Notre Dame and Lateral Thinking 413


France is a country which has spent hundreds of billions of euros on nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction, and hundreds of billions of euros on other military capabilities. France possesses the technological capability to utterly flatten a city the size of Paris in minutes. Yet it does not possess the technological capability to prevent one of its greatest buildings from being destroyed by fire.

If the many trillions spent all around the world on the research, development and production of instruments of destruction had been devoted to peaceful purposes instead, what new technologies might we have now? It is not a huge step in lateral thinking to imagine that in such a world, more might have been available to save Notre Dame – and Grenfell – than too short ladders and hoses squirting water.

I posted this simple idea on twitter a couple of hours ago. As with all my twitter posts, right wing trolls came in to dispute my point very quickly. Their posts are worth reading because they so stunningly miss the point. They talk about standard lengths of firefighting ladders and about water pressure. They appear completely unable to even register, let alone extrapolate from, the notion that had the resources mankind has squandered on agents of destruction been better used, we might have different technologies.

John Stuart Mill once stated in parliament: “I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any hon. Gentleman will question it.” I have always believed that right wing “thought” is a misnomer, and right wing views are rather characterised by absence of meaningful intellectual activity. Furthermore, those touted as right wing “thinkers”, such as Roger Scruton, Patrick Minford or David Starkey, if studied with any rigour, are the greatest proof of this. But it is seldom that you see such clear evidence as the responses to that little tweet. If I had devised that tweet as an experiment to demonstrate the hypothesis of the intellectual incapacity of the conservative mind, it could not have worked better.

My condolences to all for the loss of a great building. One day, perhaps mankind will learn that we do not in reality defend what we have by spending vast amounts of our available resources and capacity for communal activity in preparing to destroy as much as we are physically capable of destroying.


413 thoughts on “Notre Dame and Lateral Thinking

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  • Thomas D. Smart

    Cause , Austerity?
    They cannot put a price on a piece of architecture more than 600 years old. Or the historic cultural heritage of this magnificent building.
    However, perhaps ,the old man from Paris who was given the job of “Firewatchman” was only paid €5 an hour to be on night shift. Also, to save money he was possibly working alone ?
    Then he fell asleep because he was working a day job at €6 per hour ?
    Just saying ?

  • uncle tungsten

    Thank you Craig for making that point. The very first thought I had was “where is the fire protection system in one of the priceless monuments of the world”. The gross misallocation of resources to military insanity is truly the sign of ignorance and callous disregard. The second thought was ‘how many equivalent grand monuments have been destroyed in Syria and Iraq’ through the same human ignorance of war uber alles. Later I considered the immense loss in Dresden mid last century. Keep working for change, it will come.

  • Freddy Freeloader

    There was a period of quite a few minutes when there was a small fire around the base of the spire, and the firemen were still dragging hoses through the streets below. Yet all France’s fire-fighting helicopters, seem to be based in the south of the country. They probably don’t need new technology, just sensible deployment of existing technology.

    Worth pointing out that there was an unexplained fire at St Sulpice, the second largest church in Paris, last month.

    • Charles Bostock

      Yes, the fire fighting helicopters (and planes) are based in the south of France. That is because they are meant to deal with fires in the open countryside – thy cannot be used in or over built-up areas ! – and open countryside fires tend to occur in the south of France.

      More generally, it is difficult to see what Craig’s point really is. It is not a case of the French state needing to spend less on armaments and more on services like firefighting (which would have mitigated the fire) : the technology is there but the difficulties were getting it to Notre Dame in good time given the traffic (rush hour) and rather specific location of the cathedral.

      • Freddy Freeloader

        “getting it to Notre Dame in good time given the traffic”

        That’s why a helicopter would have helped. No-one’s suggesting taking the fire-fighting helicopters away from the south, but if they had just one stationed near Paris, and if it could have stopped the fire before it spread, it would have paid for itself many times over, wouldn’t it.

        I don’t agree that helicopters can’t be used in built-up areas. You see them over London all the time, moving Prince Charles between palaces. Obviously not the ones that simply drop a tankful of water, but the ones which can direct a jet accurately at the source of a flame. They do exist. There are also drones that can do the same job. There are drones that carry a tank of water, and there are drones that can lift up a hose and direct it – what the fire-fighters were doing, but without the height limit of their ladders.

        The French seem to be more concerned about their missile technology though. They’re no better at it, but they throw more money at it.
        https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/france-had-some-big-problems-firing-missiles-syria-25468

      • Freddy Freeloader

        “getting it to Notre Dame in good time given the traffic”

        That’s why a helicopter would have helped. No-one’s suggesting taking the fire-fighting helicopters away from the south, but if they had just one stationed near Paris, and if it could have stopped the fire before it spread, it would have paid for itself many times over, wouldn’t it.

        I don’t agree that helicopters can’t be used in built-up areas. You see them over London all the time, moving Prince Charles between palaces. Obviously not the ones that simply drop a tankful of water, but the ones which can direct a jet accurately at the source of a flame. They do exist. There are also drones that can do the same job. There are drones that carry a tank of water, and there are drones that can lift up a hose and direct it – what the fire-fighters were doing, but without the height limit of their ladders.

        The French seem to be more concerned about their missile technology though. They’re no better at it, but they throw more money at it.
        (maybe not allowed to add links? search headline “France Had Some Big Problems Firing Missiles at Syria”)

  • james

    first paragraph – exactly! thanks for stating the obvious.. no one else generally does..

  • Alexandra MacRae

    Paradoxically the fire may have been started by the current remedial work being done on the building. Perhaps the French have spent some money on attempting to preserve one of the symbolic icons of France only for the work to destroy what they were intending to preserve.

  • jean palmer

    thank you for this. You might be interested in this posting from today’s NakedCapitalism.com:
    I am also so glad no people were hurt?

    Yves Smith
    April 15, 2019 at 5:28 pm
    The spire was a later addition, in the 19th century, and actually controversial (a vanity project of a bishop, not well loved by architects or historians). Which does not mean its collapse isn’t a sign of the extent of the damage.

    Reply ↓
    Alfred
    April 15, 2019 at 5:56 pm
    The spire was designed by E-E. Viollet-le-Duc, part of his extensive ‘restoration’ of the cathedral. An earlier spire had been dismantled in the 18th century. The building is/was perhaps the pre-eminent example of the 19th-century French approach to treating monumental heritage. That approach aimed not just to ‘preserve’ what had survived over time but moreover to ‘replace’ what had been lost. Viollet-le-Duc was himself pre-eminent as both a theoretician and practitioner of that approach. It was influential throughout continental Europe, though in England Ruskin and others railed against it.

  • Rob Royston

    There is a good reply to your earlier Twitter where someone shows a picture of a state of the art French water cannon being used against demonstrators beside another picture of firefighters valiantly trying to set up hoses on the burning cathedral.
    With fire, prevention is easier than dealing with it once it starts. The fire triangle is Heat, Fuel and Oxygen. Keep one of them out and your fire will not begin. This is easier said than done though, but Red Adair became rich and famous for knocking out oilfield fires. He would jet water at the oilwell to cool it and then set off an explosion that took away the oxygen and thus smother the fire. He would then turn the oil valve off.
    There are chemicals that will react with fires and put them out, I’m sure they could develop methods of using their aircraft to bomb large fires with them.

  • N_

    Let me be the first to say: “Jacques de Molay, thou art avenged!!

    I won’t retell the story of De Molay. He was burnt at the stake within sight of Notre Dame. A few centuries later, Guy Debord’s ashes were thrown into the Seine from the same place.

    The burning of Notre Dame is of major symbolic importance. I cannot think of a single event in France since the crowning of Napoleon in 1804 (in the same building) that tops this.

    It will certainly be used by the current French regime to promote the idea of “la patrie en danger” (fatherland in danger).

    (Meanwhile, outside of France, to the world’s Anglophone market whose ideas it already dominates, the US-based multinational Google has been busily framing the fire, using its video arm Youtube, as akin to the terror attacks on the New York financial district and the Pentagon in 2001. Those attacks were on some here-today gone-tomorrow bits of recent crappy architecture which are at least two or three levels below Notre Dame in their symbolic significance.)

    • N_

      And it will be used not just by the current “old regime” but also by the Rassemblement National (National Rally), formerly known as the National Front. I will not be surprised one bit if in the next general election the party incorporates an image of Notre Dame into its logo. (You heard it here first.) From the blue waves of the sea to the centre, the centre of Paris, the centre of the world.

      The fire is excellent news for the Christian far right which has stretched and stretched since the days of Charles Maurras and before – without success, but without being defeated either – to re-establish its dominance in France.

      • John A

        The first ‘casualty’ of the fire was Macron’s live speech to the nation, due to be broadcast at 8pm last night.

        • michael norton

          Correct John.
          President Macron will now expect the Yellow Jackets to stop their nonsense and start working towards a united France, under Macron.

          For Macron, this my be his saving.

  • Tessa Gray

    The other thought I have about this is how true is the statement that all France mourns for this building? I suspect that a lot of people couldn’t care less, and not surprisingly. Living in the North of England I would find it hard to care if Saint Paul’s cathedral burnt down. If the French government had treated me like shit for years because I was black, or an immigrant I wouldn’t see it as part of my heritage or cultural history. So what would I care about in terms of buildings? Miner’s Halls, great public libraries, beautiful public swimming baths, all gone. And internationally, almost all the physical evidence of slavery, the forrests of Kenya, the absolute devastation of the aboriginal sacred sites and the original inhabitants sacred sites in the Americas. So not many years for Notre Dame.

    • N_

      Emmanuel Macron has “committed to an international fundraising effort” to restore Notre Dame to its previous state. He means its immediately previous state, not its distally previous state as a Temple of Reason.

      So we’re getting France’s most important cathedral and an international effort to “restore“. Macron is likely to cast off his agnostic face by Sunday if he hasn’t already. Who does he think he is – Putin?

      Resacralisation, right-wing Christianity, carrying the banner of “restoration”, is on the march! “International” here means Roman Catholic, if I have to spell it out.

      I may think “Jacques de Molay, thou art avenged”. There are others who think “OAS, thou soon will be avenged”.

      • N_

        Apparently a year ago Macron gave a speech to France’s Catholic bishops and 400 Catholic leaders at the Collège des Bernardins. According to the Catholic Herald,

        In a world lacking fixed reference points, Macron suggested, Catholicism’s insistence on certain universal truths gave it the freedom to speak about topics that others find irritating, such as the duties that people owe each other, the challenges posed by Islam and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

        People know about his wife Brigitte, right? How come she didn’t lose her job at the Jesuit school when she was known to be shagging a pupil?

        • Charles Bostock

          I think Brigitte started “her pupil” – as you put it with your customary elegance – once he was no longer her pupil.

          More generally, I find your immediate politicisation of the fire, as revealed in your several posts, is typical of the mindset and general approach to events of a particular sort of political ideology. Try to see the fire as a cultural tragedy rather than a political event.

          • Charles Bostock

            Should have been: “I think Brigitte “shagged her pupil” – as you put it with your customary elegance…”

          • Casual Observer

            N_ raises some valid points. An examination of the ‘Cultural’ aspects of the event do tend to indicate that much of it dates from the middle of the 19th century. And there is little doubt that the fire will be politicised by any group that feel they may get some mileage from it ?

            The Wiki entry for Notre Dame is instructive to say the least 🙂

  • Paul Damascene

    For those who are generally saddened (as opposed to virtue signallers and concern trolls) by the fate of Notre Dame, we might pause here, in a moment of remembrance for Palmyra, the Iraqi National Museum, and the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Notre Dame, at least, appears so far to have been an accident.

    • N_

      The following quotes from Emmanuel Macron, wearing a black tie, illustrate what is going on here.

      “This is our history, and it is burning.”
      “The hours to come will be difficult.”
      “I would like to send a thought to Catholics – Catholics in France and all over the world.”
      “We will rebuild the cathedral together, and that’s undoubtedly part of the French destiny and our project for the coming years.”
      “We will appeal to the greatest talents, and there are many who will come to contribute and rebuild.”
      “We will rebuild Holy France Notre Dame.”

      The fire started on Holy Monday, the beginning of Holy Week.

      The Crown of Thorns has reportedly been saved.

      Next Sunday, Pope Francis will give his Easter Sunday address, the traditional “Urbi et Orbi” – to the City and the World.

      Patrick Chauvet, rector of Notre Dame, says “I asked the Lord – why? I think I will get my answer when I reach heaven (…) It is apocalyptic.”

      Will Jesuit Brigitte Macron be accompanying her husband Emmanuel to meet fellow Jesuit Pope Francis?

      European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker says he is following news of the fire “minute by minute”.

      Meanwhile the elders of the the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), together with Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, are thought to have ranted something about the Antichrist, the Harlot of Rome, and God’s Justice.

      (In a piece of other, utterly downmarket news, which scrapes the bottom of the barrel for vulgarity, some New York cheeseburger chomper called “Donald Trump” sent a “tweet”. Seriously.)

      • Sharp Ears

        The orange man tweeted twice, surrounding another about Tiger Woods.

        Donald J. Trump
        @realDonaldTrump
        ‘God bless the people of France!’

        and

        ‘So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!’

  • glenn_nl

    Incredible – a long network of piping along the roof and walls, with a bunch of holes tapped into it, turned on from a master tap – that was not installed – even when there’s a danger that fire may take the whole place down.

    I had the severe displeasure of watching this take place a few months ago, with my own eyes:

    https://www.urbanusbovenkerk.nl/

    Why – in 2019 – are we so badly prepared for predictable problems, with obvious solutions?

    • N_

      There’s nothing like analysing the wrinkles on a finger while avoiding looking at the Moon that it’s pointing to.

    • J

      I presume American difficulties with wild fires are exacerbated by privatisation and run down public services. And Flint still has no drinkable water.

  • Gerry Bell

    Agree about ‘thinkers’ like Scruton – hope much of the great cathedral can be reconstructed using Frances advanced technological resources. 🙂

    • N_

      What are people’s favourite stories about Scruton? Mine is how he got caught approaching a big tobacco company asking for more than £5000 a month to put his name to articles that would encourage smoking on the basis of some crap or other about “freedom”. Such is right-wing “thought”.

  • N_

    Reportedly the Crown of Thorns in Notre Dame has been saved.

    Was it moved somewhere safe before the first match was lit? 🙂

  • KateF

    Good point. I don’t know if it would have worked for Notre Dame but it certainly would have for Grenfell if sprinklers had been fitted. These have been around since the 19th century and provide a massively more effective way of putting out fires than expecting someone to be there to see it, call the fire brigade and then wait for one or more water-laden lorries to turn up and squirt water on it. With sprinklers no-one has to be there to see it, or call the fire brigade. They activate within seconds. The real lesson of Grenfell is that conventional firefighting is useless in high rise blocks. This was understood in the 1950s, which is why ‘compartmentation’ was introduced when they were built. That was of course fatally compromised by shoddy, cheapskate ‘improvements’. If all the Grenfell Inquiry can come up with is recommendations for longer ladders and better radio communications it will have totally failed.

    • Jo1

      The difference with Grenfell is that buildings of that design are meant to be protected by materials which prevent fire from spreading. We now know that changes were made to that building which created routes and paths for the flames to follow using highly flammable materials.

  • Photios

    France ‘…does not possess the technological capability to prevent
    one of its greatest buildings from being destroyed by fire.’

    Neither does Glasgow.

  • Deb O'Nair

    BBC News24 managed to work the London Blitz into their rolling commentary by comparing the scene of Notre Dame with that of St Paul’s during WW2. One wonders if there is a special department at the BBC tasked with identifying WW2 content opportunities.

    • D_Majestic

      I’m sure there is, Deb. We will never be allowed to forget. No fear of that.

  • J

    My knowledge of history is exceptionally poor hence any ill formed conclusions…

    I was reading about Archimedes recently. His screw water pump is still used in poor nations today, nearly two and half thousand years later. It’s easy to make, it’s a good design and has a minimum of moving parts. That’s a hell of contribution to humanity. He was murdered by a Roman soldier after the heroic but doomed defence of Syracuse.

    One thing struck me about his solution to Hiero’s crown problem. Hiero wanted to know that his craftsmen hadn’t been skimming and that his crown was pure gold. Archimedes, according to legend, noticed that water was displaced by the volume of his body while in the bathtub. He had realised how to solve Hiero’s problem.

    It occurred to me that by contrast, if a Roman emperor was ever worried about gold this was an ideal excuse for the next war, invade another gold rich country and simply take it. Such a novel idea would probably never occur in Rome, the question being unlikely to arise.

    While Greece produced an astonishing profusion of mathematicians, philosophers, playwrights, artists, sculptors, painters, engineers and technologists (the antikythera mechanism a case in point) Rome concentrated on projecting it’s military power, at home and abroad. While Rome is still astonishing today, I don’t know of many technologies pioneered by Romans and still in use by poor Africans today. Perhaps more knowledgeable readers can enlighten.

    • Mark

      How about: the arch, plumbing, clean drinking water, public sanitation, central heating, road construction, bridge-building, and the imperial measurement system?. Check out the “Life of Brian” sketch where Michael Palin, playing the part of an Anglo peasant, ask a similar question: “what have the Romans ever done for us”

      • J

        I was musing about something slightly different, I think.

        Some of those things are pre-Roman but they certainly took some tehcnologies and improved them while inventing others. The oldest known roads (I think) pre-date Rome by a good margin. In south east Europe (Vinca) and in Ireland (Celts) for example. It’s also arguable that other technologies, less applicable for war, were never discovered and were ignored or extinguished.

  • N_

    Some background: France has been experiencing a wave of attacks on churches since February.

    These have included the desecration of altars, the defacing of images of Jesus on the Cross, the smashing of a statue of the Virgin Mary, and other attacks on altars, crosses, and statues.

    It’s almost as if…someone wants to exacerbate divisions using a known fault line!

  • Sharp Ears

    I immediately thought of Grenfell and the fact that the London fire service had to wait for high reach equipment to arrive from Surrey. The Moore Bick inquiry grinds on slowly. The grass is getting longer and longer.

    Having said that that, I have the greatest regard for firefighters. I don’t know about other counties, but Surrey CC is hacking away at the service by closing stations and creating redundancies. They have even privatized the river rescue part of the service.

    Much of the service’s resources is spent in dealing with multiple vehicle crashes which occur regularly on the A3 and the M25.

    • Paul Barbara

      @ Sharp Ears April 16, 2019 at 03:57
      ‘I immediately thought of Grenfell and the fact that the London fire service had to wait for high reach equipment to arrive from Surrey…’
      That will obviously have been a financial consideration, as storage would be cheaper in Surrey than London. But, of course, London will have far more high-rise buildings than Surrey.
      Also it was only a few years ago when they did a purge on London Fire Stations and appliances.

    • michael norton

      Woking is in Surrey, they are building a group of exceedingly high residential toweres, next to the Basingstoke Canal so far, they seem to be Brutalist Concrete, which will be fine, that was how Grenfell was constructed, Brutalist Concrete, fireproof.

    • Paul Barbara

      @ J April 16, 2019 at 04:00
      Not difficult to figure out ‘cui bono’ there; Notre Dame is more complex.

  • Oliver Williams

    There are multiple factors at work here :
    – the very high calorific content of the materials in the roof
    – the height of the fire which is beyond most city water pressures and firefighters pumps
    – the maintenance work which would create additional risk to be managed and would interfere with any organised firefighting plan
    – difficulties in putting in sprinkler systems with respect to the historic environment and the risks involved
    – problem of not doing important maintenance for such a long period before now which may have contributed to the spread of the fire
    The list is long.
    We should remember that many historic buildings have been lost over the last century. We learn from those losses and we develop technologies. And also put into place better procedures.
    Money is not of itself the solution.
    I would add nevertheless that I agree that the money spent on wars would be better spent on working out ways of protecting our history and our societies.
    And also that Grenfell was entirely avoidable. The facade system put in place was not fit for purpose. The building regs in UK and most European countries would have stopped the Grenfell fire. But the regs were not followed.
    For clarity, I’m a facade engineer.

  • David Tame

    Glancing at the comments already here, while I haven’t seen any critical of Craig such as he mentions regarding his Tweet, and while many of the comments are informative, once again the actual point Craig’s post was making hasn’t once been addressed so far down as I’ve read! The point of the post is not about the actual Notre Dame fire, which will be discussed all over the media for days, but about the allocation of effort and money into weapons of war.

      • Charles Bostock

        Thank you for that link. It shows that Russia runs the US a close second and France runs the UK a close fourth. Now that’s something you don’t hear that often, isn’t it 🙂

        • Wikikettle

          The US spends more on arms than the top eight countries combined. $670 Billion I think. Russia is not a ‘close second’ !
          Its economy is the same size as Italy’s. If you compare totals of aircraft, tanks, ships etc… Russia is heavily outnumbered by NATO. It also has to defend the largest land mass and borders in the world. It is in no position to threaten us and is itself surrounded. Its amazing it can survive economically under the blockade we impose on it. However it did manage to defend itself against the Germans who threw 80% of its divisions into the Eastern front. We are now threatening it again through the Ukraine corridor. Whatever you think of Putin, the Russians have regained their dignity again after Yeltsin. I am sure we wont stop trying to to get our corporations, banks and hands on its resources. The Great Game in trying to keep the Bear in chains is still being played out.

  • Mazunga

    I think stupid could also be applied to someone who presumes to know the root causes of the fire before the ashes are even cold.

    There are (or were) 13 million visitors a year to Notre Dame. Do you really believe that money is the problem?

    Far more likely, as was the case for Grenfell, is contradictory regulations – historical buildings vs fire safety for example.

  • Bill Thomson

    Here’s hoping it was insured. At least that will have a few names crying.
    No doubt alleviating their distress will be the purpose of the international appeal.

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