In the 1920s, peace was on everyone’s mind.
There was a battle over what reparations Germany should pay to the rest of the world. France wanted to really punish Germany and agitated for higher reparations and stricter considerations.
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George meanwhile described the Treaty of Versailles as too harsh, saying it would lead to another war in 25 years.
But one man had another solution. A pacifist architect who had refused to fight in WW1, he devised a plan that was just so crazy it might actually work.
He called it Alantropa, and it’s one of the boldest and most audacious ideas I’ve ever seen.Alantropa solved the problems of peace, climate change and electricity in one fell swoop.
While every politician was looking for political solutions to prevent another conflict through the newly formed League of Nations, Sörgel had other ideas. He looked to technology and the future, and selected hydropower as powerful, clean and renewable source of electricity.
And perhaps you can understand why.
If you’ve ever stood in the sea as waves for breaking, currents were swirling and felt the power of the water, you might have thought to yourself that if only we could harness the power of the seas, this energy transition could be fixed in a flash.
Well Herman clearly had the same idea and it might’ve struck him on a vacation to Croatia or Italy or the South of France, in the waves of the Med, because his mind was absolutely focused on the Mediterranean from after the war until his death in 1952.
He wanted to build a dam, you see.
And not just any dam, he wanted to dam the Mediterranean. The whole thing.
The Straits of Gibraltar, eight miles wide, would be the key instrument of the project, but dams across the river Congo, the Dardanelles (blocking the Black Sea) and between Sicily and Tunisia would also be part of it.
Why? Three reasons.
Number one, power. The dam across the Strait of Gibraltar would, in Sörgel’s estimation, have been able to provide enough power for Europe and Africa’s combined power demand. By damming the strait, the difference in height between the Atlantic and the Med could be used to generate electricity with a typical hydroelectric dam.
This would have all kinds of benefits (as well of hundreds of unexpected consequences of course).
In his eyes though, only good things could happen. It would provide energy for the continent, and in a world before oil had taken over, improving on coal was the main objective.
Of course, we are more attuned to this today than back then but the climate aspect is obviously a big one too. Powering half or Europe with hydroelectric power would have quite possibly changed the course of history. Perhaps electric cars would already be ubiquitous, and it would be hydro, not solar and wind, that would be the main clean technologies in electricity.
But the power implication had another element, and this is where the second main positive factor came in for Sörgel.
The project could actually solve the problems of peace in Europe, he believed.
For while the League of Nations scrabbled around doing very little to stop the rise of Hitler in the thirties, Sörgel thought a more radical solution was required.
And the dam, he felt, would provide it.
With the whole continent dependent on power from the Gibraltar dam, a new independent body to run the project would have the capability to instantaneously switch off power to any country that stepped out of line.
It’s the ultimate sanction, as we saw when OPEC blocked oil sales to developed western nations in 1973 over their support for Israel in the Yom Kippur war (causing the oil price to quadruple).
It goes back to the fundamental point which is that energy lies at the very heart of everything that is good in society.
We depend on electricity for every element of our lives, from relaxing in front of the tv, to drinking cold pints in the pub in summer, to buying and selling shares.
Switch all that off, and no war-mongering leader could survive the wrath of their people for long, went the theory.
Thirdly, the system would drain the Mediterranean Sea, and not just that, but by adding the dam in the Congo river, the Sahara would be flooded, turning it into a fertile wetland, in Sörgel’s mind at least. Whether biophysical change can occur so simply is of course up for debate.
But with a fertile, habitable Sahara, and a drained Mediterranean creating land connections between Africa and Europe, a new super Afro-Eurasian continent would emerge – Alantropa.
It would quickly become Sörgel’s pacifist alternative to the darker Lebensraum ideas which were taking hold in his country of birth.
The Sahara would become habitable, and coastal regions (especially in the Adriatic between Italy and Croatia) would grow as the seas receded, offering plentiful new lands for the rapidly growing population, which many felt was on an unsustainable trajectory.
In Sörgel’s estimations, sea level within the Med would fall by around 100m, creating 90,000 square miles of habitable land around the coastline, an unprecedented change.
In total, Sörgel wrote four books on the topic and made it his life’s work for his final 25 years, and sadly he lived to see his worst fear – another continental conflict – play out.
And he wasn’t some seen as some mad crackpot either – his work gained a large and powerful following and his concept was considered at all levels of national and European politics.
Of course, now he would come under widespread criticism for playing God, for his euro-centricity, for suggesting that Europeans could build something so significant without consulting Africa or the Middle East, and for thinking that he could say what the consequences of such a huge change would be. How many fish would die, how many habitats would be ruined, and species would be lost…
But it offers an interesting line of thought.
Given the huge beneficial impact such a dam could have – with huge quantities of hydropower replacing dirty coal in Germany, Poland and elsewhere, would that be worth it?
To implement the Fundamentalist Environmentalist’s quasi-Christian acronym..
WWGT – What Would Greta Think?
Would she tolerate the destruction of habitats and the changing of the physical environment to replace 10 tonnes of carbon with clean, renewable power.
And what if European leaders had gone for in in 1928 when he first proposed it.
If completed within a decade, we could have switched off Germany’s power! Poof!
I mean I know it’s silly to think, it’s such a far-out concept, but it really was seriously considered at the time! As a moral dilemma, would the change in environment and eurocentricity and lost species really be such a bad price to pay, if WW2 could have been avoided?
Ironically, it to the Nazis that Herman went in hope of support – who better to subsidise grand projects after all. But as it was aimed for the benefit of all Europe, not just Germany’s, the idea didn’t take. Ironic, eh…
The Alantropa Institute may have shut down in 1960 but it bequeathed piles of papers, articles and letters of support to the Deutsche Museum in Munich where you can still see them today.
The reason, it seems, that it gained such popularity was that at its core it was trying to solve the problem of peace through technology.
By giving each European nation a stake in the project, as well as adding the risk of power sanctions, Sörgel aimed to unify the continent and make further destruction impossible.
For investors, it’s worth remembering that there is far more to the energy transition than solar and wind. I for one think that there is plenty yet to be seen from the hydropower sector, and with electric vehicles gaining popularity at an increasing rate, diversified sources are power are going to be more important.
And many feel that reducing reliance on oil maybe help to reduce tensions on the heavily oil-reliant and turbulent gulf states. The Paradox of Plenty states that huge reserves of a valuable commodity actually slow down social and economic progress. Without oil holding back those nations, perhaps a more peaceful period can begin. Perhaps…
Russia is notable for going down the hydro route so far, which is why it can afford to be so far behind on solar and wind (which broke through and provided 10% of global electricity in H1 2020 for the first time ever, by the way, a doubling since 2015). Where Russia lags though, the UK leads…
The Transition is in good health, it seems.
Editor, UK Uncensored
PS. This week, Boaz Shoshan been exploring the prospect of another nationwide lockdown brought about by a second wave of WuFlu. It’s a heavily consequential matter for our lives, let alone our investment portfolios. Find out more here.