Article by Ralph Schoellhammer
The foundations for the modern world were laid in less than a hundred years. Michael Faraday discovered magnetic induction in 1831. Justus von Liebig documented plant metabolism in 1840. James Clerk Maxwell published his description of electromagnetism in 1865. In 30 years, humanity achieved an understanding of the physical world that was necessary for electricity generation, artificial fertilisers and wireless communication.
The West enjoyed a level of societal energy that propelled it to global dominance. This was made possible by extending the lifetime and productive capacity of the most important resource of all – human beings. As medicine and hygiene standards progressed, so did life expectancies and birth rates.
At a glance, Europe and the US still appear to be the most formidable economies in the world right now. But China also seemed unassailable back in the 16th century, before its decline. Most economic trends are no longer in the West’s favour.
Take energy production. Consumers from California to Copenhagen have to deal with high electricity prices. And to make matters worse, government institutions like the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission are shutting down nuclear power plants wherever they can. Meanwhile last year, the United Arab Emirates, usually thought of as a petrostate, finished constructing its third nuclear reactor in 10 years.
What about renewable energy, so often touted as the solution to both climate change and runaway energy prices? Even putting aside the pitfalls of wind and solar power, such as their inherent intermittency, new plants are not being built at anything like the pace needed to power our societies. In order to build a wind farm off the coast of Norfolk in the UK, developer Boreas had to issue a 13,275-page environmental-impact assessment. This is ‘144 pages longer than the complete works of Tolstoy combined with Proust’s seven-volume opus, In Search of Lost Time’, according to Sam Dumitriu of Britain Remade. For Germany to meet its 2030 energy-transition goals, it would have to install the equivalent of 43 football fields of solar panels and 1,600 heat pumps per day, plus 27 new onshore and four offshore wind farms per week. Needless to say, nothing close to this is happening.
The West is increasingly deluding itself. We are led to believe that Green New Deals and miracle innovations in battery-storage technology will solve all our problems. If our societies still possessed the vitality of their 19th-century predecessors, I could probably be convinced to believe it. But we simply don’t.
There are no perfect moments in any civilisation’s history, only periods that appear as such in hindsight. The central question every nation’s leaders must ask themselves is whether they are managing decline or managing ascent. It’s clear which way much of Europe is heading.