Any list of “top” events must necessarily be subjective, a reflection of the writer’s priorities and the information filters used. Looking back over 2012 in the English and French media a number of important news stories emerge, from the popular to the arcane, from the 2012 Olympics to crazies gathering in Bugarach, France, from whence apocalyptic survivors would be whisked away in flying saucers, to the 75th anniversary of the apotheosis in music and film of the German folktale, Snow White.

Two of my favorite sites for year-in-review content are The Economist, The world in 2012 and the now obligatory “Google search review” video, Zeitgeist the Year in Review.

Among the many, many stories worth at least a mention in any future “history of the world”, I would say 2012 was the year when the West finally got serious about understanding Islam, an inevitable development driven by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the strategic PR win by Hamas in Gaza and surprisingly, by François Hollande’s trip to Algeria to commemorate the 50 anniversary of the independence of Algeria and to “tell the truth” about French colonization of the Barbary state. These events offered an image for the triumph of openness and for the possibilities of renewal.

Architect's rendering of the airport in its natural setting
One area in which such a breakthrough did not happen was in the half-century, on-going debate over local development and economic progress. This debate pits civil society anxious to generate growth and income (maintain healthy tension) and ecologists. A major theater where these issues are being worked out, is the proposed Nantes Grand Ouest airport, where civic leaders have been fighting 50 years for a second municipal airport and ecologists who argue that the a second airport facility is not necessary and would cause irreparable damage to local ecosystems.

The very high level and abstract climate change debates at the December 2012 Doha Climate Change Conference, while credited with preparing the way for a 2015 agreement, failed to produce a breakthrough in national positions. Indeed, for those not following the long scale time frame, Doha was simply another failure to extend the Kyoto agreement or bring the Americans and Chinese closer to consensus on their global responsibilities.

The big story in France though, bigger even than this spring’s elections was the eruption of violence around the proposed Great Atlantic West airport. Here was a debate of epic and universal proportions for which there is no clear answer and which will divide and polarize for years to come.

Greenpeace banner on the Louvre pyramid
In the mid-sixties civic leaders in the Loire Atlantique region seeking to promote economic growth identified an opportunity for a regional airport serving the west of France, an airport which by one account could rival “Amsterdam in air freight”. The airport to be located just north and west of Nantes would be an “intercontinental airport” and consolidate that city’s position as a transportation hub on Europe’s Atlantic façade.

An additional argument which is important in the French context is that since the mid-nineteen-eighties, the French have been consciously working at decentralizing and deconcentrating (sic) cultural and government infrastructure. The new airport would be a freight hub for high value-added air cargo and so alleviate airport congestion in the Paris metropolitan region.
These are important arguments in support of a tenth international airport in France, a country which is at the same time, the world’s fifth largest economy and 4/5ths the size of Texas.

Chronology of events

  • In 1965 the Loire-Atlantique prefect appoints a site selection committee for a second airport for Nantes.
  • by 1974 project zoning and enabling authorizations are in place
  • twenty-year hiatus between 1974 and 1994
  • 1989 Jean-Marc Ayrault, a professor of German is elected mayor of Nantes
  • 1994 the Pays de la Loire regional council reintroduces the idea of building a new airport to be completed by 2007

Beginning with the 1994 Regional Council report, civic leaders focused on inscribing the project onto the list of national infrastructure priorities, leading to the project acquiring a certain inevitability. Henceforth, community efforts to obtain public authorizations and fund a Nantes Grande Atlantique airport dominate local development thinking.

  • in 1998, the Minister of the Environment under Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, declared that a transcontinental airport in the Nante metropolitan area would be compatible with the national transportation blue print;
  • in 2000, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin set into motion the administrative procedures for a public enquiry for major public works projects.

While civic leaders were organizing local efforts to support a new airport for Western France, scientists and ecologists elsewhere were beginning to sound the alarm concerning the non-sustainability of cheap energy driven consumption so that by the late nineteen sixties, a counter argument emerged in the form of ecological conservatism and a global agenda for the environment. The debate was formally presented with the publication in 1972 of the Club of Rome report The Limits of Growth. The originality of the report produced by three American environmental scientists was the application of computer modeling techniques to evaluate Thomas Malthus’ theories of population growth and sustainability in the face of finite resources.

At the same time, the United Nations organized and hosted the first “Earth Summit”, the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. This summit would be followed by the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) and the Rio+20 summit in 2012.

To even further complicate the environmental issues, there were French policy issues regarding the geographic distribution of national infrastructure investment. Up until the 1980s France was highly centralized with governmental and economic activity concentrated mostly in and around Paris. With the decentralization policies put into place in the Mitterand years, development infrastructure and decision making were relocated to urban centers such as Lille, Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux.

There can be little doubt that human society in 2012 is older and wiser than it was in 1962. Over these 50 years the limits of the sustainability have become ever more apparent and the question that must be asked is whether growth policies of the sort imagined 50 years ago for the west of France are sustainable. The economy is contracting and the natural resources that would otherwise be used to create airport and support infrastructures, roads, buildings, housing, are already well employed providing “environmental services” as wetlands supporting biodiversity. Would these resources be better used supporting urban growth?

The 1992 Earth Summit framed the “precautionary principle” which states simply that if there is any doubt about the sustainability of a project it is up to the project promoters to demonstrate sustainability.
At stake in the area just north and west of Nantes are not only six and one half square miles of wetlands vital to a local wetlands ecosystem, but untold tens of square miles that will be released to real-estate developers and promoters hoping to cash in on the new money. It will be tantamount to feeding the boom-and-bust economic beast. But can she be denied?

The Notre-Dame-des-Landes project is not only about the sustainability of one project, but about society’s ability to adjust to new information. Environmental conservatism and a contracting economy are elements of information that civic leaders did not possess 50 years ago. The public interest arguments for decongesting the Paris region and investing in public infrastructure in the west of France are good. But then, so are the arguments for preserving biodiversity and scarce natural and financial resources in the face of a contracting economy.

The Notre-dame-des-Landes airport project has 50 years of momentum, the working lifespan of an adult past retirement age. Would repudiation of the project at this point be considered a repudiation of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who was, after all, the Mayor of Nantes and then a representative to the National Assembly before forming a majority government for François Hollande.

So the real question just might be, “is change without disruption from outside possible?” Does France really need a tenth intercontinental airport?