In 50 years, will there still be someone in central Spain?
I just spent a year in Madrid, trying to understand Spain. I’ve traveled from Valencia to Cádiz, often by high-speed train, on some kind of glorious seafood-fueled study mission. for privileged foreigners than for the average Spaniard. But climate change could be particularly devastating here.
You would think that the climate would be the top priority in a hot and dry country, but in fact, Spaniards spend more time discussing national unity. Spain’s great modern trauma was Catalonia’s illegal referendum on independence in 2017. The federal government sent police armed with batons and nine separatist organizers of the referendum were jailed for up to 13 years. In response, flags were hung from balconies across the country as people expressed their vision for Spain. One can often read the political character of a neighborhood just by walking down the street: national flags in the bourgeois neighborhoods of Madrid, various versions of Catalan flags in Barcelona, and elsewhere, increasingly, flags of other regions. Growing anxiety over national unity propelled the far-right nationalist party Vox into parliament in 2019.
The polarization could deepen if the conservative People’s Party and Vox win next year’s national elections and crack down on Catalonia. But for now, I am impressed with the way the Socialist-led government is defusing tensions, pardoning imprisoned separatists and negotiating – often dirty – compromises with Catalanist parties. This is how a multinational democracy is supposed to work. Flags are falling and Catalonia’s support for independence is collapsing, partly because people realize it’s not going to happen: no foreign country has recognized Catalonia’s independence.
More broadly, despite political corruption, Spain’s ruling elite has many achievements. As the writer Javier Cercas says, the last 40 years have been the best in the country’s history. Democracy has been stabilized, Basque terrorism defeated, and the rare transition to high-income status achieved. Public infrastructure is largely recent and therefore excellent. Life expectancy, now 84 years, is expected to be the highest in the world by 2040. It is true that the average Spaniard spends this life in a poor quality apartment, often in a building that looks Soviet Union, with a median net annual income of €15,892. . But the improvement continues. With the rise of permanent contracts, unemployment, long a national scourge, is at its lowest since 2008.
The economic geography of the country has been reorganized. Madrid has become a booming city, the London of Spain, and a kind of tax haven. It has overtaken Barcelona as a business hub, sucking up businesses, developing a new, almost Chinese-style business district, and vying with Miami to be the capital of the Spanish-speaking world, like Argentines, Venezuelans et al flee to a country that works.
But there are two Spains: one inhabited, the other almost empty. Moments after your train leaves Madrid or the coasts, you are in the almost abandoned interior. Outside of Madrid, the vast region of Castilla-León, ruled by the People’s Party and Vox, has been depopulated for decades. Some villages have been reduced to a few dozen retirees without a doctor. Here is an image that I will retain of Spain: an uninhabited farmhouse with a red roof, alone in the middle of the wasteland, with the only sign of human activity being a group of distant wind turbines.
The government seems to have quietly decided that the depopulation of the interior is unstoppable. In Empty Spain, people make way for the region’s last two assets: the sun and the wind. In fact, the Spanish interior is Europe’s greatest renewable energy opportunity. Already, wind and solar power generate almost half of the country’s electricity. The 140 billion euros owed to Spain by the EU recovery fund could accelerate the trend. The Spanish government wants dying villages to lease land from renewable energy companies. Unfortunately, many locals prefer industries in which they themselves could play a role.
The upcoming crisis in Spain is climate change. The orange dust on our balcony this spring, blown in from the Sahara, looked like an omen. Parts of Spain are the driest for a millennium. I write this next to a whirring electric fan in Madrid, where temperatures have topped 35°C for weeks. Some areas get hotter than 40C which is unlivable.
The cracked and arid fields seen from the windows of the trains seem North African. The harvest in Jerez began on July 28, the first in the history of the region. Already, desertification affects about a fifth of the Spanish territory. Farming with unlimited irrigation is not a long-term strategy. Millennial Iberian agriculture may be on the way out. And I suspect tourism will gradually shift from Spain’s crowded southern coast to the beautiful, cool north as the summer heat turns from attraction to threat.
I’m going back to Paris, but it’s not goodbyejust hasta luego (see you later) to what I hope will remain the world champion of habitability.
Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and send him an e-mail at email@example.com
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