New Paper: Applying a capitals approach to understand rural development traps

In an increasingly globalized world, rural areas are confronted with enormous development challenges. Agriculture, and in particular smallholder farming, often provides the backbone of rural livelihoods, but the future viability of this sector is threatened by a rising integration of rural areas into the global economy, and thus an increasing exposure of primary product markets to liberalized trade regimes. As a result, rural residents often need to diversify their incomes, specialize, or shift away from traditional farming activities – a set of changes that is closely linked with the notion of rural development. Several models of rural development have been proposed, but they do not always adequately explain why development stagnates in certain regions.

In our new paper we provide a possible explanation for such stagnation, illustrated by a case study from Central Romania. Based on qualitative interviews with over 350 inhabitants from 66 villages, our aim was to understand the barriers to rural development of this region or social-ecological system, respectively, and to suggest levers to move it into a more desirable state. To this end, we combined the concept of traps with the sustainable livelihoods approach. In short, the traps concept depicts the dynamics across spatial, organizational, and temporal scales in creating undesirable system states that are difficult to overcome. The sustainable livelihoods approach, in turn, analyzes at the household or community level how different combinations of livelihood assets correspond to alternative livelihood strategies. Livelihood assets or ‘capitals’ are typically built capital (e.g. infrastructure); natural capital (e.g. land, trees); human capital (e.g. education, health); financial capital (e.g. incomes, savings), and social capital (i.e. bonding and bridging ties within and between people, communities, or organizations). The notion of cultural capital is sometimes used in addition, referring to specific values, world views, and (ecological) knowledge transmitted within a community.

To our mind, the combination of the sustainable livelihoods approach with traps theory had a series of useful advantages. With the notion of capital assets, the sustainable livelihoods approach served to differentiate between different types of barriers to rural development, while the systems approach was useful to highlight interdependencies between various barriers. So what we did was to cluster potential development barriers, identified by rural inhabitants, into different kinds of livelihood capitals (see Table). We then looked at the interaction and feedbacks between these capitals, as well as the role of the institutional context.

Table.Key barriers

Our empirical findings suggest that Central Romania is subject to a multitude of rural development barriers, associated with a lack or endangerment of various different types of capital assets. Moreover, our findings indicate that development barriers are often interacting and mutually reinforcing, which in combination seem to keep Central Romania trapped in an undesirable state characterized by poverty, outmigration, and severe risks to farmland biodiversity. While the region’s natural and cultural capitals stand the best chances to foster rural development, they are likely to deteriorate, too, unless other capitals – financial, social, human, and physical capitals – are also developed at the same time. The development of capitals, in turn, is strongly influenced by the institutional context, which according to our results is in need of improvement. Given the interconnectedness of barriers, we doubt that big-push economic interventions alone would successfully ‘unlock’ the trap-like situation of Central Romania. To our mind, such measures could even be counterproductive. Instead, we recommend that policy interventions tackle various capitals at the same time, ideally leading to positive feedbacks across multiple types of capitals.

While this paper focused on Central Romania, we believe our approach could offer a fruitful, new way of framing rural development research, and to develop appropriate policy strategies.

Recommended citation:

Mikulcak, F., Haider, J.L., Abson, D.J., Newig, J. & J. Fischer (2015), Applying a capitals approach to understand rural development traps: A case study from post-socialist Romania, Land Use Policy 43: 248–258. ­


Filed under Concepts in sustainability and conservation, Research updates, Romania project

Paper recommendation: Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap

I’d like to recommend the following paper: PONISIO, L. C., GONIGLE, L. K., MACE, K. C., PALOMINO, J., DE VALPINE, P. & KREMEN, C. 2014. Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 282. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.1396

Analysis of the sustainability of food system is needed at multiple spatial scales (from households, through landscapes and region up to the global scale) and from multiple perspectives. However, it seems that quantitative, global analyses are particularly effective at creating narratives and setting the tone and scope of the sustainable food system discourse, both within and outside of academia. The notion of the yield gap between conventional and organic farming systems is one such dominant narrative shaping this science. Arguably the land sparing, land sharing and much of the sustainable intensification literature is founded on the assumption of the ‘inefficiency’ of organic farming.

In this important paper Lauren Ponisio and colleagues, conducted a new meta-analysis of 115 studies comparing organic and conventional farming. Their findings suggests that the crop yields of organic agriculture are higher than previously thought. They also found that taking into account methods that optimize the productivity of organic agriculture could minimize the yield gap. They specifically highlighted two agricultural practices – multi-cropping and crop rotation – that would substantially reduce the organic-to-conventional yield gap to 9 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

The yield gap between conventional and organic farming has become something close to ‘received wisdom’, if this gap is smaller than previously thought, or if, as the authors of this paper suggest, it can be eliminated altogether for certain crops, this could have profound effects on how we conceptualize and achieve sustainable food systems.

Moreover, the authors note that “given that there is such a diversity of management practices used in both organic and conventional farming, a broad-scale comparison of organic and conventional production may not provide the most useful insights for improving management of organic systems. Instead, it might be more productive to investigate explicitly and systematically how specific management practices (e.g. intercrop combinations, crop rotation sequences, composting, biological control, etc.) could be altered in different cropping systems to mitigate yield gaps between organic and conventional production”.


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Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Joern Fischer

Have you ever thought that sustainability science seems to be missing the point, half the time? That’s we’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and that we’re fiddling around the edges? Well — you’re not alone. A group of eight scholars from Leuphana University Lueneburg (myself included) got together early in 2014 to write a project proposal on precisely this. And just a short while ago we found out that our proposal was successful, funded through an exciting initiative by the German state of Lower Saxony to fund excellence in sustainability.

Our new project is called “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation”. Conceptually, we start with an idea by Donella Meadows, which she published in 1999, in an essay called “Places to Intervene in a System“. Her idea was that there are many ways to intervene in complex systems — but some of these ways are not particularly influential (they have shallow leverage), while others are highly influential (they have deep leverage).

leverage points

Looking at the list of leverage points identified by Donella Meadows (see above), one might argue that a lot of sustainability science has focused on the things on the left — on relatively shallow leverage points. Think about the “reform” of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, of laws to ban incandescent light bulbs, or maybe even of REDD+. These are all good things, but it seems they are only small steps in the right direction; while the forces for un-sustainability continue to operate with the same strength as before.

Arguably, it’s time for sustainability science to more routinely look at the things with deeper leverage — on the right hand side in our graphic above. Our new project will try to do precisely that. For the purpose of convenience, in our new project, we will look at leverage points within three spheres, which for convenience we labelled restructure, reconnect, and rethink. Restructure will deal with the role of institutions; reconnect with relationships between people and their natural environments; and rethink will critically investigate what types of knowledge are needed to advance sustainability (including from outside academia). As focal themes, our new project will focus on food and energy; and as case study areas, we will compare Lower Saxony (in Germany) with Transylvania (in Romania).

work package structure

The project is designed to run for four years, and will start in spring 2015. There will be four postdoc positions and eight PhD positions starting in mid-to-late 2015. Stay tuned!

The other PIs on this new project are (in random order!) Ulli Vilsmaier, Dave Abson, Henrik von Wehrden, Julia Leventon, Thomas Schomerus, Jens Newig — and our speaker, Daniel Lang.


Filed under Concepts in sustainability and conservation, leverage points, Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere

Paper recommendation: Common European birds are declining rapidly while less abundant species’ numbers are rising

I’d like to recommend the following paper:

Inger R, Gregory R, Duffy JP, Stott I, Voříšek P, Gaston KJ (2014) Common European birds are declining rapidly while less abundant species’ numbers are rising. Ecol Lett 2014 Nov 2, PMID: 25363472 DOI: 10.1111/ele.12387

This paper draws on the compilation of long-term data for European birds. It highlights that common species are declining, while rare species are increasing. This, in turn, raises doubts about conservation practices that are primarily focusing on the local scale, for example via creating (small) protected areas. Inger et al. imply that a broader-scale focus is needed for conservation, which needs to explicitly recognise entire landscapes. Especially from the perspective of ecosystem functioning (and ecosystem services), a decline of the most common species is particularly concerning.

This is an important paper that provides a strong empirical argument for why conservation should not target only species that are already rare.

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NEW PAPER: A holistic approach to studying social-ecological systems and its application to Southern Transylvania


Yesterday, Ecology and Society published our paper on a assessment of current and future development trends in Southern Transylvania (full paper can be found here). The paper is meant to give you a flavour of the threats and opportunities faced by this beautiful but also troubled part of Europe. Besides that, I think it nicely reflects the inter- and transdisciplinary nature of our project, and we as a team have put quite some effort into all the bits and pieces that went into that paper over the last two years.

Graphical summary of the methodological steps

Fig. 1: Graphical summary of the methodological steps

In this study, we apply a holistic approach (see Fig. 1 for a methodological overview) that considers multiple scales, spatial heterogeneity and uncertainties in order to get a better understanding of the dynamics of this particular social-ecological system. The approach starts with characterising the local social-ecological conditions throughout the study area, using villages as the units of analysis. We combined this local understanding with a description of the regional system dynamics, and we developed a spatially explicit understanding of current development trends for eight different variables (e.g. land use intensification, forest exploitation, emigration). Then, together with local stakeholders, we developed future scenarios for the region through a series of scenario planning workshops. The resulting four scenarios reflect the influence of the most important (and most uncertain) drivers for the future of Southern Transylvania, namely international and national policy settings and the ability of locals to capitalize on opportunities.

Scenario paintings showing possible future conditions in Southern Transylvania

Fig 2: Scenario paintings showing possible future conditions in Southern Transylvania

Readers of this blog might know the scenarios and the pictures (which I painted, see Fig. 2) already from other publications. Based on the scenarios, we then assessed how the current development trends might change under different scenario conditions visualizing both regional trends and internal heterogeneity in development (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Maps of current and future development trends in Southern Transylvania

Fig. 3: Maps of current and future development trends in Southern Transylvania

Overall, our results highlight that current conditions and trends are strongly influenced by legacies, i.e. past conditions and changes in the system. Further, they show the importance of external drivers (EU and national policy settings) for future developments and finally, how the influence of these external drivers can be amplified or counteracted by internal factors (education, leadership and bridging organizations).

The paper will be part of a special issue in Ecology and Society with the title “Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS): knowledge for sustainable stewardship of social-ecological systems”, which is going to come out some time next year, I think.

Enjoy the read!


Full reference:

Hanspach, J., Hartel, T., Milcu, A., Mikulcak, F., Dorresteijn, I., Loos, J., von Wehrden, H., Kuemmerle, T., Abson, D. J., Kovács-Hostyánszki, A., Báldi, A. & Fischer, J. (2014) A holistic approach to studying social-ecological systems and its application to Southern Transylvania. Ecology and Society 19(4): 32.

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Prioritize the consideration of ecological scale and fair distribution over valuing nature

by: Matthias Schröter1, Bas Amelung1, Anne Böhnke-Henrichs1, Alexander P.E. van Oudenhoven1, Klara H. Stumpf2, Jacqueline Loos3

Several authors call for concern about using economic valuation of ecosystem services for biodiversity conservation, such as this recent piece in Science. In today´s blog post, we would like to emphasize that valuation of ecosystem services is only one of the many facets that could be considered for biodiversity conservation and sustainability:

It is important to distinguish between the ecosystem services concept, biophysical or socio-cultural assessment of services, economic valuation, and related policy instruments. Valuing services can contribute to slowing down ecosystem degradation. Unfortunately, economic valuation is often used beyond its reasonable scope.

Costa Rica

Cloudforest restoration project in Costa Rica: Ecological limits need to be set before valuation can be meaningfully applied


We relate the limits and opportunities of ecosystem services assessment and valuation to three hierarchical goals of sustainability, which Herman Daly in a seminal paper has sketched: ecological scale, fair distribution and allocative efficiency. Lacking enforcement of ecological scales in market systems leads to crossing planetary boundaries. Hence, first, the scale of permissible human activities needs to be established within ecological limits. This involves societal choice on the extent of conservation and sustainable ecosystem use. Decision making can benefit from assessments that determine the carrying capacity of ecosystems, but there is no role for economic valuation in determining ecological limits. Second, access to services is often distributed unequally, as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has already pointed out. Societies need to determine a fair intra- and intergenerational distribution of natural resources. This could be done by developing social capital, including rules and norms to manage local commons. Policy instruments should establish fair benefit and burden sharing of conservation and sustainable ecosystem use, while ensuring participation of all stakeholders. Ecosystem service assessments can reveal spatial and temporal service flows and assist in establishing policy instruments. In third place only, once scales are established and fair distribution is achieved, resources can be efficiently allocated to their best societal use to prevent wasting scarce resources. This could be assisted by ecosystem service valuation. Ecosystem service assessments, but not necessarily valuation, can thus contribute to achieving sustainability. If conceptual synergies with the ecosystem services concept are recognized, biodiversity conservation can thus be supported, even though not all reasons one may have for conservation are captured by the anthropocentric concept of ecosystem services.


1 Environmental Systems Analysis Group, Wageningen University, 6700AA Wageningen, The Netherlands
2Institute of Sustainability Governance, Leuphana University, Lüneburg, 21335 Lüneburg, Germany
3Institute of Ecology, Leuphana University, Lüneburg, 21335 Lüneburg, Germany


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Sustainability Science is Puzzling.

First a warning: If you like your blog entries, insightful, well-structured and written with concision and clarity, you may wish to stop reading at this point (there are many other entries by Joern and others on this blog that can satisfy those peculiar cravings). If on the other hand you enjoy a somewhat rambling blog entry, that uses tenuous analogies, stretched to breaking point, then read on dear reader, read on.


When I say sustainability science is puzzling, I don’t mean that it is literally bewildering, bamboozling or baffling, although it certainly can be, rather, I mean it is figuratively like the act of ‘puzzling’, more specifically jigsaw puzzling (apologies for using puzzle as a verb, but when in Germany do as the Germans do).

Our world (bless its little cotton socks) is a complex, confusing and often chaotic place. To make sense of that complexity we have developed science, and beer, but mainly science. For me at least, all science is fundamentally about the art of abstracting complex reality into models of the world (e.g. “the map is not the territory” -Alfred Korzybski). The usefulness of those acts of abstraction is determined by the extent to which they allow us to better understand our world and to align our actions to our visions of the world in which we wish to live.

We have crafted that skill of ‘meaningful abstraction’ in a number of ways. Firstly we have learnt how to ensure that our individual abstractions are consistent and comparable and can be linked to the real world – through empiricism and the scientific methods. Secondly we have honed our abstractions by creating ever more sophisticated models. In part we have been able to do this by limiting the bounds of the aspects of reality, or real-world systems, we choose to model. In doing so specialization and disciplinarily, in increasingly narrow and specific domains of knowledge has been a key process in the notion of scientific progress. Sustainability Science has emerged from the broader institutions of science and has (rightfully) inherited some of that deep regard for specialization and detailed understanding of smaller parts of bigger systems, but this is not without problems. And so to the promised analogy…

Sustainability is a big and complex, multifaceted problem and individual scientists cannot possible solve the puzzle by themselves. So instead the puzzle is broken in to smaller jigsaw pieces. Everyone gets their own piece of the puzzle and has to try and figure out what the image on piece represents. This we have been doing for a long time. We understand our piece of the puzzle increasingly well, but I wonder how useful it is to continue to stare longer and deeper at each individual jigsaw piece in an attempt to solve the bigger puzzle.

At some point, we have to acknowledge that although are understanding is imperfect we now broadly know what our piece is (an arm, leg, an edge of a cloud etc.). Now is the time we need to start looking not at the image at the centre of our own pieces, but at their edges and try to see who has another piece of the bigger picture with which our personal piece might fit. This is problematic because we enjoy staring at our own puzzle piece and are rewarded for doing so with ever increasing intensity. There is less reward for bothering other people who are intently staring at their own piece of the puzzle to see if they might fit together. It is also problematic because the edges of our individual puzzle pieces are generally a result of the historical development of scientific disciplines, which were never designed to fit neatly together. This means that we may well have to nibble of the edges of some of our own science in order to make it fit with that of our colleagues and that is often an uncomfortable thought.

Perhaps most importantly of all, in our intensive puzzle piece staring it is easy to lose track of the bigger puzzle we are trying to solve. When doing a Jigsaw sometimes we need to take a good look at the box to see where our pieces might fit in the grand scheme of things, and to ensure that the jigsaw piece we hold in our hands is actually part of the puzzle we really want to solve…. There is little value staring intently at a puzzle piece from the “dogs playing poker” jigsaw if you really want to compete the “Mona Lisa” puzzle…

So what does this all mean? I’m not sure, but I will leave you with three thoughts:

  • We should look more often at the jigsaw box. To help us think of what sustainability means, what are the ultimate goals of our science (beyond increased knowledge), and to figure out who is working on the same puzzle.
  • When we find a fellow jigsaw puzzler, play nice. Invite them to hold our own precious puzzle pieces, perhaps even let them turn them around or nibble off a corner if that helps.
  • Consider whether creating increasingly sophisticated abstractions- rather than increasingly useful abstraction – have, unwittingly, become the goal of science and whether r not this is something we might wish to change.


P.S. apologies of the excessive use of alliterations, it is a profound and persistent problem that I am seeking salient strategies to solve.


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