Elin Slätmo is a PhD student in human geography at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. She is visiting the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (AUSCCER) between October and December this year. In this post Elin answers a few questions about her time in Australia.
Tell us about your research and how you ended up visiting AUSCCER?
My overall research interests are sustainable and long term use of resources. This includes developing overall understandings of how our world is constantly changing and why these changes are happening, but also more direct questions concerning how people value and use the physical environment, what influences us to make different decisions about the use and the consequences of this. In my PhD project ”Agricultural land in transition. Driving forces behind the conversion of agricultural land in Sweden and Norway” I focus on why agricultural land is changed into other land uses. It’s important to further develop knowledge about why agricultural land is changed into other uses for future needs concerning food and energy, and also for other values that agricultural activities sustain such as biodiversity and cultural heritage values. Professor Lesley Head, the Director of AUSCCER, is a visiting professor at the division of Human Geography in Gothenburg. During one of her stays in Gothenburg, she invited us to come to Wollongong and AUSCCER. I said yes right away! AUSCCER has a broad range of social environmental research that fits well with my interests and our research themes in Gothenburg. However, it is slightly different approaches and perspectives, and I would say that the research in AUSCCER reflects the Australian context – for example the research on fires and invasive species.
What are you working on while in Wollongong?
As a PhD student who plans to finish next year I am unfortunately not doing any field work in Australia. Instead, I am working on my thesis while I meet many new and interesting people who give me inspiration for the framing of my thesis and for future projects. I have also had the opportunity to participate in AUSCCER’s seminar series which was very rewarding. In addition to the stimulating process of presenting a summarised version of my theoretical ideas and the Scandinavian case studies on agricultural land use change, I received interesting questions and comments which urge me to further relate my research to global resource and equity issues.
Reflecting a bit around global resource use and equity issues reminded me of the importance to further study the relations between material and immaterial dimensions of our world. That our world is constituted of complex and ever changing relations of influence between the physical and the social has been highlighted in different ways by, for example, Meyfroidt et al. 2013 & Olwig & Mitchell, 2007. The physical landscape’s form, along with its associated social functions, are the results of dimensions of values, power and justice. The development of car-dependent suburbs with plenty of living space per person in different parts of the world can for example be seen as a physical expression of these societies values (cf. Cosgrove, 2006). In the same way as it is viewed as valuable to strive for ever greater accumulation of capital and materials the desire for plenty of individually owned space can be seen as an expression of modern consumption. The physical form thus has social meanings and functions. And to understand the use and changes of our resources today we must acknowledge the social functions of the physical form in the specific context. Without the social context, it is difficult to understand why the development of car-dependent suburbs is present and among other effects cause conversion of agricultural land into other land uses. These processes encourage me to further investigate and acknowledge the relations between the social valuation and management of resources, everyday activities and the physical material world.
What else have you been doing in Australia?
I’ve been very fortunate as I have met a lot of positive and welcoming people through AUSCCER! And I have been enjoying the beaches, mountains and rainforest that surround Wollongong. I quickly realised when I arrived here that I am not in rainy Gothenburg – in my second week massive forest fires started in the Blue Mountains and other nearby areas around Wollongong. Apart from the direct risks to humans and animals, it became obvious that people’s perceptions, uses and management of the physical environment are very contextual. Just as we in Sweden have both positive and negative relations with snow and ice, people here are also aware of the risks (and benefits?) of fires. Before I leave Australia I plan to go on a road trip from Melbourne to Perth, participate in an Australasian conference on agriculture and food, and hopefully get used to cycling on the ”wrong” side of the road!
Meyfroidt, P., Lambin, E. F., Erb, K-H. & Hertel, T.W., 2013. Globalization of land use: distant drivers of land change and geographic displacement of land use, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Volume 5, Issue 5, October 2013, Pages 438-444, ISSN 1877-3435, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2013.04.003.
 Olwig K.R. & Mitchell, D. (2007). Justice, power and the political landscape: From American space to the European Landscape Convention, Landscape Research, 32:5, 525-531, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01426390701552688
Cosgrove, D., 2006. Modernity, Community and the Landscape Idea. Journal of Material Culture, Volume 11, Issue 1/2, July 2006, Pages : 49–66, doi:10.1177/1359183506062992