Category Archives: energy

Sichuan’s Ancient Salt Industry

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), p. 95:

While the whole Yangtze Valley east of the Three Gorges was supplied with salt from the Liang-huai district, Szechwan produced its own salt in an industry of great antiquity and technological sophistication. Salt in Szechwan is the result of its geological history. As we have seen, prior to the collision between Indian and Asian crustal plates, Szechwan was submerged by a great primordial ocean. As the land uplifted, Szechwan became an inland sea, then finally took on the mountain-girt basin character it has possessed throughout historic times. This process, dating from Triassic times 250 million years ago, produced large underground brine or solid salt deposits and, from the dense vegetation of many millions of years, large pockets of natural gas and extensive beds of coal.

The underground deposits lie at various depths, though a few brine pools can be found on the surface. We do not know when this salt was first exploited, but the earliest wells are claimed for the third century B.C. and attributed to Li Ping, the engineering genius who conceived All-Rivers Weir above Chengtu…. In early times, these wells must have been quite shallow, but within a few hundred years records indicate dozens of deep wells in the most productive regions. The brine obtained from these wells was evaporated by boiling, with wood (or charcoal) from the abundant forests as the principal fuel. At a later date, coal was also used for this purpose. In a few fortunate locations, even shallow wells brought in natural gas as well as brine. This enabled the brine to be boiled with gas carried by bamboo pipes.

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Three Gorges Dam in Historical Context

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 108-110:

The truth is that the disruption of the dam, which seems massive to an outsider, is really nothing out of the ordinary when one considers recent history in the local context. Within the last fifty years, China has experienced Liberation, the radical (and disastrous) collectivization of the 1958–1961 Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Reform and Opening.

Fuling and the other Yangtze River towns have the additional experience of being a focal point of Mao Zedong’s Third Line Project, which had an especially large influence on the region during the 1960s. The early preparations for this project started in 1950, when Mao sent Deng Xiaoping to the southwest so he could research the feasibility of moving Shanghai’s military industry to remote mountain areas in Sichuan and Guizhou provinces. The American atomic bomb triggered this plan, as Mao became increasingly concerned that China’s heavily concentrated defense industry was too susceptible to a U.S. attack. The Korean War accelerated the project, and eventually three-quarters of China’s nuclear weapons plants were incorporated into the Third Line, as well as more than half of its aeronautics industry. The project was, as Harrison Salisbury describes it in his book The New Emperors, “something like that of picking up the whole of California’s high-tech industry and moving it bodily to the wilds of Montana as they existed, say, in 1880.”

In comparison it seems a small matter to turn the river into a lake. Much of Fuling’s economy had originally come via the Third Line Project, which made the locals accustomed to massive changes. The local Hailing factory, which now produces combustion engines for civilian use, had formerly been a defense industry plant moved from Shanghai. A few miles upstream from Fuling is the Chuan Dong boat factory, which in the old days made parts for nuclear submarines. All of the local Chang’an-brand cabs—the name means Eternal Peace—are made by a Chongqing factory that originally produced firearms for the military.

Many of the old Third Line factories had been converted in this way since Deng Xiaoping came to power and started dismantling the project in 1980. With China’s foreign relations rapidly improving, the American threat seemed less serious (and, in any case, it was clear that there wasn’t much protection in putting factories in places like Fuling). The Third Line had always been a huge drain on the economy; in some years as much as 50 percent of China’s capital budget was spent on the project. Never before had such a massive country reorganized its economy on such a scale—even Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan couldn’t compare—and according to some estimates, the Third Line did more damage to China’s economy than the Cultural Revolution.

Despite its enormous scale, the project had been developed and dismantled in remarkable secrecy, as few locals in Fuling and the other Third Line towns ever had a clear notion of what was going on. They knew that commands were coming in from Beijing, and that these commands were bringing factories from Shanghai; and they also knew that all of this had a military sensitivity that required secrecy. It wasn’t something you asked questions about, and after four decades of that it seemed natural enough not to ask questions about the dam. These things just came and went—just as the Chuan Dong factory, which arrived to build nuclear submarines, was subsequently converted to a boat plant, and eventually would disappear forever beneath the waters of the new Yangtze.

But even with all of this history in mind, I still found the lack of interest and concern about the dam to be remarkable.

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Two Major River Projects in China

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 115-116:

The history of such projects in China has two different aspects. The country has been controlling and harnessing water for centuries—no other civilization on earth has such a long and successful history of turning rivers to man’s use. The development of central Sichuan province was originally sparked by the construction of Dujiangyan, a brilliantly designed irrigation project that was constructed twenty-three centuries ago and even today still functions perfectly, turning the Chengdu Basin into one of the most fertile rice-growing regions in the country. Even the Yangtze has been tamed before, albeit on a much smaller scale; the Gezhou Dam was completed in 1981 on a site downstream from the location of the current project.

But there is also the history of Henan province, where heavy rains in 1975 caused sixty-two modern dams to fall like dominoes, one after another, and 230,000 people died. Although the scale of that particular disaster was unique, the poor engineering was less unusual: 3,200 Chinese dams have burst since 1949. In this [= 20th] century, the failure rate of Chinese dams is 3.7 percent, compared to 0.6 percent in the rest of the world.

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Modernizing Hamhung, 1920s

From On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle, by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, 2018), Kindle pp. 82-83:

When Japan took formal possession of Korea, in 1910, Hamhung was a medieval city steeped in just these sorts of myths and folk traditions. But in the mid-1920s, as the Japanese tightened their grip on the country, modernity began to arrive. A team of Japanese engineers struck upon an ambitious idea: They would build roads into the mountains northwest of Hamhung and harness the might of the Changjin River—Chosin in Japanese—an important tributary that flowed north toward the Yalu. In the highlands, some seventy road miles from Hamhung, the engineers would construct a large dam that would flood the valley floor. The Changjin waters would rise, swallowing the wrinkled country, and the resulting reservoir, with all its scallops and appendages, would extend southward for more than forty miles. It would be a deep lake splayed out in the mountains, practically on the rooftop of Korea.

This scheme alone was considered a nearly impossible feat, but then the engineers envisioned something bolder: They would effectively reverse the course of the river by building a network of pipes near where it entered the lake on its south end. The pipes would snake along, often underground, carrying cold lake water from the mountains to the coast. Thus, a river that had once flowed north would flow south, through man-made conduits. Working with gravity, these tubes of racing water would feed into a series of hydroelectric plants down on the plain that would supply Hamhung and its neighboring port city of Hungnam with enough power to transform the area into a military-industrial center, perhaps the largest in Korea. Some said it was quixotic.

Some said the engineers were tempting fate, manipulating sacrosanct forces of nature. But the immense project worked as planned. The Chosin Reservoir was completed in 1929, the year Lee was born, and, with dizzying speed, Hamhung-Hungnam underwent a metamorphosis, much of it under the direction of the Noguchi Corporation, a Japanese conglomerate founded by a chemical engineering mogul named Jun Noguchi, who was said to be the “entrepreneurial king of the peninsula.” A nitrogen fertilizer plant, the largest in the Far East, was quickly constructed, and the area became one of the world’s largest producers of ammonium sulfate. Then came oil refineries, chemical concerns, textile mills, metal foundries, munitions works. They produced dynamite and mercury oxide powder and high-octane aviation fuel. It was a grinding, stinking, spewing complex of industries designed to fuel Japan’s expansionist aims across Asia.

Thousands of peasants, many of them displaced by the new lake, moved down from the mountains to work in the factories. Schools sprang up, a train station, a city hall, suburbs, all of it stitched together with streetcars and underground sewer systems and electricity and telegraph wire. It was a modern marvel of civil planning and central design—at least that was how the authorities portrayed the region’s transformation. Through Japanese ingenuity and Korean sweat, men had built a lake that built a city.

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Battle of Britain Advantages, 1940

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1849-76:

The whole theory of fighter defence was created to avoid what they called “standing patrols.” If you were guarding the country by having aeroplanes up all the time, you ran out of engine hours and you were on the ground when the attack occurred. So the RAF developed a system of reporting incoming raids. First, he used radar to plot the aircraft as they were approaching Britain and then he used the Observer Corps to spot them when they’d crossed the coast. All the information was fed to a filter room and then to an operations room where you got a picture of the developing raids plotted on a table. That picture would be three or four minutes old but it was sufficiently up to date to get the fighters off when they were really needed.

Thus the characteristic image of the Battle of Britain that we have today is of young tousle-haired pilots lounging near their aircraft, not flying but ready to go aloft at a moment’s notice. In historical retrospect, the British air defense system was the equivalent of a human-powered computer, a remarkable real-time information-processing system that worked so well in conserving British aerial resources—aircraft, pilots, and staff attention—that it was one reason the Royal Air Force actually grew more powerful with the passage of time in 1940. A second reason was that British aircraft factories finally swung into high gear.

The third reason that the British prevailed in the Battle of Britain was German incompetence in waging an aerial offensive. Contrary to the Teutonic reputation for martial skill, the Luftwaffe’s approach was “astonishingly amateur,” concluded Bungay, amounting to “little more than flying over England, dropping some bombs on various things to annoy people, and shooting down any fighters which came up as a result.” It is no accident, Bungay adds, that the military service operating so incoherently was the only one of the German armed forces led by a Nazi politician, Goering, who before going into politics had been a pilot during World War I. Hitler supposedly liked to say that he had a conservative army, a reactionary navy, and a Nazi air force. That politicized air arm flew into English airspace unprepared for what it would encounter. Hans-Ekkehard Bob, who flew a Messerschmitt 109 fighter, recalled being surprised on a fogbound day: “I experienced a Spitfire formation all of a sudden coming up from behind, having a clear line of fire and I wondered how this was even possible. Having no visibility whatsoever, from above nor from below, how was it possible that an enemy formation was able to get into a firing position from behind?” The answer, of course, was the well-tuned British radar and early warning system.

The Germans in their days of pride also consistently overestimated the damage they were doing, believing in mid-August 1940 that the British had only 300 working fighters available. In fact, they had 1,438—which was twice as many as they had on hand just six weeks earlier. The kill ratio always favored the British, who lost a total of 1,547 aircraft while destroying 1,887 German ones. On top of that, because most of the aerial combat took place over England, British pilots could fly many missions in one day, with their aircraft reloaded with ammunition in under four minutes. And when they were shot down, they often could parachute to friendly soil and fly again, while parachuting Germans who survived became prisoners of war, and those who ditched in the frigid waters of the channel often were lost either to drowning or hypothermia. (For the same reasons, the RAF lost more bomber crew members during this period than it did fighter pilots—801 from Bomber Command versus 544 for Fighter Command.)

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The Era of Canals, Cable, and Coal

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1992-2009:

The Suez Canal also encouraged a far greater Atlantic presence in Southeast and East Asia, stimulating the development of intercontinental port cities, a phenomenon hitherto rare in the region. Before the Europeans, local polities had placed their capitals inland for greater security. Europeans brought an ocean-consciousness that many Asian elites had previously lacked, with Singapore typical of the newly created seaport city, part of a network that would spread along Asian coasts, from Mumbai (Bombay) to Yokohama, cities forming spearheads for modernization on Atlantic models, linked to one another and to a wider world by cable and the coal-burning ship.

Everyone dreaded the inevitable time-consuming and dirty task of loading and stowing coal on shipboard, a task grueling for the worker and disagreeable for all aboard. On warships, officers as well as enlisted men were obliged to participate. Moving coal raises a gritty dust, throat-choking and eye-stinging, leaving a dark film on every surface it touches. To handle the coal aboard, ships carried among their crew a “black gang,” which was divided into two groups. Typically firemen on most ships watched and fed three fires, burning down one at the end of each watch, shoveling the coal into the furnace, using long pokers to aerate the flames and periodically cleaning it of clinkers. Trimmers kept the firemen supplied, wheeling coal in steel barrows from bunker to furnace. They called it “being on the long run.” Often these men were Bengali or Gujerati but the British shipping world applied the term “lascar” to them and uniformly to Asian seafarers, from Chinese to Yemeni.

Fireman or trimmer, the tasks were difficult and dangerous work in an airless environment thick with dust. In the tropics the temperature could soar to excruciating heights. The men wore heavy leather boots and not much else except a rag around the neck to mop sweat and grime from eyes and noses. Burns were frequent as was heat exhaustion. Working on the black gang was comparable to the arduous labor of the coal miner in the pits but at least the miner got to go home every night. A black gang might be away at sea for an entire year.

By the time the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, oil was replacing coal as the source of energy on steamships.

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Japan Occupation Priorities, 1945

From Our Jungle Road to Tokyo, by Robert L. Eichelberger (Gorget Books, 2017; first published 1950), Kindle Loc. 4800-4812, 4856-78:

The Eighth Army had many occupation jobs, but its first and most urgent one was the succoring and speedy release of Allied war prisoners in Japanese stockades. We arrived prepared for the task. Back on Okinawa “mercy teams” had been organized. They came in with our advance airborne echelons. As a result, American planes swooped over prison camps that very same day to drop food and supplies. Some of our teams rushed inland immediately to seize, before they could be destroyed, the records of the more notorious camps. This was to provide evidence for the future war-crimes trials.

Day after day. Allied prisoners poured into Yokohama on special trains that we had commandeered for rescue missions. They were sick, emaciated, verminous; their clothing was in tatters. We were ready for them with band music, baths, facilities for medical examination, vitamin injections, hot food, and hospital beds. Some would go home by plane; others by hospital ship when strong enough to travel. Perhaps the stolid Japanese themselves had their first lesson in democracy in the Yokohama railroad station. The Japanese have only contempt for a prisoner of war. They stared in amazement when we greeted our wasted comrades in arms with cheers and embraces.

The Eighth Army’s teams covered the whole of Japan on these missions of liberation. Allied prisoners of all nationalities were released and processed for evacuation at a rate of a thousand a day. By clearing the camps on the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, and Shikoku in eighteen days, we far outraced our own most optimistic time schedule. In all, the Eighth Army liberated and evacuated 23,985 persons.

Looking back, I am now impressed by the magnitude of the mission we undertook when American troops landed in Japan. Here, summarized, are some of the things Eighth Army was called upon to do:

1. Establish vast numbers of American soldiers in Japan without provoking combat.

2. Provide housing, clothing, recreation for them.

3. Construct many airfields and thousands of houses for our dependents.

4. Supervise operation of all railroads and ports.

5. Follow through and assure the complete demobilization of the Japanese Army.

6. Crush Japan’s war potential by the destruction of ten thousand airplanes, three thousand tanks, ninety thousand fieldpieces, three million items of small arms, and one million tons of explosives.

These things we did, and there were many more. We took charge of the unloading, warehousing, and proper distribution of relief food sent from the United States to succor the starving. We supervised the repatriation of six million Japanese who arrived at home ports from the Emperors now lost overseas empire. Under our direction, a million displaced Koreans, Ryukyuans, and Chinese, who had served as slave labor, were sent home. And then there were the never-ending and multitudinous duties and responsibilities of our Military Government units, which I shall discuss more fully later.

The Americans found a nation which was on its economic death-bed. Bare chimneys showed where commercial plants had once operated. Not only was a very large percentage of Japan’s industry destroyed, but surrender came at a time when the country was entirely geared for war. As a consequence, a Japanese plant which had escaped serious damage still was not prepared for peacetime operation. The vital textile industry was in collapse. Most of the merchant marine was under the sea, and there was almost no food. Gone with the lost colonies were the oil of Sakhalin, the rice of Korea, the sugar of Formosa.

Gone were the fisheries of the Okhotsk Sea, the soybean and iron ore of Manchuria. There was a shortage of all raw materials. But the most critical shortage was coal. Coal production was held up by lack of equipment and skilled man-power, and lack of food for the miners. Increased food production depended on more fertilizer. Fertilizer, in turn, depended on more coal. Only four hundred and fifty thousand tons monthly were being mined in late 1945. The goal for 1950 is forty million tons, or over three million tons monthly. We’ve made progress there.

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Britain on the Eve of Thatcher, 1970s

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 360-398:

The postwar consensus endured because it worked—at least for the first few decades. The British economy grew steadily through the 1950s and 1960s, widely spreading the benefits of expanding national wealth. But by the 1970s, the bloom was off. Rising global competition had revealed the structural rigidities of Britain’s social-democratic system. The oil shock hit at a moment when traditional British manufacturing industries were already affected by painful decline. Once-proud working-class cities had turned into landscapes of blight, factory ruins defaced with graffiti. In the 1970s, the British economy tottered from one crisis to another. In 1974, in the wake of the Arab oil embargo, Conservative prime minister Edward Heath was forced to introduce electricity rationing and a three-day workweek. Unemployment surged and productivity sagged. British business seemed to have lost its way. Entrepreneurs fled punishing tax rates for more hospitable climes. Strikes punctuated the national news with benumbing regularity; the trade unions repeatedly demonstrated their enormous political power, contributing mightily to the fall of Heath’s government in 1974.

These were the problems that confronted James Callaghan as he assumed the office of prime minister two years later. His Labour Party had won the 1974 election under the leadership of Harold Wilson, who returned to Number Ten Downing Street after an earlier stint as prime minister. But Labour’s margin of victory in the election was narrow, and the best that Wilson could do was to form a minority government with his party in the lead. His administration soon foundered as it struggled to deal with the aftereffects of the energy crisis and the intensifying demands from the unions, his party’s most powerful constituency. By the time Callaghan stepped in to take the beleaguered Wilson’s place, inflation had reached a staggering 25 percent. Outside investors lost confidence that the British government would ever regain control over its finances, and the pound became so anemic that London found itself facing a full-blown balance-of-payments crisis. Put simply, the British state had run out of the foreign exchange it needed to pay for imports. Bills were coming due that the United Kingdom was not in a position to pay.

To his credit, Callaghan did not soft-pedal the causes. He inherited stewardship of the economy at a moment when the old sureties were crumbling. His chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, declared that Britain couldn’t go on spending its way out of crises. Callaghan’s son-in-law, an influential journalist by the name of Peter Jay, had even become a convert to the economic school known as “monetarism,” which deemed strict control of the money supply to be the only remedy for inflation. This flew in the face of the Keynesian principles of Britain’s postwar consensus, which placed a premium on combating unemployment through government spending. The speech that Callaghan gave at the 1976 Labour Party conference, authored by Jay, turned into something of a elegy for Britain’s postwar economic system:

For too long this country—all of us, yes this conference too—has been ready to settle for borrowing money abroad to maintain our standards of life, instead of grappling with the fundamental problems of British industry. . . . [T]he cozy world we were told would go on forever, where full employment would be guaranteed . . . that cozy world is now gone. . . . We used to think we could spend our way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candor that that option no longer exists, and that insofar as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step.

Finally, in November 1976, the United Kingdom was forced to ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $3.9 billion loan to tide it over through the crisis. The conditions included brutal spending cuts and across-the-board austerity measures. Back in 1945, the United Kingdom had been America’s partner in creating the international economic system that had brought the IMF to life. Now London was calling on the fund for help in an existential crisis. It was the first time that one of the world’s developed countries had ever asked for IMF support. (Nothing comparable would happen again until 2008, when Iceland was forced to follow suit during the global financial crisis.)

This was a humiliation of epochal proportions. A country that had been at the heart of the Western economic and political system found itself reduced to the status of a banana republic. Callaghan diagnosed the problems but was unable to come up with a remedy. Something always seemed to get in the way: the resistance of the unions, the global economic climate, the accustomed way of doing things. The old ideas no longer worked—that much was clear. But where were the new ones? Britain was waiting for something to give.

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High-class Distrust of Labor-saving Innovations

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 162-196:

The most basic technological amenities were not seriously to take root in the majority of English country houses until well after the First World War, and sometimes beyond the Second. In fact the more labour-intensive the house was seen to be, the more it was seen as upholding the values of the old world order. Although there were some significant changes made to English houses in the late nineteenth century, human effort was on the whole considered vastly preferable to modern amenities. Houseguests shivered in the cold of country houses where, recalled Lady Cynthia Asquith, ‘you perambulated long, icy passages in search of the nearest bathroom – if there was one’. Labour was cheap: the servant problem was a problem for the cash-strapped, not the rich. At Beech Hill Park, a vast Victorian house in Epping Forest, there was a hall entirely covered in mosaic that had to be washed with milk by hand every week by five maids; yet there was no telephone in Beech Hill and it was lit entirely by candles until the late 1940s.

A general distrust for new technologies percolated through the classes. Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, wondered why he should install a hot water system in his London house when he could always employ two or three girls to carry the bath water up and down stairs as required. Too much newness became regarded as vulgar: Mrs Loftie, author of books of advice on interior design, warned against gas, a form of lighting which had once been embraced by the fashionable but by the early twentieth century had become too popular and was now associated with trade showrooms and other iniquities. ‘Nothing can compete with the gasolier [gaslight chandelier] in tawdry deformity,’ she cautioned.

In 1912, the Illuminating Engineer expressed the view that gas was a ‘middle-class luxury. It never invaded the marble halls of the West End; and of course, the poor could not get it. It was admitted to the rich man’s kitchens and domestic offices, and its attractions beckoned the workman to his only club, the corner pub. As a domestic light in the fullest sense of the word, it was almost as sure a sign of respectability as the keeping of a gig.’ In grand houses, gas lamps were generally confined to the servants’ hall, where they enabled the staff to work till late at night; gas was considered too smelly and too damaging to antique furniture to be used in other parts of the house. The inimitable patina of age became central to the national idea of Englishness, and to this idea, new technology was often considered positively threatening. The American economist Thorstein Veblen noted in 1892 how the attraction of old-fashioned beeswax candles to illuminate evening dinner parties was suddenly revealed when gas and electric lighting became widely available to the middle classes. The reason was said to be the flattering rosy glow that candles cast, but behind it lay a snobbery about industrial mass production. The lady of a house in Wigmore Street was typical: her new maid, Elizabeth Banks, reported in 1891 that there were gas fittings but her mistress declined to use them, preferring to use candles that her maid had to clean up afterwards. ‘In the halls, on the stairs and in every room of the house, from the kitchen to the fifth floor, candle grease was liberally sprinkled, and my brown paper and flat iron were in constant demand.’

The stateliest homes still relied on lamp men, whose job for generations had been to patrol the corridors of English country houses, lighting and tending the oil lamps or candles that were the only source of light. Lamp men were retainers of the old sort, associated with homes that had no need of flashy modern accoutrements that needed only the turn of a switch. Trimming, cleaning and maintaining the lamps was an arduous daily job: at Erddig in Wales, the Yorkes had forty oil lamps requiring constant attendance, for a dirty lamp created clouds of soot. ‘An Old Servant’, the author of an anonymous little memoir written in the First World War, described ‘strings of soot hanging from the ceiling all over the room; everything was thick with greasy soot’ when a lamp was inadequately cleaned.15 At Badminton House, seat of the Duke of Beaufort, the lamp man was totally blind and felt his way expertly about the corridors – and was still doing so in the 1920s. At Belvoir Castle there were at least three lamp and candle men who laboured continuously at snuffing wicks, filling lamps and cleaning and de-waxing glass – a full-time job. ‘Gas was despised, I forget why – vulgar I think,’ was how Lady Diana Cooper remembered it.

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South Caucasus Just Waiting for Europe?

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4017-4050:

It seems an almost inbuilt problem of the South Caucasus that a positive development in one place causes alarm in another. Armenian-Turkish rapprochement angers Azerbaijan, which turns to Moscow. The “reset” American-Russian relationship is seen to damage Georgia. As soon as there was talk of the Armenian-Turkish border reopening, some Georgians were heard to worry aloud that the rerouting of trade would be bad for Georgia. Zero-sum thinking prevails.

The region suffers from a lack of inclusive thinking. Most of the big ideas and regional initiatives that have emerged in the last decade and a half have excluded either one of the South Caucasus countries themselves or a key outside power. Both Iran and Turkey have proposed “security pacts” for the Caucasus that have left out the United States and the European Union. The Commonwealth of Independent States is now without Georgia. GUAM excluded Armenia. For awhile, Moscow unsuccessfully promoted the idea of a “Caucasus Four” that included it and the three South Caucasus countries. Concentrating on a “Black Sea region” is to the detriment of Azerbaijan. Focusing on the Caspian leaves out Armenia. The metaphor of a “Silk Road,” pretty though it is, implies a return to a premodern world in which Russia did not exist. The idea of a “Great Game” unhelpfully casts Russia in a reprised role of a hostile nineteen-century power.

History has meant that there have never been any successful voluntary integration projects here. The plan for an independent Transcaucasian Federation in April 1918 collapsed after only a month. The only other unions have been colonial ones imposed from above, by the Persian, Ottoman, and Russian empires and by the Soviet Union. The Soviet project is hard to defend, but it did have the effect of bringing people together in a cohesive economic structure that many people still miss. In retrospect, the South Caucasian nationalists of the late 1980s lurched from one extreme to another when they took a bulldozer to the complex Soviet system. They exchanged suffocating integration for extreme disintegration, and you could say that they threw out the Caucasian baby with the Communist bathwater. Many of the economic and cultural links from those times are still there under the surface waiting to be reexploited.

The one neighbor that could be a facilitator for voluntary integration in the South Caucasus is the region that has itself accomplished such an integration, the EU. So far, unfortunately, the EU has been very slow to act in the region. One Georgian scholar says it is “too lazy and too late.” Most of its regional projects have been very modest. Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia, a European program started in 1993 for the eight countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus, has spent less than 200 million euros since then—far less than BP, Gazprom, or USAID has spent in the region, to name three other foreign actors. The Eastern Partnership project is another laudable idea but is hampered by several constraints; the six countries involved have no membership perspective for the EU, which does not provide a strong incentive for reform. Promises of trade privileges and visa facilitation are more promising but have been watered down by European governments.

There is a widespread perception in the South Caucasus that it is “waiting for Europe” to notice its problems and pay attention to them. In the EU itself, there is caution. Partly, the EU has enough other problems to solve without having to deal with the headaches of the Caucasus. Partly, there is a perception that the governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia need to show a stronger commitment to democracy and reform to deserve that stronger interest. So the current period may be one of less engagement and greater realism. If that is the case, it may not be all bad news. History has been unkind to the South Caucasus, but there is no shortage of experience or talent there. If the outsider powers step a bit further away, local people may remember that they also have the skills, fashioned by the centuries, to solve their own problems.

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