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 Agnieszka and her daughter Johana. (Her eldest son Mathias sadly passed away in February 2018; you can read about it in one of my posts in the blog.) (I also have two children, Anastasia and Nathanaël, who lived with us from October 2015 to August 2020; they have now gone back to Belgium to live with their mom.)

I’m an amateur drummer but until recently I hardly ever got the time to play my set because it was towering in the living room (making for a stunning decorative installation) and family duties left precious little time anyhow. Now it is set up in our basement, and over the last year or so I’ve been getting more of a chance to go down there and groove away. (On what music? Wouldn’t you like to know…)

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.  You can check out my personal page by clicking here.

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 fortunate enough to be able to walk to work (it takes me exactly 12 minutes — I timed it), so I’m able to 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. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, lockdown and social distancing have made me, like most of us, much more homebound. I enjoy teaching by Zoom but I do long for the more carefree times when other human beings weren’t an a-priori health threat to be shunned…

Over the past three decades I’ve bought more books than I could ever possibly read, and that’s what existential psychologistss call 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 difficult. 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; 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 what makes it possible for 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. Permacircularity and slow living are the cornerstones of what I want to look into, and various emerging ways of life – such as ecovillages and permaculture initiatives – are clearly the place to begin our quest for inspiration. I’m also more and more intensely interested in, and inspired by, what Indigenous and Native teachers have to impart. I’m grateful to the small but growing minority of people who have begun to move towards a permacircular view of the world and of human existence.

Thanks so much for dropping by. Don’t be a stranger.

Christian Arnsperger
Email: christian.arnsperger@unil.ch