Nordic Notes

Well we had an amazing little holiday travelling round the West of Iceland: lava fields, volcanic craters, natural springs, waterfalls, seals, a glacier, crazy mossy/ lunar looking landscapes, snow-topped mountains, a Viking… But the reason for being there – the Nordic Geographers Meeting, also far exceeded expectations. I’ve had a really good time there meeting new people, gathering ideas and generally absorbing lots of key insights on the conference theme – Geographies of Responsibilities.


Huge map-model of Iceland at Reykjavik city hall, conference reception venue
I’ll try and summarise the highlights in this post…

…but it was a 3 day conference, so this might get lengthy! Jørgen Ole Bærenholdt got the conference of to a great start with a challenging keynote speech calling us to question how well geography as a discipline can meet challenges of today and the future. His lecture, ‘Geographers at work in the world: Can we design our way out?’, recognised the skills and strengths of geographers at working in interdisciplinary environments, spatial thinking, deconstructing and critiquing processes. Yet he argued that perhaps we do not develop the specific professional skills needed to go straight into work. Moreover, we perhaps shy away from working for change in society and suggesting directions and actions for that change. Critique, Jørgen posits, is not necessarily helpful when revolution is the only solution it brings, but ‘phronesis’, practical knowledge, is where we need to direct our attention.
For me this speaks to the awareness I have as an environmentalist and sometimes activist, that geography can and does accommodate an active and involved perspective, but this is by no means always the accepted academic approach and is generally restricted to a passionate minority. This is sometimes frustrating and can seem like an avoidance of responsibility to the wider world. Yet, to act for change, do we not first need to analyse the problem thoroughly?  ‘Changing the world’, is a luring ideal, but change for whom, by whom and to what ends were often the questions missing from my own childhood ambitions. A reminder of the necessary constant critical reflection on our motivations, goals and contributions to wider society as geographers was a great way to kick off then.


Long train of Geographers! Conference fieldtrip to Þingvellir National Park, site of the first parliment
I was lucky enough to present my own musings on emotions, space, memory and methodology in the very first set of sessions. I was completely surprised so many turned out to it – there was fierce competition from a huge range of interesting topics. For me it was an incredibly useful session as we had lots of time for discussion. Although the topics the four of us presented were diverse (but nevertheless all interesting!) there were some common themes and questions we drew from them: How can we record and then re-present emotions and memories and how do we deal with the act of bringing up memories as part of our research? The discussion also brought up additional things to consider such as how to account for the context of memory research – both in terms of the background of the participants and how the research setting, such as group discussions and their affects.

What started as a bit of experiment in this PhD, exploring how people remembered Svalbard, has turned into a really interesting vein on investigation which I think I’ll be working with some more in the future.

Later that day I found myself in a really stimulating session, Place, Economy and Sustainability. Karin Bradley’s work on re-writing the Stockholm plan from a feminist political ecology perspective was inspiring and very relevant to the work I’ve been doing with Kelvin Mason on envisioning climate change landscapes. The problem of how to make positive visions that can be taken seriously and aren’t dictatorial seems to have been mitigated with courage and a sense of humour. Also in that session, Ingrid Kielland presented her findings on using place stories to look at discourses of sustainability in the context of winter Olympic bid in Tromsø, which was fascinating. Methodologically, the idea of using place narratives is something I’ve been considering for my research and her paper certainly showed how valuable this can be.
The second day kicked off with another inspiring keynote speaker – Katherine Gibson on Reframing the Economy, who took on the message of Jørgen claiming there has never been such a high demand for a discipline that straddles the human and non-human. Her re-visioning of diverse and inclusive economies of negotiation as opposed to only formal economies of laws and models was illustrated by some uplifting examples and useful thinking tools that aim for developing more responsible economies and relations between ‘[human] others’ and ‘earth others’.


Iceberg model of the economy, showing it’s full diversity under the water line. From ‘Take Back the Economy’ (Gibson-Graham, Cameron and Healy 2013)
A Tourist in Tourism Sessions
I then had almost a full day in tourism sessions. Given tourism is such a feature of activities in Svalbard, it was great to check out what research is going on in this field at the moment, with the focuses of the sessions on wilderness, nature conservation and arctic tourism – I was definitely in the right place! Michelle Thompson-Fawcett’s presentation on place attachment in Antarctica was a particular highlight. Michelle has been working with glaciologists and other scientists, exploring their relationships to Antarctica, and what this means for consequent actions using dairies, interviews and social media. Again, lots of methodological insights and experience to inspire. Later in this series of sessions, Albina Pashkevich and Olle Stjernstrӧm presented their work so far on tourism in the Russian Arctic, with one of their case studies being Svalbard. So, this was of course extremely interesting and I gained some new perspectives on how tourism is developing and the problems, barriers and potential benefits this brings. This work is part of a wider MISTRA arctic futures project on tourism: ‘From Resource Hinterland to Global Pleasure Periphery’, which has wider findings I’ll be reading up on as more publications come out from that.

Finally Jarkko Saarinen ended the day with a keynote lecture on ‘Responsible geographies of global tourism’. This seemed to me to fill in the missing links between environmental thinking, in which transport emissions and policies are a key factor; ‘sustainable’ tourism, where travel to destinations is often ignored; and tourism as a development strategy, in which the benefits are often over-played and it is sustaining the industry of tourism itself that becomes the main goal rather than improving well-being.


Hellisheiði Geo-thermal power station – fascinating!
Day 3, began with a keynote from Gunhild Setten on Responsible Landscapes – landscapes of responsibility. Her examination of how plant species are classed as ‘native’, ‘alien’ or ‘alien invasive’ and the subsequent consequences in terms of policy, development and landscape changes, raised some pertinent questions as to where and when responsibility lies. Moreover she suggested we need to problematise ‘the future’ as a category and mobilise it within landscape research to extend the boundaries of responsibility. There were clear links to this and ways of thinking about classifying ‘nature’ in the context of the Svalbard Global Seed Bank, one of my case studies. In the panel session afterwards, we discussed whether linear time really matches up with landscape at all, which again resonates with some of the questions Kelvin and I have of using landscape as a lens for the future. It ended with a rather philosophical question: if we accept the notion that we are now in the age of the ‘Anthropocene’, this comes with a huge responsibility, but also shakes the nature/culture divide to its core. If all species and things are within one category: social nature, second nature, cyborg; who / what do we protect and conserve and who decides? That’s one to keep thinking about for now…


The conference ended on a great practical note with Julie Wilk’s keynote on researcher responsibilities. It was a great reminder, especially as I head out to Svalbard for the first time, to be open to all research encounters, to listen, observe, learn from and have tea with the communities we research with so that we can work together and contribute rather than extract data – wise words to end this rather long post on! Actually, I should end with a big thank you to the conference organisers at Reykjavik, they did a fantastic job and made us feel very welcome!

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