Published 2020-02-19

This post is also available in Swedish

Differences of opinion a resource, not an obstacle

The Mistra Environmental Communication research programme’s recent kick-off meeting was very well attended. Altogether, nearly 30 organisations took part, and the consensus was that the programme should not only produce research but also ensure that words lead to action.

Describing environmental communication and its role has long been fairly easy. Put simply, it has often been a matter of researchers sharing their results, whereupon it is up to citizens to follow the scientists’ guidelines to the best of their ability.

This type of one-way communication no longer works, mainly because research results are increasingly often questioned these days — sometimes on good grounds, sometimes with reference to ‘alternative facts’.

This is the background to the Mistra Environmental Communication research programme (usually abbreviated as ‘Mistra EC’) that is now starting. Its approach is that environmental communication can no longer be solely a means for researchers to disseminate their messages.

Instead, environmental communication should be about raising awareness of disagreements among various stakeholders and interests to generate knowledge and dialogues in which all those involved feel included. This, in turn, helps them to contribute to a sustainable society.

At the end of January, the programme had a kick-off meeting. A total of 30 organisations were represented, and the 60 participants altogether were given the opportunity to discuss the upcoming work over two days.

‘We talked a lot about what environmental communication is and should be, and one conclusion is that it’s a tool for joint creation of meaning in our quest for a more sustainable society,’ says Eva Friman, Director of the Swedish International Centre of Education for Sustainable Development (SWEDESD) at Uppsala University, and one of the programme’s two directors.

The other programme director is Anke Fischer, Professor of Environmental Communication at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), the institution that is also the main contractor for the programme.

Eva Friman

‘An equally important insight is that we shouldn’t be a club for purely philosophical discussions. What we create and do must lead to action and benefit society. And we’ll do the creating together, in an interdisciplinary process,’ Friman continues.

One way of doing this is, alongside the five more conventional work packages, to create think tanks around important topics. But the programme goes one step further, calling the planned bodies ‘think-and-do tanks’, to indicate that the programme’s goal is to generate concrete results.

‘The main goal of our think-and-do tanks is for them to help us bridge the boundaries between thinking and doing. That’s the very point of ​​our entire programme. Basically, you could say that our work packages act horizontally, while our think tanks dig down vertically,’ Friman says.

During the kick-off meeting, participants had the chance to submit proposals for topics that would suit think-and-do tanks. In total, about 20 ideas were presented, and several of the participants announced that they were keen to take on the responsibility of leading a think tank.

However, there is a preference for the people who initiate and lead the various groups not to belong to the academic community.

‘In our experience, researchers are keen to lead this type of group, so we’re careful to emphasise the role of the public stakeholders. This is their main arena of co-creating the programme.’

The programme should not back away from existing conflicts on environmental and sustainability issues. The 17 global Sustainable Development Goals in Agenda 2030 are just one example of sharply conflicting aims.

‘We must dare both to see the contradictions that exist and to be open to synergies among various goals and positions. If we succeed in our endeavour, our results can benefit all Mistra’s programmes, since environmental communication spans all subjects and goals.’

Mistra EC has also engaged research groups from Australia, the Czech Republic and the US, and the hope is that they will provide feedback from their respective countries.

‘As for Australia, we’ve already decided to study the communication practices associated with the recent fires,’ Friman says.

During the spring, the programme’s five different work packages will embark on more practical activities. In parallel, a number of think-and-do tanks will be created.

Facts about Mistra Environmental Communication

Programme period: 2019–2023.

Funding: Mistra is investing SEK 54 million. Other funders are contributing at least SEK 6 million.

Main contractor: Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).

Programme directors: Anke Fischer, Professor of Environmental Communication at SLU, and Eva Friman, Director of SWEDESD at Uppsala University.

Executive committee chair: not yet appointed.

Contact at Mistra: Malin Lindgren.

Link: www.slu.se/mistra-ec.

The programme is a collaboration involving SLU, Uppsala University, Lund University, the University of the Sunshine Coast (Australia), the University of Texas at Austin (US), Charles University (Czech Republic), and stakeholders from various sectors of society, including the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, the Swedish Forest Agency, the Federation of Swedish Farmers (LRF), Greenpeace, and other government agencies, non-governmental organisations and companies.