Friday, November 29, 2013

Elysium

The movie Elysium turned out to have it all: corrupt politicians, blatant inequalities, lethal doses of radiation and a new artificial world in high orbit where the rich play in their infinity pools while the poor are trapped down on an ecologically ravaged planet mired in violence, poverty and – you guessed it – rampant overpopulation.

Watching the movie on my flight down to New Zeeland for the sustainability panel at NZPSA, I think it is fair to say that Elysium speaks tons about the prevailing Zeitgeist. This is simply what many people on the Left think the future will be like. There is of course a certain irony in that the very reluctance of those same people to think creatively about the future could be part of what eventually creates a world like the one portrayed in Elysium. Yet, the Left instinctively rejects all notions of ethical and political responsibility. In their neo-Gramscian understanding of the universe, everything is determined by malign neoliberal elites anyway and the only thing they can do is to “resist” this hegemony by writing another book on energy descents, “resilience” or how we should all “hunker down” to survive the coming storm. Sigh.

Recently, I have become increasingly concerned about the prospect of such self-fulfilling Green-Left prophecies, add a wind mill or two. Unlike those on the Right who put infinite trust in the self-regulating abilities of markets, I think that the future is very much open to human agency in both good and not so good ways. Avoiding Dystopia will not be easy by any measure. A first step, still highly heretic for many on the Left, would be to recognize a more affluent and better educated world population as a resource and not primarily as a problem. A second, and probably yet more difficult step, would be to take active responsibility for the world and stop believing in different conspiracy theories. The reason that proposals for intentional localization, restricted mobility and degrowth have not caught on is not because of the Bilderberg group but simply because such self-defeating proposal do not resonate with people. As Bruno Latour writes:

”In addition to this lack of fit between the implied threats and the proposed solutions, there is something deeply troubling in many ecological demands suddenly to restrict ourselves and to try to leave no more footprints on a planet we have nevertheless already modified through and through. It appears totally implausible to ask the heirs of the emancipatory tradition to convert suddenly to an attitude of abstinence, caution, and asceticism – especially when billions of other people still aspire to a minimum of decent existence and comfort.”

This leads to the third and final step, namely to engage with creating new ideas for how to take the best of the 20th century – welfare capitalism, liberal democracy and ever greater measures of emancipation – and use these building blocks to bring about a future-oriented planetary civilization that more fully realizes the potential of each individual rather than confines us all to a stagnating prison of limitations. Instead of pitying the poor and moralizing about the rich (while paradoxically often engaging in the same kind of ecologically destructive behaviour!), the Left needs to move away from identity politics and reconnect with the Enlightenment programme of liberal tolerance, scientific curiosity and – most importantly – the belief in enduring social progress.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Bread

One of the things that I have been missing the most since moving to North-East Asia has been bread, in particular unsweetened bread free of red beans, nuts or sugar coating. But as through an act of divine intervention, my colleague Andy passed on the happy news this morning. A new bakery called "5 loaves" has opened in the alley behind “Brother’s Coffee”. Apparently owned by the same people who run the great Italian bistro Cibo, the new bakery opened its doors a short time ago and offers both real sourdough bread and sandwiches that look strangely European. A quick sampling turned out highly satisfactory so it seems that they just earned a loyal customer.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Passing through Beijing

Landing at Beijing Capital International Airport always fills me with conflicting emotions, on one hand, romantic memories from 2011 when Anna and I set out on our grand Asian tour that would take us everywhere from Phnom Penh to Bali but also, on the other hand, dark glimpses of contemporary authoritarianism and power abuse below thick layers of smog. Today the terminal is unusually cold, luckily I took my warm Emilio winter jacket with me to Sweden so I am okay.

Soon time to board my Asiana flight to Seoul. A couple of hours in the air and I will be back home with quite a backlog of work and, most likely, a brutal time zone reset as Eddie will take me to the playground early tomorrow morning :-) But already in three weeks, I am off again, this time to Christchurch for the NZPSA conference. 

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Polar route

Some hours ago I had sushi in the Tokyo lounge, now there is white Arctic expanse below me in every direction. Despite my frequent travels between Europe and Asia, this is the first time that I take a flight that takes me directly over the North Pole. Tomorrow I will be in Umeå, then in Stockholm on Friday to talk about climate politics and watch Pandora's Promise with some people from the nuclear industry. After that, I will head straight back home to Seoul to teach next week’s classes. In short, a little more Tyler in the life of Rasmus.

This far, the autumn has been one of the most productive on record. I have submitted no less than three manuscripts for review, one of which I have co-authored with my friend Jon at Macquarie University in Sydney. I have also submitted my book review to Environmental Values which, I am happy to report, has already been published online as a pre-copy edited version. I have done all this while teaching three classes. One may rightfully ask, what is the secret behind this? In my view it is fairly simple, it all comes down to the decentralized academic environment at HUFS and the trust it puts in each professor. Instead of endless audits, research assessment exercises and the writing of research grant applications, I have been fortunate enough to have the time to do what university professors are supposed to do, teach and write. Since joining the faculty in the fall of 2011, I think I have spent less than two hours in meetings. Of course, by virtue of its decentralization, the system is very vulnerable. Unlike in Sweden where a university course is typically taught by two or three teachers working together, I am solely responsible for an entire track in our MA programme. This means that if I would for instance get sick, the students in my track would have serious problems (luckily, I am not sick).

As for the programme as such, the future continues to look bright. This weekend I interviewed a group of highly qualified prospective students. With one more round of admissions later in the fall, I think it will be a very good spring semester in 2014.

One of the students that I interviewed had previously been working in the shipping industry, both in Germany and in Singapore. They are all part of a new generation of Koreans who I think will contribute much to this world, in particular if they can come to terms with the long shadow of history that has darkened Asia in recent years. Yet, every day the newspapers are full of the same tired proxy conflicts with military exercises on Dokdo/ Takeshima instead of looking inwards and challenging the hyper-masculinities of contemporary Korean society. Even back home in Europe there is talk about “turning up the heat” in the Arctic as the ice somewhat ironically keeps melting.

To me, all these challenges are intertwined as they call on us to make good on the promise of the Enlightenment rather than succumbing to the simple answers provided by everyone from romantic socialists seeking intentional localization to militarist reactionaries with cold hearts. The world is becoming global and it is our responsibility to put an increasingly planetary civilization on a sustainable trajectory. The future expects nothing less from us.

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