Lay and expert apprehensions of environmental change and uncertain ecological futures
Funded by an ISSR Collaborative Award 2015-2016
In environmental management and policy, environmental threats that are more-or-less imperceptible to human senses and/or scientific instruments are increasingly made detectable through studies of biological indicators. This pilot project will take an exciting, interdisciplinary approach to investigate the ways in which such ‘signs of life’ are used by experts and amateurs, in understanding the environmental condition of the River Dart. Using field studies methods of ecology, art, and social science, the project will explore the ways in which making environmental change perceptible and experiential holds promise as a means of increasing public engagement with environmental threats and their uncertainties.
The project is a joint venture between the Faculty of Science and Environment and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Plymouth University. The multi-disciplinary team includes: Dr Stephanie Lavau (School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences; Dr Deborah Robinson (School of Art and Media); Dr Simon Rundle (School of Marine Science and Engineering); David Strang (School of Arts and Humanities); Sophie Harbour (Research Assistant).
Animals and plants have long figured in our efforts to sense environmental threats and warn of potentially catastrophic futures. Declining fish species were monitored as the industrial pollution of European rivers in the 18th century, lichens were used to map air pollution in 19th century Paris, and in the 20th century canaries were taken into coal mines due to their sensitivity to dangerous gases (Keck and Lakoff 2013; Rapport 1992).
In more contemporary practices of environmental science, management and policy, certain organisms are formalised as biological ‘indicators’ that signify current environmental condition, track environmental change, and foreshadow impending ecological dysfunction (Gramaglia 2005; Norris and Thoms 1999). Future threats that are more or less imperceptible to human senses and/or undecipherable by scientific instruments – climate change, radiation, pollution, emerging disease – are instead made detectable through the tissues, behaviours, and distributions of these organisms.
This scientific sensing of environmental change is important in providing early warning of alarming futures, or even heralding hopeful futures. However, biological ‘sentinels’ are also valuable in galvanising support for management, policy and social actions that prevent or prepare for environmental threats that are not otherwise readily perceptible. Making environmental change perceptible and experiential (and not just through scientific methods) holds promise as a means of public engagement with local environmental threats and their uncertainties (Hawkins 2011).
The aim of this pilot project is to explore the ways in which biological indicators (or ‘signs of life’) figure in expert and lay apprehensions of environmental change and uncertain ecological futures. We have selected a stretch of the River Dart in Totnes as our case study, a site of intersection between a range of recreational users, scientific experimentation, and saline and freshwater environments.
Our research objectives are to:
1) investigate the ways in which ‘signs of life’ figure in professional and lay apprehensions of environmental change
2) experiment with an interdisciplinary approach that draws together the field studies practices of ecology, art, and social science
3) evaluate this interdisciplinary approach to generating environmental knowledge and promoting public discussion of environmental change.
Record of Meetings / Site Visits:
- Diary Entry 1 – Site Construction: 29|05|15
- Diary Entry 2 – In the Field: 21|10|15
- Diary Entry 3 – In the Field: 4|11|15