The Forest Multiple

Planetary crises are contributing to the stress and loss of forests, while in other areas forests are expanding due to climate change. Yet the question of “what is a forest” runs through numerous environmental research and policy discussions.

Forests are not singular or self-evident entities. Instead, they are composed of many mutually constituted relations. Far from being merely a collection of trees, many different life forms, ecosystems, and other entities interrelate and grow together into what people differently recognize to be a forest.

This symposium engaged with the “forest multiple” (cf. Mol, 2002) to consider the pluralistic mobilizations and inhabitations of forests across varying contexts.

From international policy guidelines (FAO) to morphological classifications of tree density and height, as well as species variation, spatial extent, and carbon-storage capacity, many definitions of forests can be tied to their role as resources (Chazdon, 2016). Yet many other forests also surface as cultural, social, ecological, more-than-human, and cosmological relations and worlds, which further complicate the question of what is a forest.

Given that forests are increasingly digitalized, whether through monitoring technologies, precision forestry, or supply chain tracking, this symposium especially took stock of the forest epistemologies and ontologies that are reproduced and amplified within digital logics, and how they are also transformed through different mobilizations of digital technologies, whether through counter-actions or refusals to participate.

What are the social-political consequences of these multiple forests? How are some forests valued over others? And how might a more pluralistic engagement with forest worlds contribute to more just and equitable environmental research, practice and policy?

This two-day symposium brought together researchers and practitioners exploring forests, technologies, and community engagement across various fields including sociology, geography, anthropology, design, and digital technologies.

Symposium participants included: Adeniyi Asiyanbi, Andrea Botero, Steffen Dalsgaard, Véra Ehrenstein, Lydia Gibson, Jenny Goldstein, Naomi R Millner, Priscila Santos da Costa, Esther Turnhout, Tone Walford, Common Knowledge, and the Smart Forests research group (Jennifer Gabrys, Kate Lewis Hood, Trishant Simlai, Michelle Westerlaken, and Yuti Ariani Fatimah), with Smart Forests Atlas responses and chairing from Chris Sandbrook, Sabina Leonelli, Alex Taylor, Liana Chua, and Tami Okamoto.

Read more about the participants and view the full program.

The event also marked the launch of our research platform the Smart Forests Atlas—a living archive and virtual fieldsite exploring how digital technologies are transforming forests.

The Forest Multiple was an open, free event, and that took place in hybrid format—both on-site at Cambridge University and online—on 27-28 October 2022. We will publish audio excerpts from the talks via Smart Forests Radio soon.

The Smart Forests project is led by Professor Jennifer Gabrys and is part of the Planetary Praxis research group based in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Funded through a European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant, the Smart Forests project investigates the increasing use of digital technologies to monitor and manage forests for addressing environmental change.

The Forest Multiple poster and program were designed by Sarah Garcin.