The Anthropocene and how suddenly, we don’t care

by Joern Fischer

A set of recent discussions inspired me to write this very simple post. I’m basically just highlighting an observation: that some trends of the Anthropocene, we try to fight, and others we accept as a given. What’s fascinating is that this can switch quite suddenly — something we wanted to fight yesterday, we accept as a given today — and it seems like the choice of things we fight versus take as given is quite “random”, or at least not grounded in anything particularly useful or intelligent.

great-acceleration

Source: Future Earth

So, first of all — let’s be clear what I mean by the Anthropocene here. To be precise, I mean the “great acceleration” aspect of the Anthropocene. As shown above, for example, this is characterised by well known exponential increases in a wide range of social, economic, and environmental phenomena.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist (nor a system scientist) to guess that probably, when a bunch of stuff increases all at the same time, something is going on. And probably, these different trends are not independent but related. Similarly, it doesn’t take a lot of analysis to then realise that to address this stuff, you probably need to deal with the WHOLE, rather than with just a few trends in isolation.

And: it seems obvious you can’t just randomly accept some of these exponential growth curves while trying to fight the others. Or at least, that seems obvious to me… and this is where the observation begins.

Some trends, many sustainability scientists routinely argue against. Examples of this are climate change and biodiversity loss. We haven’t given up yet on these ones, and we argue that we must halt climate change! We must stop biodiversity loss!

But others, we take as given. My two favourite ones are urbanisation and food production. Large numbers of sustainability scholars accept urbanisation as an unchangeable and value-neutral phenomenon; and similarly, large numbers of scholars argue that “we must double food production” because demand “will” double.

The choice of accepting these as given while desperately fighting some of the others seems quite arbitrary to me, and frankly, illogical. What if urban lifestyles are part of the package of increasing un-sustainability (e.g. because they contributed to disconnectedness from the natural world and longer food chains)? What if increasing demand for food is a symptom of un-sustainability (e.g. because it is driven by increasingly unhealthy diets related to industrial food systems)?

My suggestion is that we either fall in love with exponential growth, and then we do it for everything. Then we can argue, and some people do, that it’s all not so bad, and we will innovate our way around planetary boundaries. Or alternatively, you can sign the ecomodernist manifesto, and argue vehemently that we can have our cake and eat it, too.

Or … well, or we have to address the great acceleration as a whole, not just a couple of the hockey sticks, but all of them.

Perhaps ever increasing urbanisation is not actually what the world needs. Perhaps doubling food production is not what the world actually needs.

Perhaps we need to keep the big picture in mind more routinely — and that is, that these trends are parts of a package of unsustainable, exponential growth. When you have a system of interlinked, reinforcing feedbacks, you can’t just choose a couple of variables and address those. It’s got to be the whole package.

 

Can a transdisciplinary PhD contribute to transformative change?

Social-ecological systems Scholars

This is the fifth post in the series on ‘Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys’.

My name is David Lam. I am a PhD student at Leuphana University Lüneburg Germany in the research project ‘Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformations’ and currently a guest PhD researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden.

I am doing research in a transdisciplinary case study in Southern Transylvania, Romania. I aim to make my research in Transylvania useful in two ways: First, to better understand a sustainability problem in a specific context. Second, to contribute to possible solutions. We are working with a network of approximately 30 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which try to foster sustainable development in the region by, for instance, supporting small-scale farmers, conserving the cultural heritage, or protecting the unique landscape with its  high biodiversity value. With my PhD research, I want to understand how these inspiring NGOs increase their impact…

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Governing food security and biodiversity: a network analysis from Ethiopia

By Tolera Senbeto Jiren

The sustainable governance of interdependent policy goals such as food security and biodiversity conservation is often facilitated or constrained by the broader political economy of a country. This is true because institutional configurations are shaped by the underlying premises of the chosen political economy. For instance, while numerous countries currently pursue a market based neoliberal institutional arrangement, Ethiopia has adopted Democratic Developmentalism as its paradigm – a developmental state thesis with a strong state dictation both in the human and economic development of the country. While the qualitative study around this unique form of political economy is interesting, it is also important to understand how institutions are aligned or networked to address two pertinent development agendas, namely ensuring food security and biodiversity. Understanding the governance network for these two agendas is important because it lays the foundation for how different interests, policies, and strategies can be integrated.

setema

Under Joern Fischer’s ERC funded project, social-ecological system properties benefiting food security and biodiversity, I am looking at the governance dimension of food security and biodiversity conservation, looking at the case study in Ethiopia. Here, we want to share the findings of our recent paper published in Land Use Policy that uncovered the governance structural pattern for the integrated governance of food security and biodiversity in a multi-level governance context. For this, using the snowball sampling technique, we identified and collected relational data from 244 stakeholders (a group of individuals and organizations), from the local to the national governance level. Through a social network analysis, we mapped the structural pattern, integration mechanisms and stakeholders’ roles in the integration of food security and biodiversity.

Of the 244 stakeholders, we found that 80% of them were governmental organizations, and 71% were simultaneously involved in the governance of both food security and biodiversity. These stakeholders maintained 1884 collaborations in total, of which approximately half were about food security alone. Concerning the structural pattern, we mapped the stakeholders pattern of interaction in both sectors (see Fig. 2 in the paper). We found that stakeholders were hierarchically structured, with no reported direct interaction spanning two levels of governance, only ever to the same or the nearest level up or down the governance hierarchy. Moreover, despite sharing geographical boundaries, no horizontal linkages were reported between stakeholders in the adjacent three districts (“woredas”). This could create structural gaps and consequently lead to an implementation deficit and institutional misfit.

Importantly, we identified two mechanisms through which stakeholders integrated food security and biodiversity goals. One the one hand, individual stakeholders – mostly at the implementation governance level – integrated the two goals through forming interactions with other partners separately for the food security and biodiversity issues. That means, individual stakeholders held both policy goals but with interaction separately either about food security or biodiversity, which we termed individual integration. On the other hand, few stakeholders – mostly administrative sector stakeholders – had integrated the two policy goals by forming interaction with other partners simultaneously about food security and biodiversity. Here, an interaction between stakeholders simultaneously carried both food security as well as biodiversity issues, which we termed collaborative integration. We argue that individual integration could help a specific stakeholder to pursue their own respective goals in a coherent fashion, while collaborative integration facilitates the system-level integration of food security and biodiversity conservation.

Interestingly, we found that stakeholders with connecting roles (measured in terms of high betweenness centrality, and liaison brokerage) were largely from administrative sectors, who held formal authority, key structural positions, and popularity. While this could help these stakeholders effectively exercise their roles, however, unless properly managed, there is a high risk of power capture by these stakeholders. In general, we concluded that sustainability could be enhanced through multiple horizontal and vertical connections. Thus, a governance network that fosters stakeholders’ multi-level ties across jurisdictions, and enhances multi-sector interaction would likely improve integration outcomes, social learning, and provide opportunities to identify integration problems.

In search of the magic bullet? Working to find leverage points for sustainability transformation

By Maraja Riechers

I am going to tell you a personal story – the story does not end in a clear moral of the story, and it won’t give you insights into the “how to be a good PostDoc”. It is more a reflection of the joy of challenges.

When I was 15/16 years old, my school ended and we all had to decide which path in life we wanted to take. It was a big celebration with fancy clothes and dinner, and it felt very significant. At the time, I forced myself to decide what I would like to do with my life. There were a few things I did know for sure: I love nature, and learning. Hence, I became one of those: Save the World! Change the system! kind-of kids. And ultimately, I decided that this will be the goal of my life. Saving the world. And as I anyway loved learning, I decided to go to high school to learn more on how I could fulfill my new found destiny.

That was about 15 years ago. And I admit I have not changed too much. The complexity of the system forced me to reconfigure my teenage pride and be more humble. I am now trying to find my small contribution to maybe set in motion a potential change in this world. But generally, the goal is still similar. And I still love learning. For a while now, I have been a PostDoc in a project called “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation”. As suggested by the title, the project aims to change “the system” by trying to find the best ways to combat the social and environmental crises we are currently in. The narrative of my research and that of my team, gives me the feeling that I am finally in the right place. And that I finally have the right tools at hand. A leverage points perspective gives me a vision of which I can be proud. It forces me to look at deeper causes for change and look above and beyond disciplinary boundaries. Further, we work in transdisciplinary projects – where achievements are not merely measured in papers, but in real-world impact. Maybe through co-production of knowledge, maybe by offering connections at the science-policy interface, maybe by giving the people a vision for a better world: Let’s find ways to change the system, shall we?

Untitled.png

And while I definitively get a high five from my 15-year-old me, I do have one issue. This work is personal. How do you maintain a proper work-life balance, when your work is your source of income, your hobby and ultimately one of the things by which you define yourself? I owe it to my 15-year-old self to use the chances I get, as well as I can. And I still love learning, so new research projects and new ideas intrigue me. The pressure to find a silver bullet solution is on… but yet, one does not simply change the system. One does not even simply understand a system. Neither can I do this on my own, nor together with my amazing colleagues (and we are 25 hardworking souls in the leverage points project). But I still want to change the system. And I do want to find leverage points that foster sustainability. In every project I am leading, in every paper, in all transdisciplinary interactions, I am looking for more meaning, for underlying causes, for actual significant change. And to be honest, this is exhausting. Because it is personal. Because I take it personal.

Being a PostDoc anyway comes with a different set of responsibilities: For example, I have Bachelor and Masters students for which I am primarily responsible. And apart from the usual task to teach them how to be a good scientist, I also want to infect them with my enthusiasm. Research is fun because it is useful! Further, PostDocs are responsible for maintaining good team spirit, integration, being a link between the professorial PIs and the PhD students, responsible for outcome, output and good process. Then a bit of teaching, proposal writing and, well… you know the drill.

This is a balancing act with tough prioritizations. The leverage points project 1) aims to change the system, 2) needs meaningful participatory processes with real-world improvements, 3) while it depends on active and responsible PostDocs, 4) while also being subject to the usual academic drill. And this makes me really, really happy. And really, really exhausted. I try to take failures not too personally (which is hard), and try to leave work at the office (which is even harder, because then I occasionally simply don’t leave the office).

There are two small conclusions to my personal story: One, if you want to change the system, try a leverage points lens. It may give you new hope and tools that we actually can change something in this world. You can use it as analytical tool, metaphorical lens and anything in between (and in alternation). And two, when your goal in life and at work become one and the same, it is immensely exhausting at times, but also immensely fulfilling. But we do not have to do this task all by ourselves.

Let’s change the system, shall we?

Making new connections for transformations: An early-career transdisciplinary research networking day

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

Pre-conference workshop – Tuesday, 5th February 2019

Conference

We are a small group of PhD and early-career researchers involved in transdisciplinary research who have come together to share reflections, insights and strategies for the challenges we experience in our research. We will be hosting an informal networking day (5 February 2019, starting at 9AM) for PhD and early-career researchers involved in transdisciplinary (TD) research as a pre-conference event associated with the Leverage Points Conference to be held at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany (6-8 February 2019).

We recognise that many young scholars are already involved in numerous other networks, and do not intend this day to be the beginning of yet another formalised, structured network. We would rather just create a generative and enjoyable space for people to build interpersonal relationships and share their TD experiences with one another in a creative and meaningful way. We further see the value of…

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Leverage Points Conference: deadline extended to 15 July

By Dave Abson

Due to popular demand and academia’s somewhat loose interpretation of the notion of a deadline*, we have extended the abstract submission deadline for the Leverage Points 2019 conference until 15 of July 2018. Please spread this information within your networks.

* Best said by the late great Douglas Adams “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”

——

Leverage Points 2019: International conference on sustainability research and transformation, Lüneburg, Germany, 6-8 February – Call for abstracts

Humanity sits at a crossroad between tragedy and transformation, and now is a crucial time for sustainability research. Radical approaches are needed in sustainability research and praxis if they are to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Inspired by the work of Donella Meadows’ “Leverage Points: Places to intervene in a system”, this conference will explore the deep leverage points that can lead to sustainability transformations, asking: how do we transform ourselves, our science, our institutions, our interventions and our societies for a better future?

The conference is premised on three principles: 1) The importance of searching for places where interventions can lead to transformative change; 2) Open inquiry, exchange and co-learning across multiple theoretical, methodological and empirical research approaches; and 3) The need for reflection on modes of research and processes in sustainability research. We hope that this conference will help us move from incremental to transformational change; extend our thinking about complex sustainability challenges and deepen our collective and transdisciplinary research practices.

The call for abstracts is now open until 15 July 2018.

For more information please visit: http://leveragepoints2019.leuphana.de

If you have any specific enquiries about abstract submission please contact: LP2019@leuphana.de

 

You are a Leverage Point!

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

by Karen O’Brien

Have you ever thought of yourself as a leverage point? Someone who can shift systems in big ways? At the 2019 Leverage Points Conference at Leuphana University, I plan to explain why you – and all of us, for that matter — should think of ourselves as leverage points for systems change. I will encourage you to lay aside your favorite “–ism” and consider your potential to generate change from a wider and deeper perspective, starting with the idea that systems are relationships and that your relationship to nature, to others, to yourself, and to the process of change actually matters. Literally!

As a big fan of Donella Meadows’ 1999 essay on “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” I am particularly interested in working with the highest leverage points. Shouldn’t we all?  Given the challenges facing humanity and the urgency of responding to them, we…

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A family friendly conference

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Anne Jo Berkau

Many of the members of organising committee for Leverage Points 2019 have children – from very young babies upwards. As such, we are acutely aware of the support needed in order to work AND care for your children. At this conference it will be us who support you.

Free childcare during the conference sessions

Professional kindergarten carers can take care of your children during day (from 8:00-18:00). Yes, all day! The day before the conference starts, your children can get acquainted with the carers while you are there. You can discuss your children’s special needs and preferences. If you want to know more about the carers beforehand please stay tuned, we will introduce them on our website soon.

Nursing room

We have a quiet nursing room for breastfeeding and pumping.

Napping room

We have a napping room: completely dark and quiet. If your child needs a…

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Making the Leverage Points Conference Family-Friendly

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Julia Leventon

I’m very excited that Mama is an Academic has teamed up with the Leverage Points conference organisers, and the family services at Leuphana University in order to make sure that the Leverage Points 2019 conference is mama friendly.  In truth, this is a fairly easy collaboration – I overlap as a Principle Investigator in Leverage Points, and a founder of Mama is an Academic.  But it feels like a timely collaboration, as there are many conversations happening at the moment about making conferences more accessible to mothers.  This is evident in recent twitter conversations linked to @mamacademic, and in excellent articles such as here.  So we wanted to get it right.

I also think it’s an important thing to do.  Since having my son 2 years ago, I have missed my favourite annual conference twice because my husband couldn’t take time off for those days.  I…

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