Background

The linguistic and argumentative representations of nature have direct consequences for policy action in the environmental domain. The value we assign to nature, and the way we construe of nature as an object of public deliberation is therefore crucial for tackling environmental issues, and language is essential in shaping these processes. Previous research suggests that recent decades have seen a fundamental shift in our understanding of nature, of the relations between humans and nature, and of why nature is valuable. Put shortly, existing research indicates that during the 1990s, environmental harm was accepted as a global, potentially irreversible and existential problem in public debates (Andersen, 2017; Hajer, 1995; Lash, Wynne, & Szerszynski, 1996; Strydom, 2002). This has in its turn led to changes in how nature is construed as an object in public debates, and what reasons, or justifications, are considered relevant and legitimate for policymaking. These changes are closely related to the valuation of nature – i.e. the normative foundation for environmental policy, but also to the mediation of expert knowledge about nature, and this is expressed by the fact that the reasons for protecting nature from destruction and controlling environmental harm have changed in fundamental ways over the last century (Andersen, 2017; Robin, Sörlin, & Warde, 2013; Warde & Sörlin, 2015). The concept of the “anthropocene era” (Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000) captures the basic idea that humans transform the natural systems in a fundamental way. In sum, this process can be understood as a reconfiguration of the human understanding of the relation of humans to nature, and thus can be taken to be an important cultural condition for societal development and for tackling environmental change. While this can be considered to be a global phenomenon, it has also had important repercussions in the public debate in Norway (Andersen, 2017), and although this reconfiguration has been a long-term historical process, the mid 1990s has been shown to be a period of particularly profound changes in how environmental problems were understood. This development can also be traced linguistically, through an analysis of relevant texts and policy documents, as demonstrated by Figure 1:

Figure 1: Word frequencies, verbatim reports from the Norwegian Parliament, number of pages containing each word in the period 1888-2001 (based on Andersen, 2017)

Figure 1 shows the development of key terms in Norwegian parliamentary debates on nature and the environment over the last century. While ‘nature’ is present throughout the period, the emergence of terms such as ‘sustainable’ and ‘environmental protection’, and the reduced frequency of ‘conservation of nature’, suggest a reconceptualization of the valuation of nature in policy debates. The figure illustrates the historical changes in language use and demonstrates the usefulness of linguistic analysis of corpora as a powerful analytical tool too map and identify temporal shifts in the conceptualization and valuation of nature.

In addition to demonstrating language change, Figure 1 illustrates the emergence of new regimes of knowledge, as the emergence and growth of terms are indicative of conceptual change. The changing status of expert knowledge in the mediation of nature is also observed by Andersen (2017), who links the changes in how parliamentary members talk of nature (Figure 1) to a changing perception of what forms of nature are considered to be particularly valuable, but also to what types of knowledge of nature that are necessary. In a case study of parliamentary debates on marine management plans in the time period 1990-2000, Andersen observes an increased importance attributed to the expert knowledge in the form of simulation of ecosystems states and ecosystem responses to pollution, biological indicators, and new ways of compiling environmental data into indexes. In the materials he studied, these expert forms of knowledge of nature become more important, while other types of knowledge (such as pollution effects on individual species) fade to the background of the debates. Similar trends have been documented in other studies focusing on how this type of knowledge is shaped by science-policy interaction (Miller, 2005; Rametsteiner, Pülzl, Alkan-Olsson, & Frederiksen, 2011; Turnhout, Neves, & de Lijster, 2014). Science-based expertise therefore plays a key role in the public debate on environmental issues, and expert knowledge is considered crucial for identifying, describing, managing, and thus contributing to solving, current societal and environmental problems. Thus, the mediation of expert knowledge, and its use as an argumentative resource in the form of justification principles, plays a key role in the project, and will be examined via corpora of scientific popularisation, i.e. the forskning.no and Naturen corpora, in addition to newspaper materials and parliamentary debates. In sum, the corpora give a varied and solid empirical basis to analyse the mediation of science-based expertise in Norway in the selected time period. This allows us to perform a comparative analysis of term formation and specialized neology, and to study the use of expert knowledge as an argumentative resource in the form of justification principles. Through these analyses, the project examines the contribution of expert knowledge to public debates on nature, and its impact on political action.

However, the relationship between expert knowledge, public debate and political action is complex, because changes in the conceptualization of the relation of humans to nature have in their turn led to changes in what types of knowledge are considered to be important and necessary for deliberation on nature and the environment. Studies from different disciplines have documented different facets of these processes, and in sum they indicate that the types of knowledge that are considered to be relevant vary across time and across cultures, and that the view on knowledge corresponds to the dominant understanding of nature, and vice versa (Andersen, 2017; Daston & Vidal, 2004; Jasanoff, 2005; Robin et al., 2013; Warde & Sörlin, 2009). The close relationship between expert knowledge and political action is illustrated by Sörlin (2013), who shows how the establishment of environmental expertise in the time period 1920-1960 was important for the changing meaning of the concept of ‘the environment’, which has in its turn been influential in shaping the ‘political breakthrough’ of the issue of global environmental change in the 1970s, and the creation of important international organisations such as the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Thus, the study of expert language is an intake to the social conceptualization of nature, with important consequences for political action. Previous research also underlines the contribution of linguistic and rhetorical analyses of argumentation in debates on contested issues such as climate change and energy policy in order to understand these phenomena (Carbou, 2015; Dahl & Fløttum, 2014), and the role of  argumentative resources, including expert knowledge, therein.

While the mediation of expert knowledge in Parliamentary debates and white papers is important for the understanding of the conceptualization and its status as argumentative resource, mediation to the general public poses another set of questions. Moirand (2003) has observed the emergence of a ‘new’ discourse on science which challenges traditional models of science communication that considered popularisation as an intermediate layer between scientific expertise and the general public. Her study of scientific popularization in French indicates that scientific findings, especially related to environmental issues, are increasingly framed as social issues in the mass media, and this phenomenon is characterised by the co-presence of several expert ‘voices’, terminological variation and lexical dynamism, and the emergence of new discourse objects which require both scientific, legal and political action (e.g. the ‘precautionary principle’, cf. Moirand, 2003, p. 189). In addition, Gjesdal, Kristiansen & Våge (submitted) have observed a similar lexical variation across time and discourses, suggesting a terminological “gap” on the expert-novice continuum in the case of climate change terminology (e.g. in the case of the term ‘climate change mitigation’, Parliamentary discourse prefers ‘utslippsreduksjoner’ (‘emissions reductions’), while newspapers prefer ‘klimakutt’ (‘climate cuts’)). In sum, this research suggests that there is reason to examine contemporary forms of mediation of expert knowledge and the potential discrepancies between discourses when it comes to language use. Improved knowledge on this variation will not only allow us to map vocabularies across different discursive settings, but will also allow us to gauge the spread of justification principles. This will in its turn have an impact on the understanding of public debates, and of the democratic aspects of (un)equal access to knowledge.

Finally, in addition to the comparison across time (1998-2017) and across discourses (Parliamentary debates, popular science outlets and newspaper), the project will examine the relevance of the national dimension for understanding the increased role of expert knowledge in public debates on issues related to nature. In the context of climate change communication, Fløttum & Espeland (2014) have studied language use with reference to the specificities of the Norwegian context, balancing the role as a major global player in petroleum production, while at the same time having ambitions to play a role in climate change negotiations internationally. Acknowledging the impact of the petroleum dimension on environmental debates and thus on the conceptualization of nature, the Norwegian case may be fruitfully contrasted with that of France, which is a leading player in the nuclear energy sector. In his study of online debates on nuclear energy in France in the aftermath of Fukushima, Carbou (2015) focused on argumentation, and identified recurring topoï in the materials which correspond to different worldviews, in their turn implying different conceptualizations of nature.

The project will tackle the question of the valuation of nature by using the theoretical concept of justification principles, as proposed by Boltanski and Thévenot (1999, 2006), and these are considered to be crucial argumentative resources in public debates on nature (Andersen, 2017; Moody & Thévenot, 2000). In On justification, Boltanski and Thévenot (2006: 159-211) present a model of justificatory argumentation in public debates, and they describe how it is expressed in the form of different vocabularies or value systems, or “orders of worth”. The principles refer to different conceptions of the common good; conceptualized variously as tradition, solidarity, competition, efficiency, sustainability, etc. Justification principles are considered as the product of historical and cultural processes; they are embedded in social institutions and organizations, and important for the co-ordination necessary for collective action. Justification principles are empirically observable in and through the language used by actors in public debates and communication, as exemplified by the reference to nature’s monetary or intrinsic value in environmental debates. For this project, it is particularly important that the approach specifies a discourse analytical method for identifying the relevant terms and figures of speech that support a justification principle. However, Boltanski and Thévenot do not intend to propose this as a universal model of all the possible forms of justificatory argumentation, and they state that it is limited by spatio-temporal context, and tied to a specific culturally and linguistically unique vocabulary. Therefore, a detailed analysis of public deliberation on nature in Norway is needed, in order to identify what types of justification principles play a role in this context, as well as their connection with expert knowledge. Moreover, justification principles are not static; they are tested out, and their relevance is renegotiated in situations of disagreement and conflict. As a consequence, the theory focuses on situated action and language use, and the project will apply this framework to examine the increasing role of expert knowledge in Norwegian debates about nature and to identify changes in the valuation of nature over the two last decades.