Paper recommendation: Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services

By Joern Fischer

I recommend the following paper: Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services. Pascual U, Phelps J, Garmendia E, Brown K, Corbera E, Martin A, Gomez-Baggethun E, Muradian RBioscience 2014 Oct 1, DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biu146 (available via the journal homepage)

Equity considerations are increasingly seen as an important challenge in sustainability science. This paper by Pascual and colleagues highlights the importance of equity considerations in an ecosystem services context. The most prominent tool used to enhance the provision of ecosystem services is that of payments. This focus on payments, in turn, is heavily influenced by efficiency considerations derived from economic theory.

Pascual et al. make three important points. First, economic-theory driven, efficiency-focused schemes for payments for ecosystem services may bear little resemblance to the (messy) real world of policy implementation.

Second, the lack of consideration of equity (in terms of distribution, procedures, and context) can have negative repercussions for the effectiveness of payments for ecosystem service schemes.

Third, by considering equity, the effectiveness of such schemes can be improved. This suggests that equity considerations are not only of moral value in their own right; but also have instrumental value in that they may help improve ecological outcomes.

This paper is a must-read for all ecologists working on ecosystem services, because it makes the important (but under-recognised) point that successful governance of ecosystem services is much more than simply combining ecological data with economic theory.


Filed under ecosystem services, recommended in F1000

Communicating beyond the ivory tower (or why comics matter)

Foodcrisis Chapter 2 Cover

I am a somewhat cynical person (note the English understatement) and my philosophy is more “do no harm” than “save the world”. In a sense then I am quite comfortable in my (tiny) ivory tower, labouring away to add a few new levels to the tower every year. Why do I want a taller ivory tower? Well in part so that others can marvel at my achievements (“look on my works ye mighty, and despair!”) and in part because a taller tower gives me a better angle for firing shots at other ivory towers that displease me.

In this way Academia pootles along, like a huge ‘care in the community’ scheme where the somewhat bewildered hordes of academe build and knock down their towers while being more or less quietly ignored by the wider world (like a global community of Don Quixotes… ”Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, [their] brain[s] dried up and [they] went completely out of [their] mind[s]”). Of course we hope that while firing at other ivory towers some of our lofty ideas will fall to the ground where a grateful public are waiting eagerly to receive them.

Clearly, the notion of ivory tower academics is a caricature and peer-reviewed science can and does have a fundamental impact on policy and governance. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ and more recently the ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘sustainable agricultural intensification’ concepts are ideas that arose from science and have/are having significant effects on how policy makers andthe wider public see the world. Somewhat sadly all three of these notions are interpreted in ways that are often at odds with the subtleties and nuance of the scientific debates. My own experience of working on the UK national Ecosystem Assessment and the subsequent interpretation of this report by the UK government makes me wary of the “fire and forget” (publish and pay no attention to?) strategy of scientific communication with non-scientists. Similarly I despair when I read about science in the media as the reporting of science is so poor, admittedly I read the Guardian, which probably does not help.

So what is the alternative? Well at some point if we wish to engage the public (on our own unfiltered terms) we need to clamber down from our ivory towers. I have had the privilege to work with a number of academics who actively seek to engage with non-scientists. This year Joern Fischer (owner of this blog and my boss) and his team undertook a scientific roadshow to discuss their research with the people in their study region. Jahi Chapell (another contributor to this blog) actively engages with policy-makers to change dominant narratives regarding the management of food systems). Tibor Hartel (yet another contributor to this blog) is actively engaging local and national politicians regarding the preservation of the beautiful wood pastures of Romania. Dan O’Neill is a tireless and effective communicator of the need for Steady State Economics.

I find all of these people and their approaches to communicating beyond the ivory tower inspiring, and here would like to add one more to the list. Evan Fraser, (a former PhD supervisor of mine) along with his team at Guelph University work on food security issues and has created a marvellous resource in using different forms of media to engage the public in the food security discourse. His latest effort is a graphic novel about global food security (the first two issues are available here). Despite my innate cynicism I think these different approaches to engaging the public are hugely important. My long journey to becoming a sustainability scientist with an interest in food systems was initially motivated by a comic book story about poverty, food security and power that I read as a teenager (the excellent Third World War published in Crisis comics) and gavanized by a wandering Sadu in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh (a story for another post). If even a cynical old curmudgeon like me can be motivated a graphic novel there is hope!


Filed under Uncategorized

Four new PhD positions on the intersection of food security and biodiversity

By Joern Fischer

Finally, I have advertised the four new PhD positions announced on this blog some time ago. They will contribute to our new interdiscipinary project entitled “Identifying social-ecological system properties benefiting biodiversity and food security”.

Ensuring food security and halting biodiversity decline are two of the most urgent (and interconnected) challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. Taking a social-ecological systems perspective, this new project seeks to identify synergies between food security and biodiversity conservation. The PhD positions are associated with an in-depth empirical case study on food security and biodiversity in Ethiopia. Further background on the project in general is available at:

The PhD positions are summarised in the following, with links to each of the four full advertisements.

They will be based at Leuphana (in Germany), with fieldwork in Ethiopia.

PhD Eco1: Distribution and conservation of biodiversity in Ethiopian farmland (including birds)

Tasks and responsibilities for this PhD position will include: (1) Land cover mapping and yield gap analysis; (2) Field surveys of birds; (3) Analyses of distribution and composition of birds; and (4) Other biodiversity analyses (including other animal taxa) as appropriate.

Full details and instructions for how to apply are available here: PHDeco1_advertisement_ERC_J_Fischer

PhD Eco2: Distribution and conservation of biodiversity in Ethiopian farmland (including woody vegetation)

Tasks and responsibilities for this PhD position will include: (1) Land cover mapping and yield gap analysis; (2) Field surveys of woody vegetation; (3) Analyses of distribution and composition of woody vegetation; and (4) Other biodiversity analyses as appropriate.

Full details and instructions for how to apply are available here: PHDeco2_advertisement_ERC_J_Fischer

PhD Soc1: Governance of food security and biodiversity in Ethiopian farmland

Tasks and responsibilities for this PhD position will include: (1) Actor analysis in the contexts of food security and biodiversity conservation; (2) Social network analysis in the contexts of food security and biodiversity conservation; (3) Analysis of formal institutions and regulations in the contexts of food security and biodiversity conservation; and (4) Other governance analyses as appropriate.

Full details and instructions for how to apply are available here: PHDsoc1_advertisement_ERC_J_Fischer

 PhD Soc2: Livelihood strategies and food security of households in Ethiopian farmland

Tasks and responsibilities for this PhD position will include: (1) Household surveys of livelihood strategies; (2) Household surveys of food security; (3) Analysis of food flows and bundles of food; and (4) Other analyses of food security as appropriate.

Full details and instructions for how to apply are available here: PHDsoc2_advertisement_ERC_J_Fischer

Deadline: 1 December 2014

 For questions, please contact Prof. Joern Fischer (


Filed under ERC project, food security, job advertisements

Four new faculty positions in sustainability at Leuphana University

By Joern Fischer

Leuphana University Lueneburg is unique in Germany, in that it has a substantial proportion of the university dedicated to sustainability. The “Faculty of Sustainability” hosts about 25 professors from the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities, and has a strong emphasis on inter- and transdisciplinarity. We have just advertised four new faculty positions. They are listed below. Because the deadline is very soon (26 Oct 2014!!), please help distribute these advertisements as widely as possible. We’re keen on recruiting a diversity of sustainability scholars from around the world — if you have a strong track record, think about applying!

1. Junior Professorship Sustainability Science (W1)

Applicants should have a university degree in a relevant field for sustainability science and in depth understanding of sustainability science. A further requirement is a track record in engaging with sustainability problems and solutions at systemic but especially at normative and transformative levels. Proven interest and expertise in collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines as well as actors outside academia is a requirement. Besides a strong publication record relative to opportunity, tangible experience with outreach is expected. Expertise in one or more of the core research areas of the Faculty of Sustainability would be beneficial (i.e. ecosystem services, energy transition, social challenges related to sustainability, physical resources). Full details are available here.

2. Sustainability Economics (W3)

We invite applications from candidates with distinguished research portfolios and teaching experience in the field of “sustainable economics”. Applicants should be working on concepts of sustainability, the analysis of phenomena outside sustainable development, as well as regulatory and other economic and social political approaches to these phenomena. Candidates should possess skills related to specific analytical approaches and solutions, as well as experience with sustainable transformations in concrete fields of application such as, for example, energy, biodiversity, climate, mobility, consumption, organization, trade in international context or modern approaches to a post-growth economy. One area of concentration could also include behavioral sustainability economics. Full details are available here.

3. Human Behavior and Sustainable Development (W3)

Leuphana University of Lüneburg invites applications from candidates with distinguished experience in the field of “sustainability and behavior/action.” Candidates should be engaged in the areas of human-environment interaction with investigations into cooperation and altruism, information processing and communication, complexity and decision-making, emotions and actions or values and societal transformation processes on the basis of their expertise in anthropology, social psychology, behavioral studies, communications sciences or environmental and sustainability studies. They should have experience in fields related to concrete applications, such as consumption, lifestyles, perception of nature, mobility and energy behavior, or cultural comparisons. The integration of ethical considerations, fundamental ideas for transformative research, as well as the integration of gender mainstreaming aspects are desirable. Full details are available here.

4. Junior Professorship in the Didactics of the Natural Sciences (W1)

Candidates must have demonstrated academic and instructional excellence in the core disciplines of biology and/or chemistry. Instruction in both disciplines will be covered by this appointment. Candidates must be willing to develop close institutional cooperation within these academic disciplines in order to ensure the inclusion of a didactic perspective by all partners within these academic subjects. Candidates must represent the didactics of the natural sciences with sufficient breadth both within the field of didactics and their particular scientific discipline. They should represent their academic subfield in their teaching and research through an interdisciplinary didactics of the natural sciences that gives special attention to sustainability studies. They must have appropriate international publications and, ideally, relevant foreign experience. Additionally, they can participate in developing plans for education about sustainable development and include the didactics of natural sciences in these plans. Full details are available here.

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The challenges of sustainability PhD students: What if you lack a clear discipline?

By Joern Fischer

For those who haven’t seen it — and would like to be entertained and learn things for about 50 min — below is a nice video featuring PhD students from the Stockholm Resilience Centre. It was taken at the Montpellier resilience conference earlier this year, and is all about the challenges that students face who don’t quite fit into any of the traditional academic disciplines.


Filed under Uncategorized

Nice short movie: wood pastures in Southern Transylvania


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Filed under Romania project

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