Thursday, January 19, 2017

Campogiovanni

Like in a dream, I find myself lost in the hills somewhere south of Siena. After the Medici family conquered Siena in 1555, Montalcino (where the wine is from) held out for almost four years before it fell to the Florentines. Though only in tiny sips, I can bring back memories of what the land looks like.

Rarely has it seem more presumptuous to make grand plans for the future than tonight. Still, I have flights booked and ticketed all the way until the very end of 2017, the year when the world will take a big leap into the dark unknown.

I really do not know what to do tomorrow. Maybe listen once more to Obama’s inaugural address from 2009. Or writing feedback on yet another student essay in the hope that the next generation will be ever so slightly better equipped to climb back up from the abyss.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Arctic adventures

The last week has seen cold winds coming down from the Arctic with temperatures below -25 degrees. This has meant that we spent a lot of time inside, reading Pettson & Findus, building Lego and making paella. I have also had reasons to be rather impressed by how energy efficient the new house is. Despite that all heating and warm water is electric and we make extensive use of the washing machine and dishwasher, our total electricity consumption for December came to less than a thousand kWh (all certified nuclear electricity of course!). Today, I decided to invest the savings from my electricity bill on the secret fuel that takes me through the winters up here.

As for winter experiences, my mother-in-law had a rather extreme train journey the other day. The engine of her night train broke down just outside the village of Nattavaara where it was -38 degrees. After many cold hours, the train was eventually towed by another engine down to the coastal town of Luleå where she arrived 16 hours after starting her journey. During the night, the local people in Nattavaara served tea and sandwiches to the stranded passengers. Stories like that go a long way in restoring one’s faith in humanity.

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Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Shipwrecked Mind

These days, one may be forgiven for thinking that the transformative energy of the Enlightenment has run out. Even as much of the Left has come to reject the dream of an integrated world of shared prosperity and freedom, its enemies have spared no ammunition in attacking what still remains of its cosmopolitan sensibilities. Rather than standing up against this barrage of nationalism and bigotry, it has become common to suggest that democracy can only handle so much diversity and that we need to restore "control" over our borders.

As I sit down to write my first blog entry of 2017, it is frustrating to realize that nostalgia once again seems more powerful than hope and that more people want to build walls than tearing them down. At a time when we should focus much of our energy on expanding our civilization outwards toward the stars and thereby securing our long-term survival as a mature technological species, we are instead playing dangerous games with omnicidal weapons and pretending that we can somehow run away from our global responsibilities.

With all these questions I turn to Mark Lilla’s new book "The Shipwrecked Mind. On Political Reaction". Already on the first pages I find myself humming in agreement: “Reactionaries are not conservatives […] they are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings […] where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes”. And then the book turns to the “political theology” of Carl Schmitt and how it has convinced many intelligent people, some close to me, that the essence of politics is not compromise, deliberation and liberal tolerance but a conflict of absolutes founded on the friend-enemy distinction.

Soon after I finish my caffè latte. I do not agree with everything that Lilla says or believes but it is clear that we should do all that is in our power to ensure that 2017 will be a year when the open future, rather than a closed and romanticized past, is allowed to define our world.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Full circle

Ever since William was born, we have opted for an early New Year’s lunch rather than dinner. This year, I have baked some zucchini with chèvre and saffron risotto, of course served with the house champagne.

Beyond my new gym card, I decided this morning to become a founding member of Environmental Progress. This new NGO is leading the fight for clean energy. As a first step, this means stopping the premature closing of existing nuclear reactors. Once a levelled playing field has been established in which all low-carbon sources are treated equally, the next aim of Environmental Progress is to create an expansive new vision for nuclear power in the decades to come. With this decision, I have come full circle from being strongly anti-nuclear to realizing that nuclear is absolutely essential if we want to secure a prosperous global future without dangerously destabilizing the global climate or further squandering our ecosystems.

2017 is now little more than ten hours away here in Europe. I have no doubts that it will be a difficult year in many ways. Yet, I am equally convinced that ultimately we will find our way. So here is a, still somewhat early, happy new 2017!

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Friday, December 30, 2016

Ecomodern workout

As I have mentioned before, one of the things I really liked with the new house was that it is possible to jump right out of the door and go running in the woods. However, between kids, tons of ice and a left knee that starts hurting past 6-7 km (the track around the lake is 8.2 km), there has not been that much running through the autumn.
Meanwhile, the university changed their discounted gym from IKSU to USM and that too became a convenient excuse. Today, however, I decided to make an early New Year's resolution and sign up for a new gym card. To celebrate the occasion I of course took on my "High-Energy Planet" t-shirt (courtesy of the Breakthrough Institute) to give me an extra boost. Unfortunately, despite very much decoupling from nature in every other way (well, the treadmill monitor did show a forest track when active) my knee started hurting a lot before I even reached 4 km. Contrary to the instincts of my former self, I decided to stop right there so next time I will be a bit more careful.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Populism

This semester, I am supervising eight thesis students which must be sort of a personal record. While I am rather jealous of one of the students who is doing a Minor Field Studies on the Seychelles, I know how much hard work thesis writing can be. In their thesis work, students have to combine the theoretical and methodological skills that they picked up through their undergraduate education and put it all together into a comprehensible manuscript.

Considering the times, it is not surprising that there have been a number of topics related to populism and the future of liberal democracy. As often tends to be the case, giving feedback on what the students write sparks my own interest. And picking up the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs with its “Power of populism” on the cover, I feel more inspired than ever to actually write something on populism.

One rather dark thought I have had recently has to do with how increasingly illiberal forms of government may paradoxically end up helping liberalism by offloading some of the burden associated with the provision of social reality. To put it in the words of the 80’s music: “Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone)”. Easy as it may have been for people on the Left to complain about the loss of authenticity or having to choose telephone service provider in a globalizing post-historical Fukuyama world, I am afraid we will all rather soon wake up to problems of a completely different magnitude. Ultimately, there is no going back. The future will demand ever greater measures of self-actualization and reflexivity, at least any future that we want our children to live in. Eventually, it will become obvious that the cheap promises of an “easy life” that populism offers are just hollow and stale, that yielding to our bitterness only leaves us sad inside. And correspondingly, that only by expanding our circles of moral imagination do we grow.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Dangerous times

Of course it warms my heart a lot that Eddie is still very fascinated by everything space related. In the evenings, we sometimes read an old astronomy book from 1977. In it, we learn about solar eclipses, comets and the planets (of which there are nine of course). I try to correct things as we go along but sometimes there is a certain magic to simply be back in a world where the largest optical telescope is on Semirodniki Mountain in the Soviet Union and someone is still making plans for an even larger one on the far side of the Moon.

I struggle to explain why the Lego space shuttle he just constructed has no immediate successor, why humans have come to prefer to look down to the ground and spend their money on weapons instead.

Outside, everything is white again. Dangerous times await as we count down the last days of 2016. So much potential, yet so many prejudices to overcome.

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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Identity politics

I have been thinking and I am afraid I got my take on “identity politics” wrong. These days, more than a few “liberal” commentators are suggesting that the problem with liberalism today is its preoccupation with different group identities. All these op-eds leave a foul aftertaste, one that basically suggests that white heterosexual males should be allowed to just chill a bit and not have to expend too much of their precious moral imagination on other people.

Not so fast.

A few posts ago, I slipped into similar language. The reason for this is that I believe that much of the Left has forgotten its long-term aim, namely to one day transcend the categories that divide us and make good on our common humanity. For me, imagining the deep future, it would be ridiculous to think that we centuries hence will pledge allegiance to different flags and divide people based on the colour of their skin or the geographical location where they were born. If there is to be any grand future for humanity it will be one in which we have proven our ability to broaden our horizons and have emerged as one fully integrated planetary civilization. Yet, that is not where we are today. And any attack on “identity politics” today may easily be mistaken for ignorance of how deep the scars of colonialism actually run or how widespread our contempt for weakness is. In order to make progress, we must first recognize the extent to which we too are guilty of marginalizing others. That will not derail but rather further our progress toward the world that we ultimately want to build.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Escapism on repeat


As another Polar night sets in and the quicksilver falls below -15, I feel like an escapist on repeat as I make some freestyle risoni bouillabaisse and dream away to the south of France and long forgotten hikes around Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. However, today was not only Arctic misery as I found out that the Lars Hierta Memorial Foundation has given me 20,000 SEK in conference travel funding for next year!

Otherwise I have spent most of the day recording online lectures about public administration for my future students at the “Basic Training Programme for Police Officers”. In the beginning I must admit that it felt quite odd to stand there in a room talking to myself but I am slowly learning how to make it at least somewhat less artificial. Fortunately, all the videos will be behind a login so I will not have to be publically embarrassed on Youtube :-)

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Amber Mist

Umeå Airport (UME) is a quintessential outstation. Typically, flights get in from Stockholm-Arlanda, spend 25 quick minutes on the ground before flying back south. The mood aboard these flights fascinates me. Although not as explicit as when leaving Norway, there is a sense of collective relief mixed with anticipation as the plane flies out over the Gulf of Bothnia for its hour long jump down to Stockholm. From there, all of the world lies open. Returning home, the mood is quite different. Already at the gate at Arlanda, there is a warm sense of familiarity as friends bump into each other and prepare for a new sojourn in the High North. While flights to Kiruna may be more extreme in this regard, it still feels like you are now part of a secret club of which all its members share the same fate.

To me, Umeå has come to represent an alternative reality of sorts, a refuge where the kids can live a life quite different from how most kids grow up these days. A car-free existence with the forest just outside the door. However, living here also means foregoing strolls through the Retiro Park or a chance to browse the shelves of Liberia on Hanbury Street. Obviously, every choice means that something else is not chosen. Fortunately, that does not necessarily hold for good cheese as I was able to secure some Snowdonian cheddar at our local COOP. 

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