Monday, September 19, 2011

Modernity as a runway

Working on my book, I have been looking for a suitable analogy that captures our current ecological predicament. For a frequent flyer like myself I am surprised to find that it could have been there all along, namely “modernity as a runway”.

Think of it in this way: when an airplane is racing down a runway, there is a point when the pilot has to decide whether to take off or to abort. Beyond that point, the remaining runway is too short to allow the airplane to come to a safe stop. In a similar fashion, modernity as a historic process initially offered two very different possibilities: either an acceleration into a space-faring civilization or a deceleration back into a “sustainable” way of life. As we continue to use up non-renewable resources and filling the planetary sinks, we are moving down that runway at ever higher speeds, however, still without any clear commitment about whether we should try to ascend or if it would be better to jump on the breaks.

In this situation, some people (read cornucopian neoliberals) think that the aircraft will take off without any intervention thanks to the invisible hand of the market-pilot. Others (read greens) think that the whole idea of flying is ecocidal yet lack any realistic idea of how the brakes can be applied given the momentum that the aircraft has already achieved. Yet others (read me), argue that we need to wake up to this situation and at least try to make a conscious democratic decision about whether to attempt flying or not.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Five years on five continents

Today, exactly half a decade has passed since I wrote the first entry on Rawls & Me. With the exception of the fall semester of 2007, I can see that I have posted here basically every month. Sometimes, as in Melbourne in 2008, the updates were nearly daily, other times they have been less frequent. But throughout, Rawls & Me has been a steady companion, a reflective filter through which I have been able to communicate with myself and others, a place with enough space to hold everything from superficial lifestyle blogging to religious meditation.

A few weeks ago, a friend back in Lund told me that he is keeping track of Rawls & Me through Google Reader. He also said something that made me smile, namely that in my absence, the blog feed offered him regular doses of my “peculiar mix of fear and optimism about the future”.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Long Emergency

I have started reading one of the classics of paperback misanthropism: “The Long Emergency” by James Howard Kunstler. I know I have seen this book tucked away in more than one Neo-Malthusian's bag at different conferences over the years. And this far, the book really must confirm their worldview with its basic argument that modernity is bad, bad, bad, and that the progress of the last hundred years is only a “bubble of abundance” supported by cheap fossil fuels.

As much as I think that humanity will be faced with difficult challenges in the century ahead, I am afraid that this book could single-handedly turn me into a neo-liberal:

1) In line with many other writers in the tradition, Kunstler does not at all seem to appreciate the flip side of alienation, namely freedom. He only sees the loss of “organic community” and the rise of “loneliness, anomie, anxiety, and depression”. Yet, anyone who has grown up in a small town or a village knows what social control means and what emancipation it can bring to be allowed to define oneself anew in an urban environment rather than being forced to stay within the same static social role.

2) According to Kunstler, the end of economic globalization is nigh. He views the period ahead as “one of generalized and chronic contraction”. As much as I am tempted to quote Keynes here, I think what is fundamentally missing from his analysis is the fact that people today, unlike in the past, aspire towards the global. People everywhere want their children to grow up and learn about the world. It is a simple fact that once you travel, you want to travel more. And though it may not immediately turn people into political cosmopolitans, the increased mobility does bring an everydayness to the “international” that earlier generations did not have. Although I know that much of this is remain an elite project, it is worth noting that global tourism last year increased to 940 million international tourist arrivals (despite the recession). And as for the global economy as whole, I think Kunstler makes a mistake when he equates the long-term potential of (welfare) capitalism with the last decade of easy credit and speculation. In particular, he seems to entirely ignore the role of education and social policy as drivers of growth.

3) The hopeless lack of a global subject. As much as Kunstler may be right that peak oil, pandemics and habitat destruction are difficult problems he does not seem to appreciate the possibility that humanity may actually “wake up” and decide to act proactively in the century ahead, that we may eventually understand that we are the masters of our own fate and that, working together, we can do remarkable things. It may sound science ficitonish but when thinking about it, the step from fearful nation states to political cosmopolitanism is nothing compared to the historic leap from tribalism to abstract statehood. Perhaps my basic point is that Kunstler, like many of his friends, are obsessively focused on the ills of consumption rather than the possibilities of production, creativity and imagination. And despite the risk of sounding very much like Johan Norberg now, all this made it impossible for me to resist having a nice Thai crunch salad with avocado at California Pizza Kitchen at the newly opened restaurant in 청랑리억.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Optimism in the past

It is often said that people today are far less optimistic about the future than they were in the past. It is particularly common to associate “optimism” with the 50’s and 60’s. Some quick Google searches on the phrase “optimism in the 19XX's/XX's/XXties” also show this. But I was surprised that “optimism” was not more prevalent in descriptions of the nineties, have we already forgotten about the Wind of Change?

[Methodological disclaimer: it is worth noting that part of the "optimism" may not be about each decade as such but rather about more specific things that happened in that decade]


Thursday, September 01, 2011


One of the things I like the most with my job is that I learn so much. It may sound banal: of course I do, I am a researcher. But everyone who has been in academia for a while knows that it is not that self-evident after all. I especially like to experience “viewquakes” (to borrow the term of Robin Hanson) as when things dramatically change my worldview.

Today, I was again trawling through the backwaters of the transhumanist field, full of ideas by people who take, how should I put it, a mostly instrumental rather than romantic view on life. 99 per cent of them are men (I do not know why but this seems like an important factor to consider). Anyway, I managed to catch some really good ideas that I will definitely bring into the Book. Yes, that is correct, I am indeed working on a monograph which feels very good without the pressure of knowing that that book will also be my doctoral dissertation.

I am afraid the subject of today’s viewquake is a bit too big for Rawls & Me, but let's say it had something to do with the democratic implications of division of labour and the fixation with autarky among green theorists. You will see in due time.