Thursday, January 21, 2016

Die Sehnsucht der Pinguine

The Arctic has definitely lived up to its reputation for the last weeks with temperatures below -20 degrees, aurora borealis and flurries as I wait for the morning bus (too cold for biking with the trailer right now). The other day I decided to go truly local and buy a pair of downy alpine trousers, a decision I should have made a long time ago as they really help keeping me warm.

As for big decisions, I started off 2016 by permanently deactivating both my Facebook and Instagram accounts. After being constantly online on social media for almost a decade, it felt like the right thing to do in order to be more present with the kids and life in general. But do not worry, I will keep up Rawls & Me and, like certain penguins from Mistelbach, I will most certainly keep travelling into the new year. First out is Atlanta for the annual convention of the International Studies Association in mid-March.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Continental drift

As 2015 is coming to an end, I can look back on 72 635 miles above the clouds and hundreds more pushing baby strollers on the ground in Umeå. I have been to London, Delhi and Vegas in one amazing race. I have watched the sun rising over the most beautiful islands in Thailand and then setting in Marin County, California. For all this I am incredibly grateful.

Yet, as I guess most parents would say, none of this even compares to the journey that my two sons are on. The first steps, the first fights, the first moments of companionship between brothers, all this will forever stay with me. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

For once, the Tories are doing the right thing (but far too little of it)

There is no doubt that, after winning the election, the new Conservative government has done a lot of harm to British society, in particular by cutting benefits for the disabled and those most in need. Yet, in terms of climate policy, the pictures is somewhat more ambiguous. Given the inherent scalability limitations of renewables, I find the slashing of subsidies for small-scale renewables to be a step in the right direction. Similarly, cancelling the £1bn Carbon Capture Storage (CCS) competition is probably also the right thing to do (although doing it six months before it would be awarded is not precisely fair play). More importantly, shifting resources to energy R&D, in particular nuclear, is very much the right thing to do in a world with burgeoning energy demand.

At the same time, committing a meagre £250 million to nuclear R&D over five years is not going to jumpstart any global energy revolution whatsoever. Considering that developing a successor to the UK Trident system is estimated to cost at least £25 billion (yes, 100 times more!), a figure that the Conservatives seem perfectly happy to pay, puts those £250 million into some perspective.

While correctly assessing the limitations of renewables and CCS, continuing business as usual is simply not an option. The first eight months of 2015 were the hottest such stretch yet recorded for the globe’s surface land and oceans, based on temperature records going back to 1880. Decisive climate action is needed now. As an emergency measure, rich countries like the UK should build dozens of new nuclear reactors to quickly displace fossil fuels at home WHILE doubling down on research of more scalable technologies capable of facilitating a global carbon lock-out. There is simply no time to fiddle around with a wind turbine here or a PV panel there (which in any case both would require fossil back-up power). Looking at the historic decarbonisation rates of both Sweden and France, we know that it is perfectly possible to quickly cut emissions using existing nuclear technologies. Yet, with no support from the environmental movement or other social movements, the current policy gridlock is not in any way surprising.

Update: In the issue going into print 28 November, The Economist will give their support to many of the things I have argued over the last years in terms of the need for basic energy R&D.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Autumn, revisited

Back in Kalmar for a couple of days. More than 1.5 years have passed since my last visit which is longer than I ever been away. Living in the High North, coming back down here meant reliving autumn again with yellow trees and temperatures well above ten degrees.

On Sunday night, Eddie and I are flying back to Umeå for more of the same crazy rush.

That was as far as I got with my blog post as I still had to take a picture. Yet, today, waking up shortly before 5 am and reading news on my phone, all that suddenly felt irrelevant. More than 120 people are dead in a new terror attack and we are in for another cycle of violence, fear and repressive politics. As before, I am equally frightened by the political reaction as by the terror itself. There will always be insane people doing heinous acts, the important question is rather who we want to become by our efforts to stop them. Already the veneer of civilization was getting strikingly thin. In Denmark the government just suggested that the police should search asylum seekers for any valuables that they may be carrying and confiscate them I order to pay for the costs of migration. Borders are again coming up across Europe and in Sweden refugee centres are torched by right-wing extremists. While it is still too early to say anything about the motives of the Paris attack, it is clear that the long shadow of the Algerian war is still very much with us. Ultimately, I remain confident that democracy will prevail but the road we are on right now is not a good one.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Flat white

Early morning in North Sweden as I browse a just released copy of "Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts" by Leigh Phillips. As often it is more difficult with friends than with enemies, one is much less certain of the terrain and how the argument ultimately plays out.

At some level I am afraid that books like these, however welcome they may be, will just add more fuel to the ongoing cultural war. The same is of course true for some of the things I have written or said (for instance at WPSA in April this year). Maybe a more fruitful approach would be to try to unite progressives around seemingly other questions, such as the moral necessity of open borders, and then, indirectly, make a global welfare state, and with it a high-energy planet, inevitable.

Soon time to bike up to UPL for another course day, this time on supervision in higher education. November promises to be a month of extremes with only a short break scheduled as I head back to Kalmar with Eddie 11-15 November.


Friday, October 09, 2015

Captivating ideas

As a researcher, I am often overwhelmed by my ideas, they seem to live their own life and the only way to stop them from spinning around is to spell them out. So instead of blog posts, I have been busy with my new paper on the environmental risks of incomplete globalization. Now Friday though and time for a glass of Italian wine and a bit of contemplation.


Monday, September 07, 2015

(Almost) a decade of dreams

It was with a bit of excitement that I began preparing for the ten years anniversary of Rawls & Me. Somewhere halfway through I realized that only nine years had in fact passed since that warm autumn in Lund when I was cycling home, listening to Edith Söderström, and planning that trip to the Southwest.

Nevertheless, these are nine years of global adventures that are definitely worth remembering in their own right. From sunsets above the Casbah alleyways of Tangier to sunrises at the Pacific coast near Whitianga on the North Island. From the Armenian Highlands to evening flights back from Japan with United 881. Or from careless swims at the Kennedy Space Centre to nightly walks through Paris.

Meanwhile in the real world, William is on the move, Eddie asks for pancakes and life seems set to continue until the full decade has indeed passed.

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 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.