communities with ample water resources, instead of in places totally dependent upon an expensive, and rather dangerous, water delivery system that was possible only with cheap fossil fuels and lavish allocations of taxpayers money, at the expense of more sustainable cities of the Midwest and inland Northeast, which are located on major waterways. These older communities were destroyed to pay for the unsustainable cities of the west, and they lie ready to be repopulated and rebuilt, for the same reason that the people who founded them chose to locate them where they did to begin with- because they have ample fresh water, easy water transport, and fertile hinterlands with some of the finest agricultural land in the world.

  10. Was steered your way from John Michael Greer's "The Archdruid Report". Interesting, reading the point of view from Europe. I'm off to read more. Thanks.

  11. Good stuff. I'm in Canada and we don't get "on the ground" stuff from Europe. As Damien mentioned, we're mostly led to think you guys are more advanced than us North Americans and I see it's not a simple story. Learning to grow food and be useful wherever we live is good, even if our country is still betting on the system (as they pretty well all are!).