Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Al-Ain

Positioned on the edge of the Rub’al-Khali (or the “Empty Quarter” as it is simply known in English) this sleepy border town felt like a good first introduction to the Emirates. Built around a date oasis, Al-Ain seems to offer a snapshot of contemporary life in the UAE; American-sized malls, guzzling sport utility vehicles and sparkling colonial resorts, all interlaced with images of a fading traditional world. And just below the surface, a formidable army of guest workers manning the cashiers at CarreFour or toiling to upgrade the already excellent road system.

But as soon as one leaves the man-made world and heads south, up the 1400 meter high Jebel Hafeet mountain, one somehow gets a glimpse of the back story of this rapid transformation. Looking out over the endless desert, the conventional white “dish dasha” robe makes immediate sense under the blazing sun, the walled fortifications become as much a protection from the sand as from people, and then of course the only possible passage provided by the camels (which today, despite their natural inclinations are used everywhere for camel racing, recently even with light humanoid robots as their jockeys...).

Monday, December 28, 2009

Egypt

With a similar sense of unworldly realism as when crossing the equator, I follow the white miniature airplane across the LCD-screen as it come in for landing over the Nile Delta. Though the trip has been planned for months, it is still another thing to actually be here, to drink the Soviet style coffee out of the EgyptAir cup or to listen to the pre-recorded prayer prior to take-off.
And then Cairo, a city of outsized proportions covered by a dense inversion layer of air pollution. Even for someone like me working on questions of long-term sustainability, it is easy to lose track of how fast these cities in the developing world are growing. Right now the population counter stands at 14.5 million, putting it on par with Kolkata or Shenzhen. It is also easy to forget that, as much as we in the rich world bear responsibility for past and present emissions, it will most likely be the policies, strategies and aspirations of countries like Egypt that ultimately will determine much of our future prospects for sustainability.

Before heading off into this to me virtually unknown world, I have some good news to report from closer to home. On 23 December, Serbia submitted its EU application in Stockholm and simultaneously the union finally lifted its visa requirement for Serbian citizens. As I have repeatedly argued in the past, this act of simple human decency was not only exceptionally overdue but also most urgent if we are to avoid dashing the last hopes of European normalization among the young in Serbia.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Liminal character

Waiting for the flight back through Switzerland. An airfield small enough to not hide the liminal character of the journey in mall-like consumption and unending concourses. Instead, the windows here leave me with all the visual evidence that my 40 hours of intermission in Florence are coming to an end.

I transfer the pictures from my digital camera; there is a Buffyesque graveyard in the foreground and the rest is of course what you would expect. It was a nice walk up there to San Miniato al Monte. And being here was just as uncomplicated "good" as it can be sometimes when things are passing.

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As for the EUI, it was actually much like I had expected. An incredibly beautiful setting, talented people and a sense of college-like isolation. Tomorrow I will be in Gothenburg finishing my post-doc application and then on Wednesday it is time for my “slutseminarium”, the last major checkpoint before the viva in June.

Friday, December 04, 2009

With friends like these...

Those who have followed Rawls & Me know that I have come to defend a techno-environmentalist position, arguing that the convergence of radical technological change and social innovation offers the most promising path to global sustainability.

Unlike many Greens I believe that a planetary future of high mobility, global prosperity and accelerated technological innovation is compatible with maximizing habitat preservation and natural flourishing. However, from the beginning, I have also argued that in order to facilitate such a future we need lifestyle changes in the present; that we need to reduce our environmental impact at the same time as we make unprecedented investments in scientific research and R&D.

Yesterday evening, Swedish public TV ran a documentary on the new long-term infrastructure bill for the period 2010-2021. Despite a total spending of 217 billion SEK ($30 billion) in new investments, the net reduction in emissions is expected to be a meagre 0.1 percent! With half of the investment going into new roads that number should perhaps not come as a surprise but still. This is 2009. We should know better.

With the transportation sector being the single largest source of direct emissions (not counting land conversion, forestry or, more ominously, imports), it is also a sector where politics can have a direct effect. Unlike more tricky issues such as dietary patterns, it is after all a political decision what infrastructure we want in our society. Either we can continue down the grey fossil road with more external shopping centres, more highways and sprawling suburbia or we can move in the opposite direction towards a bright-green future of dense urbanism, efficient collective transportation and a restoration of the public.

The documentary featured some leading centre-right politicians who insisted that new fuels will make the road investments all “green” (as if the production of cars did not require any material resources). Clearly unable to grasp the complexities and the global dimensions of the issue, they failed to see why a country like Sweden should “lead by example” nor why we need to provide a powerful example of what Green Growth can look like. But what was worse was to listen to their watered-down talk of “innovation”. In it, I could hear a foul echo of my own words, that we cannot hope for “radical” lifestyle changes nor should we put blame on individuals. True as this may be for the global, as I think that we cannot realistically ask billions of Chinese or Indians to not go to McDonalds or to forgo modern sanitation, we sure as hell can tell people that they should not drive excessively, and if they still do, they should at least offset their emissions. And sure as hell, high carbon taxation is the way of sending this message.

But, and this is what I missed in the debate afterwards with Gunnar Falkemark, we also need to project a positive vision of the future, to challenge the Neo-Malthusian logic that says that we are witnessing “peak everything” and that from now on, it is just downhill. We need to talk about space colonization, fusion energy and maglev trains! Or to take another of my favourite examples, there will be Argentinean steakhouses in the future; the only difference is that they will serve in-vitro meat!

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