Sunday, July 24, 2016

Macau

The rain had been falling through the evening as the front moved in from the South China Sea. It was still not summer but the air was not cold. Walking up the hill, I got this strange mix of déjà vu and premonition, like I could imagine myself decades hence stranded in a decrepit apartment in one of the houses, sipping small-batch bourbon whiskey and trying to finish a novel that no one will read on one of the typewriters of my childhood. The romantic excuses of professional failure, to make a fetish out of what every academic fears the most, to be lost in words.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Nuclear democracy

Decentralized small-scale renewable energy is sometimes justified on the basis that it would be intrinsically more “democratic” than nuclear or other large-scale forms of electricity generation. A new book called “Energy Democracy: Germany's Energiewende to Renewables” makes this exact case as it suggests that moving ownership of energy production to the community level will not only lead to lower greenhouse emissions but also strengthen democracy. In terms of emissions, it is becoming increasingly clear that renewables have not been able to displace fossil fuels to any larger degree (in fact, German emissions have been going up, as recognized in a recent article in the New York Times and elsewhere). However, the second claim about democracy is definitely worth scrutinizing as well.

In his book “The Quality of Government: Corruption, Social Trust, and Inequality in International Perspective”, Bo Rothstein argues that the Nordic democracies in particular are characterized by a high level of “generalized social trust” thanks to universal welfare arrangements and an impartial state founded on the rule of law. Modern societies depend on such trust in abstract systems. This is true for everything from commercial aviation to advanced medicine or, for that part, nuclear energy.

Thanks to the permanence of large-scale social institutions, individuals can enjoy the freedom and security necessary to shape their lives according to their own dreams and ambitions. Reliable electricity, safe drinking water and efficient public transport are all examples of the material basis necessary for a modern life. Understood in this way, decentralized energy is essentially a retreat from the kind of universal welfare state of the 20th century as it replaces trust in our society-wide ability to respond to future contingencies with a “prepper”-mentality preoccupied with local resilience.

Nuclear power, especially its future which is highly dependent on both the continuing operation of existing reactors and vast public investments in new technologies, is extremely symbolic for how we understand the future of modernity and democracy more generally. As I write in my forthcoming article in Globalizations:

“For some time it has become obvious that the welfare state stands at a disruptive juncture. Either it can try to protect itself from the world by imposing an international apartheid system as it falters under growing migratory pressure, rising costs for retirement, and a self-inflicted energy crisis or it can confront those fears with a politics of radical engagement and accelerate the transition to a world of universal affluence with an abundance of clean energy and open borders”

Nuclear energy is our best hope for making possible a world in which 7-10 billion people can live modern lives while at the same time reversing the effects of global climate change. To believe in nuclear energy is to believe in the potential of our democratic institutions and in our collective ability to build a better future.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Soul of Man under Socialism

As popularized by Slavoj Žižek in the RSA animation clip “First as tragedy, then as farce”, Oscar Wilde begins his essay The Soul of Man under Socialism by arguing that while charity “degrades and demoralizes”, the proper aim should be to “try to reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible”.

This summer at the Breakthrough Dialogue, I was reminded of this quote. In the same way as charity is an insufficient response to poverty, contemporary lifestyle environmentalism with all its carbon calculators and guilt projection is obviously unhelpful with regards to actually solving the global environmental crisis. Instead of criticizing individual consumer choices or, worse, suggesting that poor people need to somehow be spared from the “ills of modernity”, the proper aim of ecomodernism should be to reorganize the basic global metabolism of society in a way that makes ecological harm impossible. Thought through, this is of course a very ambitious political vision and clearly one that the capitalist market economy alone will not be capable of bringing about. Yet, over the coming centuries, it appears as if our hopes of securing both human and natural flourishing increasingly depend on that we isolate the economy and the ecology of this planet from each other.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Ripasso

This morning William was back to his 04.00 a.m. routine. The only possible upside to this is that it tends to give me a moment of peace in the evenings, like right now when I am indulging myself with a good book, some ripasso and the chance to compose my 500th (!) blog post on the backside porch.

The book by Alina Bronsky is not as random as it may seem because, in exactly three months today, I am off to the Ukraine and Chernobyl together with my co-author Jon. For my return, I am still pondering different options, including a possible overland trip into Russia, a country which I, despite all my years of criss-crossing Central and Eastern Europe, have yet to visit. Unfortunately, I need to be back in Umeå soon after to meet a new batch of social work students so any grander travel adventures will not be possible.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Sleep-in

One knows that things have been pretty extreme when it feels like sleeping in when you are woken up first at 05.30 a.m. Yet for the last days, William has been unusually merciful and the kids have even been taking overlapping midday naps, leaving me with a bit of time to catch up on things, including some summer reads as well as the eager anticipation of my new article “The Environmental Risks of Incomplete Globalization” appearing in print with Globalizations. Not the least in the wake of Brexit, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Left lacks a comprehensive response to the globalization of the world and that the few attempts that are indeed articulated still fail to see the possibilities of new global forms of welfare capitalism. Similarly, there is much talk about that economic growth is somehow “over”, be it for demographic or other reasons. This appears to be just as a “wildly mistaken interpretation of what is happening to us” as it was to Keynes in 1930. That is not to say that a reconfiguration from debt-driven economics to a new paradigm based on wage-driven growth and broad social investments will be an easy political task. Nor, as both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders vividly illustrate, is the spectre of protectionism truly dead. Mercantilist thinking still holds a profound influence over folk economics everywhere. Likewise, social democrats still have to recognize the economic possibilities (to say nothing of the moral necessity) of a world with open borders.

Meanwhile in Germany, even the proponents of Energiewende are now admitting that the climate goals were always secondary to their religious abhorrence of nuclear energy, regardless of any immediate health impacts (see the new WWF report “Europe’s dark cloud” on coal-burning) or the crucial role of nuclear innovation in reducing the problem of long-term radioactive waste disposal.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

New geographies


With a Turkish delight melting in my mouth, I get a last glimpse of the Pacific coastline. Ahead of me, I have almost 13 hours of flying until our 777-300ER reaches the Bosporus. Back in San Francisco, Michael and the others have been staging the first in a series of marches for nuclear power, trying to save Diablo Canyon and other critical sources of low-carbon electricity.

Just before leaving, I took Jon to Shalimar, my favourite Pakistani restaurant in Tenderloin. It is a truly timeless place, much like one of those streets in New York where you can imagine people living out their whole lives.

With every new layer, it gets harder to part with America even as I have missed my boys beyond words ever since I left Umeå nine long days ago. The Dialogue in particular had this remarkable mix of, on one hand, completely safe space and, on the other hand, razor-sharp questions that challenged me on every level. But for now, summer in North Sweden awaits!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Treasure Island

As tradition has it, I was woken up by the foghorn echoing across the Bay. Despite the mist, the critical junctures of history were readily visible this morning.

Brexit became a reality, adding to the sense of shattered dreams. Yesterday, here at the Breakthrough Dialogue, Samir Saran expressed the same concerns over climate justice that I am voicing in my upcoming article in Globalizations about how sustained poverty abroad has become the de facto preferred climate mitigation strategy of rich countries. Considering the crucial role of energy in making broad social transformations possible, Samir’s suggestion that the rich world should “close a coal plant for every one we [in India] open, when we have the same number, we'll do it together” points to what real climate justice would look like, in particular if paired with breakthrough innovation that would enable a clean high-energy future for all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

California on a roll

A year ago, the release of “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” catapulted eco-political debates into the Anthropocene. By breaking with the palliative “fudge” of sustainable development, ecomodernism highlighted the stark macro-political choices confronting humanity in a world of uncontrolled climate change, rapid biodiversity loss and, still, highly uneven processes of globalization. Motivated by a sense of wonder of nature but also the political and moral impossibility of sustained global poverty, ecomodernists controversially argue that rather than fearfully backing into a warming world or fighting an impossible political battle to impose ecological austerity, both human and natural flourishing depend on consciously accelerating the transition to a high-energy planet of equalized life opportunities. As such, the ecomodernist worldview is propelled by a proactionary imperative which seeks to overcome both environmental and geographical determinism. Unlike traditional environmental thinking which is concerned with the just distribution of ecological space in the present, ecomodernism aims to find a long-term global trajectory towards universal prosperity on an ecologically vibrant planet.


After spending four days around Sacramento and bike-friendly Davis working on my new co-authored book, I am about to drive down to Sausalito where I will attend this year’s edition of the Breakthrough Dialogue. It took a few long brunches of revisions for me and my co-author Jon to find the right tone in our writing (the text above is one of many that we deleted) but now it feels like we are finally on track. As for the Dialogue, I am very excited about this year’s theme (“Great Transformations”) and my own panel on Ecomodernism and the Left. More to follow.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Après Paris

This week I am in London for two short days. The official reason is a nuclear policy event but with the thesis grading season in full swing and now the proofs of my new article ”Après Paris: Breakthrough innovation as the primary moral obligation of rich countries" to correct, there has been little time to actually engage with those issues.

On my way back out to Heathrow, I realize that it was not only the freshly-squeezed orange juice or the title of my paper that made me think of Paris and all that I have chosen to forego by remaining in the High North. Though I still believe I am doing the right thing, these micro-dips into the urban whirlwind do remind me of what could have been. Early tomorrow morning, the night train service will cross the river Ume and drop me off just in front of the pre-school.

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Thursday, June 02, 2016

Back to work

It is the second day of June and I am back to work after the parental leave (even if the picture probably suggests otherwise). Tomorrow I will examine five bachelor theses on subjects ranging from women's political participation in Lebanese refugee camps to Swedish school policy. I really appreciate this task as it allows me to read up on new topics and think about how to best turn abstract methodological and theoretical concepts into practice.