The second course

I just realised that I have not even written anything about the current course we are taking: Field course in collaboration and learning in natural resource management (yes that’s the whole title, I didn’t shorten it).  This is the second course in the syllabus, after the introduction to EC.

It is based around a research project carried out by the entire class. We are interviewing members of several regional government administrations who work with the relatively recent EU directive to implement green infrastructure policies throughout the union.

As EC students, we are interested in how the concept of green infrastructure is interpreted and implemented by the regional actors. The concept is rather vague per se, and given the Chinese whisper game effect, we are wondering how it gets translated through the ranks down to the actual hands doing the work.

We are applying two theoretical frames/lenses to the material we gather: discourse analysis and practice theory.

I’m personally mesmerized by practice theory so far, and will probably be writing some geeky posts on it once we have completed the lectures and literature discussions. Discourse analysis is basically about pointing out the underlying linguistic rules about what you can and cannot say in a given context, which of course heavily influences what is done and not done, what is challenged or not, what is explored or not. Also interesting but less fascinating as it is in itself a quite narrow lens, focusing only on language. I find practice theory to be fascinating because it acknowledges that what we say is not more important than what we do, or what/who we do it with, and our collective reasons for doing and our understandings of why we do it and what the consequences are.

We are right now in the process of conducting interviews with the people involved in green infrastructure, and learning more about how to use discourse analysis and practice theory as analytical tools. It is complex and somewhat chaotic at the moment, but slowly the picture is emerging, one brush stroke at the time.

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Where’s the environment stuff?

I’ve picked up by word of mouth that a number of people in our course feel that there is not much environment stuff in our syllabus. We’re here to learn about the environment, right? How can we become good at environmental communication without knowing about the environment?

This is something you should know about, if you’re considering this programme.

There really isn’t much focus on learning more about the environmental issues per se in this programme, except for indirectly through case studies, and even then it’s not much.

I imagine this is tough for the students who enter this programme with a communication or sociology background and are interested in environmental issues. You might not learn much in the lectures.

But remember the #1 thing about university that is different from earlier studies, which also is the biggest difference between a master and bachelor degree, and will be even greater if you go into a PhD:

We’re adults now. We are now responsible for our own learning.

It is a huge transition from school where we sit passively and are told everything we need to know. Now it’s up to us.

And if we’re just a little bit resourceful, it’s not even a big challenge to take matters into our own hands.

Do we have a university library full of environment-related books and journals? Yes!

Are there more environment-focused programs where there may be passionate students who would love to share their knowledge with you? You bet!

Are there entire departments of environmental scientists and field workers on campus? Yes! The biggest focus of SLU is on environmental science. The ambition of SLU is to be a world-leading environmental science uni. Might they be happy to give some time to interested students? Absolutely!

Do we have access to the internet? How much quality information on environmental science is available there? How many contacts could we reach from there?

It’s not even difficult, if we just apply ourselves a little bit.

The difficult thing is getting over our own habits of passive learning and expecting others to give us direction. Why won’t we help each other out with this?

I really hope that you’re hearing me right now, regardless of what programme you’re going toward.

Because it will be the same no matter where you go. It’s a phase of life we’re now entering, where we are becoming more and more independent. We all love independence and freedom. Will

we gracefully embrace the responsibility that follows?

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Back to communication

I just realised that the post I wrote a moment ago was rather personal and had very little to do with environmental communication or university life.

Of course, the growth-focused mindset is relevant to university studies as much as any occupation or phase of life.  And, in a way, students tend to be in a transition phase between youth and adulthood, and are moving away from pleasure-seeking toward taking greater responsibility for their own education and well-being. (That being a gross generalisation, though…)

I also believe that an excessive orientation toward pleasure is a huge underlying factor to the environmental problems we deal with. Business is all about customer satisfaction, rarely about serving their development. A big focus in societal development is toward efficiency, rarely about making things more challenging so that we are forced to be more resourceful.

Societal development is of course not only about that. The strive toward that people have their basic needs met is a beautiful endeavour. There are plenty of industries where people are encouraged to challenge themselves, such as the fitness culture.

The big killer I am struggling to reconcile, however, is certain aspects of the Western healthcare system, where the tendency is toward pain relief rather than increased awareness of the illness, it’s cause and what to do about it. A simple example of where this goes wrong is the over-use of anti-inflammatory medicine. Inflammation is a way to increase blood flow to the damaged tissue and aid its healing. Taking a drug to artificially reduce inflammation thus interferes with the healing process.

I feel I need to throw in another comment here, mainly because I expect a good chunk of you readers to be attracted to the popular trend of foods with anti-inflammatory properties. To clarify, this usually refers to systemic inflammation, which is basically internal inflammation, usually of organ tissues. A common example is systemic inflammation of the intestines. It is tempting to believe that anti-inflammatory foods would be good, then. And I’m not saying they’re not. It depends, and you’ve got to ask a critical question: is this food ‘anti-inflammatory’ because it interferes with my body’s inflammatory response, or because it actually aids the healing and so the inflammation can naturally ease quicker? In other words, does it have anti-inflammatory properties or does it have healing properties? This of course depends on the food and on the type of inflammation and on the reason for the inflammation. Does a diet high in gluten create inflammation in your intestines? Gluten is a large molecule that we cannot digest. It could scrape against your intestinal lining and damage the tissue. Inflammation in this area would be a good response to aid the healing of the area. Adding ‘anti-inflammatory’ foods like broccoli to your diet would probably not help, and might even worse the condition, as broccoli is high in fibre, also difficult to digest. (Yes, fibre is ‘good’ for the intestines, but primarily as a food source for your gut bacteria. It won’t help heal any ruptured intestinal lining.) If the inflammation is caused by high gluten intake, a sounder strategy might be to reduce the gluten intake, maybe even temporarily restrict intake of solid food at all, to give the gut lining time to heal and let the inflammation settle once it has fulfilled its purpose.

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Chaos…

I apologise for the brief hiatus in my blogging.

The current course has experienced some difficulties, as an unexpected tragedy struck the head of the course, and several stand-ins and schedule changes had to be organised. This is chaotic for all involved, and we students are probably the least affected.

Still, it has been difficult for me to wrap my head around things, so blogging has been difficult. It is not made easier by having three jobs and nine hours of dance lessons on top of university studies.

As I still don’t feel quite like I’ve come to grips with the course yet, I’ll let this particular post run in a different direction.

As you see, I am ridiculously busy right now, and it is the toughest I’ve faced yet. It is also the absolutely most rewarding and I feel more alive than ever.

And I believe it all comes down to living on the edge.

Now, I don’t mean ‘living on the edge’ as per the popular understanding: do extreme stuff where you’re close to dying to get a hormone rush. I find this to be rather immature, and believe that a mature person recognises that we could die any moment, and therefore don’t need to set up these extreme situations to challenge it.

By ‘living on the egde’, I mean living at the edge of my comfort zone.


Living at the edge of your comfort zone means, to me, that you learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You go beyond the need to feel good all the time and move toward personal growth and deepening relationships with other people.

Of course, sometimes it is too difficult, and I have to pull back into my comfort zone for a moment, just to cope. That happened this week. The key is to not stay there, but to get right back up and face the discomfort as soon as you’re centered again. It is almost as if being uncomfortable with being comfortable.

Relating this back to my earlier comment about the popular understanding of ‘living on the egde’, I feel that by living at our edge, by not settling for withering our time away, by being fully engaged, facing our fears and always growing, we are in a way challenging death, but in a way that serves our development and thus our ability to do good in this world.

I understand that this is not for everybody. I’m something of a nutter, and this is a way of life that appeals strongly to me. Of course, I am hinting that this is a good way to live, and would encourage all to consider our own relationship to the comfort zone, and whether we really want to live lives that are comfortable or full. How do you imagine in 30 years you’ll be glad to have lived?

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Returning to humour

One of my very first posts was a gamble. I posted a short text on humour with a video of one of the most offensive comedians I know, on a site where I know I am to be the representative of a high-level academic program, addressing one of the most globally significant challenges the future is facing. I was new to this task, had not had time to build trust with the admin, and could easily have been reprimanded or taken off this blog.

Luckily, our EC team agree on the value of humour and enjoyed the video.

Since, I have wanted to elaborate on how humour can play a critical role in both individual and societal change.

This video explains it better than I ever could:

And I just want to echo his point of how humour helps us cope with harsh realities and allows us to explore new points of view.

Here, this should illustrate what I mean pretty nicely:

 

And bringing it all back to Environmental Communication, here is a brilliant satire:

Enjoy!

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A few words on the climate

To the non-Scandinavian students who are curious of what it is like to study and live in Sweden, I thought I’d drop you a quick message about winter.

It is indeed coming, and we are beginning to feel the brunt of the cold weather and short daylight hours.

Among the people from warmer countries I’ve talked to, the biggest bummer is actually not the lower temperatures, but the long, dark nights that come with winter in the higher latitudes.

(I personally don’t feel the same: I can enjoy nighttime. For me, it is the grey skies of autumn that slowly sap my joy and will. That’s partly why I moved back to Sweden from the UK, where I did my undergrad.)

The lack of sunshine probably adds to a sense of home sickness that strikes some students. It is a tough time.

I wish I had a more cheerful message than the standard ones of

  • ‘winter doesn’t last forever’
  • ‘it’ll get better’
  • ‘you’ll appreciate the good times more after this’
  • ‘suffering builds character’
  • ‘it’ll harden you’

Many of these probably aren’t that appealing — maybe mostly to semi-masochists like me — but they are nevertheless entirely true.

However true these are, and however blissful the bright side is, it is not easy to remember during the dark times. And this, I believe, is where the real challenge is hidden: the need for comfort, distraction, to feel good in the moment, tempts us to shrink and shrivel in our beds or under blankets, and we forget to live our lives. And I believe this is the silent killer, the true darkness.

It is easy to forget the ecstatic feeling of persevering through tough times and seeing the other end, feeling strengthened by the experience and more deeply appreciative of the nicer times. The need to get out of immediate pain is usually more urgent and clouds our perspective.

That’s why I want to give you a challenge, or a gift, if you choose to see it that way.

I encourage you to start keeping a journal.

Every day that you’re struggling with the cold and darkness.

I always journal with a very specific format, that for me works better than just pouring out my scrambled mind onto paper. That’s like dumping garbage. My way is more like recycling.

I ask myself six specific questions, and make space for two examples or events to go under each.

  1. What have I learned today?
  2. What have I improved today?
  3. What have I enjoyed today?
  4. What gifts have I given today?
  5. What gifts have I been given today?
  6. What has been absolutely magical today?

Lately, I have also added one more question:

7. In what ways was I up against it?

By ‘up against it’ I mean the feeling that you’re up against a wall, dealing with something that’s just beyond your own comfort zone.

And that is my take on living fully. Not following your dreams or whims (most dreams are whims, if we’re real honest and search real deep), or doing only whatever makes you feel good or ‘passionate’. I used to think this way, but I got very disillusioned with it. That sort of life won’t make you truly, deeply fulfilled.

To me, if you’re not living at the edge of your comfort zone, you’re holding back. Living fully, to me, is being full in your experience and full in your giving.

None of that is always or even mostly enjoyable, or even comfortable.

I see fulfillment as a sort of ecstasy of living that doesn’t go away when it gets tough. I see true freedom as the ability to remain fulfilled no matter if I’m falling on my face, facing my fears or so exhausted I can barely stand upright.

As you can tell, I am somewhat insane. But I’d rather be a total nutter and fulfilled, than a reasonable person who settles for the easy life. I’m not sure where this post went, it turned into a personal rant, but I hope you found some value in it.

I’m not saying my thoughts are right, or the best. They work for me, but I doubt they are for anyone. It takes a certain kind of lunatic.

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At the end of the beginning

We just had a course evaluation session for this introductory course/module to environmental communication, and it left me in a particular mood.

I think elated is the word I’m looking for.

This first module has been a sheer joy (barring a workshop on academic writing and some literature that I’d rather kick a brick than read again, but that’s a given in academia), and talking about it, looking back on the journey, the moments and my expanded world view as a result, has left me absolutely excited for the next course to start (although I get to enjoy a relatively relaxed week first).

But more than excited for my future, I’m excited for your future, as a reader and a potential candidate for this course.

If you’re thinking of taking this introductory course, I know you will love it!

Not only did I get to revisit all the goodies we had, we also talked about how to make it even better next time.

As I said, elated!!

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Breakfast With a Profound Article

Reading up on articles for my home exam, due in a week, I came across “Lunch With a Turtle Poacher“, a surprisingly moving article that relates a story of Gordo, a turtle poacher that converted into a key helper in conservation efforts for the same turtles.

It contained for me not only tough insights into the complexity of such problems, but also invaluable lessons in why it is precisely that complexity that needs to be embraced if things are ever going to make real, transformative progress.

“It’s very complex” has become almost like a standard, throwaway catchphrase we use as an excuse to not dive deeper into an issue when it feels beyond our current means or understanding. I’ve noticed myself developing a subtle cringe every time I hear it. Yes, it is complex, now how do we deal with that?

The story of Gordo also provides lessons that extend to what I’m seeing on my facebook feed right now: more and more of my friends sharing their MeToo and IHave statuses.

Consider this quote in that light.

Gordo is on our minds. We don’t see him as the enemy. We see him as one of the people we must find a way to work with. We must let him see a way he can benefit from listening to our view of how the world is changing; but to do that, we need to understand his world and its practical constraints. Where there is adequate law and adequate enforcement, one can afford to fight opponents, to report crimes, to litigate. For all the rest of the world, our shared humanity is our only hope.

We cannot afford to see people as opponents—especially not those who oppose us. The conservation community can’t afford to draw lines in the sand. Seeing people as enemies distorts them into something both bigger and smaller than they really are. We must embrace our enemies, look into their eyes long enough to see ourselves. Then we can begin talking. Some people make this easy; others, difficult. Some of those who make it difficult are on our side. The barriers have to go. In a world of hurt and need, what choice is there? On paper, Gordo is a monster, but when he’s sitting there in front of you, he’s a sad person with a problem to solve and limited options.Lunch With a Turtle Poacher“, Nichols & Safina, 2004

I hope this finds you well, and that it stirs some compassion along with hope for the future, even the near months as winter draws near.

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To all of us out there looking for that perfect job, house, hobby, relationship… or masters course 😉

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Being a loudmouth

I was always the quiet student.

I nearly wrote quiet child. That would have been a lie. As a baby, I drove my mother to the brink of insanity with my endless screaming and crying. Then I quieted down. A lot.

In school and in early social situations, I was always the silent observer, in the background, paying attention and not being noticed much.

As I have matured and developed as an adult, however, I’ve become more and more comfortable with taking space and making my voice heard. It started with my best friend not only accepting my voice, but even inviting me to take more space, and seeing how this affected our dynamics — for the better — it triggered a gradual change that has been so subtle day to day over many years that I haven’t really noticed and reflected much over it.

In this course, there is no question that I am among those who talk most in class. But I still didn’t really… get it that I am one of the talkers, because that identity is still not visceral, not quite there yet.

I’ll hear comments like “you were uncharacteristically quiet today” and be totally surprised. Then think about it and not be so surprised anymore. But every time I hear it the surprise is back.

I feel the big change finally dawned on me today when members of the agonistic facilitation group — whose aim was to get as many viewpoints as possible expressed — designed small groups for in-depth discussion in a way that the talkers and more reserved people were separated, so that talkers simply wouldn’t be talking over all the others. (Our class is overall amazingly respectful in giving space to talk, but this clever set-up was the crème de la crème.)

As they explained this choice to us — who by the way were oblivious — they looked at me as if I was one of the loudmouths… (and as if I clearly knew I was one). And my response was what shocked me most: I said “Whaaaaat?!! I resent that!”

I’ve trained myself to notice whenever I’m lying to myself, fooling myself or just generally being dishonest with myself about my own emotions or desires. I absolutely did not resent this comment. If anything, it was validation for a conscious direction of self-development I had started so many years ago. I actually felt subtly joyful, and a pinch of pride.

But I clearly had a different reflex response. And noticing the discrepancy between the actual meaning and my behaviour in response triggered a fuller awareness of this clear change in character not being reflected in a change of identity.

Hopefully, this mere awareness will suffice to update my sense of self. It usually does.

And I hope this post has triggered some reflection in yourselves. Feel free to comment below, and please share!

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