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The Mysterious Allure of Being French

5 October 2020

On Sunday New Caledonia voted to remain French by a majority of 53.3% to 46.%. That’s hardly an overwhelming majority, but it was the second referendum in two years to reject independence in the South Pacific archipelago, so we may take it as a done deal.

The odd thing about that outcome is that almost three-quarters of the islands’ 270,000 people are not of European descent. They are ‘Kanaks’ (descended from the original Melanesian inhabitants), other Pacific islanders, or Asians, but a substantial proportion of them want to remain citizens of a European country more than 16,000 km away.

Yet it’s not unique. While the other powers of Western Europe gave all their colonies independence more than a generation ago, France stays on not only in the South Pacific (New Caledonia and French Polynesia) but in Africa (Mayotte and Réunion), in the Caribbean (Martinique and Guadeloupe) and in South America (French Guiana).

Moreover, it does so with the approval of the local inhabitants, although nowhere are ethnic French people a majority. What is the mysterious allure of being French that persuades so many non-European people to vote in favour of living in ‘overseas departments’ of France itself?

A large part of the allure is spelled M-O-N-E-Y. If you live in an overseas department of France, then you get a good, free education and a French level of public and social services. Per capita income in New Caledonia is ten times that in other nearby island nations like Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, and the Solomon Islands.

Mauritius and Réunion are almost identical large islands off the east coast of Madagascar. They even both speak French, but Mauritius fell into British hands in 1810 and got its independence in 1968, whereas Réunion stayed under French rule and is now a overseas department of France. Per capita GDP in Mauritius is $11,203 a year, in Réunion $25,900.

It’s the same in the Caribbean. Guadeloupe and Martinique, each with around 400,000 people, have GDPs per capita of $25-27,000; the two nearest ex-British islands, Dominica and St. Lucia, are in the $7-10,000 range. And French Guiana has the highest per capita income in all of South America (though that is largely due to the fact that it hosts the European Union’s main spaceport).

Most startling of all is the Comoro Islands, north of Madagascar. Three of the four main islands voted for independence in a 1974 referendum. The fourth island, Mayotte, voted to stay with France then, and chose full ‘overseas department’ status by a 95.5% majority in another referendum in 2009.

The proudly independent ‘Union of the Comoros’, one million people strong, has a GDP per capita of $1,400. Mayotte’s is ten times as high, and half of its quarter-million people are illegal immigrants from the other islands.

The African Union still insists that Mayotte’s status is illegal, because it didn’t decolonise with the other islands, but the Mahorais aren’t interested, especially since the Union of the Comoros is also the world capital of military coups. They also don’t seem to mind that traditional Islamic law is now being replaced by the French civil code (or at least the female half of the population doesn’t).

None of these places is an earthly paradise, and none enjoys as high a living standard as France itself. There were violent independence movements in several of them in the 1970s, before France hit on the strategy of showering them with economic benefits.

It makes perfectly good sense for a New Caledonian or a Réunionnais to trade in the doubtful blessings of impoverished small-state nationhood for the citizenship of a First-World country and access to all its benefits, without even having to leave home.

And if you do want to leave home, you can move to France (as many do) or anywhere else in the European Union, for that matter. The real puzzle is: what’s in it for the French?

It’s certainly not economic gain: the subsidies France pays far outweigh any profits it might get from privileged access to the limited resources of these small territories. The benefits for France are almost all psychological.

Most other European empires were run as pragmatic business ventures. If the colonies are not turning a profit any more, perhaps because they are getting too expensive to control, then walk away and leave them to their own devices.

France had a bigger emotional investment in empire, perhaps because it was in steady decline from being the greatest European power in the 18th century to a much humbler status today. It could be pragmatic if necessary (as when it gave all its mainland African colonies independence in 1960), but it’s willing to pay for the privilege of having small bits of France in other continents.

Who could criticise the residents of those places for taking advantage of this foible?
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“Mauritius…$25,900″; and “None…benefits”)

What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Climate Change

Human beings respond well to a crisis that is familiar, especially if it is also imminent. They don’t do nearly as well when the threat is unfamiliar and still apparently quite distant. Consider our response to the current coronavirus threat.

Countries in East Asia with recent experience of similar viruses (SARS, etc.) immediately responded with ‘test, track and isolate’ drills, plus instant lock-downs if the virus had already gained a foothold in the population.

Other countries, just as rich and well-educated, had the same information, but they still waited several months before taking emergency measures that upset the comfortable routine of their lives. So the United States, Britain and France all ended up with death rates per million more than fifty times higher than China, Korea and Japan.

The same applies to global heating, except that in this case we are all Americans. None of us has prior experience of a genuine climate crisis, and although we have known enough about what’s going to happen to justify urgent action for thirty years now, we have done nothing decisive about it.

We have lots of ‘clean’ technology, but total demand for energy has grown so fast that we are still getting a steady 80% of our energy from fossil fuels. Realistically, this is not going to change much. We are who we are, shaped by millions of years of evolution, and our ancestors didn’t do long-term planning; they had to concentrate on acute short-term problems.

A truly serious response to the climate threat will therefore come only when it is actually starting to hurt. Unfortunately, by then it will probably be too late.

The Earth system – biosphere, atmosphere, the oceans, the rocks, all the components that govern the climate – plays by its own rules. It will absorb new inputs like warming for a long time while changing as little as possible: it’s a ‘homeostatic’ system.

We are still benefiting from this feature now: a full degree Celsius of warming already, and not much to show for it except hotter summers, shorter winters and bigger storms. But when the pressure on the climate system gets too great – reaches a ‘tipping point’ – it is liable to charge off in unpredictable directions at high speed.

‘Non-linear change’, they call it, and we won’t like it a bit. Hundreds of millions, maybe billions, will start to die.

THEN we’ll be ready to make great changes to save ourselves, but it will be too late. Human systems will be collapsing under the impact of famines, wars and endless waves of refugees, and besides once the climate hits non-linear change it’s almost impossible to bring it back. We’re stuck with wherever it ends up, whether that new state will support a large human civilisation or not.

How far ahead is this calamity? We probably have at least a decade or two. Will we end all our greenhouse gas emissions in that time? Probably not.

‘Cutting’ our emissions isn’t enough. We actually have to stop all of our emissions before we push the climate system over the edge, and we don’t even know precisely where the edge is.

Every bit of emissions we can cut now gives us a little more time before we reach the edge, but the global population will still be going up and people in the poorer countries will still be increasing their energy use. (It’s their turn; you can’t deny them that.)

So the crisis almost certainly will arrive, and then we will finally be willing to make radical changes. What we will desperately need at that point is more time. That’s why we will need geoengineering.

Geoengineering is not a cure; it is a way of temporarily counteracting the warming caused by our emissions of greenhouse gases, by reflecting a small part of the incoming sunlight in one way or another.

In fact, you could say that it is ‘positive’ geoengineering, as opposed to the large-scale ‘negative’ geoengineering we have been doing for the past two centuries by dumping huge amounts of warming gases into the atmosphere.

When we are finally ready to act decisively on global warming, we will need a window of time to make the changes that are required to preserve this global civilisation and the biosphere it now dominates. Only geoengineering can create that window.

We don’t need to start geoengineering now. It would be wonderful if we never have to do it, but that would take a miracle. We cannot know how long we would have to go on doing it, either: long enough to get the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back down to a safe level, certainly, which would be at least a matter of decades.

But even without knowing the answers to these questions, we clearly need to speed up research and testing of the various potential techniques for geoengineering now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Cutting…that”)

Nobody Mention UBI

When you lock the people down (to save their lives), you inevitably close down a lot of the economy as well. And the lockdown will definitely have to last in most countries until May or June: Donald Trump’s promise of a ‘beautiful timeline’ to reopening the US economy just two weeks hence is delusional. So where’s the money coming from in the meantime?

The majority of people still have jobs they get paid for: people in essential services who have to go to work, people who can do their work from home, and quite a few others as well.

However, between a third and quarter of the employed population has been left idle as their employers, from airlines to retail businesses, downsize or shut temporarily. If you leave these people without income, then you are reproducing the conditions of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment peaked at 24% in the United States and the country’s GDP shrank by almost half.

Adolf Hitler came to power when German unemployment reached 30%: misery and desperation can lead to violence. Nobody wanted to see that movie again, so after the Second World War every developed country created a welfare state to shelter its population from the worst effects of the ‘business cycle’.

The welfare state has served us well for most of a century (including in the United States, whose rudimentary welfare state was first in the field with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s). But it is not enough to keep the wheels turning when a huge chunk of the workforce had dropped out for reasons that are not economic but health-related.

That’s why governments, including deeply orthodox right-wing ones like the Conservatives in Britain and the Republicans in the United States, are turning to what economist Milton Friedman first named ‘helicopter money’ half a century ago.

The idea is that a government can reboot an economy in which spending power has collapsed (because so many are out of work) by simply giving the penniless consumers free money – as if throwing it out of a helicopter. After all, it’s free money for the government too: they just ask the central banks to print it for them.

At this point traditionalists will begin to mutter about inflation, and the risk of undermining the work ethic, and various other shibboleths, but the governments in all the bigger Western economies – the US, the UK, Germany, France – are in conservative hands at the moment, and they are all doing it.

As Robert Chote, director of Britain’s comically named Office for Budget Responsibility, said last week: “When the fire is large enough you just spray the water and worry about it later.” So get in the chopper and start dropping the money.

Sweden has guaranteed laid-off workers 90% of their incomes until the health crisis is past, France is offering ‘partial unemployment benefits’ equal to 84% of the workers’ incomes, and Britain is offering 80%. In every case the employers (who are also getting government aid) are expected to hold their employees’ jobs open for them when normal service is restored.

Even the self-employed, including the ‘gig’ workers who now make up around 10% of the workforce, are not being left out. Norway is giving them 80% of their income based on their last three years of tax returns (tough luck if they understated it), and most other European countries will follow suit.

The United States government is less generous, of course, and would be even under a Democratic administration: the free-market ideology is the real national religion. President Trump is talking about $1,200 per person (the same as Hong Kong is giving its citizens), but only for one month or at the most two. And the proposal is still stuck in Congress.

Nevertheless, what all these governments (and others elsewhere in the world) are really playing with is the idea of a guaranteed national income that nobody can fall below. Only temporarily, you understand. Once the Covid-19 virus is tamed, we’ll go back to the dog-eat-dog, devil-take-the-hindmost economy we all know and love.

Really? You think that after six months or a year of this we will just go back tamely to the old economic rules? I rather doubt it.

The political and economic rules do not evolve gradually in modern societies; they shift in sudden great lurches. The First World War drew millions of women into the factories and kick-started women’s emancipation.

The rise of fascism and the Second World War required the creation of the full welfare state (which was previously restricted to meagre old age pensions) to avoid a replay the next time the economy tanked.

The current emergency may be fostering the rise of ideas previously seen as too radical to contemplate, but nobody say ‘Universal Basic Income’ yet. You’ll frighten the horses.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“At this…doing it”; and “Even…suit”)

Germany, Japan and the War on Rationality

Germany and Japan are finally winning a war together. Unfortunately, it is the War on Rationality.

Coal, as everybody knows, is by far the most damaging source of energy we use, in terms of both the harm to human beings and the impact on the climate. It’s twice as bad as natural gas, and dozens of times worse than solar or nuclear or wind power. Yet both Germany and Japan have been building lots of new coal-fired power stations. Why?

Would it upset you if I said it’s because they are, despite their apparent sophistication, superstitious peasants at heart? Well, go ahead and get upset.

Germany still gets more than a third of its energy from burning coal, and most of it is ultra-polluting lignite or ‘brown’ coal. If most of Germany’s seventeen nuclear power had not been shut down after 2012 (the last are scheduled to close within two years), then at least half that coal would not have been needed.

There had been an active anti-nuclear power movement in Germany for some time, but what triggered the 2012 decision to shut the entire sector down was the Fukushima incident of the previous year.

I am deliberately avoiding the words ‘calamity’, ‘disaster’ and ‘catastrophe’, because while the Fukushima tsunami killed 19,000 people, the subsequent problem with the four nuclear reactors on the coast killed nobody. Yet the German people, or at least a large number of German anti-nuclear activists, insisted that any nuclear reactor anywhere was a mortal danger, and the government agreed to shut all the German nuclear plants down.

The same thing happened in Japan. The Japanese planners were foolish to put four reactors on the coast in a region where earthquakes and consequent tsunamis were to be expected from time to time, but what needs to be condemned is Japanese planners, not nuclear power. Nevertheless, all fifty Japanese nuclear reactors, which supplied 30% of the country’s electrical power, were immediately shut down.

The Japanese are not as blindly dogmatic as the Germans: two of those nuclear plants reopened in 2015, and seven more reopened recently. A further seventeen are in the lengthy process of restart approval, so by 2030 the Japanese government hopes to be getting 20% of its electricity from nuclear power again.

But that’s only half the amount of nuclear power that Japan originally planned to have available by 2030, and the gap between 20% and the planned 40% of the country’s energy needs will be made up by burning coal. Japan recently announced that it plans to build 22 new coal-burning power plants in the next five years.

This is deeply irresponsible behaviour, and the worst thing is that the decision-makers know it. They are just deferring to public opinion, which in this instance is entirely wrong. The ‘superstitious peasants’ should really be frightened of global warming, for which coal-burning is a major driver, not of relatively harmless nuclear power.

That’s not to say that nuclear power is the solution to all our problems, or even most of them. It is generally the most expensive option because it is costs so much to build the reactors and the associated controls and safety devices. Indeed, nuclear is no longer cost-competitive with other ‘clean’ sources of power like wind and solar.

So there is a case for not building any more nuclear power stations, at least in regions and countries that have ample resources in terms of sun and wind. But there is no case for shutting down existing nuclear stations and burning more coal to make up the difference. That is so stupid it verges on the criminal.

Other countries can be idiotic too. Due to an administrative glitch, Chinese provinces are currently building hundreds of unnecessary coal-fired power stations that may never be used, since the central government expects the country’s coal use to peak this year – and most existing Chinese coal plants already sit idle more than half of the time.

At least China is also building nuclear plants as fast as it can, and last year accounted for more than half the world’s output of solar panels. (On the other hand, it is providing work for the Chinese construction industry by building a planned 300 coal-fired power stations in other countries, presumably on the unspoken assumption that carbon dioxide emissions elsewhere won’t affect China’s climate.)

But nobody is as crazy as the Germans and the Japanese, who have been shutting down nuclear plants and replacing them with coal-fired plants. France will close its last coal-fired station in 2022, and Britain will do the same in 2025, but Germany says 2038 and Japan just says ‘eventually’. That’s far too late: by then the die will be cast, and the world will be committed to more than 2 degrees C of warming.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14. (“This is…power”; and “At least…climate”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.