Published 2018-05-24

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Programme gives voice to environmental change

The Toxic Bios initiative in The Seed Box research programme is no traditional academic project. Here, people will get the chance to tell their personal stories about environmental impact and their environmental efforts. In this way, they hope to be able to engage the public and convey what environmental changes mean in practical terms, so that the message affects more people.

Based on the literary genre known as ‘toxic autobiography’, here involving testimonies of environmental impact, Marco Armiero and his colleague Ilenia Iengo have collected personal narratives about environmental impact and environmental activism.

‘This is no traditional academic project. We’ve chosen to let people tell their stories about environmental impact and their environmental work in their own way,’ says Armiero, Associate Professor in Environmental History at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Project Manager of Toxic Bios.

So far, some 70 stories from individuals in Sweden, Italy, Portugal and Greece have been made available on the project website. In particular, there are filmed conversations and interviews, but also writings, pictures and audio recordings. Some of the people who contributed their stories have responded to the researchers’ call, through Facebook for example, but most of the stories have been collected through various partners across Europe.

Here, more famous historical stories may be found. Monica Nilsson describes, for example, how she helped to expose one of the biggest environmental scandals in Sweden, when she lived next to the BT Kemi chemicals factory in Teckomatorp, in the early 1970s. There are also more current, lesser-known stories here. In a filmed sequence, Vincenzo Fornaro from Taranto in southern Italy relates how he and his family grow hemp to remove contamination of the soil by dioxin released from the nearby steelworks.

Just as the collected stories testify to activism, the Toxic Bios project is also an act of resistance, says Marco Armiero.

‘We want to contribute alternative counter-reports that convey a different story about environmental impact than the one usually heard and seen.’

Personal stories counterbalance the descriptions of environmental issues and the problem formulations that are usually put forward by the establishment, Armiero emphasises. The various stories that are traditionally given space in media, politics and also academia — ‘toxic narratives’, as he calls them — help to silence alternative voices.

According to the project description, the work is in the borderland between issues related to social and economic justice, values, knowledge and controversial science. In a sense, Toxic Bios is also an example of ‘citizen science’. Armiero makes no bones about the purpose also being political.

‘Telling your personal story is a first step in resistance, and a first step in building another understanding of what has happened, which hopefully helps you to plan for another future,’ he says.

Scientific findings, new green technology or forward-looking policies are not enough to meet the global climate and environmental challenges. People must begin to act differently, and for this they must be touched emotionally. This is the starting point for The Seed Box research programme, a unique initiative in environmental humanities.

‘We must get better at presenting environmental changes as complex and nuanced stories. Otherwise, we’ll never bring about a change,’ says Jesper Olsson, Associate Professor of Literature at Linköping University and Programme Director of The Seed Box.

Environmental humanities is a relatively new field that has emerged in the past decade. Around the world, including in Germany, the US and Australia, there are strong research environments. A key task for the environmental humanities, and for The Seed Box, is to place environmental impact in a historical perspective. But it is also important to show how environmental changes are associated with a number of other issues, such as migration, digitisation and the economic system.

‘Giving citizens scope to form ethical and moral opinions is a democratic task. I believe that humanities subjects can do this better than both natural and social sciences,’ Olsson says.

The Seed Box, which began its activities two years ago, is a traditional research programme — with seminars, guest lectures and, from 2018, a guest researcher programme as well. An important function of the programme is to generate interest and commitment among the public. Through cooperation with artists and authors, for example, research is trying to present environmental impact as something directly linked to each and every one of us, and to our culture, Olsson says.

An example is the cookery book 10˚C: Recipes from the Archipelago of Forsmark, where two artists caught and cooked fish from the Baltic Sea cove warmed by the cooling water from Forsmark’s nuclear power plant. The idea was to provoke questions about what is natural.

‘Eating a Baltic herring sandwich made with that fish is totally harmless, but it’s a way to gain a more sensory understanding of environmental change,’ Olsson says.

The programme period for The Seed Box lasts until mid-2019. The hope is that the initiative will become permanent and serve as a hub for future environmental humanities research in Sweden and the Nordic region. Olsson hopes that the initiative will help bring to life and renew the humanities as a scientific discipline, but also that the programme will help society’s sustainability work and possibly contribute to a changed approach to nature.

‘We humans are parts of nature; we can’t control it. Nature goes straight through our bodies. It’s a key perspective that the humanities can contribute.’


Text: Henrik Lundström


Facts about The Seed Box

The Seed Box research programme is a broad initiative in interdisciplinary environmental humanities, under way in 2016–2019. The research is divided into eight themes, and the researchers included in the programme work in subjects such as environmental science, philosophy, literature, history, gender studies and art. The Seed Box has a total budget of SEK 50 million, and is part-funded by Mistra and Formas. The programme is run from Linköping University. A total of 13 research organisations in Sweden, Australia, the UK, the US, Canada and the Netherlands are involved.


Programme information at Mistra

The Toxic Bios Project

The Seed Box programme

Environmental Justice Atlas

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