Book recommendation: Resilience, Development and Global Change

By Joern Fischer

I would like to warmly recommend Katrina Brown’s new book entitled “Resilience, development and global change”. I found it a thoughtful, authoritative book that links and transcends several deeply entrenched ideas and discourses. As such, I think it is an excellent input (or even entry point) for people working on social-ecological systems – especially, but not only in the Global South.

The book articulates different, partly conflicting understandings of resilience, both in science and policy arenas. This overview of existing perspectives is useful, simply because resilience is used in so many different ways, by so many different people, that it’s helpful to get an overview of who actually means what. A key point here is that in much of development policy, resilience is employed to argue for status quo approaches to development. Perhaps needless to say, that’s a long way from the paradigm shift some scientists might envisage ought to come with focusing on resilience.

But to my mind, the book got most interesting at the point where it speaks of “experiential resilience”. Here, different case studies from around the world are used to highlight how people experience their own resilience (or lack thereof) in relation to surprises or shocks. Resilience dimensions touched on include winners and losers within and between households, gendered responses, different narratives of change, cultural and political dynamics, and place attachment – to name just a few.

In her conclusion, Katrina Brown argues for a re-visioning of resilience in a development context. Such a re-visioning should include three aspects of resilience. First, resistance denotes the ability to absorb shocks, but in a social context also taking an active stance against threatening outside forces. Second, rootedness denotes the deeply place-based nature of resilience, especially in a social context, but also with respect to human-environment interactions. And third, resourcefulness relates to the capacities and capabilities that people have to absorb and adapt to change.

In summary, this book bridges gaps between disciplines, between theory and practice, and between different discourses on resilience. It thus makes a theoretical contribution — but one that promises to make resilience have greater practical value.

New paper: Many pathways to sustainability, not conflict but co-learning between transition narratives

There is an increasing focus in sustainability science on transitions and transformative change and an increasing number of proposed pathways for transitioning towards sustainability. In a new paper by Chris Luederitz and colleagues we discuss four archetypical transitions narratives (the green economy; low-carbon transformation; Ecotopian solutions and the transitions movement) in terms of the kinds of interventions these different approaches engender and the ‘depth’ and nature of systemic change they seek achieve.

In addition to summarizing critiques of these four approaches to transformative change, we draw on Donella meadows’ ‘leverage points’ concept (see also here) in order to characterize the different narratives in terms of their potential to enable systemic change.  The different transitions narratives seek to act on different system characteristics ranging from system parameters (taxes, incentives, rules) and system dynamics through to challenging the fundamental design, rules, values and goals of the system. We therefore argue that rather than representing competing visions for societal change, there is considerable scope for co-learning between these different approaches. By understand where in a system a given transitions approach does or does not seek to intervene we believe it is possible to combine facets of these approaches to create a more holistic transitions pathways that act on multiple leverage points for systemic change.

Luederitz, C., Abson, D.J., Audet, R. and Lang, D.J. (2016) Many pathways toward sustainability: not conflict but co-learning between transition narratives, Sustainability Science. doi: 10.1007/s11625-016-0414-0

 

Preliminary findings: Woody plant diversity in cultural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia

By Girma Shumi and colleagues

The following is the first of a series of upcoming summaries of preliminary findings from our ERC funded research. Details are subject to change.

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Maintaining biodiversity is a global challenge. Some scientists have argued for strictly protected forest areas, while others have suggested that farmland also can have conservation value. To assess the conservation value of farmland and forest for woody species diversity in southwestern Ethiopia, we investigated six kebeles in Jimma Zone. We identified woody plant species in 78 randomly selected 20 m x 20 m sample plots in forest and homegardens; and in 72 randomly selected 1 ha sites in arable land and pastures. We found 96 and 122 plant species in forest and farmland, respectively. In forest, woody plant composition was affected by coffee management practices, current and historical distance to farmland, and the effort required by local people to reach a given site (so-called “cost distance”). Mean species richness ranged from 13 at the forest edge to 20 in forest interior. In farmland, woody plant composition was influenced by the amount of conserved forest, both within the sampled site and in its surroundings. In farmland, woody plant species richness did not differ between land uses (15 in pastures, 16 in teff, 18 in maize, 19 in other crops). Our findings confirm that the cultural landscape benefits not only food production but also biodiversity conservation. Hence, considering the entire landscape mosaic – and not only the forests themselves – should be an important priority in future conservation initiatives.

Some further details are available in the presentation below.

New project: Governance of global telecoupling – and two open post-doc positions

Reblogged from Jens Newig’s blog — very nice new opportunity here at Leuphana! Please help distribute this widely. Thanks!

SUSTAINABILITY GOVERNANCE

By Jens Newig

In recent years, more and more research has been pointing to the importance of distant connections of natural and social processes for issues of global unsustainability. Land-use scientist have labelled this phenomenon, which might entail global commodity chains, migration, or the spread of diseases, “telecoupling”. While there have been substantive advances in describing the flows and the associated implications for environmental sustainability, we know little about how to govern such telecoupled global linkages.

Our new project, which is jointly led by Andrea Lenschow from Osnabrück University, Edward Challies and myself, will investigate how state, private and non-governmental actors have sought to govern the (un)sustainability implications of telecoupling in the past; what (polycentric) policy-networks have emerged in doing so; and, together with key state and non-state actors we will map out scenarios for more effectivley governing global telecoupling for environmental sustainability.

We’ve already published two papers on this…

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Psycho-social stress? Not among our professors, apparently

By Joern Fischer

A few months back, Leuphana University instigated an assessment of “psycho-social stress” affecting its staff. Online questionnaires were sent to professors, other scientific staff and (presumably) administrators. Results were shared, and now group interviews were announced to dig more deeply into existing problems and devise solutions for these problems.

I thought it was quite laudable of our institution to investigate such factors, and so when an open invitation came to participate in a group interview with other professors, I checked whether I would be available at the time. My diary was still open, and so I registered, with the disclaimer “if there are still places available”. A message came back that I was in fact the first to register — so, all seemed good.

Funnily enough, a few days ago, a second message reached me saying the exercise was cancelled because I was in fact the only professor at the entire university who showed an interest in participating. And that’s what’s prompted this blog post …. what’s going on here?

Three alternative explanations come to mind. The first is that professors are so happy and balanced here that there is simply no need for such exercises. Everybody’s mental health is great, social processes are functioning, and so there is no need to talk about it, let alone further improve things.

The second explanation might be that professors were, generally, too busy for such an exercise. They might agree on the importance of investigating mental and emotional well-being in the workplace, but the invitation to them sounded like yet another annoying workshop, with lots of talking and no change anyway. Better then to focus on one’s direct environment and ignore this kind of lip service exercise run by the central administration.

And finally, the third explanation is that professors are so fragmented in their inner and outer selves that many are not even in a position to actively consider the possible value of reflecting on psycho-social processes.

Most likely, it’s different answers for different people; and I should not judge which of the three explanations (or perhaps others that I have not considered) dominates. But the outcome, to me, is a missed opportunity to improve the workplace.

Managing research environments: heterarchies in academia

By Joern Fischer

A little while ago, I recommended Graeme Cumming’s new work on heterarchies on this blog. Thinking about heterarchies implies thinking about system architecture in terms of (i) how hierarchical it is, and (ii) how connected the elements of the system are. This is interesting in ecosystems, in social-ecological systems … and I think also in academia!

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Heterarchies in academia

As a little thought experiment, let’s bring to our minds different academic environments that are combinations of networked vs. not-networked, and hierarchical vs. not-hierarchical. Most environments are mixtures, but some are close to one kind of stereotype, while others are closer to other stereotypes.

  1. Hierarchical, but not highly networked – the “guru” model. This type of academic environment is one of strong silos, which might be lab groups. Such lab groups don’t interact very much. Each of them is headed by a professor and responds to the head of department. Within the lab groups, too, there is a hierarchical structure. Postdocs sit between professors and PhD students, acting as intermediaries. However, in his world, different postdocs and PhD students probably work on different projects, and exchange among those projects might be limited – there isn’t a culture of strong collaboration within the lab, just within specific projects, as designed from the top down. I would argue that I have seen examples that are similar to this kind of structure in some settings.
  2. Hierarchical, but highly networked – the visionary facilitator model. In this world, there is a clear lead. For example, there might be a visionary head of department, or a professor strongly driving the agenda of her research group. Still, despite such a lead, interaction among lab groups, and researchers of all levels is encouraged – even when they work on slightly different things. Senior researchers have open doors for more junior researchers, but still provide direction and a level of “control”. Again, I would argue that this way of organizing academic workplaces exists in the real world.
  3. Highly networked, but without a strong hierarchy – the collegiate model. In this world, there is strong exchange among researchers, but no clear hierarchy. In my view, this could mean a lack of strong leadership. For example, there might be a collegiate environment, where people talk and exchange ideas – but nobody is there to provide vision and direction, or make some tough decisions. Yet again – this kind of place exists, be it in certain big projects (where nobody wants to lead) or even whole departments (that pride themselves of having a flat hierarchy).
  4. Not highly networked, and lacking a strong hierarchy – the individualistic model. This is a world where everyone fights for their own survival. Corridors are empty, and behind closed office doors are individuals who “do their thing”. Some do well, some don’t. They may or may not realize that there could be benefits from talking. Nobody provides a strong vision or direction. Each is in it for their own micro-world. Yes … this world, too, does exist in some environments in academia.

Given that all of these places exist, let’s ask some questions about them. For example, other things being equal …:

  1. Which is likely to foster creativity in the best way?
  2. Which is likely to generate the most academic impact?
  3. Which is going to be most pleasant to work in?
  4. Which is likely to survive major funding cuts in the best way?
  5. Which is most likely to survive re-structuring at the level of the university?

A next step of analysis then would be to think about how to get from one kind of system to another. This might be useful for research managers to think about.

For anyone who’d like to see an “official” version of these thoughts: A refined version (largely in terms of wording) has just been published as a response to Graeme’s paper in TREE.

Mainstreamism and self-fulfilling prophecies

By Joern Fischer

It’s good to be policy-relevant, and it’s good to get published in prestigious journals. But I’m concerned that the collective desire to attain these goals is taming science to a distinctly unhelpful middle ground that everyone can agree on. It’s like in politics, where major parties end up so similar you can’t really tell the difference anymore – in an effort to appeal to the largest number of people, almost by definition, distinctive elements and innovative ideas are filtered out.

This is annoying when it happens in politics, but it’s unacceptable when it happens in science. Science ought to be about expanding our understanding of the universe, not channeling it into the centre of status quo worldviews. And yet, I find there is more and more evidence that this is precisely what is happening.

Two things today inspired me to write this slightly impassioned rant. First, one of our papers got rejected due to its less-than-mainstream methods. The argument was in fact not that our methods were bad, but rather that they were unusual and may be difficult to accept by the readership of the journal. Second, a colleague pointed me to a paper that says we can’t really change values because they change slowly, and so there’s no point in trying. In combination, I feel these events are symptomatic of a new kind of “anti-sustainability” sustainability science – implying that we need innovation, but preferably without actually changing the world or the way we look at it.

In modern science then, it seems you must not rock the boat. You must not work towards paradigm shifts, or try to look at problems too broadly. Instead, you should look for clever, incremental improvements within existing ways of thinking. In sustainability science, you must look at societal problems, but only advocate for minor changes – no matter how deep the root causes are of the problems you are looking at.

Sustainable intensification, REDD+ payments, and the right kind of messaging to an audience with unalterable values – this is now the dominant way advocated to achieve sustainability improvements.

Those who point out that radical changes are not possible successfully get their stuff published – but to me, they lack creativity (and frankly, guts) to do what needs to be done. With everybody heading for the front of the mainstream, there will be no real innovation, and no major change. Or put more bluntly: we’d have the same values as decades ago, including slavery, racial discrimination and women not taking part in politics.

Think again: Of course things can change, if we want them to, including big things, and including human values. And from a sustainability perspective all of this can happen in relevant, short periods of time, too.

Trying to work for deep changes may not always work in the short term. But the growing zeal to not even try to think boldly strikes me as much more certain to lock us into a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever greater un-sustainability.

Emotional competence in science

By Joern Fischer

In a recent discussion, I had a minor epiphany that I’d like to share, regarding the balance of rational thought and emotion in the day-to-day operation of science. It struck me that naturally emotionally attuned individuals who want to survive in science, have to work hard to train their capacity for rational thought and analysis. But the reverse is not true: individuals with a natural tendency for rational thinking are not required, and only rarely encouraged, to develop their emotional competencies. My argument here is that science, on a daily basis, suffers from this imbalance between the rational and emotional.

First things first: science is about rational arguments to understand the world. The use of logic is extremely valuable because it can be scrutinized, and fact and opinion can be carefully divided. This is extremely valuable, and to me, the key strength of science. (I use “science” in a general sense here, not only for the natural sciences, but also for the social sciences and other academic disciplines founded on logical reasoning.)

But science on a day-to-day basis, is a social process. There are supervisor-student relationships, junior and senior researcher relationships, lots of peer relationships, administrative relationships, communication tasks among all of these plus with the general public and potential readers of one’s work. Science is full of this stuff. In the context of running complex field projects, I have said they before that it’s 90% about people and 10% about science. This is perhaps an over-statement (… though I don’t think so …), but the general notion that there are lots of social processes, I think, cannot be denied.

I argue that a lot of improvements would be possible if scientists spent at least equal amounts of energy on developing their emotional competencies as on refining their analytical skills. The reason why I say “at least” equal amounts of energy is that I think science, on average, is dominated by “thinkers” with relatively little natural knack for the emotional realm. Most scientists are naturally talented at rational thought (that’s why they got into science), but fewer it seems to me are naturally talented at dealing with people.

Let us think of common problems that make for unproductive and unhappy situations: students feeling lost, insecurity regarding one’s achievements, uncertainty about future employment, power games, misunderstandings between administrative and academic staff, or poor recognition of the individual needs and strengths of different kinds of people. These situations stem from poor emotional competence – but they have ramifications for achievements in science, that is, in the purely rational realm.

My hypothesis is that the most productive science can be produced where people routinely pay attention to both the emotional and rational realm. All of us can develop skills in both areas – but traditionally, the importance of emotional skills has not been recognized sufficiently in science.

(Final point: Yes, this is related to the idea of emotional intelligence, as communicated by Daniel Goleman and increasingly recognized as important in various leadership contexts. I’m not using the term in the above because I’m not well read in this area, and so I’m not sure if what I mean maps precisely onto the idea of emotional intelligence or not. Either way: I think academic environments are not doing a good job of recognizing this “thing” that I argue is missing.)

Managing time and expectations

By Joern Fischer

Our jobs as researchers are pretty nice in many ways — we get to work on stuff we’re truly interested in, we might get to enjoy the occasional sense of achievement, and we might even feel that we’re doing something good in the world. This good side of academic life has been emphasised by some; I’ve heard senior academics complain that we should stop complaining because really, our academic lives are so privileged.

While that’s probably true in general terms, many academics are also suffering from a sense of “too much”. Or, just as commonly, their families are suffering, or their collaborators, or students, because they have to engage with somebody who is stressed and evidently over-committed.

I’d like to make one simple point here: that we ought to do a good (or even excellent) job 100% of the time in which we work; but that we should not put up with pressures, incentives or norms to work more than 100% of time. When I worked in Australia, there was a pretty simple system regarding performance agreements. Once every two years,  you sat down with your boss and discussed how you would allocate 100% of your time to teaching, research and service. Teaching involved classes but also supervision of research students; research was, well, research; and service included committees and things like that within the university, but also communication engagement or editorial boards beyond the university.

There are three key benefits of institutionalising such performance agreements. One, nobody is expected to work more than 100%. Two, if you add a percentage to something (e.g. an increase from 40 to 50%), it’s clear that something else has got to be reduced. And three, not everybody has to be equal — some people might benefit their departments through service roles, others through teaching, others primarily through research. In extreme cases, an individual might drop one of the three components altogether.

What I see in Germany is starkly different. We are incentivised to be in more and more projects; raise more and more funds; “supervise” more and more students; travel a lot; sit on committees without reward; and teach a lot of hours — and all of us should be the same, in terms of teaching load especially. What this does is it causes immediate declines in quality in all activities (nobody can be great at everything, in more than 100% of the time), and you get a bunch of over-committed, unfocused professors, left, right and centre.

Since this is systemic, there is no easy solution. But I think we should be aware of such patterns, and fight them whenever we can. As I said before: it’s not about being lazy or unproductive. It’s about recognising  that ideas are created by people who are happy in the workplace, who are reflective, and who have retained the capacity to focus to get the job done to the best of their abilities. If “excellence” is the goal (and many institutions claim that it is), you can’t keep adding stuff to people’s schedules and get the same quality out at the other end.