Rasmus Hansson: The Intricacies of Environmental Politics
Environmental politics is a tricky business. We live in a world where environmental crises are at the forefront of the news cycle, and in which science is simultaneously becoming the subject of distrust. So it makes sense that at this point, politics should be adapting and evolving as science does.
So when Rasmus Hansson stopped by NTNU last month, Sam Perrin and I took the chance to sit down with him and see whether this was the case. Rasmus studied polar bears at NTNU in the 70s, before later becoming the leader of the World Wildlife Fund in Norway and then of the Norwegian Green party. We spoke with Rasmus about the transition from conservation to politics, the clash of ideologies and the future of environmental politics.
Sam Perrin (SP): Was it a logical step for you, transitioning from an environmental science student to the WWF?
Rasmus Hansson (RH): I did a Cand. real degree at NTNU, an old degree that no longer exists. I basically spent 5 years in the field and had a blast. It was before the university system shaped up and started teaching people to be scientists. We were taught to be good field workers, and we had much more fun than regular academics.
There was a long break from my thesis to the WWF. I had been quite involved in environmentalism well before I began studying polar bears. And the WWF was part of the picture. I ended up there because I was in that part of society. A guy called me and asked me if I wanted to work there. It was fairly natural.
Lara Veylit (LV): What were the intermediary steps there?
RH: I worked for a long time in or with the Norwegian Polar Institute and did all sorts of field work with polar bear, reindeer, walrus and other wildlife. Part of that time I worked for the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment and part of the time I was working with the Polar Institute. I was working to develop funding for the unit for environmental management. I also spent time working for Norad, the Norwegian development organization. I was the first head of the wildlife and forestry section, and was then the head of what ended up being the environment section in Norad.
SP: As the head of WWF you were a proponent of the rewilding of carnivores, something Norway has a rocky relationship with.
RH: Yes, and because of that for quite a number of years I was one of the most hated people in Norway. We had a very significant period of rewilding from around 1985, when the wolves came back and the bear population started to increase a bit as well. Until 1985, for pretty much all of my life, there were no big predator populations in Norway. Bears were wiped out when I was young, wolves were more or less not there, lynx populations were very low. But after 1985 carnivores began to come back to Norway. And it was intentional rewilding, in that those species were protected in 1973 by the party who hates wolves the most right now, the Senterpartiet (Centre Party).
So we had quite a significant period of rewilding as the large carnivores came back from 1985 which has never been recognized. Even the walrus came back to Svalbard then. Good stuff happened. These days, people think that rewilding is something new. But we’d already been doing it, and intentionally.
LV: So how do you deal with people who aren’t happy about the current rewilding debate? People who might end up having wolves and other carnivores in their ‘backyard’?
RH: Well first of all, I like grumpy people, if they are not too mad. It is a question of leaning back and sitting down and having a couple of cups of coffee and letting them vent. These people love nature. They are extremely keen on being out in nature. They love berries, spruce, moose, capercaillie etc. There is a lot of common ground there. So I look for common ground, and mostly I end up having a very nice conversation with them. I rarely get into any quarrels with them because there is no point to that. Nothing good comes out of it.
What I can do is to make these people understand that I’m not some city slicker who has come to tell them how to live their life. They like to think that I am, but I’m genuinely interested in their tractor, their hunting, what they’re growing. You have to respect these people if you want to take the conversation forward.
SP: Taking that sort of attitude of people that do not necessarily share an interest on a political level, how would you communicate the value of biodiversity to a group of people whose economic interests are in conflict with increasing biodiversity?
RH: I have been trying for 60 years. It is hard. It depends on the person. With some people, you can take the David Attenborough approach, tell people stories about how incredibly fascinating these creatures are. To some people you can talk about the energy efficiency of a mosquito and try to make them understand how fabulous and more efficient mosquitos are than small drones, which they can relate to.
To some people, spreadsheet people who put money above the environment, sometimes it works to be a bit more hardcore scientific and hit them with facts. Then you can hit them with the hard questions. How can you possibly think that this is a profitable way to do things? Don’t you understand that your kids are going to pay for this? That works for some people. So of course it varies, but one thing that’s constant is that I try to make people understand that I respect them.
LV: Off of that, what do you think of the commodification of ecosystem services, assigning monetary value to a habitat or a species?
RH: I am very divided on that. On the one hand, I totally recognize the relevance quantifying nature as a service. There are some very good arguments for it and sometimes it works. But from the scientific point of view it is downright bullshit. You can’t put a value on something that no one has been able to shop or pay for or whatever. And we have no way of knowing what the real value of an ecosystem will be in 50 years or 500 years. When it is done by good people, and for a specific purpose, it may have some merit. But it is always dangerous because if you say yes to accepting such work as part of the decision making process then you risk someone coming out and saying that river is not worth more than 50 dollars. If you have accepted that you are kind of stuck. So I am uneasy with these kind of things, but I do not disregard it.
SP: Speaking of adapting a message for economic audiences, when you went from the WWF into the Green Party, did you find certain messages you wanted to get out there had to be changed, did the tone have to be shifted?
RH: Yes! In WWF, life was quite simple to the extent that it was downright nature and environmental conservation. The WWF was more or less bankrupt and disrespected, and I tried to rebuild it as a kind of pure conservation organization, because the other conservation and environmental organizations in Norway at that time were too politicized. They were so keen on being friends with farmers, hunters, whoever. So we took one step back, and said we are not friends with those who are not friends with nature, whoever they are. And at the same time, we prided ourselves in being a scientific organization in that whatever we said, it ought to be based on science. We would always refer to scientific reports.
When I came into the Green Party, life became ideological. I tried to formulate an ideology that was comparable to but different from that of the socialists, the conservatives, the liberals. In a way we said the same thing at the WWF, but the WWF was not supposed to be an ideological organization. The WWF was supposed to speak to and on behalf of everyone, so that even the conservatives could relate to what we were saying about carnivores. Whereas at the Green party, we did not speak on behalf of the Conservatives. So the language and tone certainly changed.
LV: So during your talk you mentioned how the youth is now becoming very politically active and speaking out about environmental issues. Do you think things like Climate Day and Greta Thunberg will have a long lasting political impact and influence what happens in the future?
RH: I do think that. These things happen stepwise. I have seen it time and time again. Having been born in the mid 1950s, I have been around more or less since environmentalists have existed. The recent plastic whale is a very strong example.
One of the first things we did in Nature and Youth in the early 70s was go to a shop in Oslo and buy some stuff and rip off the plastic wrapping in the shop, making a point of the fact that it was pollution and we should not have it. But it still took almost 50 years with nothing happening before anyone paid attention, despite the fact that anyone could see that plastic was a problem in the early 70s. We just did not do anything until that whale came with its fabulous PR talent. So that’s a strong example. And Greta Thunberg is another. She has been doing and saying what lots of young kids have been saying and doing for a long time, but she managed to be there and speak up at the right time and now she has raised the standard. And that’s what happens. The whale shifted the standards, she shifted the standards.
I think that Greta will make a difference because through her, the youth has gained some self confidence. They are not just kids. They can make a difference and challenge authority like she did.
LV: You mentioned the oil and gas ban that you advocated for when you were a leader of the Green Party. Do you think the rebranding of Equinor (formerly StatOil) represents a larger shift where people are moving away from oil and gas production to more sustainable energy production?
RH: Yes, I think it does. StatOil is a much more appropriate name than Equinor. They are not Equi anything! They did it because they feel pressure from the public. Everyone knows they plan to be 80% oil and gas in 2030 and 2035, but now they’re feeling public pressure, so they’ve had to rethink their message. Even the oil and gas lobby feels this pressure. The big parties feel this pressure.
The thing that singles out the climate issue out from everything else in addition to it being extremely important is the way that science has been used. The way that lots of good people have been able to put together the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which may be the first time that the sheer weight of the scientific evidence has started rolling over politics. It’s the most magnificent example of science moving over politics that we have ever seen.
That is the special thing about climate science, it’s so prevalent now. You have to say something about it. Look at the concept of democracy – you do not find a dictator in the world that does not call themselves democratic. They have to call themselves a democrat. You can’t escape it. The same thing with the climate. You have to at least pretend that you are on the same team as those who try to save the climate.
SP: On corporate responsibility to the environment. There is this argument that individual efforts towards sustainability (on a household or family level) mean nothing because of the effect of large corporations on the world. Do you think there is any truth to that?
RH: No, I totally disagree. Everything starts with the individual. The people working in those companies are individuals. The bosses, however mean they might be, are themselves influenced, and they influence everybody else. If you see your neighbor doing something green one day, you might think it is crazy. But then another person next door to you does it. And then you think maybe it is not that crazy after all. The sum of thousands and millions of people doing the right stuff instead of the wrong stuff is real, it is substantial, and it makes a difference.
SP: I want to talk about how biologists and ecologists can get into politics. We talk about how few jobs there are in ecology in academia after a certain point. On the other side, we hear from people in politics saying we do not have enough academics. How do we create these pathways for biologists and ecologists to get into politics?
RH: A lot of young academics worry that they’re not suited to politics. But nothing makes you better adapted for being an environmental politician than if you combine hardcore biology with understanding society. Not too many people have that combination. You can formulate yourself. You can communicate. I would advise people to do the obvious. Combine being a student, combine being a scientist, with being active in society. That is not just a burden, it’s something you have to do. It is education. What’s more obvious than being part of society?
Someone sits in parliament, on company boards, making decisions. And they are going to decide. So why not you? Those are also jobs. Sometimes I think young biologists think they cannot do anything besides being biologists, but they have so many more options.