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.