Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Vegetarian

Though Korea may not be the Hermit Kingdom it once was (even our local ICA store has kimchi these days), I was still happy to discover a Korean bestseller in translation, especially one on topics that troubled me a lot when living there. Just reading through the first pages threw me back to a world of estranged marriages, unbendable gender roles and communal meals. Somehow, there is an unmistakable shadow of Kierkegaard between the lines. What it does to our souls when we objectify others. Like in most novels, there is a corresponding deep lack of communication; “if only the characters would talk to each other”. Yet, unlike my younger self, I am less certain about what words can actually say these days. Boundaries wearing thin.

In four days, we will fly to Billund and Legoland where we will celebrate Eddie’s fifth birthday. Afterwards, we plan to take the ferry back to Sweden and Gothenburg where I will turn 39 and hopefully get to sleep in a bit behind the red velvet curtains of Hotel Post.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The climate mitigation gap: Malthusian researchers miss the most effective individual actions

The last days have made it very difficult to stay away from the Internet. First, there was David Wallace-Wells’ “The Uninhabitable Earth”. And then today, Environmental Research Letters published an article on individual actions to fight climate change. In both cases, we are clearly talking about people who only see one side of these issues.

At the most fundamental level it is about whether we view other humans as a liability or part of the solution. However, once you venture sufficiently deep into the Malthusian mist, it is doubtful if debate is even meaningful. But to make some very obvious points I should say that the single most effective individual action one can do to fight climate change is to contribute, be it politically or scientifically, towards solutions that can actually stop it. Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen have calculated that global nuclear power has historically prevented 60+ gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions and close to two million air pollution-related deaths. These gains are now in jeopardy everywhere from Korea to France. Thus, to stop spreading anti-nuclear propaganda on the Internet may quickly dwarf all other possible individual actions with regards to climate mitigation.

Similarly, to make a more positive argument, accelerating the rate of technological innovation, either directly through research or by promoting broad social investments so that the long-term growth rate of the economy will go up, seems like the most important thing one can do if one is really concerned about climate change. For a technologically mature human civilization, solving climate change may be surprisingly simple. Yet, in a divided world dominated by anti-technological thinking, resource conflicts and “localism”, it may be impossible to weather the storms that are already brewing thanks to historic cumulative emissions. It is for instance worth remembering that, even if all emissions were stop today, significant sea level rise will happen, especially after 2100.

The only thing that will ultimately protect humanity, and the planet, is if we accelerate the transition to a world in which everyone can live a prosperous life with equal opportunities. As I argued in the journal Globalizations last year, keeping the poor in poverty is not a solution.

And then, we have the tactics. How often have I not read this?

The problem with this view, even it happens to make sense among some super-privileged academics, is that it is a political nonstarter, especially at a time when large cohorts are retiring in the OECD countries. Sustained growth is crucial not only to meet the expectations in retirement income that these people have but also to enable the kind of risk-taking necessary to finance public innovation into breakthrough technologies (moreover, economic growth is deeply entrenched at the micro-level, as Branko Milanovic points out in this excellent post). Failure to deliver on growth, be it due to rising inequality or deliberate “degrowth”, would lead to political strife of a magnitude that will make Donald Trump or Le Pen seem highly moderate. Okay, rant over, time to take care of the kids!

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Twitter tirades

Barely three days into the summer “vacation” and I am already beyond exhausted. It did not help that I spent a bit of the kids’ nap time with one of those pointless Twitter tirades, trying to argue things that no one wants to hear.

Just as ecomodernists do not like to hear that their belief in future technological progress is at least partially a way of ducking responsibility for their present-day consumption choices (be it to fly business class or drive convertibles), traditional environmentalists are not particularly keen on hearing that they are in fact on the top of the postindustrial knowledge hierarchy, and that by “preaching antimodernity while living as moderns” as Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus once put it, they merely seek to affirm their higher social status. Pushed hard against the wall, I still have to meet a proponent of degrowth or off-grid living who would actually refrain from advanced medicine or even retirement income.

Yet, consumption is difficult for all of us. And cultural capitalism is getting deep under our skin, be it Scotch & Soda stripes, Mikkeller IPAs or Kuturbageriet’s cinnamon buns. No matter how refined, our tastes are still highly manufactured.

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Friday, July 07, 2017

Den allvarsamma leken

One thing I appreciate with long haul flights is that they give me a chance to catch up, with thinking, writing and that thing known as “popular culture”. For instance, returning from South-East Asia the other year, I could finally make good on my promise to watch Interstellar. This time around, as I was flying back from Hong Kong, I got a chance to watch Pernilla August's adaptation of "Den allvarsamma leken". Set in early 20th century Stockholm, it is a story of winter encounters at the Royal Opera, betrayal and life choices that never really appear to be choices. Outside, one can hear the Dreyfus affair passing by. For me, Stockholm is always so familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

Today was the last day of preschool before the summer holidays. Now five long weeks of vacation await. To get in shape for what is to come, I started the morning with a quick run around the lake. Afterwards, I felt very good about the fact that I am finally back at 5 minutes and 40 seconds per kilometre.

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Thursday, July 06, 2017

L'arche de Barbapapa

Over the last days, I have been thinking about why we take the positions we do. Internet debate, and I am afraid that neither this blog nor my Twitter feed is an exception in this regard, tends to be highly polarizing and tribal. As such, it is most encouraging when there is suddenly room for understanding and reflection. After my last post, I have exchanged a few e-mails with Sverker Sörlin and it made me regret my somewhat harsh and unforgiving tone.

Sometimes, it helps to just think of one’s own intellectual journey, of how much I have changed my own views over the years, and how grateful I am for all the people who have explained things for me so I could see them in a different light. While I have learned a lot also from people who have taken hard stances on issues, I think it is safe to say that we would all do well with a little more humility. After all, many of the issues that I tend to debate are quintessentially “wicked” in ways that make it extremely difficult to distinguish facts from values.

Convinced as I may seem about the merits of ecomodernism, I would probably be far more critical of its tenets if I were living in a world dominated by one-eyed techno-optimists. Yet, as enthusiasm over modernity has waned in the affluent world and been replaced by a hypocritical hedonism which takes one’s own privileges for granted yet proclaim that it would spell ecological doom if these privileges were universalized, I cannot retreat into the ivory tower and simply be “critical” about progress. Not only do we need to recognize that qualitative progress has been historically possible, we must also, more than ever perhaps, defend its legacy against the rising reactionary tide.

As such, I thought it would be prudent to revisit Barbapapa. As a child, I remember reading “L'arche de Barbapapa” from 1974 in which humanity pushes the biosphere to near extinction by pollution, hunting and overall toxification. In response, Barbapapa builds a space ark to rescue the remaining animals and repopulate them on another planet. It is only once they left that the humans understand what they have done and embark on what, in lieu of a better word, I would call “ecomodernism” :-)

Reading the same story for Eddie the other day, I was struck by the many similarities, how practically all the themes of the Manifesto are readily visible, as in the intensification of production (in underground factories even!), the rewilding of the planet and an biophilic ethic that makes people cherish what they have lost. In fact, this is very much how I see our present situation; that it has to get a lot worse until we wake up and fully realize our macropolitical choices with regard to nature.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Code words

It is too late for games. It is beyond frustrating when, despite the seriousness of the environmental crisis, we still do not even try to understand why we disagree. I started reading Sverker Sörlin’s book Antropocen with an open mind. Although I knew that my ideological outlook was quite different from his, I still had only the highest respect for him as a scholar. But a few dozen pages in, I begin to sense a disturbing sloppiness. First seemingly innocent misinterpretations of the kind that you can find in any book, like when Sörlin (on page 55) makes a strawman of Fukuyama so that he can quickly contend “he was wrong, of course” without even engaging with the breath of Fukuyama’s thinking. Then, as Sörlin trains his guns on the Breakthrough Institute, I really started losing my patience. The usage of small code words like “market liberals” (if anything, Breakthrough is essentially social democratic with their strong emphasis on publicly funded innovation) quickly grows into wholesale dismal of the work that Michael Shellenberger has been doing to save nuclear in the US. Through a game with words, Sörlin projects an image of Michael as an evangelically motivated zealot who “mixes science, religion and ideology”.

Why?

I guess the answer is the same as always. Nuclear really does bring out the worst in people. Even climate scientists who should at least pretend to be judging all of this impartially.

Sometimes, I really get why conservatives in the US think that climate change is just “too good a problem”…

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Sunday, July 02, 2017

Coast Kitchen

As for something much lighter (at least figuratively speaking), I could not help but to revisit a roadside memory from coastal California: a garden vegetable frittata with asparagus, peppers and goats’ cheese served with some oven-roasted potatoes, rocket, sour cream and avocado. At some point of course, it begs the question, is this still “breakfast”?

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Everyday Malthusianism

About a year ago, I discovered SvD Junior which is an ad-free weekly newspaper for kids. It was an instant love for Eddie and every Tuesday we have eagerly been waiting for the next issue. Our reading often becomes the starting point of long discussions, as with Titanic and the 105-years-old blogger Dagny.

In the latest issue, Nora, who is 10 years old, asks what can be done to stop climate change. The answer given by newspaper gave me a stark reminder of why I do what I do. While I definitely agree with all the things that the newspaper suggests Nora should do, like bike more, eat less meat, buy less “stuff” etc., nowhere is there any suggestion that what young people really should do is to educate themselves and innovate the kind of technologies that can ultimately stop and reverse climate change. Instead of a forward-looking vision of a world in which people everywhere can live modern lives without destabilizing the climate, the reader is left with a long laundry list of Malthusians don’ts.

One may think that this does not matter, that this is just an article for kids in some newspaper. But as I have argued in my research time and again, I think this goes much deeper and reflects how insular and limited our social imagination really has become.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, Korea’s new president Moon Jae-in has decided to put a halt to the country’s ambitious nuclear programme. It is not impossible that the consequences of this decision may ultimately do more harm to global mitigation efforts than Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Korea was a leader, perhaps not so much in developing the future of advanced nuclear technologies, as in proving that existing nuclear reactor designs could be built on time without cost escalations (as shown most recently in the UAE). Backtracking on this legacy will not only lead to higher emissions domestically but send a very problematic message to the world at large. Instead of remaining on a pathway towards deep decarbonization, Korea is already eagerly shopping for fossil gas, all at a time when atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide has reached a record of 409 ppm...

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Bucatini con gamberetti e rucola

Back home I make my new favourite dish with sun-dried tomato pesto, lots of lemon and a "splash of white wine" to speak with Jamie Oliver. Later, I let myself drift back those nine hours across the ocean to a world of LSD-induced lyrics, winding coastal roads and excruciating sunlight.

Otherwise, I have been barely conscious for the last three days, working on a grant application to Formas as well as preparing my teaching portfolio for an upcoming external review. In both cases it is the kind of self-glorifying texts that I really dislike writing so, in a way, the jetlag has been strangely soothing. Next week, which also will be my last week at the department before the summer holidays, I look forward to more exciting tasks, including writing a review of Sverker Sörlin’s new book “Antropocen”.

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Monday, June 26, 2017

Nautical twilight

The Breakthrough Dialogue came and went. With 6 + 9 hours of time changes in my body, I was always the first to have breakfast in Surfbird. One morning, as I waited in bed for the day to break, I read up on the different types of twilight (such as “astronomical”, “nautical” and “civil”) before heading out in the thick Pacific mist with my running shoes on. My thighs still remind me that running up the Marin Headlands is something very different from running around Nydalasjön in Umeå.

And, as always, the road was there. The space in between. Any minute, my SAS flight to Umeå will start boarding, wrapping up what has been a 23 574 miles’ journey around the world. Now, fortunately, many weeks on the ground in North Sweden await.

“We lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies” – Jack Kerouac

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