Interview

‘It’s about survival’

14.4.2022 | In a world facing a multitude of environmental crises, Professor Nora Räthzel from the University of Umeå wants to centre the experience of labourers who often go unheard. We spoke to her about what drives her and what she hopes to achieve.
Nora Räthzel
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Nora Räthzel
You have helped to establish the field of environmental labour studies. What are the main questions you’re looking to answer?
 
In environmental labour studies, we look at the connection between work and nature, and broaden the concept of work to include all workers – in industries, agriculture, services, care work, paid and unpaid – and the way in which work processes are related to each other locally and globally.
 
We look at workers as agents, so it’s about how do workers experience the way in which they are included in transformations of nature. How do they perceive it, how do they react to it? Do they subordinate themselves to the way things are, or are there environmental policies in their trade unions and other workers’ organisations?
 
Do you only observe, or do you also work on how to instigate change?
 
The new project, “Workers as Agents of Transformative Change” for which we have just got funding from the Swedish Research Council (FORTE), is about change. What we’re going to do is to create courses for workers to create plans that will make their workplace more environmentally and socially just, using their knowledge, our knowledge, and the knowledge of engineers and technicians.
 
The idea of our research is that workers need to be the agents of transformational change. If you look at policies about how we have to become greener, how we have to change to renewable energy and so on … workers are never seen as actors in those policies. They are always seen, often even by their own trade unions, as victims. As vulnerable people whom we have to help by offering them new skills or maybe early retirement.
 
But there are examples in history where workers have made amazing transitional plans for their production processes, for instance the Lucas Workers in the UK. This is something that we want to do in the new research project. We as researchers and the workers taking part in the project cover different dimensions of a transformational process.
 
Is it about empowerment of the workers?
 
It would be a bit arrogant, I think, of us as researchers, sitting at our desks, to think that workers need to be empowered by us. They have power and what we are doing is to create a space where this power and knowledge can develop and be realised.
 
They already have the power and courage to think about alternative ways of producing, it’s just that normally they are not listened to.
 
One of your projects was in a Swedish Volvo factory. What did you find there?
 
We learned how much knowledge the workers had about the environmental impact of their production. The workers were very critical about the environmental policies of the management, who said the company was going CO2 neutral. And the workers said, well, are they counting the lorries that bring us the 6000 elements we need to produce our cabins? Are they counting the transport on the factory space itself, which is huge? Are they counting the waste management, or rather, the absence of waste management?
 
We did a survey there, and 20% of the people, which was around 300, had suggested changes in the production process to make it more environmentally just and fair. They were very well aware that what they were doing was environmentally detrimental.
 
But management didn’t listen to them. We also interviewed the manager for environmental issues, and he said that workers were not interested in the environment, they were only interested in their wages.
 
You describe your work as being about ‘resistance’ and ‘subordination’. What do those words mean to you?
 
I think the point of departure for me is: what kind of society do you want to live in? And my perspective is one in which people empower themselves to create forms of self determination. A kind of a society where you have horizontal relations of power and not so much hierarchical relations of power, which also means that as a person, you can develop all the capabilities that you want to develop, in all areas – politics, culture, the workplace, social relations.
 
The structures within which we live now are not very helpful for that kind of development. That is especially true in the workplace, because privatized workplaces are a very contradictory thing. On the one hand, they do socially necessary work – most of them, anyway – but it happens under private control. The people who do all the work, without which the workplace wouldn’t exist, they don’t have a lot of control over what to produce, how to produce it, and for whom.
 
The question is, is that subordination enforced on them? To what degree is it also a form of self-subordination, where you think ‘okay, I can’t change anything anyway’?
 
In the same way, resistance is a contradictory process. Especially in the pandemic, it has become very clear to me how resistance can be very individualistic, where you’re just resisting in order to create privilege for yourself. So, resistance can have the aim to liberate people’s forces and capabilities, but it can also be resistance directed against others, such as migrants or women.
 
Do you feel a moral imperative to do the work you do?
 
I don’t really think in terms of morality. To say it emphatically, it’s about survival, right? It’s about survival of humans and all other living species. I want to live in a society that works carefully within nature, and where people can flourish. That is the interest guiding my work and I think it is an interest that can be shared by anyone.   
 
When you talk about nature, and environmental labour studies, does this also include the climate and biodiversity?
 
I don’t talk about the climate crisis anymore, I prefer to talk about the environmental crisis, or even the crisis of life. If we look properly, the crisis is multidimensional: the acidification of the oceans; threat to groundwater; the destruction of arable land through industrialised agriculture and farming; the loss of biodiversity; the climate crisis. So, you have a crisis that affects air, water, soil, humans and all other living species. All these dimensions of the ‘crisis of life’ threaten the survival of humans and other living beings on earth. To tackle emissions is important but it’s far too narrow-minded to think only about reducing them. The origin of the multidimensional crisis lies in the way in which we produce, the fact that we produce for profit and not to create socially useful things and services for all.
 
Thank you, Prof Räthzel.   (© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)

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