Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Up and away

Only a couple of days left in Europe. If only for vacation, it feels like leaving a sick relative behind. Paris, the Ukraine and now Copenhagen. Do not know what frightens me the most, the heinous acts or our collective lack of imagination in countering them.

Some part of me just wants to make the escape permanent or as Italo Calvino once put it: “The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner”. But teaching this winter reminded me that there is no escape; that we need to see this through. However, first some island dreaming.

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Saturday, February 07, 2015

Make haste slowly

When you are in a rush somewhere, first make sure that you are running off in the right direction. That is a thought worth thinking when it comes to climate policy. Over the last years, I have become increasingly concerned that the world is essentially running in the opposite direction of where we should be going if we want to prevent dangerous climate change. Unfortunately, data supporting my view is mounting. The share of thermal coal in the world’s energy mix is the highest since the 1970’s. Shale gas and oil are flooding the market leading to historically low prices for fossil fuels. And the renewable construction spree underway in countries such as Sweden is wasting billions of euros on an effort that ultimately seems to do very little to slow the global growth in greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead of all this we should focus much, much more on basic energy research, the further away from actual deployment, the better. In fact, the challenge to craft an effective global response to climate change may be so big that we should perhaps put our money even further “upstream” in everything from early childhood education to scientific literacy as that would raise the overall economic growth rate and make vast, and fundamentally uncertain, investments in energy R&D politically possible. Somewhat paradoxically, given the very urgency of climate change, it is particularly important that we do not continue further down our current cul-de-sac in terms of policy.

The key to successful mitigation is surprisingly simple: make clean energy significantly cheaper than any fossil alternative and a shift will happen, both in countries that currently lack the political motivation to act on climate change (think Australia) and in those countries that cannot afford expensive small-scale renewable energy. The latter is particularly important considering that 3.5 billion people still lack access to modern energy. As more people will (rightfully!) demand everything from refrigerators to washing machines, there is an obvious risk that that demand will otherwise be met by fossil fuels such as coal.

For more on these and other unorthodox ideas, I am very happy to direct you to my new co-authored article “Making climate leadership meaningful: energy research as a key to global decarbonisation” which just has been published (as “early view”) in the journal Global Policy.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Environmentalism as short-termism

After reading a Facebook discussion on short-termism in liberal democracies, I spent five minutes writing a short abstract for a paper which I may or may not write some day:

"One of the staple criticism against the liberal-democratic state is that it invites short-termism: politicians are only interested in winning the next election and voters only seek to secure immediate material benefits. This line of criticism has found particular traction among more radical environmentalists who believe that society should be fundamentally reorganized so that it becomes “sustainable”. Such sustainability is thought to entail reduced global trade flows, a transition to small-scale renewable energy and a rejection of “big science”. Yet, looking towards the future, true resilience seems to depend on the existence of a robust global trade system capable of offsetting local resource shortages, access to clean and concentrated energy capable of powering the world’s growing megacities and advanced technologies that can offer protection from cosmic risks. Securing a long-term sustainable global trajectory may thus call for policies quite different from the immediate local approximation of a sustainable state as envisaged by environmentalism. In light of this, environmentalism itself may be surprisingly guilty of short-termism."

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Thursday, January 08, 2015

Marxism + Malthusianism = True

After my previous post, I got a lot of good feedback for which I am grateful. Several readers have objected to the suggested existence of a combination of Marxism and Malthusianism. In a strictly philosophical sense it is of course true that they make strange bedfellows. But in practice, when one deconstructs the worldview of many contemporary academics, in particular those writing in journals such as Capitalism Nature Socialism, it is not at all strange to see how fundamental Marxist beliefs such as that capitalism is only possible through exploitation (whereas I believe that capitalism works much better with greater measures of equality as more people then become capable of creating value) and Malthusian beliefs in environmental determinism can not only co-exist but actually thrive together.

One quick litmus test is to ask people if they believe that all of the world’s population can live like we do in the OECD-countries. Not only do many political ecologists instinctively answer this question in the negative, they also show remarkably little interest in promoting the kind of technologies that could make this ecologically possible. In fact, they are often committed to the exact opposite as in thwarting research on everything from next generation nuclear to genetic engineering (not to even mention space colonization).

Another thing that some seem to take disagreement with is the suggestion that this kind of Malthusian-Marxist thinking would in any way command a “stronghold” in Academia. Like neo-Gramscians, many political ideologists subscribe to a worldview in which the neoliberal hegemony is total and the world is governed by malign elites. Instead of thinking creatively about how to bring about compromise and change in a pluralist society, many political ideologists prefer a sense of personal victimhood and the belief that they, despite their fancy offices and five-digits travel budgets, are still on the “margins” of society. It is thus not surprising that they get particularly infuriated by the suggestion that they themselves exercise a hegemonic force. Not only do I have hundreds of rejection letters to support the possibility that they may in fact do that, more importantly I think they underestimate the wide resonance in terms of internalized guilt that many people (incorrectly) have come to feel.

Instead of promoting a narrative of hope and global convergence, political ecologists put up carbon calculators to measure individual "ecological debt" and tell others that their overseas trips are part of the problem (rather than, as I believe, the solution). And, instead of thinking boldly about how to provide food to 9+ billion people, they prefer to drive to the local farmers' market and Instagram “GMO-free” food that never can feed the world. The problem with this is not so much the hypocrisy (of which we are all guilty) but the consistent lack of imagination and forward-looking thinking.

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Sunday, January 04, 2015

2030

Since a couple of days, we are closer to 2030 than 2000. To me, that is a sobering thought. As we are sleepwalking deeper into the future, our nightmares are no less haunting than they were a decade ago, yet the vacuum of positive visions has become ever more pressing. The stronghold that the combination of Malthusian and Marxist thinking hold over academia remains essentially unchallenged (with the exception of a few millenarian neoliberals and a tiny stream of ecomodernists). Every year, hundred thousands of new students worldwide are educated to believe that capitalism is only possible through exploitation and that the global poor does not want to live like you and me but want to continue with subsistence farming in “flourishing local communities”. At home, xenophobia and anti-feminism are again on the rise. While nothing of this prevents ecological elites from indulging in the most blatant forms of hedonism (I will never forget the sumptuous wine tasting that I took part in together with some of the leading academics who preach the need for material sacrifice and frugality), the general public remains equally sceptical to calls for degrowth as to accelerated forms of globalization.

The EU project has left many uncertain about the benefits of political and economic integration even as it has only underscored what was always true in politics, namely that at same point the chicken comes home to roost. If you organize your society along rigid conservative principles, suppress the young and the female, fail to make adequate social investments and keep supporting ailing but ultimately doomed sunset industries, then at some point, the market will tell you that your social model is unsustainable. It is not more difficult than that. If anything, membership in the Eurozone has delayed what would in any case be necessary and made possible temporary construction sprees (such as in Spain) at the expense of lasting social investments.

Looking forward, I have come to believe that the single most important political objective is to break the gloom of secular stagnation and put the mature economies back on a high-growth trajectory. The key to achieving this is surprisingly simple, namely to stop seeing the unemployed and the marginalized as the “problem” and instead realize that lasting growth can only come about by lifting the poor and unlocking their creative potential. Instead of trickling down economics we need bottom-up growth through broad education, rapidly rising (minimum) salaries, and accelerated global market integration.

As hundred millions of people across the OECD have become wedded to the idea of living out the last decades of their lives as a “leisure class”, failure to deliver such strong growth would make sure that the financing of retirement schemes will overshadow all other political questions for the coming decades. Only if the financial sustainability of retirement plans can be guaranteed will it be possible to build the political momentum necessary for investing in breakthrough technologies and to avoid different political blame games (for instance, it does not take a political genius to realize that xenophobic parties will blame any future breakdowns of retirement schemes on the “immigrants”). Strong growth driven by rising salaries (rather than, as today, low interest rates and speculation) will also in itself bring back the sense of shared opportunity and optimism that will be necessary to overcome the (irrational yet real) fears that many harbour when faced with an ever more globalized world.

With economic growth in place, we will have the political space necessary to make the kind of risky mistakes that we must make in order to survive as a species. We need to return to the spirit of the Apollo Project, to believe in the transformative capacity of our dreams and overcome our current risk-aversive obsession with “safety”. We cannot let Malthusian fears win out of the rights of billions to finally taste the fruits of modernity. Looking towards the deep future, this will of course not be possible on a single finite planet, nor should it be. Ultimately, H.G. Wells got it absolutely right, that our only real choice “is the universe or nothing”. Long-term human survival hinges on that we become a multi-planet species and that we learn how to protect ourselves from asteroids and other cosmic risks.

In the words of Bruno Latour: “it appears totally implausible to ask the heirs of the emancipatory tradition to convert suddenly to an attitude of abstinence, caution, and asceticism – especially when billions of other people still aspire to a minimum of decent existence and comfort”. Yet, to move forward, it is not enough to not go backwards, we need to supercharge the Enlightenment programme, to capture the political momentum and to simultaneously challenge both the passivity of neoliberalism and the misanthropism of Malthusianism.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

William Ivar Eriksson

Twelve days ago, William Ivar Eriksson was born here in Umeå. Unlike his older brother who already had a passport and an intercontinental flight ticket by this age, William is enjoying the Christmas peace that has fallen together with the snow. 

Friday, December 05, 2014

Fudan International Summer Session

Back in 2011, I was teaching a summer school at Peking University. The experience was extremely gratifying and I learned a lot from my students who came both from China and the rest of the world. Due to a somewhat unexpected twist of events, I am now scheduled to return to China for one month of intensive teaching in July 2015. This time however the setting will be Fudan University in Shanghai and it will be a trip with the whole Eriksson-Karlsson family. Yet, like in Beijing, I will offer a course on global environmental governance:

“In a time of great power rivalry but also global cooperation, this course examines new and old forms of environmental governance at both the national and international level. Taking China as its natural starting point, the course looks at what role China could play in driving the global transition to sustainability. The course is primarily focused on climate change but seeks to offer a more general introduction to the environmental challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. By taking the course, students will not only learn about environmental sustainability but also develop a deeper understanding of how science influence policy and how international regimes are designed, negotiated and implemented”

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Monday, December 01, 2014

Why saving electricity in Sweden may in fact be bad for the climate

As the snow flurries whirl about outside and darkness falls over North Sweden, one is tempted to turn on some of those fluorescent lamps. Conventional wisdom among environmentalists however suggests that this indulgence is one that the global climate cannot afford. It is already late in the hour and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are almost at 400 ppm. No matter how small, the mainstream view is that each contribution matters and that we all need to accept that the “age of abundance” is forever over.

Yet, when pondering global energy trends, it seems as if the poor did not get that memo. Instead they are doing exactly the same thing as we in the West did in the past, they are investing heavily in fossil energy to power their increasingly industrialized economies and booming megacities. With 3.5 billion people still lacking access to modern energy, it is not surprising that many developing countries are desperate to expand their energy infrastructure, regardless of the climatic impact. Few countries however are as fortunate as Sweden. Thanks to numerous rivers suitable for hydropower and a wise decision to build nuclear energy, Sweden’s electricity today comes almost exclusively from zero carbon sources. As developing countries often lack similar geographic fortunes and the upfront capital needed for nuclear, it is not surprising that the global share of coal power is again the highest it has been since the 1970’s. Thousands of new coal power plants are currently being built in countries as diverse as Turkey, Brazil and Indonesia. While China is finally in a position to afford more nuclear in its energy mix, India recently made a solemn promise to not cut its emissions for the coming thirty years.

One may ask what all this has to do with Sweden and a single light bulb in Umeå? Well, the key issue here is the widely shared belief that the solution to climate change is one of demand-side reduction. The problem with this belief is that it might actually work. In Sweden. So, instead of investing in new generations of nuclear reactors and breakthrough energy innovation, Swedish policy-makers may find that saving energy is actually the way forward. By making electricity more expensive at home through renewable mandates, importing carbon-intensive goods that are produced elsewhere, and not counting emissions from overseas travelling, Sweden has become the poster-child of “low carbon growth”. While this image is clearly not accurate, the all-too-expected reaction from the Malthusian camp is also misleading. Because what happens when Sweden and other rich countries only care about the demand-side of the equation is that we essentially leave the poor to themselves and the planet in peril. This is why, ultimately, every lamp we turn off in Sweden is part of the problem rather than the solution.

While mainstream environmentalists may sometimes grudgingly accept the need for breakthrough supply-side innovation they have never made such innovation a central demand of the movement. In fact, despite the many possible co-benefits (such as solving much of the waste issue), they instinctively resist research into fourth generation nuclear energy. Instead, many environmentalists keep repeating the same tired demand-side prescriptions that not only fuel ideological polarization at home but also remain wholly inadequate to stem the global growth in fossil infrastructure.

(on a much happier note, please take a moment to watch this breathtaking short movie by Erik Wernquist and narrated by Carl Sagan - as much as Malthusian thinking may dominate cultural discourse today, I am confident that it will ultimately prove to be, if nothing else, spiritually unsatisfactory for future generations)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Woolen socks

This morning, Eddie woke up around 4 am with little desire to go back to bed. Three hours and many long journeys with the Brio train later, he accepted to go for a ride in the stroller and return to dreamland. As for myself, now wide awake, I decided to instead cuddle up in the sofa with my new woollen socks and a tumbler full of Clipper Americano. These socks instantly reminded me of wild races down the long corridors of Eden at night and of all the things that are no more.

But there is new life and new stories for sure. In a couple of weeks we hope to welcome a new member of our family. And despite the frigid morning, Umeå has been very good to us this far. I have found a great gym down at the river and, in academic terms, this autumn has been extraordinary merry with two major publications accepted in highly ranked journals. Once they become available online, I will post more here on Rawls & Me.

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Maardam

We all have dark secrets. I, for one, have many. In the early 2000s, I lived in a mid-size Swedish town with too much time to read second-rate novels at night. Naturally, I stumbled upon Håkan Nesser and over an autumn I finished all his crime stories about the retired Chief Inspector Van Veeteren. These stories, set in the fictional city of Maardam which is an eclectic mix of the Netherlands, Poland, Germany and Scandinavia, had a certain resonance with my own post-adolescent existence of transcendental daydreaming and Mitteleuropa nostalgia.

Ten years later the night train Malmö – Berlin is no more, I have lived on four different continents and I never have any time to read novels. But tomorrow morning, I am flying down to the Netherlands for a piece of Maardam and some time with old friends.