Researcher of the Month

Every month we get to know one of the researchers at the department better. Read about their research areas, fieldwork and why they do what they do.

Susann Baez Ullberg: People’s relationships with water, the role of anthropology in fighting climate change, and the ethical aspects of environmental degradation


Susann Baez Ullberg is an environmental and disaster anthropologist who specializes in research on human water relations. She is involved in several research networks with a focus on the environment and sustainability, and believes that anthropology can play a crucial role in the fight against climate change and other environmental problems

Susann ler mot kameran utomhus i Engelska parken
Susann Baez Ullberg

-I am primarily focusing on research into people's relationships with water, both in everyday life and especially under critical extraordinary circumstances such as droughts and floods. For example, I have a project that deals with water shortages and what happens socially, culturally, and politically when cities grow in combination with prolonged droughts. This research got me interested in society's use of groundwater. This is a pressing environmental issue because groundwater is our most important freshwater resource, but it is increasingly being depleted and polluted all over the world. Groundwater use is particularly interesting from an anthropological perspective because groundwater is not visible or manageable like surface water. It is usually said that groundwater is "invisible" in the sense that it is impossible to know exactly where it is or how it moves underground. How do people create knowledge about and manage water when they cannot use sensory abilities such as sight, hearing, or touching? What ideas, practices, and technologies are then developed to understand and extract groundwater? And in times of climate change and water scarcity, how do you share groundwater resources across different political-administrative boundaries when the water is not visible or controllable?

Susann works ethnographically in Sweden and Latin America, most notably in Argentina.

-An empirical project that we in the interdisciplinary research network Aquifers in the Anthropocene have begun to look at is precisely about groundwater management in the Guarani Aquifer in southern Latin America. This is one of the world's largest freshwater reservoirs located under the territory of four different countries. Here, the issue of transboundary water-management is in focus. Among other things, we look at how the international agreement that these countries signed regarding groundwater extraction and protection, is handled in practice at national and regional levels. My anthropological perspective is about comparing discourses and practices at the local level. This perspective includes finding similarities and differences in how groundwater is extracted and used, for example, for irrigation and drinking water, and how different social actors such as farmers, hydrologists, politicians, and urban and rural dwellers understand and talk about groundwater.

Conflicting goals in the climate transition

Environmental and disaster anthropology used to be two subfields of research, but have moved towards becoming the same. Disasters produced by natural hazards are increasingly a consequence of environmental degradation and societal vulnerability, produced by economic and political processes. The research area is growing both in Sweden and internationally given the ongoing climate crisis.

- In the so-called climate transition, there often occurs conflicts of interest and of goals. Some examples are when local populations resist the expansion of wind turbines or how the so-called green transition requires the extraction of minerals. The expansion of the mining industry then affects for example the reindeer herding in Sápmi. Similar types of conflicts can be found all over the world. The anthropological perspective, which is always local in one way or another, can highlight these types of contradictions and show how it is often the local population who has to pay the price for social change. The perspective that focuses on environmental justice is important because it is usually not what is highlighted in other scientific and political contexts.

Susann står vid en dörr och ser in i kameran och ler

Entering a critical stage

Susann has been interested in environmental issues ever since she was a student in the 90s. Back then there was some awareness of environmental degradation, but Susann thinks that the world has entered a more critical stage now with climate change.

- Things have been brought to a head in the last decade. There are no easy solutions, but something must be done about environmental degradation. We cannot ignore the fact that we are undermining the conditions, both for our own existence and for other life on Earth. It is our way of living in a capitalist and industrialized world that has led to global warming, pollution, and depletion of biodiversity. In order to understand the problems and be able to remedy them, one must understand how societies are organized, how power is distributed, who is responsible, and why some are affected more than others are. Anthropologists can contribute with important insights into how people think, organize and live their lives in everyday life and in crisis. These are central skills in order to change an unsustainable social development. I together with two new Ph.D. students participate in the newly started EU project C-Urge Anthropology of Global Climate Urgency. We will examine how current climate changes that call for immediate action, create new discourses, practices, and policy decisions. And if they don’t create any immediate action, we will investigate how this is the case.

Simultaneously, Susann sees that there are limitations to the contribution of the discipline.

- It is not enough to be critical only. In many humanistic and social science disciplines, we have a theoretically critical approach that is necessary. However, in order to be relevant to society, we must also be able to contribute with solutions. This is a challenge. There are no easy solutions, especially when it comes to goal conflicts. I myself often feel that I have more questions than answers. Therefore, it is important to collaborate with others, both with those we study, with other sciences, and with those who make decisions. The C-Urge project is anthropological but contains interdisciplinary collaboration. We will also conduct so-called

citizen research, which is anthropologically at hand since we focus on the local level, and collaborate with NGOs in several countries.

What can societies learn from your research?

-One thing is the importance of disaster risk reduction. Disasters bring great human suffering, both in terms of lost lives and destroyed living conditions, plus great material damage that the individual and society must deal with. I wish policymakers really understood how our societies work and how people act when the worst happens. It is a society's degree of vulnerability that determines whether a snowstorm, earthquake, or flood becomes a disaster. By improving people's living conditions, you can not only reduce the risk of a natural phenomenon becoming a disaster but also strengthen people's ability to deal with crises. Being vulnerable does not necessarily mean that one lacks the ability to act. On the contrary, people always have a certain degree of agency, but society also sets limits on people's room for action.

Susann believes that a prerequisite for preventive work is to have a local perspective and understand that things are not the same everywhere.

-We are not all in the same boat when the worst happens. We have different conditions and resources, both between countries and within societies. You often hear nowadays that in Sweden, we are worse off and we live in crisis. Nevertheless, compared to many other countries, we have a resourceful and well-functioning society. We have the conditions to focus on prevention, unlike other places where basic living conditions must be prioritized. Sweden could be world-leading in environmental policies, but for this to happen, it is necessary to recognize the problem and prioritize solutions. Risk reduction costs money and requires the allocation of financial and human resources at various levels. Then the political question becomes whether we should invest in dealing with something that does not affect us directly or maybe only in the future. It is always possible to argue that other pressing issues must come first. However, not investing in the environment is to undermine the conditions for our existence. For me, this is a priority! It is ultimately an ethical question. By what right do we take the power to destroy the living conditions for other people and other creatures and life on earth?

Anthropology central in solving the problem

A decisive aha experience that brought Susann to this field of research was a course in environmental anthropology that she took as a student of social anthropology at Stockholm University.

-There my interest in the environment coincided with anthropology and I found my place, so to speak. Therefore, I am so pleased that we now have a newly started course in our department called Environmental Ethnography, which is open to students from all different disciplines. I hope that it will be an eye-opener for everyone, that knowledge about humans, which is the direct meaning of anthropology, is absolutely central to meeting today's environmental problems. It is human relations that cause the problems and we humans are the ones who can and should fix them. Therefore, we must understand people in all our similarities and differences, Susann says in conclusion.

Researcher of the Month

Last modified: 2023-08-23