A social sciences and humanities led approach to sustainability

If you were watching the news this summer, it seemed that the whole world was on fire. That we live in a climate emergency is painfully obvious. How to respond, however, is not. We must become more sustainable – we must fit our lives within planetary boundaries. But, we must also do that in a way that is just, that does not sacrifice certain social groups, ecosystems, or living beings. We must do that in a way that creates a good life for all.
Hand touching a tree
Photo: Paul Rysz, Unsplash

However, there are different ideas about what constitutes a good life, and how that connects with sustainability. Certain ideas become more powerful and influential than others, because of the power of the groups which promote them. Inevitably, conflict arises. As an environmental social scientist, I investigate such conflicts in order to shed light on what versions of good, sustainable life may be being excluded or silenced, and to make sure that attention to values is central to debates about sustainability.

What this means in practice is that my team and I investigate the ways in which different social groups understand and value elements of the natural world, and the ways in which these differences matter.

One key and very current area of debate is the role of agriculture and specifically agricultural lands in the climate crisis. We ask: whose knowledges and values count in the future of agricultural soils, and why? Farmer-led movements, such as regenerative agriculture, are trying to develop more sustainable farming by replacing fossil-fuel heavy machinery and inputs with the activity of plants and soil organisms. This regenerative agriculture is potentially not just a new method of farming, but a way to transform the whole food system to produce better rural livelihoods and healthier landscapes. This practical, experimental work, however, attracts little scientific attention, and hardly any research and innovation funding. In contrast, developing techniques and technologies for “carbon farming”, that is for sequestering atmospheric carbon in agricultural soils, is seeing massive investment. This rush to translate agricultural landscapes into factories for capturing carbon is excluding regenerative farmers’ knowledges and values. By working with different knowledge communities involved in regenerative agriculture and in carbon farming, our research helps to keep open the debate about what constitutes a desirable and just agricultural sustainability transformation.

Another key conversation, especially in Finland, concerns sustainable forestry. Again, we ask: whose knowledges, values, and even lives count in the future of forest landscapes, and why? Forests are not just spaces for the making of biomass; they are living ecosystems, and spaces of cultural value. A life-form which connects both these ecosystem and cultural aspects of forests is fungus, or, if you like, mushrooms. Fungi are both ecosystem engineers, and a crucial reason for people to interact with forests. In our work, we are investigating what good forest landscapes would look like if the values around fungi, and the needs of fungi, were taken into account.

Such work as I’ve described is deeply interdisciplinary, and develops always in conversation with natural sciences. At the same time, I believe that environmental social sciences and humanities need to keep taking a greater role in debates about sustainability; in trying to make the world a better place we must keep asking: for whom, for whom, for whom.

The blog post is based on a speech given by Associate Professor Anna Krzywoszynska at the Opening Ceremony of the Academic Year 2023-2024 at the University of Oulu.


Anna Krzywoszynska
Associate Professor
History, Culture and Communication Studies
University Of Oulu
University of Oulu

Anna Krzywoszynska is an environmental social scientist with expertise in agricultural and environmental knowledge, more-than-human research, and public participation in science. She is interested in strengthening sustainable and just relationships between humans and their environments.