NFH-student believes environmental commitment is silenced

When during an online discussion students of the UiT were accused of being bought by the fishing industry, Marthe Bårdsen, a Biology student at the UiT, decided to take the floor against the foul words. Her statement, shared by a Norwegian comedian Bård Tufte Johansen, went viral bringing much attention to the not-that-easy relationship between students, aquaculture companies and environmental issues. We print the full statement together with an interview with the author.

TEXT: Miśka Marczak

«Hello! I’m a student at the UiT and I am not bought. I’m going to be a scientist, and I will maybe even become an employer one day, just like my classmates. Students at UiT are not hookers for the aquaculture industry, but the reason I’m knitting my brows is that the teaching programme for the future professionals in the fishing industry lacks topics about negative environmental aspects in its learning objectives. They barely touch upon the topic. Conservationists are seen as fanatics who do not understand the industry’s economic and political importance for Norway, and any involvement from the “non-industrial” side is silenced. But not from the students.

This involvement is silenced by guests from the industry who come to the UiT to find smart brains who will eventually work for them after graduating. So, unfortunately, to ask critical questions regarding environmental consequences means more or less committing career suicide for a student. I have myself experienced my involvement in environmental protection being dismissed and ridiculed during such seminars.

I have changed programme from fish health biology to marine biology, despite the fact that fish health is interesting and actually important for the environment. I did it because NONE of the aquaculture companies is interested in financing a master degree for a student of fish health biology who wants to write about environmental consequences. And without money, there’s no master’s degree. And if one gets to finance it from other sources, believe what I say, they become unpopular. Additionally, it’s very hard to find professionals from the industry who have competences in conservation and vice versa. I still haven’t met such a person at the UiT. So, who would have guided me? And who has the necessary knowledge to assign a grade on such thesis?

So, it’s obvious that the parents’ generation needs to take action. It must be made possible for a student within the field of aquaculture to get their master on environmental rights financed. Learning objectives must be changed so that the students are actually taught about all aspects. The gap between industry and conservation must be reduced, something that I and many other students are working on – but we need help from you guys out there who already have a career.

The thing I am completely fed up with as a student is the blatant disclaimer from the parents’ generation. You are the reason for the climate change, pollution and depletion of food resources. So, instead of criticising us for following in your footsteps, rather help us clean up after you.”

We heard you grieving over the state of teaching about nature protection and environmental issues at the Fisheries and Aquaculture Science studies. Do you know how it is with other programmes at the UiT?

Marthe Bårdsen: I don’t actually know and I don’t feel like I have competence to say how it is at UiT in general. I don’t know if conservation issues are an important part of other programmes at UiT. I don’t have the insight into these programmes, I rather have an impression that these issues are not sufficiently covered in the subjects that are related to the aquaculture industry. My impression is that it isn’t sufficiently covered in the mandatory courses. But I can’t say how it is in other programmes that are not related to aquaculture – because I have no clue.

How come one of the most important industries in the country, the fishing industry, seems to be silencing questions about environmental issues?

I have never stated that the aquaculture industry goes against environmental concerns. There are many people within the industry who work with these issues, I’m sure. Perhaps, the biggest problem is that environmental issues are an uncomfortable topic in the discussion within the industry. When specialists from the industry come to give guest talks at the UiT and are asked critical questions by students it looks like it is an unpleasant topic for them.

I think that maybe people in the industry might have become tired of conservationists who criticise them but don’t have enough knowledge to do so. That could be one thing. Another thing is that the fishing industry is the biggest exporter in Norway, there’s a lot of money involved in it, so it is obvious that some people are out to harm it. So, when the critical questions concerning the environment occur, it seems that the guys from the industry switch onto the “defence mode”. I think the reason for this is that many people see environmental issues as an obstacle for the economic growth. Which I agree is the case in today’s society. But, if the environment is considered an obstacle for economic growth, it’s maybe high time we change the system?

If students get their environmental related questions answered with arrogance from those representing the industry, it might be that the industry actually looses an important resource. Environmental issues are a real problem that has to be tackled! If we, the future employees of the industry, do not have the knowledge to foresee, prevent and overcome environmental issues, it can cast a slur on the industry and maybe even put a full stop for further development. This kind of catastrophic thinking is based on what we have grown up with: climate change, acid rain, depletion of food resources, pollution… I don’t think anyone would like to be in a situation where they have to ask: how are we now going to sustain ourselves when there’s no fish left?

 You wrote in your statement that you want to become a researcher. If you were to teach about environmental aspects, and by that I mean conservation, what points would you include in the programme?

 Ever since the industrial revolution, our society has been build upon the assumption that the earth is a machine that we can control, whereas conservation has been seen as a restriction for economic growth. If I were to teach anything, I think I would do so by turning everything upside down. Instead of working on the assumption that conservation prevents economic growth, I would put forward a hypothesis that the environment is “the driving force for economic growth”. I would very gladly present it on easy examples like the one about how the electric car industry and its technology has skyrocketed. As a result of governmental enforced restrictions which made fossil fuelled transportation more expensive but el-cars cheaper to own, the el-car industry is today flourishing. These governmental enforced restrictions stimulated innovation and growth in another direction which has also benefited the environment – and created jobs! It’s a really fascinating topic which I would like to explore. And If we want to have people educated in the environmental aspects, perhaps we should try to check up on the industry more and find out how the society can benefit from becoming more eco-friendly.

You end your statement with a call to our parents’ generation to help the youth correct the mistakes that had been made by older generations. What kind of help would you expect from the “grown-ups”?

Inspiration, motivation, freedom to speak about what concerns us and openness to tackling the environmental issues. Also, but more importantly, I would like them to be thought-provoking and helpful instead of criticising us for not doing enough. If you truly believe we need to change our society, use your skills to help change it instead of criticizing us youths for not doing enough. Help us to help you. Help us to help ourselves.

Marthe Bårdsen  – Biology student, previously Fish Health Biology student, cashier in student organisation Naturvernstudentene i Arktis (Students for Nature Conservation in the Artcic).