Boomtown

Here’s a short extract from my new book Boomtown: Runaway Globalisation on the Queensland Coast, which is now available from Pluto Press and your favourite bookshop. Very proud to have written it, excited and slightly nervy about its reception, as always.

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Prologue: The High Point of Extractive Industrialism

In Gladstone, even the sunset is sponsored by the fossil fuel industry. To watch the sun setting in the west, you must also simultaneously stare at the three tall, symmetrical columns of Gladstone Power Station. The largest in Queensland, the power station feeds on black coal from the interior of the state and, doubtless by coincidence, it was placed in the exact spot where the sun sets.

Gladstone is the undisputed industrial hub of Central Queensland, but it began to develop as an industrial town only in the 1960s, leading its population to mushroom from about 5000 in 1950 to 12,000 in 1971 and 33,000 in 2014 (70,000 if the greater council area is included). In 2013, the statisticians of the Queensland government anticipated a doubling of the population by 2036. Until the 1960s, the city was, by and large, perceived by residents and outsiders alike as a stagnant backwater or billabong. Just a couple of decades later, the city found itself at the epicentre of contemporary industrialism, with its large-scale electricity production, alumina refineries, aluminium smelter, cement factory and expanding coal port.

The expansion continued until the end of my fieldwork in March 2014, when boom turned into bust. This is a book about the boomtown Gladstone, however, and the subsequent slump will be dealt with only briefly in the main text, and slightly less briefly in the Epilogue.

From 2010, massive construction again took place in Gladstone, bringing money, infrastructural changes, environmental protests and temporary workers into the city yet again. On Curtis Island, across a narrow channel from Gladstone CBD (central business district), three large liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals were constructed by the American engineering firm Bechtel. The gas plants themselves are owned by three different conglomerates. Approved plans to build a fourth LNG terminal were eventually cancelled, or perhaps just postponed, in early 2014, owing to market uncertainties. In addition to the LNG terminals themselves (which are located on an island that, strictly speaking, forms part of the Great Barrier Reef region), thick pipelines connect the terminals with the gas reservoirs in the coal seams in the Queensland outback, 500 km away. Simultaneously, in a bid to increase coal exports, a third coal terminal has been built at Wiggins Island, a few kilometres north of the city, as the international coal markets have been booming, especially in East Asia. Although coal prices declined sharply in 2014, the logic of expansion and economies of scale continues to apply. The reasoning is that if the mining companies and Queensland government are to make comparable profits in the future, with anticipated unstable coal prices, it will be necessary to continue increasing production capacity and expand the ports.

Gladstone is a bustling, hectic, noisy place epitomising the immense power and sheer energy of industrialism – but it is also deeply marked by ambivalence. City councillors, industry leaders, members of the ‘fluoro brigade’ working on Curtis Island across the Narrows, motel hosts and housewives express optimism, but also ambivalence, uncertainty, a muffled anxiety which sometimes turns loud and explicit.

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Approaching Gladstone airport in a smallish propeller plane from Brisbane, you cannot fail to notice the contrast between the serene greenery of the remaining forest cover and the raw brutality of the small open-pit mines and construction areas breaking up the lush landscape; the clash between the blue Pacific ocean and the crimson pools of bauxite refuse from the alumina refinery; green pastures next to barren fields of red wasteland reminiscent of Martian landscapes; beaches and suburbs rubbing shoulders with smokestacks and warehouses. Before landing, you catch a glimpse of the industrial port facilities defining the boundary between city and sea, the hundreds of empty coal wagons on railway side-tracks, the chimneys of the power station and, perhaps, the distant metal structures of the LNG terminals on Curtis Island, the cranes at the wharf and the foreign cargo ships lined up off Facing Island on the Pacific perimeter, waiting to load.

A first whiff of ambivalence came my way during the taxi ride into town from the airport in November 2013. It took a short eternity for the taxi to arrive – this was later explained as a function of the high cost of living in Gladstone, making it hard for a taxi owner to break even – and when it was finally my turn, I offered to share my taxi with the couple next in line. They were middle-aged and looked as if they might be on holiday. The lady happily got into the front of the car, while her husband entered the back seat next to me with some more effort, since I had already filled up the trunk of the sedan with my suitcase, which meant that he had to place his only slightly smaller suitcase on his lap, which he did without complaining.

Off we went, and it soon transpired that the gentleman next to me, who introduced himself as Mike, was employed on Curtis Island, where no less than three LNG plants were currently being built, to the exasper- ation of many locals, as well as environmental organisations in remote places such as Brisbane and Sydney. ‘So,’ I said, ‘good job you’ve got over there?’ ‘Well, yes,’ he replied, ‘it’s four weeks on and one week off. A few days off in-between as well. But,’ he added without any prodding on my part, ‘we don’t really know what we’re doing to nature. You know, the gas was there for a purpose. And we use explosives and chemicals to get it out. Who knows how the land is going to respond?’

Mike refers to coal seam gas, teased out of the crust of the Earth in the interior of Queensland, either by pumping water out of the coal seam in order to release the gas or, if the gas is trapped in rock, through fracking, by creating tiny earthquakes underground (see de Rijke 2013). In the latter case, the process can be compared to shaking a soda bottle, then removing the top and sucking in the CO² which bubbles up. In a word, the earth has to be shaken a bit for the gas to emerge.

The taxi driver, a white Australian, joined the conversation. ‘Well, actually I don’t have much time for them greenies,’ he said; ‘I’m in favour of jobs and a sound economy.’ The conversation drifted in a different direction, but the construction worker’s perspective stuck. He had a good job with excellent pay but he felt uneasy about what he was doing. Right now, he and his wife were on their way to Yeppoon, further north, for a few days of vacation before spending some time with friends in the Gladstone area.

This unease is just as integral to the air of Gladstone as the faint smell of sulphur and the fine coal dust that settles everywhere when the wind comes from a particular direction. Gladstone has been an industrial town since the mid-1960s, but since around 2010 it was as if change had moved up a gear – acceleration accelerated – with very noticeable effects. This acceleration of acceleration, characteristic of twenty-first-century global capitalism, is what I refer to as overheating (Eriksen 2016a). My fieldwork took place when construction activity was at its height, a possible downturn being anticipated by a handful of pessimists in late 2014, when several large projects were expected to be finalised. As a woman in her thirties, a hard-working professional and a mother of two, said to me we didn’t use to have traffic here, and all of a sudden, there are traffic jams on the Dawson highway during rush hour. Or if you have a boat and go out crabbing or fishing on the weekends, you’ll notice the increase in large vessels. So, you know, we are aware that we are an industrial city, but in the last few years, there has been a lot of change.

At first, there was one, then there were two; by now, the industries dominating the cityscape are many. It sometimes almost appears as if the government of Queensland had decided, presumably with the complicity of Gladstone Regional Council (GRC), its Engineering Alliance and its Chamber of Commerce, to place as much as possible of the dirty, noisy and profitable resource-based industry of Queensland around Gladstone. Its industrial adventure began in 1967 with the opening of the then largest alumina refinery in the world. The power station came in 1982, followed by the aluminium smelter on Boyne Island nearby. Those were the integrated cornerstone industries of the town at the time, and the giant mining corporation Rio Tinto Alcan was instrumental in making this happen, as owner of the alumina refinery, the power station, the bauxite mine in Weipa, north Queensland and the coal mine at Callide which provided the energy. The port was expanded in the same period, and new railway lines transported coal from mines in the west as well as produce from other parts of the state. In the space of a few years, Gladstone became a major coal and multi-commodity port as well as the site of a huge alumina refinery. From the late 1970s, several new industries established themselves – a cement factory, chemical plants, another alumina refinery – and the coal terminal was eventually supple- mented with another coal terminal … and yet another.

Since 2010, the expansion of the port has continued, and Gladstone harbour has been dredged to make room for larger ships, making the water muddy and, according to the critics, with adverse effects not only for fishing, but also for the Great Barrier Reef (see chapter 6). In addition, the southern part of the nearby Curtis Island, a place of great recre- ational value to Gladstonites and others, has been transformed. From 2011 to 2015, up to 10,000 workers were shuttled across the harbour to the island on a regular basis. They were engaged in building three large LNG refineries. If you go for a drive into the country north of Gladstone, you’ll notice the railway tracks and a scattering of industrial plants as you go, but you will also see the gas pipelines, meandering their way, wormlike, through the hilly scrubland, across the dry gumtree forest and towards the mudflats leading to Fisherman’s Landing, offering the shortest crossing to Curtis Island. Machines capable of dwarfing almost everything in their surroundings clear the land to make space for the pipelines like thick, shiny snakes carrying gas soon to be used as fuel to electrify homes, factories and sweatshops in China and India.

Throughout most of Australia’s settler history, mining has put food on the table for sweaty, hard-working men and their families and money into the coffers of the lease owners; it has attracted migrants from Europe and Asia, provided energy to the industries and households of the country, spurts of growth and prosperity to sleepy towns, glamour to financial districts, busy days to port cities and royalties to state and federal governments. It is also integral to the pioneering spirit of the new country. In the decades after Australia had ceased to be a penal colony, rumours of mineral wealth lured willing English migrants to the remote continent, some of whom did in fact become rich as a result. The Mount Morgan mine, an hour’s drive north of Gladstone, was for decades one of the most productive goldmines in the world, creating wealth still visible in the mansions lining the Fitzroy River in Rockhampton. The hard-working, dusty, resilient, lone miner of the past is an iconic figure in the Australian self-understanding, the current mining boom a recipe for economic stability in a sea of crises. Who could be against mining in a country such as this?

Mining has been crucial to the Australian economy, demography and identity since the mid-1850s (see chapter 2 for a cultural perspective). Yet the current mining boom is unprecedented in its scope, scale and economic significance. In 1961, mining represented about 8 per cent of Australia’s exports. By the early 1980s, its contribution had more than doubled, representing 20 per cent. By 2010, mining ‘contribute[d] almost 60 per cent of export receipts’ (Cleary 2011: 5). While virtually any known, and valued, mineral in the world can be found in Australia, the economically most important exports are coal and iron ore, although LNG is predicted to have a bright future, in spite of the sharp drop in global gas prices in 2013–14. The mining companies are all privately owned, and major development projects tend to be financed by transnational conglomerates.

The mining boom is not without its numerous and vocal detractors. Many of them are connected to the strong and diverse Australian environmental movement (Hutton and Connors 1999; Burgmann and Baer 2012; Flannery 2015; see Munro 2012 for a non-academic perspective). Their arguments are multiscalar, ranging from assessments of psy- chological stress and reduced quality of life in mining areas (Albrecht et al. 2007; see also Connor 2016) to local environmental destruction and global climate change. From a social and economic perspective, the journalist Paul Cleary (2011, 2012) has shown how the unprecedented resource boom has resulted in increased inequality, partly owing to a lack of political governance. Cleary also shows that the increased public wealth is largely spent on social welfare and consumption, rather than investment in infrastructure or education. He explores the influence of mining companies on democratic processes, pointing out that they are so powerful that, in 2010, they were able to bring an elected prime minister down. Kevin Rudd had proposed a carbon tax on mining, aiming to spend the money on balancing the economy (which showed symptoms of ‘Dutch disease’, that is, overdependence on one booming sector, leading to decline and neglect in other parts of the economy) and investing in infrastructure. The concerted efforts of three mining giants (Rio Tinto, Xstrata and BHP Billiton) eventually succeeded in deposing Rudd (Cleary 2011: 75–7). Ties between politicians and large mining companies are, in other words, very close. Finally, Cleary remarks that one striking feature distinguishing the current resource boom from former mineral booms is the size of the mines. What counted as a mega mine in the 1980s is a normal mine in the 2010s. Since Australia has to be competitive in the global market, its high cost of labour must be matched by higher productivity and efficiency, which is achieved through scaling up the operations and mechanising the production. In effect, mining in Australia has increasingly taken on the sociotechnical characteristics of the oil industry. As argued by Timothy Mitchell (2011), coal mining was a nuisance for the established elites throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. Miners were numerous, they were unionised, and they could control the flow of the lifeblood of the economy, namely the energy. With the shift to oil, seen by Mitchell as prompted just as much by political motivations as by economic or market considerations, the labour force could be dramatically reduced. Rather than hiring thousands of radical, unionised working-class men, the oil company could make do with fewer, well-paid, skilled workers operating the wells and the pipelines. They were far less likely to create difficulties for the management and political elites. Australian mining has followed this pattern. Although more than half of the country’s export earnings comes from mineral wealth, less than 2 per cent of the Australian workforce is directly employed in extractive industries (Mining Careers 2016). To this must, naturally, be added many more whose jobs would not have existed without mining – from the pilots flying bread into the LNG town of Karratha from Perth to the car rental firms catering to DIDOs (drive-in drive-out workers).

Australian mines are now by and large mechanised, open-pit operations. In a not too distant past, the iconic Australian miner would have been a gritty, ragged and emaciated man who went underground with his pickaxe, facing great peril for lamentable remuneration until the day he literally struck gold. The typical miner today may have a very comfortable salary, could be either male or female, and may spend their days operating a very large machine such as an excavator from the air-conditioned comfort of a cabin, accompanied by music from their headset, a cold Pepsi Max on the dashboard.

It is not only researchers like Cleary who see the symptoms of ‘Dutch disease’ or resource curse in Australia. In Gladstone, people who have non-industrial jobs also worry for the future of the non-mining sectors in the Australian economy. A typical statement came from a taxi driver, who had previously worked for 15 years in mining: ‘The problem is, mate, that Australia is just becoming the quarry of the world. We’re now importing manufactured stuff from China while selling raw materials to their industry.’ Basing economic policy on the principle of compar- ative advantage, Australian politicians consistently favour extractive industries at the expense of manufacturing. Yet this policy reduces the overall flexibility of the economic system, making other sectors less viable and other commodities more difficult to export, owing to the strength of the Australian dollar caused by the resource boom.

Ironically, some of the most vocal and visible campaigners against mining in contemporary Australia belong to a profession that rivals mining as the iconic Australian occupation, namely farming and livestock raising. Australia’s post-contact history can be told as a story of successive gold rushes, mineral discoveries and rags-to-riches stories, punctuated with stories of hardship, failed searches and brave men who perished in the vast deserts of the interior, in search of a better life for themselves and their families. But it can also be narrated, credibly to many, as a story of equally heroic men braving an unpredictable climate, hostile Aborigines, isolation and loneliness, but inch by inch, acre by acre turning the semi-arid outback into productive farmland. Many of the English migrants who arrived in the pioneer era were not miners, but sheep farmers.

In Queensland and New South Wales, the outback is defined as the region between the Great Dividing Range (a string of low mountains separating the relatively well-watered coastal strip from the dry hinterland) and the desert. Owing to underground lakes and aquifers, pastoralism and agriculture are possible in areas that receive only scarce and unpredictable rain.

Since the turn of the century, numerous local conflicts between farmers and gas companies have spread from the coast into the outback, especially in Queensland, where gas concessions are more easily granted than in New South Wales. Under Australian law, the owner of a property cannot refuse if a gas company wishes to undertake exploratory drilling. If gas is found, the state government may or may not give the company the right to drill commercially. In Australia, underground resources belong to the Crown (state), so the potential economic benefit for the landowner is limited.

Many farmers are frustrated and angry about the situation, and many have joined the Lock the Gate Alliance, formed in 2010 at the initiative of the academic and environmental activist Drew Hutton, which uses civil disobedience (locking the gates, literally) to prevent the resource companies from exerting their legally sanctioned rights. Australian envi- ronmentalists are also concerned with the way mining transforms the landscape and contributes to ecological damage and climate change. In 2003, the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the word solastalgia (Albrecht 2005), which refers to the distress experienced by people whose immediate environmental surroundings are being transformed without their consent. His source of inspiration was the rapid expansion of open-pit coal-mining in the Upper Hunter Valley in central New South Wales. More recently, the anthropologist Linda Connor (2016), who has collaborated with Albrecht, has developed his perspectives further, emphasising a holistic approach taking in humans, communities, myths, nature and other elements in an environment populated by humans. She argues that the transformations of the Upper Hunter can only be understood in a global context.

These are some of the contradictions with which this book is concerned. It is an attempt to identify and deepen our understanding of some of the basic, contradictory features of contemporary world society. It is about large and small scales, fossil fuels and ecological sustain- ability, speed and slowness, gains and losses. But it is also a portrait of the boomtown of Gladstone, an almost suspiciously well-kept secret in Australia. In the broader context of Queensland, a cursory comparison of Gladstone with the breath-taking beauty of the south-eastern hills, the lushness of the northern rainforest, the turquoise waters of the Whitsundays and the subtropical idyll of the Sunshine Coast, the glitz and glamour of the Gold Coast and the funky buzz of Brisbane, makes it easy to understand the barely suppressed laughter from a recently arrived journalist when she heard local luminaries speak of the region’s potential for tourism. Gladstone is where Queensland keeps its dirty laundry. But it is also in many ways a microcosm of Australian society and of the contradictions of contemporary global capitalism.

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. You can access the online version here:

Eriksen TEDx Overheating

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.

 

A planet afflicted by a high fever

The world is ‘overheated’. Too full and too fast; uneven and unequal. It is the age of the Anthropocene, of humanity’s indelible mark upon the planet. In short, it is globalisation – but not as we know it. This post, which introduces my new book Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change, was first published on the Pluto Press blog. The book is meant not just for academics, but for anyone interested in the state of the world.

‘What do the fateful Brexit referendum, the epidemic spread of Nintendo’s ‘Pokémon Go’ game, theOverheating escalating death of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the fivefold growth in tourism since 1980 have in common? The short answer is that they all express symptoms or outcomes of global accelerated change, or ‘overheating’, as I call it in my new book.

It is as if modernity has shifted to a higher gear since the early 1990s. Modernity has always been about acceleration and change, but in the last quarter-century, acceleration has accelerated. While you were out having a coffee, the number of refugees in the world seemed to have grown by ten per cent by the time you returned. While you were offline on a short holiday, Indonesia overtook Australia as the world’s largest coal exporter. And when you log onto your favourite newspaper, in the hope that you might encounter a few drops of optimism, the first headline you click on is a story about the dramatic decline of biodiversity in the contemporary world (The Guardian, 14 July 2016). Caused by agricultural expansion, climate change and pollution, the loss of biodiversity is an excellent, if frightening, example of ‘overheating’: It is an unintended consequence of the planet having been filled slowly to the brim by human activities and projects. It is not caused by one single factor possible to contain or control, but by the confluence of several mutually reinforcing processes – population growth, land clearing and monocultures, global neoliberalism and fossil fuel use, to mention a few major factors.

Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change is based on the assumption that the fast changes characterising the present age have important, sometimes dramatic unintended consequences. Each of the five empirical chapters focuses on one key area – energy, cities, mobility, waste, information – and shows how changes may take unexpected directions, which were neither foreseen nor desired at the outset.

Just as the insecticide called DDT, which was meant to save crops and improve agricultural output, killed insects, starved birds and led to ‘the silent spring’ of Rachel Carson’s eponymous 1962 book, a foundational text for the modern environmental movement, so does the car inevitably imply pollution and accidents, the information revolution entails the pollution of brains, and, perhaps, the spread of enlightenment ideas inspires counterreactions in the form of fundamentalism. I focus on such contradictions, but I also show that the crises of globalisation are not caused by malevolent intentions or any kind of evil, selfish or short-sighted conspiracy. Rather, what we are confronted with is a series of clashing scales which remain poorly understood. Let me give a brief illustration. If you are in a powerful position, you can change thousands of people’s lives far away with a stroke of a pen; but if you spent time with them first, that is likely to influence your decision. The tangibly lived life at the small scale, in other words, clashes with large-scale decisions, and you come to realise that what is good for Sweden is not necessarily good for the residents of the village of Dalby north of Ystad.

Scaling up can be an efficient way of diverting attention from the actuality of a conflict by turning it into an abstract issue. If your colleagues complain that you never make coffee for your co-workers, you may respond, scaling up a notch, that the neoliberal labour regime is so stressful and exhausting that the ordinary office worker simply has no time for such luxuries. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we may think about the workers who manned the gas chambers and effectively murdered incomprehensible numbers of Jews and Gypsies; there is no indication that they loved their family and household pets less than anyone else did. The world, or an activity, or an idea, shapeshifts when you move it up and down the scales. As one of my informants in an industrial Australian city said: ‘The environmental activists in Sydney are really good at saving the world, but they don’t have a clue as to what to do with real people with factory jobs.’

Being an anthropologist and, accordingly, trained to seeing the world from below, I have often had mixed feelings about the general literature about globalisation. Many widely read authors writing about the interconnected world seem to be hovering above the planet in a helicopter with a pair of binoculars. They may get the general picture right, but fail to see the nooks and crannies where people live. Reading these books, I am often reminded of Benoît Mandelbrot’s 1967 article ‘How long is the coast of Britain?’, which is fundamentally about scaling. He shows that the length of the jagged British coast depends on the scale of the map. Measuring with a yardstick would produce a different result from measurements taken with a one-foot ruler. Looking for averages, similarly, can be distinctly unhelpful: Your average body temperature may be just fine if your feet are in a freezer while your head is in a hot stove, but you’re dead nonetheless. And in order to get to the truth about people’s lives, the bird’s eye perspective is useful, but inadequate. You have to get ‘up close and personal’, to quote a book title from the anthropologists Cris Shore and Susana Trnka.

If you read general overviews about globalisation and identity with the mindset of an anthropologist, there is a chance that you finish with the somewhat unsatisfactory feeling that you had been offered a three-course dinner, and were duly served a sumptuous starter and a delicious dessert, but no main course. With anthropologists, the problem is generally the opposite: They describe local life-worlds in meticulous detail, crawling, as it were, on all fours with a magnifying glass; but rarely attempt a global analysis. In this book, by moving up and down the scales, I have tried to do both, and to relate them to each other.

And the solution? Anthropologists tend to be notoriously coy when it comes to proposing solutions to social problems, and yet I do have some suggestions. The most general piece of advice, if the goal is to avoid global disaster and cool down the humanly induced runaway processes currently threatening planetary health, consists in scaling down (and slowing down). For this to come about, large-scale extractivism, global neoliberalism and the complicity of politicians with corporate interests will doubtless have to be dealt with. But how? Through exit and voice, but scarcely with loyalty. I do not believe in one-size-fits-all solutions, and solutions differ from place to place. Overheating does not tell people what to do, but it provides a global diagnosis of a feverish condition, a crisis for which there are only two possible outcomes. Let me put it like this: In ancient Greece, crisis could be a medical term referring to a high fever. Just like the feverish world in which we now live, the Athenian patient’s crisis condition had only two possible outcomes, namely death or recovery.’

Clashing scales of Brexit

Mainstream newspapers, politicians and commentators across Europe instantly expressed dejection and bitterness in the face of the Brexit outcome, and avid Brexiteers have typically been portrayed as xenophobes and bigots, Little Englanders or foolish opportunists incapable of understanding the dangerous ramifications and likely Domino effects of their choice. This view is overbearing and inaccurate: complaints about Brussels may be perfectly legitimate, and it is thought-provoking that only right-wing populists have been able to listen to them. As a matter of fact, Brexiteers come in different shades, including leftists and radical humanists who are disappointed with the total marketisation of Europe, alienating standardisation resulting from centralism and the failure to deal with the refugee crisis in a coordinated, dignified and humane way. (Jan Blommaert has written well about this.) Besides, a different perspective may be more enlightening and constructive, not only in shedding light on Brexit, but also in identifying common denominators to more encompassing crises of legitimacy experienced by political and economic elites in the North Atlantic world.

In evolutionary theory, a major transition takes place when smaller entities combine to form an entity at a higher level, relinquishing their autonomy for the greater good. The transition from single-cell to multicellular organisms is the clearest example, leading to increased diversification, total interdependency and a sharp division of labour. The European Union holds out a similar promise; by combining at a higher level, member states will profit from the expansion of their system boundaries, enabling them to do what they do best. The disgruntlement with Brussels witnessed in the British referendum (and elsewhere in Europe, mind you) results from weaknesses and failures in the practical implementation of this logic, expressed through an increased distance between power holders and their constituencies, what I propose to call a clash of scales.

Past EU architects have been aware of the dangers of centralisation and the risk of large-scale operations overruling small-scale concerns. In the early 1990s, following the Maastricht Treaty, which aimed at a deeper and stronger integration, a catchword from the Commission was subsidiarity. The subsidiarity principle, championed by federalists and Euro-enthusiasts at the time, held that political decisions should always be taken at the lowest possible level, enabling those who were affected by an issue to have a direct influence on its outcome.

Nobody speaks about subsidiarity any more. It disappeared from view around the same time as the Euro was introduced and the Schengen agreement reduced internal border control just before the turn of the millennium. The tendency has been towards increased centralisation rather than a nesting of scalar levels ensuring continent-wide coordination without obliterating local autonomy and democratic power at the intermediate levels of regions and states. The Danish electorate may indeed have been prescient when, in 1992, it voted against Maastricht under the slogan ‘I want a country to be European in’.

There is a scalar gap between the Commission and the community leading to a feeling of disenfranchisement. This is not merely, or even mainly, about immigration to the UK, but about the perceived right to have a real influence. Comparable clashes of scale are witnessed almost everywhere in the world of global neoliberalism. A few handfuls of indigenous groups may have to be sacrificed for the greater good if there is oil on their ancestral land; farming communities may have to be removed if the district needs to dam a river for the sake of industrialisation and electrification; and in the case of the UK, a common view among Brexiteers is that the freedom to live and work around the continent has siphoned jobs away from the British. The general formula is that what is good for Europe is not necessarily good for the UK; what is good for the UK is not necessarily good for Northumberland; and what is good for Northumberland is not necessarily good for the residents of Durham – indeed, what is good for Durham may well be the same as that which is good for Europe. The loss of subsidiarity, sacrificed on the altar of continent-wide neoliberalism and faith in economies of scale, is a major factor in accounting for the strong animosity towards the EU.

There is another clash of scales at work as well. How could the pundits be so wrong, many asked when the result of the referendum became known. It may simply be that the experts and commentators live in areas (mainly London) and belong to social groups where loyalty to the European project is unquestioned, and that they were unable to enter into the mindset of people living in different life-worlds.

The multiple clashing scales which are becoming evident now that the project of European integration is visibly ailing, may stir fragmentation elsewhere in the system. In a multicellular organism which loses a limb, the remaining organs also suffer. In the case of the UK, the current situation recalls the sociologist Tom Nairn’s 1977 book The Break-Up of Britain. His prophecy was that the long-term survival of the UK was highly doubtful, it being a country composed of four historical nations,. He may still be proven right, forty years on. The Scots may demand a second referendum over independence to stay in the EU. Communal tensions in Northern Ireland may flare up. And the desire to secede, whether from the EU and/or from a multinational state, may well be contagious. While such a fission may be advantageous for the individual cells, it is bad news for the multicellular organism, which presupposes that cells are occasionallycapable of sacrificing their individual needs, to make compromises and to create webs of mutual interdependence which reduce conflict and enhance cosmopolitan values.

In a neoliberal world, Europe is likely to survive as a market place, no matter who leaves. (I live in Norway, which is not formally an EU member, but which is fully integrated economically with the rest of the continent.) What is at stake is the political project enabling coordination at higher levels and multiple identities at lower levels. Perhaps a lesson from Brexit could be that Brussels should reintroduce the principle of subsidiarity in a forceful and convincing way. This would weaken its powers of standardisation and uniformisation. The resulting Europe would be bumpier and less smooth, but it would enable its citizens to regain a sense of control over their destinies. They would, to paraphrase the anthropologist Anthony Wallace’s famous view of culture, not take part in ‘the replication of uniformity, but the organisation of diversity’.

A shorter version of this commentary is being published by Social Anthropology.

 

From national icon to neoliberal monument

This text began as a radio essay on BBC Radio 4 in November 2015, later developed into a web essay at Versopolis. It chronicles the shift from the mid 20th to the early 21st century through a meditation on

The metamorphosis of the Holmenkollen ski jumping hill

An insightful and surprisingly readable sociology book from the turn of the century is George Ritzer’s The Globalization of Nothing (2002). By ‘nothing’, he helpfully adds, he refers to non-places, non-services, non-products and non-people. That is to say, phenomena with no discernable local identity, things that could really have been anywhere. A decade earlier, the anthropologist Marc Augé, one of Ritzer’s sources of inspiration, wrote about Non-Lieux (1991), referring to the highways, hotels, airports and shopping malls of the emerging globosphere. Had he been Norwegian, Augé might well have spoken about a ski jumping hill. Let me explain.

The Norwegian national identity, when it was carved out in the 19th century in deliberate contrast to the neighbouring waning empires of Denmark and Sweden, was built around the allegedly close relationship of Norwegians to nature. Even today, nature has a sacred quality in the Norwegian way of life. On a bright winter Sunday, suburban trains and metro lines in Paris are typically crammed with people on their way into the city centre, with the intention of strolling along the Seine, visiting a museum or a gallery, and enjoying a leisurely lunch in a restaurant. In Oslo, by contrast, on a typical Sunday in January, the metro is full of people, many of them carrying skis, on their way into Nordmarka, ‘the Northern Fields’, the largely unspoilt area of forests and lakes surrounding Oslo on three sides.

It therefore stands to reason that the single most important work of art in Norwegian culture should not be a painting, a sculpture or a video installation, but an outdoor structure straddling the thin boundary between culture and nature. I am thinking of the Holmenkollen Ski Jumping Hill, a landmark visible from most parts of the city and a symbol of Oslo for decades.

To be precise, I’m referring to the hill as it appeared in the latter half of the 20th century, before its demolition in 2008 and subsequent replacement with a technologically more sophisticated, but less aesthetically appealing structure. The metamorphosis of Holmenkollen is no less than a tangible expression of the transformation of Norway from sensible social democracy to globalised neoliberalism. Let me explain.

White, elegant and majestic, the ski jumping hill hovered above the city like a large bird about to take flight. It was a work of art enjoyed by tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people every day, mostly unaware that they were beholding a membrane between nature and culture, between the civilised and the savage.

Oslo is a bowl surrounded by hills on three sides, facing the sea on the fourth. On the western side, which is where most skiing competitions take place, ski jumping has been a spectator sport since the late 19th century. The Holmenkollen hill was initially all natural, the runoff built of snow and ice. By the early 20th century, shifting structures of stone, steel and wood led to its gradual evolution. So the Holmenkollen that would eventually etch itself into the consciousness of Oslo’s population and its visitors was completed ahead of the Winter Olympics in 1952.

Stretching skywards in a sweeping, optimistic gesture, the hill was perhaps most striking off season when its whiteness was offset by the surrounding greenery, but it was imposing and uplifting in winter too. People returning from weekend trips down the coast knew that they would soon be home when they could glimpse the Holmenkollen ski tower in the distance.

The hill has been expanded and rebuilt many times since ski jumping in Holmenkollen began. The first race was held on 30 January 1892, and won by Arne Ustvedt, who jumped 21.5 meters. The current record is held by Anders Jacobsen, who jumped 142.5 meters in 2011. So evidently, the sport has evolved significantly over the last century or so, and this involves every aspect of it, from the fabric of the gloves worn by jumpers to the style of jumping. Interestingly, ski jumpers are judged not only on the length of their flight, but also on aesthetic criteria, which have also changed over the years.

And so the hill had to change too. It would not have happened independently of developments elsewhere. Norwegians are famous for their conservatism in winter sport. They hung on to wooden skis for years after the rest of the skiing world had shifted to fibreglass, and were reluctant to accept the new style of ski jumping introduced by the Swede Jan Boklöv in the 1980s, who discovered that he could improve both stability and length by jumping in a V-shape rather than with parallel skis. Yet, in a field of transnational competition, you have to keep up with the Joneses. So, as central European countries improved their ski jumping facilities, Norway had to follow suit. The classic Holmenkollen ski hill was eventually demolished in 2008, the new structure completed two years later, in time for the World Championship in skiing in 2011. The new hill is technologically far superior to the white, gliding bird of yesteryear. It is a meshwork of wood and metal, functional and hypermodern. But the new hill, dark brown in colour, does not light up the surroundings, and it ends not with an optimistic flourish towards the sky; it merely ends.

A large, new ski stadium has been built around the ski jumping hill for cross-country events, and well-equipped recreational venues now accommodate domestic and foreign visitors who, until recently, had to make do with more basic facilities. Few will deny that the new hill and surroundings are less charming than the previous incarnation. It is flashy, hi-tech and efficient, funded by generous flows of Norwegian petrokroner. Yet it will never become a condensed symbol which gives Oslo its identity while simultaneously giving expression to human yearnings and transcending the nature–culture divide.

At the same time, the result of this multimillion kroner investment into newness serves as a reminder of an aspect of the ski jumping hill which is so obvious that it is easily overlooked, but no less important for that, namely competitive sport as an emblematic activity in modernity. The need to improve, and to keep up with your competitors, embody the essence of the modern ideology. In this kind of society, you have to keep moving in order to stay in the same place. Just a few years after Arne Ustvedt’s 21.5 meter jump, the first modern Olympic Games were organised in Athens under the slogan Citius, Altius, Fortius  – faster, higher, stronger. So if rituals in traditional societies are typically about communication with timeless, spiritual entities, the most popular ritual events in our societies, that is competitive sports, are about change and improvement, progress and development. You should do better than you did last year. Records have to be beaten, and techniques need to be improved. And so it was perhaps inevitable that this slender, white sculpture from the mid-20th century, a landmark, an icon and a condensed symbol which was also, incidentally, occasionally used for sport events, had to go. But although its replacement is obviously ‘faster, higher, stronger’, it fails to address our aesthetic sensibilities and spiritual longings; rather, it speaks to the global admiration for the power of money, of scale and competitiveness on a level playing field. It is all efficiency with no soul. The magic of the genius loci has been replaced by the magic of global capitalism. Sic transit gloria mundi, one might well say.

 

The Paris massacre and the Syrian refugee crisis

Two dramatic events, one unfolding over the last several years, the other a sudden shock, currently eclipse all other issues. Syrians desperate to escape their broken country enter neighbouring and European countries in huge numbers, and a handful of bloodthirsty fanatics have killed over a hundred random, innocent people in Paris. These events both form part of a larger, unsettling picture. They are interconnected, and reveal important features of the world in which we all currently live.

First of all, regional asymmetries have to be taken into account as underlying causal factors. The northern coast of the Mediterranean consists of stable, prosperous and mainly peaceful states, while the southern and eastern coasts are dominated by unstable, autocratic or collapsing states, inequality, insecurity and stagnation. While the European population has grown slowly (from 350m to 450m in sixty years), the population of Europe’s neighbours has exploded from 163m to 587m in the same period. North Africa and the Middle East have young populations, poorly functioning labour markets and uneven opportunities for higher education. In many cases, gender segregation adds further to the inefficiency of labour markets and public institutions. The pressure on the Mediterranean as a membrane separating opportunity from stagnation is gaining strength.

Secondly, the value of human lives varies depending on where you live and who you are. This may be stating the obvious, but there is rarely if ever a major outrage in the rich countries when a drone attack or a missile targeting a terrorist leader instead ends up killing dozens of innocents, including children. Yet this happens routinely and frequently. Not everybody agrees that it is acceptable that the rich countries murder civilians in poor countries, and the Paris terrorist attack can thus be understood as an act of retribution.

Thirdly, the growing impact of identity politics creates a double polarisation in Western Europe. The first is the symbolic competition between Islamists and nativists, the second the conflict between identity politics and secular politics. In Sweden, which has been among the most accommodating countries in the ongoing refugee crisis, asylum centres have been burnt down, and the latest opinion poll indicates that an unprecedented 25 per cent of the Swedish population presently supports the right-wing Swedish Democrats. France, which has a secularist political identity (all citizens are in principle equal, regardless of their culture or religion), has seen the upsurge of identity politics both among nativists (Front National) and Muslim extremists. More than a third of the European IS fighters in Syria come from France. Instead of accepting the polarisation of opposing identity politics, many insist on basing political projects on other principles than religion or group membership. To them, Islamism and nativism are two sides of the same coin.

Fourthly, ideological conflicts, events and acts of violence can now rarely be contained geographically. The Danish cartoon crisis of 2005-06 was a telling reminder of the increasingly deterritorialised nature of conflicts: A Danish newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, leading eventually to riots in Nigeria and demonstrations in Lebanon. Today, the Syrian conflict, the rise of IS/Daesh, the flows of people out of the country and the mixed, ambivalent reactions with which they are being met in Europe, the feeling of disenfranchisement and marginalisation prevalent among youths of North African origin in France, and the Western countries’ active destabilisation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya cannot be seen independently of each other. Whether or not they are de facto causally connected, they form part of a cognitive package shared by many Muslims, most of them committed to living in peace with their neighbours; many of them are not even religious believers. The view shared by many Muslims on both sides of the Mediterranean is that they are consistently being treated as second-rate people. In France, the colonial experience adds insult to injury among its Muslims, most of whom have a background in the Mahgreb.

The most obvious connection between the Syrian refugee crisis and the terrorist attack on Friday 13 is its common denominator, namely IS or Daesh. Its primitive brutality chases people out of Syria, strengthens the polarisation in Europe by giving Islamophobes a field day, and destroys even the faintest trace of civilisation wherever it goes. Nevertheless, there are two analytic concepts that may be even more helpful in understanding the current situation and the kind of vulnerability which has been palpable at least since the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

The first is deterritorialisation. In the present age, nothing can be contained geographically. Protecting the borders of a country is less feasible than it has been, and securitisation will only give a false sense of security. Responding to violence with more violence is unlikely to solve anything and more likely to fan the flames than to quell them. Suicidal religious fanatics arguably have to be countered with violence, but getting rid of these individuals does not address the underlying, structural contradictions. The solution to both threats of terrorism and ungovernable flows of refugees is a more equitable global distribution of dignity and opportunity, not barbed-wire fences and surveillance. On the other hand, nobody knows how to get there, but addressing symptoms without taking causes into account is rarely recommended as a cure.

The second concept is schismogenesis. Taken from Gregory Bateson’s mid-century writings about intercultural encounters, it refers to self-reinforcing, spiralling conflicts. The more you threaten me, the more I shall threaten you. As extreme, intolerant religious preachers spread their poison, nativists and Islamophobes respond in kind by denouncing any form of Islam as anti-democratic and inimical to European societies. Unless a third, mediating instance enters into this dance of destruction and offers an alternative approach, the result can be catastrophic.

Civilisation or barbarism. Civilisation ou barbarie. Attacking innocent people is barbaric, regardless of whether they are brown or white, poor or rich. Finding ways of living together in this overheated, interconnected world is a civilised and civilising act. The real danger today is that divisive identity politics, from ethnonationalists and jihadists, succeeds in taking the majorities hostage to their destructive ideologies. Their world of preference would be one of suspicion rather than trust, withdrawal rather than openness, retrograde nostalgia rather than acceptance of the impurities and frictions that inevitably characterise a world which is on the move, literally and metaphorically. As my friend Khalid Salimi once said – he was the founder of the Anti-Racist Centre in Oslo and currently runs the Mela music festival – we should stop talking about building bridges. Instead, we must come to realise that we all live on the same island.

What´s wrong with the Global North and the Global South?

Originally published by the Global South Study Centre in Cologne, along with a handful of other reflections on the concept of the Global South

As a young schoolboy in the 1970s, I learned that there were two kinds of countries in the world: The industrialized countries and the developing countries. In Norwegian, they were abbreviated as i-land and u-land (“i-countries and d-countries”). As a slightly older schoolboy, I would discover that there were progressive people who had read up on the latest literature, and who distinguished between the First, the Second and the Third Worlds; the industrialized, Western countries; the Communist bloc; and the poor, underdeveloped or developing countries (make your choice). Some made it more complicated and added the Fourth World, that of stateless indigenous peoples. I had one teacher – this was in Nairobi in the mid-seventies – who even differentiated between the Third, the Fourth and the Fifth Worlds within the general subcategory of the Third: The Third World countries were those that were well on their way to becoming rich and “developed” (I think he mentioned Malaysia and possibly Algeria); the Fourth were those that struggled but had potential (Kenya was, generously, included); and the Fifth World was chanceless and mired in perennial poverty.

The idea that there were three “worlds” originates, in the Anglophone world, with the anthropologist and sociologist Peter Worsley (The Third World, 1964; and The Three Worlds, 1984). However, the notion of the Third World is older, coined by the demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952, and his reference to le tiers monde did not presuppose the existence of a First or Second World. Rather, when speaking of the poor countries and colonies, he explicitly drew a parallel with the third estate, le tiers état, at the time of the French revolution; that is, everyone who did not belong to the clergy or the nobility. He spoke of those that had potential – those who would eventually rise and claim their share.

Latterly, these terms have become increasingly unfashionable. This definitely has something to do with the collapse of the Communist Bloc almost 25 years ago. But the concepts were at the outset too crude to make sense to a serious social scientist, Sauvy’s loose and metaphorical usage less so than Worsley’s attempt to operationalize them. For what was Argentina? Or Turkey? Immanuel Wallerstein’s concepts (from The Modern World System, 1974–78) of center, periphery and semi-periphery seemed to do the job somewhat better, and his model had the additional advantage of indicating dynamic con nectedness within the global system.

It makes little sense to speak of three worlds when there is only one game in town. Instead, during the last decade or so, scholars and enlightened commentators increasingly have begun to speak of the Global South and the Global North. I’ve even used these terms myself sometimes, almost inadvertently, when lecturing about big and general issues, but I have invariably asked myself afterwards, slightly embarrassed, what’s so global about them. Why can’t we just say the south and the north; or just materially rich and materially poor countries? Or – again – center, semiperiphery and periphery?

Any conceptual investigation of these classifications must inevitably lead to ambivalence. Global diversity is simply such that it cannot meaningfully be subsumed under a few, let alone two, concepts. It is true that at a very general level, the Global North is associated with stable state organization, an economy largely under (state) control and – accordingly – a dominant formal sector. The recipients of foreign aid, needless to say, belong to the Global South. China and – again – Argentina are hard to fit in.

One attempt to produce an objective classification uses the UNDP’s Human Development Index to differentiate. In brief, the Global North consists of those 64 countries which have a high HDI (most of which are located north of the 30th northern parallel), while the remaining 133 countries belong to the Global South.

The terms have become fashionable very recently. In a bibliographic study by a group of German scholars, the first recorded use was in 1996. In 2004, the term The Global South appeared in just 19 publications in the humanities and social sciences, but by 2013, the number had grown to 248. The scholars who use it associate it largely with some of the ills of globalization. While the countries of the Global North not only have stable states but also a strong public sector, the Global South is, to a far greater extent, subject to the forces of global neoliberalism, rather than enacting the very same forces.

Seen from this perspective, the neologisms make sense. The post-Cold War world is not mainly divided into societies that follow different political ideologies such as socialism or liberalism, but by degrees of benefits in a globalized neoliberal capitalist economy. This is why the prefix “Global” may be appropriate, as it signals the integration of the entire planet (well, nearly) into a single economic system – that which Tom Friedman (in-)famously described as “a flat world” (in The World is Flat, 2005). So far, so good. The Global South and the Global North represent an updated perspective on the post-1991 world, which distinguishes not between political systems or degrees of poverty, but between the victims and the benefactors of global capitalism.

But you then start to wonder how useful such huge blanket terms are at the end of the day. I certainly do as an anthropologist, but also as someone who travels and observes everyday life as I go along. In Albania some years ago, I saw dark blue BMWs and horsecarts side by side. In India, I’ve seen lush oases of luxury alongside struggling lower-middle class life and plain hopelessness. In Russia, the contrast between glittering St Petersburg (where I’m writing these sentences) and the surrounding countryside is dramatic. In the US, there are inner city areas where life expectancy matches that of some of the poorer African countries. And what to make of a country like Brazil? It is sometimes said that before Lula, half of the population had an obesity problem, while the other half were undernourished. The proportions have shifted somewhat after years of bolsa familial and other progressive policies, but in terms of inequality, Brazil still fares just barely better than South Africa, where the GDP is excellent by African standards, but so unevenly distributed that you literally move from one “world” to another within minutes if you enter the taxi, say, at the University of Cape Town and get out in the Cape Flats. Same thing in Nairobi. And I haven’t even mentioned the Gulf States. Even in my hometown of Oslo, inequality within the city is striking. Notwithstanding Norway’s reputation for being equitable and egalitarian, life expectancy between two adjacent boroughs in the city can differ by more than ten years – equal to the gap between Sweden and Morocco!

One main shortcoming of these huge, global classifications is their methodological nationalism. Entire countries, whether they are called Nauru or China – China has 150,000 times as many inhabitants as Nauru – are considered the relevant entities and are thus presumably comparable. But GDP, or HDI for that matter, for a country as a whole reveals precious little about how the poorest 20%, or the poorest 80%, or the richest 1%, live. So, obviously, what is needed are more fine-grained instruments to gauge the quality of life and the economic circumstances of a community, since most of the world’s population live mainly in communities and not in states. The result of this kind of endeavor might surprise some, and it would certainly make for a more mottled and colorful map of the world than the drab monochrome surfaces produced by a planet divided into the Global North and Global South.