Daring to simplify: multifunctional landscapes and Twitter

Do we environmental social scientists make things too complicated for ourselves? That was one of the stimulating questions that emerged from the workshop Marie Stenseke and I organised here in Göteborg last week – Enhancing the contribution of the social sciences to sustainability debates: how can we be proactive and practical without compromising on complexity? Klas Sandell from Karlstad University encapsulated the dilemma as ‘daring to simplify’ in the public arena. Natural scientists do it all the time, when announcing the latest discoveries in climate change, cancer research or human evolution. Most people accept that there is a huge amount of complexity and detailed research behind such simplifications. Are social scientists too precious about their expertise in complexity?

Reflecting on the discussion later, and having to report on AUSCCER’s activities for the year, I was reminded that we have made significant steps in 2012. What are Twitter, The Conversation and this blog* if not examples of ‘daring to simplify’ our current thinking and research findings? One great thing about each of these arenas is that they contain the architecture to link to the more detailed work in the background. I at least feel more confident to simplify if I can point the reader to the basis on which I do so. A second advantage is that they are our words (with the concomitant disadvantage that we cannot blame a journalist when things are wrong!).

There were a number of other discussion points over the two days that will be familiar to AUSCCER members, particularly the appropriate balance between critical/conceptual and instrumental/problem-solving work. Indeed Nick Gill’s ‘What is the Problem?’ paper was on the reading list. Gunhild Setten reminded us that ‘concepts are the tools we have’. Erik Westholm, who has done a lot of work in ‘Futures Studies’ (yes, the futures are plural, and uncertain) used the concept of the future.  He made the comment that while we now do space very well, we haven’t thought time fully enough. The concept of the future seemed immediately to help free society from the paralysis of thinking that we cannot change things. If we force ourselves to discuss what sort of futures we want, we are also forced to discuss how we might get there. In this process, the role of social sciences is self-evident.  Perhaps a parallel discussion, with strong AUSCCER involvement, had just occurred in Wollongong at the Illawarra Futures symposium?

The future is one theme where the critical/conceptual and more ‘applied’ dimensions of social science clearly converge. Wilderness, and the international critique of protected areas without humans, is another that we discussed. What arguably started several decades ago as a conceptual debate is now grappled with in a pragmatic, everyday sense by land managers the world over.

In the latter part of the week I returned to Lund and Kristianstad to catch up with Joachim Regnell and colleagues at Kristianstad University, where I was King Carl XVI Gustaf Visiting Professor in the Landscape Science program in 2005-06. The landscape researchers there are a multidisciplinary group, with expertise in palaeoecology, landscape analysis, historical geography and archaeology. Working with local stakeholders to apply their research to future planning, they discussed the demands of a ‘tight’ and crowded cultural landscape, in which all land has to do multifunctional work. For example, food production landscapes should also protect biodiversity, and protected areas such as meadows might be harvested (carefully) for bioenergy. I thought the latter sounded hopelessly romantic, but was advised that in fact the coppiced meadows and wind power together could provide as much energy as the nuclear industry does at the moment.

We discussed comparisons with the more extensive landscapes of Australia. Is it that different types of landscape are more separated there, I was asked? Well, yes, in one way. But there are strong moves towards multifunctionality, and it is easy to think of examples. The necessity to extend nature conservation onto Aboriginal land, and to build strong relationships between Indigenous owners and biodiversity managers, is an issue that AUSCCER’s Heather Moorcroft and Michael Adams are currently writing about. It is widely recognised in the literature on multifunctionality that native species protection needs to occur on agricultural land, for mutual benefit. And, as AUSCCER and other scholars take on UOW’s new Global Challenge of ‘Transforming Lives and Regions’, the overlapping and multiple landscapes of the Illawarra and the South Coast will be very much in their minds.

There is an important difference between Sweden and Australia in our approaches to shared or multiple landscapes. Whereas in Australia we might be inclined to think first of the potential for conflict or contestation, the Swedish constitution enshrines a principle of sharing in allemansrätten, or the right of public access. Under this right you do not need permission to cross private land in Sweden, but you are expected to respect the land and its occupants. This principle has a long history of civic commitment and is widely considered part of the national heritage. Many worry that allemansrätten is vulnerable – to a growing population, increasing numbers of international visitors who potentially take advantage of it and/or an increasingly urbanised population who have less knowledge about how to take care of the countryside.

It is interesting to consider how such an ethic might be built up in Australia or elsewhere. Could we fashion an ethic of the commons, drawing on the Aboriginal understanding of country? There’s another concept to consider – perhaps with Gunhild when I visit her department in Trondheim later this week.


*Just for the record, AUSCCER members now have over 2200 followers and 18,000 The Conversation readers between us, and this is the 45th blog post since we started in April. Thanks to everyone who has been part of these interactions.

This is the fourth in a series of posts from Sweden, where AUSCCER Director Lesley Head is currently Visiting Professor at the Department of Human and Economic Geography, University of Gothenburg.  She is on twitter @ProfLesleyHead

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