Wednesday, September 02, 2015

On global convergence

Though never certain or guaranteed, there was time not so long ago when the prospect of a global convergence around OECD-levels seemed to be, if not within immediate reach, so at least a reasonable long-term expectation. At that time, during those long nineties, “millennial capitalism” had not run its course, 9/11 paranoia was just as unheard of as ISIS, and the world was still imbued with the liberal optimism of having woken up alive from the nuclear nightmare. Yet, even then, the idea of the whole world eventually becoming like, say, the Nordic countries, was provocative to many. Dependency theorists still maintained that the riches of some were only possible through the exploitation of others, cultural essentialists argued that the poor lacked the moral and intellectual capacity for their own development, and post-development theorists were beginning to suggest that the poor did not really want a modern life after all. In addition to these voices there was, ever since the 1970’s, a growing Malthusian stream of people who were convinced that universal affluence would spell immediate ecological doom.

However, considering the vast social transformations that a country like Sweden itself had gone through over the last couple of centuries, not to mention the simultaneous expansion of science and technology, the burden of proof should reasonably have fallen on those who doubted such as a bright global future. It was one thing to declare the impossibility of mass democracy, gender equality or social welfare in 1690, a completely different thing to do it in 1990. Yet, somehow, that very obvious observation never took hold. Instead, as many sociologists have argued, there was instead a gradual loss of confidence in our ability to democratically decide the future.

Fast-forward to 2015 and the world is, if not in flames, so slowly scorching as the global carbon cycle is being altered, wars are engulfing the Middle East and the hypermasculine language of geopolitics and “security” is back with a vengeance everywhere from North-East Asia to Europe. In the rich world, an unfortunate combination of insufficient social investments, stagnating wage growth, and an overreliance on debt-financed consumption has led to slow or negative growth rates. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, globalization is treated with trepidation but often not so much for material reasons as for existential fears of self-actualization. Instead of a world of ever greater fluidity which would demand that each individual creates something of global value to others, xenophobic parties and nationalist politicians have promised to restore stability, homogeneity, and continuity with a romanticized past. In Sweden, long heralded as the vanguard of progressive politics, the xenophobic “Sverigedemokraterna” is now the largest party among men. Across the Baltic Sea in Russia, Putin speaks the same language full of contempt for weakness. In Asia, proxy conflicts over islands reflect a deeper inability to escape victimhood and a corresponding failure to take active responsibility for the future.

All taken together, this means that the hope of a more fully integrated world, based on a common democratic order and universal norms of global citizenship, is far less pronounced today. While the European Union still points to the possibilities of political and economic integration, the euro crisis has reminded the world of what was always true, namely that if your consumption rate is higher than your overall productivity and you consistently neglect the need for social investments and modernization in terms of for instance gender structures, then your country will eventually fall upon hard times. The single currency has only made it more difficult to hide this through currency manipulation. In combination with a deregulated financial market, this has however created a strong political backlash against the European project, both among its net contributors and recipients. Further failure to integrate Turkey has given support to “European exceptionalism” and the view that what has happened in Europe is some kind of historic anomaly rather than a template for future global integration.

In an optimistic reading, all this amounts to nothing but speedbumps or temporary setbacks on the journey towards a global welfare state. Without subscribing to teleology there are many reasons to think that this is indeed the case, not only has global market integration accelerated over the last decades, but the World Value Survey and other similar studies have consistently shown a worldwide movement away from traditional values and hierarchical forms of authority towards secular-rational values, greater individual freedom and autonomy. Every year, more people travel by airplane and are able to experience other countries and cultures first-hand. As the world gets smaller, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny our common humanity and insist on the artificial segregation of people based on a completely randomly assigned variable (place of birth). Yet, in terms of politics or ideology, there has been surprisingly little interest in even imagining a world with universal freedom of movement and shared prosperity. Even among so called “progressives”, the idea of global economic convergence has come to instil more fear than hope. As climate change has emerged as the defining political issue of our time, the Malthusian belief that a world in which everyone can live a modern life would simply not be ecological sustainable has become both widely spread and deeply entrenched. What is worse, cultural perfectionist ideas about the perceived superficiality of “mass consumption” have been allowed to blend with protectionist fears of foreign competition into an ideology which sees chronic poverty abroad, preferably under the guise of “sustainable livelihoods” powered by small-scale renewable energy, as an acceptable price for avoiding a climate emergency. For those subscribing to such views, a delayed or incomplete globalization is in fact a blessing of sorts as it takes away some of the urgency of climate mitigation.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The environmental risks of incomplete globalization

Over the last days I have put together a couple of abstracts for papers that I hope to present at different conferences next year. First out is a paper called "The environmental risks of incomplete globalization" which aims to directly confront established discourses within green political theory. The paper tries to bring more of the darkening clouds of the real world into debates about sustainability. Abstract as follows:

"As the liberal optimism of the long nineties has faded into a world of growing wealth inequality, resurging nationalism, and escalating interstate tensions, there is less certainty about the prospects of eventual economic convergence and global integration. Beyond the formidable human cost of maintaining a divided world with strict immigration controls, the possibility of delayed or incomplete globalization also gives rise to a number of environmental risks. While mainstream environmental political theory tends to see strength in localism, history rather shows that the existence of a robust world trade system is crucial to offset local resource scarcities and that cosmopolitan norms of solidarity are essential for helping communities rebuild after environmental catastrophe. More importantly, failure to transition to a fully integrated high-energy planet will take away some of the urgency of climate change and allow the current focus on non-scalable low-carbon technologies to continue. Instead of actively planning for a sustainable world of universal affluence, there is a risk that ad hoc, methodologically nationalist climate mitigation responses may inadvertently contribute to a new pattern of climate injustice by which global warming continues, although at a somewhat slower pace, while permanently keeping billions of people in poverty (in some cases under the guise of “sustainable livelihoods” powered by small-scale renewable energy) is seen as a necessary price for avoiding a climate emergency"

Sunday, August 23, 2015

In French

The late philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright once remarked that not learning French was one of the most significant omissions in his education. While more people may be confident speaking English in France today than in the past, I realize that, just as for von Wright, not knowing French limits my world.


As a contrast to the awaken world and the airy, white and minimalist Scandinavian home that I have come to live in, my night-time dreams are less confined by linguistic or temporal barriers. I sometimes find myself surrounded by the décor of the late 60’s in Paris as captured by Bertolucci or thrown back to street-side cafés that made me think of slow mornings in Tangier.

Sipping the last glass of French bubbles (sorry to disappoint but only Badoit mineral water as Eddie woke me up well before 5 am), I realize that August is almost over. In a week tomorrow, I will again be teaching political philosophy to a new batch of undergraduates. Starting with the classics and the ancient Greek universe, it is a journey through time as good as any, including a couple of less expected stops such as Christine de Pizan. As for the modern part, there is a distinct echo of Stephen Eric Bronner and his class that I took at Rutgers in 2008.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Three metaphors for sustainability in the Anthropocene

Travelling back and forth along the tracks of Northern Sweden this spring, I finally had time to write up that paper about three metaphors for sustainability in the Anthropocene, including my favourite runway analogy.

Thanks to a quick review process with the newly launched SAGE journal The Anthropocene Review, I was happy to submit my corrections to the final proofs this morning. Had this been at HUFS with their mad bonus scheme, I would already been planning a celebratory weekend trip to Nice or something but at least I got myself a bottle of Grüner Veltliner (which it will probably take months until I find the time to actually drink).

Update 6 August: The article has now been published. As always, just contact me if you do not have institutional access but still want to read it. Link as follows: dx.doi.org/10.1177/2053019615599415

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Sandy fields

After five months between homes, we at last moved into our new apartment at Sandåkersgatan 10 yesterday. The house is everything that Reinfeldt’s Sweden was about and as such it is obviously a bit scary. Fortunately, there are some punk rockers living just across the dual carriageway who have a skeleton on a cart in their garden and a permanently parked tour bus.

Keeping some of our landlord’s furniture, it now feels like we are experiencing home staging from the inside. In the long run, living like this without great literature (I put up another 120 kg of books at work today!) and furniture without history would probably be intolerable but for now, it is actually blissful to not have to worry about heavy books falling over the kids or items full of nostalgia being covered in bolognese.

As always, please feel free to come and visit!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Policy-based evidence making

This week I am attending the annual Breakthrough Dialogue in Sausalito, California. As the evening programme is about to start, I will keep this post relatively short. The theme this year is “The Good Anthropocene”, a combination of words which some clearly have strong issues with. In fact, the morning started off with a debate between Mark Lynas and Clive Hamilton on whether a good Anthropocene is at all possible to imagine. For me, the answer is obviously “yes”. Yet, that is not the same as that I think that such a bright planetary future is certain or guaranteed. In that way, it felt a bit cliché to hear Hamilton suggesting that ecomodernism is essentially a passive belief in the market or a magic technofix whereas, at least for Breakthrough and me, it has always been very much the opposite, i.e. a call for action and radical political imagination. In that, “ecomodernism” is quite distinct from “ecopragmatism” which is more about focusing on what works here and now (rather than the far more interesting question of where we actually want to go).

In the afternoon, Oliver Geden at the Deutschen Institut für Internationale Politik und Sicherheit discussed the future of the two degree stabilization target. His talk again reminded me of how much we are all seeing what we want to see when it comes to climate policy. Rather than some neutral form of evidence based policy-making it is really, as Geden pointed out with a great term, a question of “policy-based evidence making” as old solutions chase new problems. That is definitely true, both for Naomi Klein and Rasmus. Now time for cocktails and dinner.

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Aragón

As the snow returns outside my train window, I read in the news that southern Spain is currently suffering from a heat wave with temperatures up to 44 degrees. It reminds me that even if Europe may be our playground, it is definitely a big one.

The other day I had a glass of red wine from the hills of Aragon. Sold as a “premium wine” by SAS, it had an airplane-like ability to blur space and time, something much needed as I try to keep together my current existence of Umeå-Kiruna train commutes, flocks of students all asking for immediate feedback and a house to pack down into boxes. Fortunately, we got a new apartment lined up from 1 August so in the end I am sure all will be good but it has been frustrating to discover that our post-Asia home turned out to be just as transient as everything else.

In little more than a month from now I will be in California for the annual Breakthrough Dialogue at Cavallo Point. The theme this year is “The Good Anthropocene” and, as the ecomodernist movement is both maturing and growing, I think this year’s dialogue will push the envelope of our collective imagination further yet. Dark as the political landscape may seem right now, not the least after the recent Tory victory in the UK, I cannot help being an optimist when it comes to the bigger trends. There may be many speedbumps yet, be it ISIS or another incarnation of Bush, but there are also so many people out there who aspire for the highest and who seek a world of emancipation and inclusive freedom rather than one of borders, limits and prejudices.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Gewitter

As the taxi pulled out from the Oberoi, a flash lit up the sky and the rain started pouring down. It reminded me of so many heat thunderstorms in Beijing, how the heavens just could not hold it any longer. I felt much the same after my three days in India.

In the end I got a little less than three hours of sleep and now I am about to board my flight to Istanbul any minute. When I finally got online last night I learned a lot of good news. My good friend has just secured a job abroad and will thus be able to do a grand retour in the fall. I hope to be able to swing by Warsaw to see him. Meanwhile Asian Politics & Policy has published the media review that my former student Hee-Yoon and I have been writing on Korea and climate change discourses. To those with institutional access to the journal it should be available here (otherwise, if you are interested, just drop me an e-mail and I am happy to send it):

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/aspp.12176/abstract

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Delhi

It has been almost five years since my last visit to India. Coming back to Delhi and the scorching heat, I spent my first day walking for hours to end along its many tree-lined avenues. Much like the Ville Nouvelle of Marrakech, the colonial part of Delhi (also known as New Delhi) is just overwhelming in its scale and imposing architecture.

Today, I have been busy with the Global Climate Policy Conference at the India Habitat Centre, including presenting my own co-authored paper “Energy research within the UNFCCC: A proposal to guard against ongoing climate-deadlock”. It was a good panel and it reinforced my belief that ecomodernism has a lot of traction, especially once you move outside the traditional environmental political theory universe.

Tomorrow, there will everything from technology clubs to loss and damages. Then a short night at the airport before returning to North Sweden and the snow.

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Monday, April 06, 2015

Silver Ridge

A small bottle of cheap Californian chardonnay for $7.99 as night falls aboard United 928. At 33 000 feet we are riding the smooth but firm jet stream towards the black Atlantic. Just before we departed O’Hare, a British Airways 747 also took off for London Heathrow. That plane is probably only a couple of minutes ahead of us on the same great circle track.

Back at O’Hare the gate agent felt sorry for my 186 centimetres and upgraded me to Economy Plus, meaning that I should probably try to sleep a bit rather than writing another aviation-nerdy blog post. However, I guess it will take a while though until I have time to write here again. The work backlog is almost astronomical but I am sure all will be fine in the end. A moment ago, channel 9 informed me that we are now in the safe hands of Nav Canada. So, “United 928 heavy, good night”.

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