Offline And On Horseback: A News Detox Odyssey Through Europe

Gaspard Koenig has returned after several months spent traveling across Europe on horseback. The journey included a conscious effort to limit his exposure to current events, relying only on the local newspapers and conversations.

There's a new columnist in town
There's a new columnist in town
Gaspard Koenig

I start writing again after spending several long months riding my horse across the roads of Europe. From June 22, when I left the Château de Montaigne in southwestern France, to my arrival in Rome at the end of October, I didn't read a national newspaper or watch the news — not even once.

Most of what I learned about current events came from what people were willing to tell me, through random conversations: a Church has burned down, there's a new prime minister, the virus has started to spread again. It was enough for me to organize my daily life, and it also enabled my mind to make room for more perceptions and encounters. I only made one exception for the local press, which was teeming with bits of information and anecdotes about the regions I crossed.

When I came back to urban life, I tried to pick up the news feed, but after such a long period of time away from it, I wasn't able to absorb such large quantities: I felt physically ill in front of a news website; my brain rebelled at the sight of all these rambling and flashy headlines. I think if I had exposed myself to Twitter, I might have fainted rather quickly.

So I can't help asking this eminently paradoxical question as I'm writing for a major national daily: do we really need all this information? It's certainly useful to know the name of the United States' new president, but was it necessary to waste dozens of hours following the campaigns and covering the vote count?

I felt physically ill in front of a news website.

Ever since the Enlightenment we have tended to associate progress with the dissemination of knowledge, and civism with a form of enlightened curiosity: a proper and decent man must know about geopolitics, current debates, the world economy. Even today, when we're having a conversation with someone, the "one who read that" claims moral authority. But have we not reached a stage of overproduction, up to the point that the exponential accumulation of information is affecting our capacity for analysis?

As early as the 19th century, sociologist Georg Simmel had noted that the multitude of stimuli in the modern city prevented the citizen from identifying individuals in a crowd and deprived him of his capacity to react. Today, writings and research on news overload or "infobesity" abound, to the point of producing an additional overflow of analyses on top of that ...

Gaspard Koening and his horse Destinada in Meaux, France, on July 31 — Photo: Ville de Meaux via Instagram

An American adult spends on average 12 hours a day reading the media (you read that correctly: half of his life). The personalization of news feeds on social networks is the final blow to our virtuous conception of the news: the documentary The Social Dilemma shows how algorithms seize our intelligence and redirect it towards points of views that are increasingly more radical.

Let's try a mental experiment. Imagine for a moment that citizens cease to be interested in what doesn't concern themselves at any given moment. Some unpleasant phenomena might then simply disappear on their own, starting with terrorism, which exists only through its disproportionate impact on public opinion. What would be the use of slaughtering innocent people if no one knew about it? Conspiracy theories would collapse with no way to spread them. Electoral populism would have a much harder time finding its way into our consciousness: crude concepts and simplistic theories about globalization or social justice wouldn't fascinate anyone. As for the dangerous polarization of opinions, it would naturally be replaced by the daily confrontation of experiences.

I must now find the right diet for a reasoned consumption of the news.

We could fill our newly freed cognitive space with more concrete concerns, which need solutions here and now. Better to know your neighbors than the team in the White House. There's no doubt that each of us would gain in peace of mind, and society as a whole, in collective harmony.

In the homes that hosted me during my trip, the news was considered for what it is: epiphenomena, something we could complain about in the evening at dinner without it ever changing the course of the day. I crossed several regions in France, from Périgord to Alsace, from towns to villages, and I didn't hear debates about "insecurity" that were making headlines at the time, and which I only discovered afterwards.

I must now find the right diet for a reasoned consumption of the news. No one will ever catch me with my hands in the cookie jar of endless news sites again, looking for my dose of thrills. Hegel considered reading the newspaper as his morning prayer. That sounds like a good pace to me.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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