Saturday, November 22, 2014

Woolen socks

This morning, Eddie woke up around 4 am with little desire to go back to bed. Three hours and many long journeys with the Brio train later, he accepted to go for a ride in the stroller and return to dreamland. As for myself, now wide awake, I decided to instead cuddle up in the sofa with my new woollen socks and a tumbler full of Clipper Americano. These socks instantly reminded me of wild races down the long corridors of Eden at night and of all the things that are no more.

But there is new life and new stories for sure. In a couple of weeks we hope to welcome a new member of our family. And despite the frigid morning, Umeå has been very good to us this far. I have found a great gym down at the river and, in academic terms, this autumn has been extraordinary merry with two major publications accepted in highly ranked journals. Once they become available online, I will post more here on Rawls & Me.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Maardam

We all have dark secrets. I, for one, have many. In the early 2000s, I lived in a mid-size Swedish town with too much time to read second-rate novels at night. Naturally, I stumbled upon Håkan Nesser and over an autumn I finished all his crime stories about the retired Chief Inspector Van Veeteren. These stories, set in the fictional city of Maardam which is an eclectic mix of the Netherlands, Poland, Germany and Scandinavia, had a certain resonance with my own post-adolescent existence of transcendental daydreaming and Mitteleuropa nostalgia.

Ten years later the night train Malmö – Berlin is no more, I have lived on four different continents and I never have any time to read novels. But tomorrow morning, I am flying down to the Netherlands for a piece of Maardam and some time with old friends.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Where we travel (and why it matters)

Over the past week I have had the privilege to, among other things, review a book for the journal Environmental Values. The book is called NatureTM Inc. and is a relentless critique of neoliberal conservation strategies. I am not going to say much more about it here but the case studies in the book reminded me of to what extent our perceptions of the world are shaped by where we travel (and likewise, where we chose not to venture).

Looking at my own bookshelf above, I can tell that Africa (with the exception of Morocco and Cairo) is still largely a white spot. So is all of South America. And Russia. I think that the fact that I have not been to these places helps explain a bit of my sometimes naïve worldview, that I generally see social progress, that, even if I would never suggest that the path is going to be straight by any means, I still think that we are moving towards global convergence in terms of living standards and values. But if I err too much towards optimism, the opposite is definitely true for those who only see exploitation, corruption and ecological devastation.

As I, somewhat rhetorically, asked when I was discussant in Sydney some weeks ago, what did you expect? Of course it was going to be difficult for humanity to emerge as a planetary civilization, of course it was going to be difficult to contain, yet make wise use of, our Promethean energies. And of course many people will fail to see the broader picture and jump to the wrong conclusions (such as that humanity should be forced back to some kind of romanticized Arcadia). Yet, I have trust in that most people will ultimately recognize the value of civilization and stand up for democracy, pluralism and an open future. The dynamics of globalization alone are such that once the genie has been let out of the bottle, people may moralize about long haul flights or the shallowness of consumption, yet the next moment plan their own hikes in New Zealand, want their kids to study abroad or set up auto-replies announcing that they are off to a yoga retreat in Bali (in order to get away from materialism). The challenge of course is to make these things universal and not just the privileges of a tiny minority. With social investments, open trade and public innovation, I believe that we already have some of the tools but that we still lack the necessary commitment to politics, we lack the courage to stop running and instead realize that we are the masters of own fate as a species. 

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Friday, October 03, 2014

Sydney

Just as we are about to fly out over the Baltic Sea and begin our descent into Copenhagen, I find a minute to reflect on my week in Australia. As always, Jon and I talked a lot, there was plenty of coffee in the sun and some great vegetarian food. But most of all, coming back to Sydney created a sense of perspective on time itself. I smiled when I saw the bottles of Rolling with their bicycles even as I knew how frustrated I actually was that autumn in Melbourne, how incapable I felt of writing my PhD yet how meaningless it was to give in to self-pity. Total loss, yes, but I was still alive and resorting to cynicism would only make it worse.

Meanwhile, the world went on. Obama became president, I ran 10-15 km every other day and, in the end, I even made some limited progress on my PhD. I got to see New Zealand, the Great Ocean Road and Coogee Beach. How reckless one can be with time when one is not a parent. I remember reading eight hundred pages long novels about alternative universes, writing lengthy blog posts on the financial crisis and spending days just walking around without direction.

Ok, time to land. Apparently, Copenhagen is reporting fog and twelve degrees. Already very far from the Sydney sun.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

A380

Walking down the airbridge, I could immediately tell that there had been an equipment change this evening and that the old boring 777-200ER had been replaced by a shiny white Whalejet. Though I had an A380 segment on the return in the original booking, this was still a most appreciated surprise for an aviation nerd like myself. Maybe I should have suspected something already when I was handed my boarding pass with the magic words “Main deck” stamped on it. Despite almost seven years in service with a number of different airlines, this will be my premier flight on the A380-800.

Seeing the signs leading passengers away to their Suites, First and Business class cabins respectively, I inevitably felt a sting of envy. But as this is Singapore Airlines after all, I must say that I feel reasonably comfortable sitting here at 37A, looking forward to my soon-to-be-served G&T. Also, as one would expect, the cabin feels really spacious despite the ten-abreast economy configuration.

The flight time down to Sydney is 7.10 hours with some light to moderate turbulence expected en route. The take-off alone was a big treat, extremely gentle yet massive as the 575 000 kg heavy aircraft rushed down the runway. And being able to use the inflight internet to post this as we cross the equator is also pretty cool. However, as I have finished most of my preparations for the conference, I will try to sleep a bit now. Maybe I will have time for another blog update once I get down to Australia.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Boarding pass

More or less on the day six years ago, I was on the same lunchtime triple-seven departure to Singapore. Like now, I had an onward ticket to Australia. Unlike then however, I am not going to spend three months of melancholia writing away in small cafés or running along St Kilda Beach. This time around, I will head straight to Sydney for a week of intensive conferencing and editing. Nonetheless, printing that boarding pass at Stockholm Arlanda had a certain magic to it. This is really a trip to the other side of the world.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Recovered


Few things feel as good as having been really under the weather and then recover. Last week, I had a close encounter with the nursery bug Coxsackie A16 leaving me with around 40 degrees fever. But now I am back on my feet, getting ready for a super intensive September with 70 hours of lectures before I head off to Sydney on the 26th for the annual meeting of the Australian PSA. To stay healthy through all those hours in class, I found the perfect beverage today at the supermarket.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Visa-free travel as a political response to Putin

For more than a decade, I have argued the need to politically and economically integrate Russia in the wider European community. For the most part, I have been met by ridicule suggesting that I have underestimated the “foreignness” of Russia and its “natural” instincts to dominate its neighbours. Instead of integration, we Europeans have locked Russia out, most visibly by denying its citizens the right to visit our continent without a visa but also politically by constantly expanding both NATO and the EU towards its borders yet never even hinted the possibility of Russia also eventually becoming a member.

When Putin, in clear violation of the Budapest Memorandum, overtook Crimea he acted precisely as my friends had suggested, something that they were of course quick to point out. Yet, like always when it comes to history, we must also consider what would have been possible had we pursued more idealistic policies in the past. Instead, the cynics and the military realists had their way and now we (not to mention the people of eastern Ukraine) are paying the price for our complacency and short-sightedness.

Yet, just like in the past, the appropriate solution is not sanctions or isolation which would only feed into Russia’s sense of eternal victimhood. Instead, it is more important than ever to show the Russian people that we in Europe can look beyond their autocratic leaders. A simple and highly symbolic way of doing this would be to unilaterally end the Schengen visa requirement for Russian citizens.

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More on scalability, anti-modernism and the future

In one reading, the ontology of green political thinking is distinctively global. After all, it is concern with planetary-scale processes, in particular the global carbon cycle but also issues such as biodiversity loss, habitat destruction and ocean acidification, that motivates much green scholarship and serves as evidence for the unsustainability of modern industrial civilization. At the same time, few green authors have shown much interest in the actual people populating an increasingly global world or how their dreams and aspirations may constrain the scope for environmental politics. Instead, the lack of democratic support for radical environmentalism is often seen as a reflection of a false consciousness manufactured by malign elites or a passing historical anomaly which will disappear once the global environmental crisis worsens sufficiently.

Rejecting both these interpretations, it is my belief that any realistic vision of sustainability must take as a starting point the fact that we are now seven billion people on this planet wanting to live modern lives with access to energy, freedom of global mobility and the possibility of remunerative employment. Unfortunately, green political thinking has, by and large, proven unwilling to engage with the kind of solutions that could adequately scale to such a world of universal affluence. Shunning their responsibility to think creatively about global social theory, green authors have preferred to retreat into identity politics, moralistic absolutism or utopian localism. This would of course be of little concern for society if these authors were simply the “dissident voices” on the margin that they often think of themselves as. However, in a time when many people rightfully feel remorse at the loss of the natural world and experience deep ambiguities with regard to the future, the anti-modernist narrative of environmentalism has been surprisingly successful in undermining public support for everything from advanced nuclear technologies to genetic engineering. In its place, there has been a strong tendency to avoid the really difficult questions, to tout the need to “lead by example” even as that example may be impossible for others to replicate and to seek pragmatic, piecemeal changes that “feel good” even as they do not take the world as a whole any closer to long-term sustainability. It is in this context that we must consider wind power (which as an intermittent and diffuse energy source can never power a country such as China), organic small-scale agriculture (which can never feed the world) or energy forestry (which would be outright catastrophic to biodiversity if scaled to a global level). It is not that any of these things are wrong in their own right yet, by the paradoxical virtue of their relative local success, they end up obscuring the need for the kind of breakthrough innovation that seems called for in order to achieve long-term global sustainability in a world as populous as ours.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sunday afternoon

Still a lot to unpack but instead I open the windows to ventilate the lingering afternoon heat. For another week, we do not have a DSL connection at home so I cannot check if this or that expression actually works in English. It is never easy to be an architect of silences in a foreign language, maybe not in one’s own either. This week I have been driving more than 1100 km on my own, back and forth along the High Coast listening to public radio or different music channels. As a parent that is something I rarely have the time to do otherwise. One host played a couple of songs by Frida Hyvönen, talked about rooftops in New York and wild silences in ways that immediately took me back to 2008 when I was living in Jersey.

Last summer at the Monocle Café in London I actually asked if they had some ironic distance to it all. The guy at the bar said he himself preferred to think of it with an ironic twist but he was not sure if that was true for everyone else working there. But is it really possible to not see irony? What if someone like Karen Blixen would have lived today? Thinking more about it, is that maybe why some people prefer to stay away from Facebook, Instagram or Twitter? Because social media would force them to commodify their own aesthetic? It could well be.

Maybe I think too much about the wrong things. Some days ago, 298 people were shot down by mistake. Children are dying in the hospitals of Gaza and I worry about sparkling moments and self-irony on distant shores. Yet, life is not reducible to survival alone. It is also about what one does with one’s life and, with or without God, we are left with these questions of authenticity and being. While neither ethics nor aesthetics will ultimately matter much, we still have to make that decision if we should go running ten kilometres or eat another brownie (I prefer to do both). While some may be satisfied by prudential reasons (it is “healthy to exercise” or what not), there is definitely more to it, it is about overcoming, it is about trying to make it right, to acknowledge mortality and finitude without running away.

Later that same year I went to Melbourne and I remember writing a poem called “Gay trams” (I guess I was trying to make my own version of Ekelöf’s “Strountes”). It is not particularly good and I never posted it anywhere but here it is:

An empty gay bar
twice as safe that way
Like that Latvian tram
heading for Zolitude
I search the night
for a familiar inward track

The memory is incomplete
maybe because it never happened
Her ethereal way of
extending the smallest of things
to push while being receptive

Stealing from a song: 
rollercoaster slow
Maybe trams can do that too?

An occasional flirt with the
bar man
Of all things I am not afraid
but boldness will only take
me
that far

In this regard
three zero day was a revelation
that the tracks are being laid out
irreversibly
until they all run out