Published 2021-11-25

This post is also available in Swedish

Eva Friman safeguards critical thinking

An environment where knowledge and insight from various disciplines can interact and synergise. A place that provides scope for free intellectual discourse. This is Eva Friman’s preferred environment. She entered academia with somewhat of a disappointment but also with her strong drive to reflect critically on the world.

Eva Friman is 19 years old when she moves to Luleå. She has three university programmes to choose from. Friman opts to study business and economics. She’s also thinking about travelling abroad and working with something meaningful; making a difference in practice. But university appeals to her, too. A place for ambitious, important thoughts. An arena for free discussions about nature and society. An oasis, free of the shortcomings and hierarchies of other places.

“I had an incredibly naïve and quite sweet – yet also important – view of universities and research. It is of course partly true, but reality is naturally more complicated,” Eva Friman says.

She quickly makes her decision. Working as a business administrator or economist is not for her. And there is a clear point when her thoughts on universities and the programme she is studying change. During her studies, a series of fundamental assumptions – about human beings, nature and change – in economic theory are presented as truths. Friman is critical. She wants to analyse and discuss the idea that more than any other underpins today’s economic systems. Even though Friman doesn’t gain support for this, she completes her studies. And takes her drive with her on her future path in the academic world.

“I didn’t think it was a sufficiently intellectual environment when fundamental assumptions couldn’t be discussed and criticised. Despite this, I wanted to continue studying. I knew that there was something at the university that I wanted to explore in more detail. A friend lent me a book on intellectual history, and at the same time I was recommended a course that also included environmental history at Umeå University.”

Found her theoretical framework

Sverker Sörlin, currently Professor of Environmental History at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and previously Professor at Umeå University, becomes Friman’s supervisor. Here, she finds what she was looking for. Here, she gains an outlet for her previous frustration and defends her thesis on the idea of unlimited economic growth. The combination of intellectual history and ecological economy becomes Friman’s field, and she receives a scholarship to travel to the University of California, Berkeley.

“It was completely fantastic to write my thesis; I felt that I’d found my field. At UC Berkeley I found my theoretical framework. I conducted empirical studies at the World Bank, I interviewed economists who had different perspectives, approaches and ideas about economic growth and about how society can change. I was able to show that economic growth is not a particularly old concept: it emerged and spread very rapidly in the 1950s, in both theory and politics. And that is not so surprising regarding the concept itself – imagine a theory that says everyone can be better off, without anyone becoming worse off! At that time, the future impact of our growing consumption on the environment was not known, and it seemed unlikely that the gap between rich and poor would increase.”

Critical reflection, intellectual discourse, free thinking – Friman repeatedly refers back to what she strived for. She still thinks about working with something more practical but always concludes that the university environment is the place where she can contribute to driving change in society.

“Here, I can develop my own and other people’s knowledge and understanding. Researchers’ contribution to society consists of critical reflection – we are actually paid to contribute that.”

“We can be each other’s critical friends”

After defending her doctoral thesis, Friman moves to Västerås to work as a Senior Lecturer in Ecological Economics at Mälardalen University and later to Uppsala. In 2005, she takes up the position of Director of The Centre for Environment and Development Studies (Cemus) at Uppsala University, where she also works as an interdisciplinary researcher. Friman subsequently becomes Director of The Centre for Sustainable Development, and in 2014 she takes on the role of Director of Swedesd, a research-based competence centre for education and learning for sustainable development. Five years later, alongside Anke Fischer, Professor of Environmental Communication at SLU, Friman is also Programme Director of the ongoing research programme Mistra Environmental Communication, with the goal of developing communication for sustainable development.

Anke Fischer and Eva Friman, Programme Directors of Mistra Environmental Communication.

Friman’s role as Programme Director governs a large proportion of her time. She earmarks half the hours of a full-time position for her Programme Director work, and 10 per cent for research. Since Swedesd was organised into the scientific field of medicine and pharmacology, she has received more support, and her administrative duties as director have decreased.

Friman’s field of research within Mistra Environmental Communication comprises creating learning processes for more in-depth environmental communication. She is currently working on a “co-creation learning lab” within the programme. The lab aims to create a platform on which to test various methods, tools and perspectives, and where actors from different sectors of society and disciplines can meet and develop. Three cases will be tested in the lab. The first is about carbon sequestration and carbon credits, the second analyses forest fires and the third concerns more sustainable funerals.

“Anke and I collaborate well. We have different areas of responsibility and hold regular meetings together. The best part about being two programme directors is that we always have someone with the same level of responsibility who we can use as a sounding board and discuss things with. We also have different backgrounds and interpret issues and situations in complementary ways; we can be each other’s critical friends,” Friman explains.

Conflicts and power

Friman’s managerial experience is very useful in her Programme Director role. She is accustomed to tackling everything from HR and business administration issues to operational planning and conflicts. She thinks that developing operations is the most enjoyable part of her job. The biggest challenge is time pressure rather than lack of time. You need to squeeze in many tasks, and challenging situations can arise when you are responsible for staff. Friman gains energy from renovating and furnishing her 18-century cottage outside Sandviken where she spends a great deal of her time.

“To me, relationships are the meaning of life. I also gain strength and energy from the research issues themselves, most of all from those concerning sustainable development and global justice.”

Eva Friman asks herself how a sustainable transition can be created. Within Mistra Environmental Communication, one key question is how we can shift from a focus at individual level to also discussing social practices and structural changes.

“Why is there a global sustainability goal about eradicating poverty, but no goal about reducing excess? It’s important to understand the complexity of sustainability, and that sustainability discourse is charged with values and filled with conflict. Conflicts and power play a part in all knowledge production, and environmental communication is no exception. In this field, different discourses also lock horns.”

In contrast with when Friman started studying business and economics, she thinks that many business and economics programmes are now more advanced in terms of sustainability and reflection. Nonetheless, she also thinks that different disciplines need to learn more from each other. Societal, environmental and climate problems are too complex for one discipline, one field of knowledge or researchers to solve without the input of others.

“We need to co-create knowledge and create insights together while we contribute knowledge from our different perspectives. Mistra Environmental Communication is so much fun, so important and so enriching because we have researchers with various backgrounds and knowledge who collaborate with societal actors with different experiences.”

In these times of often polarised debate, not least about the climate issue, Mistra Environmental Communication wants to take a step away from “spreading knowledge” and place greater focus on co-creating knowledge. Environmental communication must not be understood as one-way information but instead as multilateral dialogue. Dialogue, regardless of whether it consists of chatting with your mum over coffee or negotiations at COP26, Eva Friman explains. The programme works with dialogue about conflict-filled subjects, to call attention to – not quell – opposition, create secure constructive environments and develop methods and tools for sustainability communication.

“Communication and learning are very close to each other. We don’t always reach a consensus, and we shouldn’t always do that anyway, but we can create secure environments in which we can learn from each other in order to conduct a dialogue and innovatively communicate information about complex problems in society.”

Eva Friman

In my free time: I listen to novels, dance, spend time with friends and family and renovate my cottage.

In five years: I hope that we will have received renewed confidence from Mistra and can continue to run the Mistra Environmental Communication research programme in a new, exciting format.

Dreams about: Warm weather!