Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Visa-free travel as a political response to Putin

For more than a decade, I have argued the need to politically and economically integrate Russia in the wider European community. For the most part, I have been met by ridicule suggesting that I have underestimated the “foreignness” of Russia and its “natural” instincts to dominate its neighbours. Instead of integration, we Europeans have locked Russia out, most visibly by denying its citizens the right to visit our continent without a visa but also politically by constantly expanding both NATO and the EU towards its borders yet never even hinted the possibility of Russia also eventually becoming a member.

When Putin, in clear violation of the Budapest Memorandum, overtook Crimea he acted precisely as my friends had suggested, something that they were of course quick to point out. Yet, like always when it comes to history, we must also consider what would have been possible had we pursued more idealistic policies in the past. Instead, the cynics and the military realists had their way and now we (not to mention the people of eastern Ukraine) are paying the price for our complacency and short-sightedness.

Yet, just like in the past, the appropriate solution is not sanctions or isolation which would only feed into Russia’s sense of eternal victimhood. Instead, it is more important than ever to show the Russian people that we in Europe can look beyond their autocratic leaders. A simple and highly symbolic way of doing this would be to unilaterally end the Schengen visa requirement for Russian citizens.


Monday, July 28, 2014

More on scalability, anti-modernism and the future

In one reading, the ontology of green political thinking is distinctively global. After all, it is concern with planetary-scale processes, in particular the global carbon cycle but also issues such as biodiversity loss, habitat destruction and ocean acidification, that motivates much green scholarship and serves as evidence for the unsustainability of modern industrial civilization. At the same time, few green authors have shown much interest in the actual people populating an increasingly global world or how their dreams and aspirations may constrain the scope for environmental politics. Instead, the lack of democratic support for radical environmentalism is often seen as a reflection of a false consciousness manufactured by malign elites or a passing historical anomaly which will disappear once the global environmental crisis worsens sufficiently.

Rejecting both these interpretations, it is my belief that any realistic vision of sustainability must take as a starting point the fact that we are now seven billion people on this planet wanting to live modern lives with access to energy, freedom of global mobility and the possibility of remunerative employment. Unfortunately, green political thinking has, by and large, proven unwilling to engage with the kind of solutions that could adequately scale to such a world of universal affluence. Shunning their responsibility to think creatively about global social theory, green authors have preferred to retreat into identity politics, moralistic absolutism or utopian localism. This would of course be of little concern for society if these authors were simply the “dissident voices” on the margin that they often think of themselves as. However, in a time when many people rightfully feel remorse at the loss of the natural world and experience deep ambiguities with regard to the future, the anti-modernist narrative of environmentalism has been surprisingly successful in undermining public support for everything from advanced nuclear technologies to genetic engineering. In its place, there has been a strong tendency to avoid the really difficult questions, to tout the need to “lead by example” even as that example may be impossible for others to replicate and to seek pragmatic, piecemeal changes that “feel good” even as they do not take the world as a whole any closer to long-term sustainability. It is in this context that we must consider wind power (which as an intermittent and diffuse energy source can never power a country such as China), organic small-scale agriculture (which can never feed the world) or energy forestry (which would be outright catastrophic to biodiversity if scaled to a global level). It is not that any of these things are wrong in their own right yet, by the paradoxical virtue of their relative local success, they end up obscuring the need for the kind of breakthrough innovation that seems called for in order to achieve long-term global sustainability in a world as populous as ours.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sunday afternoon

Still a lot to unpack but instead I open the windows to ventilate the lingering afternoon heat. For another week, we do not have a DSL connection at home so I cannot check if this or that expression actually works in English. It is never easy to be an architect of silences in a foreign language, maybe not in one’s own either. This week I have been driving more than 1100 km on my own, back and forth along the High Coast listening to public radio or different music channels. As a parent that is something I rarely have the time to do otherwise. One host played a couple of songs by Frida Hyvönen, talked about rooftops in New York and wild silences in ways that immediately took me back to 2008 when I was living in Jersey.

Last summer at the Monocle Café in London I actually asked if they had some ironic distance to it all. The guy at the bar said he himself preferred to think of it with an ironic twist but he was not sure if that was true for everyone else working there. But is it really possible to not see irony? What if someone like Karen Blixen would have lived today? Thinking more about it, is that maybe why some people prefer to stay away from Facebook, Instagram or Twitter? Because social media would force them to commodify their own aesthetic? It could well be.

Maybe I think too much about the wrong things. Some days ago, 298 people were shot down by mistake. Children are dying in the hospitals of Gaza and I worry about sparkling moments and self-irony on distant shores. Yet, life is not reducible to survival alone. It is also about what one does with one’s life and, with or without God, we are left with these questions of authenticity and being. While neither ethics nor aesthetics will ultimately matter much, we still have to make that decision if we should go running ten kilometres or eat another brownie (I prefer to do both). While some may be satisfied by prudential reasons (it is “healthy to exercise” or what not), there is definitely more to it, it is about overcoming, it is about trying to make it right, to acknowledge mortality and finitude without running away.

Later that same year I went to Melbourne and I remember writing a poem called “Gay trams” (I guess I was trying to make my own version of Ekelöf’s “Strountes”). It is not particularly good and I never posted it anywhere but here it is:

An empty gay bar
twice as safe that way
Like that Latvian tram
heading for Zolitude
I search the night
for a familiar inward track

The memory is incomplete
maybe because it never happened
Her ethereal way of
extending the smallest of things
to push while being receptive

Stealing from a song: 
rollercoaster slow
Maybe trams can do that too?

An occasional flirt with the
bar man
Of all things I am not afraid
but boldness will only take
that far

In this regard
three zero day was a revelation
that the tracks are being laid out
until they all run out

Friday, July 18, 2014

The road to home

Even if our IKEA order was cancelled by some IT system glitch and we had to stay a couple of extra nights at Scandic Plaza, we eventually did move in last night! It is an almost surreal feeling to have a big green lawn, a real kitchen and, the ultimate middle-class marker, a trampoline in the garden (which Eddie immediately fell in love with). Our new address is Hemvägen 8 in the Haga area of Umeå, please come and visit!

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The political Right and economic growth

The other day, I read one of the best columns in a long time. It was written by Nick Hanauer and published by Politico Magazine. The column made, what should be a fairly obvious argument, that the super-rich have the most to lose from growing inequality and political polarization. In line with simple welfare capitalist logic, the costs of inequality are two-fold, first the direct costs of having to fight crime and pay for benefits but, more importantly, the indirect costs of poor people not being able to fully develop their potential and productivity. Naturally, over time, these secondary costs dominate as they put the whole economy on a lower growth trajectory than it would otherwise be on, something that due to the effect of compounded interest, leads to substantial long-term losses in overall welfare that are significant also for those at the top.

I have written about all this before here on Rawls & Me so I should not tire my readers by repeating myself. As welcome as Hanuaer’s intervention may be, I am afraid that his views are still those of a dwindling minority. In retrospect, what has held society together for the last century or so has been a broad political coalition advocating economic growth and development. That coalition however is slowly beginning to crack, at least in some of the most advanced industrial economies. The perhaps most well-known assault on growth has come from Greens and people on the political Left who have failed to recognize how crucial economic growth is to lessen distributional conflicts, pay for retirement schemes and, most of all, to finance the kind of public research needed to meet the ecological challenges of our time. What is less discussed is an emerging anti-growth ideology on behalf of the political Right. First visible in the works of people like Tyler Cowen who talks about the “great stagnation” and how all the “low-hanging fruit” of economic development has already been picked in the United States.

If we go back to the Enlightenment, conservatives were of course against economic growth and everything associated with it such as urbanization, social mobility and meritocracy but, for the last century, they have for the most part traded their resistance for all the visible material benefits brought about by modernization. This might however by changing as the very brightest are beginning to realize that the debt-driven consumer economy (and reliance on consumers in other countries that have pursued welfare capitalist policies) is about to come to an end and that a return to high growth rates in the mature economies (such as Sweden) would require radical social investments of precisely the sort that they have always been vehemently opposed to. So, instead of abandoning for instance the voucher system for schools and ensuring that everyone gets access to quality education, people on the Right might prefer to simply abandon economic growth and rather shift resources to repression (a task which paradoxically has been made considerable easier thanks to general civilizing processes as discussed by for instance Steven Pinker). While the Right of course always in some ways has preferred repression to social investments, there has still been a silent acceptance of much of the welfare state machinery. It is that acceptance that might now be vanishing.

Friday, July 04, 2014

401.88 ppm

Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are now firmly above 400 ppm as measured by the Hawaii-based Mauna Loa Observatory. Earlier this morning, I finished proofreading my first student thesis on geoengineering. Working with my student in Korea has renewed my deep concerns for the future, in particular how feel-good environmentalists will fail to avert a climate catastrophe by insisting on the deployment of non-scalable sources of renewable energy (such as energy forestry or wind power) until a point when geoengineering will become inevitable. Similarly, while improved energy efficiency may be a great idea in affluent countries where demand is already saturated, similar measures are probably counterproductive in developing countries due to so called rebound effects as these countries have a huge unmet demand for energy and large reserves of unextracted fossil fuels.

Yet beyond scalability concerns and the risk of rebound, the main issue is one of energy access. In almost all climate models the poor essentially stay poor throughout the 21st century, otherwise there is absolutely no chance that renewable energy technologies will be capable of stabilizing the global climate. From an ethical point of view, such a future of chronic poverty is of course entirely unacceptable. It is not about giving the poor a wind turbine here or a 20W solar panel there, it is about building a world of universal affluence in which people everywhere have access to modern medicine, global mobility and freedom from want. Keeping that focus in mind, the key responsibility for the rich countries is to develop clean energy technologies that work with – rather than against – the market and which people everywhere will quickly adopt, not out of altruism or coercion, but out of simple economic self-interest. Everything else is a dangerous distraction.

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