CLiGS Global Study returns with a first-time trip to the Baltic Sea
June 21, 2022
By Lindsay Key and Michael Mortimer
Global Study trips are an important component of Virginia Tech’s graduate education programs focused on global sustainability, but the COVID-19 pandemic put international travel on hold for nearly two years. We are excited to resume Global Study experiences with a suite of new destinations.
Beautiful and brackish: MNR students study complex management of water systems in two Baltic Sea nations
As the largest brackish water system in the world, the Baltic Sea is a riveting subject of study from an ecological perspective, supporting a wide variety of fish and other animals that depend on a slightly salty mix of river water and seawater. But it’s also interesting from a natural resources management perspective, with eleven different countries making up its shoreline.
As the Baltic Sea faces environmental threats like eutrophication, fisheries depletion, pollution, non-native species, construction projects, and the fastest growing sea level rise in Europe, these nations will have to work together to build a sustainable future for the region. MNR students traveled to two of those nations—Finland and Estonia—as part of a Global Study trip in Spring 2022 to learn about the strategies their governments and industries are using to transform economies and landscapes in response to global warming. The trip was led by Dr. Dan Marcucci, Professor of Practice in the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability.
Estonia is adjacent to the northeast corner of the Baltic Sea and is home to approximately 1.3 million people. Its landscape is composed of more than 1,500 islands, and the diverse terrain includes rocky beaches, old-growth forests, and multiple lakes. Formerly part of the Soviet Union, the nation is adorned with many medieval castles, churches, and hilltop fortresses. The capital, Tallinn, is known for its well-preserved Old Town, built in the 13th century and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Directly north of Estonia, across an inlet of the Baltic Sea, is Finland. Finland is home to approximately 5.5 million people and for four consecutive years has been named the happiest country in the world by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. More than seventy percent of the country is covered in forests, and it has nearly 200,000 lakes. Its capital, Helsinki, has one of the world’s highest standards of urban living.
“These cultures have a long history of resilience and of living closely connected to the land and the sea,” said Marcucci. “During our trip, we asked the question, ‘What does sustainable mean to the dynamic environments and communities in this northern corner of the European Union’?”
Key themes of the trip, said Marcucci, included climate change at high latitudes, traditional and renewable energy sources, land–sea connections of sustainable water, Nordic urban form, and the challenges of sustainable tourism.
“We investigated the complex management and cooperation efforts in the region, including those of cross-national, national, and subnational governments, NGOs, cities, and corporations,” said Marcucci. “We saw first-hand the similarities and differences that exist between the two countries, the two cities of Helsinki and Tallinn, and the importance of a common Baltic Sea Basin social identity in this challenging region, and the lessons for environmental sustainability.”
More about this unique region and Global Study trip, as told through the eyes of Associate Dean and CLiGS Founding Director Michael Mortimer, who traveled there with faculty and students in May of 2022.
“People who end up as ‘first’ don’t actually set out to be first. They set out to do something they love.” - Condoleezza Rice
The Spring 2022 Master of Natural Resources (MNR) Global Study is first, in all sorts of ways. It is the first international trip our students have participated in since Covid came crashing down around us two years ago. It is our first global experience to travel to Finland (and Estonia). It is the first global experience that I have had the opportunity to co-design and co-lead with Dr. Dan Marcucci. It is the first Global Study to go above the Arctic Circle. And it is the first global experience that has woven so tightly together the environmental sustainability themes we aspire to introduce to our students.
The 10-day Global Study in the Baltic Sea watershed has allowed us to integrate our areas of focus, partner and stakeholder meetings, and excursions in a way that foregrounds how highly interconnected they all are. In some ways this should come as no surprise. Finland is, after all, one among many small, tightly-knit nations in this catchment. This regional tight-knittedness can be traced back at least 800 years to the Hanseatic League, a commercial union of Baltic-region cities. Unsurprisingly, the local environmental issues are likewise tightly intertwined. One cannot consider energy decarbonization without considering effects on traditional reindeer herding by indigenous Sami people. One cannot consider the water quality of the Baltic Sea without considering climate change impacts on cities like Helsinki. One cannot consider sustainable tourism goals without considering greenhouse gas emissions and invasive marine species.
There are tradeoffs, relationships, and conflicts—it’s all one system. Tug on any one strand and it reverberates as though a spiderweb. A profound dependence on Russian energy imports across a broad national energy portfolio complicates everything about that web.
But it seems as though the Finnish people thrive on meeting complexity with innovation and ingenuity. The transboundary work of HELCOM bringing environmental science to the policy makers of nine signatory nations, the work of Akordi Oy introducing environmental conflict resolution tools to wicked situations that have persisted for many decades, and HELSUS Professors Hukkinen and Eronen’s Policy Operations Room simulations whereby climate urgency is laid bare for municipal and regional leaders, are all examples of the remarkable capacities of this small place. Finland has 3 million fewer citizens than the Commonwealth of Virginia. Those 5.5 million people run a full-fledged country, defend an 832-mile border facing a bellicose Russia, are global leaders in an array of technical fields, for the fifth year running were ranked the Happiest Nation in the World (hint: it’s probably not the weather), and still have the time and energy left over to tackle the same slippery environmental challenges we all face and share.
I have been privileged to bring our students to this place, to share and learn alongside them, and to begin to appreciate the nuance of a culture that is at once immediately familiar but at second glance is also fundamentally different. For example: essentially free higher education—what? Legally entering upon private land to camp, fish, hunt, harvest mushrooms, or otherwise enjoy nature (under the jokamiehenoikeudet or Everyman’s Right tradition)—huh? Finnish is one of only four non-Indo-European languages in all of Europe, and one of the most difficult European languages for English speakers to learn—wow, I think I’ll stick to learning Spanish.
Most important, though, is the opportunity to experience how Finnish environmental professionals are working through this convoluted collection of an intertwined web of challenges that I’ve described. To see how that reality is similar to, but different from, what we know in the U.S. Like gazing through a hazy window, the situations are familiar and the tools recognizable, but the approaches novel. And that’s the real value of our Global Studies.