Sunday, November 12, 2017

Who leads, who follows?

Browsing through the latest issue of Monocle, I came to think of that classic question asked by one of my fellow political scientists here in Umeå, who leads and who follows? Less than a week ago, I flew Swiss with the most wonderful crew who gave out enough chocolate to fill at least a dozen Christmas calendars.

Now winter is definitely here and I have decided to renew my Monocle subscription for another year as the magazine seems to have a rather eerily predictive power...

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Thursday, November 09, 2017


As expected, coming back to Umeå was somewhat of a shock, both weather and work load wise. Tonight I at least found a moment to roast some sweet potatoes with pomegranate salsa and coconut halloumi.

Over the weekend, the Norwegian professor Jørgen Randers was interviewed in Svenska Dagbladet saying that expert rule is preferable to democracy (“expert” here presumably meaning Malthusians such as himself). Like back in 2010 when James Lovelock suggested that democracy must be “put on hold” in order to solve the climate crisis, I do not know what to make of Randers’ flagrant contempt for democratic norms and values. I guess it just shows how deep into the rabbit hole that we have fallen.

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Sunday, November 05, 2017

Not my future

During my seminars with the social work students, questions about global migration almost always come up. In these discussions I tend to feel very torn. On one hand, I genuinely believe in a world of open borders. On the other hand, a large majority of the people in Sweden does not and wants to regulate migration, one way or the other. What the students quickly discover is that it is not easy to reconcile respect for this widely shared democratic opinion with basic human rights and a sense of dignity.

Part of this of course has to do with the time perspectives involved. Given the prevailing global disparities in wealth and income, I would not suggest that Sweden unilaterally ends all border controls today. But I would suggest that Sweden should work to overcome these disparities and, at least ideologically, strive for making possible global economic convergence and universal freedom. Instead, as we all know, we are doing pretty much the opposite, especially when it comes to energy and agricultural policy.

Tonight, our 4,000 miles flight from Dar es Salaam to Zürich will take us across the African continent and high above those deadly shores of the Mediterranean. For the last decade, a key EU strategy has been to prevent people from boarding boats on the African side. As this has proven increasingly difficult, centrist policy-makers have found themselves in the crossfire between activists demanding an end to the endless human tragedies at sea and growing xenophobic parties at home. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the front in the war on “illegal migration” has now moved to the far side of the Sahara desert. Right now, the US is busy setting up drone bases in Niger while the EU is working to “help Niger’s security forces achieve interoperability and developing their operating strategies” to better “control migration flows and to combat irregular migration and associated criminal activity effectively”. Terminator much?

This is not the future anyone should want. Drones firing missiles on young kids trying to pass through one of the most barren and inhospitable tracts of the planet. For what? So that we never have to have an honest conversation about the future? 


Dar es Salaam

Leaving the sheltered island life of Unguja behind, the red “Kilimanjaro” catamaran made its way across the somewhat rough seas of the Zanzibar Channel before slowly navigating into the busy harbour of Dar es Salaam. Everywhere Chinese containers are being unloaded and new buildings are coming up. While China has a long history of investing in Tanzania going back to the 1970’s when 56 000 Chinese workers built the railway between Dar es Salaam and Zambia, the Belt and the Road Initiative has super-charged Chinese investments in the region. Although there may be some less noble short-term motives (including a chance for corrupt Chinese elites to laundry money), I believe that China is right about their long game here. Few things seem more important for the world than ensuring that Africa keeps moving out of poverty. Still, the mere numbers are breathtaking. According to recent estimates, Dar es Salaam could have a population in excess of 70 million by the end of this century.

Late tonight, it is time to head back to Umeå and Tomtebo. Looking out from the hotel window, I can see the fully loaded ferry on its way over to Kigamboni. Far down along that coast lies Moçambique. I do not know when but it somehow feels like I will be back to this part of the world. But for now, a long winter in North Sweden awaits.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Island ghosts

While still in Umeå, I remember reading that an Anglican cathedral had been constructed on the site of the old slave market here in Stone Town. Yet, it is one thing to read facts in a guide book and a completely different thing to stand next to the altar that, highly symbolic, now marks the spot of the whipping tree and to hear stories of how slaves were lashed so that those who did not cry could be sold at a higher price. Climbing down into the small suffocating slave chambers below made me again question what we humans are capable of doing to each other.

In the end, I guess I am back with Sagan: “You're an interesting species. An interesting mix. You're capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you're not”.


Thursday, November 02, 2017

Zanzibar Coffee House

One is surely guilty of being on the Lonely Planet trail when the people next to you at breakfast turn up at a café in a completely different part of town for lunch. While this undoubtedly says a lot about Western so called “individuality”, good coffee has a certain and near universal draw. The special of the day at “Zanzibar Coffee House” was poached egg on avocado toast which brought back fond memories from Berlin but also Tomtebo escapism. Otherwise, Stone Town was the gem I expected it to be with Zoroastrian temples, the house where Freddie Mercury grew up and a beach promenade that made me think of Batumi. Tomorrow, it is time to cross the island and explore its eastern shore.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Erythraean Sea

Some years ago at a conference dinner in Sydney, I found myself sitting next to a leading environmental politics scholar who had lost his voice due to a cold. Obviously, this was an opportunity too good to miss and I remember trying to make the case for what would soon after be known as “ecomodernism”. Today, flying down to Istanbul, I guess it is my turn to be voiceless.

Although the last days of teaching have completely exhausted my vocal reserves, it at least feels like the cold as such is getting better. Early tomorrow morning, I will cross the equator and get my first ever glimpse of Sub-Saharan Africa. In my imagination, it is a world of fluidity and deep history, shaped by journeys reaching back to the ancient Greeks crossing the Erythrean Sea or the Omani traders blown ashore on the Moonson winds.

After visiting Oman on a few occasions, exploring the Swahili Coast somehow seems like a very logical extension. Inherently shallow as every modern trip may be, it still adds another layer of experiences and connections, something that has proven most valuable, not the least in the classroom. For instance, I very much felt like that after visiting Ukraine last year. Unavoidable as repetition may be due to the scheduling of academic conferences, I could not be more excited about seeing something that is radically new to me.


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Halloween at the Pacific

Paired with a cava from just outside Barcelona, I make the Halloween edition of that Coast Kitchen favourite, scallops with roasted butternut squash puree, wild mushrooms and vanilla vinaigrette. Now it is less than 100 hours left in Europe and I need to pack the bags and prepare the first round of thesis guidance; this autumn I will supervise seven students so it is a quite a bit to read up on. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Winter is coming

Biking through an icy mix of sleet and freezing rain, I have to admit that it has been a rather rough day with a journal rejection letter and a lecture that somehow failed to connect with the students. Though everyone in Academia probably has such days, it does make you doubt your abilities.

Once at home I make myself an inferno blend espresso. With the Plane Finder app informing me that the plane passing overhead is an Etihad 777-200 on its way to Dallas/Fort Worth, I quickly feel much less miserable, especially after some Swiss dark chocolate. Sometimes, escapism can be such an easy fix.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Xi Jinping is cementing his own rule and pushing China further away from a future of liberal freedom and democratic citizenship (with “Sesame Credits” being the latest and perhaps most ominous example of what essentially amounts to the “gamification of authoritarianism”). Yet, I maintain, the real threat to democracy comes not from regimes like these but our own inability to uphold the values and ideals of democracy at home. In a darkening world, the power of our example is needed more than ever (something which seems completely forgotten with every new round of anti-terror laws).

When I lived in Beijing, the banality of authoritarianism was everywhere to be seen. No one would seriously want such a future for their kids. I am confident that, over time, liberal democracy will prevail and become universal. But right now, it does seem like winter is coming.

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Saturday, October 21, 2017

South Australia

“The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival”

Now when Ethics, Policy and the Environment has finally published my commentary, I should be careful not to overuse quotes by Carl Sagan but, undoubtedly, South Australia is such a far-off place with a certain invested romance. The closest I ever been was when driving along the Great Ocean Road back in the autumn of 2008. This morning, Carol Bacchi from the University of Adelaide gave a talk here in Umeå in recognition of the honorary doctorate that she has received. Bacchi's method of critical policy analysis is immensely popular among my students so giving her an honorary degree feels very appropriate.

In other news and to my great surprise, the special citizen jury on nuclear energy in South Korea voted 60 percent in favour of resuming construction of the two halted reactors at Shin Kori near Busan. This is testimony to the hard work that Michael Shellenberger and others have put in to steer Korea away from fossil energy dependence. With a new report just published in The Lancet suggesting that, every year, more than 9 million deaths worldwide can be attributed to pollution, the case for accelerated deployment of nuclear energy and clean air could hardly be more convincing.

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