– combining academic analysis with practice as a way to explore human relations to nature that aim for sustainability


Stella Williams and Cornelia E Nauen of Mundus maris gave one of the keynote addresses at the Conference “The Intersection between Society and Nature”. The conference was organised by a scientific team headed by Prof. Eva Friman of the Centre for Sustainable Development at the University of Uppsala. It took place from 1 to 3 October and attracted close to 150 international scholars and practitioners.

Intended to contribute a complementary perspective to the social science research constituting the mainstay of the conference, the Mundus maris team focused on “Concepts and empirical space in sustainability research”. It presented the talk in tandem to make it more lively for the audience.

The talk wove together three threads, each time highlighting key concepts and illustrating examples of application and the creative tension between the two:

The first line of argument was to show the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability research which looks for mutually compatible work across disciplinary boundaries. In addition, we want to counter the shifting baseline syndrome, first described in an influential paper by D. Pauly in 1995. It describes that we tend to judge our observations in relation to what we experienced during our own professional (or anyway conscious) lifetime and not be sufficiently aware of earlier states of our environment. That can easily lead to defending an already badly degraded state of nature. On the other hand, some baselines need to shift – think of racial or gender discrimination and other 'traditional' norms that do not have their place in a sustainable society concerned not only with rebuilding nature's resilience, but also with equitable treatment of citizens.

The global crisis in fisheries was chosen as an example to illustrate the principles and how the sustainability dimensions can be brought to bear on the comparision of case studies. Mundus maris had organised a panel to this effect at the recent 7th MARE Conference in June 2013 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

The second thread drew attention to the long time it usually takes until societies have worked out the likely impact of using research results. These are typically measured in decades. The European Environment Agency has recently updated its report 'Late lessons from early warning' 10 years after the publication of the first edition. This time span can be shortened when research is conducted in critically engaged ways and when questions and results are not only coached in specialist language.

Fish rulers indicating minimum size at which common fish in different countries can reproduce have been used as a vehicle to simplify access to science. In Senegal and Gambia specifically developed fish rulers have enabled engaged conversation in schools, fish markets and elsewhere about the need for protecting baby fish. While not enough as a single method, they have been quite effective to raise awareness and also facilitate change of behaviour.

The third thread of the talk drew attention to the importance of scientifically validated knowledge in the public domain and the need to develop narratives that 'make sense' of the information by telling a story that provides context to the facts. FishBase, the global web archive on all fish known to science (currently some 32,700 marine and freshwater species) is a good case in point.

Fish are the most important component of marine capture fisheries. However, with globalising overfishing, catching invertebrates, e.g. cephalopods, bivalves and shrimps, has increased six-fold in the last couple of decades. Nowadays, also many of these organisms, often the food of finfish, are in turn overexploited and in decline.

The assessment of the 53 countries, accounting for 96% of the global catches reported by the World Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and their disregard for the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries they had negotiated and adopted themselves, puts a storyline onto the naked facts.

Putting a human face on such a story and enabling often overlooked or marginalised small-scale fishers to express themselves through video and other media and thus getting a voice, can be even more engaging and effective. The sharing of the human perspective to what fishers undergo was very incisive to the audience at the Conference. Stella's account on how she had personally experienced that during her field work in Nigeria, what she was able to bring to the women in the fishing villages and what she was learning was an authentic example of critically engaged research. It illustrated as well why Mundus maris is doing what it has perceived as critical issues at the grassroot level. Click here for the powerpoint presentation.

The concepts are there to use and the examples of practical application show the feasibility. Enrolling the perspectives of the social sciences more systematically in future activities holds good promise. The cross-fertilisation can materialise and offer richer interpretation and understanding when different perspectives command respect and are actively sought. It is fair to say that participating in such meetings and basing action consciously on such concepts should enable better results at the local level as much as in regional or even global partnerships with others.