When keeping the past just doesn’t work

By Joern Fischer

As conservationists, we frequently seek to keep something the way it is – e.g. ecosystems or sets of species living in a landscape or region. But much of the time, keeping that past just won’t work. Either there are introduced species that we just can’t get rid of (“novel ecosystems”), or there is social change which (for better or worse) brings about landscape change.

This situation is particularly evident in traditional farming landscapes. Two such landscapes that I have worked in are in Central Romania and in southwestern Ethiopia. In both cases, it is highly uncertain how the landscapes will change: but there is no doubt that fairly major changes of some sort will be inevitable. In both cases, changes are driven partly by external drivers (such as policies and the mental models underpinning them), as well as by the genuine desire of some stakeholders to improve the socio-economic prosperity of the region’s inhabitants.

What might successful conservation, or sustainable development, look like in a situation like this?

Some years ago, Adrian Manning and some of his collaborators (myself included) proposed the idea of “landscape fluidity” (also available via Research Gate, here). This term was meant to convey the idea that constant change is part of landscapes – species and structures ebb and flow through the landscape through time, re-constituting in composition and changing the overall system as a result. We argued that if such change is inevitable, perhaps it was not the specific identities of each and every species that needed to be prioritized in conservation efforts: rather, perhaps the general system characteristics or properties that are deemed valuable should be maintained. (This is not to say that we should forget about conservation for specific species!)

I think the idea of landscape fluidity could be usefully extended to social-ecological fluidity. Landscapes will change, and social systems will change. Still, traditional farming systems – which include elements deemed worthy of conservation – are not “random” amalgamations of people and nature. Rather, there are specific properties of these systems that, as a sustainability scientist, I would like to see maintained. Among these properties are things like high levels of heterogeneity, a substantial amount of near-natural vegetation, and often small patches of different types of modified land juxtaposed among large areas of semi-natural land. On the social side, there are also some typical system properties – e.g. high levels of local knowledge about ecosystem functioning, low levels of agrochemical inputs, and often community-level coordination for landscape management.

With the idea of social-ecological fluidity in mind, I would argue then that we may not need to maintain the past. Instead, we could spend more effort on finding out what it is we value about particular social-ecological systems, and then perpetuating the properties identified into the future.


5 thoughts on “When keeping the past just doesn’t work

  1. Hi Joern & readers,

    This is a great suggestion for the current research into the theory and practice of socio-ecological systems.

    I am particularly interested in the Ethiopian case studies. I am intrigued by the interactions between smallholder culture and beliefs of the landscape, the institutions that govern food systems, and the historical implications that the landscape have on current social systems.

    The stories from my work with smallholders tell many things. One of them is how the landscape (coconut and bananas) was heavily simplified by trade requirements in the 1950s. At present, smallholders have a deep belief that they are, and will always be, banana and coconut farmers. The desire to produce alternate crops which may be better for household income and may promote on farm biodiversity is beyond the worldview of some farmers. This worldview, I believe, is deeply rooted in the ecological history in which the farmers work.

    I am drafting the case study for publication – but some initial slides are here: http://www.slideshare.net/FedericoDavila

    thanks for the post,


  2. This is, in effect, what we were arguing in Vandermeer et al. (2008). “Reenfocando la conservación en el paisaje: La importancia de la matrix” (in Harvey & Saénz, Evaluación y conservación de biodiversidad en paisajes fragmentados en Mesoamérica). It also underlies Ivette, John and Angus’s “Natures Matrix” and a lot of our other recent pieces (like the F1000 piece) but is not said so clearly and succinctly as you’ve put it here.

  3. A really interesting post Joern! It’s great to see increasingly sophisticated discussions of how we think about time in environmental management. The idea of landscape fluidity provides a nice sense of dynamism that captures this idea that our management interventions are happening within a temporal arc of change. I’ve played around with the idea of landscape legacy for the same reason. As you allude to at the end, this discussion is most important for how we think about future ecological assemblages in the Anthropocene; we need to bring a perspective of dynamic, fluid landscape histories alongside the uncertainties of future change to identify the form, function and qualities of ecosystems that can be feasibly promoted. I’m quite drawn to the idea of this process as being a ‘wild experiment’ in the Anthropocene, as promoted in the novel ecosystem literature. Thanks again!

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