Published 2021-02-17

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Victoria Wibeck’s wish: to bring in more voices and viewpoints

From developing talks about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Sweden to gathering knowledge about climate change in Fiji, and from understanding the struggle to abolish slavery to establishing new narratives for an alternative future… Meet Professor Victoria Wibeck. She moves among extensive areas of knowledge, driven by her ambition to make the silent voices heard.

In December 2017, Wibeck was in Fiji for fieldwork. The year before, the island nation in the Pacific Ocean had been hit by a powerful cyclone. Jointly with a colleague from New Zealand, she interviewed residents about the environmental challenges they face in their daily lives and their dreams for the future. The meetings and the stories concerned her. In the Pacific region, climate change was, and is, clearly leaving its mark. Still, there is hope and optimism about the future.

‘What I personally brought home from the fieldwork in Fiji is the “Talanoa Dialogue”, which Fiji also took to the international climate negotiations. It’s about sharing stories, letting one another speak and listening with respect. There, the process was allowed to take time; it was largely about building trust and creating relationships before you could approach the difficult issues — a method I’ve applied in my own research.’

Victoria Wibeck is currently Professor at Tema M (Tema Miljöförändring), the section in the Department of Thematic Studies that focuses on environmental change, at Linköping University, and Programme Director of The Seed Box: A Mistra-Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboratory. She describes her academic journey as ‘quite varied’, and her background includes communication science. Her PhD thesis in the late 1990s and early 2000s focused on developing methods of analysis and discussion based on the Swedish genetic modification (GM) debate. The purpose was, in focus groups, to air topics and areas that are difficult to talk about and call for a structured discussion.

The lessons learnt from the work have permeated all Wibeck’s continued research. They concern how to discuss complex issues when there are conflicting views, and aspects of ethics and power, what happens in these discussions and how we relate to and talk about the hard issues.

After studying Sweden’s work on environmental quality objectives with focus groups, Wibeck dived even deeper into environmental and climate issues. Today, these are her specialist area.

‘I got into environmental and climate issues from a communication angle. But since these are the most momentous issues of our time, my personal and professional commitment to the environment and sustainability has grown in parallel.’

People’s stories make you humble

Wibeck’s interest and commitment have also been shaped largely by the stories she has had the privilege of hearing — from people living in places exposed to climate change, and about taking action to create a better world. She returns to the subject of her work in Fiji and the other places covered in the same study: China, the US, Sweden and Cape Verde.

‘The interviews made a big impression on me. It became clear what’s at stake in areas exposed to climate change. The Fiji villagers told me how they sat at night waiting for the cyclone and how, after the devastation, they rebuilt their village and community. In a sense, they are already undergoing a transformation of society and learning to adapt, but also to change their way of life, in harmony with nature.’

Solar panels, for example, were installed on the houses built after the area had been ravaged by the cyclone. The panels eliminated the need for the diesel generators on which the inhabitants had previously depended. The supply of lighting when darkness fell also made it possible to study in the evening and gave the people other benefits. In Wibeck’s opinion, there is a danger in starting from technological innovations and processes from the global north’s viewpoint alone, and not taking advantage of the experience of adaptation and social change that already exists around the world, Wibeck believes.

‘I’ve gained great humility in thinking about people’s various circumstances. Several countries that, like Fiji, are vulnerable and exposed to the elements, want a leading role in climate action. We need to be careful not to portray those hardest hit as just victims, and to start from our view of what social transformation means. Leadership can take various forms.’

Lessons from historical transformations of society

In recent years, Wibeck has worked closely with Björn-Ola Linnér, her professor colleague at TEMA M, Linköping University, and Programme Director of Mistra Geopolitics. In their 2019 book Sustainability Transformations: Agents and Drivers across Societies, they analysed how societal transitions to sustainable development are described in the scientific literature, international media debate, national climate pledges under the Paris Agreement and focus-group interviews with citizens. They also looked at historical shifts in societies, to learn lessons and gain experience ahead of the coming environmental and climate transition. One example is the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

‘It’s interesting that the main motive wasn’t financial — slavery was very profitable, after all — but that instead, the moral aspects were what drove the reform. This signals that it’s possible to change perceptions, norms and culture in a relatively short time. Today, it’s interesting to take a close look at how committed the youth movement is, and the rapid mobilisation we’re seeing in the younger generation.’

Wibeck’s work on societal transformations has also raised new questions for her. What does an inclusive, just transformation mean in practice, when political and financial aspects are interwoven with technological innovations, behaviour and lifestyle? Who will the winners and losers be? How can we benefit from lessons learnt and devise research that’s inclusive?

This becomes particularly important in a polarised society where environmental and climate issues, in particular, arouse many strong feelings and widely differing opinions.

‘We also need to look at drivers of transformative change and, instead of exploring problems, talk about what we want the future to be like. Here, research is under way in both The Seed Box and Mistra Geopolitics, and collaboration with the Pacific region continues.’

‘Art can go beyond words’

Another recurring theme in the work on societal transformations was the need for new stories and narratives for an alternative future. Here, Wibeck sees one research programme, The Seed Box, as having a vital role in depicting thoughts and stories. In that programme, researchers and artists work closely together.

‘When we explore what future we want and how to get there, the artistic aspect is valuable. Art can go beyond words and open up new aspects.’

Most of Wibeck’s time is spent leading, coaching and doing research in The Seed Box. She enjoys strong support from her management team, and sees great value in the scientific and artistic programme heads working jointly. She is also conducting research in Mistra Geopolitics and Mistra Carbon Exit, where she contributes her expert knowledge of focus groups.

The pandemic has had a major impact on The Seed Box. The programme, to be discontinued in a year’s time, is in the midst of the learning process between art and scholarship. The fieldwork has been made more difficult, and planned design and performance in in such forms as exhibitions and staged works have not been possible. When research is qualitative and largely a matter of new meetings, many dimensions are lost when everything goes digital. However, several exhibitions are planned, including one in Trondheim in Norway in December, and Wibeck mentions an exciting project about Fridays for Future, for example. Key elements of the work are enlarging the consortium, including the global south and building a hub for environmental humanities, where collaborations and partnerships can live on after the programme ends.

Wibeck believes that, as researcher and programme director, she has an important role in connecting various stakeholders and issues, and also highlighting voices that do not often get a hearing in the debate. She wants to help bring about change. She mentions, for example, The Seed Box’s work on giving space to the feminist perspective and marginalised groups and creating an infrastructure for discussion in the humanities and social sciences.

‘All the reports on climate, environmental goals and biodiversity show that progress is far too slow. At the same time, there are strong positive forces and lots of exciting projects that give me hope for the future and the transformation we’re facing. It’s easy to get discouraged, but I’m reminded of the bright side when I see the material we’re working on, and I hope I can be involved and help bring more voices and perspectives to the fore.’

Victoria Wibeck

Leisure activities: I spend time with friends and family. I enjoy being outdoors, walking, cycling and working in the garden.

Five-year time frame: I hope still to be working on issues I’m passionate about, and helping to highlight voices and perspectives that won’t otherwise be heard. Maybe we’ll have got a bit closer to meeting the sustainable development goals.

Dreams: The world becoming a better place. Seeing environmental goals met, and being part of that journey.

Recording: summer 2020.