What does Gilets jaunes mean?

Rumblings on the hustings, the corporate global economic order has Always been predicated on sacrificing the working class. Always:

It’s obvious now, however, that the new model not only weakened the fringes of the proletariat but society as a whole.The paradox is this is not a result of the failure of the globalised economic model but of its success. In recent decades, the French economy, like the European and US economies, has continued to create wealth. We are thus, on average, richer. The problem is at the same time unemployment, insecurity and poverty have also increased. The central question, therefore, is not whether a globalised economy is efficient, but what to do with this model when it fails to create and nurture a coherent society?

In France, as in all western countries, we have gone in a few decades from a system that economically, politically and culturally integrates the majority into an unequal society that, by creating ever more wealth, benefits only the already wealthy.

The change is not down to a conspiracy, a wish to cast aside the poor, but to a model where employment is increasingly polarised. This comes with a new social geography: employment and wealth have become more and more concentrated in the big cities. The deindustrialised regions, rural areas, small and medium-size towns are less and less dynamic. But it is in these places – in “peripheral France” (one could also talk of peripheral America or peripheral Britain) – that many working-class people live. Thus, for the first time, “workers” no longer live in areas where employment is created, giving rise to a social and cultural shock.

Switch out France périphérique for the Rust Belt. They are interchangeable, except that the former has not, as yet, voted straight fascist and retains the habit of taking to the street – as well as tearing up parts of it to throw at the police. It’s how different cultures tackle the same problem: the left-behindness, debt, low pay, high taxes, inequality, and ignorance upon which the limited successes of late capitalism depend. It’s certainly not pleasant, but people have long-understood this and attempted to warn us from the dragons – Dr. K, Joe Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty – nor it is unrelated to the bizarre vortex we’ve been documenting here for ten(!) years. And the Gilets jaunes are not solving this problem. But they are making us look, and we’re not even used to that.

Image: Author photo of a different type of inundation, near Pont Neuf, 2016

Changing Approach to Water

Not that we can sneak up on it, but getting used to dealing with the implications of its scarcity. Even if not directly, though every region will have its bouts with drought and flirtations with conservation, fallout from water shortages range far and wide, as the situations in Kenya and Mexico attest. And voila, it’s not just a shortage of rainfall but a dynamic mixture of poor planning and short-sightedness that builds in non-trivial amounts of waste into our concepts of ‘use’:

Mexico’s hurricane season has been mild, with no major hits so far this summer, though a weak Hurricane Jimena dropped plenty of rain on parts of Baja California and the northwestern state of Sonora last week. The sparse rainfall nationwide has made 2009 the driest in 69 years of government record-keeping, Arreguin said.

Even before the drought, managing water was one of the most vexing issues for Mexico City, which 500 years ago was a big lake. Now paved in asphalt and concrete, the city pipes in much of its water (then, through separate plumbing, expels wastewater to prevent flooding during rainy times).

Since most rainwater pours down storm drains into the sewer network, it is not absorbed into the underground aquifers that are the city’s main source of water. Decades of over-pumping is emptying those deposits and causing Mexico City to sink, in some places by more than a foot a year.

So… just so you know, there’s no sitting back and feeling bad for those poor people in a “but for the Grace of God… ” kind of way. Sorry, all out of isolated, unconnected events. Come back next… time? To recap, we are subject to not just immediate, local effects but larger pressures on surrounding ecosystems and political systems which emerge, gain strength and ripple outward. How do we study, learn about and prepare for how these things work together? Do we? Perhaps a better question would be how can we understand these kinds of long-term phenomena when we’re more concerned with fanning debates about evolution, gay marriage, presidential birth certificates and other ‘issues’ I largely ignore on this site in favor of more problematic, actual problems? Alas, there’s a short answer.

Update: as I wanted or needed further evidence.

That graph in figure 4.1

The National Academy of Engineering charged some of their leading thinkers to come up with the top 20 engineering achievements of the 20th century. Among them:

1. Electrification

2. Automobile

4. Water supply and distribution

11. Highways

12. Spacecraft

13. Internet

19. Nuclear technologies

20. High-performance materials

They have also taken up the mantle of identifying the grand challenges for engineering in the future.

Foremost among the challenges are those that must be met to ensure the future itself. The Earth is a planet of finite resources, and its growing population currently consumes them at a rate that cannot be sustained. Widely reported warnings have emphasized the need to develop new sources of energy, at the same time as preventing or reversing the degradation of the environment.

Among these are making solar energy economical, managing the nitrogen cycle, reverse-engineering the brain, enhancing virtual reality and advancing health informatics. Notice how, though they will utilize technology, unlike the earlier list, they are not about inventing new things. They are about figuring out the really hard stuff. It’s almost as if we’ve already tackled a lot of the easy stuff and now, what’s left? Exactly. The complex systems. What is the nitrogen cycle? One of the most important nutrient cycles in the terrestial ecosystems, one which human activity has significantly altered by introducing more N in the form of fertilizers than the system can remotely accept, much less use. But a familiarity with these challenges is for more than tomorrow’s engineering. And we shouldn’t even be counting on them.

Colleagues tell me that implicit in bringing up these challenges is the NAE saying that, as presently construed, they can’t meet these challenges either. They know they to need to change the way they approach problem solving (choose your own word to emphasize), from relying on mere calculations to mustering a systems approach to the complexity, venturing out past where the laws and theorems apply. And to repeat once again, you don’t need to run out and buy a pocket protector, but they = we.