Sunday, July 31, 2016

St Ibbs

I am not much for traditions or for returning over again to the familiar. But growing up, I sort of had one tradition, namely to celebrate my birthday on the tiny island of Ven, located in the middle of the Øresund strait between Sweden and Denmark. For the last day of July every year, I travelled back to its completely flat agricultural plateau to go biking with my family. Even when living in Korea I made it back one year, right after Eddie’s first birthday. A few years earlier I had been in Oslo for a summer school. After being completely soaked by the rain the night before, I took a SAS flight down to Copenhagen so I could celebrate my birthday on a yellow rental bike.

“how intense the hawthorn thickets smelled on Ven yesterday, and how blindingly white St Ibbs was standing against the blue sky”

On the southern coastline, steep cliffs rise up, more yellow than white but still reminding me of Rügen or parts of the Norfolk coast. On the top of those cliffs, a medieval church called St Ibbs offers spectacular views of the sea below. It is a simple white church, far from the grandeur of European cathedrals. Being there, summers past all feel as one. The loss, the hope, and then, more recently, Eddie’s overwhelming happiness of learning to walk on its green lawn.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mimer

I am turning 38 tomorrow but celebrated a couple of days early with a new tie and a Napa Smith IPA at Restaurang Mimer which just opened here in Umeå. Taylor & Francis was also kind enough to send me the long-awaited proofs for my article “The Environmental Risks of Incomplete Globalization”.


Thursday, July 28, 2016

Andante

Last year in Helsinki, I heeded the advice of my German friend Carsten and followed Fredrikinkatu down to a small café which seemed taken right out of Seoul or Tokyo. Located next to a florist with no dividing wall, the café smelled of fresh flowers and different coffee beans being grinded. The café called Andante was a true escapist dream space, yet sufficiently unpolished to avoid being listed in the next issue of Monocle.

Today, as I try to escape from writing a somewhat tricky journal review for Ecological Economics, I pick up the latest issue of The Escapist and an old favourite from my backpack. Being trapped in an Umeå mall, it feels a bit like those people who spend thousands of euros on a new kitchen and Italian regional cookbooks only to end up eating prefab lasagne.

In this issue, post-oil boom St John’s meets surfers in Lima. However, for some reason, my next real world destination of Chernobyl is not mentioned. In any case, it looks now as if Jon and I will be joined by members of the secret German pro-nuclear resistance movement in our effort to experience first-hand what it means to normalize nuclear risk.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Macau

The rain had been falling through the evening as the front moved in from the South China Sea. It was still not summer but the air was not cold. Walking up the hill, I got this strange mix of déjà vu and premonition, like I could imagine myself decades hence stranded in a decrepit apartment in one of the houses, sipping small-batch bourbon whiskey and trying to finish a novel that no one will read on one of the typewriters of my childhood. The romantic excuses of professional failure, to make a fetish out of what every academic fears the most, to be lost in words.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Nuclear democracy

Decentralized small-scale renewable energy is sometimes justified on the basis that it would be intrinsically more “democratic” than nuclear or other large-scale forms of electricity generation. A new book called “Energy Democracy: Germany's Energiewende to Renewables” makes this exact case as it suggests that moving ownership of energy production to the community level will not only lead to lower greenhouse emissions but also strengthen democracy. In terms of emissions, it is becoming increasingly clear that renewables have not been able to displace fossil fuels to any larger degree (in fact, German emissions have been going up, as recognized in a recent article in the New York Times and elsewhere). However, the second claim about democracy is definitely worth scrutinizing as well.

In his book “The Quality of Government: Corruption, Social Trust, and Inequality in International Perspective”, Bo Rothstein argues that the Nordic democracies in particular are characterized by a high level of “generalized social trust” thanks to universal welfare arrangements and an impartial state founded on the rule of law. Modern societies depend on such trust in abstract systems. This is true for everything from commercial aviation to advanced medicine or, for that part, nuclear energy.

Thanks to the permanence of large-scale social institutions, individuals can enjoy the freedom and security necessary to shape their lives according to their own dreams and ambitions. Reliable electricity, safe drinking water and efficient public transport are all examples of the material basis necessary for a modern life. Understood in this way, decentralized energy is essentially a retreat from the kind of universal welfare state of the 20th century as it replaces trust in our society-wide ability to respond to future contingencies with a “prepper”-mentality preoccupied with local resilience.

Nuclear power, especially its future which is highly dependent on both the continuing operation of existing reactors and vast public investments in new technologies, is extremely symbolic for how we understand the future of modernity and democracy more generally. As I write in my recent article in Globalizations:

“For some time it has become obvious that the welfare state stands at a disruptive juncture. Either it can try to protect itself from the world by imposing an international apartheid system as it falters under growing migratory pressure, rising costs for retirement, and a self-inflicted energy crisis or it can confront those fears with a politics of radical engagement and accelerate the transition to a world of universal affluence with an abundance of clean energy and open borders”

Nuclear energy is our best hope for making possible a world in which 7-10 billion people can live modern lives while at the same time reversing the effects of global climate change. To believe in nuclear energy is to believe in the potential of our democratic institutions and in our collective ability to build a better future.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Soul of Man under Socialism

As popularized by Slavoj Žižek in the RSA animation clip “First as tragedy, then as farce”, Oscar Wilde begins his essay The Soul of Man under Socialism by arguing that while charity “degrades and demoralizes”, the proper aim should be to “try to reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible”.

This summer at the Breakthrough Dialogue, I was reminded of this quote. In the same way as charity is an insufficient response to poverty, contemporary lifestyle environmentalism with all its carbon calculators and guilt projection is obviously unhelpful with regards to actually solving the global environmental crisis. Instead of criticizing individual consumer choices or, worse, suggesting that poor people need to somehow be spared from the “ills of modernity”, the proper aim of ecomodernism should be to reorganize the basic global metabolism of society in a way that makes ecological harm impossible. Thought through, this is of course a very ambitious political vision and clearly one that the capitalist market economy alone will not be capable of bringing about. Yet, over the coming centuries, it appears as if our hopes of securing both human and natural flourishing increasingly depend on that we isolate the economy and the ecology of this planet from each other.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Ripasso

This morning William was back to his 04.00 a.m. routine. The only possible upside to this is that it tends to give me a moment of peace in the evenings, like right now when I am indulging myself with a good book, some ripasso and the chance to compose my 500th (!) blog post on the backside porch.

The book by Alina Bronsky is not as random as it may seem because, in exactly three months today, I am off to the Ukraine and Chernobyl together with my co-author Jon. For my return, I am still pondering different options, including a possible overland trip into Russia, a country which I, despite all my years of criss-crossing Central and Eastern Europe, have yet to visit. Unfortunately, I need to be back in Umeå soon after to meet a new batch of social work students so any grander travel adventures will not be possible.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Sleep-in

One knows that things have been pretty extreme when it feels like sleeping in when you are woken up first at 05.30 a.m. Yet for the last days, William has been unusually merciful and the kids have even been taking overlapping midday naps, leaving me with a bit of time to catch up on things, including some summer reads as well as the eager anticipation of my new article “The Environmental Risks of Incomplete Globalization” appearing in print with Globalizations. Not the least in the wake of Brexit, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Left lacks a comprehensive response to the globalization of the world and that the few attempts that are indeed articulated still fail to see the possibilities of new global forms of welfare capitalism. Similarly, there is much talk about that economic growth is somehow “over”, be it for demographic or other reasons. This appears to be just as a “wildly mistaken interpretation of what is happening to us” as it was to Keynes in 1930. That is not to say that a reconfiguration from debt-driven economics to a new paradigm based on wage-driven growth and broad social investments will be an easy political task. Nor, as both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders vividly illustrate, is the spectre of protectionism truly dead. Mercantilist thinking still holds a profound influence over folk economics everywhere. Likewise, social democrats still have to recognize the economic possibilities (to say nothing of the moral necessity) of a world with open borders.

Meanwhile in Germany, even the proponents of Energiewende are now admitting that the climate goals were always secondary to their religious abhorrence of nuclear energy, regardless of any immediate health impacts (see the new WWF report “Europe’s dark cloud” on coal-burning) or the crucial role of nuclear innovation in reducing the problem of long-term radioactive waste disposal.