Paper recommendation: The undisciplinary journey

By Joern Fischer

The following paper just came out:

L. J. Haider, L.J., Hentati-Sundberg, J., Giusti, M., Goodness, J., Hamann, M., Masterson, V. A., Meacham, M., Merrie, A., Ospina, D., Schill, C., Sinare, H. (2017). The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science. Sustainability Science. PDF available here.

This paper should be particularly interesting to early-career researchers working in interdisciplinary environments, or themselves being “interdisciplinarians”. It should also be of interest to more established scientists who train more junior researchers in such areas, especially in sustainability science.

In a nutshell, the paper is built on the premise that a new generation of sustainability scholars is emerging. These scholars often are interdisciplinary in their orientation from the outset. This makes them different from many of the currently “senior” (i.e. older) sustainability scientists, the vast majority of whom were trained in a specific discipline, and then started to reach out to other disciplines.

But what if you start off without ever having had a strong affinity for a single traditional discipline? This is increasingly common for young sustainability scholars, and it leaves them with certain typical challenges — which are what this paper is about. For example, how do you balance depth and breadth? How can you make sure you are taken seriously by your peers, or by more senior scientists? How can you navigate institutional environments that are largely based on disciplines?

To navigate a journey of being “undisciplinary”, the paper provides a compass — a simple conceptual model that can be used to think about how to develop into a good sustainability scientist. A “good” scientist, in this sense, needs two key attributes: agility to move between different ways of thinking, and a good methodological foundation.

Agility to move between different ways of thinking is needed because sustainability is such a broad challenge — to solve problems related to forest degradation, for example, you might have to understand issues of governance, social justice, and ecology. Each of these, in turn, will have a different epistemological foundation; what counts as valid knowledge for an ecologist comes about in a different way from the knowledge deemed valid by a political scientist.

A good methodological foundation is needed because, although sustainability science is an extremely broad field, this can’t be an excuse to not base one’s insights on solid methods. This can be challenging, because the range of potentially relevant methods is vast — but to be a “good” sustainability scientist, it pays to have some clearly identifiable methodological strengths, or at least a solid methodological foundation.

The link to the paper is given above. As I said, I think it’s a nice reflection, as well as really good food for thought for scholars who either are, or are working with, the “next generation” of sustainability scientists. Well worth a read!

A blessing in disguise? Why Trump’s pull-out of the Paris Agreement may open up a window of opportunity


Following his campaign promise and a period of intense speculation, on Thursday June 1, the President of the United States announced his intention to withdraw from the 2015 Climate Accord previously ratified by his predecessor, Barack Obama, claiming it undermines U.S. competitiveness and jobs, and would have a negligible impact on the world’s climate. Inevitably, the series of events were quickly compared to another defining moment in history, when, in 1997, the newly instated United States Government of George W. Bush failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol negotiated under the Clinton-Gore presidency.

World leaders were quick to condemn the unilateral decision, with the Secretary General of the United Nations calling it a “major disappointment for global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote global security”, and the leaders of France, Germany and Italy almost immediate issuing a joint statement reaffirming their strong commitment to implement the agreement.

Trump’s decision…

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Making oceans plastic free – reducing plastic bag use in Indonesia


Plastic is one of the blessing of our time – it’s cheap, it’s versatile and it’s made to last. Unfortunately, its durability is turning it more and more into a curse. Per year more then 300 million tones of new plastic are produced and only a tiny part is being recycled or properly disposed of. Plastic nowadays can virtually be found everywhere in the world from the arctic to the deep sea. Especially in the oceans, plastic is accumulating (80% coming from terrestrial sources) with unforeseeable effects on marine species and ecosystems.

Made to last – plastic garbage is everywhere and quite often it ends up in the ocean. The numbers are estimated percentages of waste items collected Bali’s biggest beach clean-up in history where more than 12.000 volunteers collected 40 tons of waste. (Credit: Making Oceans Plastic Free).

Well, this is known to most of us, but doing something about it often is tedious and takes energy and courage. A good friend of mine, Paritosha Kobbe, together with some other people, now has started an initiative with the ambitious vision of “Making oceans plastic free” and the more tangible goal of reducing plastic bag usage in Indonesia. Indonesia is the second largest producer of marine plastic garbage (China is on the infamous first place here) and plastic bags constitute a large share of it (see the waste pie chart above). Pari and his friends designed a reusable bag made from recycled plastic and today they started their crowdfunding campaign to bring this into production, raise environmental awareness and to make people in Indonesia to use fewer plastic bags. Here is a short video describing their project:

If you like, you can support the initiative through crowd-funding:

More information on the project (including press material, contacts and nice pictures) can be found here:

Good luck with this… and maybe soon the idea will be exported to China as well!

Paper recommendation: understanding human-wildlife coexistence

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend the following paper: Pooley et al. (2017) An interdisciplinary review of current and future approaches to improving human-predator relations. Conserv Biol 2017 Jun; 31(3):513-523. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12859

Pooley et al. shine a fresh light on human-wildlife conflicts – or put differently, on human-wildlife coexistence and coadaptation. The authors argue that much research on human-wildlife conflicts has been heavily influenced by ways of thinking that are typical of the natural sciences. While this is not surprising, the authors argue that much could be gained by engaging more deeply with concepts and insights generated by scholars from other disciplines, including political ecology, history and human geography.

Key points include that both reasons and consequences of how humans and wildlife coexist have roots that are far deeper than natural sciences alone can discover. A neat example is that some species are protected for spiritual reasons, while others are persecuted for spiritual reasons – how should conservation biologists engage with such instances? As Pooley et al. point out, surely not selectively, simply maximizing conservation benefits. Another interesting example relates to the extent to which negatively affected communities engage with or shy away from political approaches to addressing their problems – issues of power and fear (as well as knowledge and time) can easily undermine some stakeholders’ willingness or ability to speak up about their problems to relevant authorities.

This paper highlights that the living together of people and wildlife is hugely multi-dimensional, involving depths of problems and opportunities from historical to political, emotional and even spiritual, that have rarely been explored. By citing a lot of relevant material from different disciplines, the authors provide a very nice starting point to engage with these issues. I highly recommend this paper to anyone working on human-wildlife coexistence or conflict.

Three things that went wrong today (#FONA2017)

By Joern Fischer

The thing about blogging is that you can say things that otherwise may or may not be heard. And so I use my privilege as a blogger to make three observations of what I think went wrong at the FONA Forum that I attended today: (1) much emphasis on the concrete, but too little appreciation of the foundational; (2) six men, and zero women in a final panel discussion; and (3) no black Africans in the discussion on sustainability in Africa.

Why are these three issues problematic? Let’s start with something positive.

The best speaker today, to my mind, was Hartmut Rosa – a sociologist who challenged our contemporary growth-oriented thinking. He painted a picture of humanity addicted to constant “more”, in all spheres of life – more science, more wealth, more access to the world, to new experiences and new places. Constant striving for “more” instead of finding satisfaction in our interactions with others and our immediately available environment, according to Hartmut Rosa, leads to stress as well as to unsustainability. He argued for a change in our relationships, towards greater reciprocity with other beings and places.

His talk was very well received, it seemed. But his talk aside, the vast majority of speakers focused on things like concrete measures, indicators of success, a manual for how to fly Spaceship Earth, recommendations to policy, and steps that need to be taken.

Concrete steps are great – but who, in this era, is taking responsibility for getting humanity to halt and reflect? Scientists are no longer interested in this, it seems – they are much too busy coming up with tangible recommendations and concrete measures. Apparently just shifting discourses – arguably one of the most important things we must do, as a foundation for concrete measures to be effective – is not something many people are interested in. Or, in leverage points language, the vast majority of people speak of shallow leverage points, considering it a waste of time to reflect. – Funny in this context: Hartmut Rosa’s talk seemed really popular, suggesting that people want to be challenged to reflect more deeply. But at the same time, the same people applaud and reinforce structures that only reward tangible outcomes that can be measured.

My last two concerns about today are simple and painful: no women in the final panel discussion, and no black Africans in the Africa session. The latter had about 50 people in it. Admittedly, the session was in German, but come on. Surely, with a bit of effort one could have come up with mechanisms and ways to include people who can contribute their authentically African perspective. How can we meaningfully listen to people speaking of cooperation “at eye level”, or of “partnerships” in this context? The comment regarding no women in the panel discussion evidently points in a similar direction.

This post will be published and tweeted – perhaps someone else who attended the conference will respond, and correct my perspective if it needs correcting. I would appreciate feedback, especially by people who were also here. Thanks!

It’s not like there were no good moments today, or good people, or great insights. There were many. But the three issues singled out here are such that, in 2017 Germany, they make me concerned.

Telling a different story about the world

By Joern Fischer

I’m on my way to Berlin, to the FONA Forum 2017. The Forum is organized by Germany’s Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF), and brings together policy makers, scientists and business representatives. A central question is what to make of, and do with, the UN’s 2030 Agenda and its associated Sustainable Development Goals.

As always when attending such a forum – and even more so when given the opportunity to speak – the question arises how to make a useful contribution. This same question that I ask myself in preparation for this forum, a farmer recently asked me in a public talk; and a class of students asked me after I told them about my research on food security and biodiversity: how is any of this going to make a difference?

It’s the million dollar question of sustainability science, and indeed, the million dollar question for anyone working to make the world a better place. How do we actually do this?

For the time being, the answer I most commonly give is that I believe we need to tell a different story about the world. The dominant story we’re hearing, and that keeps being reinforced in public fora, is overly simplistic, and misses a whole bunch of important issues that ultimately, we need to face head on.

At the FONA forum, I’ll talk about land as a scarce resource, which is related to Sustainable Development Goal 15 (“Life on Land”), but potentially clashes with other goals, such as Goal 2 (“Zero Hunger”). And like in much of the rest of sustainability science, the dominant story on land is simple, often too simple. It’s a story that tells you that you can have your cake, and eat it too. It’s a story of meeting endless demand, including for the foods that make us unhealthy, because supposedly we “have to”. It’s a story of sustainable intensification, of green growth, of trickle down effects that will eventually reach the poor. It’s a story that does not rock the boat, that is palatable to status quo thinking, and to living within existing paradigms. It’s a story of shallow leverage points, of not challenging let alone shaking up the dominant paradigms that we have built our world around.

It’s this dominant story that I’ll seek to challenge, because frankly – if people with the privilege and freedom to study the world in whichever way they want to don’t challenge this story, who will? Building on our work critiquing sustainable intensification, reviewing social-ecological systems thinking, and most recently seeking synergies between food security and biodiversity conservation, I will try to tell a different story. A different story is less comfortable, but optimistic at the same time. This different story is one that speaks of the possibility of having enough for all, of including justice within and between generations, of beginning to recognize complexity in the form of drivers, dominant actors, and feedbacks.

I’m excited to take this story to a sizeable forum and take part in discussions of how to deal with the Sustainable Development Goals. Working within the boundaries of what current policies can do is all very well – but to me, a timely contribution will be to rock the boat a bit more than that – to tell a different story and thus hopefully contribute to ultimately shifting entire discourses, away from the very mindsets that have got our planet into trouble in the first place.

New Paper: Assessing sustainable biophysical human–nature connectedness at regional scales

By Christian Dorninger

Humans are biophysically connected to the biosphere through the flows of materials and energy appropriated from ecosystems. While this connection is fundamental for human well-being, many modern societies have—for better or worse—disconnected themselves from the natural productivity of their immediate regional environment by accessing material and energy flows from distant places and from outside the biosphere.

In the search for the most “efficient” sustainability solutions for land-use based management issues modern societies often tend to supplement, or replace, (potentially) naturally renewable regional energy—its net primary production (NPP)—with external material and energy inputs (e.g. fossils, metals, and other minerals extracted from the lithosphere). The extent and consequences of these biophysical disconnections remain unclear.

In our new paper, we conceptualize the biophysical human–nature connectedness of land use systems at regional scales. We distinguish two mechanisms by which the connectedness of people to their regional ecosystems has been circumvented.

  1. ‘Biospheric disconnection’ refers to people drawing on non-renewable minerals from outside the biosphere (e.g. fossils, metals and other minerals). It is characterized by a strong dependence on industrial inputs which delay or displace ecological constraints. This raises concerns about intergenerational justice, because it creates societal structures that cannot be maintained indefinitely, and diminishes the biosphere’s life-supporting conditions for future generations (e.g. through causing climate change).
  2. ‘Spatial disconnection’ arises from the imports of biomass and mineral resources from outside of a given region. This spatial disconnection of resources creates unsustainable lifestyle patterns through long-distance trade relationships that, potentially, disadvantage the ‘source’ regions. Spatial disconnectedness may thus compromise intragenerational justice, especially if the teleconnections are strong and unbalanced.

Both mechanisms allow for greater regional resource use than would be possible otherwise, but both pose challenges for sustainability, for example, through waste generation, depletion of nonrenewable resources and environmental burden shifting to distant regions or future generations.

Moreover, Cumming et al. (2014) argued that such disconnections weaken direct feedbacks between ecosystems and societies, thereby potentially causing overexploitation and collapse. In contrast, biophysically reconnected land use systems may provide renewed opportunities for inhabitants to develop an awareness of their impacts and fundamental reliance on ecosystems. For this reason, we argue for a reconnection of human activities to the biosphere and its regenerative cycles. This, in turn, implies not only a reduction of industrial material use and a limitation of human domination of ecosystems, but also a strengthened sense of being connected with and knowing the limits of nature. Material realities of human-nature interactions have cognitive consequences and vice versa, e.g. perceptions and understandings of human-nature relationships might have a significant influence on how biophysical interactions are structured. For example, biophysical regional disconnectedness might foster belief and trust in technological progress and technocratic solutions to solve any sustainability issue, or reinforce the idea that sustainable land use is a “problem of other people”.

We propose a conceptual framework to analyze regional-scale biophysical human–nature connectedness. The proposed framework builds on the regional land use system as unit of analysis. Yet it explicitly recognizes not only regional land use, but also global material trade and energy flows.


Figure: The potential net primary production (NPPpot) shows the productivity of the biosphere through the process of photosynthesis in one region without any human interference. By applying labor humans appropriate a certain share of this productivity. Stage 1 indicates the fraction of the NPP appropriated by humans and what remains in the ecosystems for other species. Stage 2 shows biospheric disconnection by means of extra-biospheric inputs and emissions, whereby it is important to differentiate between regionally sourced and imported mineral inputs as indicated by the dotted line. Stage 3 shows spatial disconnections caused by intraregional biomass imports and exports. As indicated by the dashed area at the bottom, imported minerals can additionally be considered as causing spatial disconnectedness. Applying both aspects of disconnectedness to the intraregional connectedness results in the full assessment of biophysical human-nature disconnectedness at regional scales (Stage 4).

Our framework provides a new lens through which land-use sustainability can be investigated, which goes beyond ‘on site’ efficiency thinking. The operationalization of this model can be applied as a heuristic tool to reveal complex social–ecological interlinkages, raising awareness of the challenge in managing biophysical connections across scales. This in turn might help to shift the focus of sustainable land use management to a more comprehensible and holistic perspective. Instead of making humanity’s reliance on the biosphere ever more opaque, reconnected regional land use systems will require a greater focus on self-reliance and self-sufficient land use systems. Such regionally reconnected systems may, in turn, facilitate more foresightful, responsible and conscious behaviors.

We are currently undertaking empirical research to demonstrate the utility of the framework developed in the paper and to contrast our findings with results on cognitive human-nature connectedness in the same case study regions. We hope that this will provide deeper insights into the relationship between material and cognitive (dis-)connectedness, and thereby potentially reveal hitherto unrecognized, deep leverage points for sustainability transformation.

The full open access paper can be found here.

Dorninger, C., D. Abson, J. Fischer, and H. von Wehrden. 2017. Assessing sustainable biophysical human-nature connectedness at regional scales. Environmental Research Letters 12.

A (hopefully lasting) return to original content: Big update – The Book is Done!

Jahi Chappell’s new book is out, and he introduces it on his blog — which I reproduced here. Likely to be of interest to a number of readers of ideas4sustainability, too!

Beginning to End Hunger: AgroEcoPeople

Hello fine folks of the interwebs–

It’s been pretty much nothing but reposts for months now here on Agroecopeople. I have been focusing on finishing a fairly major project! That is, my (first?) book, Beginning to End Hunger: Food and the Environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Beyond, due out this December from University of California Press! Based on my research in Belo Horizonte, Brazil over the past 15 years, the book presents BH’s story.

Vista do mirante no bairro Mangabeiras em Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brasil. (c) bcorreabh / Adobe Stock

From the official summary at UC Press, Belo Horizonte

“is home to 2.5 million people and one of the world’s most successful city food security programs. Since its Municipal Secretariat for Food Security was founded in 1993, malnutrition in Belo Horizonte has declined dramatically, allowing it to serve as an inspiration for Brazil’s renowned Zero Hunger programs. The Municipal Secretariat’s work with local small family farmers also offers a…

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New Paper: Refocusing ecosystem services towards sustainability


The ecosystem services concept has evolved considerably over its 30 odd year history. Its earliest incarnation was as an eye opening heuristic for thinking about sustainability and the interdependence of human well-being and conservation of the environment (see for example, the wonderful “Rivet Poppers” metaphor by Paul and Anne Ehrlich). This initial discursive phase was followed by a relatively manic phase of classifications, typologies, mapping, modelling and the development of valuation methods. Now there are increased calls for the ecosystem service concept to be used as an explicit decision making tool (e.g. Bateman et al. 2013). In many ways this is a positive trajectory. If we are serious about the ecosystem services concept as part of “solution oriented” sustainability science we need to move beyond metaphors and towards practical tools for addressing unsustainability. However, with regard to ecosystem services research we are in danger of losing something vital along the way.

Once the notion of ecosystems moves beyond a concept and becomes a tool there is a danger that it becomes an indiscriminate end in its own right without regard to the reason we wanted such a tool in the first place (“if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail”). For example, does it really make sense to conceptualize non-renewable peat extraction (e.g. the UK NEA) or industrialized crop production as ‘valued’ ecosystem services to be conserved in the pursuit of sustainability?

In a new paper we attempt to realign the ecosystem services with the normative goal of sustainability from which it originally arose. We identify seven key sustainability strategies (see Figure) for linking ecosystem services and sustainability outcomes and discuss how these strategies can be pursued when operationalizing the ecosystem service concept.

ES and Sus figure

The seven strategies are:

1. Equitable intergenerational distribution: Ecosystem services assessments should account for the potential liquidation of natural capital, for example, by differentiating between food provision that maintains or erodes so soil fertility. Assessments should also consider how ecosystem service appropriation can maintain and support the long-term capacity of valued social-ecological systems, including the maintenance of the less tangible benefits related to the direct interaction of humans with nature.
2. Equitable intragenerational distribution: Aggregate valuations can gloss over gross inequalities in who has access to, and can benefit from, the appropriation of ecosystem services. Here more focus is required on who benefits from the multiple services that flow from specific ecosystems, rather than on maximizing the provision of individual, often market oriented, ecosystem services. For example, plantations maximize timber production may conflict with conserving diverse forests from which people can collect wild foods, or enjoy cultural ecosystem services.
3. Equitable interspecies distribution: Here we need to acknowledge that humans are not the only species that appropriate energy and material flows from ecosystems. In almost all cases a ‘just’ appropriation (in relation to the needs of other species) is likely to be less that the capacity of an ecosystem to sustainably provide those flows.
4. Fair procedures, recognition and participation: Ecosystem service assessments and management should move beyond simply assessing ecosystem services benefits and study the procedures by which ecosystem services are appropriated and the extent to which such procedures are inclusive, just and address issues of political, social or economic power.
5. Sufficiency: ecosystem services research need to start asking “how much ecosystem service appropriation is enough?” rather than ‘‘how do we maximize ecosystem service provision?” A focus on sufficiency requires a greater focus on our normative goals, for example, by considering what an ideal social-ecological system might look like, rather than on how many services can we squeeze out of a given ecosystem.
6. Efficiency: The efficient use of ecosystems should be explicitly considered only as an instrumental means to a clearly defined normative goal, not as an intrinsic ends in its own right.
7. Persistence: ecosystem services research should acknowledge that ecosystems are dynamic and consider temporal ecosystem dynamics, potential regime shifts and long term degradation of ecosystem properties. Research should also identify to what extent the appropriation of benefits from ecosystems are dependent on non-renewable inputs and how this influences the long term persistence of the flows of ecosystem services.

We hope that highlighting strategies, in some small way, can help reorient ecosystem services research towards a more sustainability focused solutions based science.

The full paper can be found here.

Schröter, M., Stumpf, K.H., Loos, J., van Oudenhoven, A.P.E., Böhnke-Henrichs, A. and Abson, D.J. (2017) Refocusing ecosystem services towards sustainability, Ecosystem Services, 25, 35-43,

New concept in sustainability science: Reverse transdisciplinarity


(Health Warning: this is to be read with your sense of humour switched on.) As you can see from Aisa’s very nice last post on this blog, we are currently in the second year of field work for our project on food security and biodiversity conservation in southwestern Ethiopia. So far, we have done hundreds of interviews, dozens of focus group discussions and workshops on a wide range of topics through which we involve stakeholders in the research process. This involvement of stakeholders in sustainability science is usually referred to as transdisciplinarity and it is meant to enrich the research process, to co-create knowledge, to increase relevance and finally to facilitate joint problem solving.

As opposed to this concept, this blog post introduces the concept of reverse transdisciplinarity, which is completely new to sustainability science. Reverse transdisciplinarity means the active involvement of researchers in real world processes, as for example in farming activities (see Fig. 1). This involvement truly empowers local stakeholders and I am pretty confident that it promises to become a key method in sustainability science in the very near future.

I am looking forward for many examples of how to implement it posted in the comments section below.

Fig. 1: Girma, one of our PhD students, demonstrates the concept of reverse transdisciplinarity in SW Ethiopia. While just a few minutes earlier he was trying to find interviewees for a survey, he spontaneously switched his role and started to actively improve food security in our study region. His ploughing saved important calories for local farmers and also helped to build trust among the local people. (Unfortunately, it didn’t help to find participants for the survey and we had to go somewhere else afterwards. Maybe it was because he didn’t plow in a straight line.)