Seeing the unseen - Environmental Communication and researching sustainability transformations in forests

Senast ändrad: 14 september 2023

Stina Powell.

In the midst of a double crisis of climate and biodiversity, new and different knowledge is needed to develop practices for sustainable transformations. While there is a broad agreement about the urgency of addressing these crises, there is no agreement on how. The complex nature of the crises (socially, geographically, politically, culturally, scientifically) requires, to paraphrase feminist scholar Haraway, that we ‘stay with the trouble’. This means that the present and the future will continue to be complex and messy, and that we therefore need to keep addressing questions of equality, justice and voice as we engage with the present as well as imagining and planning for the future.

To do this requires us to be attentive to the “unseen”- that which is visible, but that we for different reasons do not see or recognize.  The unseen makes up the foundation of my research, empirically, methodologically and theoretically, and in this lecture I will show how the concept of the unseen helps in identifying whose voices are heard and what knowledge counts in sustainability transformations, and thus in developing more inclusive and sustainable practices in research, education and policy.

This research brings together environmental communication and feminist research to study how certain ways of knowing, seeing, experiencing and practicing forests are given privilege, while others are still unseen. This work has grown out of an understanding that the ways in which we communicate, i.e., discursive practices, have real, material effects. Being attentive to discursive practices opens up opportunities to study not only what is communicated (verbally or non-verbally) but also how this communication carries meaning and leads to action.

In the contexts of forests and forestry in Sweden, the struggle over meaning and interpretative prerogative is at times vocal and includes strong position holders such as the forestry industry, academia and environmental NGOs. Studying discursive practices requires being attentive to relations of power and privilege in knowledge development and in communication, and following this, to engage with and listen to more and new voices. For this, we need close, situated, empirical studies based in qualitative methodological approaches. In three recent projects, all in the forest context, my colleagues and I engage with groups of actors who are rarely present in the highly polarized forest debate in Sweden. We base our research in qualitative methodologies and mixed methods such as focus groups, ethno-photography and walk-alongs.

The groups in our research are young people studying or working with forests, forest innovators (e.g. in production, in municipalities or in NGOs) and journalists who write about forests and forestry. These projects all aim at answering questions related to the future of Swedish forestry and forest practices, for example what alternative ways of doing forestry might look like and what hopes, worries and aspirations for the future are related to alternative forestry practices.

From a feminist perspective, we ask what the norms, power relations and knowledges in forests and forestry are today, and how they might be challenged. So far, my research suggests that forestry carries a negative masculine culture with a strong production focus, something which leads to that alternative forest practices, and actors (particularly women and people working with environmental questions in forest contexts) feel marginalized. Based on the outcomes of these studies, the hope is to develop processes and ways of working that can support a more inclusive and respectful transformation towards sustainable forest practices.