The Importance of Knowing How: A Pluralistic and Integrated Approach to Action-Oriented Knowledge for Sustainability

SCIENCE FOR SUSTAINABILITY

Sustainability is complex: it emerges at the interface of ecology, society, economy, and culture and is subjected to influences from normative and political issues of equity and justice. This inherent complexity requires a wide range of actions and capacities in order to address interconnected sustainability challenges. In a recent publication, Caniglia et al. (2020) introduce a systematic approach that clarifies how knowledge emerges from and simultaneously supports processes of action and capacity building for sustainability. The authors present the main kinds of knowledge that support sustainability interventions and outline a pluralistic and integrated approach to connecting different kinds of action-oriented knowledge.

Caniglia et al. (2020) introduce the Prerna Girls School in Lucknow, India, as a startling example of how multiple kinds of knowledge can be integrated to generate change towards sustainability .

Action-oriented research in sustainability science aims to build knowledge in support of interventions and capacities for sustainability. In…

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What Might the Future Look Like? Participatory Scenario Development in Southwestern Ethiopia

SCIENCE FOR SUSTAINABILITY

Many agricultural landscapes in the Global South share two urgent challenges: improving food security while also conserving biodiversity. These challenges are intimately connected through land use practices, livelihoods, and governance arrangements. Southwestern Ethiopia exhibits many of the social-ecological system properties of other rural landscapes in the Global South, including rapid population growth, ecosystem degradation driven by land use change, and an oftentimes ineffective administration. With the help of participatory planning, Jiren et al. (2020) developed four plausible future scenarios for the area in order to build adaptive capacity among stakeholders and generate shared visions for the future.

Left: Jiren et al. (2020) focused on three kebeles (municipalities) that capture the ecological and social diversities of the area and differ in terms of accessibility to social infrastructure. (Jiren et al. 2020, p. 2). Right: Southwestern Ethiopia hosts an important share of global biodiversity and supports the remaining Afromontane forests of Ethiopia. (

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The Not So Common Opossum – Population Density Estimates from an Agroecosystem in Bolivia

SCIENCE FOR SUSTAINABILITY

Didelphis marsupialis, the common opossum, is a nocturnal mammal that can be found from northeastern Argentina to Mexico and the Lesser Antilles. The omnivore thrives well near human settlements and agroecosystems where food resources are abundant. Although population density is one of the most important ecological parameters to understand ecosystems and apply management strategies, there are neither recently published density estimations of D. marsupialis in Bolivia nor in agroecosystems in general. In a recent study, Benavides et al. (2020) present the first density estimate of the common opossum in an agroforest in the Bolivian Amazonian region.

The common opossum. (R. Álvarez Mora)  

Agroecosystems in the lowland tropics are highly diverse, varying from monocultures to diversified agroforests. The study community in Remolinos in eastern Bolivia encompasses about 2000 ha of mountainous terrain exhibiting a mixture of undisturbed vegetation and secondary forest patches. Most of the community’s lands are covered…

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Paper recommendation: Michael Soulé (1936-2020) on Spirituality, Ethics, and Conservation Biology

I’d like to warmly recommend the following paper: Michael Soulé (1936-2020) on Spirituality, Ethics, and Conservation Biology. B Taylor. Conserv Biol 2020 Sep 09 DOI: 10.1111/cobi.13634

Michael Soulé, widely regarded as the founding father of Conservation Biology, passed away in June 2020. Numerous obituaries have been written to commemorate his life since then. The article recommended here is less of an obituary, but rather an analysis of how Soulé’s spirituality influenced and interacted with his science. By mapping out the role of spirituality in the life of one of conservation’s giants, the article makes a very important contribution – it shows how beyond the readily quantifiable and observable facts of science, ethics, ongoing questioning, rejection of black-and-white thinking, and empathy for all living beings were key ingredients to what made Soulé a great conservation scientist, and an inspiring human being. Modern conservation biologists can learn a lot from Soulé – of course, from his science, but perhaps more importantly from his deep engagement with intuition and spirituality.

A Social-Ecological Approach to Ecosystem Restoration in an Era of Global Change

SCIENCE FOR SUSTAINABILITY

The coming ten years were recently declared the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration by the United Nations. In their opinion article, Fischer et al. (2020) reflect on the future of restoration as a science and practice. To that end, the authors review recent social-ecological systems research and summarize key themes that could help to improve ecosystem restoration in dynamic social contexts. Based on these reflections, Fischer et al. (2020) suggest two cross-cutting new research priorities specifically focusing on social-ecological restoration.

The UN declared 2021-2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

Ecosystem restoration – the process of assisting the recovery of a degraded, damaged, or destroyed ecosystem – faces many new challenges rooted in global social-ecological change: shifts in environmental and social baselines call for restoration goals to not only include ecological criteria for success but to also consider effects on human benefits, landscape multifunctionality, and resilience. Fischer et al. (2020) suggest that…

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Teaching environmental science in an era of destruction

By Joern Fischer

Today it’s Friday. And our children and students are back in the streets, doing what they can to bring about social change from the bottom up. The next generation is seriously concerned, and this concern is particularly prevalent among those studying subjects like ecology, sustainability, or environmental science. How do we, as teachers and lecturers, best meet these students?

Things are different now than they were just a few years ago. The sense of urgency is higher among those interested in sustainability issues; and the general sense of frustration is also heightened. We live in a polarized era, “dancing around the volcano”, with major change in the air, but with little clarity of what exactly that major change is going to be. There’s a backlash against science (in some countries more than others), but there are also more and more concerned young people specifically interested in the science of sustainability. Virtually all students I meet these days are interested not only in the science of the environment, but are also seriously and deeply concerned about the state of the world.

This poses three challenges, which have probably always been there, but are somehow more acute now.

First, how do we draw the line between sustainability science and sustainability activism? What is a good scientific argument, and what is merely a political argument? I see in our students that their passion to change the world for the better, collectively, is at an all time high. But what is the role of science in this?

We need to be clear about what academic training can and can’t do. Academic training can’t, hasn’t and won’t single-handedly solve the world’s problems. However, it can make sure our arguments are rooted in reflected positions underpinned by a sound understanding of the problem at hand. One widely recognised aspect of this is to base arguments on facts rather than argue simply by assertion. In our teaching, we can make sure that we get students to disentangle what is a passionate argument versus what is an academically strong argument. Mind you, it’s not only certain narcissistic politicians who argue by assertation without a factual basis – weak arguments and unfounded assertions are also made by supporters of sustainability, including at times, by sustainability scientists.

Second, we can try to teach a certain degree of mental agility – depending on our assumptions or worldviews, what is a rational and obvious course of action for one individual is not at all sensible for someone else. Ongoing questioning of the deeper foundation of our arguments thus is central to meaningfully engage with the glut of information we are now confronted with. Is agricultural modernization going to help Africa, or is the green revolution paradigm underpinning such modernization just a new type of colonialism?

When there is no obvious right or wrong, listening, reasoning and ongoing learning are needed – there is no simple answer to complex and value-laden problems. Especially in the natural sciences, where many students still expect that there should be right and wrong, it is healthy to acknowledge that scientists and non-scientists alike construct discourses that are rooted in certain worldviews; where different discourses will lead to different recommendations for policy or management.

Third, a more recent challenge when teaching environmental science, is to confront growing levels of worry, anxiety and grief about the state of the world in our students. Deeply engaging with issues such as environmental destruction or institutionalised inequity can be truly depressing. As student activists in the street are shouting for climate justice, they feel a sense of empowerment, and anything seems possible. But when these same students come back to their classrooms, being taught in intricate detail how the world is falling apart, but without a sense that things are going to change anytime soon … things can feel pretty heavy. I suggest making space in our classes for discussing questions of hope and despair, of worries and anger about the state of the world.

Last but not least, the issues raised here are not only relevant to students, but also to more experienced scientists. We are grappling with the same challenges as our students, just perhaps with a few more years of experience – making us older (definitely) but not necessarily any wiser (unfortunately). We, too, need to regularly differentiate between a passionate argument and a good argument. We, too, need to remain open to multiple different perspectives, which includes listening to and engaging with worldviews we’d rather stay away from. And we, too, need to cope with the state of the world.

I am humbled by our children and students. Thank you, next generation, for not closing your eyes to the many sustainability problems of our times. Science won’t give you all the answers, but perhaps scientific training can help you apply your intellect carefully to the complex problems you will face over the coming decades.

Water is Life: Exploring the Forest-Water Nexus in a Mexican Watershed

SCIENCE FOR SUSTAINABILITY

Water ecosystem services (ESw) play a central role in human well-being: they provide drinking water, act as flood mitigation, facilitate recreational activities, and serve many more functions. These services are related to aquatic ecosystems and to the interaction with water and land in areas such as forests, agricultural lands, riparian areas, wetlands, and water bodies. Water resources in these systems are sensitive to landscape changes and have been significantly modified worldwide due to changes in land-use and land-cover. Ávila-García et al. (2020) explore the forest-water nexus and provide an overview of the water management related to potential hydrological impacts of land-use and land-cover change in a watershed in southeastern Mexico.

The Río Grande de Comitán-Lagos de Montebello watershed is located in the region of highlands of Chiapas which exhibits high biodiversity and environmental heterogeneity. Water ecosystem services are reported to be of vital importance to the watershed’s social-ecological functioning. However…

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Fair Trade? Patterns and Consequences of Ecologically Unequal Exchange

SCIENCE FOR SUSTAINABILITY

Humanity depends on natural resources. Worldwide, in part driven by international trade, their use has reached unprecedented levels and will presumably further rise in the coming decades. However, unequal trade patterns result in global socio-economic inequalities and obstruct sustainability. This asymmetry of international trade is a crucial determinant of the capacity of individual nations to accumulate capital and technological infrastructure and thereby achieve economic growth. In their recent paper, Dorninger et al. (2020) analyse patterns of resource consumption and economic growth in order to empirically demonstrate the occurrence of ecologically unequal exchange as a persistent feature of the global economy.

Traditionally, the conversation on economics is centred around monetary flows. The theory of ecologically unequal exchange, however, argues that in order to provide an exhaustive account of economic growth, the net transfers of material resources must be included. In other words, the mainstream definition of value as based on monetary…

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Exploring the Health of the Earth: Living Planet Report 2020

SCIENCE FOR SUSTAINABILITY

Biodiversity is fundamental to human life on Earth. Yet, it is being destroyed by us at a rate unprecedented in history. The biennially published Living Planet Report constitutes the world’s leading scientific analysis of the state of the planet: it documents developments and trends in biodiversity, ecosystems, and human demand of natural resources and their effects on people and wildlife. In other words, the report synthesizes a variety of research to provide a comprehensive view of the health of the Earth. 

The Living Planet Report is based on the Living Planet Index which tracks the abundance of almost 21,000 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians around the world. Trends in species populations can act as a measure of overall ecosystem health: serious declines are a proxy for the unravelling of nature. While land-use change has been the most important direct driver of terrestrial biodiversity loss in the last…

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Going Beyond Binary Rural Development Models: Recognizing Diversity and Change in Farming Landscapes with a Biocultural Perspective

SCIENCE FOR SUSTAINABILITY

by Stefan Ortiz Przychodzka

Farming landscapes in the Global South are increasingly suffering the pressures of multiple global crises involving social, economic, environmental and political factors. Narratives on how to resolve this situation and to guide the design of public policies often juxtapose two idealized development models: agroindustrial farming versus traditional agriculture. This dualistic perspective on rural development fails to acknowledge the heterogeneity of farming practices, therefore providing simplistic solutions for wicked problems.

In this post I synthetize reflections on this topic presented during a panel discussion on “Development models and ecology in the Global South” which took place in the International Forum 2020 “Wellbeing and subjectivities across the Global South” at the University of Tübingen in July 2020.

In my presentation I described examples of indigenous farming landscapes in Colombia to highlight the contribution of biocultural approaches to better understand the opportunities, challenges and contradictions of indigenous…

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