Tuesday, March 20, 2012

International Date Line

Right now at cruising altitude high above the Pacific. In a minute we will cross the International Date Line and it will be Tuesday morning once more. Looking out of the window I can see the lights of another aircraft flying right next to our Boeing 767. Apparently it is pretty common for aircrafts to join up like this on transoceanic crossings. I remember once when I was flying SAS from Copenhagen to Washington D.C. on SK925 and we made company with the Newark-bound SK909 all across the Atlantic. Only just before entering U.S. airspace did the two airplanes split into different tracks to their respective destinations.

Since I have had very late evening habits in Seoul, I guess it will be difficult for me to catch much sleep before we get into Vancouver. Instead I have tried to finalize my conference presentation and gone through the latest issue of Environmental Politics. Whenever I read these representations of mainstream environmental scholarship, I feel that there are so much more to be said and so many more important conversations to be had. Of course, at times, I must admit that it can also feel rather hopeless. That it would be better for me personally to simply give up on green political theory and do something completely different, be it the politics of the Weimar years or mySQL databases. But the environment is not just any question. The way we chose to relate to it will most likely determine the very future of human civilization. It is thus literally impossible to be on the side-lines of these engagements. In the coming decades, as the environmental crisis is prone to become even more acute, we will probably see more of both ecosocialist and neoliberal millennialism. Under such circumstances, it will be more important than ever to stand in the middle and to point to the possibilities of cross-class compromises and to remind people that human beings are an asset and not a liability.

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En route

For the third time, I find myself returning to the Western Political Science Association’s annual meeting. This year the meeting is in Portland and I will present one paper on my own called “The post-Concorde world and the risk of planetary entrapment” and one paper together with my girlfriend with the title “Aspirational cosmopolitanism: Authenticity, historical memory, and the prospects for moral progress”.

Taking the train out to the airport and seeing all the people from around the world who had been visiting Korea, I was again reminded of the founding mission of The Economist: “to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress”. Although written 150 years ago, the same definitely holds true today.

We have it within our reach to build a prosperous global society, to finally end poverty and to lay the foundation for a bright cosmic future. Yet, as I write in my conference paper, “exclusively dependent on ourselves with no external source of normativity, it is not surprising that we have shrugged our responsibility for the future and come to doubt our abilities”. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly obvious that that kind of ambivalence is no longer a responsible option for the future.

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Thursday, March 08, 2012

Five minutes a day for Star Trek

Four months ago I promised myself to spend five minutes every day advancing the optimistic vision of Star Trek in different forms of social media. It is a promise that I have kept. Some days it has been more hours than minutes of fascinating debates with people from all over the world. To me, Star Trek represents a 24th century interpretation of the very society I grew up in: Swedish social democracy. It was a society based on a strong belief in a better future but also in pragmatism, reformism and gradual emancipation.

In a time when our imagination is running dangerously low and many people are drawn towards polarizing ideologies, the legacy of that society is more important than ever. Looking ahead we can ill afford new cultural wars fought only to prove our own ethical supremacy. Instead of resisting capitalism, we should use its force wisely towards progressive ends, instead of provoking unnecessary cultural tensions with the Muslim world we should have faith in the promise of the Enlightenment, and instead of running away from technologies that have gone awry, we should work to perfect these technologies as we take active responsibility for the future. In the image of Captain Janeway above, I see all this, a future in which humans have remained humans but in which piecemeal institutional change has allowed us to be our better selves.

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Monday, March 05, 2012

What the Right does not understand

There is a fundamental truth which the political Right does not seem to understand and that is that either way it will have to pay for society. Either it can (1) make social investments in public childcare, schools, and higher education or (2) it will have to bear the (a) direct costs of crime, social unrest, and disease as well as (b) the indirect costs of keeping people trapped below their real productivity potential and thereby reducing the rate of economic growth for society as a whole. These latter indirect costs are of particular importance and commonly overlooked. It is thus not so much what the poor will do as what they won’t do which is the big blind spot of conservative political analysis.

Some people on the Right believe that what happens in other countries is not their concern. But again they are wrong. Like at the domestic level, failure to invest in other people will lead to direct costs for military security but also to large indirect costs as the rest of the world is kept below its productivity potential.

Looking at the evidence of the last hundred years, it should be obvious to everyone that social investments pay off. Still the Right insists that society cannot afford these investments. The truth is rather that we cannot afford to not make them.