The Story of the Baltic Sea 2.0

Over the years, the human perception of the ocean has changed. Our present-day tale of the Baltic Sea must weave together society, people and the sea, says researcher Susanna Lidström.

Text: Henrik Hamrén

The story of the sea has changed. Only 150 years ago, the oceans where in principle an entirely unknown world for us humans. Stories of what went on below the waves were often descriptive, like voyages of discovery, framed by mystery and wonder.

Since then, much has changed. The oceans have been progressively explored and our awareness of this world within a world has been transformed. 

“Today, our stories are often about human impact on the marine environment. These are, in many ways, alarming stories,” says KTH researcher Susanna Lidström.

 captain Nemo and the octopusCaptain Nemo and the  octopus. Image from Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870).

In her ongoing research project Understanding a marine environment in flux, Susanna Lidström investigates how our view of the ocean has changed – and how this in turn influences the stories we tell about the sea.

“Today, there is also a good deal of discussion about how we can further exploit the oceans,” she  says. “The sea has long been viewed as a resource offering many promising opportunities for obtaining food and a variety of other materials. This view remains, although now for example we talk of the ability of oceans to absorb carbon dioxide – linked to our climate concerns – or the possibilities of farming fish and algae. Even the story of the ocean as a resource is now related to human environmental impact.”

Why is this?
“Awareness of how we affect the marine environment is a relatively new phenomenon. Once we saw the sea as infinite, with no concept of how human activity could have any effect on the great oceans. For example, it was considered quite reasonable to dump rubbish and waste. It simply disappeared in the vastness of the oceans. Today, the oceans are more and more a part of a general awareness of anthropogenic environmental changes. At the moment, climate change is the major environmental issue – and here, the oceans play an important role.”

So our present-day story of the sea is about climate change and the threat posed by human activity?
“Yes, in the vast majority of cases. And roughly the same developments and tendencies are also apparent in more generalised stories about the environment. At the same time, I feel that stories about the sea are lagging behind many other environmental stories in which the focus is increasingly on culture, justice, religion and law. One obvious example is the story of climate change. For a long time this was characterised by its scientific perspective; in recent times however, it has developed to embrace many more ideas from the humanities and social sciences – for example, through the establishment of terms such as climate justice. Stories about the ocean on the other hand still tend to mostly deal with purely scientific perspectives.”

But science does at least contribute to increased knowledge. That’s a good thing surely?
“Naturally, these scientific perspectives are important. However, that doesn’t mean that they are sufficient in themselves. A variety of approaches are required in order to understand the complex relationships between societies and the marine environment – and to put these in context.” 

Susanna Lidström. Photo: Henrik HamrénSusanna Lidström. Photo: Henrik Hamrén

Could the story be more effectively told if seen from more perspectives?
“All information forms a story of some kind. The extent to which these stories achieve their intention is another matter. At the same time, it is reductive to speak only of effective stories. Instead, I believe that it is important to increase awareness about the kinds of stories we choose to tell, and to connect these to what one wishes to achieve. If we observe a change in the marine environment and decide to communicate this change as an environmental problem, in that moment we make an interpretation based on certain values – and that very process, of placing observations in context, is one that I find very interesting. Our interpretations and values are built on a great many factors and it is these that decide the nature of the story. This in turn can shape the reactions of the public and politicians.”

Are there any good examples of this happening?
“Nowadays, stories about climate change often talk about the various effects of climate change on different locations, the division of resources, historical responsibility and so on. So the conversation is increasingly about aspects such as the history, ethics and justice of climate change. Such aspects are seldom included in a distinct manner in stories about the sea. I would love to see stories about the ocean that make clear that it is not simply a matter of improving the marine environment.”

But isn’t the desire to improve a good theme in itself?
“Of course, but what might be considered an improvement may differ from group to group for a variety of reasons. I believe that it’s important to  clarify that all so-called environmental problems, as well as their solutions, are products of values and priorities.”

How do you mean?
“One obvious example is the concept of planetary boundaries, giving the impression that the Earth has some form of borders that exist independent of us humans. Of course, this is not the case – these are only the borders we believe in to give us the world we want. The opinions of individuals, societies and countries may of course be entirely different on such matters. However, by describing these as the planet’s borders we give the impression that borders are something that exist within nature itself. In this way, the processes and values behind the borders we set remain hidden.  By doing so, we also create a distance between researchers and the public at large. If borders are represented as natural or scientific, it therefore also seems reasonable that it is the task of scientific researchers to define and manage them. If, however, it was instead clearly shown that these are subjectively set borders, I believe that many people would have a better understanding of the fact that these are merely choices and evaluations in which more people could participate and in which a variety of opinions could be relevant.”

“It’s important that we don’t simply paint a picture of the human relationship to the sea.” 

In your research, you say that certain species receive more attention than others. What do you mean by this?
“Certain animal species, indeed even plants, are often described as more charismatic than others. This applies above all to mammals, which is to say – animals like ourselves. Classic examples are large predators or cute animals such as pandas, seals and turtles. Other animals arouse less sympathy, making it harder to create opinion in favour of protecting them if, for example, they are in some way threatened. Stories that deal with threatened fish look completely different from those dealing with the preservation and protection of something such as a turtle or a whale.”

How is a story affected by our choice of words?
“Generally speaking, one can say that the harder and more complicated a subject is – and therefore more difficult to translate into layman’s terms – the harder it is to create a narrative that is accessible and gains the attention of the wider public. One interesting example is the word stock, as often used when discussing fish and fishing. Stock creates a  distance to the subject, almost obscuring the individual, that is the fish itself. The worth of an individual fish, or its rights, is seldom mentioned. Compare this with turtles, where the story often deals with the suffering of one individual, for example in relation to plastic in the ocean in which it might become trapped.”

Science of course often uses technical terms. Does this hamper the story?
“Technical terms can often make information seem more precise and definitive than it actually is. For example, a term such as ecosystem services, something we hear a lot about these days, may give an impression that there are services in nature which we can identify, separate and quantify. In reality, things are much more complicated than that and it can be difficult to even describe what an ecosystem is. In this way, technical terms obscure uncertainties, ambiguities and complex relationships and even the values and priorities that go to make up the research process and the results obtained.In this way they fail to contribute to welcoming the public or politicians to participate in those parts of the process that depend on decisions beyond the realm of the purely scientific.”

“Even if the story of the sea is predominantly seen from a scientific perspective, it is still controlled by values and emotions.”

At the same time, doesn’t research generally strive after objectivity?
“All research that deals with environmental issues is of course rooted in values –  perhaps not individual studies but everything surrounding them that decides which questions are asked and which studies receive funding. It then seems strange to present one’s research and results without explicitly, or even tacitly, acknowledging that fact. I believe that it is less a matter of the feelings of the researchers themselves, than that there is a general perception that scientific research should be objective -and that for that very reason it will be better. With regard to environmental issues for example; everything of course depends on what kind of world we consider desirable, on finding some kind of unity or agreement about that and gathering the necessary knowledge to achieve it. Despite this, many researchers turn their back on the idea of emotions and normative values in relation to their work.”

If we want to create a new and compelling story about the Baltic Sea – what should we consider? 
“I would say that above all it is important to be aware of the choices we make and why we make them. One generally important aspect is to create stories that clearly weave together society, people and the sea. Often the stories dealing with changes in the sea deal only with the sea itself, they don’t go into the causes or consequences. It’s important that we don’t simply paint a picture of the human relationship to the sea but that we are more specific with regard to which groups of people we are dealing with: Where? When? How? Why? And also, to be specific about the consequences of changes to the marine environment for different peoples and groups –  how various changes can have different consequences for different locations and how this is linked to diverse political, cultural, historical, technical, economic and other perspectives and conditions.”

About Susanna Lidström

Susanna LidströmResearcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Department of Historical Studies. There she runs a four-year research project focusing on environmental problems affecting the oceans from a history of ideas perspective, as well as how marine environment problems are communicated to the public. Contact:suslid@kth.se