Post-scarcity: a research review (in progress!)

I’ve been slowly going through research literature on post-scarcity and so-called scarcity, abundance and sufficiency (SAS) school of thought.

TL;DR version: post-scarcity economy, where the economic problem of production has for all intents and purposes been solved and all the basic needs are met for all the people, seems to be a much more feasible proposition than many people believe. However, it will require development of new institutions to govern the new commons and political action to end the inequalities that threaten the world.

My presentation at the Finnish Political Science Association’s 2018 conference, 8.3.18:

(click here to go to Google Slides; feel free to comment!)

Paper will follow once I get it to some sort of shape.



Posted in Economy and the Environment, Notes in process, Scarcities and constraints | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Pragmatic, inclusive energy discussion works

Here’s one data point for the debate about communicating nuclear power: The approval rating of nuclear power in Finland has risen by a whopping seven percentage points in a year. In Pyhäjoki, where the Russian Rosatom is building its highly-contested reactor, the approval of nuclear power hovers around 75 percent despite all the media attention given to the very real problems with the project and the way it was handled.

At the same time, the Finnish Ecomodernist Society has been more and more active in calm, measured discussion about energy and climate issues and the positives of including nuclear power as one energy option among others. While it would be an overstatement to say that the work of Finnish ecomodernists is responsible for this increase in public approval, at the very least it shows that thoughtful, balanced approach does not prevent the increase in popularity of a contentious energy source.

For some years now, I’ve firmly believed that all maximalist energy plans are mistakes on both practical and political levels. While plans and ideas that call for 100% renewable or 100% nuclear energy to decarbonise the world may be physically possible, I don’t think they represent the most reliable, nor the fastest, nor the cheapest ways to required near-total decarbonisation. Furthermore, I don’t believe we can know with any certainty the details of the energy system of the 2050s; therefore, arguing that one route or the other is clearly superior seems to me a case of hubris.

Instead, I believe that we ought to encourage all approaches that have the potential to reduce emissions to the atmosphere, or draw down greenhouse gases that are already there. I also believe that at this juncture, we don’t have the luxury of opposing any major low-carbon energy projects, unless for very good and fairly specific reasons.

We need to remain critical of energy technologies and, in particular, energy projects. There are no unproblematic technologies, and despite the obvious need for vast amounts of low-carbon energy, no technology or project should go unchallenged. But there is a fine line between being a critic, and coming off as an arrogant, obsessed devotee. Coming off as a latter – even if one is technically speaking correct – is a surefire way of alienating people who might actually be otherwise open to a discussion. Being obnoxiously certain of the superiority of one’s chosen solutions is just another way of being a jerk. (Note that I don’t claim to be innocent here, but I do try to make amends.)

And since we also need a lot higher public approval for all low-carbon energy and climate mitigation projects, we all ought to focus on promoting what we like instead of bashing what we don’t like. By all means, be critical – just don’t overdo it. The Finnish example shows, in my mind, that thoughtful discussion goes a lot farther a lot faster than bashing the opposition.

(As an aside, we’ve benefited from having a previous example. Back in 1993, the Finnish Parliament voted for a permit for the fifth nuclear reactor in Finland. The permit was denied, and latter post mortems noted that a major (though not the only) reason was the smug, alienating approached used by the promoters of the fifth nuclear reactor. They came off as arrogant, technocratic know-it-alls who disparaged every other idea and solution, called the opposition unscientific and irrational, and managed to alienate even some dyed-in-the-wool nuclear supporters. In contrast, the 2003 decision was lobbied very differently, with an approach that envisioned nuclear power as one solution among others and was by far more courteous to the critics. Since I read those post-mortems, I’ve done my best to cultivate similar approach in my advocacy.)

Thanks to Rauli Partanen for the idea for this post, and particularly for his hard work in energy advocacy. You should follow Rauli in Twitter, @kaikenhuippu, and check out our book, Climate Gamble.

Posted in Ecomodernism, Energy, Nuclear energy & weapons | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Why I believe we ought to build a spacefaring civilisation

The successful launch of the Falcon Heavy is a milestone, and it has raised again the important question: should we humans try to create a spacefaring civilisation, even if we could?
This is a philosophical question, and answers to it are ultimately subjective. However, for those who are interested in such matters, I solved it to my own satisfaction quite some time ago. My conclusion, which obviously is a subjective one, is that we ought to at least try.
For all we know, we are the only tool-making, potentially spacefaring intelligence in the galactic neighborhood, possibly in our galaxy (there is a recent Bayesian estimate that suggests this might have as high as 40 percent probability) and maybe even in the visible universe, though I doubt that. Furthermore, as far as we know, complex life does not exist anywhere except on Earth.
Furthermore, we know for certain that cosmic disasters that are capable of wiping all complex life and possibly all life on Earth are a mathematical certainty. It’s not if they happen; it’s when they happen, and what can be done to prevent or mitigate them.
Normally, most people would agree that letting even one species go extinct if we could prevent it is an environmental wrongdoing, possibly even a crime.
What sort of crime it would be to let all life on Earth go extinct, if we had the opportunity to save at least some of it? To me, this would be a monstrous crime indeed. Even if the nearby stars teem with life, all life is unique and letting Earthlife go extinct from our neglect would be akin to letting an ecosystem on Earth die off. And if life is rare, then letting Earthlife go extinct could even mean the death of life itself.
This is the largest single reason why I don’t see environmental protection here on Earth and a vigorous space program as separate choices, but as complementary approaches to ensuring the longevity of life, experience and memory. The universe may not need curious creatures that are in awe of its wonders, but I still think this is a better place because such critters exist.
Posted in SETI, Aliens & Space | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

My professional opinion as a blockchain researcher: I don’t see the point (yet)

I’ve spent the last 15 months researching the implications and possibilities of blockchains and related “distributed trust technologies” from a business and societal point of view. Sadly, I have to say that I don’t quite get the hype, as much as I’d love to believe in a technological revolution that democratises the world economy.

(NOTE: I’ve edited this text a bit to be clear that I’m talking about public blockchains. Private blockchains are a different matter, and they will have applications in e.g. automating many transactions. That said, the effects are hardly revolutionary, at least in the short term.)

As it stands, public blockchain is very much a kludgy solution looking for non-existent problem, namely lack of trusted intermediaries in finance and accounting.

Unfortunately for this central value proposition of blockchain, there is no lack of trusted enough intermediaries in the financial/accounting sector.

Very few people outside so-called crypto-anarchist community are opposed to trusted intermediaries as a matter of principle, and outside this (admittedly vocal) minority and those who for their own personal reasons want to believe in this scheme, I seriously doubt there is going to be a huge market of people who are willing to pay a premium (in time, effort or actual valuables) just for the sake of avoiding one sort of intermediary, only to trust the transactions to a code that may or may not be transparently accounted for.

For who among us can honestly say “yes, I am capable of reviewing the code behind blockchain applications I’m using and I have personally done so to make sure I’m not being scammed?”

How can the people who are now willing to trust their savings to blockchain technologies  be sure that the code and its underlying governance structures (that is, how it is being developed and modified) are in any way better than at least nominally democratically governed systems – with at least some possibility for recourse if things go sour – they want to replace?

To me, it all seems another gold craze, stoked not only by the usual crowd of techno-babblers keen on latching on the latest buzzword, but also by certified wingnuts from the long-discredited hyper-libertarian Austrian school of economics, kept buoyant by half-baked comparisons to “unreliable” “paper money” (which is nevertheless very effectively backed by the government’s universal tendency to require said paper money for taxes, not to mention the inconvenient fact that if societal trust erodes sufficiently for paper money to lose its value, it’s highly unlikely an arbitrary string of ones and zeros in an arbitrary hard disk somewhere would fare much better), spotty comparisons of current economic system to few exceptions where hyperinflation was allowed to run rampant, and perhaps most of all, by simple wishes that the persons currently propping up the belief in blockchains will not be the last ones who are blinded by the latest buzzword and get-rich-quick scheme.

Please do not get me wrong. I believe that in the long run, crypto-enabled distributed trust technologies could possibly have significant role in enabling micropayments and microinvestments, effectively by reducing transaction costs related to distribution and bookkeeping. There may also be some very interesting applications in governance and organisation of human work, and these initiatives ought to be followed more closely. Furthermore, private, permissioned blockchains are already quite useful for e.g. automating transactions.

However, the crypto-enthusiastic community loudly ignores that 1) there are absolutely no reasons the current banking system couldn’t reduce its own transaction costs enough to compete very effectively in these lucrative sectors, and 2) the bog standard public blockchain with its Proof of Work scheme (e.g. how Bitcoin burns electricity) is certainly not going to cut transaction costs enough, as throughput rates are simply not even within two orders of magnitude from what is needed. Case in point: a Bitcoin developer conference just announced it won’t be accepting Bitcoin as a means of payment, because it’s too slow and the transaction fees are too high. 

So we will inevitably end up with some variation of Proof of Stake protocol – where we will simply have to trust some users more than others – just because Proof of Work, where we don’t have to know or trust other users, is absolutely ridiculous waste of resources and will always have trouble scaling up.

See, for example, how Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG) “tangles” are proposed to work. And once we go down that route, it will become increasingly hard to avoid asking the question: since distributed computing in this sort of record-keeping is always going to be less efficient than centralised computing, what are the precise reasons we should not go the whole route and designate certain nodes as … trusted intermediaries?

So we’ll end up with what is basically a buzzword-enhanced database solution with some redundancy and consensus algorithms built in. These are not new, PAXOS consensus algorithms debuted in 1989 – and there are Reasons why they haven’t been used very much. Namely, performance, and the fact that there is no pressing problem these would solve.

Crypto applications will certainly be useful for verification of various things (again, these are not exactly new ideas) and I could foresee a micropayment and alternative finance systems that could well take off, provided the backbone is something else than blockchain as it is. (My money at the moment would be on DAGs, as both Bitcoin and Ethereum still seem to have grave problems scaling up – but it’s even more likely that someone will come up with something better than current DAGs.) This could develop into a microinvestment vehicle of some sort, and unlocking the investment potential of the world’s poor could well make some people very, very wealthy indeed.

However, there are also Reasons why such “penny stocks” have been regulated everywhere for decades if not centuries: they have always been fantastic vehicles for scamming the credulous. Cryptography is not some magic free lunch that totally changes the rules in investing and finance.

Feel free to call me a luddite or whatever. It’s just that I’ve been studying the possibilities of blockchains for business for over a year now, and while it is certainly possible that I simply lack the imagination (or chutzpah) necessary for bold proclamations, I just don’t see the possibilities the marketers seem to see.’

My advice to all those who are interested in blockchain systems is this: think very carefully whether the problem you are interested in solving will truly be easier to solve, or can be solved better, by distributing the database to the users of the database. If the answer is yes, and if you can also remain fairly confident that the solution will not infringe on privacy or financial regulation, and if you have money to spare, then by all means go ahead and experiment with blockchain technologies – though keep in mind that at this stage, everything is so rudimentary that systems will have to be built from scratch (not a good idea, usually) and that technologies can change abruptly. At this moment, there are already some fairly well established private blockchains, though.

Interesting things are more likely to appear in the smart contracts field, and technologies like blockchain are almost certainly going to be used both to enhance existing systems and to develop new kinds of services that are still hard to envision in detail. Some interesting developments that may point a direction to the future include automating some aspects of insurance markets, such as automating claims processing in more straightforward cases (e.g. when a flight is cancelled and customers need to be refunded) or even selling of insurances automatically based on mutually shared financial data. However, these technologies are still very much immature, and while early adopters could potentially benefit, the risks are also significant.

Very good reads on the topic are becoming more numerous than it is possible to keep track of, but here are some of the best ones I’ve come across lately.

Preston Byrne: The Problem with Calling Bitcoin a “Ponzi Scheme” (“This is no pyramid scheme – our model is the trapezoid!”)

Preston Byrne: The bear case for crypto, part I (the other parts are good too)

Webb Reports: Bitcoin: The world’s first decentralized Ponzi scheme

Someone wants to create “legally binding agreements” for consensual sex, and store them in … blockchain, because of course they would. 

One company found its valuation quadruple simply by adding “blockchain” to its name. No bubbles here, nossiree!

Governments are finally beginning to do something, and it doesn’t bode well for the prices of cryptocurrencies

Posted in Innovation, Notes in process | Tagged , , | 25 Comments

Necessity is the mother of inventors: my PhD lecture

The following is the traditional Lectio praecursoria a doctoral candidate in Finland gives to the audience before his/her PhD defence. This one is mine, delivered on 12th December 2017.

Esteemed custos, esteemed opponent, ladies and gentlemen!

You all are probably familiar with an old saying, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Many may also remember stirring tales of ingenuity, where poorly equipped underdogs come up with brilliant inventions or insights that permit them to succeed against the odds. In fact, those of us who have happened to be born in Finland have been positively marinated in such stories.

What these tales and that old wisdom are telling us is that sometimes, less can be more. Tales of ingenuity tell us that human creativity can overcome formidable obstacles, and that the rich and the powerful do not always win in the end. As such, these stories are important if only from an educational perspective: we certainly need to remain optimistic and dare to attempt even the impossible, or otherwise most things we today take as granted would never have been achieved. Triumph over adversity makes for a good story, and we all enjoy good stories.

Furthermore, the connection between resource scarcities and creativity is not merely a question for academics, but increasingly, for the whole society. As the world population is heading towards ten billion or so individuals, and as the exponential growth of extractive economy shows few signs of slowing down, more and more resources are likely to become contested, if not altogether scarce. While the greatest scarcity is likely to be the capacity of the atmosphere to act as a sink for carbon dioxide, according to some reports we may face even scarcities of sand. Yet, if necessity is reliably the mother of invention, we can rest easy in the knowledge that the invisible hand will always save us in the end.

However, as researchers, our task is to remain professional skeptics. Just how well founded is the belief that necessity, via increased demand and hence increased prices, begets innovation that restores the equilibrium? If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, shouldn’t it follow that poverty is the most effective tool of innovation policy? If less is more, shouldn’t us PhD students simply be grateful that our stipends are so low?

When confronted with dilemmas like these, the usual human response is to believe the truth can be found in the middle of two extreme viewpoints. Perhaps getting the “just right” amount of scarcity produces the best results? Such an answer would be very convenient for today’s society, especially for those who control the purse strings. It would normalize the societal mechanisms that make necessities scarce in the first place, treating scarcities not only as inevitable consequences of inevitably endless demand but also as positive forces that prod humans to even greater productivity. If we live in a world where human ingenuity can overcome all obstacles, scarcities and scarcity-inducing policies are to be welcomed as a force for inevitable progress.

Unfortunately, research findings suggest that as a rule, we do not live in such a world.

Since it is ultimately individuals and product development organizations that would need to come up with solutions to scarce resources, it is useful to look into what research says about individual and team creativity under constraints. Prior research[1] has found that some constraints that limit the options available to the designers are likely to be beneficial to individual and team creativity. These findings confirm a well-known axiom in design business: creativity requires constraints, because constraints help you concentrate. However, once we begin to talk about organizational ingenuity, the beneficial effects of constraints seem to be heavily moderated by situational factors, such as attitudes and interpersonal dynamics prevalent within organizations.[2] In short, members of a well-functioning development team that relishes a challenge may well find themselves invigorated by the challenge posed by constraints, but a dysfunctional team is more likely to simply give up.

That said, given the pressing reality of environmental degradation, one oversight of existing constraint and scarcity research is its focus on financial constraints. Most research so far has studied how organizations cope with lack of money, time, or personnel. Few studies give deep insights into how organizations act when some other resource, such as raw materials or energy access, are in danger. My research seeks to respond to these questions.

In my thesis, I examine closely two historical accounts of technological innovation that resulted to important technological changes in an industry. The first and most important of these case studies is the study of so-called flash smelting furnace, while the second concerns the development of radical jet engine cooling technology.

Both of these innovations had considerable impact in their respective industries. Flash smelting technology, developed immediately after the Second World War, was a breakthrough in energy efficiency in copper manufacturing. It was also a commercial success that at one point responsible for as much as 60 percent of world’s primary copper production.[3] The engine cooling concept examined in the thesis would’ve permitted the wartime German Luftwaffe to build cheaper jet fighters. Fortunately, the Second World War ended before the invention came into widespread use. Both of these innovations are believed to be direct results of a scarcity of some important resource: electricity in the flash smelting case, and nickel metal in the jet engine case.[4]

In both of these cases, I found that the technologies themselves were almost ready to be taken into use when the scarcity occurred. Furthermore, scarcity did not appear to have significant impact in creativity of the solutions. In both cases, competing development teams had considered the exact same ideas, but abandoned them because their chosen solution offered superior performance. In other words, it would be more accurate to say that in these cases, scarcities at most slightly accelerated the adoption of almost ready technological solutions.

Two conclusions follow. First, scarcities may sometimes prod industries into using novel technologies. However, second, there are absolutely no guarantees that scarcities can be reliably overcome through human ingenuity. There may well be goods and ecosystem services we simply cannot substitute, and even if we can ultimately find substitutes, there may be no telling how long the technologies require to develop. Technological development is not a black box where planners pour money and out comes innovation on demand: instead, what can be invented at any given time depends on what knowledge and what components are available at that time.[5]

Since it is extremely difficult to predict just which components are needed for the breakthrough discoveries, it is also very difficult to use simple demand mechanisms to stimulate radical innovation. For example, in my case studies, some of the technological knowledge required for breakthroughs came from entirely unrelated fields – from coal power stations in the flash smelting case, and from manufacture of cups and ammunition cartridges in the jet engine case. Demand for less energy intensive methods for smelting copper or for methods for cooling jet engine turbines could not create incentives for the development of coal burning technology, nor for the development of cartridge manufacturing machines. No matter how large the incentives to develop a breakthrough, these developments could not happen unless the time was ripe. On the other hand, when the time is right, it is more than likely that multiple inventors will be able to realize the idea simultaneously.[6]

Now, an economically literate person could object to my research, stating that so far we’ve overcome all scarcities. After all, we have been able to survive, both as a species and even as a developed society, from a variety of shortages and constraints, even though some have been extremely serious. This is true, but depends on how we define the words “scarcity” and “overcome”. There may also be some selection bias: the businesses and societies that have faced scarcities they couldn’t overcome have ceased to exist.

Even if the business or the society adapts to a scarcity of some resource, the society often needs to change as a result. Change is of course not necessarily bad in itself, and this brings us to what I believe is the more interesting and important question than the periodic, somewhat fruitless and often apocalyptic debate about possible resource crises. This is the question “what kind of specific impacts can result from scarcities we may be facing?”

Perhaps the most pressing scarcity at the moment is the scarcity of nature’s capability to deal with carbon dioxide our society spews into atmosphere. Limiting the production of pollution is going to be mandatory, if we are to survive as a species. However, many existing industries such as fossil fuels industry could not operate under necessary restrictions, and many others, like aviation, would be severely constrained. At the moment, the employees of these industries would pay the highest cost of any serious attempts to curb environmental damages. Even though tight carbon budgets would cause an average person to suffer only very modest reductions in well-being, employees in endangered industries would lose their jobs. Since workers who would lose jobs are also voters, meaningful reductions in carbon dioxide emissions remains difficult, if not impossible. The problem is likely to remain intractable as long as we approach the issue mostly from the viewpoint of standard economic theory, which continues to argue that environmental improvements should bring net benefits to the society. While this is true, the theory fails to appreciate just how much pain and suffering these improvements can cause to the losers.

One reason for this lack of vision may be in the economic theory’s lack of distinction between different types of scarcities. I find some theoretical and empirical reasons to suggest that meaningful talk about scarcities should include at least three distinct types of scarcities.[7] These are, first, relative scarcities, which refers to the so-called normal situation in economic theory where resources are not unlimited and have competing uses; second, absolute scarcities, which refer to resources that cannot be realistically substituted by other resources, such as breathable air; third, quasi-scarcities, which refer to resources that may exist in abundance but which cannot be accessed by the needy, most often because they are not entitled to access.

I believe that most actual situations of scarcity could be usefully conceptualized as quasi-scarcities, or lack of entitlement to give full credit to Amartya Sen’s groundbreaking work[8] which lies at the root of the concept. In our world, resources are more often abundant than they are not. However, for various good and not so good reasons, our access to those resources is limited. Environmental regulation, not physical realities, actually limit how much our factories can release pollutants. Lack of access, not lack of food production, is a major contributing factor behind famines. And lack of political or financial power, not productive capability, is the reason many people even in so-called rich countries have to live without even basic fundamentals of life, from shelter to medicine to healthy food.

In both of the cases I studied, the supposedly hard resource constraint turned out to be something that could very well have been amended through exercise of political power. In both cases, it seems that the key reason the developers did not exercise political power was belief in technology. The developers believed that the technologies would be so useful so soon that political action to increase access to the scarce resource would not be needed. Particularly in the case of flash smelting, it is very difficult to imagine that the company in question – Outokumpu in Finland – would’ve been unable to secure access to more electricity, if flash furnace had appeared to be infeasible. After all, failure to deliver copper the Soviet Union demanded for war reparations payments might have been used as an excuse to occupy Finland.

To sum up my findings, my research cautions against relying on technological miracles to solve the problems caused by diminishing natural resources. Technologies are certainly helpful, but sooner or later we will face a situation where some previously abundant resource is simply not available any longer. Even though our societies may be resilient and unlikely to collapse as a result, the adjustment periods are likely to cause hardships to many. Even though the hardships are usually local, they are not less real to those who experience them. Furthermore, I believe that questions of power and power relations need to gain more attention in research and debate about economic relations, organizations, and the society. Questions such as political power wielded by an organization should no longer be ignored in economic debate simply because measuring political power is difficult, because otherwise we risk obtaining a very biased view of the world we live in.

Finally, far as creativity and ingenuity are concerned, I wish to point out that the solutions developed to these resource constraints were not really novel ones. Similar development was happening elsewhere, and the adopted solutions suffered from problems that caused less constrained developers to use different approaches. However, there is no reason to believe that Outokumpu, for instance, would have developed its flash furnace and gained worldwide commercial success, if the electricity shortage had not forced its hand. In this manner, I believe the answer to the original question motivating this thesis could be formulated as follows:

Necessity is the mother of inventors, not of inventions.

Download my PhD thesis, Constructed Solutions to Constructed Constraints, here.

Footnotes and references

  1. See e.g. Rosso, B. D. (2014). Creativity and Constraints: Exploring the Role of Constraints in the Creative Processes of Research and Development Teams. Organization Studies; Joyce, C. K. (2009). The blank page: Effects of constraint on creativity.; Moreau, C. P., & Dahl, D. W. (2005). Designing the solution: the impact of constraints on consumers’ creativity; Goldenberg, J., Lehmann, D. R., & Mazursky, D. (2001). The idea itself and the circumstances of its emergence as predictors of new product success.
  2. Weiss, M., Hoegl, M., & Gibbert, M. (2013). The Influence of Material Resources on Innovation Project Outcomes; Hoegl, M., Gibbert, M., & Mazursky, D. (2008). Financial constraints in innovation projects: When is less more?
  3. Moskalyk, R. ., & Alfantazi, A. . (2003). Review of copper pyrometallurgical practice: today and tomorrow.
  4. Särkikoski, T. (1999). A Flash of Knowledge; Habashi, F. (1998). The Origin of Flash Smelting; Gibbert, M., & Scranton, P. (2009). Constraints as sources of radical innovation? Insights from jet propulsion development; Schubert, H. (2004). Turbine – The Hollow Metal Blade as Solution for Material Shortage.
  5. See also Arthur, B. W. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What it is and how it evolves.
  6. For simultaneity in invention, see e.g. Ogburn, W. F., & Thomas, D. (1922). Are Inventions Inevitable? A Note on Social Evolution; Brunk, G. G. (2003). Swarming of innovations, fractal patterns, and the historical time series of US patents; Cole, S. (2004). Merton’s Contribution to the Sociology of Science; Sarafoglou, N., Kafatos, M., & Beall, J. H. (2012). Simultaneity in the Scientific Enterprise; Lemley, M. A. (2012). The Myth of the Sole Inventor.
  7. For prior work, including the concept of quasi-scarcities, see Daoud, A. (2011). Scarcity, Abundance and Sufficiency: Contribution to social and economic theory.
  8. Sen, A. (1982). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation.
Posted in History of technology, Innovation, Scarcities and constraints | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Finland is the land of personal freedom, and that’s why I love it

finnish flag

Finnish flag image from Pixabay

On December 6th 2017, Finland celebrates her centennial as an independent nation. Exactly one hundred years ago, the Finnish Parliament finally voted for the motion to sever all ties to the revolutionary Russian government and assume the highest legislative power in the country. (As an aside, the motion for independence had been introduced on November 30th, but the speaker of the parliament did not want to extend the last parliamentary session before parliamentary break for 30 minutes the vote would’ve taken, instead letting the MPs go to their homes on schedule.)

The century has been a turbulent one, to say the least. Many Internet users know Finland mostly for her wars, and it is true that those six years of conflict had a profound effect on Finland. However, there have also been 72 years of uninterrupted peace, and it is high time Finland becomes known for our more recent achievements.

In celebration of our centennial, various lists of Finnish achievements have already circulated, and more will surely follow. However, today I’d like to tell you about why I believe many of those achievements were possible – why such a small country can punch well above its weight – and explain why I, a cosmopolitan citizen of Finland, wouldn’t want to live in any other country, with the possible exception of other Nordic countries. I will tell you about the reason I believe Finland, and Finnish citizens, have been able to achieve all those things, and why I genuinely believe that despite its faults, our society is among the best on the planet.

To summarise, the key reason I love Finland is because in this barren corner of the world, our forebears created a land of personal freedom for all. Consider this, for example: my granddad was born into a family too poor to afford a chimney or enough shoes for the whole family (!). However, had the war not intervened, he would’ve gotten free secondary education, and several of his children received free university education. One of his grandchildren, namely me, is soon the first of our family to obtain a PhD on top of a master’s degree in engineering. Thanks to regular, universal government stipends (“study money”) and subsidies for housing and lunches, this would have been possible without going into any debt at all. I did nevertheless take about 10 000 euros of cheap student loans during my master’s degree just because loans were so cheap. I’ve been able to repay them during my PhD studies and the debt is now down to about 1000 euros. (I feel sorry for you guys in the United States in particular – having your stipends classified as taxable income must hurt.)

This is freedom to become what you want to be, instead of what you can afford.

When I was finishing my M.Sc. degree in 2007, my financial situation wasn’t exactly stellar – I was a research assistant in the Helsinki University of Technology, supposed to work on my Master’s thesis – yet I was still free to grasp an opportunity of lifetime to become a founding partner of a product design company, a field that deeply interests me still. I knew starting a business would be a serious financial risk, and I did eat a lot of porridge during our first year of operations. But I also knew that if our business failed, I would at least receive some unemployment benefits and wouldn’t be thrown out to the street. And when I made some money, the Tax Administration would simply send me an annual pre-filled tax form where most of the deductions were made automatically. Filling out the tax report takes me some 15 minutes each year; I review the pre-filled form for obvious errors and simply copy-paste my expenses from a spreadsheet to a web form. Just as about one third of Finns, I don’t even mind paying more taxes than strictly necessary, because we all know that we will receive the extra back just in time for Christmas – with decent interest, even. Similarly, other interactions with the government tend to work on a principle that it’s the government’s responsibility to make sure you get what you are entitled to, not your responsibility to game the system. (Although I’m the first to admit that we still have a lot to improve in this regard – but I suspect many critics of the Finnish system don’t have much experience from bureaucracy in some other countries.)

This is freedom to do what you like to do, not what your background affords to you.

I don’t have to worry too much about where me and my wife should live, because there isn’t much difference in terms of e.g. schooling, crime, or public benefits: we can pretty much choose where we live based on what kind of environment we’d like to live in. I know the public health care system will take care of me if something happens, and I know that I don’t need to splurge on a car because public transport and bike lanes make commuting on a budget even more enjoyable than sitting in a car in traffic. I know I could stay in the office until late and be free to walk home without having to fear someone robbing me – or worse – because robbing people isn’t just very profitable compared to living on benefits. (That said, had I been a woman, I probably wouldn’t have been quite as unafraid – unfortunately!) I also know that while I could obtain firearms if I wanted to hunt, for example, it would be very unlikely that a mental case would be able to buy guns: such things have happened, but the loopholes have been plugged as a result.

This is freedom to be yourself, instead of being dependent on your personal networks in case something goes wrong; this is freedom from fear.

In my spare time, I can choose from a variety of public and private services. I can exercise in cheap but well-maintained public sports venues like swimming halls and gyms, or in expensive but fancy private wellness centres. About 500 meters from where I live is a well-stocked public library that these days provides all kinds of services beyond just books. They already have music instruments, art, and tools, and 3D printers may be coming soon – they’re already available in some localities. One of the things I love the most is simply being out there among the nature, and in that, Finland truly excels. From publicly available hiker’s huts in national parks to well-maintained trails, there is no shortage of services to help people enjoy the natural world; and for those who don’t like the beaten trails, our deeply enshrined “everyman’s rights” guarantee that as long as you are not causing any damage or camping directly in someone’s backyard, you have the freedom to roam anywhere, pick berries and mushrooms, and even fish almost wherever you like (provided you’ve paid a modest license whose profits are used to maintain fisheries). In fact, it is illegal for the landowner to put up fences or even signs that forbid trespassing, unless there is a valid reason for that.

These all are freedoms to do what you like.

outside Turku

One of my favourite spots, less than a mile from my home.

Now you may be thinking that there are no such things as free lunches, and you would be right. We do pay taxes, and compared to some other countries, we pay a lot. However, Finland is not even the most heavily taxed nation on Earth, and for average Pekka or Maija, the actual tax rates are fairly comparable to other rich countries. In fact, if we calculate what an average American pays in taxes and other fees that are required to gain similar services and standard of living to what a Finn receives from taxes alone, we will find that many middle-class Finns actually pay less: when the municipalities buy goods and services, they can get a volume discount individuals cannot. Most importantly, most of us really don’t mind paying: the majority realises that we actually pay the taxes so that we ourselves can live in a society where most people are highly educated, the sick are taken care of, and even those who are less lucky don’t have to resort to crime. In short, we know taxes are the entry fee to a civilised society and its freedoms for all – and that theoretical freedoms for all would be diminished if people are unfree in practice.

Finland is certainly not an utopia and there are many, many things we need to do better: in fact, I don’t believe in utopias and think that there will always be something any society can improve. However, on this centennial I’d like to tell those people who may never have been to Finland that there is nothing magical about our society, and you too can have what we have if you want.

Do not believe for a moment those who’d like to ascribe the success of Nordic countries to some simplistic explanation, from small population to supposed homogeneity, that provide so very convenient excuses not to even think of the possibility that you too could have greater freedoms. First, our populations might be small, but any human population can be divided into similarly sized chunks, and many administrative divisions in larger countries are already about the same size. Second, the Nordics have never been that homogeneous: a little more than a hundred years ago, the Finnish tribes such as Savonians, Osthrobothnians, and Karelians (not to even mention the Sami peoples, who are even more distinct) were practically isolated from each other, could barely understand each other’s language, and had sometimes wildly differing attitudes and outlooks on life, even different religions. In Finland in particular, the class divide was enormous: before our country was one year old, we had fought a civil war with (then) record-setting brutality, with mass executions of civilians by machine guns, concentration camps, starvation and all the rest.

Just yesterday I heard that one of the wounds of that time had been healed as traditionally bourgeois and traditionally proletarian cooperative store chains (that split in 1917) had decided to merge together. So to anyone who claims we’ve been a homogenous nation: don’t make me laugh, when I was a kid we could still tell whose grandparents had fought on which side based on where they bought groceries and which bank’s savings book they carried – and to cross over to the “other people’s” store was simply not done. People only slightly older than my grandparents could go to their deaths without having spoken to their siblings since 1918, and as late as in the 1970s, those with “unreliable” family background could be discreetly excluded from certain positions. Just because right-wing pundits like to believe Finland has been harmoniously homogenous does not make it so.

What we did was not easy nor fast. The roots of our current society were laid in the 1920s as enough of the winners of the civil war realised they couldn’t turn the clock back to the class divide of 1800s without risking another rebellion, and consequently acquiesced to many of the original demands of the defeated Reds. Slowly, brick by brick, the foundations of a welfare state were laid down – sometimes in a process where two steps forward were followed by one step backward. However, progressive policies tended to prevail, often simply because they made so much sense. For example, even most conservatives realised eventually that the interests of the businesses would be served better if the educated talent pool was broader: by making education free and widely available, we did not squander our human resources the way many countries still insist on doing.

All this was made possible because of social democratic policies – or democratic socialism, if you will. I know socialism is a dirty word to many, but it’s hard to argue with success: all Nordic countries have followed broadly similar policies, and all of them regularly top all the charts that measure quality of life and well-being. At the same time, even our economies grow faster than those of the supposedly competitive dog-eat-dog countries.

But nothing in this was preordained, and nothing in history dictated that only the Nordic countries could make democratic socialism work. Had the Vietnam War been avoided, it’s entirely possible that president Lyndon B. Johnson would’ve found funds to enact legislation much to the same effect – at about the same time as Nordic countries made the transition towards social democracy. This was a wasted opportunity of enormous proportions, but everything is still possible.

After all, few countries today have to deal with the aftermath of a civil war that left one percent of the population dead and two percent imprisoned in concentration camps. (For scale: if the United States had a similar war, three million would be dead and six million would languish in the camps.) If we were able to create a society that maximises individual freedoms to the extent current Finnish society does, anyone can do it.

And that, I hope, is the message one can learn from Finland’s century.

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Power and the (European) anti-nuclear power movement

This post contains some thoughts about the history of the anti-nuclear movement and in particular the European anti-nuclear movement as a struggle for power and empowerment; it’s posted here for convenience and as a reference, and as a caution against interpreting the anti-nuclear movement simplistically, such as a movement that is being powered by fossil fuel interests. I’d also hope to illuminate why scientific facts are not enough to dissuade opposition to new technologies, and why those wishing to change the society should strive to understand the power relations, feelings of powerlessness, and empowerment of individuals.

The European and in particular the German anti-nuclear movement has a long and sometimes distinguished history. Fundamentally, the opposition to nuclear energy has been rooted in the perfectly understandable and commendable opposition to nuclear weapons, and the feelings of powerlessness felt by many Europeans during the Cold War.

The Cold War was a conflict waged by the two superpowers outside Europe proper, but it was also a conflict that would have turned Europe into a nuclear battleground and a radioactive graveyard had it turned hot. This was particularly galling to Europeans as until about the early 1970s, it was clear that the Soviet nuclear arsenal was predominated by relatively short-range weapons that could not hope to reach the continental United States, but could and would devastate densely populated Europe if a war broke out. (Remember that a major motivation behind the Cuban missile crisis was the Soviet Union’s desire to even the odds by emplacing some of its short-range weapons within range of the US mainland. One result from the crisis was a very much heightened Soviet emphasis on intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit US targets, but until the 1970s anything the Soviets could do to American society was dwarfed by their ability to devastate the European societies.)

As a result, in Europe many concerned citizens felt more or less like helpless pawns in a great game of chess that was being played by forces they could not even begin to control. The end of the world was always only thirty minutes away, and there was very little the common people could do about it. I don’t mean to claim that the people in the United States – or in Eastern Europe for that matter – had much more control over their fates or less reason to fear, but it is clear that Europeans had even more reasons to feel powerless than the citizens of the superpowers, who at least in theory had some say about how the Cold War was being waged.

In my opinion, Spencer R. Weart has demonstrated persuasively in The Rise of Nuclear Fear that the origins of the anti-nuclear power movement were very much intertwined with the anti-nuclear weapons movement, and that the movement against nuclear power was to a large extent powered by a sort of displacement activity for people who might have been actually more afraid of the nuclear weapons, but felt they could do very little about the bombs or the risks of nuclear war. Weart’s book concentrates mostly on the anti-nuclear movement in the United States, but I believe its conclusions are even more applicable to Europe. After all, for most Europeans, there was almost nothing they could do about nuclear weapons themselves, aside from protesting against them and their deployment. However, in all European countries, citizens and politicians could oppose nuclear power.

So, the opposition to nuclear power was, to simplify a bit, very much a question of and a struggle for power. The people felt they had too little power over their lives and their future, and that they could feel more empowered if they opposed one concrete manifestation of the energy source that threatened their existence. As sociologists have long noted, power and empowerment are crucial concepts for understanding human social activity, and the sociology of the anti-nuclear movement is no exception.

Furthermore, this power struggle had another aspect besides the tie-in to nuclear weapons. To many people, particularly to those who came to an age during the late 1960s, the technocratic dreams of early nuclear proponents were just another manifestation of the authoritarian, top-down society controlled by almost unaccountable elites. These elites were seen to have been responsible for dragging Europe into two unimaginably destructive wars already – the ruins of which were still being cleared during the 1960s – and there were good reasons to fear that another, final war might break out soon. This alone was a reason for Europeans to feel skeptical about the wisdom of their leadership, but the matters were not helped in Germany in particular by the fact that the post-war political order all too readily accommodated even former Nazis. In this environment, the thinking that equated centralized power structures and political elites with authoritarianism and impeding fascism was, in my opinion, quite understandable.

Nuclear power provided one focal point for this anti-authoritarian criticism. The plans to construct very large centralised power stations (remember that most power plants at that time were very much smaller than they are today, and 400 MW power stations were often seen as excessively large ones) were by themselves seen to concentrate power into the hands of the elites, and the control and governance regimes that were seen to be necessary to contain the nuclear reactions and their waste products were seen in some circles as stepping stones to totalitarian control over the society. Particularly in German-speaking countries, there were influential books that argued that the proposed “plutonium economy” would require total government control and pervasive surveillance to ensure public safety and nonproliferation of weapons material; this is likely the reason why some older anti-nuclear activists in particular accuse modern pro-nuclear environmentalists as “fascists.” Today, the question whether these fears were justified or not is a moot point; the fact is that many people, particularly those of the “1968 generation” felt they were real, pressing issues, or at least symptoms of an outdated, destructive political-industrial complex that was seen to be stripping power from the people.

All this does not in any way diminish other motivations that powered the diverse anti-nuclear movement. By and large, the protesters were not (and are not) motivated primarily by some overarching grand ideological scheme, and local problems and debates were (and are) always at least as important as the broader societal questions. Furthermore, aside from providing an avenue for the struggle for and of power (even for empowerment), the anti-nuclear movement benefited from deeply rooted human dispositions to draw clear distinctions between “pure” and “impure,” and “natural” and “unnatural.” Up until the development of genetic engineering, nuclear power was the prime example of impure and unnatural imposed upon the people by shady powers beyond their control: nuclear waste was seen as the ultimate insult against purity (whether or not that was the reality), and splitting the atom represented concretely the unnatural, even if the first and the most memorable application of the technology hadn’t been in incinerating thousands and ushering in a new era of deeply existential fear about the future of civilization and life itself. In short, nuclear power was very nearly the perfect enemy, and matters were not helped by the grandiose plans and haughty dismissals of all critique by the early 1960s nuclear technocrats. The parallels to the behavior of modern renewable energy technocrats are too painful to list here.

The fact that all this also benefited a traditional, domestic European power source – coal – surely helped matters. However, it would be far too simplistic to interpret the anti-nuclear movement as a fossil-powered special interest group: the declarations that the anti-nuclear activists oppose coal as well are, in my opinion, genuine, even if the results of their activism all too often end up benefiting fossil fuel interests. Instead of such simplistic analyses, the understanding of the forces that oppose new technologies need to be analysed and understood through the one lens sociologists believe is essential to understanding how human societies operate: the question of power relations, the struggles for power, and the feelings of powerlessness or empowerment of individuals and groups.

If nothing else, I hope this note gives some insight into the question technocratically minded often struggle with: why the scientific facts and figures tend to fail in dissuading opposition to some particular technology? In my opinion, the main reason is not the oft-supposed “scientific illiteracy”; rather, it is that the technologies represent different things to different people, and opposing some particular course of action because of the values it or its perceived supporters embodies is – fortunately and unfortunately – a very human trait. No one should feel too smug about this: evidence suggests the “rational” model of decision making, where we first listen to the evidence and then decide our opinions, is simply not how things work out in practice. Instead, we all tend to look at evidence that suits our pre-existing opinions and values, and reject things we don’t agree with.

Posted in Ecomodernism, Energy, History of technology, Nuclear energy & weapons, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment