Suston meets world-renowned scientist and communicator Johan Rockström to learn about the interconnection between his career and his passion for the great outdoors.
Can you share a little about how your outdoor interests have developed over the years?
Well, to start with how things look currently: I’ve found that the more busy I get, the more important it is for me to get into nature. And for me natural experiences can be very simple: just getting out running, hearing the birds and seeing the deer. Also, because I’ve been living along the archipelago since I was a small kid, I have a passionate need to have this closeness to water – it’s like an addiction!
Now I also have this thing that when I’m out traveling, each morning I need to go out for a jog and circle a lake. It doesn’t matter where I am – London, Paris, New York – I need to find a lake! And most settlements are along coastlines, lakes or rivers, so it’s not hard to find water. You find these little gems scattered all across the world.
Is there a connection between your outdoor interests and your research? If so, how?
Absolutely, as my research is about stewardship of the biosphere and how we understand our dependence on nature for not only economic reasons, but also for intrinsic values like identity, harmony, and well-being in general. It happens much more seldom today, but my work also involves actually being in the field – on African savannas etc. So, nature for me is not simply about coming out to it for pleasure purposes, but also for practical reasons.
When you are out in nature for pleasure purposes, how much does your professional side affect these experiences? Do you try to keep them apart?
No, there’s a strong overlap – and I don’t even try to keep them apart to be honest. I don’t mind trekking in the Kebnekaise mountain range while talking about glacial melt, temperature variability and the amplification of global warming. There is no separation and I feel no need for one.
So, it doesn’t bring you down to notice the negative impacts around you?
No, on the contrary. I would be critical of myself if I had this cynical relationship – where on the one hand I have a professional side aiming to save the environment, and then a private side where I consume the environment and don’t care about it. I’d rather see that full integration. But you know, this is probably a sickness particular to academics in general, where work is our life!
When it comes to sustainability, what can outdoor enthusiasts think about regarding their activities?
The number one thing is to recognize that it really matters how I behave when I plan and execute my vacation and nature experience. It is not possible to say that I’m so small and have so little impact… No. Everything matters. So, as an entry point, just to recognize that I’m here, benefiting from this beautiful piece of nature. And the only reason this beautiful piece of nature exists is because we’re not destroying it. The most important thing to me, therefore, is having a very firm sustainability mindset from the start and not contribute to making things worse, no matter how small or insignificant I consider myself to be.
The next step, of course, is translating that mindset into practical solutions – but to avoid doing so with a sense of sacrifice. Those of us who want to enjoy nature in the 21st century need to find the win-wins. Discovering that going sustainable actually makes the experience better. I hate approaches that leave people saying, “Oh yeah, here they are again telling me that I’m doing everything wrong and now I have to give up doing this and that.” I don’t think that will take us to the future we want. While I have enormous respect for the people who go all in, they will always only be a very rare minority of people. What we want is for mass tourism to be sustainable, which means everybody needs to do the right thing. For that to happen, the right thing needs to be attractive.
Speaking of which, you mentioned that you’ve stopped going to ski resorts in favor of ski-touring – a more sustainable option and arguably much more fun – do any other activities come to mind where the sustainable option beats the status quo?
Oh yes, there’s so many! A lot of people think the grass is greener on the other side, far away. But in fact, just traveling in our own backyard I’ve found places that are equally dramatic and unexplored. Another example is using cycling and trains as a transport to places in nature. This makes the journey into part of the experience, and not just a headache you need to suffer through. It’s obvious you’re not going to have fun packing yourself along with 400 people into an aircraft all the way to Thailand, just to have a few days in Phuket. Sure, it means a little less time at the destination, but suddenly a transport becomes an incredible experience.
Now, there’s no blueprint here as everybody has their own preferences. But there are options, and thinking creatively I think everybody can find positive ways of adapting their behavior so we can go forward along a sustainable path.
Photos: Fredrik Schenholm