Gísli Pálsson - Vice-Chair, RESCUE Scientific Steering Committee

Gísli Pálsson is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iceland.  

In 1972 Professor Pálsson received his BA degree in Social Science at the University of Iceland. He studied Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester, UK, where he received his MA and PhD degrees in 1974 and 1982, respectively.  

He has lectured at the University of Iceland since 1974. In 1992 he was granted Professorship and in 1998 he was appointed Director of the Institute of Anthropology. He has lectured at several other universities, including the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Copenhagen, the University of Oslo, the University of Iowa, and the University of Vienna.  

Professor Palsson’s research has focused on a wide range of topics, including environmental anthropology, human-environment interactions, social implications of climate change and biotechnology, human-animal relations, fishing communities, arctic cultures and Inuit genetic history. He has an extensive publication record, some of his main publications being Anthropology and the New Genetics (2007), and Nature and Society: Anthropological perspectives (1996). His latest published articles are Biosocial Relations of Production (in Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2009 and  The Bog in Our Brain and Bowels: The Social Attitudes to the Carthography of Icelandic Wetlands (Environment and Planning D: Society and Space).  

Professor Pálsson has done field work in Iceland, the Canadian Arctic and in the Republic of Cape Verde. He has served in many scientific committees and is member of several scientific initiatives, for example the International Arctic Science Council and projects funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers. He has participated in several international research projects, among them a study under the Beijer Institute in Stockholm (1993-1997). Professor Pálsson is also Chair of the scientific committee of an ESF strategic activity entitled “Mapping Interfaces: The Future of Knowledge”.



  • What made you decide to get involved with the RESCUE foresight initiative?

I have been interested in environmental issues throughout my academic training and career. For a long time, however, I have felt that the academic take on the “environment” has been severely hampered by compartmentalization of the scientific agenda, particularly the separation of the natural sciences on the one hand and, on the other hand, the social sciences and the humanities. RESCUE is one of the promising avenues in a new direction and I am glad to have the opportunity to be involved.

  • In your field, what are the most urgent issues at stake for our unstable Earth?

One of the important roles, I think, that anthropology can play is to engage in a dialogue with the people who experience the instability of the Earth directly, at the grass roots level. In particular, we need to explore how people understand climate change and its implications and how they organize themselves and act with respect to growing environmental problems. To what extent, for instance, does the global environmental crisis necessitate new kinds of subjectivities and socialities? How can the humanities and the social sciences be realigned with the rest of the academe and the world of policy making and how can they help to inform the mitigation of major environmental problems?

  • What are your ambitions for how RESCUE could help address these challenges – how could it help in the short and long term?

Given the scale, interdependencies, and hybrid nature of environmental problems, it seems fundamental to search for new trans-disciplinary modes of research and new kinds of social institutions, appropriate for the understanding and resolution of environmental problems. The RESCUE-effort, if you like, is heading in this direction. It is important to explore how ongoing environmental changes will affect the humanities and the social sciences. How might the recent notions of "naturecultures" and "biosocial" open up new perspectives on environmental change, and which new approaches might be developed from these perspectives?

  • In your opinion, do studies on the human and social implications of environmental change get enough attention in Europe?  

While the times are changing, trans-disciplinary approaches are increasingly on the agenda and the environment receives growing attention, far more consistent and sustained efforts, I think, are needed both in Europe and elsewhere.  The environmental threats of the modern age represent the ultimate challenge of trans-disciplinary efforts. While current academic divisions of labor have a long history and a spectacular record, they are not well suited for the massive task of understanding human-environmental interdependencies and facilitating necessary change.

  • What is novel and original about the goals of RESCUE as an example of a European initiative aimed at increasing multi-, cross and transdisciplinarity?   

RESCUE seeks to transcend all kinds of boundaries, which is appropriate for the kind of environmental problem involved, combining different disciplinary perspectives, different national perspectives, and different levels of policymaking. And it is large scale. With this in mind, one can expect solid results, in terms of both the understanding of the key problems, and policymaking and education.