The natures of life and death: A week at Wageningen University

News | Posted on Tuesday 2 May 2023

In early April 2023, PhD student Nikki Paterson attended an intensive political ecology spring school at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Led by Professor Bram Büscher and Dr Robert Fletcher, and hosted by the School of Social Sciences, the week was centred around the theme 'The natures of life and death: Political ecologies of collapse, transformation and revival'.

The course, back in person for the first time post-COVID, was attended by PhD researchers from around the world - Azerbaijan, China, France, India, the Netherlands, Vietnam - all of whom are researching topics which intersect with this theme. It proved to be a hugely insightful, thought provoking, and inspirational week, which has given me a great deal of food for thought as I enter the second half of my first year at LCAB.

Political ecology is a sub-discipline of human geography which starts from the assertion that conservation research and practice is inherently political. Political ecologists focus on the coproduction of nature and society, and critically interrogate the power relations embedded in environmental change.

The aims of this course were for participants to engage in collective intellectual development , and to find inspiration for our own PhD projects. To prepare us for the week, we had each completed a reflections document based on the readings which we deemed most relevant to our PhD topic, and throughout our time in Wageningen we were encouraged to reflect on how the themes and concepts discussed relate to our own work.

In terms of format, there were seminars each morning and afternoon, sometimes run by guest lecturers and with plenty of time for discussion. We also had an afternoon off to give our brains a rest and to immerse ourselves in the local surroundings. Each of the seminars was a deep-dive into a research area which spoke to the overarching theme.

As such, they covered themes of polycrisis, collapse, and extinction, as well as themes of transformations and revival, including reimagining how we might conserve biodiversity and live on the planet. Whilst it's difficult to summarise such a rich and varied week, here's a taster of the sessions:

Dr Clemens Driessen challenged us to see the world through a more-than-human lens: we considered the aliveness of the nonhuman species around us when we take time to pay attention to them, and discussed the utility and implications of our tendency to categorise species (including the human) as discrete and unchanging units, estranged from their context and interrelations.

Professor Kate Rigby introduced us to the Pyrocene, an alternative way of conceptualising the Anthropocene, which highlights the immense influence that fire has had in shaping socioecologies across the planet. We discussed the need to decolonise discourses around disaster, and to rethink disaster risk reduction as a multispecies project - and saw how incorporating alternative mediums such as poetry can help to think through this.

Finally, with Dr Esther Marijnen we explored how layers of trauma and loss generated by war and violence can settle in a landscape. We saw how the past continues to shape the present by evoking memories and changing the behaviour of survivors, and discussed which forms of life are prioritised or considered grievable in conflict.

For me, the motivation for attending was to explore new perspectives at an early stage in my research. Taking a deeper dive into political ecology has allowed me to think differently about my PhD, which looks at the intersection of biodiversity with nature connection and human health and wellbeing.

Key takeaways that have returned with me to York, and which I am keen to weave into my research going forwards, include: the importance of acknowledging the uncertainty of the world and approaching my research with curiosity; the need to move beyond human exceptionalism (the perception that humans are separate from or superior to other species); and a reminder to bear in mind the politics of connecting to nature for human health, including considering who benefits from thinking about nature in this way.

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