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.

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Nice short movie: wood pastures in Southern Transylvania


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

By Joern Fischer

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

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

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

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


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

How much survey effort is enough?

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

Alma Vii 14.7 (2)

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

The full paper is available here:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Exploring food security and biodiversity in Ethiopia’s Southwest

By Joern Fischer

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

before the rain ethiopia 040

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

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

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

our campsite ethiopia 155

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

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



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