Overheating: The TEDx version

In October, 2017, I spoke about Overheating at the annual TEDx event in Trondheim, central Norway. The TED format is ideally short, pithy, eye-catching and jaw-dropping. In other words everything that your average academic is not. The text below is not identical to the performance, which was without a manuscript, but it forms the basis. When the video of the talk has been posted online, I will insert a link here.

OK, here goes:


Cooling down in an overheated world

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Good afternoon. I’m going to give you my take on globalisation and the challenges facing humanity. Our planet is an overheated place, and it is not just about climate change, and we need to find ways of cooling it down.

The world we currently share is … too full? Too intense? Too fast? Too hot? Too polluted? Too unequal? Too neoliberal? Too strongly dominated by humans?

All of the above, and more. Never before has humanity been so visible everywhere on the planet in ways even remotely comparable to the situation today. You and I live in the Anthropocene, the first era when humanity has placed its stamp on the planet in such a way that it can be felt everywhere. True, the world has changed fast since the onset of the industrial revolution in Europe a couple of hundred years ago. But today, things are changing faster and faster. With no direction, it may seem. It is as if the contemporary world has shifted to a higher gear and is now driving on a highway with no speed limit and, mind you, no roadworks.

Let me quickly run through some examples.

We have long been used to watching the steep curves depicting world population growth, but the fastest growth does not take place in the realm of population. It goes without saying that the number of people with access to the Internet has grown at lightning speed since 1990, since hardly anyone was online at that time. But the growth in Internet use continues to accelerate. As late as 2006, it was estimated that less than two per cent had access to the Internet in Subsaharan Africa (bar South Africa, which has a different history). By 2017, the percentage is estimated to be between 25 and 30 per cent, owing to affordable smartphones. Or we could look at migration. Around 1990, there were about 200,000 immigrants (including first-generation descendants) in my native Norway. By 2017, the figure is somewhere above 800,000. Or we could look at urban growth in the Global South. A city like Nouakchott in Mauretania has grown, since the early 1980s, from a couple of hundred thousand to a couple of million. The growth has been a thousand per cent in one generation. And people do not move into the city for the fun of it, but because they are driven off their land, or it has become too crowded to feed the people living there. Ninety per cent of the population growth in Kenya now takes place in the slums of Nairobi and Mombasa.

Or we could look at tourism. As early as the 1970s, there were those North Europeans who spoke condescendingly of some parts of the Spanish coast which they deemed to have been ‘spoiled’ by mass tourism. In 1979, Spain received about 15 million tourists a year. In 2015, the number was about 60 million. We aretalking about a fourfold growth in less than forty years.

The growth in international trade has also been immense. The container ship with its cranes, railways, standardised metal containers and rebuilt ports, perhaps the symbol par excellence of an integrated, standardised, connected world, has slowly but surely gained importance from its invention in the 1950s until it had become the industry standard a few decades later. The ports of Shanghai and Singapore more than doubled their turnover only between 2003 and 2014. While world GDP is estimated to have grown by 250 per cent since 1980, world trade grew with 600 per cent in the same period, a development made possible through the reduced transport costs enabled by the shipping container.

Websites, international organisations, conferences and workshops, mobile phones and TV sets, private cars and text messages, air traffic and container ships: The growth curves point steeply upwards in all these – and many other – areas. In 2005, Facebook did not yet exist; a decade later, the platform had more than a billion users.

Even more mindboggling, perhaps, is the growth in the number of photos taken in the world. In a recent past, cameras were heavy, film was expensive, and getting photos developed and onto photo paper was cumbersome and slow. Although each exposure was carefully prepared and planned, many of the photos turned out useless. Today, the situation is completely different; photos are free, instantly viewable and can be disposed of as you go along. As a matter of fact, only in five years’ time, from 2010 to 2015, the number trebled, from 0.35 trillion to a trillion photos. The explanation is simple; 80% of all photos are now taken with mobile phones – but we still haven’t properly understood what this development does to our perception of images, when they are free, everywhere and ephemeral.

And slowly but surely, the forces of progress have turned out to be a double-edged sword. What seemed to have been the salvation of humanity for two hundred years, cheap energy based on fossil fuels, is now about to become our damnation through environmental destruction and climate change. This is the kind of change that I speak of as overheating. In physics, speed and heat are two sides of the same coin. As a metaphor, overheating thus refers to the kind of speed that will eventually lead a car engine to grind to a halt, spewing out black smoke in copious quantities, unless the style of driving changes, or you get the cooling mechanisms to kick in at the right time.

Overheating can also be illustrated in a different way. I mean, what do you typically do when you’re standing outside in the winter months in Norway and have left your gloves inside? You almost instinctively start rubbing your hands together like this,. Your hands warm up. Now, if you could rub your hands together really, really fast, they would eventually burn up. But you can’t do that. We have an inbuilt thermostat which tells us when to stop. The problem with overheating is that there is no thermostat. There is nobody who has the authority to say that enough is enough and let’s slow down a bit now.

Perhaps humanity has simply been too successful for its own good? On 28 November 2008, the famous French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss celebrated his hundredth birthday. He had been one of the most important anthropological theorists of the twentieth century, and although he had stopped publishing years before, his mind was still clear. But his time was nearly over, and he knew it. His perhaps most important book had been published almost sixty years earlier.

On his birthday, Lévi-Strauss received a visit from President Nicolas Sarkozy, since France is a country where it still makes sense for politicians to socialise with intellectuals. During the brief visit by the president, the ageing anthropologist remarked that he scarcely considered himself among the living any more. By saying so, he did not merely refer to his advanced age and weakened capacities, but also to the fact that the world to which he had devoted his life’s work was by now all but gone. The small, stateless peoples he had studied all his life had now become drawn into the frantic world of wage work, the state and global communication. They had become part of the modern world..

Lévi-Strauss also remarked that the world was too full: Le monde est trop plein. By this, he clearly referred to the fact that the world was filled by people, their projects and the material products of their activities. The world was overheated, as I would put it, with growth and change out of control and too many things happening at the same time. There were by then seven billion of us, compared to two billion at the time of the French anthropologist’s birth, and quite a few of them seemed to be busy shopping, posting updates on Facebook, migrating, working in mines and factories, learning the ropes of political organising or the basics of English , or all of this at the same time.

So overheating is about the kind of runaway globalisation that we have witnessed since the early 1990s. Change, growth, development have been with us since the 19th century, as positive ideals and as projects of progress. But there is something new and sinister about the contemporary speed, scope and scale of change today. The change is out of control, and the long-term consequences can be devastating.

There are more and less important kinds of change. The most important ones are population growth and the growth in energy use.

The human population of seven billion and a half travels, produces, consumes, innovates, communicates, fights and reproduces in a multitude of ways, and we are increasingly aware of each other as we do so. The steady acceleration of communication and transportation of the last two centuries has facilitated contact and made isolation difficult, and is weaving the growing global population ever closer together, influencing but not erasing cultural differences, local identities and power disparities. Since we are now seven times as many as we were about two hundred years ago, when Napoleon was finally sent off to the remote South Atlantic island St Helena, it should come as no surprise that we use more energy today; but the fact is that energy use in the world has grown much faster than the world population. In 1820, each human used on an average 20 Gigajoules a year. Two centuries later, we have reached 80, thanks to the technology of large-scale use of fossil fuels.

The quadrupling in energy use is in reality a growth by a factor of 30, since there are more than seven times as many of us today as in 1814. The side-effects are well known. The most visible ones are pollution and environmental degradation. Those effects which are more difficult to observe but no less important, are the long-term climate changes and the depletion of (nonrenewable) resources.

We now live in a world where modernity has shifted to a higher gear, where it is full speed ahead in most areas. It has produced growth and prosperity, but it is also an ultimately self-destructive situation. Eternal growth is impossible. At the same time, people living in communities around the world feel overrun by the large-scale changes, and have a strong feeling of not being heard and not being taken seriously.

The question is, what could be an alternative in a world society which seems to have locked itself to a path which is bound to end with collapse? How can we cool down? There is no simple answer to this, the most important question of our time. Healthy doses of imagination will be necessary to move ahead, and one size does not fit all. Solutions have to be local; there is no reason to assume that what works in Costa Rica will work in Nepal. Each place is interwoven with every other place, but they also remain distinctive and unique.

Everything seems to be out of control now, from climate change to corporate greed, and widespread responses among people who feel excluded are various forms of withdrawal into ethnic nationalism, right-wing populism and religious fanaticism. In fact, it often feels as if the political competition is between neoliberalism with no heart and identity politics with no brain, be it religious or nationalist. Interestingly, the senior resident of the White House represents both. Neither brain nor heart. Neither of the two does anything to address the pressing issues if survival and sustainability. When we start to look for solutions, we first have to realise that the loss of control is a result of overheating; ungoverned, accelerated, large-scale change. In the search for alternatives, the first priority is to look for ways to slow down and cool down. A cooler world, both in a literal and a metaphorical sense, would by default be slower, less materially affluent and less prolific than the one we currently inhabit. But it would also be more decentralised and diverse than the consumerist world we live in today. This would require scaling down in a number of areas, to help regain local control and autonomy; happiness over consumption, responsibility over wanton destruction – but we need to be realistic. Small may be beautiful, but in an interconnected world of more than seven billion humans it is not always possible. Yet, as a rule of thumb, I would say: In political decision-making and the economy, cool down, scale down and slow down whenever you can, but without losing one of our greatest collective achievements, namely an inclusive humanism where all lives matter. That would be one way of cooling down the overheated world without withdrawing into nationalism and ideologies building on suspicion and contempt. So we must scale down, slow down, cool down, but at the same time, we must keep the global conversation going in a spirit of cosmopolitan humanism. In this way, we can do something about both climate change and popular resentment against the elites. We can regain some control of our own lives and help improve the health of the planet. So: cool down, slow down, scale down, but look up, for we are seven and a half billion who share the planet, and we all deserve a chance.


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