The world is running wild

- It is all accelerating too violently and too fast and we are lacking restricting mechanisms that would slow us down, says Thomas Hylland Eriksen in an interview with Politiken.

The article was originally published in the Danish newspaper Politiken.

Authors: Tarek Omar, Poul Aarøe Pedersen.

The ideology of growth of the last 25 years is fundamentally destructive. Ordinary people experience less and less influence over their own lives. Climate changes are ripping away the foundations of human existence. And while politicians are saluting each other everything is getting worse.

“We all know the feeling of rubbing our hands together in the cold to get warm. If we could rub extremely fast our hands would get overheated and in the end burn up. It is this kind of overheating that is taking place in our culture and economy today. We keep rubbing our hands together – without a thermostat to make us stop.”

Photo: Francesco Saggio/UiO

The world is overheating

It is all accelerating too violently and too fast and we are lacking restricting mechanisms that would slow us down, says the Norwegian professor in anthropology, Thomas Hylland Eriksen.

He has recently published the book “Overheating”, based on a global research program, where he and a group of scientists have examined the consequences of globalism in three areas: 1. Culture and identity, 2. Economy and 3. Climate and environment.

“What do the epidemic spreading of Pokémon Go, the escalating destruction of Great Barrier Reef, the fateful Brexit-result and the fivefold growth in tourism since 1980 have in common? The short answer is, that they are all results of an accelerating global process of change that has gone out of control and is therefore threatening our society today”, he says.

“We have politicians all over the world that are speaking with two voices: They say they are ready to regulate, but at the end of the day, they choose not to. They say that they want both development and regulation, but they always choose growth and development. At the same time, an increasing number are experiencing a democratic deficit, because the decisions that have large impact on the lives of ordinary humans are moving further and further away.”

Why is regulation not working?

“Because the decisions are made at one level while the people affected by the decision are at a completely different level. The EU has a principle of proximity that implies that decisions should be made at the most local level possible. In the real world this principle is not respected. This is a serious democratic problem, which exists all over the world. As was said in the Australian part of our research project: “What is good for Australia is not necessarily good for Queensland. What is good for Queensland is not necessarily good for Central Queensland. What is good for Central Queensland is not necessarily good for us.” People feel powerless because they do not know whom to address when decisions that are made so far away have crucial impacts on their local area and their lives.”

There is no magic button

To Hylland Eriksen, “overheating” is a metaphor.

It will probably make many think of the climate, and although the destruction of the climate is an essential part of the story, overheating is more precisely a metaphor for acceleration:

“Modern society has always been associated with acceleration, but it has now shifted into a higher gear and has especially increased speed during the last 25 years.”

What triggered it?

“There are several factors. 1991 was the year when globalization took over, when the cold war ended, global capitalism celebrated its victory and the ideology of free trade became dominant. Information technology began to emerge and the cell phone was introduced. Large economies, like the Indian, were deregulated etc., hence it is a convergence of many factors.”

We have politicians all over the world that are speaking with two voices: They say they are ready to regulate, but at the end of the day, they choose not to. They say that they want both development and regulation, but they always choose growth and development.

But is it all about less and less regulation?

“Yes, we deregulated the global economy and made trade explode, but it affected the environment and people all over the world. In our time everything has been globalized, except democracy. There is no higher entity that one can appeal to in order to “cool down” the development. “

But we do have supranational agreements and institutions such as the EU and UN, which function exactly as the regulating thermostat that you are looking for?

“That is just not happening. Concerning climate, we do have supranational agreements since the introduction of the Kyoto protocol (from 1997, ed.), but be aware that since Kyoto the development has gone in the wrong direction. While we have seen promising technological inventions such as solar and wind energy, the global export of coal has nonetheless more than doubled between 2003 and 2013. This is a dramatic development. So yes, we do have supranational agreements, but they are not very effective.”

You do not believe in the effect of supranational agreements?

“I believe that we have to focus on both bottom up and top down. But there is no magic button that we can press that fixes all the problems. It does not help to exclusively eat less beef, move into eco villages or liquidate global trade. It does help to press many different buttons and of course we have to use the tools that we have, both the EU and UN, but local institutions and initiatives may prove to be just as important. “

The climate agreement from Paris does set some quite clear goals for green development?

“Yes, it was agreed to keep the temperature rise below two degrees, but there was no agreement on how to reach this goal. And we have to be realistic. Look at my own country, Norway, where we externally are dedicated to the green agenda, but in reality we are pumping up gas and oil in the North Sea – and living on it.”

The fossil industry that was our blessing for 200 years – and that created growth, technological development, improved health, and provided better education and better opportunities for human development – is now becoming our curse.

“We should not be naïve: When Jens Stoltenberg lost the election in 2013, he became UN special envoy of climate change and spoke with great concern about the climate. But that was after eight years leading a government working hard for precisely the opposite. We were many that asked why Stoltenberg never said this as prime minister – but he didn’t and he couldn’t, because economic interests were at stake. Not even top politicians make independent decisions - they are dependent on economic interests. “

Follow the money

Thomas Hylland Eriksen describes himself as an “optimist by nature”, but when global development in 2016 worries him, it is because it is a process gone wild.

Politicians and other optimistic spectators keep claiming that we can create a world where growth and sustainability go hand in hand.

But we can’t do that:

“We can strive for it, but I will allow myself to be skeptical, as we have so far not seen that it can be done. Theoretically, we can easily imagine growth without fossil fuel, but the ideology of growth that dominates the world today, will necessarily be destructive. The fossil industry that was our blessing for 200 years – and that created growth, technological development, improved health, and provided better education and better opportunities for human development – is now becoming our curse.”

So what shall we do instead?

“I believe that we have to think about economy in a whole new way. Instead of seeing economy as something that creates a profit, economy should be an agent that can benefit human needs.”

What are the human needs in this context?

“It is about seeing your life as meaningful: that you work, that there is a sense of justice, and that there is a production system that is not – as the fossil based growth – undermining people’s life conditions. Here it is crucial that people feel that their choices, priorities and wishes are considered and that they can affect development. If not, people will feel that there are “global forces” flooding in – and that we can’t do anything about it.”

I believe that we have to think about economy in a whole new way. Instead of seeing economy as something that creates a profit, economy should be an agent that can benefit human needs.

Are you not ignoring that technological development also has created democratic opportunities? Anyone can write on Facebook or participate in the debate and make their opinion known. Isn’t that contributing to strengthening democratic rights?

“The question is whether this has any real effect, or whether it only gives everyone the opportunity to air their dissatisfaction. We are definitely closer to the ideal of everyone being able to participate in a global conversation, but we shouldn’t be blinded by the communicative aspect. We should rather look at where the power really is and where the decisions are made. Here we have the same basic rule, everywhere in the world, if you want to find out where the power is. That rule is “follow the money”. We can write and discuss on the internet – but the major decisions are being made on a totally different basis.”

The article was originally published in the Danish newspaper Politiken.

It has been translated by Gro Strømsheim.

 

By Tarek Omar, Poul Aarøe Pedersen, Politiken
Published Feb. 16, 2017 10:00 AM - Last modified Nov. 2, 2017 11:41 AM