Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sunday afternoon

Still a lot to unpack but instead I open the windows to ventilate the lingering afternoon heat. For another week, we do not have a DSL connection at home so I cannot check if this or that expression actually works in English. It is never easy to be an architect of silences in a foreign language, maybe not in one’s own either. This week I have been driving more than 1100 km on my own, back and forth along the High Coast listening to public radio or different music channels. As a parent that is something I rarely have the time to do otherwise. One host played a couple of songs by Frida Hyvönen, talked about rooftops in New York and wild silences in ways that immediately took me back to 2008 when I was living in Jersey.

Last summer at the Monocle Café in London I actually asked if they had some ironic distance to it all. The guy at the bar said he himself preferred to think of it with an ironic twist but he was not sure if that was true for everyone else working there. But is it really possible to not see irony? What if someone like Karen Blixen would have lived today? Thinking more about it, is that maybe why some people prefer to stay away from Facebook, Instagram or Twitter? Because social media would force them to commodify their own aesthetic? It could well be.

Maybe I think too much about the wrong things. Some days ago, 298 people were shot down by mistake. Children are dying in the hospitals of Gaza and I worry about sparkling moments and self-irony on distant shores. Yet, life is not reducible to survival alone. It is also about what one does with one’s life and, with or without God, we are left with these questions of authenticity and being. While neither ethics nor aesthetics will ultimately matter much, we still have to make that decision if we should go running ten kilometres or eat another brownie (I prefer to do both). While some may be satisfied by prudential reasons (it is “healthy to exercise” or what not), there is definitely more to it, it is about overcoming, it is about trying to make it right, to acknowledge mortality and finitude without running away.

Later that same year I went to Melbourne and I remember writing a poem called “Gay trams” (I guess I was trying to make my own version of Ekelöf’s “Strountes”). It is not particularly good and I never posted it anywhere but here it is:

An empty gay bar
twice as safe that way
Like that Latvian tram
heading for Zolitude
I search the night
for a familiar inward track

The memory is incomplete
maybe because it never happened
Her ethereal way of
extending the smallest of things
to push while being receptive

Stealing from a song: 
rollercoaster slow
Maybe trams can do that too?

An occasional flirt with the
bar man
Of all things I am not afraid
but boldness will only take
me
that far

In this regard
three zero day was a revelation
that the tracks are being laid out
irreversibly
until they all run out

Friday, July 18, 2014

The road to home

Even if our IKEA order was cancelled by some IT system glitch and we had to stay a couple of extra nights at Scandic Plaza, we eventually did move in last night! It is an almost surreal feeling to have a big green lawn, a real kitchen and, the ultimate middle-class marker, a trampoline in the garden (which Eddie immediately fell in love with). Our new address is Hemvägen 8 in the Haga area of Umeå, please come and visit!

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The political Right and economic growth

The other day, I read one of the best columns in a long time. It was written by Nick Hanauer and published by Politico Magazine. The column made, what should be a fairly obvious argument, that the super-rich have the most to lose from growing inequality and political polarization. In line with simple welfare capitalist logic, the costs of inequality are two-fold, first the direct costs of having to fight crime and pay for benefits but, more importantly, the indirect costs of poor people not being able to fully develop their potential and productivity. Naturally, over time, these secondary costs dominate as they put the whole economy on a lower growth trajectory than it would otherwise be on, something that due to the effect of compounded interest, leads to substantial long-term losses in overall welfare that are significant also for those at the top.

I have written about all this before here on Rawls & Me so I should not tire my readers by repeating myself. As welcome as Hanuaer’s intervention may be, I am afraid that his views are still those of a dwindling minority. In retrospect, what has held society together for the last century or so has been a broad political coalition advocating economic growth and development. That coalition however is slowly beginning to crack, at least in some of the most advanced industrial economies. The perhaps most well-known assault on growth has come from Greens and people on the political Left who have failed to recognize how crucial economic growth is to lessen distributional conflicts, pay for retirement schemes and, most of all, to finance the kind of public research needed to meet the ecological challenges of our time. What is less discussed is an emerging anti-growth ideology on behalf of the political Right. First visible in the works of people like Tyler Cowen who talks about the “great stagnation” and how all the “low-hanging fruit” of economic development has already been picked in the United States.

If we go back to the Enlightenment, conservatives were of course against economic growth and everything associated with it such as urbanization, social mobility and meritocracy but, for the last century, they have for the most part traded their resistance for all the visible material benefits brought about by modernization. This might however by changing as the very brightest are beginning to realize that the debt-driven consumer economy (and reliance on consumers in other countries that have pursued welfare capitalist policies) is about to come to an end and that a return to high growth rates in the mature economies (such as Sweden) would require radical social investments of precisely the sort that they have always been vehemently opposed to. So, instead of abandoning for instance the voucher system for schools and ensuring that everyone gets access to quality education, people on the Right might prefer to simply abandon economic growth and instead shift resources to repression (a task which paradoxically has been made considerable easier thanks to general civilizing processes as discussed by for instance Steven Pinker). While the Right of course always in some ways have preferred repression to social investments, there has still been a silent acceptance of much of the welfare state machinery. It is that acceptance that might now be vanishing.

Friday, July 04, 2014

401.88 ppm

Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are now firmly above 400 ppm as measured by the Hawaii-based Mauna Loa Observatory. Earlier this morning, I finished proofreading my first student thesis on geoengineering. Working with my student in Korea has renewed my deep concerns for the future, in particular how feel-good environmentalists will fail to avert a climate catastrophe by insisting on the deployment of non-scalable sources of renewable energy (such as energy forestry or wind power) until a point when geoengineering will become inevitable. Similarly, while improved energy efficiency may be a great idea in affluent countries where demand is already saturated, similar measures are probably counterproductive in developing countries due to so called rebound effects as these countries have a huge unmet demand for energy and large reserves of unextracted fossil fuels.

Yet beyond scalability concerns and the risk of rebound, the main issue is one of energy access. In almost all climate models the poor essentially stay poor throughout the 21st century, otherwise there is absolutely no chance that renewable energy technologies will be capable of stabilizing the global climate. From an ethical point of view, such a future of chronic poverty is of course entirely unacceptable. It is not about giving the poor a wind turbine here or a 20W solar panel there, it is about building a world of universal affluence in which people everywhere have access to modern medicine, global mobility and freedom from want. Keeping that focus in mind, the key responsibility for the rich countries is to develop clean energy technologies that work with – rather than against – the market and which people everywhere will quickly adopt, not out of altruism or coercion, but out of simple economic self-interest. Everything else is a dangerous distraction.

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Friday, June 06, 2014

...and rotate!

As our Airbus breaks through the low cloud cover hanging above Incheon Airport, I look back upon a crazy week full of final seminars, articles to proof read and many fond farewells. 350 kg of books are now on their way with boat to Europe together with a Muji beanbag, a red Mini Cooper toy car and an oversized Teutonia stroller that turned out to be more suited for wide snowy streets in Kiruna than narrow Asian alleyways (I think all in all we used it maybe five times).

More than 7000 km to the southwest lies Doha and the Arabian Peninsula. This time, it will only be a brief stop to check out the new Hamad International Airport and transfer to our connecting flight up to Copenhagen. 16 long hours of flying which still feel okay considering that it will probably be the last time in a long while that we travel overseas with Eddie. With only a couple of blank pages left in his passport, it is time for him to settle down in Umeå and start a new life at the nursery. It is fascinating to think about how these two years on the road have affected him. All the tastes and sounds, the different hotel rooms and all the people constantly seeking his attention. While he is unlikely to remember anything concrete, I think it has still been a good experience for him to somehow deep down know that the world is both big and open.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Acceptance

I had been waiting so long that the wine in my glass had almost turned into vinegar when I suddenly received the final acceptance letter from Technology in Society, indicating that the paper I have been working on since my very first semester at HUFS in 2011 is now in press with an Elsevier journal. With only little more than a week remaining in Korea, this of course brings a certain sense of closure, just like shipping all those boxes with books to Umeå.

Yesterday, I also finally found some time to read Stephen Eric Bronner’s new book Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, Utopia. Ever since taking his classes in the spring of 2008 at Rutgers, I have somehow carried much of his thinking with me and this new book was definitely a sight for sore eyes after reading all the policy stuff on climate change that I normally read.

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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Lapu-Lapu


If only for a couple of days, we are back in South-East Asia. When we left the region in February, I was struggling to put together a co-authored policy paper which is now in press with the SSCI-journal “Weather, Climate and Society”. Although I got one more paper accepted earlier this spring, it has still been pretty rough on the publishing front recently as I have been reminded both of my own limitations and how hard it is to challenge orthodoxies (in particular among those who insist that they do not have any and that their own views and values are only those of “science”).

Though we have been to Mount Pinatubo and Manila on Luzon in the past, this is our first trip south in the Philippines.  Some of my students joked about the fact that we were going to a resort on Mactan Island rather than somewhere more adventurous. As stereotypical as it sounds, I guess it is indeed true that preferences change when travelling with a baby. Plus, Shangri-La does serve up a wonderful molten chocolate cake…

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Nationell närsynthet

Programmet fortsätter att väcka reaktioner, bland annat på landets ledarsidor. Jag kände mig tvungen att komma med en replik som publicerades i dagens DN:

http://www.dn.se/ledare/signerat/som-om-resten-av-varlden-inte-fanns/

Friday, April 25, 2014

Back to the future

After a month of intensive work in the city, we decided to leave for Jeju-do this afternoon. This island in the Yellow Sea has been a recurrent favourite over the last three years. Landing among the palm trees in the evening breeze, it felt just as magic as when we left in October. For the first night, we are staying at UFO Pension on the northern shore of the island.

As for the TV-programme, I was both relieved and thrilled to see the final result. Here is a link to SVT Play which should work anywhere in the world:

http://www.svt.se/dokument-inifran/se-program/del-1-1883?autostart=true

Monday, April 21, 2014

Showtime


This coming Thursday 24 April at 8 pm, it is finally time for the documentary “Politiker utan mål” (“politicians without aims”) to be broadcast on national TV in Sweden (SVT2). I have only seen a handful of pictures from my interview (in which I all look like a madman) but I am nonetheless very enthusiastic about the programme idea and the important questions that it raises.