Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Hairshirts and the failure of political imagination

A year ago, the cold unforgiving American night as I returned from NYC to Jersey, the late-open Starbucks with its unwiped tables and deserted half-eaten blueberry scones, the approaching nocturnal emptiness and my flickering ambition to be creative, to write one sweeping justification of my discontent, of why I reject the post-modern consensus, of why dark-green thinking fails to see the possibilities of our time, of why...

Amidst all the frustration: "Die letzten warmen Tage in Berlin" in my mp3-player, and unknowingly to me, the twenty-something Jon Favreau busy ghost-writing for Barack Obama, internalising his speech patterns at, yes, the local Starbucks.

Emptying my cup of shade-grown Mexican coffee, I remember going over the Wikipedia post on Fermi and his famous paradox, the grand perspective of what modernity is all about: to safely leave our planetary cradle and to build a universal civilization of humanity, to eliminate hunger, poverty, ultimately the very notion of material needs. At the same time, the tragic reality of the hairshirts who seek to bind humanity to its past, to prescribe absolute limits to growth and human ingenuity. But just as much, the cornucopian liberals who hold all consumption to be axiomatically desirable and who like Johan Norberg fail to see the historical debt incurred by colonialism and the ongoing exploitation in Third World sweatshops.

In two weeks I will be back in America where the tide has turned and idealism no longer is mocked. But as all commentators are quick to point out, the work still remains to be done, it is still uncertain if Obama will succeed in breaking with the contemporary collective failure of imagination and reignite our sense of historical purpose.

Labels: ,

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Potsdam and universalism

Another dark grey winter morning in Sweden. I take my new thin netbook down to Fröken Olssons and resume the writing of my Crafoord application. Given the collapsing financial markets it is perhaps unlikely that the Crafoord Foundation will give out much money at all this year, but if nothing else, writing about my research is in itself a good structuring exercise, to straighten out my priorities for the remaining 1.5 years, and to decide what conferences I will try to attend before handing in my dissertation.

As mentioned in the previous post, Potsdam in September is on that list, there will be a panel on climate change and cosmopolitanism, and it sounds like a good place to present a paper on the role of innovation in planetary solidarity. Yesterday, I put together a short abstract along those lines:

Anthropogenic climate change has proven to be a difficult case for the otherwise much cherished “polluter pays principle”. Not only is it impossible to make earlier generations pay for their emissions but also many contemporaries may claim excusable ignorance (not knowing that emitting green house gases was harmful) or argue that their historically low emissions now give them a right to “catch up”.

Sophistic as such arguments may sound, they should not come as a surprise given the prevailing pollution paradigm and the associated view that climate change mitigation is a burden and a hinder to economic development.

Taking the contrary view that avoiding dangerous climate change can be a transformative opportunity and that, albeit initially costly, investments in breakthrough technologies may open paths to rapid global growth, this paper explores the potential role of “bright-green” innovation in shaping a cosmopolitan alternative to existing views on climate change mitigation.

Returning to the Americas, the International Herald Tribune reprinted Obama’s inaugural address in its entirety. Though I am the first to admit my bias and my inclination to read what I want to hear, I cannot resist quoting this wonderful Star-Trekian passage:

”We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall some day pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.”


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Praise song for the day

"Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce,
built brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of"

A damp cold train station in Sweden, the standstill watching wrapped in electricity, hundreds of people absorbed by the live stream from Washington D.C.

It is easy to frown upon such acts of hope. Friends write to me that reality will soon come down on him. Most likely, it will.

But with our own government struggling to be more cynical than even the mayor of Sunnydale, what are not the words of historical awareness! Just think how the poem above, read by Elizabeth Alexander at the inauguration, breaks with the neo-conservative darkness of the last eight years, the seeing of people as a political act, reminding me of Paul Gomberg and his good book on race and contributive justice.

The last three weeks have indeed been busy for me, I have finished the encyclopaedia article for SAGE and right now I am preparing abstracts for conferences in Potsdam and Manchester, a scholarship application to the Crafoord Foundation while trying to fight my own nerves as my talk in Athens, GA, is drawing closer.

Labels: ,

Thursday, January 01, 2009


Today the Swedish winter exhibited its more forgiving self, clear brisk skies and temperatures just below the freezing point.

Walking along the seafront we stumbled upon the Swedish East Indiaman Götheborg, the sailing replica of an 18th century wooden ship. In 2005, Götheborg left Sweden for an epic voyage to China, one which included stops in Cádiz, Cape Town and Singapore (and also an anachronistic detour to Australia).

Like me, Götheborg has now returned. The next month will be full of in-port preparations and, among other things, the completion of my encyclopaedia contribution on sceptical environmentalism. But I promise that the travelogue adventures will continue, at the latest on 9 February when it is time to once again cross the North Atlantic.