Laura, how can Science help us creating the future we want?

What kind of world do we want to live in? This is the question we have been asking activists and experts over the last few weeks. In our Summer of Utopias, they tell us what motivates them to continue and what they are working towards. This time – in the seventh part of the series – Laura, a scientist at the European Forest Institute, writes about how science can help us create a better society and why we need a new age of discovery. This article is available in both English and German. For the German version, please click here.

„Nature has so many solutions for our problems, and we don’t even know about all of them yet“

I’m Laura, a 29-years-old PhD researcher from Finland, working on how we can increase our forests’ resilience to disturbances and impacts of climate change. I lived in Bonn for almost four years but then came the Covid-19 pandemic and homesickness, so I decided to move back to the north. I also feel that in Finland I can better contribute to climate change activism as there is no language barrier and I am more aware of how the system works. While I am not part of the Fridays For Future movement, I do contribute to the work of Climate Move, a Finnish climate activism group. 

My choice to become more active in the climate change mitigation and activism stemmed from a place of frustration and guilt. Frustration from nothing happening despite the urgency of the climate crisis and the fact that we know everything we need to act. Guilt from being part of the system, from consuming more than we should for a carbon neutral world, and from the petty concerns of everyday life when people are losing their homes and livelihoods in the world that is literally on fire. I felt that I needed to do something more than what I was already doing. To start to build the future I would want instead of the future I saw in the news.

What would be the future I want then? I want the renewal of the Age of Discoveries but instead of westerners rampaging across the globe creating havoc to both people and nature for their own profit, I want to see the true discoveries of nature. Science has taken us far but there is still so much unexplained. Just imagine if we could recreate photosynthesis in a large scale to create basically endless energy supply. Or use micro-organisms to break down the toxins we have released to the environment. Nature has so many solutions for our problems, and we don’t even know about all of them yet. And not just nature, imagine how societies could work differently if there was room for exploration. I want to see citizens remembering that they are citizens, not consumers, and that they have the right and the duty to take care of their surroundings, their fellow people. 

And I want a future where I can take my nephews to ski in winter and tell them about the Arctic foxes that are nesting once again in the Finnish tundra. Where tourists from Asia would not need to travel to Finland to enjoy clean air. Where no one would need to leave their home because it was unliveable anymore. I have been crippled by homesickness for a home I voluntary left and could go back to anytime I wanted. I cannot begin to imagine how having your home disappear or become hostile in front of you feels like.

Perhaps the future I want is a utopia. But I also know we cannot go on like this. And I truly mean us as in humans. The nature will survive. Altered and probably for worse, but it will survive. The civilisation as we know it will not. And that’s what I would want for the humanity to collectively realise: if we screw this up, there is no going back. We all need to do something. And while individual actions matter, we need a systematic change. We need to correctly price the damage caused to environment by our actions. We need to make sure that climate and biodiversity are in the very centre of decisions made in any level of government or business management, not just an afterthought.And most of all, we need to act as we are facing the emergency that we truly are.

What my role as a researcher can be? I believe that researchers are the explorers whose task is map the unknown paths of the future and help the society to avoid pitfalls and disasters. By researching current phenomena from water cycles in the forest to the expansion of cities, we aim to understand the underlying mechanisms, which we can then project to the possible futures to create a map of the new worlds for the society. However, it is no good if we shout from our ivory tower. We researchers need engage more in the discussion, to provide our help and expertise to those wanting to change the world and those making the decisions.  

It is scary and frustrating and saddening to think about what is going on around the globe. But to think of it, there has not been another time when so much good has also happened. People coming together and act in their capacity to protect the planet no matter their age, ethnicity, or occupation. The good that is happening gives me hope that we just might survive this. Because the future will be like we create it.

About the author: Laura Nikinmaa is a 29-years-old PhD researcher from Finland and Junior Researcher in the Resilience Programme at the European Forest Institute. She holds an MSc in Forest Science from the University of Helsinki, Finland, and is currently conducting her doctoral research on forest resilience. Her current research focuses on how resilience can be operationalized in forest-related social-ecological systems.

You can find a translation of this text here.

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