In an interview with Terry Marsden – Author of the latest SAGE Handbook of Nature – he explains how this web of work expresses the trading and exchange of ideas and progress in the area of natural science. Bringing together the work of over 100 or more authors and scientists, this is a definitive handbook in Nature.
This is a three-volume reference work, a landmark work! Can you explain something of the Handbook rationale?
Terry Marsden: This was a very ambitious project. It is intended to be a landmark work, in that it was trying to stake out the disciplinary territory of the significance of nature and environmentalism in Social Sciences. Therefore, the objective was to create a statement which would both encapsulate the last 40-50 years of progress, as well as make it a landmark for the future. This is also a Handbook for guiding and stimulating further development of this field. It is looking back at the environmentalism of Social Science, but also looking forward.
As I mention in the introductory chapter, we are now in a world where the social science of the environment is becoming recognised – a critical field in resolving some of the 21st Century problems relating to climate change and resource depletion.
If you had to sum up the key essence of the work in a sentence or two, what would they be?
TM: The work brings together a hundred or more authors – scientists who are working on different aspects of the social science of the environment. Therefore, the essence of the work is bringing together 14 different clusters of scholarly work, which are brought together in a “Sustainability Science Web”. This is a web of work, which has never been brought together in this way before, and it expresses the trading and exchange of ideas and progress in work on nature in terms of sciences – not just the social sciences, but also natural and physical science. The work is a new compass of the work that has been going on, and hopefully a guide to the future agenda in this field.
This is a very interdisciplinary project: environment and environmentalism has been a significant part of the Social Science since the 1980s, can you explain how you are defining “nature” in this Handbook?
TM: In a broad sense, the whole book is about explorations of a non-reductionist notion of nature, so this question can be open to a whole range of different interpretations. However, a convenient way of thinking about this is what are often called first, second, and third natures. We can identify first nature as “raw” nature; the physical and biological nature that humans are a part of. This first nature is now significantly influenced by second nature; the influence of man on the planet. The book is about the geological period where second nature has almost taken over and manipulated that raw first nature.
Thirdly, there is the question that arises in many of the chapters: what are the interactive effects? This is a major philosophical question, which dates back to the 18th century. Many of the chapters go into third nature, which is about how humans manipulate nature continuously. There are concerns here about the ethics of influencing, for example genetic modification, DNA implications, and so on. In many respects, we are in a world where we not only influence nature, but we are also changing nature itself. First nature is in itself more destabilised, whereas we explore nature as a fixed phenomenon. Now we know in the 21st century that nature is volatile, and has been for years because of climate change. We are affecting the stability of nature, and so what we have is increasing volatilities in first, second, and third nature.
More broadly, issues of climate change and sustainability are major topics for discussion and debate in today’s world: what role do you think social scientists can or should play in these discussions?
TM: One of the rationales of the book is to place social scientists at the centre of debates about climate change and sustainability. The whole book is about positioning and increasing the relevance and legitimacy of social scientists as key players in the climate change and sustainability debate. It has to be said that in the early days of environmentalisation, social scientists probably played a marginal role in that process.
It was dominated by natural scientists, and many sections of the handbook interact the natural science developments with social science developments. It is important to see how we can integrate natural and social sciences, and many of the chapters deal with that issue. We are at an important juncture where this is becoming recognised, not only by academics, but also by policy leaders.
Social science has a significant role to play here – not only in critiquing environmentalism, but also developing new designs in which we create more sustainable systems of second and third natures. It is a powerful message to say that social scientists have a critical role. We speak of transdisciplinarity in the book; bringing together scientists with other spread stakeholders in order to manage the process of creating more sustainable design.
You have organised the Handbook in sections, can you explain how you chose the section themes?
TM: We had a group of fourteen leading scholars on the International Advisory Board with the issue of having to organise what is inevitably a transdisciplinary field which has lots of interconnections, as a major challenging question. We tried to identify fourteen different clusters of scholarly endeavour, which are interconnected. A big challenge was to deal with how to create a focus and new compass point for understanding nature in social science. These sections are fertile areas of work linked into major areas of writing and scholarship. All of them are cutting edge areas which are an ongoing story. This is a new classification of the field. We chose these fields inductively in that we identified the themes and then identified clusters of scholars who were working in these fourteen different fields internationally. The process was very detailed and took a significant amount of time.
What do you think the principal conclusions are which the Handbook comes to? Did any surprise you?
TM: The book opens up the world of social science and the environment and sustainability science. It sets an agenda and opens the field up. Each of the fourteen section introductions are written by a member of the Editorial Board, who have summarised some of the main points from the chapters. Overall, a major conclusion to the book is that we have reached a significant point of intellectual maturity in the social sciences relating to the study of the environment – we have moved significantly since the 1980s. The book reflects that maturity and intellectual vibrancy of the field.
The question becomes: how do we build the relevance of social science approaches in this increasingly fluid set of natural and social circumstances in which we are currently placed? The unruliness and volatility of first nature is coming at a time where we also have increasingly volatile economic and social systems which are no longer fit for purpose in dealing with the volatilities of nature. The challenge the book raises is how do we create ways of understanding which allow us to solve the juxtaposition of these volatilities? That is the biggest challenge we face, and social scientists need to have a role in that.
One of the parallels with the mid-19th century problems is that social scientists started to document rapid urbanisation of modernity, but what we face now are even bigger profound global problems associated with both urbanisation and resource scarcity. This should stimulate social scientists to create new theory and new approaches at looking at these sets of juxtapositions.
What would you like the Handbook to achieve in the wider teaching and research literature?
TM: The objective is that it becomes a major point of reference for teaching and research at a global level. The hope is that it will be read and used selectively as a reference. I hope it will be a major reference point from which ideas can be taken and used as a fertile basis for further thought. I hope it has multiple achievements in that respect, and will hopefully over the next ten to twenty years have a shelf life of significance. Something we tried to achieve was to choose texts and narratives and ideas that are relatively new and will have some traction for a significant period of time.
How do you see the study of the topic evolving/developing in the future?
TM: This is an interesting question. We’ve had a period of growth and interest, for example at conferences or when seeing the development of environmental work across the social sciences. Science has become more significant, and I think that will grow – particularly the impending problems of climate change and sustainability which has become much more urgent than in the 1980s. This is no longer something we can ignore, and we have to deal with it practically. The next twenty years will be critical for academics to get engaged more widely than just scholarly terms, but to engage with stakeholders and debate.
As well as identifying the profundity of the problems we face, it also points to ways we might be able to resolve some of these issues. There is a growing market and interest in this field beyond academia. There is a lot of action going on, which hopefully the handbook can be a guide and stimulus to develop this field.