Professor inauguration lecture: Can geographers change the world?  

On May 31st, CET Director Håvard Haarstad held his professor inauguration lecture, marking the transition from “forsker 1183“, or Research Professor, to full professor. He started the position as full professor at the Department of Geography in December 2017.

During the lecture, Haarstad explored his life in the discipline: starting at a geography course at the Western Kentucky University, the inspiring lectures of Professor David Keeling made a young Haarstad leave the path towards a career in journalism, to explore the transformative power of geography.

Haarstad had previously engaged with a radical youth group in Kentucky, mobilizing to have the Green party’s Ralph Nader elected president – and in it arguably diverging votes from the Democratic candidate, Al Gore. This can ultimately be seen as causing Gore to lose the elections to George W. Bush, a president leaving behind a war-ridden legacy.

– So the Iraq war, that’s on me, Haarstad jokingly said to the inauguration attendees.

The activist experience was arguably brought along into the studying of geography: Now, the fresh professor is exploring how geography can be a useful tool for changing the world.

The transformative power of geography

During the inauguration lecture, Haarstad attempted to answer one of the largest questions of our time: What is the true potential of geography in making our societies better, and how do we, as researchers, activate this potential?

– There is something about geography that makes it well-placed to deal with larger, societal issues, he said.

Haarstad explained how the concept of scale in particular had been a helpful tool for him in understanding transformations. As transformations often are presented as waves of change overthrowing our societies, geography can help create a more critical and nuanced debate:

– The change is going to look different at different places and scales.

The new professor further proposed four building blocks a geography discipline with the potential to (help) save the world. He described transformative geography as:

  • Studying the world, not the literature.
  • Practical-to-abstract-to-practical.
  • Methodologically promiscuous.
  • Critical (but not ideological).

These were interesting ideas, and apart from Haarstad diverging from his tradition of presenting everything in three’s, the attendees were eager to discuss the building blocks and their potential for the discipline.

What’s next?

The latter part of the lecture was dedicated to the future. Showing a timeline leaving the next 30 years – the time left to his retirement – blank, Haarstad asked what he was to fill these years with.

What to do for the next 30 years?

– I think I am already doing part of what I will be doing for these 30 years, he said.

With the newly established CET centre, research projects looking into the role of cities as agents in energy transformations and with high ambitions to contribute to societal change and the development of theories, the new professor seems to have his hands full for still many years to come.