Transcending ontological schisms in relationships with Earth, water, air, and ice

Siri Veland*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Ontological separations made between earth, water, air, and ice can surreptitiously produce high-risk outcomes in environmental policy processes. Where legislation, risk assessments, land rights, or governance is based on unacknowledged schisms between Earth elements, they produce epistemological blind spots that unwittingly prevent asking critical questions of policy processes and render important connections invisible. This paper investigates a series of cases in which ontological schisms within Earth materials and knowledge systems have or may produce surreptitious outcomes. The article considers a diverse array of examples including managing environmental change in Australia, negotiating mining leases in Papua New Guinea, governing the ice edge in Norway, and climate change in the United States. Each case is presented as an illustration that unsettling ontological boundaries between Earth materials, that is, making their identification and definition an explicit component of land and sea policy and governance, lowers the risk of policy failure. The paper finishes by asking how environmental management might be shaped by relational ontologies. Some possibilities offered through trans-disciplinary and adaptive management approaches are promising for intercultural collaboration, but this paper suggests a transformation is needed in how we consider our relations with each other and with Earth systems under rapid change. A new method or framework may be insufficient, and new ways of relating may be required. Acknowledging uncertainties in fundamental categorizations and structures can open discussions to ask novel questions of our relationships with Earth systems and imagine solutions to environmental crises and injustices.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)607-619
Number of pages13
JournalWeather, Climate, and Society
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2017

Cite this