Thursday, August 31, 2017

Expanding opportunity in the Anthropocene

The journal Ethics, Policy & Environment has a somewhat innovative format by which they publish a number of peer commentaries in response to a specific “target” article. In the next issue (20:3), the target article is based on a book by Randall Curran and Ellen Metzger called “Living well now and in the future: Why sustainability matters”. Reading the book, I could not resist the temptation to write such a 1,500 words commentary to point out that one can think very differently about the future and our obligations to posterity.

As often, my writing was interrupted, or perhaps I should rather say inspired, by some Lego space adventures. It is striking that one can write a whole book about the future and so completely ignore what may really be at stake in these debates. At least, it is my hope that the title “Expanding opportunity in the Anthropocene” will spark some interest in hearing the other side of the story.

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Poached eggs

Thanks to the kids, we have very long mornings before the teaching marathon resumes. This leaves me with a bit of time for experimentation in the kitchen. Today, I made poached eggs with salsa verde, as a taste of what is to come when I head down to Barcelona in two weeks' time. Before that however, it is back to Plato and the history of philosophy.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Uncertain connections

Racing back across the North Sea, it is still uncertain if I will make my connection up to Umeå tonight. At Heathrow, there were problems starting one of the engines of our A320. In the end, with a bit of help from an airport mechanic, we were able to spin up the engines and join the taxi queue for runway 09R/27L.

In a widely cited YouGov/Economist poll from November 2016, less than half of Americans, Britons and French said that globalization is a “force for good”. There is clearly no shortage of pundits trying to explain this discontent, most of them focused around widening inequalities. While economic factors may be paramount, I have long argued that part of this phenomenon can also be explained by an inability to offer a comprehensive political vision of a globalized future or even simple assurance that, in the end, “all will be cool”. The lack of such visions and assurances of course has to do with how quickly globalization has unfolded and how immature we still are as a species. Still, many people, even among the global elite, cling to a romanticized past or remain hesitant to draw the full implications of moral universalism.

Reading Peter Frase’s book again reminded how important it is to offer a progressive vision of the future in which all people in this world are needed and valued. However, such a vision can never be about charity or the creation of an indolent “consumtariat” living off some kind of universal basic income. Instead, it must be based on the scientific and economic contribution that each person can make. Rather than locking the poor into low-paying service jobs that not only supress aggregate demand but also deprive people of their sense of self-value, a social democratic future would seek to lift people everywhere to ensure that they have the capacity to create something of true global value to others. This is in fact my greatest reason for long-term optimism about the many challenges that humanity is currently facing, climate change in particular. If we can imagine a world in which 10 billion people have access to higher education, it would not be unreasonable to also imagine a hundred million of these people working on solving such grand challenges. When envisioning such a future, the futility of trying to run away from modernity or putting up walls to protect us from each other should be clear for anyone to see.

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The Thames

Early enough to beat the crowds, I went for the first of the Vagabond city runs this morning. As expected, it was not possible to follow the Thames all the time but it was still a perfect start. Next up, Barcelona in three weeks and then Berlin a month later!

Friday, August 25, 2017

Four futures

When I saw a review of Peter Frase’s “Four Futures – Life after capitalism”, I was immediately reminded of my own undergraduate thesis that I defended fifteen years ago. Reading the actual book, I would say that Frase makes a fairly reasonable argument about where certain trends (automation, ecological destruction, capital accumulation etcetera) could be heading. Also in terms of methodology, Frase makes a good point:

“Science fiction is to futurism what social theory is to conspiracy theory: an altogether richer, more honest, and more humble enterprise. Or to put it another way, it is always more interesting to read an account that derives the general from the particular (social theory) or the particular from the general (science fiction), rather than going from the general to the general (futurism) or the particular to the particular (conspiracism)”

In terms of ideology however, I think Frase misunderstands not only what social democracy historically was about but also its future potential. In theory, it should be such an easy sell, to explain to the economic elites of this world that their own future wealth depends on investing in other people. Yet in practice, thanks to globalization, it has become possible for these elites to instead benefit from the productive ingenuity as well as consumer demand of people in other countries, and thus failing to recognize the need for long-term social investments at home. Similarly, with regards to technology, I think Frase’s work would be more convincing if he made clear that the possibility of cheap and abundant energy is not some great cosmic unknown variable but rather an ideological choice, as most vividly illustrated by debates over nuclear energy. These shortcomings aside, I think the book is a great read and I especially appreciate that it engages, at least in part, with the question all too rarely asked: what to do on the day after the Revolution?

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Monday, August 21, 2017

Carter

Oftentimes, I have found myself defending what seems to have become somewhat of an extreme minorty position, namely the belief that, ultimately, humanity can transcend its national divisions and that people everywhere should be able to enjoy the same fundamental democratic and social rights. As such, it was particularly heartwarming when my Australian co-author made me aware of the letter that Jimmy Carter wrote for the Voyager 1 space probe in 1977. While my views on Carter may otherwise not be the most favourable given his role in blocking advanced nuclear technologies that could have been crucial in the fight against climate change, the letter is worth quoting in full:

“This Voyager spacecraft was constructed by the United States of America. We are a community of 240 million human beings among the more than 4 billion who inhabit the planet Earth. We human beings are still divided into nation states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization.

We cast this message into the cosmos. It is likely to survive a billion years into our future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed. Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some – perhaps many – may have inhabited planets and spacefaring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message:

This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Latte art

Inspired by Lucky's recent visit to Emirates Headquarters in Dubai, I decided to try the same trick but with some sweet potato soup and coconut milk. The result shows that I still have room for improvement. The soup however was most yummy thanks to a bit of Thai red chili paste and some pan roasted corn mixed with fresh cilantro on the side.

On Friday morning, I will head over to the UK again. In preparation for the first of the Vagabond city runs, I went running around the lake with Eddie on his little bike next to me. It was the first time he was able to cycle all eight kilometres and I must say I am quite impressed!

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

10k

Maybe not as fast as when I used to do two 5k tracks around Skrylle a decade ago, but this morning I was at least able to add a couple of kilometres to my normal workout. Otherwise, my days are getting increasingly busy with the extra thesis seminar that we are organizing before the new semester starts.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Ivan Aguéli

Ivan Aguéli (1869-1917) was a Swedish painter and orientalist. Through a stray quote I discovered that none other than Gunnar Ekelöf had written an illustrated biography which I, after a dramatic treasure hunt with the boys in the basement of the public library, was able to get hold of. Now, a grand potato salad with lots of lime and garlic later, I am struck by how gruesome yet spiritual Aguéli’s paintings were, or as Ekelöf puts it, “a dark diplomacy with light as its aim”.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Ceylon Sliders

Though far from complete, I count 54 issues of Monocle in my bookshelf. Maybe, in some post-apocalyptic future, these will become like charred Roman scrolls, unintelligible, not so much in linguistic terms as political ones. For a Medieval Europe ravaged by war, it was hard to imagine that such a stable social order as the Roman Empire had even existed. Perhaps, our interest in Sri Lankan surf and yoga retreats, Japanese manicured gardens and Swiss onboard cuisine will one day seem just as remote as Roman deities.

Or, most likely, it will not. But with Trump and the nuclear codes, to say nothing of the prolonged climate deadlock, we are definitely pushing our luck. In retrospect, our generation will be unique in that it experienced both the nuclear psychosis of the Cold War and the populist-nationalist madness of the late 2010s.

Almost a decade ago I travelled through the Caucasus by train. In Yerevan, I took the picture above that somehow perfectly captured the post-communist experience of gross inequalities, rubbish and ironic distance to it all. Maybe that is what I had in mind when counting my Monocle collection.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Memorabilia

On a lonely track at the railway museum I found a WL5 sleeping car which used to travel every night between Malmö and Berlin, now restored in its original brown and red colours. Unfortunately, it was not possible to take any pictures inside but at least I was able to secure a classic poster in the museum shop.

Today, my kale cooking spree continued with Bianchi di Spagna, lemon zest and pine nuts. I even got some new napkins with white dots on blue. Picture perfect.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Ata Rangi

Back from two days at the railway museum in Gävle, the early autumn arrived with chanterelles, kale and some local Västerbotten cheese, served with a wine for true escapists, Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot Noir from the Northern Island of New Zealand. Tomorrow, a full day with the police officer training programme awaits.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Train 571

Shortly after 7 a.m. we took the high-speed train south. Five hours that could well have been fifty with uncountable books, stickers and pancakes.

Yesterday, the Breakthrough Institute published a great essay by Emma Marris, making the case for what she calls “intervowen decoupling”. In the essay, Marris addresses a staple criticism against ecomodernism, namely that humans will stop caring about nature if they no longer depend on it for their sustenance. These are debates that I have struggled a lot with myself, most recently when revising my co-authored article on ecomodern citizenship in the spring.

Personally, I have come to think that while ecomodernism points to the only realistic way that long-term sustainability can be achieve, there is a vast chasm of uncertainty separating our existing technologies from the technologies needed to make such a future attainable. It is thus not surprising that many people have come dismiss the idea of “technofix” as being unrealistic. Yet, what such a dismissal fails to recognize is that any “sociofix” may be even less realistic. To be clear, I would totally support the idea of “degrowth” if a ten, twenty or even thirty per cent reduction of current consumption rates would lead to long-term sustainability. If our current overshoot was so limited, then taking one instead of two flights per year would undoubtedly be an acceptable price for maintaining a stable climate. Yet, any quick look at the numbers reveals that, even if all emissions of greenhouse gasses would cease today, we would still be facing significant warming and sea level rise, especially beyond the year 2100.

What proponents of degrowth rarely admit is that nothing short of a complete deindustrialization of the planet as a whole, combined with rapid global depopulation, is the only way that the kind of low-density small-scale economy that they envision could be made “sustainable” and, even then, there would be massive displacement and suffering due to rising seas and extreme weather events. In my moral and political universe, such a cure is clearly worse than the disease. Even in the short run, basic air conditioning has proven to be crucial during heat waves (as witnessed right now with Lucifer in Southern Europe). In the long run, advanced nuclear technologies combined with technological breakthroughs in molecular engineering offer a path to both climate stability and a long-term sustainable socio-ecological regime.

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Friday, August 04, 2017

Gemelli alla Norma

After my virtual flight in The Residence, I still had some ricotta stored in the fridge. Since Sicily is an island to which I have done a lot of virtual travel to in the past but never actually been to, I decided to go for some Gemelli alla Norma from Catania. With fresh basil on top, it made me forget how close the autumn felt as I went for my morning run through the mist.

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Thursday, August 03, 2017

The noise of time

Sudden flashbacks to airport terminals, time and coffee passing. Yesterday, I found some dark chocolate from the banks of the Mekong River, not far from Vũng Tàu. I flew down there as the tsunami hit Japan in 2011 and, already then, I was thinking that the oil rigs at the horizon would probably come to define the post-Fukushima world. Going swimming at the beach, I remember getting black thick oil between my toes.

Next up, four zero. I found an old blog entry from when I was turning 29 down at the Côte d'Azur. Shifting timelines and continuities. At least it helps a bit to keep writing Rawls & Me, especially since I am already now frightened by the amount of work that awaits me in the autumn with hundreds of new students and four courses to teach. Hopefully, I will find a minute or two to keep you updated. Right now however, I will disappear into the 2017 edition of The Escapist that just made it across the North Sea.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The Residence

One of the first things I did as a 39 year old was to deactivate my Twitter account. In the end, I just could not take more moral absolutism and populist hysteria. In order to make my break even more permanent, I decided to follow up on a crazy idea I have had for some time, namely to throw together one of the lunch options served in Etihad’s “The Residence”.  Since I have a policy of only blogging vegetarian food, I went for the ricotta tortellini with asparagus, truffle and rock chives, served with Lucky’s wine of choice, a Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc from the northern tip of New Zealand's South Island. As for the result, the only word I can think of is “divine”. Safe travels to all of you out there!

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