Quote: “What’s troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics”

By Joern Fischer

Does this quote seem suitable for current discussions on climate change you may be following? Probably — as well as for lots of other public discussions about sustainability that you read about. And for the record: This quote is by Barack Obama, from his book “The Audacity of Hope”. When it comes to climate change, and sustainability issues more general, is there still room for hope? Is there any sign that the “smallness of our politics” will somehow change in the foreseeable future?

It is difficult not to be disillusioned when looking at the public discourse on climate change. Germany is sometimes hailed as a positive example of real progress on this front, partly because it decided to phase out fossil fuels within the medium-term future. But a closer look at Germany, to me at least, does not reveal big and bold politics either — sustainability here is more of a mainstream issue than in some other countries, but the dominant set of drivers that Germany is fundamentally based on seems just as unsustainable as elsewhere.

That said, ranting about this is not terribly helpful, and a more meaningful question may be to ask what scientists can do. Not very much perhaps, because decisions are not made by scientists (though civil society can be critically important!). But still, scientists can, and ought to, do more than provide just “data”. Most importantly, we should be questioning the world, and asking fundamentally important questions. That is, I see an urgent need for us scientists to look beyond the proximate causes of climate change and biodiversity loss, and instead open our eyes to the ultimate drivers underpinning these global trends. To me, too much of sustainability science is occupied with tangible solutions to tangible problems — when it’s the nasty, big, intangible problems that we most urgently need to grapple with. It’s for this reason that I previously put together an open letter (already signed by over 200 fellow scientists) stating the need to reflect on society’s core values.

Is there room for  hope? To my mind, not unless we start asking fundamental questions related to global equity, our core values, and what it is to lead a good life. It’s not just the smallness of our politics, but also the smallness of our “science” (in a broad sense) that needs to change. As Donella Meadows pointed out long ago: the most influential way to change complex systems in a big way is to transcend the paradigms underpinning the system. Based on this, we should ask (prominently!): which paradigms underpinning our modern global society remain largely unquestioned, but ought to be challenged?


Filed under Concepts in sustainability and conservation, Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, Today's inspiring quote, Today's question, Trends in conservation and sustainability science

How much survey effort is enough?

New paper by Jacqueline Loos, Jan Hanspach, Henrik von Wehrden, Monica Beldean, Cosmin I. Moga and Joern Fischer: Developing robust field survey protocols in landscape ecology: a case study on birds, plants and butterflies, Biodiversity and Conservation, DOI 10.1007/s10531-014-0786-3.

Alma Vii 14.7 (2)

In order to better understand biodiversity patterns along landscape gradients, powerful data is needed to detect relations to environmental parameters. However, given financial and logistics constraints, ecologists often face a trade-off between the number of sites they can survey and the necessity to repeat surveys in the same site (for example, to cover seasonal variation in species composition). With our recent publication in Biodiversity and Conservation, we present an assessment of the trade-offs between alternative survey strategies for plants, birds and butterflies in Southern Transylvania. This pilot study helped designing surveys on a larger spatial scale, which we conducted as a follow-up.

In this study, we applied different survey techniques, including a so-called “cartwheel approach” for plants, in which we randomly placed ten one square meter plots within a round-shaped one hectare site. In the same sites, we conducted ten-minute point counts for birds and we adapted 200 m Standard Pollard walks for butterflies.

We then reduced the total sampling size for each taxon and investigated whether species richness, species turnover and species composition changed. We correlated the pattern that we achieved from the “full survey effort” with results from randomly “reduced survey effort”.


Correlations between data from reduced survey effort (1 to 9 plots for plants; 1 to 3 repeats for birds and butterflies) and the maximum survey effort (10 plots for plants; 4 repeats for birds and butterflies). Reduced survey effort was simulated by randomly sub-setting the full data set 1,000 times for each level of data reduction.

We also conducted a power analysis, which allowed us to estimate the required number of survey sites to being able to detect landscape effects on species richness. Based on the patterns we observed in the correlations, we concluded that it is possible to reduce survey effort without losing the “bigger picture” of species richness distribution. Overall, this study showed us that in the highly heterogeneous farmland of Southern Transylvanian, at least three temporal replicates on at least 100 study sites were required to find landscape scale effects on diversity patterns of birds and butterflies, while for plants, seven one square meter plots in at least 100 sites showed sufficient power to detect trends.


Power analysis with simulated data. Minimum detectable effect (MDE) is plotted as a function of the number of survey sites. MDE was defined as the absolute change in species richness along the observed heterogeneity gradient in arable fields that could be etected in a linear model with given sample size.

We recommend other landscape ecologist to conduct pilot studies in order to test and adapt different sampling schemes before conducting their main study. By doing so, it is possible to identify the most efficient use of available project resources. With the help of our study, we detected that diversity patterns remained relatively stable within certain thresholds.

The full paper is available here: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10531-014-0786-3?sa_campaign=email/event/articleAuthor/onlineFirst

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Scientists’ Support Letter for the International Symposium on Agroecology, 18–19 September, 2014

This letter, led by Jahi Chappell, was originally published on the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy website. It has been reproduced here with permission by the lead author. The full text is available here.

As scientists and scholars working in sustainable agriculture and food systems, the undersigned praise the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for organizing and convening the International Symposium on Agroecology for Food and Nutrition Security.

This symposium comes at an opportune time as climate change, continued food insecurity and rural poverty present myriad challenges to sustainability. Agroecology, especially when paired with the developing principles of food sovereignty and food justice, offers opportunities to address all of these problems to an extent not matched by other approaches or proposals. This is why agroecology has been endorsed by the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter;[i] the 10,000-member Ecological Society of America;[ii] through the formation and statements of the Latin American Society for Agroecology;[iii] in the scientific report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD); by La Vía Campesina, the world’s largest organization of peasant farmers; by a growing number of research institutions around the worldand most recently, further endorsed by over 250 scientists and experts.[iv]

As the organizers and attendees of the symposium likely already know, these groups—and the undersigned—view agroecology as a well-grounded science, a set of time-tested agronomic practices and, when embedded in sound sociopolitical institutions, the most promising pathway for achieving sustainable food production. Agroecology integrates multiple fields into a unique “trans-discipline,” drawing on ecology, agronomy, political economy and sociology, among other fields. It can be considered a science, a set of practices, and a social movement for distributive and procedural justice. In fact, without these elements of justice—which are often lacking in other approaches (for example, “climate-smart agriculture” or “sustainable intensification”)—no approach can be scientifically assessed as “sustainable” according to most established definitions of sustainability.[v] The procedural justice element has been associated with the growing conceptualization of and movement for “food sovereignty” —the right for people to design and decide on the shape of their own food system within their own localities, to the maximum extent practicable, with the maximum possible participation.

To continue reading and to access endnotes, download the full letter.


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Exploring food security and biodiversity in Ethiopia’s Southwest

By Joern Fischer

We’re currently in the starting phase of a new five-year project on how to harmonise food security and biodiversity. Among other things, this project will have a case study in the Southwest of Ethiopia. After a very early “pre-scoping visit” in May (of which I shared some impressions on this blog), we’ve now completed a “real” scoping visit. We visited a number woredas (the second lowest level of government administration) in the Jimma zone of Oromia, walked many kilometres through fascinating landscapes, and informally spoke with many dozens of local inhabitants about biodiversity, food security, and a range of issues related to these.

before the rain ethiopia 040

We took many impressions from this trip, but I just want to touch on a couple of points that I found particularly interesting.

First, the trip provided a good opportunity to reflect on what “food security” means. Ethiopia as a whole is highly food-insecure by international standards. However, within Ethiopia, the Southwest is considered to be among the more food secure locations. I was very curious to hear from local people about food insecurity – what does it mean to them? How serious or otherwise is the issue of food insecurity in this quite productive part of the country? The outcome cannot be rated as “scientific research”, because we only had informal conversations, and did not follow a strict research protocol. However, our preliminary scoping suggests that food insecurity affects at least every second household, even in this part of the country. The level of food security is relatively mild, compared to some other locations – but quite a few individuals reported reducing the size of their meals during certain months of the year, or skipping some meals because there was insufficient food.

Second, conversations with officials and also some other researchers left me feeling that much of the existing research on livelihoods and food security in this part of the world is highly production-oriented. Typical goals may be, for example, to improve crop production through improved varieties, increase coffee and honey yields, or market products more effectively internationally. All of these are sensible goals in a food insecure environment, provided they are implemented in a way that actually benefits local people. However, I was left wondering what was being done (if anything?) about the other evident problem in this area: population growth. Many families we met had four or more children. I strikes me that unless this problem is addressed with the same level of urgency as that of increasing agricultural productivity, the growth in people may still outpace the growth in agricultural productivity.

our campsite ethiopia 155

Third, it was fascinating – if somewhat disheartening – to see how much local people are negatively affected by some aspects of biodiversity. The biggest problem is posed by baboons who regularly raid crops, especially near the forest edge. But a range of other forest animals also can cause problems, including monkeys, pigs, hyeanas, and less often leopards, and even lions. Of course, biodiversity (and the forest more generally) also provides many benefits (e.g. space to grow coffee, honey production), but those benefits come hand in hand with heavy costs.

Our new project will add a systems perspective to this part of the world. A lot of very good research has already taken place in this area, but trying to bring things together in a social-ecological context appears to be a relatively new endeavour in this part of the world. Hopefully this means our work can contribute new insights that are not only of academic, but also practical value.



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My new post at IATP’s ThinkForward: “‘Sustainable intensification’ is unsustainable”

Originally posted on AgroEcoPeople:

“Sustainable intensification” is unsustainable

Posted September 3, 2014 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell    

(Photo used under creative commons license from leisaworldnet: https://www.flickr.com/photos/leisaworldnet) Technicians and farmers discussing the results of sustainable intensification on a rice farm in Nepal.

In a newpaper led by collaborators at Leuphana University Lueneburg (Germany) and just released in print in the scientific journal Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment, my colleagues and I question one of the buzzwords in international conversations about hunger and conserving the environment: sustainable intensification (SI). Explained briefly, sustainable intensification seeks to produce the most food, on the least land, with the lowest environmental impact.

SI has been the subject of a recent European Union report, proposals by  prominent scholars, and is a major theme area of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. SI is often seen by some experts as “key” to agriculture’s…

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European Wood-Pastures as Cultural Landscapes

By Tibor Hartel and Tobias Plieninger

(Note: This post was published a few days ago on the Landscapes Blog.)

European landscapes are shaped by long-lasting, intensive and complex interactions between people and nature. This interaction has generated values that are appreciated by society, nowadays called “landscape values” or “ecosystem services,” but many of these cultural landscape values are in decline.

Figure 1. Ancient oak wood-pastures are still common in Southern Transylvania, Romania. In the front a hay meadow mowed with small machines. Photo by Orsolya Toth.

Ancient oak wood-pastures are still common in Southern Transylvania, Romania. In the front a hay meadow mowed with small machines. Photo by Orsolya Toth.

Wood-pastures—combinations of grazing lands with scattered trees—are in many regards archetypical cultural landscapes and indicative of their fate. They cover several millions of hectares of European farmland in a variety of expressions, from the cork oak and holm oak dehesas and montados of the Iberian Peninsula to traditional orchards in Central Europe and ancient oak and beech pastures in Southeast Europe. Wood-pastures host extraordinarily high levels of biodiversity and provide a multitude of ecosystem services. But, just like many other cultural landscapes, they are extremely vulnerable to environmental and socioeconomic change. Few adequate policies exist to maintain and preserve wood-pastures, as they are in the “grey zone” between agriculture, forest, conservation, rural development and other sectors and policies.

Figure 1. Wood-pasture with veteran, hollowing oak and traditional management by buffalo. Photo by Orsolya Toth.

Wood-pasture with veteran, hollowing oak and traditional management by buffalo. Photo by Orsolya Toth.

A transhumant herd departing for the spring migration from the "Dehesa de las Yeguas", an agrosilvopastoral landscape of grasslands under scattered holm oaks (Santa Elena, Jaén, southern Spain), towards their summer pasturelands. Photo by Elisa Oteros-Rozas.

A transhumant herd departing for the spring migration from the “Dehesa de las Yeguas”, an agrosilvopastoral landscape of grasslands under scattered holm oaks (Santa Elena, Jaén, southern Spain), towards their summer pasturelands. Photo by Elisa Oteros-Rozas.

In our recently published volume “European Wood-pastures in Transition,” we join 28 contributors to trace the trajectories of different types of wood-pastures in Northwestern, Southern and Eastern Europe. We offer a Pan-European synthesis about the diverse types of wood-pastures, their histories, social and ecological values, governing institutions, threats and conservation approaches. We explore the major drivers of decline, which are related to rapid cultural, institutional and developmental changes. An ironic finding—thoughtfully elaborated by Guy Beaufoy—is that the recent reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is proving harmful to European wood-pastures despite it’s suggested “greening.” However, we also find signs for a positive societal revaluation of wood-pastures. In the UK, volunteers have mapped more than 100,000 ancient, veteran and notable trees (usually located in wood-pastures) and thus have laid the base for conservation efforts. In Southern Germany, commonly managed wood-pastures have become an asset for local gastronomy, tourism and regional development. Also, academic interest in wood-pastures has clearly been growing across Europe.

From case studies, it becomes clear that European wood-pastures are changing rapidly and that analyzing and managing the nature of these changes is a challenge that requires the integration of a multitude of knowledge. Thus, we frame the book around social-ecological concepts and derive some principles of wood-pastures from a resilience perspective. For example, we find that diversity, ecological variability and modularity generate much of the values and the resilience of wood-pastures. Among the key problems of many wood-pastures is the loosening of feedback loops between the social and ecological realms, a loss of social capital and a general lack of innovation, novelty and experimentation in wood-pasture management.

Where does that leave us? The contributors point to a wide diversity of issues that must be considered in order to understand, value and protect the wood-pastures of Europe. For example, they highlight that land-use practices matter; that patterns and processes matter; that timescales matter; that involving stakeholders matters; that monitoring matters; that knowledge matters; that grazing matters; that biodiversity matters; that institutional transformation matters; that economic profitability matters; and that tourism, protected areas and new institutional structures matter. Given this cloud of issues, a narrow disciplinary research or sectoral policy agenda has limited capacity to provide solutions for these multifunctional landscapes. Rather, we need a holistic vision of wood-pastures that generates and integrates information about the ecology, ecosystem services and institutions around wood-pastures as well as their historical interactions.

Click here to read more about the book.

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A post that might be about scales, or levels, but certainly includes ecosystem services and leverage points

This post was originally intended to be about my frustration with the ecosystem services concept. In trying to articulate and understand this frustration, I’ve gone through a range of thoughts, which I will explain here. I am getting a bit paranoid that I always seem to come back to issues of scale in my research, and I seem to have done it here again. But I hope it makes some sense, and is more than just an incoherent rambling.

I will start with why I like the ecosystem service concept. I am an interdisciplinary researcher studying natural resource management. The ecosystem service concept is a clear framework for connecting the social world to the physical world. It makes explicit the links between a component of an ecosystem and the various things that it is valued for by people. It seems simple; pollinators are valued because they pollinate crops and other plants, and we like this because we eat, we like pretty meadows, etc. We can then follow this on to further services supported by the pretty meadows, such as recreation and the existence values humans ascribe to such meadows. Being able to follow these chains is useful in understanding the socio-ecological system in any given location. It is also useful for explaining to people how environmental change might directly affect them by impacting on the things they value.

I do share frustrations with other researchers over the grouping together of services and benefits, and the different stages of service (and benefit) in the ecosystem service concept. For this reason, I try to use the idea of intermediary services, final services and benefits. Whereby pollinators pollinating is an intermediary service, the crop is the final service, and the profit from that crop is the benefit to the producer. The consumer may also experience benefit through having food to eat, and preferably at a lower price than they would have been willing to pay. These groupings get long, and interconnect with each other. So the pollinators could lead to multiple benefits, but also could be created through multiple earlier services. Then we are more within a cascade model (e.g. Haines-Young and Potschin, 2010), whereby there is structure (e.g. habitat), process, function, service and benefit.

I find that my main frustrations are introduced when we start to use the concept for practical management. We start to think about how we can increase the number of pollinators. But then we need to recognise that such actions have a trade-off; for example increasing wildflower meadows to support bees may decrease the crop production space, or the habitat for another animal, which then negatively impacts upon another ecosystem service, or multiple ecosystem services in a complex web whereby we need to trade-off goals and priorities (see e.g. Bennet et al., 2009; Raudsepp-Hearne et al., 2010 and others). Some researchers have started to ‘bundle’ ecosystem services to simplify understandings of such trade-offs. Bundles comprise of services that usually appear together and are influenced similarly, such that actions that are beneficial to one service in the group will be beneficial to others, but possibly act negatively on another group. Indeed, a benefit of the ecosystem services concept is that we have a framework for thinking about trade-offs. However, for management purposes, we really lack the knowledge of what actions done in what quantity have which impacts (positive and negative) over which ecosystem services.

While thinking about various actions that could manage ecosystem services, I started to think about ecosystem services within a systems thinking framework. I borrowed the figure below from Donella Meadows’ essay ‘Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System’. The idea being that where there is a discrepancy between how we want a system to look, and how it really looks, we can target either the inflows or the outflows from that system in order to remove the discrepancy. Meadows outlines leverage points as being points to intervene in a system, with changing parameters as shallower (and less effective) points, and changing goals as deeper (and more effective). If we use the ecosystem service concept within this framework, we could put pollinators in the central box. Then we can define the goal (e.g. to produce a given amount of oil seed rape). Then we find leverage points to target either the inflow (births, in-migration) or outflow (death through habitat loss, disease) of pollinators in the landscape such that the discrepancy reduction becomes the practical problem.


Currently, according to the way the ecosystem services concept is being operationalized, we are seeking to understand how to target inflow and/or outflow. Most systems are complex, such that this individual component is connected with many others. And often, relationships between components work differently across space. Thus if we are to manage by ecosystem services, we need to model relationships for all locations where there may be variation. And this is being done; we are characterising benefits, understanding how changes in the system affect them. In doing so, I feel somewhat as though we are distracting ourselves by creating ever more complex physical constructs that require even more detailed physical understandings, and ever more complex chains of structures, processes, services and benefits. Great – it is interesting, and should be pursued in the interests of knowledge. But in the end, we are left with very prescriptive sets of measures that can be applied in very specific circumstances locations, depending on what goals we want to achieve.

And to me, it is this questions of ‘what goals?’ and ‘who decides?’ that are my fundamental concerns with the ecosystem services concept. The way the ecosystem service concept is currently being enacted encourages us to work backwards. We are picking a small number of services, and defining goals for each, or for small groups by making decisions on trade-offs. But we aren’t looking at the overall collective system. We are defining the interventions for small components of the system before defining the overall goals. In doing so, we aren’t allowing ourselves to target the deepest, most effective leverage points. We should be asking questions around what we want to manage the system for. Do we want to optimise certain services? Or balance all services? Do we have a particular goal for a resilient system? If we had a goal, we could start to really think about what the discrepancy is, and how to intervene; knowledge could be targeted towards it.

I wonder if we need to start by considering scales of a nested system. If we have started out at the most detailed scale with individual ecosystem services, the next scale up might be biodiversity as the system that incorporates the individual services. This way, the services included within the biodiversity system and their goals influence the working definition of biodiversity. Alternatively, or at same time, by setting goals around biodiversity, we could follow these back to figure out what goals to set for individual ecosystem services. I’m not sure biodiversity is the right grouping concept at this scale – perhaps others have thoughts?! We also get to consider the larger scale system that ‘biodiversity’ (or whatever we settle on) is a part of. Perhaps that system is one of sustainable development (or perhaps I’ve skipped some scales), in which biodiversity might be a sub-system, alongside public health, economic growth, education, etc. Again, we get to define goals for this system, but also see that the sub-systems provide operational definitions for the system goals through their own goals.

So in short, I think I have ended up with my frustration with ecosystem services being that they isolate components of an ecosystem from its broader, interlinked, multi-scale ecosystems. And I have yet to be able to use it to manage anything.


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