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.’

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.

 

It’s the culture, stupid! Or is it?

The events in Cologne have sparked controversies across Europe. This time, the topic is not the economic and social costs of the refugee crisis, but questions concerning culture and gender. We need a proper language in which to address these issues.

A shorter version of this article was published in Norwegian in Morgenbladet on 15 January 2016.

 

There is no simple answer as to what exactly happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. There was a large number of people partying in the city centre, in varying states of intoxication, and no version of the events is the only valid or possible one. You and I may easily perceive and interpret identical situations in quite different ways, even if we were both present. But a few facts seem indisputable. A rather large number of young men (a few hundred? a thousand?), most of them with a background in Arab-speaking countries, surrounded, groped and stole from young women who were by the train station to watch fireworks and celebrate the new year. The unpleasant event seemed to be a planned, coordinated mass assault. The police were taken by surprise, they acted inefficiently, and subsequently tried to brush the events aside, unwilling or unable to provide the bare facts.

This immediately sparked a heated debate in Europe – in the newspapers, in the social media, on blogs, websites, radio and TV. Some claimed that the problem boiled down to the fact that the transgressors were Muslims, and that it was an established fact that in the world of Islam, women who are not protected by male relatives can blame themselves if they are sexually harassed or even raped. Others spoke about uprooted people lacking a foothold in secular, individualist and relatively gender-equal Germany. Yet others contextualised the events by pointing out that men have always assaulted women sexually, regardless of culture and type of society, refusing to speak about culture.

It would probably not be feasible to try to develop an intermediate position between the grim pessimism of ‘I told you so’ and the defensive ‘this has nothing to do with culture’ However, a third position is possible, and it may contribute to a better and more accurate understanding of the Cologne drama, as well as providing tools for dealing with many other debates and issues concerning cultural diversity and social integration.

Before moving on, I should like to shed light on the fraught discourse about culture and minority by taking a detour via a comparable controversy which took place in Sweden just after the turn of the century, and which suggests that we’ve been here before.

 

Fadime revisited

In 2002, the Kurdish–Swedish woman Fadime Sahindal was murdered by her father, who thought that she had become ‘too Swedish’, shaming her family through her liberated life. In Sweden, where criticism of minority cultures is less common and less accepted than in neighbouring Denmark and Norway, the murder was generally described as an individual tragedy, or as an expression of a generic male desire to control female sexuality. The anthropologist Mikael Kurkiala wrote a couple of articles in Dagens Nyheter (and later reflections in Anthropology Today), where he argued that it was necessary to take the cultural dimension into account: In Kurdish culture, he said, there are in fact other ideas of honour and gender than in Swedish mainstream culture, and an account of Fadime’s death which did not include this dimension was, accordingly, seriously flawed. He did not allege that Kurdish culture turned Fadime’s father into a murderer, but took great pains to emphasise that the father had several possible scripts at his disposal, and that other Kurdish fathers would have chosen another script in the same situation. His point was, however, that there existed a script in Kurdish culture which justified the killing of close female relatives under particular circumstances, and that a similar script did not exist in Swedish majority culture.

Kurkiala was met with harsh criticism from different quarters. For example, the leading Social Democrat Mona Sahlin rejected the cultural approach, preferring instead to speak of male violence towards women. Mikael had anticipated objections, but was surprised at the strength of the reactions from the Swedish establishment, particularly the tone of moral condemnation. For once, an anthropologist was accused of spreading cultural prejudices about ‘the other’.

Yet it is easy to see that Kurkiala was right. What we should keep in mind here is that he was not being misunderstood (as is often the case with anthropologists who venture into the public sphere), but that mainstream Swedish society seemed to have decided that he couldn’t be right, since his perspective might contribute to racism and ethnic prejudices. This attitude, of course, is tantamount to placing a lid on contentious issues.

Culture and personhood

Some of the most important issues in culturally complex societies are class, exclusion and racism. For now, I bracket them, since the European debate currently mainly concerns culture and religion. So let’s talk about culture, then, with the Kölnische Drama as a backdrop.

As any anthropologist might point out, there are very sound reasons to avoid cultural determinism, that is explaining particular patterns of action by referring to a person’s cultural background (religion, here, is considered part of culture). Culture varies within every named group; persons are unique and make different choices in their lives; and culture is continuously evolving, changing and diversifying. For this reason, scholars of culture are – perhaps paradoxically – reluctant to attribute explanatory value to cultural differences. This reluctance is sometimes taken too far. Experience tells us that cultural differences do exist and have a bearing on everyday life. Family and kinship, gender and age, rank and hierarchy; all these basic aspects of human existence mean different things to people with systematically different experiences and knowledges. Frictions and clashes occur when such worlds meet through encounters and interactions, if the parties are not well prepared beforehand.

How can we speak of these differences without coercing people into artificially delimited groups, oversimplifying, fanning prejudices and establishing boundaries which are both politically unproductive and intellectually indefensible – in a word, contributing to a polarising discourse from which only extreme groups (notably Islamists and ethnonationalists) benefit? My present concern is simultaneously intellectual and political; it is an attempt to find a suitable language for describing a culturally diverse world, but it is also a task of some importance to enable a conversation beyond entrenched positions and cheap polemicism.

Most of the dilemmas and tangled issues concerning cultural differences in today’s culturally diverse Europe are related to different concepts of personhood, a much discussed term in anthropology, which can be used to unpack and analyse a wide range of more or less dramatic intercultural encounters in complex societies, from the mass assault in Cologne to courses offered to young mothers in Oslo’s culturally complex East Side.

What is a person, and not least, what does it entail to be a person? Is a person first and foremost defined through their duties or through their rights? Is a person entitled to take their own decisions and give their self-interest the pride of place, or are obligations towards others more important? And if the latter is the case, who are these ‘others’ – family members, neighbours, colleagues, members of one’s own ethnic group, or rather an anonymous, imagined community such as a nation or even humanity (or the planet)? Are persons endowed with equal rights, or is there a natural hierarchy according to which some have greater value than others? Are children persons on a par with adults, or should they accept their subordination? And what to make of the relationship between men and women – should it be symmetrical or complementary? Should men and women be as similar as possible, or would it be preferable that they have a gendered division of labour, since they were created differently by God or evolution?

Obviously, these questions can be answered in different ways, and here we approach the heart of the matter, namely how these young men in Cologne could conceivably treat young women as objects, in public view, with no regard for their dignity and humanity. (I have not carried out psychoanalysis on neither the men nor the women in Cologne, and so there is inevitably an element of speculation here.) But before we move ahead, it remains necessary, unfortunately, to state the obvious, namely that the vast majority of male refugees in Germany did not take part in these activities, although they share the same background as the suspected transgressors.

I-cultures and we-cultures

A contrast between two concepts of personhood,  arguably crude but nevertheless recognisable to many, can be drawn between ‘I-cultures’ and ‘we-cultures’. If a young woman belonging, say, to the German majority becomes pregnant outside of a stable relationship, people might exclaim: ‘The poor girl!’ Among non-European minorities, the reaction might instead be: ‘Her poor parents!’. This contrast can be connected to an established, if contested, distinction between a sociocentric and an egocentric concept of the person. This dualism and is associated with the anthropologist Louis Dumont and his comparative work on Europe and India. In India, he says, family and community is in the foreground; in Europe, the individual is ‘the supreme value’, sacred and with inalienable rights.

Consistent with a sociocentric conceptualisation, Gandhi once spoke of the individual as ‘a drop in the ocean’. It exists, but has no meaning without the surrounding masses of water. Now, this contrast is by far too simple and rough, but it may serve as an entry-point for a more nuanced and complex exploration.

The sociocentric person is not defined as an individual, but as a dividual. He or she is divisible into their relationships to others, whereas the West European individual is, as the word suggests, whole and indivisible. The boundary of the individual may be drawn at the skin, while the dividual ends where the relationships to others end. While the individual has rights, the dividuals has duties.

The dividual does not relate to differently positioned people in the same ways. You don’t behave in the same way towards your mother than towards your daughter, differently with your family than with strangers, and these are differences that make a difference. You are a node in a network, but it is the network that nourishes the node, not the other way around. Accordingly, many who live in arranged marriages see this institution as reasonable and natural. They owe a debt to their parents, whom they respect for being wiser and older, and they trust their better sense of judgement. Besides, a marriage is not a relationship between two persons, but between two families.

In the messy cultural environments characterising our time, where the old and the new, the nearby and the distant meet and mix, tensions continuously emerge between different conceptualisations of the person, often in one and the same person. You are torn between different ideals describing what you should be like, conflicting dreams, duties and rights. It is scarcely a coincidence that most Bollywood films deal with the tension between arranged marriages and love marriages. Here, different conceptualisations of personhood clash, and mind you, neither migration nor Islam has anything to do with it.

Values and social life

The variation in personhood is linked with social life. It does not come from nowhere, but is related to property rights, political systems, family and kinship organisation, rules of inheritance and economic practices. In societies where women cannot own means of production (land, businesses etc.), and where men inherit land, women have their primary activities in the domestic sphere. It may therefore be a common view that giving education to girls is a waste of time and money, since they’re just getting married anyway. In societies where religion is important, women are also generally more subordinated to men than in more secular societies. This is because high religious positions are usually reserved for men, regardless of religion. In these societies, there is not much informal social interaction between unrelated persons of opposite genders. To young, unmarried men, this implies, among other things, that they have nobody to sleep with. This is not an irrelevant detail if we are trying to make sense of what happened in Cologne.

Kinship, moreover, is important in societies where your social standing, your economic status and your possibilities for political influence depend on your place in a kin group. In such societies, the phenomenon typically called nepotism in Western Europe is widespread; that is, you give advantages to your relatives because you owe them as much. You are a bad uncle if you fail to help your nephew when he needs it. In this kind of society, severing ties with your family comes at a significant cost, which encourages conformism. We see here how differences in personhood are not merely existential or academic, but have tangible, practical consequences.

The ideological superstructure justifying these societal arrangements can be saturated with religion, but honour and shame are often more important. You shame your family if you behave indecently – or in a shameless way – and you are honourable if, as a woman, you ensure keeping unrelated men at bay. It is not your integrity as an individual that is sacred, but the quality of your relationships to significant others.

The implications are obvious. If you have a background in a society where kinship is important and men dominate in the public sphere, where voluntary, chosen love relationships are tabooed and undesired, and where honour and shame define essential qualities in a person, you may well get confused by the sight of large numbers of happy, partying, unchaperoned women in the public sphere.

Mixed persons

Some will ask, and rightly so: How can these general insights be useful in practical policy? In order to answer the question, I will briefly mention three PhDs in social anthropology from the last year. I am proud to have supervised all three, they all touch upon the question of personhood, and they are all based on fieldwork in culturally complex environments in Oslo.

Monica Five Aarset has written a study of middle-class life among Oslo residents with an Indian or Pakistani background. In one of her examples, she shows how a couple has come to rely on strict (‘Protestant’) time budgets which clash with that of their parents. They have fixed bedtime hours for the children and an everyday life regulated by the clock, while the parents’ time is unstructured, unbounded and perceived, by the young, as irresponsibly fluid.

Monika Rosten’s dissertation concerns young adults in Furuset, a satellite town in Eastern Oslo, showing how they strive to create a meaningful existential space for themselves. Maneuvring between racism and exclusion, the pressures from Islamicisation and religion, the expectations of their parents and their own career choices, they develop identities which are mainly Norwegian in form (individualist), while kinship and in some cases religion continue to be important factors in their lives.

Ida Erstad’s research, finally, concerns motherhood among young Pakistani-Norwegian women in Alna borough, eastern Oslo. In majority society, the dominant view is now (but this is fairly recent) that children should be raised to become independent individuals, responsible for their own lives and capable of making their own choices. The traditional Punjabi view, by contrast, emphasises diligence and loyalty, responsibility for others and respect for the elders. Norwegian children are subjected to many strict rules when they are small, and are gradually given more personal freedom as they grow up. With the Punjabi–Norwegian children, the situation is almost the opposite; they are allowed to run freely, have no fixed bedtime hours etc. when young, but are placed under greater constraints as they grow up, understand more and are capable of performing more chores. The mothers in Erstad’s material may experience their lives as being wedged between two cultural worlds, but in practice, they mix the Norwegian and the Pakistani elements. Their main goal is for their children to succeed in Norwegian society when they grow up.

These three vignettes, scratching the surface of much larger research projects, show how people who ‘live between two cultures’ in practice create mixtures. They are neither–nor and both–and. This corpus of empirical research, collected through several years of fieldwork, also demonstrates a will and a desire among minorities to fit in, achieve full membership in society and respect from the majority, and to make their contribution to the abstract community beyond the inner circles of kinship, ethnicity and religion. There are, naturally, other stories, and whoever seeks will easily find immigrants and children of immigrants who are embittered and disillusioned of majority society; but those I have mentioned are probably more representative of Oslo’s minority population.

Seen as a whole, this research shows that concepts of personhood change when people acquire new experiences. Courses on European values and gender equality can be held quickly and cheaply, and creates an impression of determined and active politicians, but they are of little help unless the target group is also able to acquire experiences which tell them that men and women are equal and should treat each other not only with respect, but with roughly the same kind of respect. You get these experiences by living in a society where you yourself are respected and are allowed to contribute. Your concept of personhood is linked to your everyday life, and when your experiences change, so do your relationships to other people. But this takes time, it can be laborious and expensive for all involved, and for such changes to be possible, minorities must be included at all levels of society.

* * *

Returning to the young men in Cologne and their dysfunctional view of women, it is obvious that there is an urgency to the situation at the moment. Pegida are marching, and the extreme right is gloating across the continent now. For starters, the police has to sort itself out and get on with its work. It will then be necessary to enlighten the young men about the German way of life, legislation and values. But at the end of the day, they must be incorporated into social contexts which convince them that they have arrived in an individualist society where independent women are a natural component in all parts of society. Integration is based on experiences, not on courses. This also means that the currently fast flow of refugees into Europe is problematic. For this transition not to fail, they must get something useful and meaningful to do, get to know some natives and pick up the language quickly. It is the responsibility of government at all levels to make these adaptations possible. Should vast numbers of refugees end, unintegrated, on welfare, the only beneficiaries are the extreme movements on either side. They are only capable of creating distrust, divisiveness and mutual suspicion.

Thanks to Pål Norheim for inspiration.

References

Dumont, Louis (1971) Homo Hierarchicus: Essai sur le système des castes, Gallimard, Paris.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland (2015) Person, time and conduct in Alna. Nordic Journal of Migration Research, 15(1): 11–18.

Erstad, Ida (2015) Here, now and into the future: Child rearing among Norwegian-Pakistani mothers in Oslo, Norway. Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo: Ph D dissertation.

Kurkiala, Mikael (2003) Interpreting honour killings: The story of Fadime Sahindal (1975–2002) in the Swedish press. Anthropology Today, 19(1): 6–7.

Rosten, Monika (2015) «Nest siste stasjon, linje 2» – sted, tilhørighet og unge voksne i Groruddalen. Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo: Ph D dissertation.

Aarset, Monica Five (2015) Hearts and roofs. Family, belonging, and (un-) settledness among descendants of immigrants in Norway. Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo: Ph D dissertation.

 

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.

She prefers simplicity to paradoxes, answers to dilemmas

‘Yet, one cannot help being disturbed by the fuzzy utopianism and smug righteousness permeating Naomi Klein’s books.’

I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything, and it is quite disappointing. There is little by way of intellectual excitement, sense of discovery or curiosity to be had from the book. Yes, it contains lots of facts and figures, but they can mostly be googled if you need them. And yes, there is also an argument, but if you’ve read any of her earlier work, you somehow know what it is before you start reading. You get the feeling that Klein possessed all the relevant answers before she sat down to write, and she disposes of a small army of researchers working for her, providing the data she needs to connect the dots that she has already drawn up. After the initial, enlightening documentation of entanglements between politicians, resource companies and large environmental organisations, the book quickly becomes predictable, regularly showing that the answer to most questions you’d care to ask about climate change and inequality is that capitalism is bad and some form of socialism, or at least local autonomy, is the only solution. It is not a stupid or evil thought, but it is not exactly original, to put it mildly. For example, this is pretty much what we used to say in the environmental movement of the 1970s. Like Klein, we had a soft spot for indigenous groups then. But we soon understood that although the nature management of some indigenous groups could be inspiring, they could never provide a blueprint for a global, urban civilization which was committed to a division of labour entailing that most people no longer knew the details of food production.

Modernity, in a word, has to solve the problems it has created without regressing or abdicating. The moment you see this complexity, you are already entangled in paradoxes. And you come to understand that there is no solution, no master plan, no button to press, just better and worse ways of muddling through. Years ago, as a board member of the Sophie Prize, I co-organised a one-day event entitled ‘From know-how to do now’. Notwithstanding the rickety pun, our starting point was that knowledge about environmental degradation and climate change is easily available and has been so for many years, but very little is actually being done, and realistic solutions are hard to come by. Little came out of this conference as well, but at least it left us, the organisers, with the realisation that it is necessary to try out a variety of options, from campaigning for renewable energy to promoting new forms of consumption and production. What is needed is not a grand plan or a new theory of human nature, but political imagination.

Of course, it is excellent news that a smart, earnest left-wing campaigner and journalist like Klein, with her global readership and wide-ranging influence, has come to realise that you have to take the environment and climate seriously in order to act upon global social injustice. She writes in a fluid and accessible style, makes sure to get her facts right, and believes in knowledge as a means to change politics.

Yet, one cannot help being disturbed by the fuzzy utopianism and smug righteousness permeating Naomi Klein’s books. She doesn’t seem to have learnt a single lesson from the failed utopian ideologies and experiments of the last two centuries. She seems oblivious of the complexity of human nature, and appears to be unaware of how a struggling liberation movement overnight tends to change into an oppressive dictatorship. She seems to have forgotten the deep disillusion that invariably sets in soon after a successful revolution.

As politically engaged teenagers, we used to joke, inspired by a May ’68 slogan, that ‘when the last capitalist is hanged with the guts of the last bureaucrat, humanity will finally be free’. Yet, having read Orwell’s Animal Farm and skimmed a bit of Nietzsche and Foucault, we knew that the desire for power and the impulse of selfishness is just as integral a part of human nature as solidarity and sharing. So when the last capitalist was finally disposed of by the struggling and heroic revolutionary forces, new forms of power and oppression would soon emerge. Nothing in human history tells us otherwise. This is why power must never be centralised, and why state socialism is not a recipe for liberation. (Klein is aware of the latter, but seems overly optimistic about the ability of social movements to transform the world system.)

There are villains and heroes in Klein’s narrative about climate change. The villains are, in descending order of magnitude, greedy capitalists, power-hungry or stupid politicians, green, but still profit-seeking capitalists, and large environmental organisations which all too readily get into bed with capitalists and politicians. The message is that green capitalism will never save the planet, and so a different kind of economic system is needed. Klein sees hope, in particular, in popular uprisings against environmental destruction, but also in local resistance movements worldwide, from Cree in Alberta to farmers in Australia.

What Klein fails to recognise is that the people rising up against environmental destruction nearly invariably have a vested interest in doing so. They may be indigenous peoples used to hunting and fishing in their local forest, or farmers who see their livelihood threatened by the encroaching gas wells, or people involved in a local tourist business which depends on pristine surroundings. Those who appear to be independent tend to be people like myself – middle-class, bookish, cappuccino-sipping do-gooders – or professional NGO workers, whose salaries depend on their efforts for the global environment. In other words, discarding enlightened self-interest as a fundamental source of motivation for people around the world, no matter their culture or material circumstances, would be denying a fundamental feature of human nature.

Rather than refusing to accept that competition and selfishness inevitably bubble to the surface in every society – albeit to varying degrees, and with great variation between individuals – what needs to be put into place are policies from above and cultural changes from below that make sustainability a rational option, even in situations when we humans are driven by competitive or selfish desires. Severe green taxes might be an option, that is, not only making the polluter pay (which remains important), but also making the consumer pay: Whenever I took my car somewhere, it would cost a substantial sum, but taking the tram would be free. Eating local lamb, which has actually grazed outdoors, would be really good value, whereas pork fed by soy pellets from Brazil would be almost prohibitive.

At the same time, a change in mentality is necessary, and it may be under way in some of the richer corners of the world. The term affluenza was coined some years ago, referring to the now well documented fact that extreme affluence does not make people happier. (I wrote a book about this in Norwegian some years ago.) Consumerism works fine for most of us up to a point, but it is not sufficient; it is not fulfilling in the same way as religion used to be. Humans need something more enduring; and seeing yourself in a global context, as an integral part of Gaia (a metaphor, coined by James Lovelock at a suggestion from his friend William Golding, depicting the planet as an organism), may well be the kind of religiosity is needed in this secularised, consumerist, individualising world, where the old religions have little to contribute except complacency, regression and conflict.

Naomi Klein has no faith in such measures. She seems to envision a world where the profit-seeking motive (or selfishness, or the competitive drive) has been abolished or at least brought under control. But two centuries of utopian political thinking has led to nothing but tragedy and disillusion, and no comparative anthropology worthy of its credentials can point to a society where solidarity and mutual aid are the only social forces. Yes, it is true that we humans like to cooperate, and we like to be liked by others. But we also like to win and to be admired by others. Creating a decent society is not done once and for all; it is an ongoing project, and it entails hard work. And the serpent is never far away.

In recent decades, the traditional left has failed in two major areas, namely diversity (including multiculturalism) and environmentalism (including climate change). The left – mainly Marxism and its permutations – simply wasn’t made for these issues. It excelled in promoting equal rights and equal benefits, but soon proved incompetent in dealing with cultural diversity (which has a complicated relationship to equality) and environmental crises (which cannot easily be reconciled with traditional demands for equality, which have historically presupposed economic growth).

However much I sympathise with Klein’s views, I feel an almost constant urge to contradict her. There is something profoundly irritating about her knack for simple just-so stories about the evils of corporations and the virtues of common folk, stories which ultimately come across as repetitive with a hint of smugness. She is one of those people who always has a ready answer. There is not much by way of complexity or ambivalence in her writings. She prefers simplicity to paradoxes, answers to dilemmas. For example, she rarely zooms in on people who actually work in the fossil fuel industry – perhaps, a decade ago, she would have portrayed them as potential socialists and working-class heroes – and when she finally does write about the foot soldiers of the fossil fuel industry, all she has to say concerns their high divorce rates, substance abuse and thwarted dreams of early retirement. People I know in Australia tell different stories. Surely, they recognise the problems Klein mentions. Fly-in-fly-out work is disruptive of family life and disturbs the rhythms of civil society. But at the same time, thousands of people make good money and have a reasonably harmonious life as workers in the fossil fuel world. Imagine yourself a school leaver in Central Queensland. You are just seventeen, and you are thoroughly fed up with school, so higher education is out of the question. Luckily, you can get a job as an apprentice with the local alumina factory. After a few years, you can begin to pay down the mortgage on a house. Still a few years later, you earn more money than a university professor. And you’re then supposed to listen when some middle-class people from the big city come and lecture you about climate change and the need to close down your workplace? The truth is that in many countries – Norway, Canada, Australia, Russia – working in extractive or energy-intensive industries can be a blessing for poorly educated members of the working class. I’m sure that Klein wants to educate them, but I’m not so certain that they will want to listen to her.

Klein must be commended for her engagement and conscientious search for statistics and stories that demonstrate the need to think radically differently about the future of the species and the planet, and which show that the economic and political elites cannot be counted on as the instigators of change. And, to repeat, it is really good news that a leftist campaigner of her stature has discovered the importance of environmental questions. Her critique of the naïve faith in technological solutions, exemplified through visionary capitalists like Richard Branson and dangerous, megalomaniac ideas about geoengineering, is also important and pertinent. Yet, the feeling lingers that Klein proposes 19th century solutions to 21st century problems. In fact, there is no historical subject in the narrative about global climate change, unlike in the stories about social reforms and radical working classes. We are all in this together, and every effort counts. There is a real danger that while Klein and her allies are busy fighting corporate greed, business elites are being alienated, politicians align (as they tend to) with the economically powerful, and the little guy with a green engagement is left with few options left other than sorting his rubbish and taking his bike to work. As if that would make a difference in the effort to save Antarctica and the Maldives.

No holier-than-thou rhetoric will do the trick. It is necessary for greens of all shades to get their hands dirty and jump into bed at the first convenient moment with whichever strange bedfellows are at hand to offer their services.