Projects, collaborations, journeys
"Casper the Rabbit Follows his Nose" - that was the title of a favourite children's book of mine. Casper went on adventures without knowing where he was going, only guided by his ability to sniff and smell his way forward. With his nose, Casper found and explored rose fields, secret pine forests and peach orchards, developing his understanding of freedom, other creatures and the World as he went. Research is far from a rosy journey, but am increasing trying to follow my nose, honing my sensory skills and curiosity as I go.
My projects revolve around sustainability, time and organization, the Anthropocene and eco-philosophy.
Below are some of the projects I have worked on. Some are finished, some are open, some are developing new strands of thought. None of them have developed into the neat and orderly packages I imagined them to.
Imaginaries of a sustainable Greenland: A study of situated and political CSR among Greenlandic organizations.
Research project 2014-2018. In collaboration with the Copenhagen Business School Centre for CSR, and co-authored with associate professor Steen Vallentin, CBS.
Over the last 10 years or so, the Arctic has become a hotbed of geopolitical interests and conflict. The melting of the Polar ice cap caused by warmer temperatures has meant easier access to extractive resources, as reflected in prospects of offshore drilling in Arctic waters or mining of rare earth minerals in previously inaccessible geological sites, while also opening up opportunities for mass tourism and seasonal sailing (commercial shipping) through the Northwest and Northeast Passages. Sustainability is one of the main concerns raised over such developments. The use of vivid images of melting glaciers and polar bears adrift on blocks of ice is, however, symptomatic of a outside-in view of sustainability in this region as an environmental concern that grants less attention to the locally situated, human and social side of sustainable development and responsibility.
Greenland is an Arctic country currently portrayed as a place that “is moving from the periphery into the center of global attention” (Rosing, 2012, p. 8). This shift is caused by the described climatic and subsequent geopolitical changes, with Greenland often serving “as a ‘climate witness’ or showcase for climate change” (Ren, 2016, p. 444) and perceived as a place of nature (Ren, 2016). The country is also a modern and postcolonial society addressing sustainability problems from and for its own perspective and needs. These perspectives involve more than the Inuit hunters and fishermen so often depicted in external descriptions as victims of climate change – they involve the economy, culture, welfare structure and natural resources in which local actors create and imagine sustainable development.
In our research project we turn to the organizations of Greenlandic society and explore how they relate to sustainability as a locally situated practice in a globally changing world. Organizations and companies have received limited attention in studies of Greenland, which are broadly speaking driven by either natural scientists or anthropological/cultural scholars. Yet in the realm of sustainability practice, organizations are pivotal actors actively engaging with their surrounding environment. In Greenland, institutionalization and governance of sustainable development is very much in the making and surrounded by considerable uncertainty as to future trajectories, developments, outcomes, impacts, role definitions. In this uncertainty, the last few years have seen an emerging agenda for social and environmental responsibility under the general headline of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) in which companies, non-profits and state-driven organizations collaborate to develop solutions to Greenland’s specific social and environmental problems.
Based on interviews with company leaders and other key opinion leaders in Greenland, as well as newspaper articles and scientific reports from 2007-2017, we investigate how CSR is becoming a tool for organizational engagement in social change.
We use CSR as a prism to explore the social and economic as well as the environmental aspects of sustainability in Greenland – thus venturing beyond the narrative of Arctic sustainability as a solely environmental matter. We approach CSR as socially situated practice as well as a temporal construct with which actors think about the future for Greenland.
Potentials and Paradoxes of Glacial Rock Flour: the governance of a geo-engineering project in the early Anthropocene
Research project 2017-2018. In collaboration with the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Greenland Perspective, CBS Centre for CSR.
Background and research interest
The Danish-Greenlandic research initiative Greenland Perspective (UV Copenhagen) is testing and developing a potential Greenlandic export adventure: Glacial Rock Flour (GRF). A team of natural scientists is investigating the highly nutrient properties of this material that glaciers grind and leave behind as fine-grained mud when they retreat. The first series of tests show clear proof that glacial rock flour has the potential to revitalize depleted and exhausted soils – something to the benefit of not least the agricultural industry in tropical regions such as Brazil. If Greenland Perspective and its scientific and commercial partners are able to commercialize glacial rock flour on a large scale, the material appears to deliver what Greenland and the world both want. Greenland gets an economic boost to secure its long coveted independence from Denmark, commercial agriculture gets a sustainable solution to its depleted (rainforest) soil, and the world improves food security for the future.
From a social-scientific perspective, however, the project offers much more than its vision and solutions – namely a deeper insight into the ontology and strategies of sustainable entrepreneurship. What are the sustainability practices and discourses created by Greenland Perspective in the strategies and leadership of the emerging research and business potentials? To which environmental, human and temporal concerns does the project’s leading team pay heed?
The GRF project rests on a set of interesting, important and perhaps paradoxical assumptions about sustainable development in our contemporary and ‘Anthropocene’ (Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000; Crutzen, 2002; Haraway 2016; Johnson et al., 2014) world and investigated issues such as: Is it okay to create economic benefit from a melting Arctic – the more glaciers retreat, the more glacial flour to export? Can glacial flour support Greenlandic independence and how, in a country with only little experience with large-scale commercial operations? How is the material and its exploitation envisioned to affect eco-systems in the future – 10 years, 50 years, 500 years from now – and does this matter if it offers short-term financial gains?
The commercialization of glacial rock flour is part of a general proliferation of geo- and bio-engineering solutions to disruptive eco-systemic changes in our post-industrial world. But though such solutions are both lauded as necessary for our species’ survival (particularly in commercial and policy discourse) and condemned for their rationalist and risky man-nature dichotomy (Haraway 2016; Morton, 2013; Steffen et al., 2011; Tsing 2016; Yusoff, 2016), we know little about what motivates and frames their governance – i.e. the deliberations, ethical reflections and temporal horizons that drive the agency of the actors involved.
Insight into the ontologies, temporalities and governance of sustainable entrepreneurship in the Anthropocene, through intervies and document data
Deliberations on the commercial opportunities, challenges and ethical concerns of harnessing new Arctic resources, with particular focus on Greenland’s postcolonial society and partnerships.
Exploring the hyperobject: Six sonic explorations of human enmeshment in an expanded ecology
Research-art project 2017-2020. In collaboration with Eduardo Abrantes, sound artist and Ph.D (philosophy). Artistic residency/users at Inter Arts Center, Malmö, Sweden
Background and research interest
The project explores the concept of the ‘hyperobject’ (Morton, 2013) through a sound composition/radio podcast series in six episodes. ‘Hyperobjects’ is a geo-philosophical concept denoting “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans”. Timothy Morton suggests some examples of hyperobjects: global warming, plastic bags, London, plutonium, Styrofoam, the Biosphere. Hyperobjects are not authoritatively defined entities, rather they are ontological landscapes to be explored. They are increasingly visible in our contemporary ‘Anthropocene Era’ (Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000; Johnson et al., 2014) in which human beings are increasingly part of, and impacting on, geological and biological changes on Earth with far-reaching effects both temporally and spatially. These developments challenge taken-for-granted modes of human agency, and responses range from hopelessness, cynicism and dystopic imaginaries to anthropocentric geo-engineering and business solutions (Haraway, 2016; Jameson, 2005; Yusoff, 2016). Resisting either of these strategies – despair or anthropocentric heroism – geo-philosopher Timothy Morton (2013, 2016) is part of a growing body of scholars and artists who look for entirely new ontologies for our world; exploring human-nonhuman dependencies and -interactions across deep time and space. Morton’s concept ‘hyperobjects’ encourages us to “upgrade [our] ontological tools” and think of the inter-dependency of human and other life forms and bio-/geological systems, thereby enabling discussion and discoveries about the roles, potentials and problems of human activity and ambition on Earth.
Hyperobjects have at least three important properties:
They exist across large timescales.
They exist across indefinite space.
They are viscous: part of us, sticking to us.
Responding to Morton’s call that “it is very much the job of philosophers and other humanities scholars to attune ourselves to the upgrading process and to help explain it” (2013:100f.), our explorations of hyperobjects draw on artistic, philosophical and sociological practices to perform this attunement of ourselves and our audiences to our non-linear interrelations with well-known materialities across space and time.
We have conceptually identified six hyperobjects to explore (the first four are own elaborations based on Morton’s philosophy, the latter two have been suggested by Morton): Dust, Greenhouses, The Road, The North Pole, Plastic bags and Uranium. We explore each hyperobject through desk research, academic works, interviews, field visits, recorded dinner talks with experts and friends, and more. Concurrently - and as a kind of sketch work for each podcast - we explore different dissemination formats for 'attunement' and 'intimacy' with audiences. One example of this was a 'lecture-performance' at Inter Arts Center in late 2017.
Time hybrids in Corporate Strategy: Long-term global challenges and short-term corporate competitive pressures
Postdoc project 2013-2015. Funded by Carlsbergfondet and hosted by Dpt. of Organization, Copenhagen Business School.
My Postdoc project was completed in 2015, but is also a continuous investigation. The questions I posed in the project are fundamental to my work on time, organizations and sustainability. One of the investigations of the project was a series of interviews with Danish corporate top managers (executive level in e.g. Novozymes, Carlsberg and Danske Bank), where I asked about their temporal horizons in their strategy work, and we talked about the challenges of thinking beyond a 10-15 year timeframe. One outcome of this work can be read in the article: “Ideologies of Time: How elite corporate actors engage the future”, Berg Johansen & De Cock, Organization, 2017.
Companies, like all other organizations, are influenced by increased and complex global pressures such as limited natural resources, social unrest, climate change and insufficient educational systems in not least emerging markets. These long-term problems – so-called "wicked problems" are piling up in our globalized market economy, creating risks and disruptions (see e.g. The Economist Intelligence Unit 2008: The Global Disruptors), which cannot be solved by simple growth and traditional macroeconomic market conceptualizations. Wicked problems cross nation states and geographies; they impact not just markets but also states and civil sectors; and their solutions demand collaboration from many different sectors and actors. Concurrent to these long-term challenges, shareholders and competition are pushing companies to perform here and now, and create economic gain within ever-tighter timeframes. We can thus identify a dilemma between short-term market pressures and long-term cross-sectorial challenges, which ultimately threaten existing market structures and practices.
This is both a practical and theoretical dilemma: How can present corporate strategy, building on short-term objectives, incorporate future social pressures consisting of complex and longitudinal issues? This was pursued in the project through empirical investigations and deeper theorizing of time and agency, drawing on Sociology of Time, American Pragmatism and Institutional theory.
"...The question then becomes what it might mean for organizations to develop and embrace such temporal and relational alternatives – whether it is possible in current and future organizing to develop forms of agency that rewrite the role of humans in the world, in modes that meet the challenges of the Anthropocene."
(Berg Johansen, 2020)
Photo from a collaborative research trip to Rauma, Norway.
Credit: colleague and co-researcher Lise Lillebrygfjeld Halse