Tuesday, March 24, 2015

...kurz vor Schöneberg in den Abgrund fährt

Berlin always overwhelms me, even if thousands of kilometres away. The innocence of his question: “have you ever been to Berlin”?

Layers upon layers that defy every easy answer and maybe also hope of redemption. Outside my train window the platform signs state “Bastuträsk” and it is not even ironic. Tomorrow morning I will be standing in front of a new class down in Umeå and whatever I tried to answer will be forgotten. But, yes, I have been there and it means a lot to me. Or used to. Almost everything that has happened in my adult life has a Berlin connection, especially those things that left an impact. Moments of painful clarity, dreamy romance and first encounters. Trips that never were and those that most definitely were.

Just got an e-mail informing me that I have been selected to attend a conference in New Delhi next month with all expenses paid. Before that I will be in the US for WPSA. And somewhere in between I need to write up a second grant application to the Swedish Research Council. It is all spinning faster and faster. Maybe that is why his question hit me so hard.

Oh, well, back to work

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Friday, March 13, 2015

Building bridges

I wilfully admit that most of my recent articles have been advocacy pieces in one way or the other, all unified by a desire to "accelerate the transition to a future where all the world's inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling lives on an ecologically vibrant planet” (as the Breakthrough Institute so eloquently puts it in its vision statement). Important as this agenda clearly is, I have felt a growing need to also offer a deeper and more reflective statement of what my work means for green political theory. Published in Environmental Politics with Jonathan Symons as the lead author, our new article “Green Political Theory in a Climate Changed World: Between Innovation and Restraint” is an attempt to do just that and, as such, it is also an attempt to build bridges by eschewing some of our usual political activism.

Yet, reading the article again, I feel that it projects a tragic vision of the future which I am not entirely comfortable with. At the same time, there is no point in denying that the hour is late, that great values are being lost and that the political impasse preventing effective action on climate change is likely to last for many decades hence. One of our key conclusions is that debates over the desirability of economic growth or the role of breakthrough technologies in mitigation policy are unlikely to ever be bridged by rational analysis as participants in those debates hold diametrically opposing “logics of practice” (or habitus). If that is indeed true, then much of what I have done over the last ten years, i.e. trying to persuade environmentalists about the need for global welfare capitalism, may have been a lost cause (as some recent debates on Facebook indeed suggest). Yet, a more optimistic interpretation would be that people in the “middle” may still be influenced by good arguments and more fully recognize the terrible social, economic and political costs that any “decent” from modernity would impose. If that is enough to make them commit to an opposing “ascent” strategy by which technological change, social investments and political integration are allowed to set in motion virtuous circles of global peace and prosperity remains more doubtful though. So far, the evidence does not suggest it. Instead political ambivalence, private hedonism or even outright racism remain more plausible reactions.

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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Interstellar

At last, I got around to see the movie that my sustainable development students have been talking about ever since it came out last year in October, Interstellar. And as one of them said, it was a movie I just had to watch. The physics may be a bit unrealistic but I think it is wrong, as some reviewers have, to criticize the plot for inconsistencies. Judged by the standards of its own universe, it was a wonderful tale of parental love, personal death and our long-term future as a species.

Watching it en route to Doha after two weeks of island hopping in South-East Asia just made the picture perfect. The fragile vanishing beauty of this planet, the great hope that is embodied in our scientific and technology capacity (as expressed not the least by this Boeing 777-300ER cruising high above the clouds) and the imperfect political institutions that keep holding humanity back.

Beneath all that, there is of course also the personal side as in our very real mortality and how we are forced to navigate the resulting irreversible space of love, rejection and authenticity. Just as we are faced with absolute existential freedom, so are others, and their choices can sometimes be even more determinative than our own. In the movie, "Murph" as a ten year old does not want her father to leave. The rest of her life is played out in the shadow of his decision to abandon her on Earth. While they are ultimately united just before she dies of old age, she still allows her frustration to shape her entire life in a way that reminds me that outside the movies, love and mauvaise foi may not be that easy to tell apart. 

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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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