Friday, December 02, 2016

Lost Heaven

Five years ago, I was returning from Shanghai and a stunning dinner in an old villa in the French Concession. Situated in a garden with hundreds of candle lights, the restaurant served up some of the best Yunnan cuisine I ever had. In an era of cultural capitalism, it is of course not surprising that this restaurant has since turned into a chain. What sparked my interest however was that this very chain has now opened a restaurant in Qianmen 23, a building which used to house the American Legation in Beijing, and which plays a very special role in a novel that I wish to finish writing one day.

Anyway, after a very stressful week, I am happy that it is finally Friday and that I can open a bottle of Grüner Veltliner and begin packing for my upcoming expedition to the Sherwood Forest. Next time I write here, it will be from the British Isles.

Deconsolidation

The world we thought we knew is falling apart. Although the signs may have been with us for a decade or more, 2016 has clearly been a year of unprecedented amplification if not outright rupture. Even if the World Value Survey still signals a shift from traditional values and parochial identities towards emancipative values and greater tolerance, this has not been a good year for “globalists” like myself who dream of a fully integrated world free from want and political oppression.

In a much discussed recent article in the Journal of Democracy, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk reveal frightening new numbers of how young people in particular have come to abandon democracy. Of those born in the 1980’s in the United States, just above 30% consider it “essential” to live in a democracy.

This very weekend, Austria will have a rerun of its presidential election (potentially bringing the highest office of the country into the hands of the extreme right) while Italy is having a constitutional referendum which Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is likely to lose, opening the door for the anti-globalist populist Five Star Movement under Beppe Grillo.

In the past I always used to say that what the Left needs is a new forward looking global vision. While I still think that is true to some extent, I am less certain that such a vision would actually win any elections, at least in the short run. Having said that, more of the same corrosive identity politics is clearly not the way forward. Crucial as it is to recognize the historic crimes of colonialism and discrimination, the future we build must be one for all people of this world, a common vision which speaks in the same universal language to the highest in each individual, including those white male "left-behinders".

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Monocle

As far as love-hate relationships go, I think the magazine Monocle deserves a special mention. Every year around this time, I struggle with the question of whether or not to renew my subscription. I have tried to stay away, only leading to that I spent twice as much buying single issues at the local news agent. In the wake of recent events, it felt unusually important to renew as I guess I will need every bit of hope of a better world in the year to come.

In early December I am off to the UK again where I will give a presentation at The Nottingham Centre for Normative Political Theory (or CONCEPT as it is abbreviated). Since agreeing to give the talk, the world has clearly taken a sharp turn in precisely the direction I feared, towards further fragmentation and polarization. So, yes, we definitely need Monocle but also a much broader social transformation that makes us realize our common humanity and the possibilities of a fully integrated world of equal opportunity.

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Saturday, November 19, 2016

Shimmer

The snow melted and left behind an icy mix covered in the most unbearable November darkness. As a last line of defence, I make some more hot veggies and pick up an old book by Leonard Cohen. The last time I read it, it was springtime in New York and I was just about to move back to Europe.

Small things to make the world shimmer for a second, as if it was within my power to do that.

In three months I will be back in New York for a night before the conference madness begins down in Baltimore. This time I will serve as chair and discussant for two different panels in addition to my own presentation at the ISA. Kind of overwhelming considering that I will have 125+ take-home exams to mark the week before...

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Perpetual uncertainty

I just accepted an offer to give a talk on nuclear and climate in relation to the exhibition "Perpetual Uncertainty". Fortunately, the event is not until 26th of March next year so I still have time to figure out the best way of defusing this delicate topic. As much as I have become convinced about the ecological benefits of nuclear, I have no problem understanding the psychological and social obstacles that nuclear technologies are up against. As no other energy source, nuclear activates our deepest existential fears even as it holds the promise of a world remade in which all people can live prosperous lives without endangering the environment. Of course, for us in the rich world, it is perfectly possible to continue treating chronic poverty abroad as the solution to the climate crisis while downing another flat white, but such hypocrisy does come at a high moral cost.

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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Kalmar

Almost a year to the day later, I am back walking around Kalmar pretending that I still have Instagram. While Eddie is hanging out with my parents, I sit down for a coffee to catch up on some overdue e-mail correspondence about my research. Obviously, the election of Trump has created a lot of uncertainty in the whole climate policy research community. In the best of worlds, this could be a time when old truths are finally reconsidered. Yet, threatened by this wave of irrationalism, it is possible that the Green Left will instead double down on climate moralism and identity politics. Whereas someone like John McCain proposed building 45 new nuclear reactors in the United States as an alternative (and probably much more effective!) response to climate change, Trump and the arch-climate denier Myron Ebell whom he has appointed to lead his EPA transition team, are more like anti-vaxxers who occupy a parallel universe in which scientific evidence plays no meaningful role.

Outside climate policy, my main worries of course have to do with Iran and the Middle-East more generally, to say nothing of the Ukraine. I guess the key thing at this stage is to not rush ahead too much but to take each issue when the time comes. If nothing else, it will be funny to see how progressive everywhere will suddenly start loving the Senate filibuster…

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Friday, November 11, 2016

In Lund, again

So, I am in Lund again, if only for a day. The streets of Kalmar were covered by a thin layer of snow and ice as I made my way to the train shortly before six. Down here in Skåne, it looks like autumn is still holding out with a few green leaves here and there. Trying to take an appropriately sun-drenched selfie at Clemenstorget, I of course bumped into my good friend Niklas who, most likely, thought that I was nuts (I sure look like it in the picture above).

Soon time to head up to Eden where I had my office for six years. It is of course impossible to not be overwhelmed by nostalgia. Every corner here has its flashbacks and rabbit holes. Perhaps better to think about the future. On the train, I did just that, putting together an abstract for a special issue on “Energy and the Future” organized by the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University. I will know in February next year if I get accepted. For those interested, the abstract is on the “High-Energy Planet” and reads as follows:

A key part of the ecomodern discourse of a “Good Anthropocene” is the vision of a “high-energy planet” characterized by universal access to modern energy. Recognizing the crucial historical role that rising energy consumption has played in driving social transformations, ecomodernists imagine a future with substantial global equality of opportunity in which clean and abundant energy allows not only for economic convergence but also for deep decarbonization. Whereas traditional environmental thinking has advocated land-intensive distributed forms of renewable energy, ecomodernists have argued that such technologies are fundamentally incapable of powering a world in which 7-10 billion people can live modern lives. As such, ecomodernists have developed a conflicted relationship to current mitigation efforts. On one hand, they fully recognize the seriousness of anthropogenic climate change. On the other hand, they are concerned that the scalability limitations of renewable energy technologies will lead to a suboptimal endpoint by which a few, and highly ecologically motivated, countries may succeed in decarbonizing their domestic electricity supply while the overall global share of fossil energy stays largely intact even as access to modern energy remains deeply unequal. To avoid such a future, ecomodernists have welcomed accelerating globalization as a way of making a high-energy planet politically inevitable; hoping that, as all of the world gets richer, its capacity and willingness to finance breakthrough technological innovation will also increase. However, growing global volatility and resurging protectionism, not the least in the United States, has meant that the future of a rapidly globalizing world is now in itself more uncertain. This could have a number of controversial implications for ecomodernist thinking and energy futures more generally. First, a delayed globalization of the world economy may in the short run take away some of the urgency of climate mitigation and make existing energy technologies seem more viable. Second, without comprehensive forms of modernization and urbanization, the global population will continue to increase while low or negative economic growth rates may make financing breakthrough innovation more difficult. Third, and finally, the longer a truly global supply-side technological revolution is delayed, overall political polarization is bound to increase as radical environmental voices will call for ever harsher demand-side reductions while technocratic elites may increasingly come to see solar radiation management as the only feasible way of preventing an irreversible destabilization of the climate system.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Trump

As most other Europeans, I was deeply saddened by the news that Donald Trump will become the 45th president of the United States. In the words of Barack Obama’s brilliant ad, “progress” was on the ballot. And this time progress lost, it lost to the worst kinds of misogyny, racism and anti-liberal divisiveness, all possibly catapulting the world into a new era of protectionism and group egoism. America is not made stronger but weaker by a bleeding Mexico. Carpet bombing ISIS or waterboarding its supporters will not help America’s security but undermine what little moral standing it still has left. And defunding climate science will not make anthropogenic climate change go away.

Yet, the election of Trump cannot be undone. The question then of course becomes, where do we go from here? With regards to my own academic bubble, I would say that the election of Trump once again shows the futility of climate moralism. To make decarbonization conditional on that everyone accepts the same epistemology of climate risks (to say nothing of a commitment to far-reaching environmental sacrifice) is a no-starter. If affluent countries like Sweden still want to make a difference with regards to global climate change, they should focus on the innovation of scalable technologies that are “smarter, cleaner and faster”. Instead of deploying even more non-scalable and expensive renewables, we need to take a step back and look at what kinds of technologies that could make possible a rapid global decarbonization in a world where many people remain uncommitted to effective climate action. Only then can we make a difference.

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Saturday, November 05, 2016

#alt-reality

A world away from the looming US election, the last days have seen a lot of snow here in Umeå. I make some illy coffee and a sandwich to eat outside while the kids are playing. More than usual, I am struck by how much all of this is an alternative reality, a middle-class fantasy in which the bombing of hospitals in Aleppo or the worsening effects of climate change are just words and images on a tablet screen. When I lived in Hong Kong, I could somehow breathe the Anthropocene with all its great perils and hopes. Here, it is all so virtual, the outside world is only visible in short blips when I am asked by a student if “Russia Today” can be trusted as a news source or when I try to put my own thoughts into another abstract on energy futures. But of course I am worried about all this, about how the liberal world is slowly being grinded down into conspiracy theories and mistrust. We need each other and the world more than ever, there simply must be an end to this backsliding and polarizing identity politics. And as for Tuesday, let’s just hope that the words often (although most likely incorrectly) ascribed to Winston Churchill still hold true: “the Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities”.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Saint Clair

The other week in Kiev, I stumbled upon an old favourite from the South Island. In line with Herman Melville’s “everlasting itch for things remote”, this sauvignon blanc tastes of black currant leaves, gooseberry, and lime but most of all of another life and time. Rushing between classes and papers to mark, I have barely been able to breathe this week. At the homefront, William is just recovering from a nasty flu while Eddie has another eye infection coming on. In the middle of it all, I am trying to schedule my teaching for 2017. So bear with me. However, on 11 November I will be back in Lund where an old friend will defend her PhD thesis.