What can Google Image search results tell us about human-forest relationships? 

#RestorationStory by Rina Tsubaki (EFI) 

While public perception research on forests often uses surveys and questionnaires as data collection methods, there are many other ways to inquire about how society perceives and interacts with them. These include repurposing online and social media data to understand what forests mean to people and how widely used digital platforms portray relationships between people and forests.   

For the past few years, EFI has been experimenting with research approaches that repurpose born-digital data from the web and social media in collaboration with digital researchers from the Public Data Lab, King’s College London, and DensityDesign Lab in Milan.  Alongside our project Out of the Flames, which looked at online engagement around the Amazon rainforest fires in 2019, we’ve also explored public issues and narratives around  the UN COP27 Climate Conference and forest restoration through Twitter hashtags and images and YouTube videos. Yet, there are many other interesting platforms to take a closer look at, including Google, the most used search engine with over 86% global market share.  

So, what do Google search results tell us about human-forest relationships? How do they portray our connections with forests? 

As part of exploratory research in support of the SUPERB forest restoration project, a student group from the Master’s Degree in Communication Design at Politecnico di Milano, led by Gabriele Colombo (King’s College London / DensityDesign), looked at Google Images showing different life cycle stages of reforestation and other related activities (read about the course here). Using 40 keywords such as tree planting, afforestation and forest and land restoration, the group collected and manually categorised 1200 images, resulting in a beautiful digital archive called ‘Plant Forward’.  

Exploring the Plant Forward image collection, it is possible to draw lines between human presence and absence in different forest lifecycle phases. The image collections under ‘wasteland’ and ‘forests’ show almost no human presence.  Although some landscapes in the images indirectly depict signs of human activities, such as roads and crop fields, human actors rarely appear in these image sets.  

Instead, human actors are visible in other lifecycle stages such as ‘sapling’.  Interestingly, these images portraying human involvement show human actors not only “regenerating” but also “cutting down” forests. 

When zooming into the images with human actors, one notices different ways people associate with forests. For example, not just people digging the soil and planting trees can be seen in these images, but also those sheltering, touching, measuring, and marking trees, indicating that forests are something people manage and care for. In addition, many images showing human hands holding or planting seedlings and saplings appear to be generic stock images used in different contexts. For example, there is a photoshopped image of a seedling growing inside a light bulb. We find image stamps and company logos, giving a sense of the commercial activities revolving around forests and forest imagery. 

Finally, we find images which suggest a diversity of people, communities and activities engaging with forests. Not only foresters and other professional practitioners are captured, but so are local communities, school children, families, women and religious groups, businessmen and military officials in different parts of the world.  

Repurposing search engine outputs can help us understand how online devices are involved in producing, framing and ordering different kinds of visual narratives about forests and human-forest relationships. You are invited to explore the  Plant Forward image collections to learn more about how relations between people and forests are portrayed in one of the world’s most widely used entry points to the web. We are curious to hear what you may find going through this image archive.  

Stories as enablers for ‘deepscaling’ forest restoration 

#RestorationStory by Rina Tsubaki (EFI)

Science is the key to the future of our forests. Without it, we cannot restore and make forests resilient to climate change. But is science really all we need? What about the role stories play in forest restoration and, thinking even bigger, in systems change?  
 
If we want to change a system and foster lasting improvements in our society, we need to tackle the root cause of societal issues. Through SUPERB, we are ultimately aiming at systems change by collectively restoring forests and biodiversity in twelve locations in Europe. Part of this work involves exploring how people see, feel and value these places in their neighborhoods so that the work can continue beyond the project.  

So, why am I bringing up “stories” here? What’s that got to do with forest restoration and systems change?  

When you start looking into the literature about systems change, you won’t miss the work by Donella Meadows, an American environmental scientist who authored Thinking in Systems. According to Meadows, there are different leverage points to intervene and impact how a system operates. Whether it is a new project or a policy, most interventions we make are unlikely to persist for a long time. Instead, Meadows proposes a mindset change and emphasizes that the ability to see the paradigm differently is more effective for a big, long-term shift. From this point of view, what we need is to scale ‘deep’ in addition to scaling ‘up’, since the former addresses shifts in culture and relationships, while the latter replicates existing initiatives. 

Undeniably, the future of forests we restore through SUPERB will be in the hands of local communities, practitioners and decision-makers. Not only will the existing narratives transform, but new narratives will emerge. These narratives connect interested individuals and groups and bring new people into the conversation. While some narratives may support and build on the work we leave behind, others may use it with specific interests. That is why understanding the power of story is important, as it can impact how people see, feel and value restored forests in their surroundings (For more about the role of story in systems change, I invite you to read this beautiful piece by Ella Salmarche). 

So, what can we learn from the existing restoration stories? In search of successful stories, I used a YouTube Data Tool to collect the most viewed YouTube videos with the keywords, ‘restoration’ and ‘forests’. While some of them are linked to other types of restoration, we could use these examples to identify the elements that contribute to making these stories visible online. 
 

no. channel video title view count url 
National Geographic 50 Years Ago, This Was A Wasteland. He Changed Everything | Short Film Showcase 5160840 https://youtu.be/ZSPkcpGmflE 
Andrew Millison The Canal That Accidentally Grew A Forest In The Arizona Desert 3814238 https://youtu.be/jf8usAesJvo 
Happen Films Man Spends 30 Years Turning Degraded Land Into Massive Forest – Fools & Dreamers (Full Documentary) 3363467 https://youtu.be/3VZSJKbzyMc 
Leaf of Life How Spain Is Turning It’s Deserts Into A Farmland Oasis – Greening The Desert Project 1754190 https://youtu.be/nmOX622P-OU 
Down To Earth How A Farmer Turned 90 Acres Of Wasteland Into A Lush Green Forest In Odisha 1577571 https://youtu.be/C08FAa-Vlj0 
Mossy Earth We’re Bringing Back Iceland’s Forgotten Forests 751498 https://youtu.be/K-r2EetCtO0 
Trees for Life Restoring The Ancient Caledonian Forest Alan Watson Featherstone TEDxFindhorn 677705 https://youtu.be/nAGHUkby2Is 
DW News Justdiggit: Restoring Dry Land In Tanzania | Global Ideas 431109 https://youtu.be/RPJ9T4yAEGs 
XAG Official Application | Forest Restoration By XAG Agricultural Drone In Brazil 398272 https://youtu.be/CqivF6PaFfY 
10 Mossy Earth We Are Reforesting The Ocean – Here’s How 371184 https://youtu.be/pzmc8ztD4e8 
11 Growing Small Turning Degraded Land Into Forest, Woman Builds Natural Homestead 303170 https://youtu.be/T145drzKhGc 
12 Mossy Earth Bringing Back The Ancient Viking Forests Of Iceland | Rewilding Iceland 300703 https://youtu.be/5lAegYUc1lU 

While different storytelling techniques are employed in these videos, the top four have something in common; they focus on one simple solution. These videos also use a narrative that praises the power of nature. For example, the National Geographic documentary highlights planting grass as a solution to percolate the water into the ground, eventually transforming a wasteland into a biodiversity-rich area. Another video by the permaculture practitioner Andrew Millison also talks about the raised canal structure as an accidental solution for native forests to grow in a swale, emphasizing how nature makes it possible. Three out of five top videos also discussed biodiversity as a positive byproduct resulting from forest or nature restoration.  

Protagonists as “heroes” is another commonly used technique in the top videos. Among the top five, three feature one “hero” throughout the story. For example, the Down to Earth’s video features a female farmer in India who bought the degraded land in the 1980s to experiment with organic farming techniques, eventually resulting in a lush forest cover. Other stories added personality to the protagonist by showing their daily routine and interviewing family and friends. 

Unsurprisingly, journalistic videos talk about conflicts, disagreements, risks and disasters. The example from Happen Films highlights the conflicts between the protagonist, who believed gorse could transform farmland into forests, and local pasture farmers who were sceptical towards his idea. In addition, a Lead of Life video with 1.8+ million views treats desertification in Spain as a risk. 

While third-party YouTube channels produced the top 5 videos, some were also filmed by those involved in forest restoration. A good example is Mossy Earth, who filmed their own on-ground restoration actions in Iceland, indicating how a forest practitioner could take a viewer on a journey to forest restoration.  

But a powerful story does not require high-end video editing techniques and journalistic skills. This is portrayed in the TED talk by the Tree of Life founder, Alan Watson Featherstone, who listed key restoration principles in his inspirational talk. 

While these are some takeaways from the top YouTube videos, a story can also be told at a much more grassroots level. A story we tell our families, friends and colleagues can be as powerful as the story told in a professional setting. As Alan Featherstone says, “Restoration is about reconnecting the stands in the web of life, but it’s also about reconnecting people with the rest of the web”. Similarly, a story can bring the web of life closer to people, and people closer to the web of life.