When the media write about academic work, one of the most common themes is “look at the crazy things these academics are doing” like examining correlations between biscuit eating and political affiliation, or the economic and social geography of strip clubs. These kinds of articles generally contain an implicit critique of people who are too clever by half wasting taxpayers money with frivolous indulgences. Of course, there’s often highly serious work behind these stories, or – like the biscuits and political affiliation notion – they’re just a whimsical afterthought in a much larger project. Of course, you can always find some examples of academic work that is a frightening waste of public money, but no one in the university sector has yet spent £10bn on a failed computer system, so it’s not as if we’re the worst offenders.
The point of this rambling introduction is by way of a slight nervousness about a project I’m a co-investigator on. I sometimes ask myself how the right wing media would write it up. Last week I was in the Forest of Dean for one of four workshops we’re running as part of the ‘More than Human Participatory Research’ project. Michelle Bastian, the project lead, explains the project aims much more lucidly than I ever could here. Essentially we're trying to find ways of asking things that can't talk back to us what their priorities for new scholarly research are. Back in the summer I organised a workshop on bees and last week it was time to talk to the trees.
In trying to engage trees in ‘conversations’ to find out what they ‘want’ from a research project we were experimenting with a particular kind of performance based methods. So in addition to reading about trees and talking to experts, we also had a group of us out in the forest engaging physically with trees. If this sounds odd, it was. But my view with this sort of thing is just dive in, it might confirm all your prejudices about, in this case, tree hugging, but at least if you’ve had a go you can critique from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance. Hence I found myself sitting on a log carving a spoon (and cutting myself on various sharp implements) and later lying underneath a tree with my feet in the bare earth feeling the rain gently drip onto my face.
Did this performance-type engagement do much for me? No, not really. But it was only two days out of my other projects and, frankly, I work enough time at the weekend to justify this kind of thing to myself now and again. And the workshop itself (time to sit and think and read and chat to a bunch of very smart, thoughtful people) was very productive.
I’d never actually been to the Forest of Dean before, a place just over an hour’s drive from my home. It’s a fascinating place, touristy yet quiet, open yet exclusionary. Before heading down, I’d read Christopher Stone’s ‘Should trees have standing’ an essay from the early 1970s about law and the environment. I’m going to apologise here for dumbing this down and, indeed, any misinterpretations of Stone’s words. Among some fascinatingly nuanced ideas, my non-legal mind fixed on his argument around giving legal status to abstract entities. An example of this would be a government or a corporation being an actor in law, with rights that need to be protected. Stone argues that there’s a case for giving these same rights to environmental assets – landscapes, watersheds and so on. This wouldn’t be a case of saying that a tree could never be cut down, or that attempts should be made to preserve the landscape in aspic, more that there should be some consideration of the intrinsic value of the landscape in and of itself, rather than just its economic value to a human actor. If a stream is being polluted, this might have a negative effect on someone’s tourism business located in a picturesque spot downstream, hence the owner of that business might sue the polluter for the economic harm caused to his business. Stone suggests that there should be some capacity to consider issues beyond the economic rights of humans or corporations in environmental destruction, to consider the right of the landscape to be a landscape, with intrinsic value beyond the economic.
Of course, the intrinsic value of landscape is somewhat abstract. Stone suggests, however, that we have already given concrete power in law to the abstract value of copyright. Why should a piece of text or music be given the kinds of protection guaranteed in copyright law? – we as humans have decided that these creative outputs should have agency within law. Why then can we not give the same agency to the environment?
Clearly a forest can’t come to court and sue a company that’s polluting a river running through it. So Stone suggested nominating some kind of guardian to speak for the forest, much as a lawyer might go to court to speak for a corporation or a government. This notion really chimed with me reflecting on our discussions at the bee workshop where we spoke to the human guardians of bees (i.e. bee keepers) to start our ‘conversation’ with bees, to help us understand their issues and think about ways of co-constructing research agendas with them.
Our two days among the trees brought these issues to mind for me. Are the Forestry Commission / other officially appointed ‘guardians’ of landscape in a position to speak for the trees or do we need some other kind of engagement? As I lay in the forest getting midge bites, I didn’t find an answer to this, but it was soothing and I had some time to think about things other than the next immediate admin crisis or email from a student upset about their module choices. The trees reminded me that I’m still a scholar, not just a mid-level manager...
[This is a longer version of a post that appears on the More-Than-Human Participatory Research blog]
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer