Monday, September 1, 2014
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Taking August Seriously

TOULOUSE – Europe’s holiday month of August is no time for serious politics. The world and its worries are meant to close down while Europeans repose.

I usually spend the month with my family at our old converted farmhouse in southwestern France. It is the deepest countryside. As I write this under a vine in my vegetable garden, I look west across wooded hills and cannot see another building.

In our hamlet, there is one small working farm, a couple of holiday houses and the ruins of seven or eight other houses. A century ago, this would have been a community of more than 50 people. Today, there are two full-time residents, the farmer and her elderly mother. Otherwise, the inhabitants are vacation visitors.

Progress in France brought a fairly recent migration from country to town. “How is it,” a local pig farmer asked me a few a years ago, “that we locals all want to get out of here, and you northern  European city dwellers want to buy up our old farmhouses and move in?” It is a part, I suppose, of the urban, middle-class northern European dream – the pursuit of the sun by day and silence by night.

Even in the 15 years that we have owned this former tobacco farm, further progress has left its mark. In our village, there used to be two of every shop – butcher’s shop, bakery, hardware store. Now, there is only one. Supermarkets in the surrounding towns have driven the smaller shops out of business. I guess they provide more choice, and they are probably cheaper. But the commercial life has been squeezed out of local villages.

Another mark of progress is the arrival of a broadband Internet connection. So now I can use my laptop just as though I was at home in London, and the satellite dish gives us the world’s television and radio stations as well. This is an advance in many respects. But I used to be able to switch off from the world when on holiday, cut off from the intrusions of technology. Today there are no excuses. I am always on duty.

Thanks to our television, we have of course been able to witness signs of progress elsewhere. Maybe the terrible floods in Pakistan and China are not the direct result of climate change. But the evidence seems to suggest that variations in climactic conditions are increasing in scale and frequency. We know that a 17-fold increase in the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere over the last century is part of the price of the surge in our prosperity, and that the world’s poorest citizens will bear the heaviest burden in paying it.

We have also been able to watch on our televisions this month what appears to be the final stages in the battle to cap the huge oil spill off the coast of Florida and Louisiana. Will this environmental disaster persuade Americans to look harder at their incontinent use of energy? Will it affect their love affair with the internal combustion engine and air conditioning? I rather doubt it.

Defining progress in ways that make it sustainable and allow us to maintain the best of the past is difficult. Opposition to globalization and market forces has often been the preferred way of trying to hang on to an idealized view of what life used to be like. This produces paradoxical results here in France, where – despite all the anti-globalization rhetoric – McDonald’s is more popular than anywhere else in Europe.

French companies do spectacularly well in the global market place. At home, meanwhile, small, distinctively French businesses – cheese makers, patisseries, or restaurateurs – get hammered by heavy taxes and social-welfare costs while supermarkets flourish selling products from Asia.

So, how do we keep the best of what is familiar and foster the identity of our local neighborhoods and regions while embracing the sort of changes that make most of us better off? How can we make markets and technology serve us rather than – as so often seems to be true – vice versa?

One partial solution is to try harder to put a price on what we call progress. What are the real costs of out-of-town shopping malls in terms of increased traffic and loss of green spaces, for example? What may make sense in the vast open reaches of Texas will not necessarily work in rural France or Britain.

How can we ensure that technology meets the needs of the poor and does not simply increase the divide between laptop-owning, Blackberry-using Westerners like me and the poor in India or China?

Above all, when will we agree to assign real costs to the energy we use, especially carbon-based resources? The casualties of our failure to do so will be future generations of flood victims in Asia and China, farmers in drought-hit Russia and Africa, and everyone’s grandchildren, like my five, with whom I have spent this summer. What sort of legacy will today’s “progress” bequeath to them? We like to think that older generations always leave a better world for those that follow. Is that still true?

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