(Re-)connecting children with nature

By Joern Fischer

A new project at Leuphana University’s Faculty of Sustainability that I am involved in will focus on Leverage Points for Sustainability. One of the hypothesized leverage points to be examined is that of the connection between people and nature.

As part of my background reading on this topic, I came across an interesting study published in 2012 by Cheng and Monroe. This study focused specifically on children and suggested four important parts of “being connected” with nature (as they are relevant to children): (a) enjoyment of nature, (b) empathy for creatures, (c) sense of oneness, and (d) sense of responsibility. Findings suggested, among others, that family values towards nature as well as having nature near one’s home were particularly important in explaining children’s connections to nature (see Figure 1 in their paper linked above). Moreover, the connection to nature was significantly positively correlated to environmentally friendly behaviours.

To me, this paper was quite interesting because it shows under-explored directions for some potential root causes of unsustainability. Surely children are important in all this – but the fact that “family values” come out significant suggests there is an important role for adults, too.

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My “hit list” of journals (literally!)

By Joern Fischer

Our work in Romania is in its final stage. A few more papers are still in preparation or review, and a synthesis book remains to be written. But most papers are published – they are available here. This list of outputs looks quite nice, but hides the many rejections we’ve had to endure in the process. I thought it might be interesting to see where we did manage to get published.

One of the most telling factors for whether a paper ultimately is published or not – quality aside – is “journal fit”. Whether a paper fits to a particular journal, however, is not just a matter of whether it fits with what the instructions for authors say. Rather, I’d say most journals have their own cultures of what kinds of things they like or dislike.

Most of the work that I am involved with has a few defining properties: (1) it is rarely purely deductive, i.e. driven by a small number of carefully crafted hypotheses; rather (2) it is typically exploring systems, ecological, social, or social-ecological (i.e. it is inductive); (3) it is often interdisciplinary; and (4) it is often focused at the landscape scale. These kinds of properties fundamentally don’t lend themselves to being “liked” by some kinds of journals.

So, who publishes such work? Here is my personal “hit list”, i.e. the list of journals where we have actually published two or more papers coming from the Romania project:

In terms of “analysis”, to me, this suggests that key journals for this kind of space appear to be Ecology & Society (at the interface of ecological and social sciences), Landscape Ecology (especially for the ecological sciences, but also the interface), and Land Use Policy (especially for the social sciences, but also the interface).

Biodiversity & Conservation, PLoS One, and Basic and Applied Ecology tended to be good for landscape-scale empirical papers – the kinds of papers that journals such as Biological Conservation and Conservation Biology typically felt were not ambitious, “novel” or otherwise grand enough. Conservation Letters served us well for conceptual pieces.

Perhaps this list of journal names doesn’t come as a surprise – but with “reject without review” being so common these days, I found it interesting to see which journals regularly accept landscape-scale work that leans towards generating a systems understanding rather than testing specific hypotheses.

Other papers from the project (in journals represented just once) include the following:

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Disease and biodiversity conservation: the case of chytrid fungus in Romania

Today we have a guest post from Ben Scheele who has recently submitted his PhD thesis investigating the impacts of chytrid fungus on amphibian populations. Much of Ben’s thesis investigated the dynamics of chytrid infection in Australian amphibians, but an important component of his research was conducted in Transylvania, Romania. Today he shares the results of his Romanian research.

With ever increasing global trade, the unintentional spread of pathogens into naïve host populations is a major threat to biodiversity. This threat is perhaps best exemplified by disease-driven global amphibian declines. First recognised in the late 1990s, the amphibian disease chytridiomycosis, caused by infection with chytrid fungus, has been implicated in the severe decline or extinction of hundreds of amphibian species.

Much research on chytrid has focused on regions where the pathogen has driven rapid amphibian declines, such as Australia and Central America. However, over the last few years the known distribution of the pathogen has expanded rapidly, with the fungus now detected in over 50 countries. Eastern Europe is a region where chytrid has recently been reported, however, little is currently known about the pathogen’s distribution or impact on amphibians in the region.

In 2012, two of our collaborators detected chytrid in Romania. Given the capacity for the pathogen to drive mass amphibian declines, we were interested in evaluating the threat posed by chytrid. We focused on infection in the yellow-bellied toad, a species that is commonly infected in Western Europe and is widespread throughout our study landscape. We collected skin swabs from 550 toads (check out a short clip of the field work here). Because environmental conditions can mediate the distribution and prevalence of chytrid infection, we collected our samples from 60 independent ponds, covering a diverse range of habitats. We then examined whether the environmental context of each pond influenced whether chytrid was present or absent.

Overall, we found that chytrid infection was low in yellow-bellied toads (5%) – good news indeed! However, the pathogen was widespread across the landscape, occurring in a quarter of all sampled ponds (see map). We found that ponds were more likely to contain infected toads when they occurred close to perennial water sources. We suggest that this pattern reflects pathogen spill-over into ephemeral ponds due to amphibian movements from nearby, more permanent breeding habitats. Chytrid is sensitive to desiccation and is unlikely to persist in ephemeral ponds during extended dry periods, while perennial ponds can remain chytrid-positive over consecutive years, likely acting as source habitat for the pathogen. We also found that ponds in open landscapes were less likely to contain infected toads. Such ponds are probably less suitable for chytrid because they experience higher water temperatures compared to forest ponds, potentially reducing chytrid growth and survival.

A map showing the distribution of sampled ponds and ponds where chytrid-infected yellow-bellied toads were detected.

A map showing the distribution of sampled ponds and ponds where chytrid-infected yellow-bellied toads were detected.

The landscapes of Southern Transylvania are a mosaic of forest, pasture, meadow and arable land uses, with relatively few amphibian breeding areas containing permanent water. Our results indicate that this mosaic results in patchy environmental suitability for chytrid, as ephemeral ponds in open landscapes, isolated from permanent water sources are likely unfavourable for the fungus. As such, the overall risk posed by chytrid to yellow-bellied toads in the region may be limited because conditions suitable for the pathogen appear to occur in only a subset of toad habitat. However, in Southern Transylvania, ephemeral ponds in open landscapes are disappearing due to a transition from cattle and buffalo to sheep grazing and agricultural intensification. The loss of ephemeral ponds from open landscapes is likely to cause a contraction of yellow-bellied toads into forest and stream-side ponds, which appear to have higher pathogen suitability. As such, a higher proportion of the total habitat area occupied by toads may be suitable for chytrid fungus in the future.

Chytrid-infected toads were rarely detected in ponds in open landscapes, located long distances from perennial water sources.

Chytrid-infected toads were rarely detected in ponds in open landscapes, located long distances from perennial water sources.

For more information, take a look at our new paper in Animal Conservation: Scheele, B.C., Driscoll, D.A., Fischer, J., Fletcher A.W., Hanspach, J., Vӧrӧs, J. & Hartel, T. (In press). Landscape context influences chytrid fungus distribution in an endangered European amphibian. PDF available here: 2015-Scheele_et_al-Animal_Conservation

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The Falkland Islands are a sustainability lab – who knew?

Guest post by Kate Sherren

Captions: Wharves in Stanley, the Falklands capital. To the left, the Government Wharf which is busy with oil and gas exploration logistics. 

Captions: Wharves in Stanley, the Falklands capital. To the left, the Government Wharf which is busy with oil and gas exploration logistics.

Change is coming to the Falkland Islands. For generations, the Islands’ economy has relied upon industries based on renewable ecosystem services: livestock grazing, fishing (particularly squid), and increasingly tourism, such as Antarctic cruise ships. Following recent successful exploration for oil and gas in its exclusive economic zone, extraction of those petrochemicals will likely follow, barring significant changes to global consumption habits or oil and gas markets. The people of the region are aware that an oil and gas boom has potential implications for the culture and ecology of the region. This was one of the triggers for the recent Falkland Island Science Symposium, which brought a dozen pan-American scholars to its capital for a week of meetings and field trips. Diplomacy was also an explicit goal: as Argentina declares on busses and banknotes that the Islands are theirs, the Falklands are moved to increase their profile in the region, as a nation to its neighbours. Science is a useful avenue to diplomacy, but it also simply makes sense to improve networks with scholars in places with similar geographies and interests. Finally, it was a bit of a coming-out party for the nascent South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute, which is a growing hub for research on the South Atlantic. Lacking a university affiliation, SAERI needs research collaborations for access to graduate students and to broaden its funding base.

Caption: Thousands of whalebones covered this beach, the site of many strandings, when the delegation visited.

Caption: Thousands of whalebones covered this beach, the site of many strandings, when the delegation visited.

The Falkland Islands – a small archipelago east of Patagonia – has a singular culture and environment. Predominantly of Commonwealth stock, the few thousand Falkland citizens inhabit a geologic ‘crumb’ of Africa, left behind from the breakup of Gondwana, which boasts five species of penguin but no native trees. Stepping outside in the capital, Stanley, the predominant smell is burning peat, still cut from local peatlands and part of the home heating fuel mix. Despite its status as a British Overseas Territory (over continued control of which the British fought the ten-week Falklands War in 1982 against Argentina), the Falkland Islands are self-governing, and its people pride themselves on self-sufficiency. Their sense of place is very strong: it is not easy to live here, and the people’s connection to the landscape is intense. All this enforces a sustainability mindset – with limited extent, remote geography and regional tensions, Falklanders must manage with the long game in mind.

Caption: The Falklands are the site of the most northerly known King Penguin rookery in the world.

Caption: The Falklands are the site of the most northerly known King Penguin rookery in the world.

I was the only social scientist (loosely defined) in that pan-American science delegation: I’m a place-oriented scholar of landscape multifunctionality who uses visual and spatial methods. My co-delegates were experts in marine, atmospheric and terrestrial science, from microbes to whales, minute mosses to large-scale climate patterns. Like others, my immersion in this novel social-ecological system inspired numerous research ideas. As a social scientist, however, what among my co-delegates probably only gave me pause was precisely the novelty of the setting: would lessons from research here be applicable anywhere else? Of what else could a Falklands case study be considered an example? By the end of the week, I had come to believe that the Falklands were the perfect sustainability lab. Not only is there plenty of work that can be done there to inform the Islanders, but that would could produce more generalizable insights.

Caption: Kate Sherren, overlooking the farm settlement at Volunteer Point, heading to see the King penguins. The next two hours was all off-road, but we only travelled 15 km. 

Caption: Kate Sherren, overlooking the farm settlement at Volunteer Point, heading to see the King penguins. The next two hours was all off-road, but we only travelled 15 km.

The Falkland Islands are a remarkable microcosm. Despite the small size and population, the Islands have to sustain a bespoke legislative, policy and regulatory environment. Nothing could be transplanted from another context and be expected to work. These legislators, policy-makers and regulators live in very close proximity to the people and industries they seek to govern or influence. I met one young member of the legislature, pushing his bike up the hill at the end of the day with groceries in tow. This proximity makes them responsive: one legislator said they consult often, perhaps too often. This kind of government has the potential to be very nimble, compared to most, and open to novel approaches to governance. They are building the policy environment for oil and gas as we speak, and are currently funding a baseline study of socio-economics so they can monitor the impact of oil and gas exploitation on the people and economy. This is impressive forethought.

Caption: Stanley, the capital, looking toward the harbour. In the foreground, one of the many signs a local metalsmith placed around town decades ago to lobby for the end to whaling. His yard is now an ad-hoc museum to the battle, including harpoons and whale skeletons. In the background, several family greenhouses. 

Caption: Stanley, the capital, looking toward the harbour. In the foreground, one of the many signs a local metalsmith placed around town decades ago to lobby for the end to whaling. His yard is now an ad-hoc museum to the battle, including harpoons and whale skeletons. In the background, several family greenhouses.

The scale of the Falkland Islands also renders it sensitive to change. In few places could the ‘limits to growth’ be so readily tangible. Its landscape and society will feel quite quickly the marginal change caused by an influx of population to serve the oil and gas industry and its spinoffs. Waste management is a huge issue, as is food supply. Many homes and farms grow their own food, in greenhouses to beat the constant winds. Moreover, however, many citizens I spoke to were wary of the population changes, especially the fly-in, fly-out, male-dominated demographic often involved and its accompanying vice. Stanley is a baby boomtown, relatively speaking, and with extractive industries this implies a future bust. The Islanders wish to capitalize on this new resource, but make sure there is something recognizable left (indeed, cherishable) when it is gone. After all, it is already wealthy without this industry – there is no poverty or unemployment. While oil and gas operations there have been carefully negotiated to involve negligible on-shore processing, to avoid negative local impact, that decision may increase the risk of spills at sea.

Caption: Zimbabwean mine-clearing crews (photo: Steve Campana)

Caption: Zimbabwean mine-clearing crews (photo: Steve Campana)

So many aspects of the wider world are at play here, and perhaps overlap more because of the geography. The Falklands are what the Satoyama Initiative would call a ‘social-ecological production landscape and seascape’. So why isn’t it lousy with researchers? It takes a very long time to get there. Only one weekly LAN flight from Santiago, Chile, or the so called ‘air bridge’ from a UK base. And did I mention the mines? I was there at the beginning of the 2015 mine clearing season. A company from Zimbabwe had been hired to do the work, and their high-viz yellow suits were prominent along the roadsides. Britain has taken over the responsibility for clearing the mines since the 1997 Ottawa Treaty. Minefields don’t really get in the way – they’re clearly fenced and in fact serve as useful conservation areas (except if they go off, I suppose, but I’m assured this is uncommon). More problematic is the lack of infrastructure. Very little is paved outside Stanley. Everyone owns Landrovers, the only vehicle that can handle the terrain.

Caption: Our landrovers, driven by outstanding local guides who also own the Estancia farm. These women really know how to drive, and clearly enjoyed it: lots of joking over the radio, especially if anyone got bogged and needed rescuing!

Caption: Our landrovers, driven by outstanding local guides who also own the Estancia farm. These women really know how to drive, and clearly enjoyed it: lots of joking over the radio, especially if anyone got bogged and needed rescuing!

Internet is also unpredictable, costly and patchy. This had benefits, however. It was such a pleasure to have people meet your eyes as you met them in the street – it was like ten years ago compared to our smartphone fixations. This lack of internet distraction may in fact have contributed to my sense of immersion in the place. Paradoxically, the Falkland Islanders have embraced social media such as Facebook. One page hosts the equivalent of eBay called ChayBay (Chay being their local word for ‘buddy’, a variant on ché) for buying, selling and trading. Many older Falklanders mourned the loss of former collective living models, including the fragmentation of the small villages on the large company-owned farms when they were split and sold to families after the Shackleton Reports on the economic development of the Falklands in 1976 and just post-war. Even party phone lines were somewhat missed, for the cohesion they wrought. Each day the line was open for the ‘doctor’s hour’, when anyone could pick up the phone and tell the GP (and other listeners) their troubles. No wonder they’re all taking to social media.

Maybe you can tell, the Falkland Islands really got under my skin during my visit. I am convinced the Islands are a rich potential site for sustainability science research, and that there are many ways that a Falklands case study would reflect back on our wider global challenges. Watch this space.

To get in touch with Kate, you can email her at Dalhousie University’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies, via kate.sherren@dal.ca.

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The displacement of the gentle: consequences for sustainability?

By Joern Fischer

Today, I’ll try to make a connection between psychological research (not really my expertise!) and the state of the world, academia, and sustainability. In well over 100 species, some individuals are highly responsive to environmental stimuli, while others are not. Among humans, the highly responsive individuals have been termed “highly sensitive”.

Such responsiveness to stimuli, or sensitivity, has consequences for how these individuals act, but also for how they are being perceived by the rest of society (and how well they “fit in”). Not just among humans, but also in other species, such highly responsive individuals make up something like 20% of the population. According to Elaine Aron – who wrote a lot on this topic – the inherent trait of high responsiveness to environmental stimuli (or high sensitivity) tends to result in individuals deeply processing information, getting easily over-stimulated, being relatively more empathetic, and reacting to subtleties in their environment.

If you think about it, this set of traits could be quite relevant for sustainability – it would seem, in fact, that highly sensitive people should make good sustainability scientists. Deeply processing information should be useful in any academic endeavor. Being empathetic is useful in most social situations, and should be useful when dealing with situations where collaboration with other disciplines, or with stakeholders from outside research, is needed. Reacting to subtleties suggests potential ability to detect patterns early, and perhaps acting according to the precautionary principle. Being easily over-stimulated … well, that sounds like a downside with no obvious benefit.

What strikes me as interesting, however, is that most of the work by people interested in this phenomenon is not about how this trait could be useful for the world – but rather, it focuses on why people with this trait often do not cope very well in today’s world. (The movie trailer here illustrates this quite clearly!) If I think about it, indeed, among the senior sustainability scientists I know, the percentage of people I’d estimate to be “highly sensitive” appears very low; certainly lower than 20%.

I have thought about this for some time, and I’m pretty sure the reason is not that any of the analysis above (mine, or that by people who have seriously researched this issue) is wrong. Rather, I think the academic environment increasingly selects against people who have the above mix of traits. Deep processing and empathy are not exactly what modern academia is looking for. As Lawrence put it: “Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them.”

What’s troubling for sustainability, to my mind, is that this pattern is not just true in academia. Gentle people, in general terms, are appreciated as primary school teachers, nurses, and artists. While they are over-represented in areas such as these, they are under-represented in leadership positions. Yet, it’s in leadership positions that the world could currently do with more empathy (e.g. for the Global South) and with a bit more responsiveness to subtleties (like, our world is falling apart, have you noticed?).

I would argue that humanity needs people with a wide range of skills – but currently, some of the skills (or even traits) that are most needed to fix the problems we have created for ourselves, are under-appreciated, systematically, in Western culture.

I’ll be curious to see if readers of this blog think this makes sense or not. You could ask yourself if any of the people in your immediate environment are “highly sensitive” – if so, are they in leadership positions or what are their roles? (There’s a self-test here, if you like such things…)

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Yet another two new junior professorships in sustainability at Leuphana!

By Joern Fischer

The Faculty of Sustainability at Leuphana University Lueneburg is continuing to grow in size and quality — again, we’re able to fill two new junior professorships — and, this time specifically encouraging applicants from the Global South! (I interpret this to mean that one of the two positions might go to somebody from the Global South.)

These positions typically involve three years of funding (i.e. salary), plus another three years subject to a good mid-term evaluation (total duration = six years). The teaching load is light (about 20% or so full-time equivalent). Successful applicants are usually within 5 or so years of their PhDs. Exceptionally strong candidates can make it straight out of their PhDs, but this is not particularly common and requires a strong publication record.

The full advertisement for these new positions is available on the Leuphana website. Some of the key text is copied here for your information:

Applicants should have a university degree in a relevant field for sustainability science, and should have an in-depth understanding of this emerging field. Their current and future profile specifically should complement the existing expertise of the Faculty of Sustainability – in its core research areas (i.e. ecosystem services, energy transition, social challenges related to sustainability, physical resources), related areas, or in other relevant cross-cutting themes (e.g. social and cultural dimension of sustainability, gender and diversity, sustainability transformations, innovation and sustainability). Applicants should outline how their future research and teaching will contribute to the further advancement of sustainability science in general and the Faculty in particular. Proven interest and expertise in collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines, as well as with stakeholders from outside academia, is expected. Either a strong publication record relative to opportunity or exceptional experience with outreach is a requirement.

Successful candidates (m/f) are expected to become actively involved in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary projects and to further develop the profile of the Faculty in the field of (transformative) sustainability science. It is envisioned that at least one of the candidates will be affiliated with a planned joint institute of Leuphana University and Arizona State University, which is in the process of being set up. Hence, experience in working in international research and teaching environments is an advantage. Furthermore, the Faculty acknowledges that major sustainability challenges concern the global south. Therefore applicants from countries in the global south are especially invited to apply for the positions.

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The idea of a “research journey” (sensu McGowan et al. 2014)

By Joern Fischer

In a recent paper in Ecology & Society, McGowan et al. introduce the idea of a “research journey”. An academic’s research journey takes place along two axes: from expert knowledge to knowledge that is co-produced with stakeholders; and from unpacking details to getting the “big picture”. The following figures stylises this:

McGowan's idea of a "research journey"

McGowan’s idea of a “research journey” (click to enlarge)

I wondered what my own research journey looked like, and so I tried to analyse it. I started with birds and paddock trees — a pretty specific issue, solely relying on expert knowledge (number 1 below). I then moved to reptiles in farming and forestry landscapes — still, largely drawing on expert knowledge, but trying to come up with general patterns about what drives biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes (2). From there, I moved to paddock trees in a broader sense; in a transdisciplinary project that involved stakeholders, social scientists and ecologists. The scope of this was much broader, ranging from specific to general, and the type of knowledge generation was much more diverse (3). From there, I went to a project on sustainable development in Transylvania, which went both very deep and very broad, and involved locals (but to a lesser extent than my previous work in Australia on paddock trees; 4). Finally, I’m now starting to work on the intersection of food security and biodiversity. The goal here is extremely general, and it is largely based on scientific knowledge. But still, I’m hoping we can also involve stakeholders in our case study in Ethiopia, and be of some local use (5).

Three patterns are apparent for my own journey: a trend from specific to general; a trend from expert-driven to stakeholders, but slightly back to expert-driven; and (most strikingly) an increasingly comprehensive scope (i.e. a bigger bubble, see below). I found this an interesting exercise! What does your research journey look like?

Joern's research journey

Joern’s research journey (click to enlarge)

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