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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Being policy-relevant vs. asking uncomfortable questions

By Joern Fischer

Many scientists working on sustainability issues are in this business because they are concerned about the state of the world. It seems self-evidently reasonable that, therefore, we ought to try to use our science to improve the state of things.

Most scientists, when they think of being relevant, or changing the state of the world for the better, automatically think of informing or influencing policy. This can be a very useful way to change things for the better. For example, new protected areas have been declared on the basis of scientific input to policy; and restoration activities in degraded landscapes have been improved by scientific input delivered to government and non-government organisations. Seeking to inform policy therefore can be a useful activity for scientists trying to improve the world.

When looking at my own work, some of it has been policy-relevant, but some has not – but was nevertheless motivated by a desire to improve the state of the world. Much of that work falls in the category of what may be called “asking uncomfortable questions”. For example, my analyses with colleagues from the social sciences and humanities have highlighted that many of the current sustainability problems require all of us to reflect on the value and belief systems underpinning the patterns of un-sustainability that we observe. Such calls to “halt and reflect” are not policy-relevant in a direct sense. When talking about such issues, I have therefore sometimes been asked: “What’s the point of all this? How is complaining about value and belief systems going to change anything?”

My response is that, in its own right, complaining of course does not do anything. However, as a scholarly community, what we talk and write about shapes or influences scientific and broader societal discourses. For example, a current discourse that many ecologists feed into is centred around the idea of environmentally benign agricultural production. Especially in a food security context, it would be possible for ecologists to feed less energy into this discourse, and instead think more about the intersection of biodiversity conservation with education (see my presentation in the previous blog post). Or – equally possible in principle – ecologists could take a systems perspective, and see whether systems are actually designed to meet objectives such as biodiversity conservation or sustainable development. Many systems were not designed for these purposes, and so we should not be surprised if they do not deliver outcomes that they were never designed to deliver in the first place. If scholars were to routinely point out inconsistencies between what our systems were originally designed to do and what may be a modern set of societal goals (e.g. sustainable development), this would create a different discourse from what we see today. In stylised terms, it is thus feasible that sustainability scholars help “create” (or strengthen) a discourse around societal goals and values, rather than continue to feed into discourses that may well amount to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

These two ways of engaging with the world – being policy-relevant versus asking uncomfortable questions – can and should go hand in hand. Of course it makes sense to work within existing structures and paradigms to improve sustainability outcomes wherever possible. But ultimately, unless we also challenge those structures and paradigms to keep up with modern (and long-term viable) societal goals, we may win many small fights but ultimately lose the overall battle.

From my perspective, it would be helpful if a larger proportion of scholars working on sustainable development, in a larger proportion of their work, highlighted the underyling problems of our sustainability crisis and the need to address those. This would alter dominant discourses, thereby creating momentum for more fundamental societal changes which very likely, ultimately will be required. Building momentum in this way means engaging with society at large, and not singling out policy makers as the single most important “end users” of scholarly work. Many societal actors play important roles in setting the overall direction the world is heading, including scientists and “ordinary” citizens – and if it is the overall direction we are worried about, it is not just policy makers that we need to talk to.

In short: being policy-relevant is useful, but as an end goal for a sustainability science community, it is not enough.


Filed under Concepts in sustainability and conservation, ERC project, food security, Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, Today's question, Trends in conservation and sustainability science

Towards synergies between biodiversity conservation and food security: an outlook

By Joern Fischer

Today I gave my own talk at the conference discussed in the previous few blog posts. Some of the conference had been a little less radical than I would have liked … and so I tried to change this a little.

The slides of my talk are posted below. My argument went like this:

  • Most ecologists, including at this conference, engage with food via a production focus;
  • This is problematic because more production has not solved food security problems so far;
  • Moreover, setting out to “meet rising demand” is ignoring that demand is rising because of two fundamental drivers of biodiversity loss and un-sustainability — namely rising consumption expectations and increasing human population;
  • Rising consumption primarily leads to obesity, not to more happiness;
  • Some human population growth is inevitable, but good family planning now could still make a difference of billions by 2050;
  • Focusing on cases such as rural Africa, instead of singling out the need to produce more, in many cases one could equally single out the need to have smaller families;
  • Female secondary education thus could be a better measure to improve conservation and food security than producing more!
  • Educated women have fewer children;
  • This means education would reduce the need for food increases, and would reduce pressure on land (such as primary forest);
  • Even better though would be a focus on food systems as a whole;
  • Following Ostrom’s example, we could as if there are social-ecological system properties that benefit both food security and biodiversity conservation;
  • Once we think about systems, it is also important that to change systems in major ways requires more than a change in some parameters;
  • Changing the system goal, and questioning the paradigms underpinning the system are among the most influential ways of changing systems — according to Donella Meadows (1999);
  • A rational analysis suggests that our global food systems are set up around values and paradigms that ultimately do not serve food security or biodiversity conservation;
  • This means scientists need to enter uncomfortable normative territory: the values that our global systems are based on are not conducive to the system outcomes we aspire to;
  • Scientists must not shy away from engaging with these issues.


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Overcoming conceptual pitfalls in the nexus of food security and biodiversity conservation

By Joern Fischer

Yesterday, Muriel Tichit and I co-chaired a session at the conference i had been writing about. I think it was a fun session, and I just want to relate some of the “outcomes” here.

Our speakers identified the following important conceptual pitfalls:

1.Sustainability cannot be reduced to a problem of ecological effectiveness

2.Ecological economics is not just an accumulation of economic and ecological elements, but demands that we rethink underlying paradigms

3.Yield-biodiversity relationships are useful, but not enough

4.Conceptual models should  acknowledge the normative and contextual nature of the problem – goals should define models, not the other way around

5.Local landowners perceive not only ecosystem services but also disservices

6.Most species are rare and contribute little to either services or disservices

7.Crop genetic diversity is an asset for sustainable agroecosystems

8.Interdisciplinary, participatory approaches are needed to manage agrobiodiversity

9.To deliver food sovereignty, we need to think about scales of action, without isolating different but interrelated interests

10.The food-biodiversity nexus must be considered at every level, not just local or national

Based on this, we identified some clear themes in the search for conceptual pitfalls: paradigms, normative and contextual issues, inconvenient truths, and many actors and their various forms of involvement. This, in turn, raised the following cross-cutting questions for discussion, which I guess we should all ponder in our own work:

–How has the history of our discourses shaped what we work on, and how we work?

–How does thinking about temporal scale change our models and answers?

–What is the role of scientists in all this, given the uncomfortable, normative nature of these topics?

–How could we move from simple models to something more comprehensive – in a practical sense, as a research community?

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What does a food systems perspective tell us about the food-biodiversity nexus?

By Joern Fischer

This morning, John Ingram gave an interesting presentation on food systems, food security and biodiversity. To start with, he highlighted that – perhaps surprisingly – the common definition of food security did not include anything about agriculture, nor about production. What many people thus automatically think of when thinking about food security, is not necessarily always central to it.

That said, John explained, agriculture very much sits at the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation. It is, after all, the single most important driver of terrestrial biodiversity decline. Other human activities related to food also are to the detriment of biodiversity, including bushmeat hunting and fisheries.

An alternative approach to jumping straight to agriculture, however, was to think about food systems as a whole. Looking at that suggests that other parts of the food system (not just agriculture) also affect biodiveristy. For example, food processing and packaging can cause problems to biodiversity through their use of raw materials and generation of waste and effluents. John showed images, for example, of how the world’s oceans are filling up with more and more plastic. The transportation of food, too, has a wide range of negative effects on biodiversity – amongst the less recognised ones, perhaps, is the fact that ballast water from the shipping industry massively contributes to the spread of invasive species. Moreover, different types of food system also generate impacts on biodiveristy through their emissions of greenhouse gas emissions. Finally –last but not least? – the consumption side of food systems is a major driver of un-sustainability.

Moving on more specifically to food security, John highlighted the importance, first of all, of food affordability. This measure accounts for the amount of exposable income that people have, which very much differs between countries. As a result, price spikes make a much bigger difference to poor people than to wealthy ones. Moreover, poor communities are typically more directly affected by problems related to food storage and food distribution – but also to food safety related aspects that result from an interaction of biodiversity changes and other global changes (such as climate change).

John then posed the question “So why do we need to change things”? Clearly, planetary boundaries are a problem, but at the same time about a billion people are chronically malnourished, two billion have micronutrient deficiencies, and over two billin are overweight. It would seem, therefore, that actually a minority of people are served well by the current global food system.

Sustainable food security, then, can be conceptualised as the result of constraints on consumers, ‘post-farm gate’ food system activities, and activities directly related to production. Retaining productive and biodiverse production systems thus was the foundation of all other variables influencing food security – but improvements are necessary and possible in all areas of the food system, including production, but also storage, transport, consumption, processing, and distribution.

To conclude, John emphasised the problem of over-consumption. While this was “uncomfortable territory”, John highlighted that we still needed to address this issue. He showed a very telling graph, drawing on data from the past, which suggested that producing more and more may well lead to increased over-consumption in the future, but to a lesser extent to alleviating the food shortages faced by the world’s poor. Simply meeting demand therefore will have major negative ramifications for biodiversity; will have massive health costs related to increasing obesity; and would have major economic costs related to obesity-related illnesses.

A big thumbs up from me for this excellent contribution by John!


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