In 50 years, will anyone still live in central Spain?

I’ve just spent a year based in Madrid, trying to understand Spain. I have travelled from Valencia to Cádiz, often on high-speed trains, pursuing a kind of glorious seafood-fuelled study mission. My preliminary conclusion: this is the world’s most liveable country, albeit even more for privileged foreigners than for the average Spaniard. But climate change could be particularly devastating here.

You’d think climate would be a hot dry country’s top priority, but in fact Spaniards spend more time arguing about national unity. Spain’s great modern trauma was Catalonia’s illegal referendum on independence in 2017. The federal government sent in baton-wielding police, and nine separatist organisers of the referendum were jailed for up to 13 years. In response, flags were hung from balconies nationwide as people expressed their visions of Spain. You can often read a neighbourhood’s political character just walking down the street: national flags in bourgeois Madrid neighbourhoods, 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. 

Polarisation could worsen if the conservative People’s party and Vox win next year’s national elections and crack down on Catalonia. But for now, I’m impressed with how the Socialist-led government is defusing tensions, pardoning the jailed separatists and negotiating compromises – often grubby ones – with Catalanist parties. That’s how a multinational democracy is meant to work. Flags are coming down and Catalan support for independence is plummeting, partly as people realise it won’t happen: no foreign country recognised Catalan independence.

More broadly, despite political corruption, Spain’s ruling elite has many achievements. As the writer Javier Cercas says, the past 40 years have been the country’s best ever. Democracy has been stabilised, 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 projected to be the world’s highest by 2040. True, the average Spaniard spends that life in a low-quality flat, often in a Soviet-looking apartment block, on a net median annual income of €15,892. But improvement continues. With permanent contracts burgeoning, unemployment – so long the national scourge – is at its lowest since 2008

The country’s economic geography has rearranged itself. Madrid has become a boomtown, the London of Spain, and something of a tax haven. It has overtaken Barcelona as a business centre, sucking in companies, growing an almost Chinese-style new business district and competing with Miami to become the capital of the Spanish-speaking world, as Argentinians, Venezuelans et al flee to a functioning country.

But there are two Spains: one inhabited, the other almost empty. Moments after your train leaves Madrid or the coasts, you’re in the almost abandoned interior. Outside Madrid, the vast region of Castile-León, ruled by the People’s party and Vox, has been depopulating for decades. Some villages have shrunk to a few dozen pensioners without a doctor. Here’s one image I’ll retain of Spain: an uninhabited red-roofed farmhouse, alone amidst brown fields, with the only sign of human activity a clutch of distant wind turbines.

The government seems to have quietly decided that the interior’s depopulation is unstoppable. In Empty Spain, people are making way for the area’s last two assets: sun and wind. In fact, the Spanish interior is Europe’s biggest renewables opportunity. Already, wind and solar generate nearly half the country’s electricity. The €140bn due to Spain from the EU’s recovery fund could accelerate the trend. Spain’s government wants dying villages to rent land to renewables companies. Inconveniently, though, many locals prefer industries in which they themselves could play a role.

Spain’s coming crisis is climate change. The orange dust on our balcony this spring, blown in from the Sahara, felt like a portent. Parts of Spain are at their driest in a millennium. I’m writing this beside a whirring electric fan in Madrid, where temperatures have topped 35C for weeks. Some regions get hotter than 40C, which isn’t liveable. 

The cracked, barren fields seen from train windows look north African. The grape harvest in Jérez began on July 28, the earliest in the region’s history. Already, desertification affects about a fifth of Spain’s land. Farming with boundless irrigation isn’t a long-term strategy. Millennia-old Iberian agriculture may be dying out. And I suspect tourism will gradually shift from Spain’s overbuilt south coast to the lovely cool north, as summer heat morphs from attraction into threat. 

I’m returning to Paris, but this isn’t adiós, just hasta luego (see you later) to what I hope will remain the world champion of liveability.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at [email protected]

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