Love and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Nearly 70 years ago, Erich Fromm argued that individual people as well as society at large had much to gain from developing their capacity to love. Love, he argued, was a universally important ingredient to the human journey – and actively developing a loving character orientation was both possible and beneficial (Fromm 1956).

In this short essay, I interpret some key tenets of Fromm’s seminal work in the context of sustainability. I highlight the relevance of four key ingredients of love proposed by Fromm for sustainability. Following this, I argue that some developments within sustainability science are already pointing at the importance of better understanding and working with love in order to foster sustainability – even though scientists have so far shunned away from actually using the term “love”. I suggest that much could be gained from more explicitly incorporating the concept of love in sustainability research, not least because it may be humanity’s single most powerful boundary object.

Love towards someone or something, according to Fromm, entails four components: knowledge, respect, responsibility, and care. To foster sustainability, I believe these four components are relevant towards interactions with the planet as a whole, interactions with other people (both within and between communities), and interactions with oneself.

Knowledge is critical, clearly, to understand the entities we are dealing with. Respect is a further necessary (but on its own insufficient) ingredient if we are to love someone or something – we need to deeply recognise her, his or its importance in some way. Responsibility suggests a normative link between the person who loves and the entity being loved, which suggests that interactions with this entity somehow have a moral component. And finally, to really love something or someone is reflected in care; that is, in some kind of action that benefits the loved entity.

All of these four components resonate strongly within a sustainability context. With respect to knowledge, Fromm’s definition of love quite clearly invites the pursuit of science – first of all, it is indeed critical that we understand the world and accumulate knowledge about it. The other three components of love are less well represented at present, but all have gained prominence within sustainability science in recent years. Most prominently, calls for planetary stewardship embody implicit respect towards our planet as well as recognising that in the Anthropocene, it is the responsibility of the dominant species on the planet to take care of the planet as a whole (Folke et al. 2021). Similarly, the rapid growth in literature on relational values signals a deepening of agendas within sustainability science to account for the manifold interlinkages within and between the human and non-human world, including the need to better understand its ethical dimensions (Chan et al. 2016; Norström et al. 2022). Phrases such as “ethos of care” (Staffa et al. 2021) or “empathy” (Brown et al. 2019; Kansky and Maassarani 2022) are increasingly entering the keywords of articles on sustainability matters because they influence sustainability outcomes in the real world.

James Gustave Speth famously noted that “I used to think the top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.” (; based on his interview at on BBC Radio in 2013). While this may be true, it could be that science is in fact on the way to fostering precisely the type of transformation that Speth thought was missing. Rational enquiry in pursuit of sustainability has led to the recognition that multiple facets must come together to bring about positive outcomes, including all four components that Fromm used to define love. Quite curiously thus, the rigorous and rational pursuit of science has effectively led to calls for more love – which his strikingly consistent with Fromm’s observation many decades ago: “Society must be organized in such a way that man’s social, loving nature is not separated from his social existence, but becomes one with it. If it is true, as I have tried to show, that love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence, then any society which excludes, relatively, the development of love, must in the long run perish of its own contradiction with the basic necessities of human nature.” (Fromm 1956)

A last thought that I wish to touch upon is that, if the above is indeed true, it could be worthwhile to spell out at which scales love ought to be investigated and fostered. I propose three scales as a starting point, noting that these could be broken up much more finely – the scale of the planet, the scale of human interactions, and the scale of interactions with oneself. All three matter at the same time, and thus I would argue, it is important to address all three at once rather than think we can deal with any one scale on its own, and address the rest later. Put differently, we cannot save the planet without fostering loving relationships between people; and we cannot foster loving relationships with others if we do not love (i.e. know, respect and care for) ourselves. Unsustainable personal journeys or lifestyles, therefore, are unlikely to add up to sustainable communities or a sustainable planet. As such then, the entire spectrum from self to planet would benefit, specifically for the pursuit of global sustainability, from more attention to love in both research and practice.


Brown, K., Adger, W.N., Devine-Wright, P., et al. 2019. Empathy, place and identity interactions for sustainability. Global Environmental Change 56, pp. 11–17.

Chan, K.M.A., Balvanera, P., Benessaiah, K., et al. 2016. Opinion: Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113(6), pp. 1462–1465.

Folke, C., Polasky, S., Rockström, J., et al. 2021. Our future in the Anthropocene biosphere. Ambio 50(4), pp. 834–869.

Fromm, E. 1956. The art of loving. New York: Harper.

Kansky, R. and Maassarani, T. 2022. Teaching nonviolent communication to increase empathy between people and toward wildlife to promote human–wildlife coexistence. Conservation letters.

Norström, A.V., Agarwal, B., Balvanera, P., et al. 2022. The programme on ecosystem change and society (PECS) – a decade of deepening social-ecological research through a place-based focus. Ecosystems and People 18(1), pp. 598–608.

Staffa, R.K., Riechers, M. and MartĂ­n-LĂłpez, B. 2021. A feminist ethos for caring knowledge production in transdisciplinary sustainability science. Sustainability Science.

Call for a Special Issue on Equity and Justice in Ecosystem Service Research


Equity and justice are increasingly recognised as focal issues in biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services and the long-term safeguarding of human well-being. This is reflected in global efforts such as the United Nations Agenda 2030 or the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, which place equity and justice at the heart of sustainable development and advocate a fair and equitable sharing of nature’s benefits. In parallel to these efforts, equity and justice concerns are increasingly being accounted for by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, with growing attention to the recognition of diverse knowledge systems, voices and values of different stakeholders (IPBES, 2022). In response to these developments, this Special Issue aims to contribute to a better understanding of equity and justice concerns in ecosystem services research and to stimulate critical reflections on the strengths and weaknesses of the ecosystem services framework in…

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Analyzing Sustainable Innovations


What are the characteristics of sustainability innovations? Which factors influence sustainability innovations and what are their specific outcomes? Dabard and Mann (2022) answer these questions in their new paper on Sustainability Innovations.

A leading tenant of the sustainability movement is the belief that solving environmental issues requires both technological and holistic system changes. Sustainable innovations are clearly a necessity. However, our understanding of which characteristics make a transition or innovation sustainable is often implicit. Three frameworks that are commonly used to conceptualize these transitions are the Multilevel Perspectives Framework (MLP), the Technological Innovations Systems (TIS) approach, and the Social-Ecological Systems (SES) framework. All three frameworks focus on specific dimensions of transitions. Dabard and Mann (2022) contribute to the definition of Sustainability Innovations and propose an alternative approach to sustainability transitions through the Sustainability Innovation Framework, which is generic and therefore can be more comprehensively applied to a wider range of…

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Discussing the relational paradigm: A review of Prof. Dr. Berta MartĂ­n-LĂłpez inaugural lecture


On Wednesday, the 16th November, Prof. Dr. Berta Martín-López held her inaugural lecture at Leuphana University. The welcoming words by Prof. Dr. Simone Abels, vice president of the graduate school, scientific qualification and teacher education, succinctly summarized Martín-López’ contribution to the SESI and Leuphana University by quoting sincere accounts of her colleagues about her competent, but always caring, kind and joyful approach to science – and their accuracy was proven by Martín-López’ following lecture about her work once again.

Inspired by West et al. (2020), Berta Martín-López introduced the ways by which place-based social-ecological systems research has considered relational paradigms and why these relational paradigms are relevant for global sustainability agendas. If you want to have a look at Martín-López’ lecture, check out her presentation slides at the end of the blog post.

The follow-up discussion of the lecture was initiated by Prof. Dr. Joern Fischer: He recognized…

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A river of emotion: Exploring the combination of sense of place theory and the ecosystem service concept


Nile, Yangtze or Rhine – rivers have always had a significant role in human history. River landscapes are complex social-ecological systems, serving as hotspots for biodiversity and certain cultural ecosystem services (CES). Nowadays, river landscapes face changes both impacting biodiversity as well as human lives. People perceive these changes differently – but there are hardly any assessments dealing with people’s emotional connections to river landscapes. Gottwald et al. (2022) propose a combination of senses of place theory and ecosystem services concept to combat this research gap. Senses of place (SOP) are the meanings and attachments people ascribe to places. Place attachments reflect the emotional connections to a place which can be evaluated based on the intensity (low to strong) or dimension (place identity and dependence). Place meanings provide the reasons for these connections. A spatial assessment of SOP has proven difficult, but a relational value approach as applied with CES…

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Invitation: Inaugural lecture by Prof. Dr. Berta MartĂ­n-LĂłpez


Today, we cordially invite you to the inaugural lecture by Prof. Dr. Berta Martín-Lopéz! She will look at the “Relational paradigms in place-based social-ecological research”.

For all our local readers, friends & colleagues, feel free to join us at the Leuphana University in UC 40.501. The inaugural lecture will be held in a brown-bag lunch format with a half-hour lecture followed by a discussion as a joint lunch break with an open end. Drinks and sandwiches will be provided by the Faculty of Sustainability. If you can’t attend in person, join us in Zoom, we’re looking forward to seeing you!

For more information visit the Leuphana website here!

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Defining values in valuation – the IPBES assessment on diverse values of nature


The state of our planet says a lot about humankind – amongst other things, how we value our environment. The biodiversity crisis is just one outcome of our past decisions of valuing nature, and the Sustainable Development Goals are one of the more ambitious attempts to re-evaluate and change our choices to more sustainable ones.
In October 2022, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published its “Assessment Report on Diverse Values and Valuation of Nature” after the approval of its 139 member states in July 2022. The report answers the call of decision-makers to balance different approaches in economic, social, and environmental dimensions to valuing nature and nature’s contributions to people. While economic and political decisions often prioritized instrumental values of nature, the report reveals that supporting more diverse values and integrating Indigenous and local knowledge with scientific knowledge have much more just and sustainable outcomes…

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How can we achieve successful transdisciplinary research? It depends on the context


Transdisciplinary Research (TDR) stands at the core of sustainability sciences: The approach of researchers and local actors co-producing knowledge should ideally tackle our society’s most urgent issues and facilitate sustainable transformation. But as usual, that is easier said than done, as the process is much more complicated in real life: While TDR approaches have been used both in the global North and South, Southern scholars recently criticize the ideal TDR approach as too rigid to facilitate engagement with dynamic contextual conditions. In their new paper, Schneider et al. (2022) examine context-sensitivity as part of TDR conceptualization. They investigate TDR experiences in six case studies with different contexts in the global South. The case studies are located in Asia (Myanmar and Laos), Africa (Kenya and Madagascar), and Latin America (Bolivia and Brazil).
To illustrate how successful TDR can be implemented, Schneider et al. use four TDR process elements that were identified…

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Everyone has a “map” to tell? Translating stories of participatory scenario narratives into maps of spatially explicit information


In research, stories are often created using scenario planning to understand future land use and land cover (LULC) changes. With scenario narratives, decision-makers can proactively consider uncertainties when choosing between different policy options. Many global scenarios need downscaling to the local level to make an assessment of potential futures possible for particular landscapes. While this approach ensures high-resolution LULC, it lacks context regarding local circumstances. On the other hand, scenarios developed on a local scale lack spatially explicit, quantitative information while providing opportunities for stakeholders to engage in decision-making processes. As few studies out there tackle these limitations by translating qualitative narrative scenarios at the landscape level into quantitative LULC maps, Duguma et al. (2022) propose a new, five-step approach.

A landscape in southwestern Ethiopia. Photo credit: Girma Shumi.

1. Development of the narrative scenarios
2. Current land cover mapping
3. Translation of narrative into qualitative spatially explicit rules

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