A landscape approach to sustainability

By Joern Fischer

A few days ago, I was part of an online panel discussion organised by the Global Landscapes Forum.  We discussed questions about what a landscape approach is, and how it might be implemented — and we touched on many interesting topics and identified challenges for the future. The webinar was recorded and is available on youtube; or you can watch it directly here.


New paper: Coffee management and the conservation of forest bird diversity in southwestern Ethiopia

By Patricia Rodrigues


I am Patrícia, one of Joern’s PhD students working on his ERC-project that aims to identify social-ecological system properties benefiting food security and biodiversity. Very briefly, my background is in ecology and conservation biology and I’ve worked on topics such as the biogeography of Angolan mammals, the effects of cashew expansion on biodiversity in Guinea-Bissau, or on land use changes in a landscape undergoing farmland abandonment in Portugal.

On the way to Guido Bere forest at sunrise

Within this ERC-project I am working on the empirical case study that takes place in the rural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia. In my research, I am assessing the effects of coffee production and forest fragmentation on biodiversity, more specifically on birds and mammals. Also, and taking advantage of our awesome inter and transdisciplinary research group, I am looking at a global driver of change in our planet – population growth. I am doing this using a lens from the social sciences, and trying to understand which factors influence women’s fertility decisions and what promotes or hinders the use of family planning methods in the region.

But let’s move on to the main purpose of this post, which is to share with you the findings of a new paper we’ve published where we’ve looked into the effects of coffee management and landscape context on forest bird diversity in southwestern Ethiopia.

In the landscapes of our study area, coffee is mostly grown under the shade of native trees, and management varies in intensity but it is mostly done using traditional practices (such as the clearing of the understory and thinning and pruning of the canopy). In order to understand if the variation in coffee management had an effect on the bird community we sampled birds (between Nov 2015 and Feb 2016) in a total of 66 forest points that differed in their degree of coffee management and accessibility. Some of the points were located on the forest interior, in nearly undisturbed and very hard to access forest, while other points were located in relatively intensively managed coffee forest.

Overall, we found a diverse community of forest birds (76 species, 6 endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea) and we found no effect of coffee management and landscape context on total species richness and total abundance of birds. However, the richness of forest and dietary specialists increased with higher forest naturalness (a local effect), and with increasing distance from the edge and amount of forest cover (a landscape effect). Wrapping up, our results indicate that conservation measures need to consider both local and landscape scales, and that, on the one hand traditional shade coffee management practices can maintain a diverse suite of forest birds, on the other, the conservation of forest specialists hinges on the maintenance and protection of large undisturbed areas of natural forest.

Treating unsustainability: learning from addiction

By Joern Fischer

Unsustainability is bad. Humanity is screwing up big time – what was it thinking? Humanity must change its ways. So we set targets … and fail. Have you ever noticed how similar this is to people suffering from addiction? Can we learn by drawing a parallel between the successful treatment of addiction and the successful treatment of unsustainability?

Addictions, at their root, are habituated responses to emotional pain. Individuals learn that something about them is wrong or inadequate, and to feel better reach for some kind of “drug” or pattern. This makes them feel better temporarily – but typically results in spirals of pain and shame. Feeling pain and shame makes them feel worse, of course, and so reaching for more drugs becomes highly appealing… and so on. There are of course chemical dependencies with some drugs, too, but let’s just stick to the psychological spiral for now.

How do people overcome such addictions?

It seems that what does not work is simply telling addicts that what they’re doing is “wrong”. In fact, this just reaffirms the feelings of worthlessness and pain that underlie the destructive patterns in the first place. What does tend to work is identifying the deep causes; integrating aspects of personality that were “forbidden” or suppressed earlier on in life and that caused pain or inner dissonance – shining truth on patterns of pain; and healing these patterns through compassion and love by others and to oneself. Many previous addicts also find spiritual practices and supportive peer communities useful to experience connectedness with a greater whole.

So … let’s take the jump to sustainability. Are there parallels?

If we see humanity at large as the patient, we find that humanity is overdosing on material growth. Exponential patterns of economic activity or resource extraction from an increasingly depleted planet mirror escalation of addictive behaviours that are increasingly affecting the lives and bodies of addicts.

Now, the interesting thing is that we largely treat sustainability by telling the patient he must do better. We say it’s “wrong” to have endless resource extraction – it will kill you, Mr. Humanity (or Ms., of course)! Mr. Humanity feels bad for a moment, and organizes some conferences – and sets targets. Okay, he promises, I won’t do it again! But then … he does. Again, the parallels to the addict are quite clear.

What then if we were to treat unsustainability as an addiction? We’d need to reintegrate humanity’s shadow – to look those aspects of what it is to be human in the eye that we have moralized away but that are undoubtedly there. Humanity can be physically powerful. Humanity can be sinful in so many different ways. Instead of saying these forces are “wrong” – can we lovingly look at them and recognize their presence? Can we see that humanity’s “sins” are simply humanity having lost its way? And through greater awareness of the many forces at play, can we harness their energy in constructive instead of destructive ways?

Can we find out why humanity is “acting out” the way it is – what’s it suppressing, and what as a result, is it over-compensating in its ever intensifying patterns of binge drinking? Where is humanity hurting – and what does it need to heal?

From this framing, it seems likely that the answers lie in “deep leverage points”, around paradigms and values underpinning how we organize our societies. For example, can we exchange competitiveness and individualism with care, busy-ness with being, and dissatisfaction or anger with love? Can we replace unhealthy habits (institutions) with healthy ones?

While the parallel between unsustainability and addiction doesn’t offer an immediate solution for what does work (it’s only a blog post, after all!), it does suggest that a few things might simply not work: reprimanding the addict, forcing him to resolve to do better, and setting him ultimatums and threats of further love deprivation – these aggressive methods act on shallow leverage points, and will fail. What might work is looking beneath the surface – what is humanity aching for, and how can we collectively heal an increasingly sick patient?

Hidden indicators for a landscape under stress

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Maraja Riechers

Sometimes the landscapes around us change faster than we think. Be it through rural flight and urbanization, industrialization of villages or agriculture, land grabbing or degradation of nature, the landscapes we live in are changing gradually or rapidly.

In some areas, fast landscape changes outpaces our ability to adjust and leaves us grappling with our sense of place of the landscapes we used to know. In some areas, it may be hard to pin point what changed exactly but we cannot help but feel alienated in a subconscious way. Inhabitants of such changing landscapes might feel disempowered as their own ability to influence landscape changes diminishes in this increasingly complex system. These and many more factors might lead to inhabitant’s having different understandings about the challenges and contrasts of that landscape. When a system is difficult to understand, it can become easy to blame actors that one…

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NEW PAPER: From synergies to trade-offs in food security and biodiversity conservation


Some time ago, we had invited to participate in a survey on food security and biodiversity conservation on this blog. After some months of data analysis, write-up, rejections and revisions, we now we can announce that the main findings from this survey have been finally published. The paper went online just a few days ago on the journal website and will be published the November issue of Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. 

And here are the key findings shortly summarized:

(1) When comparing between landscapes we did not find a clear trade-off between food security and biodiversity.

(2) Synergies in food security and biodiversity were related to situations with equitable land access and high social and human capital. Food security was also high when market access was good and financial capital high, but that was linked to poor biodiversity outcomes.

(3) For the future, most experts expected improvements in food security, but losses of biodiversity in their landscapes.

We received responses for landscapes from a wide range of countries. The map shows the origin of the 110 cases that we used for analysis.


You also can directly download a pdf of the full paper and a pdf of the merged appendices here. Enjoy reading!

Finally, a big thanks to all experts that contributed to the survey!

A PhD nightmare: how a ‘safe’ paper turned into a ‘horror’ paper

By Ine Dorresteijn

Recently the last paper from my PhD has been accepted for publication. The paper describes the impact of current and potential future land-use intensification on bird species richness in Transylvania, Romania. Although the paper is maybe not groundbreaking, I always thought that it is still a relevant contribution to the scientific literature, based on our large field efforts, its statistical soundness and because it was well written. A solid paper. But instead, getting the paper published has been a tough ride. While we thought bats were difficult to publish (see our previous blog post on a rejection journey five years ago), we have now seen that birds can be even harder to get into journals. Ironically, this paper was considered the ‘safe paper’ of my PhD work. I was one of those lucky students that was part of a well-planned research project including great supervision. The bird work of my PhD was carefully planned and designed, was based on pilot studies and was set in a region rich in (protected) bird species. Very soon, however, my ‘safe’ paper turned into my ‘horror’ paper, with high levels of frustration, a shattered confidence, and – in the end – lots of sarcasm and laughter.

Here goes the story how my ‘safe’ paper was turned into my ‘horror’ paper.

Journal 1: Submitted Dec 2013, rejected with review Feb 2014: Lacking novelty and generality, and lacking clarity and focus of the analysis.

Journal 2: Submitted Feb 2014, rejected with review Mar 2014: Too broad discussion and lacking strong conclusions/management recommendations.

After these first two rejections, we made major changes to the manuscript. We narrowed down the manuscript considerably by deleting a part on species traits, and worked on the clarity of our methods section.

Journal 3: Submitted May 2014, rejected without review: Not general enough in concept, scope and approach.

Journal 4: Submitted May 2014, rejected with review Sep 2014: Lacking novelty.

Journal 5: Submitted Oct 2014, rejected with review Dec 2014: Lacking novelty, and lacking clarity in the methodology and results. As one reviewer put it: having a more complicated and complex design than other studies should not stand for novelty in scientific research.

By the time the paper was rejected 5 times I was pretty desperate and frustrated to hear over and over that the study lacked novelty. I figured that we couldn’t change that much on the novelty of our study’s outcome. However, another frequent critique was around the clarity of the methods and results, something I thought we could improve. Therefore, to give the paper a new and fresh boost, we received help from a new co-author. We re-analysed the entire paper focusing solely on species richness (taking out a part on bird communities), rewrote the entire paper for clarity and to put into a broader context, and even put in some pretty pictures to illustrate traditional farming landscapes. Now with our paper in a new jacket I was convinced we would be luckier in the review process.

Journal 6: Submitted Jun 2015, rejected with review Aug 2015: Methodology limited the study’s conclusion and its capacity to go beyond a regional example. For example, it was critiqued that the model averaging approach used poses limitations and regression coefficients should be used instead.

Journal 7: Submitted Aug 2015, rejected with review Sep 2015: Flawed study design which was deemed uncorrectable without significant reanalysis. Although reviewer 1 had significant problems with our study design, reviewer 2 seemed to be less unhappy: The study is well introduced (I particularly liked the introduction of traditional farming landscapes), the study design is appropriate, the analyses generally robust (although please see comment below), and the results clear, and the discussion well considered.

Journal 8: Submitted Nov 2015, rejected with review Dec 2015: Methodology – given our objectives and sampling design we used the wrong analytical unit.

Journal 9: Submitted Jan 2016, rejected with review Feb 2016: Lack of novelty, trivial findings and not taking into account the rarity of species (something we had excluded from the manuscript due to other reviewer comments).

Journal 10: Submitted Feb 2016, rejected with review June 2016: Goal of the work not addressed.

Journal 11: Submitted Sep 2016, Minor revisions Jan 2017, Submitted revised manuscript Jul 2017 (after maternity leave), Accepted Jul 2017. Hurrah, the reviewers liked the paper a lot!!

Having had 10 rejections on this paper, mostly after review, means that approximately 25 (!) reviewers were involved in getting this paper published. Importantly, of those reviewers probably half of them could have been satisfied with major revisions. Like in the example under journal 7, usually one of the reviewers did not dislike our paper that much, but I guess one more negative review is enough for a rejection. Even more interesting, we published two similar papers on butterflies and plants from the same region, based on the same study design and using similar analysis. While this paper on birds got continuous critique that our methodology was not clear, flawed, or limited, these other two papers on plants and butterflies received positive constructive reviews without much complaints about its novelty and/or study design. I am still not sure why this paper had such a hard time, is it just birds or something else, but I am happy it is finally out there! Enjoy the reading and you can always contact me for further clarifications on its methods or novelty J.



Reflections on the role of environmental psychology in transitions towards sustainability

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

Author: Kathleen Klaniecki

 Earlier this month, I attended a wonderful conference on environmental psychology (ICEP 2017) in A Coruña, Spain.  This year’s theme was Theories of Change in Sustainability Transitions and Social Innovation.  As someone who straddles multiple disciplines in her research (as many of us do), this conference left me reflecting on current interactions between environmental psychology and sustainability science and how researchers in these disciplines can further collaborative for sustainability transformation.


In the Leverage Points project, we’ve had many conversations about shallow vs. deep leverage points: interventions at shallow leverage points often lead to little systemic change whereas interventions at deep leverage points have more transformational potential. But when talking about the role of environmental psychology in sustainability transformation, should we acknowledge and encourage further research on seemingly shallow leverage points?

At first glance, environmental psychology interventions are primarily focused on understanding and describing…

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Resilience 2017: Rising interest for a leverage points narrative?

Some nice observations by Maraja Riechers on the idea of leverage points and its possible importance in the future

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Maraja Riechers

At a big conference like Resilience 2017 in Stockholm last month, there are bound to be many emerging topics and interesting links to one’s own work. However, I was positively surprised by the generally warm response to our Leverage Points for Sustainability project. My colleagues and I left the conference with the feeling that the concept of leverage points is likely to become more important over the next couple of years. From dinner table talks to explicit Leverage Point-themed sessions such as: Pathways and leverage points for transformative change chaired by Ryan Plummer, Donella Meadows’ concept of leverage points seemed to generate deep interest and genuine fascination. Those discussions showed me that diverse research on leverage points is already underway, with varying focus. The themes of finding leverage points for transformational change covered biodiversity, the Water-Energy-Food-Nexus, food systems and many more. Discussions ranged from personal inner transformation…

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Empathy: The cutting edge of sustainability science?

Some nice impressions on Resilience 2017 by Rebecca Freeth, also at our Faculty at Leuphana

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Rebecca Freeth

I’ve been interested in the Resilience Alliance for many years. I’ve been impressed by the coherence of their conceptual work. This has been a luminous example of natural and social scientists meaningfully bringing their work together. When I travelled from South Africa to Germany in late 2015 to take up my PhD post at Leuphana, my suitcase proved to be many kilograms overweight. I reluctantly extracted one book after the next. But Panarchy stayed in my suitcase.

Since arriving here, and taking up my role as a formative accompanying (FAR) researcher in the team , I’ve stumbled across the work of John Parker and Ed Hackett. They have done a fascinating job of tracking the Resilience Alliance, particularly during the ‘island time’ years. In fact Parker and Hackett’s work is not dissimilar to mine here with Leverage Points, although they are outsiders whereas I am in the…

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