Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dramatisch und zugleich leicht und spielerisch

With my mother turning sixty this weekend, I decided to head home to Kalmar for a few days. More than usual, it gave me a reason to reflect upon the passage of time.

While here, I had the chance to meet up with an old friend from school. It must have been twelve or thirteen years since I last saw her, and since then our lives have gone down very different paths. By now she has three kids, has settled down in a house and been in the same relationship for more than a decade. Beyond the courage, I realized how envious I felt of the continuity of memories such a life must offer. To me, that inner narration has all but broken down as my memories have become, if not inaccessible, so at least woefully compartmentalized.

Sometimes however the walls between the past, the present and the future collapse. Like tonight, when my mother and I celebrated her birthday with a classical piano concert by the young Hungarian Gergö Teleki in a small nearby town. Teleki truly mastered his art, playing mostly Franz Liszt and Béla Bartók, spinning my mind away not only to Szentendre but also to Brookline and Ehrenfeld.

Above the piano, on the wall, a large fresco painting. In its right corner, a house, one that with the help of the music talked directly to me. The dream of one day finding such a place, of (re-)establishing continuity and having a porch on which one can sit through summer nights, drinking a Krušovice or a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, knowing that it will last. I think I even like the fountain, especially if it occasionally will be covered in American snow.

Friday, March 13, 2009

“Rasmus is in denial”

Instead of writing about macro-economics and dreaming about far-away places I should return to my dissertation, pronto!


”Europe is in denial”

Over the last days I have read a number of articles arguing that most Europeans have yet to realize the full scope of the economic crisis. Especially Germans, whose falling fuel and food prices have actually improved the economy of many households while the property markets have remained stabile, are singled out for their reluctance to engage in big stimulus spending programmes.

“They are in denial, and hoping that something from the U.S. will come along to help them out” to quote a chief economist at Deutsche Bank. Maybe so. But in macro-economics, which often boils down to little less than aggregate psychology, being in denial may sometimes be a good thing. If everyone thinks that the economy is ticking along, then it might just do that. The opposite is also true. A worst case scenario would be of Obama’s recovery plan would prove insufficient to prop up aggregate demand. He would then have to come back to Congress, maybe even before the summer, to ask for more money and the only way to get that money would be to paint in dark colours how bad things really have become. Which in itself will darken the mood and further increase the fall.

The problem is that, just as the economy has no ceiling, it has no absolute floor. And while there are considerable cushions (such as unemployment benefits, the salaries of government officials and so forth) there are also numerous negative multiplier effects. Yet, looking ahead, the rise of the developing world should be more than enough to offset falling demand at home and the long-term ageing of society. But if the current economic crisis becomes protracted, the rise of China in particular may come into jeopardy. The Chinese will then be tempted to withdraw more of their holdings in U.S. treasury bonds to increase domestic spending, a move that would dry up credit in America (and send the dollar into a free fall), further reducing the American appetite for Chinese exports… and well, you see the spiral…

If anything, such possibilities should reinforce our commitment to global solidarity and emphasize how much we are all into this together. And while the intellectual argument for free trade was won a hundred years ago, we still have to be vigilant every time we spot the ugly face of protectionism.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ein schöner guten Morgen

I have this recurrent memory of night-train journeys through Europe, to be woken up by train conductors somewhere in rural Austria at obscene hours by this cheerful greeting.

This time around however the alarm was set first at 4.30 a.m. and instead of getting off a train, I was to take one, once again to Stockholm to be more specific. And, after some initial tram-related difficulties I am now well underway in 200 km/h, quite excited about what the day will offer.

Among other things, I will attend a seminar organized by the Swedish Research Council on Russian history. Of special interest is Gudrun Persson from Stockholm University who will discuss the importance of boredom in the downfall of the Soviet Union. Her argument is that, as the Soviet society stagnated, people (especially those who had the chance of travelling abroad) came to realize the profound hopelessness, the colossal public lies and the lack of a future for the young. All this, I think, has interesting implications for the prospects of maintaining a “steady-state” green society in the future.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fusion reactors, nano factories and space ships!

- Okay, this will be difficult, especially since I promised a more conciliatory tone than in my last post. But after spending another day listening to middle-of-the-road political sales pitches I have to say this out loud:

First, the climate crisis is but one instantiation of a large class of problems, all related to the global depletion of sources and the simultaneous crowding of sinks. Crucial as it may be to weatherize Swedish homes, this is ultimately about a civilization-wide collision with the biophysical limits of this planet. The challenges ahead are truly staggering when it comes to diet, mobility and overall consumption levels as the rest of the world catches up with our privileged lifestyle.

Second, many of these problems come with long time-scales, our solutions should as well! It is not about sustaining Sweden as we know it until 2040, it is about finding a planetary trajectory which can support a massive increase in global prosperity and do so deep into the future.

Third, if we are to transcend the conflict between environmental protection and economic growth we have to think audaciously and in ways far more radical than what has been done up till now. Take nuclear fusion. It is an example that many find provocative and rightfully so. However, unlike existing nuclear fission, it ultimately promises clean and practically unlimited energy (especially if combined with lunar mining of helium-3), yet we are still those famous thirty years away from commercial viability. Why? Partly because we grossly underestimated the technical difficulties but, more importantly, because we seem to lack the necessary “staying power”. It is a bit like SETI-research; we tuned in on our FM-radios some time during the sixties, briefly scanned for ET and decided that no one was out there. After that, the search for extraterrestrial life (possibly the most important scientific discovery of all time, regardless of the outcome) was lumped together with astrology and other esoteric enterprises. Though the emergence of astrobiology as a legitimate scientific field has recently given some renewed legitimacy to SETI-research as well, few seem to understand that even if nuclear fusion ultimately fails to deliver, the pursuit of high-energy technologies may in itself lead to fascinating new discoveries and open up entirely new sources of energy.

The same goes for the nano-industrial revolution, not to mention the prospects of space colonization. Without such vistas, the transition to sustainability becomes nothing but the confinement of humanity, the suppression of our appetite and the limiting of our horizons.


Yet, did I really expect this kind of thinking to be included in a conference on a Swedish New Green Deal? Of course not. But listening to the politicians and the think-tank crowds, it became obvious that, without such visions, it will be very difficult to create the kind of grand coalition that once made for instance welfare capitalism possible. Instead our political leaders are likely to generate even more spin and engage in further simulative politics, fearing the day when an environmental apocalypse will finally be upon us.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

The Face of Pragmatism

It is interesting to listen to mainstream social democrats these days. On one hand there is a substantial portion of ill-hidden schadenfreude (told you so!) about the apparent failure of global capitalism, on the other, there is little understanding of what the hope of global prosperity actually had come to mean for the rest of the world and, also, what truly may be at stake in the current crisis.

Carl Tham (once a liberal who converted to social democracy in the mid-eighties) repeated what has become common wisdom these days, that the financial crisis was the inevitable consequence of too much market economy, a bunch of greedy bankers and a failure to regulate. True as all this may be, I have learned to always be very careful when too many people run in the same direction.

My scepticism proved valuable as the current crisis was linked to the global quest for sustainability. Again the platitudes prevailed: the rest of the world can never attain our living standard, we only have one planet (a claim which the most distinguished scholars hold to be axiomatically true, regardless of how empirical false it is) and that recurrent failure to think boldly about our possibilities.

Yet, the initiative, to organize a conference on the “triple crisis” (the ecological, economic and resource crises) is indeed laudable and I promise that the next blog post will contain somewhat less frustration :-)

P.S. For more on the financial crisis and sustainability, see the op-ed by Thomas Friedman on “The Great Disruption” in yesterday’s IHT.

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First class

Suggestive for the theme of the day, I am taking the high speed train to Stockholm for a conference on the prospects of a “New Green Deal” for Sweden. And thanks to all my previous commuting, I was able to redeem an award first class ticket (breakfast included) for these morning hours.

It has been a busy week since my last posting and I am afraid the next months will be much the same, more dissertation than Rawls & Me to put it bluntly. At the same time, I have so many ideas of things I would like to write about: the false promises of the nuclear renaissance, the macro-economic mayhem and English translations of Nils Ferlin poems. But right now it is time for “outreach” as I head out to the university in Stockholm to bring the global dimension into that green strategic thinking.