Monday, January 30, 2012

The Monocle Cafe

Monday morning in Tokyo and time to work away a few hours in the comfort of the newly opened Monocle Cafe in Yūrakuchō. Bright Scandinavian wood, master brewed coffee and in the background the Monocle radio station broadcasting from London, everything fine-tuned in a manner that definitely would make Tyler proud.

Late last night, we were talking about reason and rationality. To me, these have never been entirely positive words. Like Stephen Toulmin, I believe that they always need to be balanced with humour, irony and emotional spontaneity. In Cosmopolis, Toulmin made his famous argument that even the Enlightenment itself, often characterized as “the age of reason”, should better be understood in relative than in absolute terms, that it was about using reason to challenge the privileges of tradition and authority but also about recognizing effective limits on that very rationality (just think of the ending that Voltaire gave to Candide!). The same should be true for any future society, that we should seek a future more open to critical thinking and reflexivity while accepting that things will always be idiosyncratic and full of ambiguities. With those words, I return to my work.

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Tailwind

With a 169 km/h tailwind, the United Triple Seven literally blew out over the Japanese Sea (or the “East Sea” as the Koreans prefer to call it). In a little more than one hour, I will be touching down at Narita Airport for a week in the Japanese capital which will give some time to work on the paper that Anna and I are co-authoring for WPSA later this spring. The paper is on something we call “aspirational cosmopolitanism” and it basically means that, in our understanding, cosmopolitanism can never be a static end-state but must rather be interpreted as a dynamic process of negotiation, an existential inclination if you like, a continuous process by which we seek to confront our own partiality and parochial beliefs. More specifically, the paper deals with historical memory and how we relate to our collective past. While it is often acknowledged that failure to accept responsibility for historical wrongdoings may worsen a country’s relations with others (as vividly seen here in Asia with its many “history wars”), almost nothing has been written about what consequences this failure may have for the country itself and how it may prevent social learning and, ultimately, even block moral progress. In the paper, we want to look at this “internal” aspect and also discuss some encouraging examples (Germany in particularly comes to mind) for what it, in practical terms, can mean to take responsibility for one’s past.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

What future?

The other day I was speculating a bit about what we would want the future to be like in say a few hundred years from now? First, it should be obvious that we do not all want the same future. This immediate and intuitive observation should serve as a simple reason for us to instead seek a pluralist future, one in which different individuals can pursue different life projects. Leaning for a moment on Rawls here, it seems reasonable that we would would like to see a future which not only safeguards the greatest possible freedom that is compatible with that everyone else enjoys the same freedom, but also a future which provides the protection from ignorance and poverty which gives worth to that freedom on a universal level. We would want a future of punk rockers, surfers and idealists but also one of conservatives, doubters and pragmatists, we would want a future with different religious beliefs but also one of atheism, we would want a future which makes good on the lofty promises of the Enlightenment but also one that recognizes the Kantian aphorism that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”.

This would basically be a future that preserves the human existential condition at the same time as it makes universal the kind of opportunities that many people in the rich world currently enjoys. What would it take to make that materially possible in a world which is already today at its ecological limits? Most likely, nothing short of a radical acceleration of modernity through massive investments in education which would lift society upwards and bring about the kind of technological change and social innovations necessary for such a future. In practical terms, this would depend on our ability to develop radically new clean energy technologies such as nuclear fusion while restoring the natural habitats that we have ruined by permanently decoupling our industrial processes from the natural world. On a sociological level, it would be about a future in which humanity has grown out of its savaged past, yet remains a species full of contradictions, a future in which depression and violence still exist but (just as we have already done within the framework of the nation state) these forces are institutionally contained so that a lasting, universal peace can finally be realized on a global level. It is about accepting that some people always want to go further, faster and higher whereas others may want to stay on the same farm or in the same forest for their entire lives. It is about recognizing such simple facts and using our political imagination to creatively craft a world which makes all this possible by drawing on what we have learned from our encounter with modernity.

It is tempting to ask, how can anyone, and environmentalists in particular, be against such a bright future? The simple answer is: because they do not believe that such a future is technologically or socially possible. But I would be tempted to say that is more than that, it is about a desire to see their own particular idea of the future realized, one in which things are slowed down rather than accelerated, organic communities restored and the world ethically and socially homogenized. In this sense, environmentalism stands for an almost fascist vision of the future. But it is, one should recognize, an ethically motivated fascism since it is considered by many environmentalists to be the only option for human survival. In his 2010 book “Treading Softly”, Thomas Prince writes, “[t]he next era will be one of living within our means, one way or another”. It is important to remember that for many environmentalists, space ships, artificially cultivated meat, fusion reactors and other common themes on this weblog are nothing but artefacts of science fiction. By equating the long-term potential of science and technology with what autonomous market-driven research has accomplished, environmentalists generally believe that the unintended negative consequences of advanced technologies more often than not will outweigh their possible ecological benefits. On a deeper level, this reflects a widely shared belief among environmentalists that human emancipation from nature is the ultimate cause of our current ecological trauma; “[i]f there were a single philosophical position in environmental thought, adhered by all who are concerned about environmental destruction, it is that at the root of that destruction is human’s separation from nature” as Prince writes later in the same book. Consequently, it is not surprising that few environmentalists would embrace the idea that separating ourselves more fully from nature would be ecologically beneficial.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Oil sands and the real meaning of "low energy futures"

In green thinking, there is much romanticizing of “low energy futures”. Centred around so called “energy descent towns” which are supposed to lead the way to a finite world of absolute limits, there is a firm belief among environmentalists that “big science” can never deliver sufficient energy to everyone and that we have to realize that “the party is over”. The problem, as I repeatedly have argued, is that very few people, in particular in growing countries like China, Brazil and India but also in the United States, find that future appealing. Yet, many of those who reject the environmentalist worldview also reject the very real realities of the coming energy crunch as traditional petroleum reserves are running out while demand is skyrocketing. This is why I have argued that environmentalists in rich countries have a unique responsibility to support big science and breakthrough solutions to the world’s energy needs (such as nuclear fusion).

Without that support and access to energy technologies that are substantially cleaner and cheaper, I am afraid that the “low energy future” will in reality translate into nothing else than what already seeing in terms of oil sands, gas shale fracking and massive environmental destruction.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Getting our act together

Though I am not a great consumer of science fiction, I think it can sometimes be a very useful tool to reveal what opportunities we have in the real world. The other day when reading an article about exotic risks, I come across the frightening prospect of a black hole suddenly beginning to affect our solar system. Though the risk of this actually happening is fortunately miniscule, the consequences would be truly apocalyptic. Within maybe a century or two from detection, our entire solar system would collapse and be drawn into the hole. Nothing would survive.

Thanks to the existence of star catalogues, we would indeed get this kind of early warning as the light reaching us would become increasingly distorted. How much of a warning of course depends on the speed by which the black hole is moving towards us. But let us say we got two hundred years. What would we do?

Panic?

Two hundred years is a lot of time from a human perspective but a second when it comes to cosmic timekeeping. In two hundred years we have moved from the first trains to Shinkansen and Maglevs, from the first manned balloon flight in 1783 to the Airbus A380, and from the prototype of the telegraph in 1828 to the Internet. On the other hand, between the year 700 A.D. and the year 900 A.D., not much improved in terms of technology. As we should know by now, progress is never inevitable or teleological but a choice that depends on our social institutions. But let’s say that we understood the danger. What would be a reasonable course of political action? Well, given the overwhelming enormity of the threat and its unambiguous nature, it is obvious that any hope of survival would depend on our ability to advance sufficiently in our understanding of the natural universe and in our ability to develop highly sophisticated technology. For this specific scenario, I could imagine two mutually supporting tracks, one into spaceflight which would examine the possibility of evacuating Earth and its inhabitants and one that would look into ways of directly changing the space-time fabric with the aim of possibly neutralizing the black hole.

Either track would require unbelievable investments to stand any chance of success. It would require nothing short of our entire global society getting its act together and putting its energy into these projects. To put hundred millions of people into school to learn physics would require again hundred millions of other people supporting them. And let’s think further about it. Would we stop fighting wars or would there be different factions fighting for different “solutions” (including religious factions suggesting that we should not do anything but rely solely on God)? Or would this be the time when we finally realized that we are one single species? More than anything, I think a threat of this magnitude would make us understand that people are an asset and not a liability, that what we call “unemployment” is a false problem and that our survival would depend on our ability to make massive social investments.

So, yes, indeed, I think humanity would stand a good chance of actually surviving. But the path to that survival would be one that would teach us what we fail to understand today: our shared cosmic vulnerability, our common interest and why we need each other. In a sense, we are in fact facing problems of this magnitude (in particular the risk of nuclear annihilation) but also other and more subtle threats such as the risk of planetary entrapment whose consequences are ultimately not that different. But still, we are so very far from getting our act together.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tyler Brûlé

Cuddled up under a red SAS blanket somewhere over Russia, I had to smile when I found a long interview with Tyler Brûlé in yesterday’s IHT. As creator of both Wallpaper and Monocle, Tyler has already been mentioned more than once here on Rawls & Me, always with the assumption that the reader would understand that, unlike him, my own take on the whole globalist lifestyle thing has always been more satirical than serious ;-)

The stated reason for the IHT interview is the launch of Tyler’s latest project, a 24h radio station called Monocle24 which aims to "sample sounds from Seoul to Stockholm”, but it quickly becomes obvious that the author is rather more fascinated by its “border-agnostic and sophisticated” founder. We learn that Tyler was born to Canadian-Estonian parents, grew up with Danish design furniture, nearly got killed on a job in Afghanistan and now runs the growing Monocle empire from his Japanese-inspired “Midori house” in London.

Despite all its existential shortcomings, Monocle is indeed an outstanding publication. Like few other magazines it has succeeded in making the world both more exciting in a Tintin-adventurous kind of way but also more familiar and smaller. From “how to retire in Kamakura” to Turkish drama exports in the Arab world, the latest issue was particular good and has thus aptly been following me around Europe for the last weeks. Yet, whenever I browse its pages, I am also experiencing a sense of post-colonial guilt. In its consumption of airport lounges, Hyatt hotels and first-class bedlinen, Monocle depicts a world completely out of reach for the vast majority of the people living on this planet. And as much as I firmly belief that it is poverty and not prosperity that we shall eradicate (!), I am afraid that Monocle may be a bit too effective in making us forget the real realities of this planet. But then again, maybe it is indeed better that people read about soft power indices and London cabs in Baku than about model trains or whatever?

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Thursday, January 05, 2012

Portuguese time

Travelling the world, it is easy to become reckless with time zones. Adjusting one’s watch becomes a simple habit, something one does without much thinking when settling into an airplane seat. Two days ago, when our bus crossed the bridge between Portugal and Spain, we completely forgot.

Being on vacation, we simply did not notice that our watches were one hour behind the rest of Spain and Europe. However, at 7 a.m. this morning we got a call from the hotel reception, saying that our taxi was waiting to take us to the railway station. It did not help much that Anna with drowsiness in her voice insisted that it was only 6 a.m.

Only once, in Las Vegas when the US changed to daylight saving time two weeks ahead of Europe had I made a similar mistake. As then, the lost hour meant an insane rush but in the end we made it in time to our Madrid-bound AVE high-speed train.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Portugal

On a red bridge high over the river Tejo, I get a last view of Lisbon from the train window. Back here in Europe, the remaining white spots on its map have again played their dirty tricks on my imagination. A week away from work to explore vintage trams, winding hills and the south-western corner of the Iberian Peninsula. Invited to a party in the old town or “Alfama”, we cheered in the new year and were reminded anew of what the future may hold; a girl from Cap Verde with her friend from Australia who she met when volunteering in India, a Romanian-Portuguese couple living in Dubai and our curious hosts who wanted to know everything about Chinese high-speed trains and our new life in Seoul.

When meeting for brunch the next morning, I was asked what I thought was the most important problem facing democracy. I answered, “to make people feel that they have agency and that they can decide their own political future”. Yet, as Miguel immediately replied, “how exactly do you do that?”.

I had to pause and think. Maybe by simply believing in people, by treating them as adults and not accepting the dumbing down of public discourse. At a deeper level however, it is about having a genuine commitment to social investment, to have the imagination to recognize the transformative capacity of education but also a vision of what our society could look like in say a hundred years from now if we were to put our collective energy behind it. Clearly familiar themes on this weblog but also ideas acutely needed as the shockwaves of public austerity are allowed to go through the societies of southern Europe, taking their massive social toll while sparing well-organized special interests like agricultural corporations and the arms industry.