About myself and my work

Hi,

Just a few — in fact, as you’ll soon find out, more than a few — words about myself, should you be interested. If you opened this section, presumably you are. (Or else you’re just in it for the fun of checking out what kind of person could possibly entitle a section of their blog “About myself and my work”.)

I live near Lausanne, Switzerland with my partner and our four children. Last time I checked, I was an amateur drummer but I hardly ever get the time to play my set. Luckily, it makes for a stunning decorative installation, towering there in the living room all shiny and almost unused (as well as surrounded by crates of incredibly unsustainable kids’ toys)… I very occasionally improvise tribal drums for my family; the kids (well, at least the two who are young enough to still allow themselves to appreciate anything a parent does) jump around the coffee table in a makeshift Sun Dance.

An economist by training, I’m a professor at the University of Lausanne. My affiliation is with the Faculty of Geoscience and Environment, and I am a member of the Institute for Geography and Sustainability. We are a multidisciplinary institute focused mainly on the human- and social-science aspects of environmental issues.

My own teaching and research revolve around Sustainability and Economic Anthropology. That’s what my chair at the University of Lausanne is called. Yes, really; they actually called it that. It means I reflect on the links between the human condition (how humans give meaning to their existence in different times, places, and cultures), its implications for human motivations, and their implications — in turn — for how sustainable, or (as it were) unsustainable, people’s unchosen lifestyles as well as their lifestyle choices are.

I’m very fortunate to be able to walk to work every morning (it takes me exactly 12 minutes — I timed it), so I can sort of satisfy my wanderlust while thinking ahead to the next meeting with my colleagues or the next batch of slides I need to draw up for my students. I’ve bought and own more books than I could ever possibly read, and that’s an immortality strategy: Add the number of pages sitting on my office shelves, multiply them by the number of minutes it would take me to read each page, and you get Immortal Me — I’d be sitting there reading until after kingdom come. But since most of those books came by plane, the emissions value of my shelves is such that there probably won’t be any kingdom that will ever come. Plus, they’re all books about sustainability and lifestyle change! Talk about contradictory!

Still, unlike many people I’ve met who admit they live unsustainably but also say they don’t want to and won’t change their way of living, I do want to change. I also want to understand why change is so hard. Granted, we don’t all choose our lifestyles to begin with; our lives and their rhythms constrain us, and we’re just pretty much carried along. But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it — being swept away by the daily grind with no headspace to ever slow down, stop and reflect, and not enough time and/or money to actually carry out changes. Many of us live like that, and form our identity in living like that. It doesn’t mean we are like that. It means we’ve been made into that, perhaps even born into that. But we can make ourselves into something different, we’re “plastic” enough to shift our priorities and change our views in the future — not easy, but not impossible and not contrary to so-called human nature. The proof is, some people have already done it and adopted sustainable ways of living; they’re our new pioneers, our new frontiersmen and frontierswomen; they’ve shown it’s possible.

So in my teaching and research I adopt a perspective that isn’t purely descriptive; it’s also resolutely prospective, as well as normative. I want to know how the sum of all lifestyle choices can be made sustainable for our fragile biosphere. I want to challenge the legitimacy of what people (including myself) routinely view as “possible” and “impossible” for them to do. Just because people seem to be the way they are (and seem to want to hang on to that self-identity for dear life) doesn’t mean that’s the final word on what they should be. And so I also want to understand why so often the true requirements of sustainability (provided we’re able to spell them out) are experienced as difficult, painful, or offensive. Most people get really defensive and even nasty when the possibility of continued consumption, growth, or unlimited travel is questioned. Why is that? My basic answer, as rooted in a whole body of anthropological literature I’ve worked on for two decades now, can be encapsulated in one single word: fear.

I see the economy as the key place — or set of places — where these sorts of issues play out and can be analyzed. I have accordingly developed an existential approach to economics, in which the anxieties about the passing of time, the certainty of death, and the fragility of body and mind are central in explaining people’s behavior and choices. I’ve met a number of colleagues who wrinkle their noses at such assumptions; that’s okay, but it doesn’t thereby invalidate the assumptions. Other people’s nose wrinkling tends to keep one on one’s toes. It’s urgent to understand how we can collectively move away from our present predicament. I want to investigate, along with the team of assistants and doctoral students I’m privileged to be working with, what allows certain individuals or groups to deal with their existential anxieties about time and fragility otherwise than by living unsustainably and refusing to budge.

This work isn’t at all about moralizing or condemning anyone. It’s about seeing the truly human in all of us and also the untapped potentials of a different sort of humanity. Perma-circularity and slow living are the cornerstones of what I want to investigate, and various emerging ways of life — such as ecovillages and permaculture initiatives — are clearly the place to begin our quest for inspiration. I’m grateful to the small but growing minority of people who have begun to move towards a perma-circular view of the world and of human existence.

Thanks so much for dropping by. Don’t be a stranger. (And now if I could maybe just take a few minutes off to go play those drums…)

Christian Arnsperger
Email: christian.arnsperger@unil.ch