Spaces of possibility

In addition to working on the essay on philosophy of science, my doctoral partner Åsne and I are working on a paper for a conference to be held in June of 2009, ECEEE. The topic is on how new markets are constructed, and we’re using the case of how the Norwegian electricity sector was deregulated in 1990 to show what goes into creating a market where there was none before. Why start this early when the conference is in June, you say? Because the paper is due in January, and in order to get some feedback from colleagues here at the department we need to present our basic ideas in two weeks.

Anyway, both while working with this topic and during my preparations for the panel debate on climate, I am continuously struck by the importance of what I’ll call “spaces of possibility” in the political sphere. The idea is basically that in order to gain any form of political traction for a policy change, it has to be included in the mental space of what is feasible among policy makers. This is partly what climate change proponents have to struggle with when they propose policy changes to reduce emissions. A different example from the Norwegian political situation is our current center-left government’s dual promise of improving the welfare state while simultaneously maintaining the current taxation level. Clearly, this leaves little room for big changes to the status quo.

This notion is of course not new, but whether one wants to call it hegemony (after Gramsci), dominant discourse (after Foucault, for example), paradigm (after Kuhn), centrism or simply consensus, it still strikes me as an important notion for understanding how politics are done. Anyone wanting to change today’s political organization must take into account this rather conservative tendency, and start by trying to expand the space of possibility before even suggesting policy change. I believe this is what climate researchers have been trying to do for the last twenty years, because anything that turns into general scientific consensus stands a much better chance of being accepted as within the space of possibility than if there are major disagreements.

This works both ways. Once you are inside the space of possbility, you can do the most remarkable things and still be seen as serious and realistic. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by American troops, or the latest bailouts of the financial sectors of the world for incredible amounts of money have, despite protests, gone amazingly well. No riots in the streets when the US government give away half an annual budget to a small board of incompetent gamblers, but see what happens if they raise gas prices to offset emissions…

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