An Italian fighter plane (note the “fasci” symbols on the wings) shot down in England in November 1940 during the bombing campaign mounted by the Italian Air Force during WW2 (source). Sending obsolete biplanes with open cockpits against the modern British Spitfires is one of the most glaring examples of military incompetence in history. Among other things, this old tragedy may give us hints about the current situation in the world and, in particular, why the consumers of fossil fuels tend to bomb their suppliers.
From “The Seneca Effect
Not everyone in Europe has understood exactly what is happening with gas prices, yet, but the consequences could be heavy. For a brief moment, prices rose of a factor ten over what was considered as “normal.” Then, prices subsided a little, but still remain way higher than before. Electricity prices are directly affected by the trend and that is not only traumatic for consumers, but also on the competitivity of the European industry.
So, what’s happening? As usual, interpretations are flying free in the memesphere: those evil Russians, the conspiracy of the Americans, it is all a fault of those ugly Greens who don’t want nuclear energy, the financial lobby conspiring against the people, etcetera.
Let me try an approach a little different. Let me compare the current situation with that of the 1930s in Europe. Back then, fossil fuels were already fundamental for the functioning of the economy, but coal was the truly critical resource: not for nothing it was called “King Coal.”
The coal revolution had started to appear in Europe in the 19th century. Those countries that had large coal reserves England, Germany, and France, could start their industrial revolutions. Others were cut off from the bonanza: the lack of coal was the main cause of the decline of the Southern Mediterranean countries. The Turkish empire, the “sick man of Europe,” was not really sick, it was starved. Of coal.
But it was not strictly necessary to have coal mines to industrialize: it could be done by importing coal from the producing countries. Sailing ships could carry coal at low cost just about everywhere in the world, the problem was to transport it inland. Coal is bulky and heavy, the only way to do that is to have a good network of waterways. And having that depends on climate: the Southern Mediterranean countries are too dry to have it. But Northern Mediterranean countries had the network and could industrialize: it was the case of Italy.
Italy went through its industrial revolution much later than the Northern European countries but succeeded using British coal. That, of course, meant that Italy became dependent on British coal imports. Not a concern as long as the two countries were friendly to each other. Unfortunately, as it often happens in life, money may well take the priority over friendship.
In the early 1920s, coal production in England reached a peak and couldn’t be increased anymore. That, of course, led to higher prices and cuts in exports. At that time, nobody could understand how depletion affects production (not even nowadays people do). So most Italians took the reduced coal supply from Britain as a geopolitical attack. It was an evil strategy of the decadent plutocracy called the Perfidious Albion, specifically designed to harm the young and growing southern countries.
The Italian conquest of Ethiopia was the turning point of the struggle. Britain reacted by stopping the exports of coal to Italy. That, and other international economic sanctions, pushed the Italian economy, already crippled by the cost of the war, to the brink of collapse. Given the situation, events played out as if following a prophecy written down long before. Italy had to rely more and more on German coal and that had obvious political consequences.
The tragedy became a farce when old Italian biplanes tried to bomb Britain into submission in 1940. The campaign lasted just two months, enough for the Italian contingent to take heavy losses before it was withdrawn (*). It was not just a tactical blunder, but a strategic disaster since it gave the British and their allies an excuse to bomb Italy at will. Which they did, enthusiastically and very successfully.
The curious thing about this disastrous campaign is how it inaugurated a tradition: bombing one’s supplier of fossil fuels. Italy’s bombing of Britain was just the first of a long series: in August 1941, the British attacked and bombed Iran to secure the Iranian oil wells. They were much more successful than the Italians against Britain and Iran surrendered in less than a week. In the same year, in November, the Japanese attempted the same trick by bombing the United States, their main supplier of oil. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a tactical success, but a major strategic disaster, as we all know.
After WWII, the “Carter Doctrine” implied the strategic value of oil producers in the Middle East. One of the outcomes was the protracted bombing of Iraq from 1991, still intermittently ongoing. Other oil suppliers bombed by Western states were Libya and Syria.
In short, the tradition of bombing one’s suppliers of fuels remains alive and well. Whether it can accomplish anything better than the disastrous attempt of Italy in 1941 is debatable, to say the least. After all, it is equivalent to blasting away your neighborhood gas station in order to get the gas you need, but this is the way the human mind seems to work.
So, on the basis of this historical tradition, let’s try to build a narrative about what’s going on, right now, with the gas supply to Europe. We just need to translate the roles that some countries had in the 1930s with those of today.
Coal → Natural Gas
Italy → Europe
Britain → Russia
Germany → USA
The correspondence is very good: we have a consumer of fossil energy (now Europe, then Italy) which is militarily weak, but threatens the supplier (Now Russia, then Britain) with military action despite the obvious superiority of the latter. The weak consumer (Europe/Italy) feels that it can get away with this suicidal strategy because it has the backup of a powerful ally (Now the USA, then Germany).
Just like Britain did in 1936 to Italy, Russia appears to have reduced the supply of gas to Europe. In both cases, the result was/is a crisis in the economy of the consumers. Just as it happened in the late 1930s, the stronger ally is coming to the rescue: in 1936, Germany started supplying coal to Italy by rail, now the US is sending cryogenic gas to Europe — both are expensive methods of transportations, but allow the supplier to access a market that would have been barren, were it not for political reason. But becoming the customers of a militarily powerful country has political costs.
The correspondence is so good that the current situation could easily develop into a similar outcome as in 1941, with Europe doing something completely idiotic: attacking Russia, hoping in the support of the powerful US ally. (also, traditionally, attacking Russia is done in Winter: what could go wrong?).
One conclusion of this story is that humans always tend to worsen whatever major problem they happen to face. Apart from this, perhaps there is an alternative scenario that could lead Europe away from the perspective on nuclear annihilation: maybe we can learn something from the Italian experience.
In 1936, during the coal embargo imposed by Britain, Italy carried out an attempt to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels that went under the name of “autarchy” (Autarchia). It was based on the renewable technologies available at that time, and it involved some crazy ideas, such as making shoe soles out of cardboard and dresses out of fiberglass. But, on the whole, the idea of relying as much as possible on national and local products made plenty of sense. It didn’t work, mainly because the government squandered the Italian resources in useless wars, but, who knows? Today it might work better if we don’t make the same mistake.
(*) The Italian pilots had to fight with obsolete canvas biplanes: much slower than the British Spitfires, poorly armed, without an armored cockpit (the pilots used sandbags as makeshift armor), without sufficient heating, without the right training. And, of course, poor reliability of almost every mechanical system in a cold climate. Most of the Italian losses were due to mechanical failures, while no British planes are reported to have been lost to the Italians. If the definition of “epic” involves fighting against an overwhelming superior enemy, then the experience of the Italian force in the Battle of Britain can surely be defined in this way: an epic disaster. Whoever had this absurd idea deserved to be hanged, and at least one of them was.