Friday, August 26, 2016

Seveneves

Working, as I do, on climate mitigation policy it does not hurt to get a bit of perspective sometimes. The other day, I picked up Neal Stephenson’s latest book "Seveneves" which Obama listed as one of his favourite summer reads. I must admit that it has not been easy to put it away.

In the book, the Moon suddenly breaks into seven pieces, leading to a chain reaction which in two years’ time will make the planet's surface uninhabitable for millennia. Quickly, a doomsday evacuation into orbit is initiated.

Without giving away too much of the plot, it is good to be reminded of what we humans can do if we work together towards a common goal. In comparison, fixing anthropogenic climate change seems like a rather simple task if we were to actually commit ourselves. For instance, the threat of rising sea levels can, at least to some degree, be solved by putting a number of nuclear reactors on Antarctica and then pumping seawater into the interior of the continent where it will freeze. Ocean acidification may be a bit more difficult but sprinkling olivine into the sea could go a long way in opposing surface ocean acidification. Similarly, and unlike evacuating Earth, displacing fossil fuels in the energy sector is hardly rocket science but rather something that we have already successfully done in the past using nuclear energy in Sweden and a number of other countries. Thus, if the shit really hits the fan, as there is every indication that it will do in a couple of decades, I am fairly confident that disaster can be avoided, if not by these precise means so then by others. However, in retrospect, people will probably ask why we were so slow in realizing the danger and acting on it and why the solutions first proposed (such a small-scale renewable energy) were even seriously considered in a world of seven billion people.

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Monday, August 22, 2016

Coffee apocalypse

As far as first-world problems go, this morning should definitely count for something...

Still a bit drowsy at 5 am, I loaded the Bialetti coffee maker and put it on the induction stove, completely forgetting that I had removed the gasket when cleaning it the night before.

Everything seemed normal as I moved around the kitchen, preparing the rest of the breakfast until suddenly, kaboom! In less than a second, all of the kitchen was filled with finely grained coffee beans and steamed water. Luckily, I was facing away from the stove at the time of the explosion so I only got my neck showered which was traumatic enough. All in all, it took 1.5 hours to clean the kitchen and somehow recover from the shock.

In retrospect, one good thing came out of this beyond that the kitchen really got cleaned, namely that I now have a secret MacGyveresque escape trick if I am ever taken hostage by gangsters in Calabria who appreciate great coffee. Just offer to make them an espresso, remove the gasket and wait for the explosion…

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Space exploration

As Eddie and I continue our very own space exploration programme, I felt that yesterday's blog post came across as perhaps a bit too harsh. In part, I think my strong emotional reaction has to with a basic commitment to equality of opportunity. It is simply unjust that I should be able to live like this while others are left to suffer from chronic fungal infections and condemned to toil away in the unbearable heat of rice paddies. Beyond that however, I think my reaction has to with how we see the future more generally. I imagine a future in which humanity has achieved technological maturity, one in which an abundance of clean energy makes possible absolute decoupling from nature and global scale rewilding.

It is important to remember that this is not about pragmatism or merely choosing the “lesser evil” in a time of ecological trauma. It is about making good on our highest aspirations as a species, to once again become “wanderers” as Erik Wernquist puts it in his wonderful short movie. It is about making peace with nature through advanced bioremediation technologies and de-extinction.

None of this of course means rejecting the beauty of hikes or small-scale farming. It is rather to make the future aesthetic appreciation of nature possible that we need to effectively disentangle economy from ecology.

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Chanterelle risotto

Today, I decided to make some chanterelle risotto with white truffle oil for dinner. While toasting the carnaroli rice I received an update from a former student from Seoul who is now in Cambodia installing off-grid solar panels in rural communities. Despite all my academic work on energy access and mitigation policy, I somehow intuitively felt that she was doing a great thing when I saw her pictures of those photovoltaic panels coming up. But there was something with the setting that made me feel deeply uneasy. Here we have a student from South Korea, which probably more than any other country should remind us of the value of grid electricity and comprehensive modernization, travelling with jet plane to Cambodia to facilitate the spread of off-grid electricity and, then, transmitting images of the ongoing installation to me, standing in a kitchen in North Sweden, making some exquisite Italian dish.

Thanks to the solar electricity, Internet connectivity is likely to improve, meaning that those suffering from agrarian poverty in rural Cambodia could soon, hypothetically, begin reading this very weblog (yes, Google Translate does Khmer these days). And somewhere there, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that what we are doing is not even necessarily making agrarian poverty any more bearable, maybe in fact the very opposite. Not the least through the Internet, the experience of global inequality is made acute. While I am of course not suggesting that ignorance is any better, I am more and more inclined to see the mitigation work undertaken by “green climate funds” as nothing but carbon colonialism. No affluent society would accept off-grid intermittent electricity and neither should Cambodia. As a friend at Breakthrough put it: "asking poor people to stay poor to solve a problem they didn’t create in the first place would be a supreme act of injustice and misanthropy”.

So, what is the solution? To be honest, I can only see one, the same kind of great transformation away from agrarian poverty that Sweden and all other industrialized countries have already gone through, powered by centralized and reliable electricity. 

Paris-Méditerranée

Through the light drizzle of stratus clouds, I push the stroller in front of me along the lake. With a new round of thesis seminars coming up on Wednesday I have a lot to read but instead I let my concentration slip and turn on some Édith Piaf in my earphones. A song about a night train journey from the cold and dying evening light in Paris to the sunlit Mediterranean coast. Two strangers meeting of whom one may well be a murderer.

At last, William falls asleep. I quickly look through old pictures on the computer and find this one from Malmö.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Prioritaire

Today, I had a brief Danish moment as I decided to not only add some mint jelly to the dinner but also pick up an old book by Iselin C Hermann while waiting for the potatoes to boil. Unfortunately, Iselin's more recent book "Dampe" has still not been translated into English or, for that part, Swedish.

Somewhat uncertain about the future of epistolary novels in these WhatsApp times. In any case, I am doubtful if more words are really what the world needs at this point in time. Nevertheless, I struggle on with the book manuscript in the futile hope that it may convince someone, somewhere or at least, ever so slightly, open their minds to new possibilities. A kind answer earlier today from a professor and arch-Malthusian in Oregon gave me some hope that people can still be their better selves and that all has not yet been reduced to spiteful Trumpesque tweets.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Det osagda binder

In the past I used to read poetry a lot. Like music, it has largely faded these days. However, a new bluetooth speaker later, it is again, at least theoretically, possible to turn on some music. Now I just need to find time to finish reading the last words of that poem.

Så döljer sig ord bakom ord
och handling i likgiltig handling
som månen i moln. Så mjuksvart
är sensommarnatten.

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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Neural entrainment

Temporally displaced in a sad roadside motel outside Sacramento, Jon suggested that rather than fighting the jetlag monster head on, I should give in to twenty minutes of power napping while listening to a recording of sounds supposed to induce "neural entrainment" by adjusting the frequency of the neural oscillations so that it would match the rhythm of the auditory stimuli.

Naturally wary of everything even vaguely esoteric, I kindly rejected the offer. However, a few more pods of black coffee later, I was as tired as ever and decided that I might as well give it a try. Plugging in the earphones and closing my eyes, I heard rain falling. I could see a white cathedral in the rain surrounded by tropical green vegetation under an overcast sky. I thought I was in the Philippines on Luzon.

Later the rain was mixed with images of crisp mornings on the Atlantic Seaboard in the US, how I am about to go running along the river, of afternoons flooded by that special North-American light that one can never really capture.

I did however not fall asleep, maybe it was all the coffee but the twenty minutes came to an end with me still wide awake. Outside it was more than 30 degrees so I decided to take the elevator down to the tiny hotel pool.

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.

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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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Monday, August 08, 2016

Regret

At the very end of Quantum of Solace as the snow falls over Kazan in Russia, M asks Bond if he has any regrets.

Bond: I don't. What about you?
M: Of course not. It would be unprofessional.

For all the episodes of Alias I watched a decade ago, I do not know much about life as an agent. However, for a university professor, admitting mistakes and learning from them is nothing short of imperative. Few things are as dangerous as to think that you have somehow “mastered the profession” and all that you have to do is to keep repeating your own “truths”. Both as a teacher and a researcher, one has to constantly be open for the possibility that one’s own views are in fact wrong or that one simply does not know. After all, on a more fundamental level, as Yuval Noah Harari so astutely reminds us in Sapiens, it was this “discovery of ignorance”, and the willingness to admit ignorance, that made the modern world of science possible in the first place.

Yet, at a personal level, regret is more difficult. As much as we may wish, we cannot go back in time and undo the past. Leaving quantum physics aside, there is a fundamental epistemological paradox in judging your younger self on the basis of what you know now. Even if you could, there is no guarantee that the added layers of reflexivity and better judgment would not kill the very spontaneity that made things worthwhile in the first place. Self-evident as all this may seem, it may be easier to forgive others than to forgive oneself. Innocent, understandable or even charming as the aesthetic or ethical shortcomings of others may seem in retrospect, it is much harder to make peace with one’s own failings.