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Letter from Stavanger: Barack Obama Is Alive and Well
Alex Steffen, 23 Oct 08


10/21/08: I was drinking a ten dollar coffee in the Copenhagen airport when I heard that Barack Obama had been assassinated. I was just off the overnight from Seattle, heavily sleep-deprived and disoriented, with a couple hours to wait for my flight to Norway. A young Scandinavian guy in a black jean jacket sat next to me with four empty beer glasses in front of him. He looked at me several times, said something to me in Danish (or Norwegian or Swedish... I have to admit its hard for me to hear the difference), and then, when I told him in English that I couldn't understand, and that, yes, I was an American, he asked me, "What did you think about Barack Obama being killed?"

I had one of those moments when the world squeezed tight and time moved slowly. The well-dressed passengers moving across the wooden floors past the design stores and banks of glass in washes of pale Northern sunshine looked for a minute to me like people in aging photographs. I remember thinking, "This will always be where I was when I heard," and then, as my anger began to mount, "those motherf*****s, they actually went and did it."

Of course, it was a simple matter of errant translation. As of this writing, Obama is alive and well and looking like my next president. All my drunken neighbor wanted to know was whether I worried that Obama would be murdered by right-wingers before he could change America. The answer, I guess, is obvious.


Later I fly to Norway, to Stavanger, a charming old city built from the profits of dragging enormous hauls of fish from the sea and canning them, and, more recently, pumping enormous flows of oil from off-shore North Sea rigs. It's a town that's gone through two long resource booms, and it feels tidy, prosperous and efficient.

It does not feel warm. I live in Seattle, and thus thought I knew what cold and wet and dark were all about, but after spending the morning walking the streets of the old town and harbor here, I realized that Seattle is downright tropical in comparison. I left the hotel with high hopes, an overcoat, a scarf and an umbrella, and staggered back, two hours later, dripping pools of water, trailing behind me the tattered remains of my brolly and looking like a survivor of Napoleon's March on Moscow.


I'm here to speak at InnoTown, the Norwegian ideas conference. The title of my talk is to be "Innovation got us into this mess. Innovation will get us out of it."

Which, generally speaking, I whole-heartedly believe. That said, I also worry that because of its over-use in business circles, we have begun to attach to to the term innovation a notion of meaningless, incremental cleverness. Innovation perhaps has come to mean anything new, anything unexpected.

We need new thinking and new solutions, absolutely. But we don't need just any old innovation; we need the right ones. In a similar way, we don't just need to aspire towards some vague increase in sustainability; we need to aspire towards the absolute elimination of human harm of the natural systems on which we depend, so that we do not destroy those systems.

Our goal then, as I've discussed before, needs to be zero ecological impact -- on a timeline open to debate but almost certainly much sooner than the vast majority of people understand -- and the innovations we need to pursue are the ones that help us shrink away our impact while increasing the quality of our lives. Unfortunately, only a tiny fraction of the smartest, most creative people (the sort who tend to innovate the most) are actually engaging the challenge at that level.

Anyways, I've got to write up a talk about that now. More tomorrow.

(Photo credits: Stavanger at Mid Day; Welcome to Tropical Stavanger; Books and Booze. All by Alex Steffen. Creative Commons, some rights reserved.)

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I agree with you Alex in your description of how the word 'innovation' has come to be misused.

A similar thing occurred with our last right wing government, the recently demised 'Howard' government.

The Howard government apppropriated the word 'reform' and used it to cover any changes that they made, no matter how reactionary - for example removing the right of individual workers to collectively bargain or go on strike,locking up refugees or seizing indigenous lands on the prextext of stopping child abuse. These were all 'reforms'.

Whatever actions the government under took or laws they changed were inevitably described as a 'reform'. Prime minister John Howard always described his government in terms of the changes it made over it's 11 year lifespan as a 'great reforming government'.

Reform ás a word here in Australia has almost totally lost it's meaning 'beneficial change' with overtones of social justice or equity and now is just used to mean any sort of change that occurs.

Alex you are correct. Loose use of words and terms can end up with them meaning almost the total opposite of what they originally were intended to.

As an interesting postscript Alex, most of the 'reforms' ennacted by the Howard government have themselves been 'reformed' by the new Rudd government.

A reform of a 'reform' if you will. At this rate we are going to have to come up with some new terms to cover it!


Posted by: Cameron on 23 Oct 08

Weather we believe in prayer to a God/Goddess or the unfolding amazing science of quantum physics we all know what we need to do.
Hold Hope, Love, and, Trust high in our thoughts.

Posted by: rosetta star on 24 Oct 08

Hello Alex,
I live in Sweden and can sympathize with you about the raw weather conditions on the West Coast of Norway. We have a bit of rawness ourselves just now.

I think the Norwegian example is an interesting one to look at. Here is a country that has become what we call 'advanced' today in a relatively short period of time in history. Most people forget that just over 100 years ago the Scandinavian countries were poor. Norway has built up its wealth through an unsustainable harvesting of natural resources but now it is in a position to host conferences such as the one that you attended and is regarded with other Scandinavian countries as leaders in coming up with environmentally sustainable solutions in the world.

How do we avoid today's poor countries looking at a country like Norway and saying, "we have to be allowed to make the same mistakes so that we can get ourselves out of poverty to start with"?

I work with health and wellbeing in the industrialized world today but I have a personal and professional background in the developing world.

All best,

Julie Lindahl

Posted by: Julie Lindahl on 25 Oct 08


Remember Jamais Cascio writing here a while ago about a "reversibility principle?" We are seeing this notion of "reverse" showing up everywhere. The mantra on climate change these days is "suddenly dramatically reverse."

Without elaborating here on the dramatic concept of Sudden Dramatic Reversal to address our climate situation (I'm working on an article and a book about it), I'm wondering if "reversal" is the word we need to be using. Innovation, reform, and obviously revolution are all related and embedded in it, but "reversal" sets out the terms for this particular iteration of reform, that we must categorically REVERSE the direction the toxins and emissions are going.

Last night at a gathering I also heard a remarkable metaphor that is related to this whole problem of language. Someone at the gathering told me that one feminist theory about our current economic "contraction" in growth is that it is like the contractions of childbirth, THE "labor" of giving birth to a new economic system. Having given birth myself, I found the metaphor stunning and also helpful. It awakened a biological memory that I can already feel giving me a new perspective on our current situation.

But I am not confident that language that is so deeply rooted in an experience that only women can have, and not all women do have, will work in the larger sphere. Yet there is an important corrective, here, to the assumption that a 'contraction in economic growth' is inherently and always a sign of death, collapse, trouble -- in short, a problem. This metaphor of the labor of birth reminds us that contraction also serves life and development -- indeed, is critical to development and human continuance.

But I think that, over all, the better word to spread throughout our discourse is reversal.

Posted by: MimiK on 26 Oct 08

Good article. I agree with you. But "anyways" is not correct English. "Anyway" does the trick quite nicely. No need for the "s". Sorry, it is one of my pet incorrectesses.

Posted by: Dean Hill on 26 Oct 08



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