Friday, August 12, 2016

To build a world unafraid of itself

We currently live in a world of international apartheid in which life opportunities remain overwhelmingly determined, not by individual ambition or character, but by the random luck of being born on the territory of a particular country. More and more people are realizing that this artificial segregation of other human beings based on mere geographical fiat is ethically and politically unsustainable. Moving forward, it seems absurd to imagine a future in which we keep locking people into arbitrary boxes and restrict their freedom of movement.

Yet, a world of free personal movement for everyone is not possible unless economic opportunity is also, at least to a large extent, equalized at the global level. While Malthusians may take this to mean the shared misery of environmental sacrifice, the ecomodern vision of the future is one of universal prosperity as technology is consciously used to overcome environmental and geographical determinism.

If nothing else, recognizing the legitimate aspirations to a modern life among the global poor should underscore the futility of trying to resolve the sustainability equation from the demand side. Nevertheless, just this Monday, it was time again for "Earth Overshoot Day" and another barrage of Malthusian tweets. For people subscribing to such views, chronic global poverty may even be welcomed as it takes away some of the urgency of climate mitigation, not to mention saving the poor from the existential horrors of "mass consumption".

Last autumn, I started working on a paper which would directly address such ideas. Since then, I have become increasingly convinced that, when faced with political resistance at home, sustained poverty abroad may have become the de facto preferred mitigation strategy of rich countries. While off-grid renewable energy may keep the lights on or allow the poor to read whatever Vandana Shiva or Naomi Klein may write on their laptops while flying around the world, it will forever be insufficient to drive the kind of great transformations that made broadly shared prosperity possible in the rich world. By refusing to finance basically all other forms of energy infrastructure (including large-scale hydro), both individual donor countries and multilateral institutions are effectively delaying the rise of the poor at a time when economic growth is needed more than ever, not the least to meet historically unprecedented expectations of retirement income in the rich world.

To my surprise, the journal Globalizations was true to its aim of “opening the widest possible space for discussion of alternatives to narrow understandings of global processes and conditions” and sent out my paper for peer review. Thanks to some very helpful comments from the reviewers, I was able to submit the final version in May this year and, late yesterday, the paper appeared online. At a moment in time when the divide between those who want to pull up the drawbridge and those who want to lower it is as stark as ever, it feels particular important to not only, once again, spell out the moral case for open borders but also contest the commonly held view that delayed or incomplete globalization somehow helps in the fight against climate change. To the contrary, I argue that the current state of incomplete globalization leads to the lock-in of non-scalable technologies and the continuation of the same demand-side thinking that has proven so polarizing in climate debates over the last decades. Instead, I conclude in the paper, accelerating the transition to a fully integrated high-energy planet would open new pathways to long-term sustainability and political compromise that do not exist today.


As always, if you lack institutional access but still want to read the paper, just drop me an e-mail. I have also posted a pre-copyedited version of the paper on Academia



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