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 8.34 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


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.


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 publicly 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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Saturday, December 10, 2016


With still almost a fortnight left until the winter solstice, the sun begun setting already at 1 pm, just as I was about to serve some paella. It is something with this time of the year that invites comfort food, at least up here in the High North. Today, William turns two and the day started off with singing at 04.50 a.m. since the young man still has a rather extreme fondness for early mornings.

While away in the UK, I was able to submit a number of abstracts for different conferences and special issues. Hopefully I will hear back about these soon so I can begin planning the year ahead. Yet, for the next 70 days I know for sure that I will remain firmly on the ground here in Umeå. This also means that I can now summarize my travels for 2016. Apparently, this year was somewhat less crazy than the previous one, with the air miles clock stopping at 45 901 miles and nine different countries visited (of which one was new, the Ukraine).

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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Morning After

Wednesday morning in Nottinghamshire, grey skies and streets wet from rain. Somehow very symbolic for how many of us have come to see this year, like waking up a bit heavy-headed only to realize that the nightmare was in fact real. Trump won the presidency. A majority voted for the United Kingdom to leave the EU. And Matteo Renzi lost in Italy. It says something about the times that we are celebrating when only 46.2% of the electorate in a country vote for neo-fascists (but yes, I am indeed happy that van der Bellen won in the end).

As for my own presentation yesterday, I think it went alright even if it was a bit rambling at times. At least I got some really good questions afterwards, accompanied by a few pints at the faculty club. Yet, as a parent of two young boys, it suffices to say that my tolerance for alcohol is not what it used to be :-)

In any case, it was really great to see Matthew again and engage in long discussions about Russia under Nicholas I, Cold War nuclear doctrine and whether or not it would be possible to set up a hedge fund for climate change denialists (to check if they are really willing to put their money where their mouth is).

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Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Vineyard Cafe

Walking up the jet bridge from SK527 last night, there was a very discernible smell of coal in the air. For someone who has spent the last half decade fighting fossil fuels and coal in particular, it may seem strange to admit that this filled me with an almost overwhelming sense of nostalgia. Memories of cold morning runs through Ehrenfeld but also long dizzy summer afternoons marking exams at the Vineyard Cafe in Beijing, sensations so very different from any sanitized global future.

A coffee and an apple juice later, Monocle24 informs me that it is 9 am here in London and 12 pm in Nairobi, meaning that it is soon time for me to catch my train from St Pancras.

And since no counting had begun
we lived a thousand years in one

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Friday, December 02, 2016

Lost Heaven

Five years ago, I was returning from Shanghai and a stunning dinner in an old villa in the French Concession. Situated in a garden with hundreds of candle lights, the restaurant served up some of the best Yunnan cuisine I ever had. In an era of cultural capitalism, it is of course not surprising that this restaurant has since turned into a chain. What sparked my interest however was that this very chain has now opened a restaurant in Qianmen 23, a building which used to house the American Legation in Beijing, and which plays a very special role in a novel that I wish to finish writing one day.

Anyway, after a very stressful week, I am happy that it is finally Friday and that I can open a bottle of Grüner Veltliner and begin packing for my upcoming expedition to the Sherwood Forest. Next time I write here, it will be from the British Isles.



The world we thought we knew is falling apart. Although the signs may have been with us for a decade or more, 2016 has clearly been a year of unprecedented amplification if not outright rupture. Even if the World Value Survey still signals a shift from traditional values and parochial identities towards emancipative values and greater tolerance, this has not been a good year for “globalists” like myself who dream of a fully integrated world free from want and political oppression.

In a much discussed recent article in the Journal of Democracy, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk reveal frightening new numbers of how young people in particular have come to abandon democracy. Of those born in the 1980’s in the United States, just above 30% consider it “essential” to live in a democracy.

This very weekend, Austria will have a rerun of its presidential election (potentially bringing the highest office of the country into the hands of the extreme right) while Italy is having a constitutional referendum which Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is likely to lose, opening the door for the anti-globalist populist Five Star Movement under Beppe Grillo.

In the past I always used to say that what the Left needs is a new forward looking global vision. While I still think that is true to some extent, I am less certain that such a vision would actually win any elections, at least in the short run. Having said that, more of the same corrosive identity politics is clearly not the way forward. Crucial as it is to recognize the historic crimes of colonialism and discrimination, the future we build must be one for all people of this world, a common vision which speaks in the same universal language to the highest in each individual, including those white male "left-behinders".