Monday, April 26, 2010

Warsaw

Warsaw both came and went with its short preview of the summer. Flying back over the island of Bornholm my mind scrolled through the cobblestones streets, the ostalgic Pewex club interiors and the quick airport bus good-byes.

There was a time, before Rawls & Me, when I used to go to Warsaw on a fairly regular basis to see my friend who was then working at the English-speaking section of the Polish state radio. He has since moved on to other jobs closer to home and I reckon that it must have been four years since my last visit to the Polish capital. Coming back now in the aftermath of the Katyń disaster, the streets were still covered with wax from all the candle lights and, in the corners, there were black posters commemorating the dead. As a foreigner it is difficult to comprehend the scale of the catastrophe, that almost the entire political and military elite was wiped out that morning. I remember when Olof Palme, the prime minister of Sweden at the time, was shot in February 1986 and how the whole country came to a standstill. Though an assassination clearly is different from a plane crash, the sense of national trauma reminded me very much of when I, as a seven year old, was watching the news after Palme had been murdered.

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Post Poznań

I follow the train tracks further east. In two hours I will be in Warsaw. Not much of a consolation price for the cancelled India trip but still enough to reconnect me with the outbound journey.

Mesmerizing German anthropology, a short glimpse of how everything could have been very different before returning to the ubershallow world of Monocle. In this issue, there is a photo suite from Tangier with some hipster guy assertively reading a guide book on “The U.S. and British Virgin Islands” in a café. I do not want travels to be like that. I want them to be about the indefinite, about that mix of linguistic uncertainty and playfulness, about actually seeking out the unknown.

Yet, at the same time I am great proponent of the “global living room” as a generative metaphor for the future, of slowly “domesticating” the international, of daring to dream of a day when unbounded physical mobility has become a reality for everyone on this planet and not only for a privileged few.

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As for the world of research, I am afraid that the Wallenberg post-doc scholarships for Stanford on global sustainability issues went to two chemists and one biologist. This does not mean that I will give up on all plans for California, I still have a good contact there and I will try to put together a more traditional post-doc application towards the fall.

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Probabilities

Saturday morning I was scheduled to fly out to New Delhi through Vienna with Austrian Airlines. As thousands of others over the last days, I have seen my travel plans dashed by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Iceland.

As one of the others in our group sarcastically noted on Facebook, what are the odds?

Low one is tempted to think. Yet, considering how seismic active many parts of the planet are, it rather seems as if we have been exceptionally lucky in the past. Civil aviation is a relatively new phenomenon and though there are historic examples (such as the two weeks of airspace closure following the 1980 Mount St Helens eruption in Washington), the scale of events this time is obviously unprecedented. But with more than 60 000 flight movements on any given day worldwide we should perhaps not be that surprised that we eventually ran into something like this.

Thinking further about it, I am reminded of an interesting chapter by Milan Ćirković on observation selection effects in a recent book on global catastrophic risks. The basic idea is straightforward enough: past experience may not be the best guide when it comes to estimating the frequency of really big catastrophes (such as major asteroid impacts or bursts of supernova gamma rays) simply because we would not be here doing the estimation if such catastrophes had happened in the past...

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Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Western

Climbing up to 34 000 feet over the Rockies, I am already missing California. It has been one densely packed week with the annual convention of the Western Political Science Association, breathtaking coastal drives along Hwy 1 and a campus tour to Stanford University (unfortunately, despite their earlier promises, I am still in limbo with regard to the Wallenberg post doc scholarship).

This year, the “Western” as it is colloquially known, offered a number of interesting panels on everything from eco-anarchism to the Obama presidency. My own panel, on the “communities of the future” succeeded in putting the spotlight precisely on the differences between my work and more mainstream accounts of environmental politics, sparking a lively discussion on the prospects of global sustainability.

Talking about which, the Star Trek nerd in me was particularly happy to take a walk along the south tip of Sausalito (the fictional location of “Starfleet academy”) and also, in the same vein, experience the sublime silence of the redwoods in Muir Woods where, in May 1945, the UN charter signatories-to-be gathered to honour the memory of FDR.

In these times of tea party activists and voters with attention spans more like 12 year olds with ADHD, our idealism is again put to test. It may seem utterly unlikely that we will ever grow up to decide our own history and, with it, our planetary future. It may seem as if the current constellation of chauvinistic nationalists, technophobic primitivists and overly pragmatic politicians will each in their own way continue to erode our cosmopolitan dreams. Yet, we shall not forget how much darker the horizon seemed only five years ago. With this in mind I hope I am forgiven for once again quoting this remarkable passage from Obama’s inaugural address of last January:

”We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall some day pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.”

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