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Gratislunchen Therese Uddenfeldt, Gratislunchen (The Free Lunch)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2016.

Reviewed by Dominic Hinde in SBR 2016:2

Review Section: Non-fiction

Sweden is currently undergoing something of an existential crisis. One of the world’s richest countries, it also has ambitions to be one of its greenest despite the huge economic upheaval this entails. This desire is not just the stated aim of its new Green government, but one of the self-perpetuating myths of Swedish national life. The green Swedes are perhaps caught in an existential mire. This is the subject of Therese Uddenfeldt’s much hyped and hugely detailed exploration of global crisis.

Like the philosopher Nina Björk, who, in Lyckliga i alla sina dagar: om pengars och människors värde (Happily Ever After: On the Worth of People and Money), exposed the disparity between a liberal philosophy of equality and actual social conditions, Therese Uddenfeldt has turned Sweden’s green self-image on its head.

In Gratislunchen, Uddenfeldt takes on a formidable journalistic project that mixes reportage with literary and existential passages, tackling modernity, the rise of the petro-society and the ultimate implications of its impact on the earth and the atmosphere.

As a culture journalist Uddenfeldt has a talent for mixing the high and the low, and the hard with the soft. Physics mixes with metaphysics and helps to underline her ultimate argument – the ultimate challenge we face is a material one, but the means of understanding it is a cultural and conceptual undertaking.

The argument underpinning Uddenfeldt’s analysis is that ultimately all our energy comes from the sun, whether as solar power, wood grown through photosynthesis, coal, peat or oil.Even wind relies on the convection caused by heat in the atmosphere. In the fight against entropy the sun is one huge powerhouse for the earth’s not-quite-perfect circuit. As Uddenfeldt puts it, ‘sooner or later we will be forced either to scale up nuclear energy dramatically, or to live within our real means, with sunshine, that warm wonderful sunshine that kisses our palm the first time we open it and every day recharges the battery with new energy.’

This essential truth, borne out in a grand narrative that jumps from the Swedish poet Erik Gustaf Geijer’s fascination with the material and the spiritual and the nature of nature, to the British fuel crisis, fracking, and Norway’s rocket-charged oil economy, makes for a sobering tale. The book is also a journalistic masterwork, more ambitious and intellectually developed than much of the activist journalism on transition that has preceded it. The usual villains of neo-liberal big business and morally bankrupt oil traders are still there, but Uddenfeldt stresses that the existential bind the world finds itself in is more structural than people in banks and boardrooms. With the possible exception of Naomi Klein, she has produced the best explanation of the last few years of why the world is the way it is, and what needs to be done above and beyond competing polemics for the Chicago school of liberal economics and a particularly moralising type of late stage eco-Marxism. If Uddenfeldt picks out a target for blame, it is the consumerism that has underpinned Swedish, American, Russian, and Chinese economies alike, and that means consumers too.

This is the real strength of The Free Lunch, not so much a call to arms as a lesson in the history of industrialised society and the part we have all played in it. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but there is a carbon neutral one – if we are willing to pay for it.

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