Monday, September 29, 2008

Sovereign funds, global interdependence and a new hope?

As the world stock markets plummet it is all too evident that the American legislators are not up to the challenges of a globalized interdependent world. Unlike the sovereign funds of Dubai, Norway or China who all understand the importance of international financial stability, the House Republicans now act as if it was only about their own re-election or the vindication of their textbook orthodoxies.

Though partially out of self-interest, the sovereign funds all came to rescue last week as they offered to buy treasury bonds and support the 700 billion USD bailout. With the bailout now rejected things look depressing to say the least.

But maybe, and this is indeed a maybe, we will eventually leave this financial crisis with a real understanding of how interdependent the world has become. Out of that understanding a new hope of political cosmopolitanism may grow. As the devastating consequences of the economic maelstrom are felt all over the planet, and especially by the global poor, we may also recognize that the disintegration of global commerce (as advocated by some green thinkers) is not a particularly good idea.

James Cook

Reading up on the great maritime adventures of the past, more specifically the discovery of the Australian continent in April 1770 by James Cook. Somehow, thinking of the pirates in the Caribbean Sea one hundred years earlier, 1770 has always felt quite late for the discovery of an entire continent.

As one remembers from school, one of the things that made Cook’s long journeys possible was his treatment of scurvy through a diet of sauerkraut (which contains vitamin C). Today, shopping at Hemköp, I felt like I too had learned the lesson.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

International life

Last week’s issue of The Economist came with a 14-page special report on globalization. In these times of financial turmoil it is easy to lose track of the longer and more promising trends: the world is indeed getting richer, living standards are improving and life expectancy is on the rise almost everywhere.

Despite all its apparent flaws, it is clear that global capitalism has been the great drive behind this development. As market conditions turn sour, the spectre of protectionism and economic chauvinism is never far away. It will take a lot of our political leaders to refrain from this temptation and remain true to the fundamental truth that the world economy is not, and has never been, a zero-sum game.

While the intellectual argument may be won long ago, every time I find myself debating these issues I have a creeping feeling that what is really at stake here is something different, and that it has a lot more to do with ontology than with economics. First, and this I would very much like to research empirically, it seems as if most people opposing growth hold a very dark, Bladerunner-styled, image of what a growth-driven future would look like. Instead of reflexive modernization and a living natural environment, they tend to associate such a future with 19th century London pollution and Dickensian poverty. Despite all the historical success of welfare capitalism and functional socialism (as opposed to the authoritarian command-and-control socialism of the former Eastern bloc) too many, also on the right, have bought into the perverse idea that the only way to accumulate wealth is to make other people poor.

Among those more radically inclined, there is also a critique of the global lifestyle as being superficial and empty of social meaning. This being a recurrent theme here on Rawls & Me, I will limit myself to remind us that it is in fact the liberal state which enables a plurality of conceptions about the good life. Even as some may prefer to splurge poolside at a Woodland Hills hotel, that does not take away the right of others to live in small mountain cabins or grow their own vegetables. That observation underlies a serious objection which I believe all those future primitivists have to answer: what to do with the people who do not seek the calm village life or the subjection to nature?


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hypocrisy 2.0

Tired after a long day I return to the sea in Kalmar. In Linköping this afternoon, Karin offered a skilful defence of her phd thesis and I was very happy to be there to congratulate her in first person.

However, as a stark contrast to this joyful event, 25 September turned into a dark day for democracy and liberal freedom in Sweden. In what was staged as a fundamental change in policy, the conservative government announced a long list of modifications to Lex Orwell. In essence, the 15 suggested measures are said to eliminate the risk of mass surveillance and the infringement of basic democratic rights.

Unsurprisingly, the new law shows exactly how technological ignorant our political leaders are, or in any case, pretend to be. First, they fail to understand the binary nature of the question at stake, either all cross-boundary internet traffic is to be routed through the so called “collaboration points” (samverkanspunkter) or it is not. In order to know if a certain “traffic stream” (as it is called in the new law irrespectively of any underlying technical reality) contains the wanted information, all traffic has to be filtered. Given the dynamic routing of the internet, it is not like you can take a pair of scissors and cut out the traffic you do not want to monitor.

Secondly, and less technical but more democratically important, is that you as an individual can never know if your particular “traffic stream” is monitored by the FRA or not. Since you cannot know, the only sound response is to behave as if you are constantly monitored. And as Rick Falkvinge brought to my attention, this is indeed not so far from the fiction of 1984:

“There was no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness every movement scrutinized.”

There should be no question about what this does to the quality of democracy, especially in difficult times when the temptation to usurp power will be the greatest. The only way to protect our society from this future risk is to never ever connect the cables. As simple as that. Yet, talking to a former member of parliament on the train today, I was frightened to hear his rhetorical question: “what is, after all, the value of personal integrity?". To him, perceived security gains trumped everything.

And as to that, we all know the famous words Benjamin Franklin directed to the Pennsylvanian Assembly in 1775: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

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Paper train

After a night in a cramped student room in Uppsala where my sister and her boyfriend (the math wizard turned investment banker) share a loft bed and I officially reside, I am travelling through the autumn mist aboard a grey double-decker. There seems to be something magic with this train type, every time I board one of them I seem to get a paper accepted, this time it is the article “Individual guilt or collective progressive action? – Challenging the strategic potential of environmental citizenship theory” which has now been accepted for presentation at the International Studies Association 50th Annual Convention in New York, 15-18 February 2009.

Good news! This is the third time I submit something to ISA and the first time I actually get accepted. Will try to secure funding before leaving for Australia.

Reading through the morning news in Svenska Dagbladet, I am happy to find Christian Azar, professor at Chalmers University of Technology, arguing along similar lines as I do in the paper. The sustainable transition cannot be turned into a test of individual moral fibre.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Brooklyn Lager

A dark bottle of all-malt lager at Brogatan in Malmö, liquid memories of spring in America and a bit of confusion as to why it is sold as an Oktoberfest special. But all right, it is the proper season and Germany is always good for my soul.

Parting with friends, tomorrow also with sister in Uppsala, almost like a child crossing off days on a wall calendar, nine days and counting until the great departure. Tove gave me Zelmani’s new album “The Ocean and Me”, will listen more during those interminable hours in the air.

For the most part, the last week has been one of teaching and the construction of new tests, hand-in exams and seminar tasks for my students. In the background: revealing stories about the political perversities of Lex Orwell in Fokus, a worsening economic meltdown in the US and, to add to the miserabilism, September 23 was indeed “Earth Overshoot Day”, at least for those who subscribe to the static worldview of those calculations.

Turning up the Doors, time to catch bus 131 in less than seven hours, Skåne is slowly fading away.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Approaching CPH

A cup of tea to conclude this day of political activism as SK413 makes its way towards the southwest and Copenhagen. This will be my last hop in the air before the giant leap begins on Thursday in two weeks.

The demonstration today was both uplifting and disappointing. Uplifting since it saw the most remarkable constellation of speakers, ranging from the zealous neo-liberal Johan Norberg to the outstanding orator of the left party, Alice Åström. This unity, especially in combination with the strong opposition expressed by different interest groups (be it journalists, priests or lawyers), should sound alarm to anyone even remotely sensitive to public opinion. Yet, today was also disappointing since it showed that such public frustration does not necessarily translate into political mobilization. In all, the demonstration managed to gather maybe 300-400 people, far less than during those tense summer days in June when Lex Orwell was originally passed.

Landing in ten minutes, time to shut down my laptop. I am afraid that the next days will see more work than weblogging but, wise from earlier declarations, I will leave that open :-)

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Monday, September 15, 2008

The struggle will only get harder

Night along northbound tracks. Less than three weeks and all this roaming will be substituted by long silent days of writing and spring. For the moment though I am still on yet another X2000 service, heading up to Stockholm to join a planned mass protest against Lex Orwell.

“The struggle will only get harder”, not an encouraging thought but probably true as we look ahead over the coming decades. While securing environmental sustainability and climate stability may be our foremost duties from a survivalist point of view, the preservation of democracy has turned out to be a far more urgent task than we had reason to believe only ten years ago. The West has to be reignited if it is to radiate the growing authoritarian darkness, both here at home and abroad. One cannot underestimate the “pull-factor” of freedom. I believe that if democracy is ever to become universal, our example will be crucial in the process. Thus, there is no room for negligence when it comes to the protection of privacy, the integration of ethnical minorities or our commitment to free trade and solidarity with the wider world.


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Beyond defeatism

Snoring my way up the west coast with another X2000 service, it is early morning after a short night. As before, the conference life has been just as exhausting as it has been rewarding. On an academic level there is something very agreeable with the workshop format, every paper gets one full hour, 30 minutes presentation followed by 30 minutes discussion. Enough time to actually engage, learn and give meaningful comments. Otherwise, the standard conference experience is more one of a cocktail party, fine for networking but not much of collective intelligence.

Outside the train windows, a crisp autumn day with white wind power turbines at the horizon. The sustainable transition, right. The conference sessions offered a remarkable vista of the difficulties ahead and, just as in Barcelona, an indication of how defeatists many greens have become. Though maybe a bit too emotional at times, I think my presentation managed to convey that it is possible to recognize the gravity of the environmental problems yet offer a progressive vision of the future. To borrow the words of Timothy Garton Ash, the pessimism of the intellect must be matched by optimism of the will.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Animal ethics at Caffè Nero

Following a safe crossing of the North Sea, I have now landed in Manchester. The conference will start within an hour or so. Going over Marcel’s paper again on the flight I must say that I am thoroughly impressed. Having provided a ground-breaking treatment of the relationship between green thought and liberalism in his book Green Liberalism, this new turn in his thinking offers the most far-reaching and, if one dare to use that word in this context, lethal attack on traditional animal ethics ever launched.

For my own part, if we stay in the realm of public reasoning (as opposed to personal religion) I have felt quite comfortable with a simple distinction; I am utilitarian when it comes to animals and Kantian when it comes to people. The distinction rests on “moral agency”, or with the risk of slipping into transcendental reasoning, the capability of reflexively experiencing existence.

The standard objections are looming, what about infants or the severely mentally handicapped? And I know, I will not be able to get out of those objections without introducing an entirely new moral category, namely “human dignity” which I take as reason to apply Kantian ethics even to those humans who for, one reason or the other, are not able to exercise moral agency. But what about aliens the science fiction fan may ask? Again, if they are “normally” capable of reflective existence, then they are to be included in our sphere of justice as our equals. I hold existence to be indivisible and absolute, though I admit that this once again takes me dangerously close to transcendental reasoning.

Okay, so what is Marcel’s contribution? It is to draw out the implications of the “capabilities approach” advocated by Martha Nussbaum and others. At first, focusing on capabilities seemed to be a nice way out of the long-standing and fruitless debate between animal welfarists and animal rightists. For those unfamiliar with the capabilities approach it can very briefly be condensed into the right of every person (or animal) to develop and flourish according to its own capabilities. Justice then requires us to act in a manner that does not harm the ability of other beings to develop their capabilities. However, if we look at the animal world we see that relations between animals are rarely “just” in this sense but rather "nasty, brutish and short" to paraphrase Hobbes. If we are to take the capability approach serious this state of affairs is highly unsatisfactory, and according to Martha it calls upon us to carry out the “gradual supplanting of the natural by the just”. In his paper Marcel gives a rather mind-blowing account of what this could mean in practical and, I promise, it is not a pill which many ecologically inclined would like to swallow.

To some, this certainly sounds like academia at its worst. Who seriously thinks that we have a positive duty to prevent animals from hurting each other? Perhaps not many, but by drawing out what is implicit in the ever more popular capabilities approach, Marcel is forcing us to think seriously about what our long-term aims should be in relation to the natural world.

(no wonder I stay away from the BLT and stick to the tomato/mozzarella panini)


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A sip of Borgoletto

Early evening and a slow glass of Italian ecological wine. I have finished my readings for Manchester and, as often with green political thought, it has left me with a feeling of intellectual loneliness, that everyone else has jumped on the same bandwagon and that any immanent critique of green thought has to be very carefully phrased and diplomatically delivered.

Moving outside my own discipline however, it is relieving to see that not everyone is hoping on future primitivism and pastoral dreams. On Wednesday, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva will see its first test run. At a cost of six billion euro it shows that there are still a few people out there who hold bolder dreams of the future.


Sunday, September 07, 2008

Bunker 17/5001

Dagens Nyheter has a short article on it, but BBC gives you the full video tour. I am talking of the so called “Honecker-Bunker“ located outside Berlin in Prenden. The bunker was constructed during the early eighties to protect the political elite of the former GDR in case of nuclear war.

The bunker is to be sealed forever in late October and it really nags me that I will miss out on the tour.


Everyday America

About ten years ago, a small chain of coffee shops opened in Lund and Malmö. They served three different labels of coffee, a double espresso was 13 Swedish kronor and the sandwiches were tasty. I have many good memories from those days, summer afternoons out in their courtyard on Skomakaregatan in Malmö, listening to dreams of fabulous places.

Today, that coffee chain is sold to an overseas investment bank. On the walls there are city scenes from New York, scenes in which people reach out for their Espresso House paper mugs. If you ever thought that reality was socially constructed, here you have it. Just imagine that art director in Malmö packing empty paper mugs into suitcases and then taking a flight over for the photo session, desperate to convey the image that Espresso House is an integrated part of everyday America.

On a more serious note, this weekend, Süddeutsche Zeitung comes with an excerpt from a new book written by a German, Jens Söring, who is serving two lifetime sentences in a Virginia jail. Images from a very different everyday America. Confined to Brunswick Correctional which, for American standards, counts as a relative small prison despite its 700 inmates, Söring has spent the last seven years writing on his book. In less than a week it will be published with Gütersloher Verlagshaus.

I remember visiting a maximum security prison in Kumla, Sweden. Though years ago it left me with a host of similar unsettling images: the basic angst of being locked up behind doors lacking handles, the razor-sharp barbwire at the horizon and the odour of male anxiety and violence. Those images come up every time someone accuses the Swedish criminal justice system for being “soft”.


Dray Walk

Weekend morning at Fröken Olssons, the table next to me populated by German exchange students discussing an upcoming exam. Suddenly my memory plays me a trick, for a split second I am at Café 1001 on Dray Walk, a small alley off Brick Lane in London. It is raining outside, the worn leather armchairs are still reverberating from the late-night dj session, and everything seems to be for real.

“- En mozzarellapanini till Anna”, a shrill inimitable voice throws me back to Gothenburg in the most brutal manner. The illusion is gone and you wonder why it is so difficult to reconcile yourself with the world.

Skulle det bero på människan och de krafter hon kan mobilisera för att komma igenom den trånga ingången och sedan framåt på himmelrikets väg, så vore det hopplöst. Men nu såsom förr säger Herren: ’Det som är omöjligt för människor, det är möjligt för Gud.’

For weeks my laptop case has been carrying around “Den fördolda verkstaden” by the Christian mystic Hjalmar Ekström. I turn pages and rejoice in leaving the aesthetic escapism of places. Existentially, it does not matter if you wake up in London or on the west coast of Sweden, the distance you keep comes from inside.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Carbon neutral

The latest issue of the Swedish travel magazine Vagabond comes with a special on aviation and carbon offsetting services. In their review, the company which I personally have used to offset all carbon emissions from my flights over the last years, UK-based Carbon Neutral, comes out rather okay, despite that they are fairly inexpensive compared to the test winner, German Atmosfair.

Though the article feels a bit like yesterday’s news, it is good to see that the debate has matured somewhat over the last year. People seem to recognize that, though never a long-term solution to the problem with greenhouse gas emissions, neutralization is a temporary “second best”. And as often, ethics is not so much about doing things that are either all good or all bad but rather about muddling through those small decisions of everyday life.

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In the fall

“In the fall when all gates stand open
               toward meaningless pastures
where unreal mushrooms rot
and watery wheel ruts run on their way”

Waiting at Vasaplatsen to have coffee with my friend Ally, leaves in the wind, signs of early autumn, time to read some Ekelöf. Less than a month left in Europe until I leave for Melbourne.

Though not on Blogger, sister has just started a web log of her own called “my green seed leaves”, or in German: Meine Grünen Keimblätter.


Thursday, September 04, 2008

Western sushi

Reading up for the Manchester conference, will take an early morning bird on Wednesday from Copenhagen, returning late Friday night. The line up of speakers and papers looks great. Andrew Dobson will present his new work on democracy and listening, Marcel Wissenburg has written a promising piece on the ecological implications of Martha Nussbaum’s capability approach as applied to animals and then there will be a few graduate students from Keele whose work I appreciated at the Barcelona conference.

Until Manchester, a few days away here on the west coast and then some teaching.


Monday, September 01, 2008


Slowly accepting the loss of the suitcase with its jeans from Istanbul, Boston sweaters and unfinished diaries. Less frustration as I read some brilliant poems by Silke Scheuermann, “Verwandlungen im Stadtpark”.

Time to teach.

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