Friday, November 28, 2008

Australian poems

After a good brunch panini and talk at the Animal Orchestra, I have spent this Friday afternoon struggling with my article due for presentation in NYC in February. On one hand, having so much time on my hands is good since it allows tentative thinking instead of just rash writing, on the other hand, every post-graduate student knows how delicate the balance is between thinking and procrastination.

As of today, 27 days remain of my overseas adventure. Beyond the latte rafting, the rigorous physical exercise and the violet radiant light, I think the ability to read again will be the defining memory of Australia, everything from the Economist to novels and poetry.

Where once the words were slotted into
the cold mnemonics of a dictionary, they

now more than ever make their dirigible
escape into the wide blue, somehow strange

Reading the poem Defroster by Danny Gentile and then, in a sudden shift in moods, Dagens Nyheter on the results from the so called “långtidsutredningen” (roughly “the Swedish long-term planning commission study”). As before, these reports show how frustratingly incapable most economists are of imaginative thinking. Not only are the recommendations (like the introduction of student fees) short-sighted but the report also fails to see the possibilities of our historical situation. This autistic inability to understand the bigger picture is reflected in everything from migration to the mitigation of climate change (where for instance the report could have realized that pension funds, with their longer investments cycles, are uniquely equipped to invest in emerging post-carbon technologies).

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Thursday, November 27, 2008


Leaving my favourite Chinese dry cleaner, I was stunned to discover that it was no longer thirty sticky degrees outside but rather ten and that large white hailstones were bombarding the street.

Otherwise this day has been one of academic writing while monitoring the news from Thailand. Apparently the situation is pretty calm on the ground, but with both airports blocked and all flights out of the wider region zeroed out in Y/C/F for weeks to come, rebooking her ticket via for instance Singapore does not seem possible either.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Flight TG996

Touching down at Melbourne International Airport last night, after two weeks on the road exploring the southeast corner of Australia, I had my mind all set on my overdue academic duties. Little did I know that my girlfriend, whose aircraft I had taken a photo of as it was taxiing in front of my own in Sydney an hour earlier, would land at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport just as the political turmoil was about to break out, leaving her unable to continue to Copenhagen.

After a long confused day in front of the international news media and countless sms back and forth, my girlfriend has now managed to leave the seized airport and take a cab to a downtown hotel. And though I briefly looked into the possibility of flying up to Thailand to join her, it now seems as if every alternative route is being clogged by rerouted passengers. Thus, for the time being, it all comes down to waiting.

The prime minister Somchai Wongsawat has now landed in the northern city of Chiang Mai and, like the PAD protesters occupying the airport, he seems unwilling to accept calls for a new election, as urged by Thai army leaders. Reading up on the Thaksin legacy, it is clear that the underlying (class) conflict defies simple verdicts and most standard frames of analysis.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Political theology

As noted by many, the legacy of John Rawls has grown into a full-blown academic industry, employing thousands of aspiring philosophers and sparking florid debates on everything from global justice to the intersection of religion, theology and democracy.

Last year, Eric Gregory published a paper in the Journal of Religious Ethics (35:179-206) which I for some time have been thinking about mentioning here on Rawls & Me. The paper examines Rawls’s senior thesis, written in 1942 at Princeton, just before he set off to the war in the Pacific. It says a great deal about Rawls’s extraordinary academic standing that this thesis, spanning a massive 169 pages, is about to be published with Harvard University Press and that buffs like myself have already pre-ordered it with Amazon.

Browsing my own master thesis the other day, I felt a tickling sensation of embarrassment. One may indeed ask if Rawls himself would have liked to have hosts of scholars digging through his undergraduate work? As Gregory puts it:

“even the best undergraduate writing can be marked by sweeping generalizations, potted histories, citations of canonical figures taken out of context, assertions that masquerade as arguments, and breathless musings of adolescent enthusiasm”

That being said, the passages quoted by Gregory (I have still to read the full thesis) all point towards a more personal, existential stream which is virtually absent in his later writings. According to the standard biography, the events of the Second World War led Rawls to denounce his earlier religious faith. And though other biographical fragments make the cut less clear it is indisputable that the Rawls we meet in A Theory of Justice is rather remote from the one attending divinity seminars at Princeton.

I must confess that parts of the article by Gregory bit rather deep. Lacking a working everyday language of faith, much of my own theological reasoning has been on a philosophical level, taking me dangerously close to what Rawls describes as the basic form of sin, the act of turning “a personal relation into a natural relation”, in this case to think of God as an object. The opposite risk is of course that we surrender to interminable agnosticism by completely evacuating our moral-philosophical language of its transcendental categories. Fearing that it takes someone of a higher intellect to steer clear of these fallacies, one is tempted to give up on the task of political theology all together. The problem is, that if we do that, we deprive ourselves of our true motives as we have to resort to the tedious task of constantly inventing public reasons for our actions, all distorting our original intentions.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008


After 15 km of fast running through the sunset, it felt as if I had truly earned some fine Italian food at café a taglio, a glass of chianti and time to read the book that Robyn generously gave me today. One may find the setting slightly ironic, reading a book on the role of consumption in shaping unsustainable dynamics while drinking Italian wine at the shores of the Tasman Sea. But, unlike its Canadian author Peter Dauvergne, I am (as you all probably know by now) rather optimistic about the possibilities of global commerce. However, given that the last x or so posts on Rawls & Me have been on these issues, I will let my case rest.


Out of Cape Cod tonight

All the way to New Jersey

All the way to the Garden State


Vampire Weekend playing in my earphones, music as streaming consciousness, as often I allow memories to fill me with ambiguity, and though everything is fine I am still asking myself what the coming years will be like. With my research visit to Australia I have taken the de-contextualization to its outermost, in the future I think some structure and stability will do me good, colleagues and cake-lists.

But first, another 40 days in Australia and then already a planned talk at the University of Georgia, Athens, in February in conjunction with the ISA-conference in NYC. However, hopefully not * Gold renewal in 2009.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Alone, no more

I remember that bright June morning in 2005, it was the 7th Nordic Environmental Social Science Research Conference and it was time for my first real conference appearance. I remember that brief moment of silence as I stood in front of all the leading green scholars knowing that I would jump over the cliff and challenge the very foundations of their thinking. Though dead nervous at the time, it went quite well in the end and, afterwards, I have learned that I indeed had a few ideological friends hiding there in the audience.

Yet, that staggering feeling of going at it alone has followed me around the world over the last years, everywhere from Hong Kong to Manchester. It has always been a two-front battle, on one hand the dark green brand of environmentalists who relinquish technology and despise the notion of progress, on the other hand, market fundamentalists who deny the seriousness of our current predicament and consider economic growth to be the universal solution to everything.

But the times are truly changing. Not only am I currently reading the “bright green” bible of sustainable solutions edited by Alex Steffen, Newsweek comes with a green lifebuoy on the cover and support for a bright-green solution to the present economic crisis. Truth to be told, I am actually a bit disappointed that I did not come up with the notion of “bright-green” myself, it is such a simple way of pointing out how it differs from both light-green (as in greenwashed consumerism) and dark-green (as in civilization dismantling) thinking. Since this weblog is already overflowing with praise for dense urban settlements, energy innovation and cosmopolitanism I will spare my readers any further elaboration of what bright-green could mean. But let me conclude by saying that my sense of intellectual loneliness is rapidly disappearing.


Thursday, November 06, 2008

Electrifying the world

Waking up with high spirits, I was a bit taken back when Robyn called in sick and we had to postpone my seminar until next Tuesday. So instead of discussing world trade reform I found myself out on a morning run along Albert Park Lake with its Popperian black swans, sushi-eating pelicans and a bunch of other exotic looking birds which defy categorization (at least for a political scientist).

Browsing the daily chunk of international media, it becomes apparent exactly how much the Obama victory has electrified the world. And signing in to Facebook, one could follow the wildfire of good news as it spread around the globe, awakening people to an electoral vote victory of 349-162.

Back in Sweden, three economists are asked by Dagens Nyheter what they think the start of the Obama presidency will look like. Suggestive of the way environmental issues have traditionally been perceived, the economists argue that Obama will focus on jobs and growth, putting less emphasize on mitigating climate change. Despite the emerging notion of “green-collar jobs”, it is clear that in mainstream thinking, the environment is still seen as minus and unqualified growth as a plus.

Challenging this paradigmatic view, there is a rapidly growing bright-green movement in the US and, listening to Obama out on the campaign trial, it was fascinating to see to what extent this movement has been able to inform his political thinking. On a fundamental level Obama seems to have recognize the need to build a new energy economy, that we cannot “drill our way out of our energy crisis” and that investments are needed. It remains to see however, if he will be able to take this acceptance beyond (necessary but insufficient) improvements in energy efficiency and infrastructure repairs. As I have said before: it is one thing to patch rooftop insulation, another to make grand investments in the energy of the future. Real reductions in global carbon emissions will require breakthrough innovation, an end to the era of small thinking and a planetary vision which literary can electrify the world (pun excused).


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Great Schlep

Just watched McCain giving his concession speech from Arizona. Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States of America! He has already secured 293 electoral votes and now it looks as if Virgina (sic!) is going his way too! Fox is showing a commercial for the West Point Academy and weather forecasts for Latin America, hihi, and now, they have to report that Florida has been won by Obama! The Great Schlep seems to have worked. Have to join the party with the Greens, cheers!

It’s time

With a quarter of the vote in, the popular vote looks closer than the electoral vote but still showing Obama leading! According to CNN projections, Obama will carry the crucial battleground state of Ohio, and the exit polls indicate victory in both Florida and New Mexico. As you can imagine, a good mood with the Australian Greens - more to follow...

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Keystone State

On the eve of battle, at least according to antipodean timekeeping, I find myself nervously waiting for history to be made. If America fails now, so much hope will be lost and the world will continue its slide into disintegrative darkness. With an Obama victory, all the work will still remain to be done yet the forces of global polarization will finally be dampened, the world will again see that there is more to America than reckless unilaterism, illegal renditions and oil-drilling climate deniers.

Driving along the Susquehanna riverbed in May, I figured that this could well be where it all would be decided. As the Clinton strategist James Carville once said about Pennsylvania: “you got Philadelphia on one end, Pittsburg on the other end, and Alabama in the middle”. And right then I was driving through that evangelic countryside, a land of ethnic animosity wrapped up in intangible everyday courtesy. To be in America reminds you of how fragile the foundations of democracy are, how the ignorance of LIVs ("low information voters") is only exceeded by our arrogance, and how difficult it is to build ontological bridges, both for me and for Joe Sixpack.

I escape to an encouraging book by Robert Pinsky, Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry. And in the end, I am back with Whitman:

“A promise to California,
Also to the great Pastoral Plains, and for Oregon:
Sojourning east a while longer, soon I travel toward
you, to remain”


Sunday, November 02, 2008

Green Keynesian Economics

With the world falling into its first truly global recession, it is fascinating to see how quickly the theories of John Maynard Keynes have regained their political sway. Loyal readers of this web log may know that not only do I have a long standing admiration for the work of Keynes, I have also argued academically that just as his fiscal policy may have proven to be ineffective in one single country (given flexible exchange rates), the same measures may turn out to be surprisingly effective if applied to the aggregated world economy.

In some regards, as with the notion of post-scarcity, Keynes was profoundly prescient. In others, as with the natural environment, he was firmly a man of his time. Instead of pursuing the highly anachronistic task of criticizing Keynes for this shortcoming, I think a more fruitful task would be to develop the rather timely branch of Green Keynesian Economics. Though I am certainly not the first to suggest that we should green the present bailout (and less than a week ago I even came out in “praise of wind turbines”), there is definitely room to elaborate on these ideas as I think that we have not yet fully recognize how well the present economic turmoil lends itself to kick-start the “sustainable transition”.

Unlike traditional green thinking however, I believe that first of all, such a kick-start has to be aimed at restoring overall global demand. Only with the integrity of the economic system secured, providing a “market floor” of sustained global growth, will we have the financial resources necessary to pursue other policies.

Instead of desperately trying to rescue sun-set industries such as car manufacturing we should seize this opportunity to finally bring them down. Uninhibited by the structural opposition of the car industry, massive investments in more sustainable modes of transportation would become politically possible. By retraining car workers to build high-speed trains and buses, the shift could also be made less painful on the individual level.

This far I am not claiming much originality. But what is missing in the standard Keynesian analysis is how an economic recession can be used to shift long-term social priorities, in this case in the direction of sustainability. While Keynes is famously quoted for saying that “in the long run we are all dead”, the same will hopefully not be true for our children. And to ensure them environmental sustainability, it falls upon us to urgently reorientate our society in the direction of scientific discovery. Instead of the public works of the thirties such as roads and dikes, we should now invest in particle accelerators, testbeds for material science and space industries. At the same time, progressive taxation should be used to raise overall educational standards and promote a culture of learning, capable of rapidly increasing the rate of innovation.

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