After many years in the planning, we have an exhibition in St Andrews all about peat. It even contains cores of peat extracted from down the road at Bankhead Moss and from across the Atlantic in the Peruvian Amazon. The exhibition is the brain-child/-bog of Katy Roucoux. She’s been working hard, alongside the Wardlaw Museum staff and a bunch of us peat-minded colleagues, for several years, to put together a room of stories about the ecosystems and people associated with the peatlands of Peru and Scotland, with reference to a splattering of other locations. It’s inspiring to see how research can be translated into a variety of interactive media, and how lush-looking walls of greenery can be created from plastic(!) (see image below).
To accompany the exhibition, there are all sorts of events happening until the close on 7th May. One set of associated events are the Critical Conversations, where a small group of staff and students come together online to chat about a relevant topic. I was asked to chair a set of three conversations associated with the exhibition. Well, one to start with … and then somehow said yes to the set. (I’m not sure what happened to my resolution of saying yes less.)
In the first conversation, held on 20th February 2023, Katy Roucoux, Shona Jenkins and I discussed our thoughts in response to the question: can peat use be sustainable? We didn’t talk about the use of peat as a substrate in which to grow our tomatoes – a hot topic of discussion in UK policy circles at the moment – but focused on peatland use and whether that could be sustainable in the geographies which we are more familiar with: the Peruvian Amazon and Central Congo Basin. The answer is “yes”, but it depends. To find out about the circumstances under which the use of peatlands can be sustainable, have a listen to the podcast!
The second conversation, on 14th March, explored the multifaceted topic of ‘ethical’ fieldwork: what constitutes ethical fieldwork practices and how we might achieve them. Nina Laurie and Euridice Honorio shared their thoughts, developed through many decades of fieldwork in Peru and other locations, working alongside people with different life experiences, opportunities, and aspirations. Dennis del Castillo Torres, the Director of Forest Research at the Research Institute of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP), also contributed some thoughts in a pre-recorded conversation that we (just about!) slotted into our live chat. It was interesting for me to have this conversation only one night after facilitating a panel discussion on how to avoid ‘helicopter’ science for the British Ecological Society (keep an eye on the Conservation Ecology blog for a summary article on that in the coming months).
The final Critical Conversation in For Peatland’s Sake trilogy, scheduled for 11th April, will ask whether museums can influence behavioural change. Answers on a postcard, please.
Although the two topics of the first and second Critical Conversations are nebulous, with the impossibility of reaching a one-size-fits-all answer, the conversationalists managed to articulate some really important points and provide plenty of food for thought, certainly for me. The gazillion £/€ question underlying all of the conversations is how do we achieve ‘real’ sustainability, and equity, in practice – where behaviours can continue indefinitely between passing generations – and generations of all people, across cultures, societies and social classes. Answering this question involves understanding how peatlands (in this case) function and what they need to be healthy, alongside understanding how we can nurture their good health whilst sharing out the gifts of these ecosystems amongst each member of our communities. Simple?! We’ll keep working on the answer.