Competing Knowledges about the Environment. Environmental Humanities Lecture

How to address the double bind between growth and sustainability? In this talk, anthropologist Dr. Thomas Hylland Eriksen engages with the climate crisis in Queensland, Australia. He asks how different knowledge regimes identify and interpret facts differently, and how this creates conflicting depictions of the world and solutions to humanity's problems.

sun, sky, wood, car store

Photo: Thomas Hylland Eriksen


In Gladstone, Central Queensland, even the sunset is sponsored by the fossil fuel industry. To watch the sun setting in the west, you must also simultaneously stare at the three tall, symmetrical columns of Gladstone Power Station. The largest in Queensland, the power station feeds on black coal from the interior of the state and, doubtless by coincidence, it was placed in the exact spot where the sun sets.

Gladstone is the undisputed industrial hub of the region. A stagnant billabong for decades, the city has since the 1960s increasingly placed itself at the epicentre of contemporary industrialism, with its large-scale electricity production, alumina refineries, aluminium smelter, cement factory and expanding coal port. At the same time, it is located just inside the severely damaged Great Barrier Reef, a symbol of the effects of anthropogenic climate change, a canary in the coalmine.

In my research, a main topic was the double bind between growth and sustainability as a fundamental contradiction of the present era. I studied this dilemma through an analysis of the conflicting knowledge regimes depicting the world, and the solution to humanity's problems, in very different ways.

During fieldwork in Gladstone, I was sometimes asked who paid for my research. Had I responded that it was funded by a mining company, or the powerful Ports Corporation, I would have lost credibility in their eyes. Some of my informants even pointed out that although they still trusted science, they no longer trusted scientists. Most of the local conflicts in Gladstone concern the relationship between residents and powerful economic agents.

In the era of ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and widespread revolt against the elites (including the intellectual elites), the Australian material speaks to wider issues including the validity of truth claims and the basic relationship between knowledge and power. My examples focus mainly on the destructive side-effects of industrialisation, and the lecture shows how people representing different knowledge regimes identify and interpret facts differently.

A broader explanatatory framework may take into account the acceleration and intensification of global processes, which has led to “overheating” across the world, in the sense that change now takes place faster and with more wide-ranging consequences than before. Changes are often interpreted through the decentralised electronic media, and as a result, it is increasingly difficult to navigate the jungle of information and to know whose knowledge to trust and to act upon. In confronting climate change, understanding the relationship between knowledge and agency is a matter of greater priority now than getting the scientific facts right: This knowledge has been available for a long time without palpable effects in politics or everyday life, and therefore a focus on the knowledge production itself and its relationship to experience and agency should be high on the research agenda.


About the lecturer

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. His research in Australia has been published in articles and book chapters and notably in the monograph Boomtown: Runaway Globalisation on the Queensland Coast (London: Pluto 2018).

Tags: Environment, Sustainability, Anthropology, HF, IKOS, OSEH
Published Jan. 15, 2020 11:02 AM - Last modified Oct. 3, 2022 11:37 AM