Paper recommendation: Changing the intellectual climate

The following paper may be of interest to readers of this blog:

Changing the intellectual climate by Castree N, Adams W, Barry J, Brockington D, Büscher B, Corbera E, Demeritt D, Duffy R, Felt U, Neves K, Newell P, Pellizzoni L,Rigby K, Robbins P, Robin L, Rose D, Ross A, Schlosberg D, Sörlin S, West P, Whitehead M, Wynne B. Nat Clim Chang ; 4(9):763-768, DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2339 nclimate2339

 This is an extremely important paper that all global change, sustainability and conservation scientists should read. It highlights a very important point: that the type of research on “human dimensions” of global change represented by much existing work is too narrow.

The authors argue that critically important questions about fundamental questions of value, responsibility, rights, entitlements, needs, duty, faith, care, government, cruelty, charity and justice are under-represented in global environmental change science. (I would add the same is true for conservation biology in particular.)

An understanding of such foundational issues is, however, fundamental to making progress with global sustainability; and echoes earlier calls on addressing the “sustainability gap” (1, 2).

To date, only a relatively narrow subset of social sciences is regularly being integrated in sustainability research — including, for example, environmental economics and political science. A much broader set of disciplinary traditions, however, is needed to address the “foundational” issues (1) actually underpinning the current sustainability crisis.

The recommended paper makes a strong and convincing case that much more attention needs to go to the environmental humanities.

Concrete suggestions in the paper include that biophysical scientists ought to acknowledge that they have got used to a rather narrow type of work addressing the “human dimension” of global change; and that environmental humanists, in turn, must do more to engage with sustainability research.


1. Mind the sustainability gap. Fischer J, Manning AD, Steffen W, Rose DB, Daniell K, Felton A, Garnett S, Gilna B, Heinsohn R, Lindenmayer DB, Macdonald B, Mills F, Newell B, Reid J, Robin L, Sherren K, Wade A. Trends Ecol Evol (Amst) 2007 Dec; 22(12):621-4; PMID: 17997188 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2007.08.016

2. Human behavior and sustainability Fischer J, Dyball R, Fazey I, Gross C, Dovers S, Ehrlich P, Brulle R, Christensen C, Borden R. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2012 Apr; 10(3):153-160; DOI: 10.1890/110079

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Filed under Concepts in sustainability and conservation, recommended in F1000, Trends in conservation and sustainability science

Conference announcement: Biodiversity and Food Security – From Trade-offs to Synergies

The following is reproduced from an email intended for distribution, by Wolfgang Cramer, head organiser of the conference detailed below. Together with Muriel Tichit, I will be co-organizing the plenary session on “Conceptual pitfalls in the food-biodiversity nexus”. Full conference details are here.

Early-bird registration closes on August 31 and poster contributions are still welcomed to the

3rd International Conference on Biodiversity and the UN Millennium Development Goals – October 29-31, 2014, Aix-en-Provence, France

Biodiversity and Food Security – From Trade-offs to Synergies

This conference is the third in a series, organized by the French CNRS Institut Ecologie et Environnement (InEE) and the German Leibniz Association (WGL). The conference is based on invited keynotes and contributed posters for any of the topics relevant to the conference theme. Keynote speakers are now confirmed, including Professor José Sarukhán, UNAM, México, and Professor Jacqueline McGlade, UNEP, Nairobi. Please register now, submit your abstract and secure your hotel reservations.

Across scales from genes to species, landscapes and biomes, biodiversity is an important resource for humanity. It is the key for a broad range of services provided by ecosystems. Biodiversity helps regulate the nutrient cycle, water (e.g. floods) and mitigates impacts of climate change. Biodiversity is also of direct importance for human well-being and for cultural and other values including recreation. The provisioning of clean water and diverse food supply makes it vital for all people.Biodiversity at all levels, including the diversity of genes, species and ecosystems, is lost at alarming rates. Critical factors for these trends are habitat destruction, global warming and the uncontrolled spread of alien species. Pollution, nitrogen deposition and shifts in precipitation further affect biodiversity.

Food security faces significant challenges due to population growth, poverty, globalization, climate change and other factors. Supplying healthy food to all citizens is crucial for global development – to reach it, not only food production but also equitable access to food for all people must be improved substantially. Biodiversity loss and global food security are hence two major challenges of our time.

Linking biodiversity and food security issues from a research perspective, and seeking synergies between them is likely to generate multiple benefits for social, ecological and economic development.

Set near the historical city centre of Aix-en-Provence, the conference will include key note presentations from leading experts, interactive workshops and poster presentations.

We look forward to meet you in Aix-en-Provence!

If you are a journalist and interested in our conference, please make yourself known to us by contacting Emilie Egea (Aix-en-Provence) or Laura Tydecks (Berlin) through the following address: <>.

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What’s the point?

By Joern Fischer

Many researchers engaged in biodiversity conservation and sustainability science struggle – sooner or later – with seeing the point of their work. Since I have found myself amongst these, it’s not quite clear if I have anything sensible to say on the topic. But I have made a few observations that I think may be interesting to share on this topic. The following are “stages” of despair and recovery that many in our business appear to go through at various stages. They are in an approximate order, but I don’t mean to imply they are some kind of pre-destined phases – from my observation, many people (myself included) appear to jump back and forth between these.

Disillusionment with science. Many students or PhD scholars start out feeling immensely empowered by this new tool they have discovered – science. Through apparently rational reasoning, within a community of reasonable and intelligent fellow scientists, real hope appears that this can do good. Think of all the clever brains getting together at a conference to talk about how to solve big problems. This can be a tremendous source of inspiration for next-generation scientists! But soon enough, many students reach a point of frustration or even anger. Scientists more often than not seem to turn out to be ego-maniacs, who are interested in pushing agendas just as much as people in business or government. In fact, successful scientists sometimes seem to have more of the attributes one would associate with successful business people or politicians – sleek, smart at the right times, but essentially just selling their products and seeing who can sell most.

Disillusionment with “impact”. Having realised that science may be no purer (or at least not always) than other activities (such as politics or business), at least we can console ourselves that we work for “real-world impact”. Our papers inspire others. Our findings have real potential to inform those in charge, so that they can make decisions that are better for the world. But what if those in charge are not interested? What if governance systems are such that it is difficult to see how anyone would fix anything? What if it’s clear what ought to be done, and you’ve written about it, as well as others, but nobody really seems to act on it? Disillusionment with the potential to have a positive impact is not an unlikely outcome in this case.

Disillusionment leading to a loss of hope. Add to that global statistics of things getting worse, not better, and once passionate scholars can become depressed, feeling a sense of hopelessness about the state of the world. When it comes to the global scale, extinctions of species continue unhalted, so does climate change, and we still have a billion people going hungry. We don’t seem to be acting on our science in ways that actually make a difference. Nobody cares, some kind of global collapse seems likely (just a question of when), and this leaves the question why to bother with any of this science nonsense. What, actually, is the role of discovery in our current era?

Regaining perspective. When things seem pointless because the global problems just seem too big to solve, it’s taking the “big picture” perspective that is so overwhelming. But there is another side to this perspective, too: each of us are only one of seven billion or so people, so clearly, our individual impact is going to be minute. Expecting anything other than that is setting ourselves up for failure (and may in fact be quite arrogant)! Of course, collectively, the problems we ought to solve are massive, but it is reasonable to recognise which share of the overall burden each individual should carry. None of us, on our own, will be of much use or impact.

Doing the best along the journey, without knowing its destination. Based on that then, it may be possible to re-gain some energy. Even if we’re working on a single landscape or study system, the problems in such a system are typically too large and complex to simply be “solved”. Of course a strategic view on how to solve them is helpful, but it can be useful to not be too obsessed with the destination, but rather focus on the journey. Simply contributing to sustainability or biodiversity conservation – i.e. being focused on the journey – may end up not enough to avert global collapse. But even if that is so, there is not a lot more that individuals can do than travel the journey to the best of their abilities – the outcome will depend on many more individuals also choosing a similar (or at least compatible) journey.

Connect. Along the journey, despite its unknown and uncertain destination, it is energising to connect with others who share the journey, who would like to reach the same destination, but who are similarly powerless (on their own) to actually change the trajectory of the world in any major way. Personally, I believe that such connections are the single most important ingredient to making it through phases of despair with the state of the world.

Focus inwards, as well as outwards. At the deepest, and some would say most esoteric, level, I believe there would be value in focusing inwards more often while being less obsessed about the state of the world. Many wise people living before us have shown that inner spiritual development and outward impact tend to go hand in hand. And this takes us back to the first point above: Focusing on the outside only risks that we simply are part of the “science industry”, seeking to aggressively sell our gadgets (= papers or ideas) to the world because we take it as obvious that this is how it ought to be. It may seem counter-intuitive, but at least some of the time, we’d probably achieve more in the outside world if we focused instead on our inside worlds.


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Innovating new (food) democracies


Excellent discussion by Jahi Chappell (regular commenter on this blog and collaborator of mine) and Jill Carson — originally published on IATP’s Think Forward blog (follow the links through Jahi’s blog). Reblogged here — hope you find it interesting!

Originally posted on AgroEcoPeople:

Latest blog, reposted from IATP’s Think Forward blog:

Inventing new (food) democracies

Posted August 1, 2014 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell  and  Jill Carlson

Used under creative commons license from colorblindpicaso.

Food democracy must start from the bottom-up, at the level of villages, regions, cities, and municipalities. – UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier De Schutter in March 2014

Olivier De Schutter recently finished his widely acclaimed term as the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. During his 6-year tenure, he called for a “radically and democratically-redesigned” food system. In his closing address, he highlighted the significant changes he has witnessed: the small-scale food producers having a more visible voice in decision-making; the growing number of local initiatives that create a ‘transition from below’ for a more sustainable food system; and ‘agroecology’ becoming a part…

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New paper: Low-Intensity Agricultural Landscapes in Transylvania Support High Butterfly Diversity: Implications for Conservation

By: Jacqueline Loos, Ine Dorresteijn, Jan Hanspach, Pascal Fust, Laszlo Rakosy and Joern Fischer. Plos One 9(7): e103256.

European farmland biodiversity is declining due to land use changes, often involving agricultural intensification (mainly where the land is flat and easily accessible) or abandonment (mainly in rural areas rich in contours). Some Eastern European farming systems have sustained traditional forms of land use, resulting in high levels of biodiversity. However, under the influence of global markets and international policies, these systems are now subject to rapid and major changes. To effectively protect farmland biodiversity, it is important to understand which landscape features underpin species diversity.



Transylvanian landscape with pasture in the background and arable fields in the center (photo: J. Loos)


In our recently published study, we focused on butterfly diversity patterns in response to landscape variables across a cultural-historic landscape in Southern Transylvania, Romania. In order to follow the notion of a natural experiment, we cross-stratified the landscape according to three categories, two of them representing gradients that are likely to change during a process of land use change- the amount of woody vegetation across the landscape and heterogeneity. We measured heterogeneity by the standard deviation of 2.5 m panchromatic SPOT satellite imagery, which we calculated within one hectare circles across the landscape. The third category represented the protection status, and in SCI, SPA and unprotected sites we made sure to cover an equal amount of study sites.We randomly selected 120 survey sites in farmland, 60 each in grassland and arable land. We applied standard butterfly transects to survey abundance and species richness, and repeated the surveys with a regular distance of three weeks at four occasions during summer 2012. We analysed species composition by Detrended Correspondence Analysis. We modelled total species richness, richness of functional groups, and the abundance of selected individual species in response to topography, woody vegetation cover and heterogeneity at three different spatial scales, using generalised linear mixed effects models. Another step in our survey was to predict distribution patterns of butterfly species richness across the agricultural areas of our study region.

Loos et al. Figure 1

Location of the study area with investigated village catchments in Transylvania, Romania. The small letters indicate the village catchments illustrated for predictions in Figure 4 (a= Cincu, b= Granari, c= Viscri).


In total, we counted 19,878 individuals of 112 species of butterflies. In a nutshell, we found that species richness was widely distributed throughout the entire landscape, which is formed by a mosaic of different land use patches. Surprisingly, we found a wide overlap in species composition in grassland and arable land. The main gradients along which composition changed were heterogeneity at the local and the context scale, woody vegetation cover at context and landscape scales. Furthermore, the species richness in arable land and grassland did not differ significantly. We found a positive effect of local heterogeneity on butterfly species richness in arable land, but a negative effect in grassland. Other variables that explained  patterns of total species richness, richness of functional groups and individual species abundances included plant species richness, but also structural and topographic conditions at multiple scales.

Loos et al. Figure 4

Maps of predicted butterfly distributions in three example villages. Left: Land cover map according to CORINE 2006; middle: predicted species richness for arable and grassland areas within each village catchment; right: predicted abundance of the Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina).

Hence, our study revealed high conservation value of both grassland and arable land in extensive Eastern European farmland. Not only grassland, but also extensive, heterogeneous arable land provides important habitat for butterflies. While butterfly diversity in arable land benefits from the heterogeneity provided by small-scale structures, grasslands should be protected from fragmentation to provide sufficiently large areas for butterflies. Conservation management in extensive European farmland systems needs to consider entire landscapes, and implement appropriate measures at multiple spatial scales.

To access the full paper, go here. To read other papers that have been published within the Romania project go here.


Melanargia galathea, the Marbled White – one of the most common butterflies in arable fields in Transylvania (photo: Jószef Szabo)


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

New paper: Navigating conflicting landscape aspirations. Application of a photo-based Q-method in Transylvania (Central Romania)

Andra Ioana Milcu, Kate Sherren, Jan Hanspach, David Abson, Joern Fischer. Land Use Policy (full paper available here or here)

How do locals look at their landscape and what do they want from it? These are two questions we’ve been trying to answer since the start of our research project, and the answers are “differently” and “many things” respectively. These questions are interesting to ask in the context of any cultural landscape, but all the more of those subject to increased and confusing pressures from external drivers. In Southern Transylvania, the global and European socio-economic contexts translate in demanding and often contradicting challenges for the Saxons landscapes. On the one hand, as globalization turns into reality for this region as well, traditional subsistence agriculture loses its economic profitability and agricultural intensification becomes a strong model for development. On the other hand, a growing awareness of the threats and continuous alterations cultural landscapes are facing drives European policy makers to elaborate conservation policies which seek to preserve the valuable ecological subsystems.

Our aim was to understand the various ways in which locals think and feel about the cultural landscape of Southern Transylvania and its future role. In order to do so, we employed the Q methodology, a research method that explores people’s subjectivity by identifying shared ways of thinking about a certain topic by how they sort a set of stimuli related to it. 129 participants from 30 villages were asked to sort 33 landscape photos in a forced normal distribution according to what they would like to see more of in their village or village surroundings. By focusing on the respondent and his own system of reference without using imposed a priori meanings, the Q method becomes friendlier to the subjects, which might explain some of the positive feedback we received from locals.

We would like to acknowledgephoto credits to the following colleagues, contacts and web-sites, who agreed to the photos being used for the purpose ofthis: Silvina Armat, Ana Saftiuc, Sebastian Dan (,, Cristi Darie, Alin Todea,Mariana Cut¸,, Andrei Ostroveanu,, Viorel Iras¸ cu,, and Jacqueline Loos.

Characteristic arrangement of photos for one of the factors

Our findings revealed five ways (viewpoints) in which locals perceived their landscape.

Landscapes for prosperity and economic development (F1)

People sharing this opinion thought that landscapes should be put at the service of development and seemed most determined to adopt any means or technologies in order to achieve modernization and economic growth. Pictures suggesting wild, nature-dominated landscapes, or traditional agricultural practices were rated poorly. These people were willing to accept a trade-off between prosperity, and cultural and natural heritage, that might come with development. F1 included many state officials and individuals in management positions who often administrate or control relatively large areas of land.

Landscapes for traditions and balance (F2)

People sharing this opinion prioritized spiritual values and saw landscapes as a way to maintain their cultural identity and traditions.Their preferences suggested pastoral landscapes in which people interact with the landscape in somewhat idyllic ways. They were seeking this balanced relationship between human intervention and nature while projecting on the landscape their own expectations. Ironically, they idealized traditional agriculture, although many of them practiced agriculture mostly as a hobby, not as a source of income. Paradoxically, they had a strong need for sense of place, although F2 included the largest proportion of foreigners. As these individuals made a conscious choice to escape modernization, their lifestyle became dependent on the conservation of the landscapes and maintaining the cultural identity.

Landscapes for people (F3)

People sharing this opinion feel that landscapes should fulfill basic human needs and provide leisure activities. In contrast with F2, for F3 agriculture was a way of survival and they looked at landscapes with fear but at the same time gratitude being dependent on it for food, water and heat. They also preferred traditional rural landscapes but without being able to identify those precise elements of cultural identity or heritage. Very specific to this factor was the concern for community cohesion and seeing landscapes as a space for celebration and community. They had the highest proportion of relatively poor subsistence farmers and day laborers.

Landscapes for farming (F4)

People sharing this opinion think that landscapes are meant for farming and cultivating land.

But while F1 individuals wanted to explore all development opportunities offered by nature, F4 individuals generally viewed agriculture as their only option for achieving development and well being. This group was the least impressed by the beauty of nature and felt little connection to recreation activities in nature. However, they expressed appreciation for open landscapes and had an aesthetic preference for well-maintained settings that mirror stewardship qualities, and seemed to prefer a mix of new and old farming practices. This group was dominated by medium-large farmers, directly shaping and being dependent on the landscape.

Landscapes for nature (F5)

This is the group of recreation consumers that appreciate a natural landscape for its visual qualities. Preferred settings suggested high appreciation for greenery-dominated landscapes and denoted the least degree of anthropic intervention  in the landscape. F5 displayed less active engagement in the landscape than F2, less dependence on the landscape than F3 and F4, and considerably less power than F1. This group included retired country-dwellers but also commuters and weekend inhabitants.

Fig. 5

Conceptual space diagram illustrating the positioning of factors and associated viewpoints (regarding the landscape) relative to the level of desired modernization and the change agency level of individuals within a given factor relative to the landscape

In keeping with this diversity of opinions and interests, we believe Southern Transylvania would gain from avoiding ecological and economical simplification, as well as the homogenization of landscapes and cultures. Policies that nurture diverse opportunities for development, by providing equal chances for economically viable farming, such as operational markets for niche products stemming from traditionally managed areas, as well as non-agricultural livelihoods such as culture-based tourism) are key for the region. Economic diversity, with its various income opportunities, is dependent on a diverse and rich landscape. Landscape heterogeneity would also mitigate conflicts of identities and values over the landscape, which are recently arising among locals with different visions and values systems.

To read our paper on landscape preferences in Southern Transylvania go here. To read other papers that have been published within the Romania project go here.


Filed under Research updates, Romania project

Paper recommendation: Rejecting Editorial Rejections Revisited: Are Editors of Ecological Journals Good Oracles?


Reommendation of: Farji-Brener A, Kitzberger T.: Rejecting Editorial Rejections Revisited: Are Editors of Ecological Journals Good Oracles? Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 2014 Jul; 95(3):238-242.

This paper looks at a topic we have been pondering for a while now (e.g. here, here or here): do editorial rejections contribute to the publication of good science or are they just arbitrary decisions that are a nuisance for authors? From our experience editorial rejections seem to be increasingly common. Sometimes (and at best) these come as friendly letters by editors who actually read the manuscript, but mostly they are just the set phrases from a rejection template. Sometimes (and in the worst case), editorial rejections are justified using arguments that contradict the actual publication practice of the very same journal (e.g. “We don’t publish papers on single species” when a similar study on the same species was published not long ago).


Our limited and anecdotal experience with editorial rejections have now been verified by this study of Farji-Brener and Kitzberger. They surveyed the fate of papers with editorial rejections and found that two thirds of the rejected papers where published at a journal of similar quality afterwards. This means that in more than half of the cases the (subject) editor’s decision to reject because of insufficient quality very likely was not justified. It also means that the role of the editors as gatekeepers in most cases does not improve the quality of the publication process, but rather makes it arbitrary and unhelpfully painful for authors.

We hope that this paper is read by many editors and scientists – for the former to challenge their practices and for the latter as a reminder that an editorial rejection will not always constitute a meaningful “expert” judgement of the quality of a given submission.

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