Paper recommendation: power relations in ecosystem services work

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend the following paper:

Berbés-Blázquez M, González JA, Pascual U. 2016. Towards an ecosystem services approach that addresses social power relations. Curr Opin Environ Sustainability 2016 Apr; 19:134-43. DOI: 10.1016/j.cosust.2016.02.003

With the new IPBES framework and its focus on institutions, a shift towards governance-related issues is already underway in ecosystem services research. The paper recommended here adds an important new dimension, namely that of power relationships. These have, until recently, been largely ignored in ecosystem services research. The present paper makes three tangible suggestions for how power relationships should be more routinely examined in ecosystem service assessments:

1. by analysing how power shapes institutions, and how this in turn, creates winners and losers in terms of the well-being benefits generated by ecosystem services;

2. by investigating more carefully how ecosystem services are co-produced by people. Ecosystem services (especially provisioning services) are generated by combining human labour inputs with natural capital. The type of input can have substantial consequences for human well-being, even if the amount of “service” produced is equal (e.g. child labour vs. subsistence farming vs. industrialised agriculture);

3. by being cognisant of historical trajectories and their influence on shaping institutions and power relationships surrounding them.

Ecosystem services research arose in ecology and branched out into economics. Recent advances in the field (such as this paper) show that the concept is increasingly drawing on insights from other social sciences, too — this will greatly improve the value of the ecosystem services concept.

Is connection with nature an oxymoron?

Reflections by Chris Ives, Katie Klaniecki, Christian Dorninger and Joern Fischer

In his recent paper, Robert Fletcher criticises the idea of re-connecting people with nature (and with it, the perspective of “connection with nature”). His main argument is that through the very terminology being used, people and nature are treated as separate entities — suggesting that a true unity of them therefore is going to remain elusive. A people-nature dichotomy, or nature-culture divide, thus is entrenched in the terminology being used, rather than dissolved. As an alternative, Fletcher suggests a political ecology framework: According to this, with industrialisation, a “metabolic rift” occurred, and this alienated people from the environment both materially and philosophically. Such a framework would encourage a broader perspective, which perhaps would do a better job at getting at the root causes of un-sustainability.

We agree with Fletcher that there is a great need for critical reflection of the connection to nature concept. His arguments are conceptually sound, in that a close examination of the term “re-connecting with nature” shows it is indeed a potential oxymoron. Yet, his critique takes a relatively narrow perspective of the “reconnection” agenda, largely grounded in examples on ecotourism and environmental education. Indeed, taken narrowly, the concept of re-connecting people and nature is unlikely to solve major sustainability problems.

What Fletcher is perhaps missing, however, is that there are now many disciplines looking at “reconnecting” people and nature – though not necessarily under this label. Discussions at present go far beyond eco-tourism and environmental education. Recent work has examined, for example, experiential connections, biophysical connections, spiritual connections, and cultural connections. None of these, by themselves, will solve all sustainability problems. And indeed, looking at these disconnections (or possible re-connections), alongside other frameworks such as political ecology would probably be useful. But the usefulness of alternative frameworks (such as political ecology) does not, in itself, negate the potential for simultaneous usefulness of a “reconnection” agenda. 

Probably then, reconnecting people and nature will be most useful in the context of a systems approach. There are structures or institutions within society (neoliberalism included?) that fundamentally contribute to disconnecting people and nature. We agree with Fletcher that reconnecting won’t work unless we also challenge the structures that have caused humans to be increasingly distant from the natural world.

On this basis, then, we believe that as a metaphor, the notion of re-connecting people and nature remains useful. The term sends signals that we need to be careful not to transgress the biophysical boundaries of our planet; that we are dependent on non-human species. By offering a number of ways in which we can re-connect, the concept also leaves room for different, complementary approaches to tackle the present sustainability crisis — be it through fostering experiential, material or spiritual connections. 

In essence, we agree with Fletcher that “entering into deeper and more mutual relationship with nonhumans is vital”. Where we disagree is that we see re-connecting to nature as a potentially useful metaphor to get closer to this goal. Perhaps it won’t get us there all the way: but especially in industrialised societies, it will be a good start towards a more ultimate goal — namely re-embedding humanity within nature.

Revival of landscape-scale research?

By Joern Fischer

It’s easy to by cynical about the state of the world, and the state of academia. A recent commentary in Nature suggested that “current trajectories threaten science with drowning in the noise of its own productivity”. Leading journals are full of technocratic formulas for how to fix the world; while the deeper questions underpinning our sustainability crisis remain unaddressed. But every now and then, there’s a glimmer of hope.

I’ve recently been hopeful about a possible revival of landscape-scale research. To me, conservation science went a bit like this: general principles were being established in the 1960; reserves were advocated in the 1970s; reserve planning was perfected in the 80s and 90s; the “matrix” outside protected areas attracted attention in the 1990s, along with a rise in landscape ecology; ecosystem services arose as a new field of enquiry in the 2000s; and protected areas re-gained attention via the concept of land sparing in the last few years, with areas outside protected areas losing in popularity.

But just recently, it appears there is also a revival of the “landscape” bubbling under the surface, along with genuinely better integration across disciplines. This latent revival of the landscape as a focal area of interdisciplinary research efforts is despite prestigious journals favouring larger scales. If you read only the highest impact journals, you may miss out altogether on the landscape scale. But if you read work one or two notches below in terms of supposed “prestige” of the journals, landscape research is alive, and perhaps even on the rise.

I was encouraged to see, for example, Reed’s latest paper in Global Change Biology; or Wu’s paper on landscape sustainability science. Similarly, the PECS network encourages investigation of social-ecological systems in actual physical locations – often landscapes, as shown in a recent review of literature on scenario planning.

There are several (different) communities of people who are passionate about getting out into the field; working in real landscapes; and investigating issues in depth from multiple perspectives. Perhaps part of the problem is that those communities do not (yet?) speak the same language – without having done a citation or network analysis, my guess is that work on the “landscape approach” (sensu Sayer or Reed) is largely separate from work on “landscape sustainability science” (sensu Wu) and “social-ecological systems” (sensu PECS). In addition, there are many “conventional” ecologists and social scientists who continue to focus on landscapes even when the incentives are skewed towards scaling up – but they may not read any of the interdisciplinary work listed above. These communities of people thus look different at first glance, but they probably share key interests and aversions: including the interest to actually “get out there” rather than just model things from a distance; and healthy skepticism regarding simplistic fixes for complex problems.

There’s nothing magic as such about the landscape as a focal scale – but as a space for integration across disciplines and between researchers and stakeholders, it is uniquely relevant. My hope is that over the next few years, we’ll see a major revival of landscape-scale research – and who knows, maybe even the high-impact journals will realize that bigger is not always better.

Contribution to Asia Regional Meeting on Agroecology: IATP x-post

A detailed reflection on the potential role of agroecology by Jahi Chappell; reblogged here.


Contribution to Asia Regional Meeting on Agroecology:
Supporting Agroecology by Securing and Building on Appropriate Rights

By Dr. M. Jahi Chappell and Shiney Varghese
Originally published by IATP, May 10, 2016

Minneapolis, May 10, 2016—The Regional Meeting on Agroecology in Asia in November of 2015 marked the culmination of four FAO meetings on Agroecology. These vibrant meetings confirmed a rising tide that we have written about previously: agroecology’s prominence is growing worldwide. The importance of its concepts, tools, knowledge and its emphasis on respect for and collaboration with producers have been borne out by the reception it has seen across FAO meetings on four continents.

More broadly, agroecology has been growing on national and international agendas, ranging from the 2012 decree on agroecology of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, to the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology, to the 2014 International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and…

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The illusion of doing a good job

By Joern Fischer

A little while ago, I published a bit of an outburst about academia’s obsession with quantity. Some people have interpreted this to be in favour of a lower output academia. However, that’s not quite what I meant: I’m not at all against productivity. Rather, what does concern me is the frantic, incoherent production of “stuff” at the expense of theoretical coherence, social relations and reflection.

It is possible to be productive and reflective – to a point. What troubles me is that most of us academics are evidently bad at judging when we take on too much. Hardly anyone will admit to being addicted to “quantity” at the expense of quality. Yet, it’s quite clear when taking a look around that there are many instances in which academic life is less pleasant than it ought to be, because someone, somewhere took on too much (and is now a nuisance to everyone else).

Since, collectively, as academics, we are apparently not very skilled at judging when we’re doing a good job, I thought I’d put up some indicators that we might treat as warning signals. If these things are going well, it means we’re probably working within our zone of meaningful productivity; if they are going badly, it might be a sign that we’re compromising the quality of our work. So, we might ask ourselves:

  • Are products of your work routinely well received by your colleagues?
  • Are the people you work with generally happy with your contributions?
  • Are you able to attend meetings you planned or do you frequently cancel them?
  • Do you generally respond to all emails within a few days?
  • Do you provide timely, quality input on papers you are a co-author on?
  • If someone asked your students to confidentially report on the quality of your supervision, would they praise you or criticize you?
  • Do your papers show consistent messages, or an evolution of your thinking – or are they mixed messages bouncing back and forth, depending on the paper?
  • Do you stop to talk to the people around you, or just rush past them?
  • Do you find time to read and think about what you read? (Or do you just read the titles of papers, their abstracts, or tweets about them?)

How we do with respect to these questions might be something we ask ourselves, or we might ask colleagues to tell us if we’re not doing a good job on these things. To me, quality is about focus, about knowing what’s important, and about delivering what we commit to – it’s about being meaningfully productive, not just busy.


Looking to start a research group in Germany?

By Joern Fischer

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation has just advertised its annual call for proposals for Sofja-Kovalevskaja Awards. This award is what funded me to move to Germany and start interdisciplinary work in Romania. I have nothing negative to say about this funding opportunity — the administrative burden really is very low, the reporting duties are very reasonable, and there is a lot of freedom to do good science. It’s a great opportunity, and I’m sure it must be one of the nicest ways to get started on building one’s own research group.

For those who are interested in this funding opportunity, there are a few things to note:

  • It is only possible to apply for people from outside Germany, or for Germans who were outside Germany for a long time.
  • It is really very competitive funding. I know at least one truly excellent candidate who was unlucky in securing this funding. It’s not really worth going for this unless others would perceive your CV as “outstanding”.
  • It pays to have strong referees, ideally from globally leading institutions.

To find out more about this funding opportunity, check out the funding call. For promising  candidates looking to come to Leuphana University in the fields of social-ecological systems, conservation biology, or sustainability science, I am happy to be contacted to discuss my potential involvement as a host.

Paper recommendation: integrated landscape approaches for the future

I would like to recommend the following paper:

Reed J,  Van Vianen J,  Deakin EL,  Barlow J,  Sunderland T. 2016. Integrated landscape approaches to managing social and environmental issues in the tropics: learning from the past to guide the futureGlob Chang Biol. 2016 Mar 17, DOI: 10.3410/f.726225411.793517151

Focusing on the tropics, this paper makes a strong case for further efforts on ‘landscape approaches’ to biodiversity conservation. Landscape approaches are defined as approaches that seek, at the same time, to tackle biodiversity conservation, food security, poverty alleviation and climate change. The paper urges researchers, policy makers and practitioners alike to continue their efforts on focusing on landscapes as units for the integration of multiple interests — with the goal of maximizing synergies, while minimizing and being aware of inevitable trade-offs.

Through its holistic, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary focus, this paper is a welcome contrast to the dominant discourse in leading journals, which tends to be technocratic in nature {1}.


The intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation: a review, Glamann J, Hanspach J, Abson DJ, Collier N, Fischer J. Reg Environ Change. 2015 Oct 06; 

Nutrition and Food Systems: Comments to the HLPE for their forthcoming report

Jahi Chappell’s latest overview of key research frontiers, with a lot of useful references!


Cross-posted from IATP’s Think Forward blog:

Posted April 21, 2016 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell

The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is the foremost international and intergovernmental platform trying to address global food security and nutrition challenges. The current version of the CFS emerged following the food crises of 2008 as a result of a reform process that sought to increase stakeholder participation, especially participation by those engaged in small scale food production systems. Its High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) mechanism was created in 2010 as part of the reform to be “the science-policy interface of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS),” and “aims to improve the robustness of policy making by providing independent, evidence-based analysis and advice at the request of CFS.”

Since its establishment, the HLPE has taken on issues related to…

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Missing the point or a key step in the right direction?

By Joern Fischer

Recently, I watched the documentary “Dukale’s Dream”, featuring Hugh Jackman and Tim Costello from World Vision. The movie depicts nicely what life in the coffee growing parts of Ethiopia is like, and many of the little details in it reflected closely what I had seen first hand in the field. But what about the approach to development being advocated in the movie — is it a key step in the right direction, or is it simply missing the point?

On the positive side, we can note that Hugh Jackman has been engaged with the issue of development for several years. His engagement went far beyond what many of us have done: donating substantial amounts of money, visiting development projects, speaking at the UN about climate change, and starting a fair-trade coffee company. And it’s clear that the work by World Vision depicted in this particular movie did positively affect the life of a poor coffee farmer and his family. These are all good things.

On the more critical side, we might feel that this movie leaves many important points unaddressed. Jeffrey Sachs is the only academic being interviewed as part of the movie — and he paints a distinctly pro-economic-growth picture of what development ought to look like. (Perhaps this is fair enough: strong economic growth in poor countries does correlate, after all, with improvements in people’s livelihoods. Or is so much missing from this equation that is is dangerously simplistic?) Similarly, the movie somehow leaves us with the notion that if we all drank only fair-trade coffee, development problems would automatically resolve themselves.

But many key questions remain unanswered: It’s nice that development worked for the particular farmer (Dukale) presented. But what about his neighbours? While Dukale is buying more land, is everyone else really benefiting from it, too, via trickle-down effects? Is it good enough to leave aside population growth from the equation, and wait for prosperity to do its thing to reduce fertility rates? Can we leave Western consumerism (and global capitalism?) untouched and still have “sustainable development” for all?

My own conclusion on this is that this movie does a very nice job of engaging its target audience. And while it leaves many of the more complex questions unanswered, I don’t think we currently have definitive answers or simple recipes. In short: an incomplete story, to me, but one worth listening to nevertheless. If nothing else, I’d highly recommend this movie as valuable food for thought.

Paper recommendation: human value shifts and conservation

I would like to recommend the following paper.

Implications of human value shift and persistence for biodiversity conservation

by Manfredo MJ,  Teel TL,  Dietsch AM, Conserv Biol. 2016 Apr30(2):287-96. (LINK)

 In addressing human values, this is one of few articles in mainstream conservation journals that deals with some of the deeper issues underlying the present environmental crisis. The paper shows that values change only very slowly, but that there is a general shift occurring (in the USA) from domination-oriented values towards mutualism-oriented values. This value change is slow, but goes in the general direction of a more sustainability-oriented humanity.

My only slight criticism of this paper is that the authors recommend focusing on working within people’s value systems, because changing value systems may be impractical. I would argue that these two options should not be framed as mutually exclusive: it seems reasonable to work within existing value systems, while also encouraging and fostering the shift in values that is (according to this study) already underway. This is particularly the case because the authors argue in their introduction that changes in values can be stimulated, for example, by being exposed to new information or crisis situations.

The dimension of human values is greatly under-researched in a conservation context. This paper is an authoritative empirical exception that will hopefully stimulate further work in this important area.