When more of the same won’t do…

By Joern Fischer

Sometimes we reach a point where things simply aren’t moving. We keep trying to do the same thing, over and over, but we’re not making progress. We all know this from our personal lives – and unfortunately, we also know it from our experience as researchers on sustainability issues.

Screen Shot 2018-02-02 at 14.33.25.png

From Fazey et al. 2018: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629617304413

In our personal lives, we might know this situation of things just not moving from relationship crises. We get stuck, and nothing we do seems to work. This can even happen when everyone involved really wants to solve the situation – but somehow, things are stuck. How can such problems be resolved? – I’m sure there are a million answers, but somehow, often what is required is two things: a fresh perspective, and some tangible progress. Combined with a fresh perspective and some tangible “action items”, it is then possible to get apparently hopeless situations unstuck again. By contrast, if we insist on the same old perspective, and if we refuse to change anything tangible… probably we remain stuck.

Arguably, the same is true in a sustainability context. In the above, I reproduced a figure from a new paper by Ioan Fazey and colleagues. In the paper, they recommend ten essential action items for researchers working on climate change – with the goal to give climate change research a push in a direction that actually fosters social change, rather than describing our demise in ever greater detail.

The paper – as summarized in the above figure – proposes ten key action items. Just knowing more, and incrementally improving the performance of existing systems is seen as insufficient. Rather, the authors argue for a more fundamental overhaul of how science is conducted, so that it engages with society, and has the potential to facilitate transformative change that actually transcends existing problems. Engaging with normative questions of what matters, understanding science as part of social learning, and boldly striving for transformative change are among the key recommendations.

And so, funnily enough … just like in a personal relationship that is stuck in a crisis, what is needed for sustainability seems to be a mixture of taking a fresh perspective, and actually doing something tangible, in a different way. This new paper gives a valuable set of ideas for how to start getting unstuck. Worth a read, and certainly useful beyond the specific problem of climate change!

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Conservation of “traditional rural biotopes”

By Joern Fischer

This blog post comes to you from the Finnish town of Jyväskylä (you-what?!), where I was invited to be the opponent for a freshly submitted PhD thesis by Kaisa J. Raatikainen.  I had such a nice experience with this that I felt inspired to write this little reflection here. Kaisa’s thesis is very much worth reading: it’s available for download here.

Slide1

One of the scenarios for traditional rural biotopes depicted by Kaisa Raatikainen in her thesis.

Before we move to more personal matters, let’s start with some science. Kaisa’s thesis focuses on what she calls “traditional rural biotopes”, namely wood pastures and meadows, in Finland. In a situation somewhat analogous to other parts of Europe (including Transylvania, where my own research group did a fair bit of work), traditional land use practices had maintained high levels of biodiversity; and were also tied to cultural heritage. And — again, analogous to many other parts of the world — as such practices are no longer economically profitable, they are being lost, and with them, the biodiversity that they support is declining.

Kaisa’s work is an addition to a growing body of thought on how we might deal with this. There are no simple solutions. But still, Kaisa’s thesis is worth taking a look at for a number of reasons. First, it covers a very impressive range of methods and different approaches. There are two chapters that are essentially empirical field ecology; one that uses a reserve selection algorithm; and one that looks at stakeholder perceptions via the q-method. Moreover, there is a very nice synthesis section, which few people will ever see, unless Kaisa manages to somehow publish bits from this, too … I hope she will! The synthesis includes four plausible future scenarios, one of which I reproduced above in the form of Kaisa’s painting.

What I like about this thesis is that it combines the ecological and social sciences, at a level where both are of a nice quality. As many readers of this blog know, this is also what my research group tries to do. But still — when you look around the world, there really are very few “real” (i.e. field experienced) ecologists who also manage to competently navigate at least some social science methods and ways of thinking. This is a great shame because there is so much to learn by shifting between different perspectives!

On a more personal note, I would like to share with the world that the unpronounceable city of Jyväskylä has a number of very nice people living in it, some of whom I got to meet at the defense and subsequent party yesterday. Thanks, Panu (Halme), for inviting me! This is also where the next European Congress of Conservation Biology will be held —  that’s in June … — meaning you still have time to learn how to pronounce this impossible place. I learned yesterday they’ll have sauna boats for discussion sessions, in case that floats your boat (ha).

It’s nice when good people get to meet. I arrived in Jyväskylä, not knowing how to pronounce it, and not knowing a single person here. I’m leaving with very good impressions, thanks to the many nice people I got to meet. Cheers to Kaisa!

Scenario planning in Ethiopia

By Joern Fischer

Looking at our publication list, one would think not much is coming from our work in Ethiopia. But there will be! It’s a sad fact of scientific life that others only get to find out about your work three years after you’ve done it. In this post, I would like to summarise experiences from six days of workshops on scenario planning in southwestern Ethiopia.

Preamble: This work involved many people! It was led primarily by Ine Dorresteijn, with important contributions by Jan Hanspach, Tolera Senbeto, Feyera Senbeta, Jannik Schultner, Birhanu Bekele and Dadi Feyisa.

About two years ago, we individually met with 30 different groups of stakeholders, from the local to the zonal government level. With each group, we uncovered possible social-ecological changes and their uncertainties, and with each group, we developed causal loop diagrams of the local dynamics – particularly around food security and biodiversity conservation. Participants ranged from local farmers (many of whom never had the chance to attend school) to policy experts at the zonal level.

We took the information and synthesized it into four plausible draft scenarios. This is a step that is a bit different from what many people do in scenario planning: many draw up the scenarios directly with stakeholders. We preferred to get a greater range of input (30 individual workshops), then tidy up systems dynamics into a coherent causal loop diagram ourselves; and work with changes and uncertainties we had heard about repeatedly in the initial workshops.

Our draft scenarios were now presented back to the initial stakeholders in six separate workshops, which combined different stakeholders at three governance levels. We asked participants whether the scenarios were plausible, or if not, how could we make them plausible? We also asked them about opportunities and challenges in the scenarios, and how they might be overcome.

Not least due to fantastic organization of the logistics by our Ethiopian colleagues, we had six very constructive workshops. We included a feedback round in the workshops at the end, and aside from minor misgivings by a small number of participants, we received very nice feedback. What I was most excited about is that people really “got it” – from policy level to local community, we could see how discussions between stakeholders in breakout groups revolved around what is good, and what is bad, and why. We had “extracted” local understandings, and given them back in a format that encouraged (and hopefully empowered) people to think about their future; and take steps to work towards desired outcomes.

Our next steps will be to write up this scenario work, both as a scientific paper, and as a small booklet in local languages. We’ll also prepare some materials that are meaningful to local farmers. And then … in some months, we’ll be back in Ethiopia to distribute the final scenarios and discuss these with a wide range of stakeholders. We hope this work can stimulate fresh thinking about a sustainable future for southwestern Ethiopia. This trip certainly gives me hope that our scientific work isn’t just an ivory-tower, self-indulgent waste of everyone’s time!

What do we value?

By Joern Fischer

In 2012, I led a paper on “Human behavior and sustainability”. Alongside that paper, I wrote a blog post encouraging people to reflect on what it is what we truly value. This was summarized in an open letter, which you can find here.

I thought it’s a nice time to reflect on where my own thinking on this topic is at. With a few years of distance between that initial paper and the open letter and now, some things I see much the same way – and others I see a bit differently.

In the open letter, I implied that many of us probably don’t truly value “ever more stuff” as their deepest life philosophy, but yet we are not actively pursuing what it is that we actually are interested in having more of in our lives. Much of humanity acts as a passive victim of the institutions it created in the past. We’ve locked ourselves into certain trajectories – starting with our mindsets, which are too uncomfortable to question, and our institutions, which are rigid and complex, and it’s hard to know where to even start to fundamentally change anything.

Despite its imperfections, I still think the central tenet of the letter from 2012 is right: we need to start having a conversation about what we truly want. And I think it’s still fundamentally correct that if the answer is “gluttony, even if it’s unjust”, then all is well in the sense that we’re moving in precisely that direction. But … for most of humanity, I don’t think “gluttony, even if it’s unjust” is the philosophy by which they would really like to live. People thrive on good social relations, on balanced time budgets, on a healthy environment, and on “enough” material wellbeing rather than ever more stuff.

Still, this is contentious. In the following, I want to highlight three ways in which my own thinking has slightly moved on since that original paper.

First, there appears to be a clash between two paradigms: the paradigm that we can’t change values, and therefore should work within existing value sets – versus the paradigm that changing values might be hard, but since this is the root cause of our problems, we’d better get started on engaging with this difficult topic. This clash was nicely exemplified in a discussion between Manfredo et al. and Ives and Fischer in a recent issue of Conservation Biology. We argued that value change within instants may not be likely, but social change including fundamental changes in value orientations has been common in human history – and to discount this possibility (when it looks like it’s a necessity) and the possibility of fostering such change seems … well … not so useful. Another nice idea related to societal change and value change is that of a “ripple effect”, which implies that changes in the world can permeate up and down scales – from individual to society, or from society to individual. Things (including values) can change, and do change, and we all play a role in it.

A second area in which I think we can poke around in more is that of deep leverage points – places in a system where small interventions can lead to major changes. Truly deep leverage points relate to shifting to new paradigms and on that basis, re-define system goals. This is very much in line with the idea of reflecting on what we truly value – if the goals of our global system of “gluttony for those who can afford it” are not actually in line with what we want, we’d better change them. This is not straightforward, but would be very influential as a leverage point for social change.

And finally, some colleagues and I have been thinking a bit about how to bring change in our inner and outer worlds into alignment. Sustainability science has firmly focused on our external worlds, but has largely discounted the hidden lived experiences within individuals. Arguably, those are the origin of external phenomena, and it’s only through inner change that stable changes for the better will emerge in the outer world. For now, I’ll just point you to an Abstract of a paper that Rebecca Freeth presented at Resilience 2017 – a full paper on this topic is in preparation.

 

What does training in translational ecology look like?

By Chris Ives

What kind of a workforce do we need to tackle current and future environmental challenges? This is the question that Mark Schwartz and colleagues recently tried to answer in their recent paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. They call for the training and development of “translational ecologists”. But what exactly is a ‘translational ecologist’? Is it a useful concept for navigating future research and teaching or is it just a new buzzword with little substance? In this blog I summarise the paper and provide a few personal reflections. I then mention some exciting job opportunities at the University of Nottingham for new staff contributing to a new holistic, practice-based environmental education programme, similar to those advocated by Schwartz et al.

So what is a ‘translational ecologist’? Schwartz et al. define one as “a professional ecologist with diverse disciplinary expertise and skill sets, as well as a suitable personal disposition, who engages across social, professional, and disciplinary boundaries to partner with decision makers to achieve practical environmental solutions.” The authors highlight three fields of training that is needed for equipping ‘translational ecologists’: (1) multidisciplinary knowledge, (2) practical skills, and (3) personal aptitudes. While I don’t feel a strong personal attachment to the term itself, I really liked the paper because it emphasises qualities and capacities that are often overlooked in environmental training and practice.

The first attribute of translational ecologists is multidisciplinary training. While I do agree with this, I thought it was the least novel dimension of the paper as the need for diverse expertise in addressing environmental challenges has been recognised for a long time. Indeed, conservation science and sustainability science have both been defined as broad interdisciplinary pursuits. Similarly, it’s not new to advocate for scientists to engage with stakeholders (see Cook et al 2013). What I did find useful was the presentation of knowledge as a ‘T’ – i.e. the need to have both deep knowledge of a topic (e.g. metapopulation dynamics in agricultural landscapes), the ‘downstroke’; and a breadth of knowledge from other fields (e.g. law, psychology, toxicology), the ‘cross-stroke’.

The second attribute of translational ecologists is a set of non-scientific skills essential for generating change. According to the authors, such non-traditional skills include negotiation, group leadership, facilitation skills and ethics. These are so often under-valued in my experience, yet are essential to making change happen. Recognising the importance of these skills certainly raises challenges for traditional academic institutions, where academics often (understandably) focus on scientific skills and knowledge.

One reason why I really liked this paper was its emphasis on ‘personal disposition’ as essential to impact. This is the third attribute of translational ecologists. Personal attributes include ‘emotional intelligence’, being comfortable with uncertainty, an ability to view problems from different vantage points along with traits such as patience, humility and a professional focus towards society. I fully agree with all of these and they certainly relate to individuals’ inner worlds as being important ‘deep leverage points’ for societal change (see here and here, for example). One question that came to my mind however was whether such qualities can be cultivated as part of a training programme or whether they are to be considered ‘prerequisites’ for training in ‘translational ecology’.

After outlining these three attributes of translational ecology, the authors (helpfully) presented them into a schematic that helps individuals identify their suitability as translational ecologists and perhaps areas where further growth is needed. Figure 1 shows a number of potential locations of interdisciplinary scholars (depicted by a ‘T’) according to their capacity along two axes: translational skills (the second attribute), and personal disposition. I think it usefully demonstrates that simply having a grasp of a diverse range of intellectual insights may not be sufficient to be someone who brings about real-world change for the environment.

T graph

Figure 1. A depiction of where interdisciplinary ecologists may sit along the two additional axes of translational ecology: translational skills and personal disposition.

Although I very much enjoyed reading the paper, there are a couple of points of critique I thought I should mention. First, is that there seemed to be an underlying assumption that change comes through engaging formally identified ‘decision-makers’ – this is true in many instances but in many parts of the world change may come more effectively through bottom-up influences. Also I was concerned that the term ‘translational ecology’ elevates ecology over other fields of environmental scholarship. While it is understandable given the journal and the authors’ backgrounds, the concept could equally be termed a ‘translational geographer’, ‘translational climate scientist’, or ‘translational sustainability scientist’.

The second half of the paper includes discussion of how training for ‘translational ecologists’ can be achieved. The authors argue that the need for ‘translational ecologists’ is going to increase dramatically particularly in boundary organisations outside of academia. They then discuss the importance of education and training for equipping individuals for this task, both within and outside of traditional academic institutions.

This timing and content of the paper was particularly pertinent to me, as I’m currently helping to develop a proposed new MSc programme at the University of Nottingham in “Environmental Leadership and Management”. Schwartz et al.’s assertion that “traditional graduate training, which continues to emphasize the importance of curiosity- and theory- driven inquiry, is often insufficient for developing aptitude to inform practical solutions” resonated with my and my colleagues’ recognition that this new teaching programme must equip students to be agents of positive change and not just a source of academic knowledge about the world. Developing training for practical skills and personal aptitude will be an exciting challenge going forward.

In the School of Geography, we are looking to employ a number of new academic staff from September 2018. We are looking for individuals with expertise in areas such as sustainability science, environmental decision-making and stewardship, environmental humanities, health geography, climate risk, and geomorphology. In addition to the opportunity to pursue research along these themes, these positions represent a chance to contribute to developing a transformational, interdisciplinary environmental master’s programme. This is an exciting time for our school, so if these posts would be of interest to you or someone you know, please take a look here:

http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/jobs/currentvacancies/ref/SOC439 – 4 posts for Assistant and Associate Professors

http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/jobs/currentvacancies/ref/SOC464517 – Fixed term Assistant Professor until 31st January 2020

 

What makes research transdisciplinary?

Integration and Implementation Insights

Community member post by Liz Clarke

Liz Clarke (biography)

What do we mean by transdisciplinarity and when can we say we are doing transdisciplinary research? There is a broad literature with a range of different meanings and perspectives. There is the focus on real-world problems with multiple stakeholders in the “life-world”, and a sense of throwing open the doors of academia to transcend disciplinary boundaries to address and solve complex problems. But when it comes to the practicalities of work in the field, there is often uncertainty and even disagreement about what is and isn’t transdisciplinarity.

Let me give an example. In discussing our collaborations and inquiry in the Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation project case study areas (Transylvania, Romania and Oldenburg, Germany), we were struck by the very different kinds of engagement for various sub-teams and individuals. In some instances, researchers are collaborating closely with a core…

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Conservation impossible in ‘silent’ developing countries

Note by Joern: Today a guest post by Badrul Azhar. I look forward to your comments!

Authored by Badrul Azhar

I am thankful that Joern has been kind enough to let me post this sensitive article on his blog. There are few other good platforms to air my opinion among fellow conservation scientists.

Next generation of conservation padawans

The next generation of Malaysian conservation scientists (photo by Badrul Azhar)

Working as a conservation scientist in a developing country requires a high level of perseverance and endurance, to face the litany of domestic and global challenges–especially if you’re a local resident, from a less fortunate socio-economic background, exposed to red-tape culture, with little resources, and are a non-native speaker of English. Most counterparts from developed countries may not understand, nor encounter these problems. If they did, I suspect that no-one would ever produce significant or valid works in conservation science.

I feel a need to share my insights about what is happening today in mainstream conservation science, and what is routinely experienced by fellow scientists in other developing countries. Apparently, we’re fortunate to reside and work in some of the remaining countries still rich with tropical biodiversity. For sure, we’re just 15 or 20 minutes drive to the nearest tropical rainforest, and we can study various organisms and taxa, from viruses to tigers. Yet, in reality, we’re crippled by many shortcomings. These prevent us excelling to the levels we watch our counterparts in the developed world achieve.

Allow me to explain. A few weeks ago I saw an advertisement from a professor in a developed country looking for a PhD candidate to study oil palm biodiversity in Southeast Asia. So I advised a former postgraduate student (MSc by research) to email the professor to apply for the specific PhD research. Unfortunately, I learned from my student that the PhD opportunity is only available to those from that specific developed country. This former student has published several research articles on oil palm biodiversity in impact factor journals, and it would have been a great opportunity for him to be trained abroad, particularly in the developed world. Sadly, all too often this is not possible.

I was immensely lucky. I was given the rare opportunity to further my study abroad twice through government scholarship (not because I’m an outstanding student–I was merely in the right place at the right time). My first opportunity was my MSc in the UK and the other my PhD in Australia. Similar scholarships are now enormously competitive and incredibly rare. Many such scholarships have been withdrawn during this period of economic slowdown that is impacting conservation science. You stand a better chance to win a scholarship if you are pursuing a postgraduate degree in critical field areas such as medicine, engineering and biotechnology.

For many years, I’ve reflected that assistance, such as financial support, mentoring systems, and basic facilities made available either from abroad or domestically to local conservation scientists, have been evaporating. I have also noticed that foreign scientists, who conduct their research in my country, are well funded by agencies from their wealthy origin. Interestingly, some research projects, spearheaded by foreign scientists in my country, are even funded by local companies, generously contributing tens of millions of dollars to ensure great impacts and produce high-quality findings. On the other hand, local scientists are only awarded a tiny fraction of what their counterparts from the developed world have received (if they have been successful in their grant application from government agencies). To my knowledge, on average, my colleagues receive less than USD$15,000 per research project, to finance their work for two years (this may not apply to other developing countries). These days, that small amount of grant money is unlikely to ensure that colleagues in the developing world can advance conservation science and natural resource management, or even to get their research outcomes published in leading journals such as Nature and Science. Fieldwork in remote areas is very costly (you have to pay to access some pristine forests), and researchers are poorly equipped (both in the office and field) to conduct research in the developing world. Attending important conferences, domestically or internationally, is considered a luxury only few can afford. Like many of my colleagues, I would rather spend every cent of the small grant money I accrue to support the students collecting data in the field.

Sincerely, I do not resent those who have secured huge research grant money from my country. However, if the benefits have gone mostly to foreign scientists, rather than to local people, there is an ethical question that needs to be answered by both grant receivers and givers. Local scientists, as well as students, are being sidelined directly or indirectly from studying important conservation topics in their own country, in favour of outsiders. In the long run, conservation science will be less attractive, with no good prospects, for local people (already, many seem comfortable to be identified as naturalists instead of scientists), and conservation degrees in local universities will fail to attract the best brains or even sustainable student numbers.

There is a moral responsibility among conservation scientists from the developed world to partner with scientists in developing countries, and to be seriously involved in capacity building of their counterparts who are at the forefront of the biodiversity crisis. I welcome foreign scientists researching in my country, as long there is a win-win situation for local counterparts (e.g. publications, genuine networking and capacity building).

It’s remarkable that on the cusp of 2018 these statements even need to be made. It’s worth reflecting if conservation science is dominated by elite groups that share similar cultural and socio-economic values. If this is so, the advancement of conservation science is being skewed more to the developed world (judging from the number of research articles published) while it seems to be ‘quiet’ from a significant number of developing countries. Could this be a contributing reason for why conservation science has failed on the ground (beyond the realm of journal publication), particularly in developing countries? Similarly, it’s also worth contemplating why there are so many published articles delivering the same rigid bad news in tropical conservation science these days, while little progress or success has been made in reality. Is this status quo going to remain forever?

Read an Excerpt of Beginning to End Hunger

Check out this very nice chapter (follow the links) — eight excellent points by Jahi Chappell on common myths of global food security.

Beginning to End Hunger

The full first chapter of my forthcoming book, Beginning to End Hunger, is now available on UC Press’s page for BTEH! 

This introductory chapter, titled “Food and famine futures, past and present,” introduces Beginning to End Hunger’s main themes, and puts them into broader context by way of a brief history of thought on hunger and famines and my own intellectual evolution. It offers eight simple rules for understanding our food systems, correcting common misconceptions about world hunger and how to solve it. It also argues that critical thought and reflection is needed to understand hunger and to understand the reasons why it is so often framed in expedient ways. Rather than focusing on how much food is produced, for example, ending hunger will require re-thinking and re-making the institutions (norms, rules, and values) that govern food systems. This first chapter (and the excerpt) ends with an outline of…

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A landscape approach to sustainability

By Joern Fischer

A few days ago, I was part of an online panel discussion organised by the Global Landscapes Forum.  We discussed questions about what a landscape approach is, and how it might be implemented — and we touched on many interesting topics and identified challenges for the future. The webinar was recorded and is available on youtube; or you can watch it directly here.

New paper: Coffee management and the conservation of forest bird diversity in southwestern Ethiopia

By Patricia Rodrigues

Olá!

I am Patrícia, one of Joern’s PhD students working on his ERC-project that aims to identify social-ecological system properties benefiting food security and biodiversity. Very briefly, my background is in ecology and conservation biology and I’ve worked on topics such as the biogeography of Angolan mammals, the effects of cashew expansion on biodiversity in Guinea-Bissau, or on land use changes in a landscape undergoing farmland abandonment in Portugal.

On the way to Guido Bere forest at sunrise

Within this ERC-project I am working on the empirical case study that takes place in the rural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia. In my research, I am assessing the effects of coffee production and forest fragmentation on biodiversity, more specifically on birds and mammals. Also, and taking advantage of our awesome inter and transdisciplinary research group, I am looking at a global driver of change in our planet – population growth. I am doing this using a lens from the social sciences, and trying to understand which factors influence women’s fertility decisions and what promotes or hinders the use of family planning methods in the region.

But let’s move on to the main purpose of this post, which is to share with you the findings of a new paper we’ve published where we’ve looked into the effects of coffee management and landscape context on forest bird diversity in southwestern Ethiopia.

In the landscapes of our study area, coffee is mostly grown under the shade of native trees, and management varies in intensity but it is mostly done using traditional practices (such as the clearing of the understory and thinning and pruning of the canopy). In order to understand if the variation in coffee management had an effect on the bird community we sampled birds (between Nov 2015 and Feb 2016) in a total of 66 forest points that differed in their degree of coffee management and accessibility. Some of the points were located on the forest interior, in nearly undisturbed and very hard to access forest, while other points were located in relatively intensively managed coffee forest.

Overall, we found a diverse community of forest birds (76 species, 6 endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea) and we found no effect of coffee management and landscape context on total species richness and total abundance of birds. However, the richness of forest and dietary specialists increased with higher forest naturalness (a local effect), and with increasing distance from the edge and amount of forest cover (a landscape effect). Wrapping up, our results indicate that conservation measures need to consider both local and landscape scales, and that, on the one hand traditional shade coffee management practices can maintain a diverse suite of forest birds, on the other, the conservation of forest specialists hinges on the maintenance and protection of large undisturbed areas of natural forest.