Saving Svalbard PhD

Saving Svalbard? Contested value, conservation practices and everyday life in the high Arctic

The PhD research started, like many people’s fascination with Svalbard, as full of intrigue about how coal mining, environmental protection, wilderness tourism and climate change research can co-exist. I began with a very wide remit: to investigate how  value and values relate to this co-existence in Svalbard. I set about this through desk research, interviews and ethnographic observations during fieldwork in 2013, 2014 and 2015. A combination of my own interests in environmental values and the ‘live issues’ at the time of research shaped the focus of the final work.

The thesis is available to download in full from the Aberystwyth University Research Portal.


The thesis examines the relationships between human societies, the material landscape and nonhuman life in the archipelago of Svalbard. The investigation draws inspiration from posthuman, neomaterialist geographies and political ecology. Frameworks, processes and practices of value are traced through conservation initiatives and everyday actions and ideas around protecting Svalbard’s environment. Practical, political and ethical questions underscore this work: what can and should be ‘saved’; how and for whom are we trying to save species, landscapes, and artefacts? If saving is possible, is it the ‘right’ thing to do? Svalbard, as a place undergoing climatic change, economic and social transitions in a physically and politically fragile environment, provides a setting where such questions are particularly pertinent.

The thesis develops a theoretical approach to value, which demonstrates that when value is treated as contingent practice and process, as verb rather than noun, it can be a useful analytical tool for uncovering complex, multi-scalar processes, such as conservation practice. I advance this methodologically to combine a value-as-practice approach with feminist care ethics, assemblage thinking and the notion of a ‘humble’ research practice. This humble research practice brings together recent thinking around situated knowledges, participatory and posthuman geographies.

Through documentary research, extensive site-based interviews and ethnographic empirical material, I uncover what is valued as natural and cultural heritage in Svalbard and how value is practiced. I chart how political, economic and cultural frameworks shape, circulate and manipulate value through categorisation and legitimation processes. Everyday practices of care and the dynamic life and ‘thingyness’ of Svalbard challenge value frameworks which seek to measure and fix value. I contend that future ecologies and conservation strategies need to more fully take into account the value(s) of human and more-than-human life in Svalbard and beyond.