Challenging assumptions on rewilding the Nordic nature

Text: Monica Tennberg & Carina Keskitalo
Photo: Monica Tennberg

Landscape in Lapland.

The late French sociologist Bruno Latour challenged the separation of humans and nature typical in our modern thinking. In his view, we have never been modern; our relations to nature are multiple and entangled. Thus, Latour suggested that we should rethink our modernist distinctions to include the non-human in our activities. This could mean that we include the non-humans, that is, species and ecosystems, as part of our social fabric and give them a status of an actor; we should understand societal relations to nature without fixed or static categories, and we should seek institutional and procedural innovations to reconnect the social to the non-human.

The conception of “wilderness” as a place without people follows the Western tradition to divide the world into distinct categories that separate humans and nature. Often wilderness is seen as a place where people are visitors to an uninhabited area. This idea has been thoroughly criticized, showing that even early peoples in fact managed nature, and that most nature areas – even those we today see as natural landscapes – were affected by human use. The idea of “wilderness” has never been prominent in the Nordic tradition where people live, work and interact with the nature in many ways. Instead, nature has been conceived of as “outland” or “erämaa”: areas which were used for specific purposes even if they were outside owned property. In this conception, nature is thus not empty, but includes people, not only as visitors, but as residents and work force.

Today, the idea of nature as places with people absent is again coming to affect also the thoroughly managed Nordic landscapes, not the least through the “rewilding” movement. What does it mean to “rewild”, to what kind of “wilderness” and by what means and by whom?

Nordic resource politics and governance provides an excellent case to study dynamics of human-nature relations. The Nordic area is often considered as a “modern”, populated, industrialized area but has historically been relatively rural areas. A large amount of people in northern regions live in cities and are employed in modern livelihoods, such as administration, education and health care. However, at the same time, traditional livelihoods, such as reindeer herding, small-scale fishing and agriculture remain prominent, but are often practiced drawing on high technological means as part of international and often global production systems. This result in that people are intertwined with nature in many ways, which involve issues of sustainability, justice and well-being. Land use conflicts are often prominent and include questions of access, ownership, use and sharing benefits from the nature-based activities, such as mining, forestry, fisheries, tourism and energy industry. Today the region is governed by complex, multiscale set of institutional, democratic arrangements, the countries are industrialized, export-based, welfare states, and embedded in global economy in many ways. The region provides an excellent place to study modern human-nature relations in its complexity. 

In the context of different cases that relate the Nordic nature, we ask: How to study relationally diverse human-nature relations in Nordic resource politics beyond modernist assumptions? What can we learn from Nordic human-nature relations in relation to understanding non-binary relations between human and nature? And how can the current legal and political institutions better recognize nature and non-humans in their practices?

These questions were discussed by fourteen participants in a Nordic workshop organized at Luleå University of Technology, Sweden 25-26 October 2022. The next workshop will be held in Oulu 9-10 February 2023 to discuss further cooperation. The Luleå workshop was organized by Monica Tennberg, University of Lapland and Carina Keskitalo, Umeå University (workshop organisers) and Maria Petterson, Luleå, University of Technology (local host).

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