By Thomas Gaulkin

Sitting for lunch on a grassy hill among twisting oaks four years ago, Professors Kathy Morrison and Susanna Hecht began an ongoing conversation about the complicated relationship between humans and forests, and the importance of connecting the many different approaches to studying the environment.

That conversation eventually led to their organizing the May 30–31 inaugural conference of the Program on the Global Environment, under the banner “The Social Life of Forests: New Frameworks for Studying Change.

“Forests are parts of landscapes, and they reflect histories, economies and ideas about nature and its meaning,” explained Hecht, AB ’72 and Professor of Urban Planning at UCLA. “What happens to forests depends on how we think about them, nature and human nature.”

Morrison, Professor of Anthropology at the University and Director of the Center for International Studies, noted that the dominant conception that humans are the biggest threat to forests is increasingly being challenged. “It’s not that deforestation isn’t happening,” she said, “but the picture is considerably more complicated than commonly understood. If there are instances of re-emerging forests, we need to learn whatever we can from them to address areas that are more vulnerable.”

Chicago branches out

The Program on the Global Environment (PGE) was launched by the Center for International Studies this past fall, and now serves as the central nexus of environmental study on campus. The Program receives generous support from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

The inaugural conference brings 30 researchers from the scientific, social science and policy worlds together for the first time to address the dynamics of forest change in inhabited landscapes. The organizers’ hope is that the focus on change will help “balance arguments about sustainability, illustrating the varied ways in which people, plants and animals have effected and are affected by forest transformation.”

“The conference itself mirrors the mission of PGE in taking a problem of critical global importance and tackling it from many different but connected perspectives,” said PGE Director Mark Lycett. “So it’s an appropriate inaugural conference for the Program.”

While scholars at individual institutions have developed integrated research programs on some aspects of occupied forests, Morrison explained that bringing this many people together from so many different disciplines and regions is an unprecedented step.

“The history of forests, not entirely but quite significantly, has been a history of interaction with human beings, ” Morrison said. “So the natural scientists and social scientists need to bring their research together.”

Thinking outside the silo

For Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Assistant Professor of British History and conference participant, an interdisciplinary understanding of nature is itself an object of inquiry.

“My work analyzes the place of natural knowledge in the emergence of classical political economy during the Scottish Enlightenment,” Jonsson said. “The proper place and significance of the forest as an object of social and ecological inquiry was very much subject to intellectual debate and political struggle in the late enlightenment.”

Joining the several other Chicago researchers speaking at the conference is Sir Peter Crane, the John and Marion Sullivan University Professor in the Geophysical Sciences. His interests in forests relate primarily to their conservation, and as director of the Field Museum during the 1990s, he also helped found the Chicago Wilderness consortium.

“This conference is important because conservation in the twenty first century will be as much about managing forests in human dominated landscapes as about establishing new protected area systems,” Crane said. “Conservation and sustainable use are two sides of the same coin.”

Asked what makes the University uniquely qualified to host the Social Life of Forests conference, Hecht replied, “It’s hard for me to imagine such a conference having such an expansive intellectual fit anywhere else: U of C is big picture. The reality is that this is a super complex process, and a place that consistently takes on the big themes makes Chicago the obvious venue.”

Crane agreed. “It is too easy for discussions in this area to take place in established silos that overlook the true complexity of the issues,” he said. “The University of Chicago has a long established tradition of interdisciplinary enquiry, which is especially appropriate in considering the history and future of forests.”

Looking beyond this week’s presentations and the edited volume that will be produced from them, Morrison said she is optimistic that “the interdisciplinary conference marks the beginning of a new and passionate expansion of this understudied area of research and policy.”

Originally published on May 27, 2008.