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American Chernobyl

An uncontrollable industrial catastrophe

An uncontrollable industrial catastrophe, a worm-eaten system controlled by a rigid nomenklatura, a dynamic leader who wants to change things: doesn’t that remind you of something? Yes, of course: Chernobyl, the Soviet Communist Party, Gorbachev.

Let’s recall the 1980s: during that era, people knew that the USSR was doing poorly, but who would have bet a franc or a dollar on its rapid collapse? Still less so, given that the country had found an appealing and modern leader. From the outset, Gorbachev committed to vigorous reforms (glasnost and perestroika) even as he changed the USSR’s foreign policy through detente with Ronald Reagan.

And then Chernobyl exploded. The catastrophe revealed the system’s fragility. In 1989, the Berlin Wall crumbled; in 1991, the USSR was dissolved. Russia entered a decade of hard economic recession.

People today know that the United States isn’t doing well, but who would bet a Euro or a Yuan on that country’s rapid collapse? Still less so, given that the country has elected an appealing and modern leader. From the outset, he committed to vigorous reforms (the stimulus and the healthcare law) even as he acknowledged that the United States could no longer run everything in the world.

And then Deepwater Horizon exploded… The unstoppable gushing of oil provoked is proving to be a historic environmental catastrophe. It simultaneously demonstrates the incompetence of big private companies and (after a first failure during Hurricane Katrina, in 2005) the state’s inability to master the situation.

Like Chernobyl, Deepwater Horizon derives its meaning from its context – that of a society dominated by a capitalist oligarchy that rejects any in-depth change in spite of the financial disaster for which it is responsible. Wall Street remains as solidly attached to its privileges, as were Soviet dignitaries.

Moreover, politicians, advertising and media maintain the fiction that the American dream can endure without disruption. But a pillar of American power has been shaken: that of cheap energy. Mr. Obama tries to make his fellow citizens understand: “What we can predict is that the availability of fossil fuel is going to be diminishing; that it’s going to get more expensive to recover; that there are going to be environmental costs that our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren are going to have to bear,” he said in a June 13 interview.

The end of cheap oil is the end of the “American way of life.” Will the United States stand up to the challenge? One may think they will. Or not.

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