Managing rural landscapes in tradition

By Joern Fischer

Throughout the world, we find landscapes that used to be dominated by smallholder farming. Despite great differences between such places, there are also many commonalities. For example, agriculture tends to be conducted for local use rather than for distant locations; many members of the local communities are engaged in farming; farming methods are relatively simple in technological terms (and happen without a lot of input of modern technologies or fossil fuels) — and people often have “enough”, but are not able to access or accumulate large quantities of economic wealth.

Examples of such places exist around the world, and they share one more commonality: they are rapidly changing. How can rural landscapes in transition best be managed? Based on our work in Romania, I propose five common take-home messages for rural landscapes in transition.

1. Natural capital provides a solid foundation for development, while other capital stocks may be lacking

If we think about landscapes as a series of capital stocks, it becomes apparent quite quickly what the strengths and weaknesses of traditional farming landscapes might be. There is often little in terms of modern infrastructure (or physical capital), so that for example access to markets might be not very good; and agriculture might rely on large amount of human labour. Human capital then, is usually quite high when it comes to farming labour, but low when it comes to high levels of formal education. Financial capital is often lacking. Social capital is often quite high in traditional societies, but perhaps the most obvious capital stock is natural capital. Traditional farming landscapes are, often, very biodiverse. Some biodiversity may be lost when such landscapes become economically more prosperous, but at the same time, I would argue that natural capital provides a solid foundation for development, on top of which other capital stocks can be accumulated. If development focuses narrowly on just (for example) modern farming equipment and pumping investment into an area, it’s likely this would come at a high cost to natural (and quite possibly also social) capital.  So, a wise choice, to my mind, is to be aware of what these landscapes already are rich in, and not destroy this in the process of trying to improve human well-being (assuming that this is the goal, rather than just profit, in which case it’s not sustainable development anyway!).

2. Market-oriented incentives may erode a traditional stewardship ethic

A second, perhaps more speculative point is that many traditional rural landscapes use long-established methods to manage the natural environment. These methods typically go hand in hand with an understanding of what’s right and proper — certain activities ought to be done in certain seasons for example. Such traditional rules are typically upheld by informal institutions, together with a stewardship ethic of how one ought to look after the land. It follows that “modern” monetary incentives need to be used carefully. Pumping money into systems with a traditionally strong stewardship ethic can actually erode this ethic, thus accelerating environmental decline by destroying the value basis of sustainable practices.

3. Good governance is critical (accountability, trust) for sustainability

It somehow goes without saying — and was extremely obvious in our work in Romania — that not much good will come of “development” that is governed badly. When money disappears or nepotism is rife, environmental and social outcomes are unlikely to be very good.

4. Equity issues are likely to emerge as social structures change

Just like the potential danger of monetary incentives is widely under-appreciated, there is only little understanding and interest in equity issues. As development takes place, differences in wealth between the rich and poor tend to be magnified in traditional farming landscapes. Who decides who gets to win and who misses out? Questions such as this, and questions around access to ecosystem services (and also government subsidies) are likely to arise. Unless they are managed well, they can lead to major disappointment and disillusions about development among local people.

5. In the absence of a “benevolent dictator”, change must happen through empowering communities (bottom-up)

A lot of natural scientists like to recommend to decision-makers what they calculated to be optimal or efficient solutions. Well, fine. But what if there are no benevolent dictators interested in such information? I would argue that many of the world’s rural landscapes — and especially those in transition — are governed in complex or even messy ways, where it is not clear that anybody in particular is “in charge”; nor that anybody in particular is interested in guiding development in a way that is optimal or efficient from a sustainability perspective. In such cases, it’s important for scientists to be open to the idea that change will not come from the top down, through policy. Rather, I think there is value in engaging with local communities and providing information to people directly, so that nascent initiatives can work towards sustainability from the bottom up.

These five points are a subjective list of observations from our work in Romania. They may or may not apply to other locations in the world. I’d be interested in people’s thoughts on the possible generality of some of these.

Values, conservation and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

In 1992, Shalom Schwartz published a seminal paper entitled “Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries”. The paper has been cited something like 12,000 times, and the findings have been refined since then. In short, it summarises different value orientations held by individuals. On reading this paper, I began to wonder what the implications of this are for conservation and sustainability.



I’ll start with a disclaimer and a summary of what Schwartz found. First the disclaimer: perhaps everything I write below has long been known by people working on conservation and sustainability, and I’m very late in catching up. If so, I’m happy to be further educated, e.g. by people explaining to me and other readers how this has been applied to conservation and sustainability in the comments below. But if I’m somewhat “typical”, then this is not at all widely known, understood, or reflected upon within the conservation and sustainability fields. And if that is the case, there might be some pretty important implications that require our attention.

Second – a summary of what Schwartz found. In the original paper from 1992, Schwartz developed theory, and then tested it on a large sample of individuals from a number of different countries. His theory was largely confirmed, and went something like this. Different people hold different values. Some values are compatible, whereas others are oppositional. Compatible values are, for example, if I value the attainment of wealth, and if I value the achievement of social recognition. Oppositional values might be valuing tradition versus seeking excitement in life.

These kinds of constructs – compatible and oppositional values – can be depicted in a kind of circular wheel, as shown in the Figure above. This wheel was generated by a multivariate analysis of many people responding to the same questions about their values, so this is an empirically grounded theory . Adjacent sectors in this wheel are compatible values, whereas opposite sectors in the wheel are oppositional.

So far so good – how is this relevant to conservation and sustainability? I think it is in a number of ways.

A lot of the values associated with conservation and sustainability cluster in the sector on “universalism” (top right). For example, here, we find “protecting the environment”, “social justice”, and even “unity with nature”. Opposite of that, we find the sector “power”, with values such as “wealth” and “social recognition”.

We can now ask ourselves where in this wheel individuals belonging to different cultures might sit. This is relevant for conservation and sustainability, because we might pitch our messages differently, according to people’s values (e.g. see this comprehensive report, or here for a simpler summary; and here for additional materials).

But I think perhaps there is something even more interesting going on. Here, I present three testable hypotheses, which would have implications for conservation and sustainability action.

Hypothesis 1: A substantial proportion of the population (probably differing between jurisdictions) actually holds values that are compatible with universalist values (i.e. sustainability and biodiversity conservation).

Hypothesis 2: Despite this, we are seeing patterns of behaviour at an aggregate (societal) level that emphasise values that are largely oppositional to sustainability, such as achievement and power. That is, we have created institutions that foster values that are not inherently shared by people. We thus have a mismatch between the value sets fostered by institutions and the value sets held by people.

Hypothesis 3: If this is correct, the “solution” to sustainability problems becomes one of “simply” re-aligining institutions to what people actually want. This may be a major task, but is a relatively smaller problem than if people themselves actually did not hold values compatible with sustainability. In other words, we may not need to “re-educate people”, but rather draw out what people actually want, and ensure that institutions are reformed in ways that reflect the want of “the people”.

Hopelessly optimistic? Actually, people are selfish and individualistic, and care about power and wealth and nothing else? Perhaps – convince me if you can. But at this stage I think it’s more likely that we are dealing with a mis-match between values fostered through institutions and values held by individuals. I speculate, in turn, that such a mis-match has probably arisen from power dynamics that go hand in hand with how we have organized societies (including economic principles); i.e. the whole thing is an institutional and power problem, not fundamentally one of values.

If I’m right, all of this points to us needing more conversations at a societal level about what it is that we truly value — and then working towards how to (re-)organise society accordingly. And then who knows, perhaps sustainability is within closer reach than we may have thought …

Understanding migration from a social-ecological perspective

By Joern Fischer

At the Development Research Conference in Stockholm this morning, I attended a session on migration in Africa, focusing especially but not only on Ethiopia. Two projects introduced and currently being developed struck me as worthwhile to summarise for readers of this blog.

First, Gunilla Olsson outlined her nascent project, which focuses on livelihoods as key drivers underpinning the decision to stay or migrate. Existing research, she highlighted, had mainly focused on socio-economic drivers of migration, while environmental drivers had received relatively less attention. Drawing on Black et al. (2011), she highlighted that other potential drivers include social and cultural, demographic, political, and institutional or governance drivers. Migration, she showed, was a key topic of our times, including within Africa, but also between Africa and Europe (see recent outcomes of the Valletta summit).

Gunilla’s upcoming research will address the adequacy of current governance frameworks and will investigate livelihoods as drivers of migration. The research will focus on Ethiopia, which she argued, has a number of different potential drivers operating all at once – including climate change, land use change, “land grabbing”, and conflicts. Moreover, Ethiopia has the largest refugee camps in Africa – and a lot of migration from Ethiopia is directed at the European Union.

Among several other interesting presentations, a second one I’d like to highlight was by Lisa Garbe and Kathleen Hermans, who is also in the process of setting up new research on migration in Ethiopia; and also taking a social-ecological perspective.

Lisa and Kathleen focused, quite specifically, on the role of drought as a potential driver of migration – a recurring and increasingly frequent phenomenon in many parts of Ethiopia. To this end, Kathleen showed spatial analyses that identified locations where the likelihood of out-migration is particularly high. Specifically, maps of (declining) net primary productivity across Ethiopia, and of rainfall variability together provide a good picture of where the environmental risk of droughts may be particularly pronounced. If this is combined with maps of population density, it is possible to identify likely hotspots of out-migration – places where population density is high, rainfall variability is high, and land is already in a degraded condition.

Building on this desktop-based analysis, Lisa led some field research in South Wollo – one of the regions previously identified as a potential hotspot of out-migration. Two kebeles (local municipalities) were selected for in-depth investigation, and in these kebeles over 300 households were surveyed and a number of focus groups were conducted. Household surveys focused on comparing livelihood strategies in drought-years versus non-drought years; and looked at coping strategies in the event of drought.

Looking at migration, in particular, the findings showed that only one of the two kebeles had migration as a common coping strategy. Moreover, the drought played an important role for migration only in the kebele with high migration levels, but not in the other one. Thus, one kebele appeared to be hit harder by drought than the other one – an interesting finding since the two kebeles are very close to one another. Such small-scale differences raise new questions for research, and pose challenges for adapting policy measures to local conditions.

No doubt there will be more interesting research coming out of Gunilla’s and Kathleen’s research groups in the future! Overall, I found this a nice session. Applying a social-ecological perspective to migration seems a nice avenue worth exploring in more detail.

The politics of rescaling environmental governance and development practice

By Joern Fischer

Still in Stockholm, at the Development Research Conference 2016, today I’ll summarise yet another interesting keynote talk – by Professor Andrea Nightingale. Her talk was entitled “Global Challenges and Visions for Change: the politics of rescaling environmental governance and development practice”, and her Abstract is available (halfway down the page) here.

Focusing primarily on climate change policy in Nepal, Andrea asked four key questions. Who decides the scale of a problem? Which mechanisms are in place to govern a problem? What are the consequences of scaling problems as “global” versus “national” versus “local”? And how do new governance mechanisms play out on the ground?

To start with, Andrea reminded us that scale reflects relationships in the world, but is primarily defined socially. Moreover, scale in a context of policy action can reveal the politics of problem formulation. And finally, just like “time doesn’t exist, but clocks do”, “scale doesn’t exist, but levels [along a scale] do”. That is, how the continuum of scale is broken up into levels is a subjective process that different people will do in different ways for different purposes.

Andrea then introduced two key themes that would run through her talk. First, she introduced the REDD+ programme, which seeks to encourage the sequestration of carbon in forests, “plus” providing benefits to people on the ground. Hence, in Nepal, for example, people might get paid to protect or manage forests, through carbon offsets being purchased in other places (i.e. primarily in wealthy countries). Second, Andrea introduced the notion of climate change adaptation planning, or national adaptation plans of action (NAPAs).

Moving on to scale, Andrea pointed out that a lot of climate change modeling has been, quite inherently, global in scale. Down-scaling climate models is turning out to be extremely complicated in a technical sense. But perhaps more profoundly, Andrea argued, the inherent focus on global models in climate change – defining climate change as inherently “global” – may inadvertently prevent us from finding suitable solutions at sub-global scales.

Existing governance programmes such as REDD+ and NAPA require project coordination across scales – they are conceived at the global level, but play out in particular places. At the same time, Andrea observed there had been a distinct shift from participation (which was encouraged with Agenda 21 in the 1990s) to carbon markets (implying stronger engagement of the private sector).

Scaling decisions thus have consequences. Depending on the scale at which problems are framed, very different governance mechanisms might come to mind. Discussions around climate change have primarily focused on the global level, and as such, democratic representation is inherently weaker, and finding successful mechanisms to govern carbon may be particularly difficult.

Nepal’s process of designing a national adaptation plan is often seen as a role model in linking the global with the local. Through extensive participatory efforts, a wide range of adaptation challenges were identified throughout the country, including a variety of associated resource user groups. Moreover, a lot of implementation efforts in Nepal have actually focused on the local, rather than national, level (so-called LAPAs). On paper, at least, cross-scale integration of global challenges and their local solutions thus has been quite successful.

However, Andrea pointed out, on the ground things are a little bit more complicated. Nepal is a State of Change. Amongst a lot of political change (including various elements of violence), again and again, resources are at the centre of political struggles. Programmes such as REDD+ and NAPA thus are inherently political – playing out in a context of global geopolitics, national bureaucracies in transition, and implemented in districts without elected representatives.

A closer look thus shows, for example, that REDD+ has come with interesting on-ground challenges. Thousands of small community forestry user groups are involved in carbon management. Interestingly, what used to be a local concern only (forest management), has now become a global concern – for the first time, the global community cares what goes on in some patch of remote forest in Nepal, sending “experts”, and training some local people to “know” about carbon while others remain untrained. These changes, Andrea highlighted, are not inherently bad – but they are inherently political. Similar complexities as for REDD+ also exist for NAPA. Questions of who is involved, who benefits, and who is left out (or behind) thus seem to inevitably emerge when global framings are taken to local places.

The changes described can also open new spaces for transformation. New actors are starting to be involved in global processes, including NGOs, new district authorities and local people; and new money is flowing to the Global South. At the same time, some of the more controversial changes have brought about new social movements, for example in opposition to carbon markets changing access to local forests.

In conclusion, Andrea emphasized that global climate change was driving a profound shift in how resources were conceptualized. Viable solutions, in turn, need to do a better job of taking into account social, political and environmental implications in the actual locations where they play out in practice.

Gender discrimination and the fifth Sustainable Development Goal

By Joern Fischer

Today I’d like to summarise the opening keynote presentation from the Development Research Conference 2016, which is currently taking place in Stockholm. The talk was presented by Andrea Cornwall, and was entitled “Addressing Discrimination on the Basis of Gender: Towards a More Just and Equal World for All.”


Source: wikimedia

Andrea addressed the fifth Sustainable Development Goal, which relates to “gender equality”. In her talk, she highlighted key strengths and recent improvements in this area, but also identified challenges where further changes are necessary. I’m certainly not an expert in this area, but in the following I do my best to convey some of her most pertinent messages.

Andrea first contrasted biological and social understandings of gender. Right now, Andrea argued that in feminism there were a number of contrasting streams, many of which recognize a softening of boundaries between men and women and between the biological and the social.

In a development context, by contrast, changes in gender discourses took a different turn. Contemporary development discourses speak of empowering women and girls, and engaging men and boys; all in the name of development. In this context, women often (inadvertently) become instrumentalised, being important tools or “targets” to achieve development. Unlike in recent feminist discourses, the strong binary views of men vs women are very much present in development discourses. Along with this understanding have come ideas that women are poorer, and care more about the environment – while men are the problem who suppress women, and destroy the environment.

Andrea argued that it thus appeared there were diverging paths. Contemporary feminism acknowledges the complexity of gender, whereas development discourses remain set back in time, often dividing the world into poor suppressed women vs bad suppressing men. Arguably, this kind of distinction fails to recognize that everyone would gain from greater equity.

Andrea continued by contrasting differences between a rise in laws against gender-based discrimination, while there was little or no change in the actual incidences of such discrimination (e.g. in domestic violence against women). Thus, it appears there is ongoing suffering on an everyday basis, despite changing laws.

Sustainable Development Goal 5, Andrea argued, was somewhat troublesome in that it failed to acknowledge the complexity underpinning the intersectionality of gender. The dynamics of gender identity, and the complexity of gendered power relationships, feature very little in SDG5. Instead, the SDG seems to primarily look at increasing the numbers of women in various contexts – more educated women, more in public office, and so on. Gender relations and gender identity, by contrast, remain outside the scope. In sum, this means that current conceptualisations of women in a development discourse, still are rooted in traditional images of men vs women; traditional views that, arguably, cannot be separated from colonialist views.

What then is needed to go forward? First of all, according to Andrea, development would need to be de-colonised. This would require a different kind of education, which recognizes the inherently colonial assumptions underpinning much of modern education. For example, the idea of a “male breadwinner” being the more natural state is a colonial idea. Similarly, the normativity implicit in ideas of who would make a good farmer, or what constitutes a virtuous woman be (or man, for that matter), would need to be questioned.

As a possible way forward, and drawing on existentialism, Andrea offered understanding gender as a “situation”. That is, situations give rise to gender roles and outcomes, and in a development context, the dynamics of such situations need to be better understood. These dynamics, in turn, are likely to be highly place-specific.

Looking at discrimination from a gender perspective – rather than gender equality perspective – thus means looking at problems more broadly. In a gender perspective, men are no more inherently the problem than women; rather, both can suffer from colonial ideas of gender stereotypes. Gender as a concept thus can even be unhelpful, and can further entrench the very stereotypes that give rise to unequal outcomes. Human rights, by contrast, are more broadly defined, and have greater potential to bring together all kinds of people (and genders).

Assuming I understood her correctly, Andrea thus argued for moving beyond focusing on discrimination in a gender context towards discrimination more broadly. Especially in a development context, there is a need to better understand the colonial roots of many of the existing dynamics that give rise to (or reinforce) discrimination. We shouldn’t ask what we can do for women, nor what women can do for development. Instead we should stop putting people into boxes (as men vs women), and focus on ending discrimination – for the benefit of everyone, regardless of their gender.

Hiring now: Postdoc on human-environment connections

By Joern Fischer

Because one of our postdocs is moving on to a tenured position (congratulations!), we are looking to find a new person to join our project on “leverage points” for sustainability (see, for example, here and here, or here). This position will be collaborating closely with others, especially myself, Henrik von Wehrden, Dave Abson, Julia Leventon, and several PhD students working on the “re-connect” component of the project.

Although somebody else has previously held this position, there is a lot of flexibility for how the position can be filled with life and meaning in the future. We’re particularly looking for somebody who is interested in pursuing empirical work on human-environment (re-)connections in Transylvania (Romania) or Lower Saxony (Germany) (or both); focusing on food or energy systems (or both). You can email me if you have questions.

The official advertisement is available here. Below, I copy and paste that information, but be sure to visit the original page — this here is not the official version.


Leuphana University Lüneburg (foundation under public law), Faculty of Sustainability, is offering a post as:

Postdoctoral Research Associate – Wissenschaftliche/r Mitarbeiter/in,

salary group EG 13 TV-L, full time

Investigating human-nature connections–

Starting approximately November 2016, up to 31st March 2019. The position is part of a transdisciplinary project funded by the State of Lower Saxony and Volkswagen Foundation entitled:

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation: Institutions, People and Knowledge

 About the project

Understanding how changes in interconnected social-ecological systems facilitate the transformation to sustainability represents one of the key challenges of sustainability science. Drawing on insights from systems thinking and solution-oriented transdisciplinary research, this project focuses on hitherto under-recognized leverage points – system properties where a small shift can lead to fundamental changes in the system as a whole. Leverage Points will focus on changes in relatively intractable, but potentially highly influential, system properties that could help to realign complex social-ecological systems to the normative goals of sustainability. Specifically, we will analyse three sustainability-relevant leverage points: 1) institutional dynamics (RESTRUCTURE); 2) human-environment interactions (RECONNECT); and 3) sustainability-related knowledge creation and use (RETHINK). The three leverage points will be studied individually and with regard to their interdependencies, on two key themes (food and energy) in two contrasting case study regions (Transylvania in Romania, and Lower Saxony in Germany). For details, see

About the job – PD2: RECONNECT: Investigating human-nature connections

This position builds on conceptual work undertaken as part of the Leverage Points project (see Abson et al. 2016, Ambio). Its central role will be to empirically investigate human-nature connections and how changes in such connections relate to sustainability outcomes, in food and/or energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and/or in Transylvania (RO).

This position is one of five postdoctoral associate positions within the Leverage Points project. You will be expected to work closely with the research consortium, including three other postdoctoral associates (RESTRUCTURE, RETHINK and transdisciplinary case study (Germany) and RETHINK and transdisciplinary case study (Romania)), eight Principal Investigators, and eight PhD students.

Tasks and responsibilities may include a subset of the following: 1) assessing stakeholders’ aspirations and appreciation of local ecosystem services; 2) investigating consumer choices regarding food and energy; 3) testing the relations between connections, behaviour, attitudes and knowledge; 4) publication of manuscripts; and 5) co-supervision of PhD students.

Person specification

Essential selection criteria: a) PhD or equivalent doctoral degree; b) strong publication record relative to opportunity; c) highly developed conceptual and empirical skills; d) excellent communication skills (English); e) ability and willingness to work in a large, interdisciplinary research project; f) proven track record in either quantitative or qualitative data analysis (and willingness to apply both); and g) a solid understanding of human-environment relationships (e.g. grounded in concepts from psychology or ecosystem services).

Additional desirable selection criteria: a) previous experience in food/agriculture and/or energy systems; b) experience with interview analysis; c) familiarity with environmental psychology; d) experience with questionnaire analysis; e) experience with quantifying human-nature connections. (Not all of these must be met.)

An additional advantage will be fluency in German or Romanian.

Leuphana University Lüneburg is an equal opportunity employer committed to fostering heterogeneity among its employees. Applications by qualified individuals of all backgrounds are strongly encouraged. Disabled applicants with equal qualifications will be given priority consideration.

To apply

Please address all selection criteria under clearly labelled headings in up to one short paragraph for each. Please also send a motivation letter stating why you are interested in the position, a CV (including publication list), copies of relevant certificates and transcripts, and the names of up to three academic referees.

Application deadline: 11th September 2016

Please submit all materials in PDF format (as a single merged file) with the subject: Leverage Points PD2 to: and cc


Leuphana University Lüneburg

Personalservice – Katrin Severloh

Subject: Leverage Points PD2

Scharnhorststr. 1

21335 Lüneburg


Files should be named with the applicant’s surname (e.g. SmithLeveragePointsPD2.pdf).

For any questions about the project and the job, please contact Prof. Dr Joern Fischer ( or Prof. Dr. Henrik von Wehrden (



Paper recommendation: motivational crowding (out) in conservation

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend the following paper: Rode J, Gómez-Baggethun E, Krause T. 2015. Motivation crowding by economic incentives in conservation policy: A review of the empirical evidence. Ecological Economics 2015 Sep; 117:270-282; DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2014.11.019

In a conservation context, “crowding” refers to effect that economic incentives to engage in conservation action have on people’s intrinsic motivation to engage in such action. Crowding in occurs when economic incentives further strengthen intrinsic motivation, while crowding out refers to a reduction in intrinsic motivation, following economic incentives.

This paper reviews the evidence generated to date of motivational crowding in a conservation context. This is very timely because many modern conservation schemes use economic incentives. Arguably, when conservationists routinely advocated stronger regulation in the 1980s, right now, they routinely argue for the use of economic instruments.

This article shows that calls for economic incentives need to be scrutinised carefully in any given system. Especially in cases where intrinsic motivation to engage in conservation action is high, economic incentives may do more harm than good (by crowding out intrinsic motivation).

This article also comments on the fact that most initiatives advocating economic incentives come from the Global North, while they are often applied in the Global South. Since the value systems in many of the affected communities can be expected to differ from those where the incentives were conceived of, it is critical to examine carefully whether economic incentives are in fact the right policy tool — before implementation of such schemes.

The issue of crowding out is not well understood among ecologists and conservationists, who as a group quite frequently advocate the use of economic incentives. This paper provides an authoritative review and entry point into this important field of study.

Up to eight more sustainability postdocs at Leuphana

By Joern Fischer

Leuphana has just advertised up to eight more postdoc positions in sustainability. These are associated with a new project called “Bridging the Great Divide“, run by Daniel Lang, Henrik von Wehrden and Klaus Kuemmerer (from Leuphana), as well as Arnim Wiek and Manfred Laubichler (from Arizona State University). Please help distribute these positions by sharing this blog post.

The detailed advertisements are on Leuphana’s website. You can find them here, but please note you may have to go to the second page (or even the third) to find the relevant advertisements. All the ones related to this blog post start with “… 13.07.2016 … in the pro­ject Bridging the Gre­at Di­vi­de“.

As an entry, here is the project abstract for “Bridging the Great Divide”:

Sustaina­bi­li­ty chal­len­ges threa­ten the long-term via­bi­li­ty and in­te­gri­ty of so­cie­ties around the world. Whi­le the theo­re­ti­cal un­der­stan­ding of the­se chal­len­ges con­ti­nues to grow, so­lu­ti­ons are far less de­ve­l­o­ped. In re­s­pon­se, sustaina­bi­li­ty sci­ence has been de­ve­lo­ping a re­se­arch agen­da that fo­cu­ses on evi­dence-ba­sed so­lu­ti­ons that are scalable and trans­fe­ra­ble. Yet, the­re is still a si­gni­fi­cant gap bet­ween un­der­stan­ding com­plex chal­len­ges and cont­ri­bu­ting to con­text spe­ci­fic so­lu­ti­ons. This pro­ject aims to build ad­di­tio­nal ca­pa­ci­ty at Leu­pha­na Uni­ver­si­ty of Lüne­burg to bridge the di­vi­de bet­ween (i.) mo­de­ling and un­der­stan­ding of com­plex sustaina­bi­li­ty pro­blems (of­ten on a glo­bal sca­le), and (ii.) de­ve­lo­ping and eva­lua­ting con­textua­li­zed so­lu­ti­on ef­forts (of­ten on a lo­cal sca­le). Fo­cu­sing on spe­ci­fic to­pics (wa­ter, land-use, and cli­ma­te chan­ge chal­len­ges in­clu­ding mo­bi­li­ty), this pro­ject aims at com­bi­ning two pro­mi­nent ap­proa­ches: high-per­for­mance com­pu­ta­tio­nal mo­de­ling and tran­si­ti­on ex­pe­ri­ments. Com­bi­ning the­se two ap­proa­ches and sup­porting in­ter­di­sci­pli­na­ry col­la­bo­ra­ti­on across the re­la­ted aca­de­mic com­mu­nities whi­le buil­ding on di­sci­pli­na­ry ex­cel­lence de­fi­nes the agen­da for a fu­ture clus­ter of ex­cel­lence, for which a pro­po­sal shall be de­ve­l­o­ped as part of the pro­ject. This will also be a ma­jor leap towards bridging the know­ledge-ac­tion gap in sustaina­bi­li­ty sci­ence. Three spe­ci­fic com­po­n­ents of the pro­ject bey­ond the two ap­proa­ches are (i) the es­ta­blish­ment of a “Mo­bi­le So­lu­ti­on Thea­ter” as a fur­ther de­ve­lop­ment of exis­ting De­ci­si­on Thea­ter Con­cepts, to fa­ci­li­ta­te lin­king tran­si­ti­on ex­pe­ri­ments with high per­for­mance com­pu­ta­tio­nal mo­de­ling; (ii) fur­ther de­ve­lop­ment of in­no­va­ti­ve, re­se­arch ba­sed teaching-learning en­vi­ron­ments em­bed­ded in the over­all set­up of the pro­ject and (iii) a cri­ti­cal re­flec­tion of the epis­te­mo­lo­gi­cal foun­da­ti­ons of sustaina­bi­li­ty sci­ence as well as the spe­ci­fic ap­proa­ches uti­li­zed in this pro­ject.

Please address all questions to the people running this project; you can find contact details here.

Topics on the rise in conservation and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Research on any given topic tends to come and go. Searching the scopus database, I had a bit of a look at some terms I am interested in. Some of these are gaining in popularity, and some are on their way out. I’ve summarised these trends in the graphs below. Keep in mind that “constant” interest probably means a tripling in the number of mentions since 2000, simply because the number of journal articles has increased a lot. I found the patterns interesting, and so thought I’d share them here.

My overall interpretation is that ecosystem services and social-ecological systems are starting to reach saturation point. In contrast, sustainable intensification and food sovereignty are shooting up. Landscape ecology and habitat fragmentation used to attract more attention than they do now.

Not earth-shattering, but kind of interesting…


Post-peak terms:

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Not so obvious terms (in terms of trend):

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And “hot topics” still on the rise, or recently starting to gain popularity:

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“Diversity” vs. “gender”?

By Joern Fischer

Most universities (at least in the “western” world) routinely have equity and diversity representatives sitting in on selection committees. When it comes to Germany, I’ve sometimes been quite unimpressed by how well-intentioned action to support diversity plays out in practice. Some visions of “diversity” and the ways to achieve it are narrow, and may do more harm than good to the quality of the selection process.

German institutions are, at face value, quite “gender-sensitive”. And so it’s no surprise that the colloquial name for the equity and diversity representative is in fact (roughly translated) the “women’s representative”. And this is where the first problem comes in: diversity beyond women is routinely overlooked. I’ve sat on a committee before where an African man had applied for a senior position. While all women who applied were carefully scrutinised, the African man was quickly ruled out as just not good enough. In my view, he was more competitive than some of the women who had been carefully discussed; he would have brought more diversity to our university than various women; and when it comes to discrimination, I’m pretty sure the obstacles he’s faced in his life were no fewer than those of various women. This routinely happens to applicants from developing countries, potentially even for positions where at least considering this dimension of diversity would be truly beneficial.

It’s time for “diversity” then, to be more than just “more women”. To understand the world, we benefit from diversity in all its facets, including cultural, national, ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity. Gender should be in the mix, of course, but it’s not the only factor.

Why are there so few female professors in Germany? I’m pretty sure that at departments like ours, the answer to this is more structural than about day-to-day discrimination. To my mind, the dropping out of talented women from academia has a lot more to do with creating family-friendly workplaces, and with making it routinely possible (in reality, not in theory) for aspiring academics to work part-time, than with discrimination against women as such. This isn’t to say there is never any discrimination against women. Rather, if a large part of the problem is structural, a large part of the solutions ought to be structural — just having ambitious quotas for what proportion of professors ought to be females is not going to do it. In fact, it’s a displacement activity from actually facing the structural problems. Asking people about how they consider “gender” in their teaching (a routine question at Leuphana) is similarly formulaic, and anyone with a brain can bull*^&! her or his way through this while being completely sexist at heart.

I addition to structural problems, there are also cultural problems that current approaches often overlook. For one, gender stereotyping is widespread in Germany, and both women and men engage in it. This national pastime stands in the way of seeing people for who they are. Also, many academic environments are quite cut-throat, and naturally or culturally more “sensitive” people who value things other than building or expanding their own empires, may find the whole culture of professorial life quite off-putting.

In short, I’d love to see “diversity” in the workplace being interpreted as more than “women”; and I’d like to see structural and cultural issues tackled as such. This would benefit everyone in the workplace, women included.

As always, I’m happy for comments, including critical ones, and if there are important aspects missing from my analysis (or if I’m plainly wrong in some parts) then do let me know! It’s an important issue and I’m sure mine is not the only workplace struggling to improve.