Friday, December 16, 2011

Nothing to envy

Just as the first turbulence hit the Airbus high over the Ural Mountains, I finished reading Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy – Ordinary lives in North Korea”. It is a book that made my cry; the forced late pregnancy abortions, the prison camps and the unbearable everyday brutality which followed in the wake of the famines that killed off nearly one-fifth of North Korea’s population.

Looking back over the last days, I have again spent an unreasonable amount of time online debating the future. Reading this book made all those debates seem unbearably silly. This is about real people suffering right now, not in some dire post-apocalyptic scenario. But at the same time, the book reminded me of how little all words mean the day when there is no food, when money has become worthless and industrial society does indeed come to a standstill. Contrasting the complete darkness from space with the bright lights of Seoul and China, it is worth reflecting on the fact that North Korea may be the only country in the world truly on a path towards decarbonisation (not that this will be much comfort for its people as the winter sets in).

For my own part, I will soon be back in Sweden; meet love ones, make lussekatter and most likely soon feel rather repulsed by the vulgar abundance which accompanies every Christmas. Some people who read only a few lines on this weblog or on my Facebook page may think that I have a blind faith in capitalism or that I am against things like higher gasoline taxes. I am not. In fact, I think that much higher taxes on fossil fuels (and meat) would be a very good idea in a carbon constrained world. My only worry is that if those taxes were set as high as I wish them to be, they would also cause a massive political backlash against environmental policies and instigate a “cultural war” that may drag on for decades. And, as I wrote late last night, those are decades that we most likely do not have if we are to avoid catastrophic environmental changes on a planetary scale.

Enough said about that. Transferring earlier today in Beijing, I came to talk to a Danish man in his forties working in the pharmaceutical industry in southern Seoul. One of all those bright Scandinavians living and working abroad, every time I go flying I tend bump into them and they make me proud of what Scandinavia stands for in the world. That they reflect about how traditional Korean gender roles will affect their kids in school, that they are curious about the outside world, and that they are highly skilled at their different jobs. If only Pia Kjærsgaard would have listened to any of these conservations, then she might possibly have realized why Scandinavia should not turn inwards but outwards.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Demanding less. Or not.

Today, a friend of mine who is active in the Green party in Northern Ireland posted a link to a new report on his Facebook wall. The report is called “Demanding less: why we need a new politics of energy” and offers some familiar ideas about the future, such as that we need demand-side reductions in energy use and that we should begin shaping a “low energy society”.

As you can imagine, I could not disagree more.

Instead of an “energy descent”, I think we should invest in a high energy future which can offer fast and reliable transportation, advanced material flows, and the energy necessary for everything from desalination of sea water to greenhouse gas remediation. I strongly believe that the rich countries need to take the lead in developing the kind of energy technologies that will make possible a world in which ten billion people can sustain a decent material life. Focusing on "degrowth" and "low energy" will obscure this global responsibility.

Moreover, the "low energy talk", especially if it focuses on the need for individual sacrifice, will alienate people and lead to unnecessary polarization while being ineffective when it comes to solving our global challenges. Already today we have seen how climate change has become almost as much an act of faith as abortion rights in the United States. To even suggest the amount of sacrifice that would be necessary to achieve sustainability through reduced energy and material flows in a world of seven billion people would be paramount to political suicide. That is why no politicians do that. The most worrying problem with all this is, as I have pointed out before, that we risk falling in between, i.e. not accelerating modernity enough to achieve sustainability through advanced technologies yet not slow modernity down enough to ensure sustainability through reduced metabolism.

In order to make progress towards a prosperous and equitable future, we need the support of all good forces, in particular the people who write these kind of reports. The choice is simple, either continue demanding that everyone, everywhere, subject themselves to the planetary limits and learn to “live within our means” or instead join the effort to finally and completely lift those limits.


Monday, December 12, 2011


The passing beauty of the blank page as her day withers away and becomes a silent monument to the bitter-sweetness of temporality. A privilege and a curse; an aspiration and its inner judge.

Labels: ,