France's Yellow Vests And The Problem With Post-Truth Economics

Opinion shapers have a habit these days of disregarding facts, be they scientific or economic. Opinions matter, of course, but shouldn't supersede well-founded knoweldge.

Yellow vests at this year's May Day protests in Paris
Yellow vests at this year's May Day protests in Paris
Pascal Perri


PARIS — Simplism has hijacked public debate and undermined our ability to reason at the very moment when France desperately needs a fresh breath of rationality. This tendency to oversimplify what are, in reality, complex situations is particularly prevalent in the fields of economics and science.

We hear all kinds of opinions, for example, about the country's economic situation. And yet, the fact remains that France continues to be a generous, socially-minded, redistributing republic. Claiming the contrary is an insult to what's real. The same goes for science. "Committed experts," drunk on ideology, spread their "truths' urbi et orbi on TV sets without facing any contradiction from scientists. Militancy wins, spurning reason.

For the first time in a long time, President Emmanuel Macron agreed to reduce some taxes — the issue that sparked the yellow-vest movement and has fueled the discussion ever since — and took measures to improve purchasing power for the poor. Not since 1968 has the government made such overtures. And yet, right away some people are indignant. They dismiss the moves as insignificant, saying they amount to mere crumbs.

In a democracy, every opinion matters. But that doesn't mean they all have equal merit.​

Different points of view are introduced without distinction. Macro and microeconomics are mixed up, with the result that people are misled into thinking that a particular situation is the universal norm. In a democracy, every opinion matters. But that doesn't mean they all have equal merit.

Truth be told, we still don't know what it'll take to satisfy the yellow vests. Macron's resignation? The dissolution of the National Assembly? The problem is that most French people aren't, in fact, demanding either. The real problem then — in this France where popular beliefs and approximations are thriving — is economic relativism.


Act IX of the ongoing yellow vest protests – Photo: Olivier Ortelpa

Then there's pseudoscience, which is thriving in this opinion-based society of widespread untruths. Beliefs challenge what is real, regardless of the truth. To escape the crisis we'll need to once again accept some basic intellectual standards. Obviously there should be room for different opinions, but there also needs to be a balance. Too many untruths and exaggerations undermine the debate. France isn't a socialist hell. But nor is it a reactionary state threatening to outlaw the right to protest.

Post-truth economics and post-science are first cousins. In addition to his theory on creative destruction, political economist Joseph Schumpeter warned about the difficulties people face grappling with an increasingly complex society. Or as the German sociologist Ulrich Beck saw it, the more society moves forward, the more risks it creates. The risk is the price paid for progress. People become more fearful, and those who seek to control public opinion exploit those fears and question science.

The more society moves forward, the more risks it creates.

That's exactly the formula driving the new science of "collapsology," as described by geographer Sylvie Brunet in her latest book Toutes ces idées qui nous gâchent la vie (ideas that have been ruining our lives). Collapsology is trending. It centers around the the over-simplistic idea that every single area is doing badly. It's an easy sell. A convenient truth. And yet, while some collapsologists may not want to hear it, scientific truth can't be voted by show of hands.

The challenge we face, in other words, is to reestablish some basic truths — be they scientific or economic. And for that to happen, we need to separate knowledge from beliefs.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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