Milestones in sustainability related research and useful readings

I once heard this question being asked within an interview setting for a university position. I thought then, as I do now, that it is an inspiring way to structure my thoughts regarding the different disciplines and associated worldviews I am exposed to, or work with. I find timelines and evolutionary perspectives extremely useful, especially for those who share a time orientated understanding of the world. Rather than thinking in spatial landmarks, I like to create timelines in my mind. I suppose structuring research fields would also work nicely (or even nicer) with mind maps.

Following this logic, I tried to sketch some personal answers, which would probably need some revisiting soon enough. I would like to share with you a few relatively recent trends that I see gathering even more momentum in the near future, being aware there are many other milestones one could consider. In sharing these thoughts, I think mainly about young PhD students or academia scholars, but mostly non-academia professionals, such as practitioners working in the field of sustainable development. Hence, this is fairly simplified, with only a few references and suggested readings of papers deemed representative of their respective field.

We tried to debate some of these thoughts in our yet “pilot journal club”, so this may serve as a proposition for a more “holistic” journal club session.

Photo credits:

Photo credits:

Ecosystem services (ES) research

Research on ES evolved quickly from conceptualization, localized documentation and modeling of ecological dynamics, to policy and management applications, such as the creation of payment schemes for ES. A very nice timeline is provided by Gómez-Baggethun et al. 2010. Ecologists, economists and policy makers now widely engage with the concept, turning ES into a heuristic tool for revealing the multiple ways in which ecosystems support human well-being, an operational tool for making decisions, and a compelling language for policy makers. At the same time, the concept has generated a lot of criticism because of its hypertrophied focus on utilitarianism and potential commodification of nature (e.g. Schröter et al., 2014). Specifically, some authors have viewed ES as a one sided simplistic metaphor of human-environment relationships (e.g. Norgaard 2010, Raymond et al. 2013), ignoring different, often non-material, values that beneficiaries may assign to ecosystems. In response, new research agendas have emerged, including issues of: co-production by social-ecological systems, socio-cultural valuation of ES (e.g. Martín-López et al. 2014, Scholte et al. 2015) depending on a wide variety of values that stakeholders assign to ES (based on well on their own held values) (e.g. Ives and Kendal 2014), equity (e.g. Pascual et al. 2014), benefit distribution and disaggregation of beneficiaries based on various criteria such as location or gender (e.g. Daw 2009). The academic discourse on ES has roughly followed down the Haines-Young and Potschin ‘cascade’ towards recognizing their stakeholder driven nature. At the current stage there is growing interest in studying and understanding the more anthropospheric side (e.g. Spangenberg et al. 2014), or the ‘subjective end’ of the cascade: the plurality of benefits and values associated with different beneficiaries and their well-being. The general discourse is moving towards stakeholders, their capabilities (e.g. Polishchuk and Rauschmayer 2012), agency, interest, power (e.g. Fisher et al. 2013, Felipe Lucia et al. 2015), preferences, inner values, and the totality of social processes influencing the cascade: mobilization, appropriation, value articulation (e.g. Ernstson 2008), management, governance, normative foundations (e.g. Abson et al. 2014).

Social-ecological systems (SES) research

This point has been thoroughly dealt with in a previous more detailed blog entry (see also here). In short and simply put, present discourses seem to focus on the fundamental connection between the social and the ecological system, and, at the same time, the risk of disconnection or the dangers of teleconnections (e.g. Challies 2014), as well as potential solutions such as innovative re-connections supporting a transition towards sustainability. To these ends, SES research is striving to accommodate and adapt its frameworks to the social dynamics of globalizing systems inherently pertaining to a global economy and market. A variety of new conceptual frameworks (e.g. Diaz et al. 2015, Diaz et al. 2011, Fisher et. al 2014) are trying to capture better the interlinkages and interdependencies between nature and people and between science and society, while acknowledging them as being an integrative part of the other, and inseparable in reality. Authors are increasingly placing the focus on the knowledge about links between “the social” and “the ecological”, knowledge that was generated beyond disciplinary boundaries, at the interface between science and society (e.g. Fischer et al. in 2015). Papers are proposing various recoupling strategies (e.g. Fischer et al. in 2012), emphasizing reconnecting social-ecological feedbacks (Folke et al. 2011), such as more effective “virtuous circles” between natural, cultural, and economic assets (e.g. Plieninger and Bieling 2013, Selman and Knight 2006).

(Cultural) landscape research

The landscape lens brings forward the landscape as an arena for sustainable development and knowledge integration. Here, I would chose to stop over the rise of landscape stewardship, as a way to operationalize moral concerns in relation to social-ecological interactions that were enounced as early as the 50s (Leopold, 1949). Science for relinking communities and landscapes draws attention to the potential of landscape stewardship as one of the ambitious but effective ways to achieve sustainable management and design inclusive rural development policies (e.g. Plieninger et al. 2015). Integrating a broad suite of landscape values through engaged forms of stewardship is thought to balance out the dependency on active outside input (again inherent to a globalized world).

Sustainability science research

An important acknowledged milestone for sustainability science is re-thinking boundaries and structures, overcoming societal roles, and transforming the science-society interface, through for example the co-design of research projects and the co-production of knowledge fitting with transdisciplinary approaches (e.g. Lang et al. 2012, Brandt et al. 2013). Other suggested pathways are the recognition of its normative foundations through mapping and deliberating sustainability held values (e.g. Miller et al. 2014).

Resilience thinking

Resilience thinking continues to receive a lot of criticism for not sufficiently acknowledged limits such as the lack of attention to normative and epistemological issues. Recent discourse on resilience aims to open towards fields more engaged with the issues of power and agency such as political ecology or sociology, which may complement the arguably functional perspective of resilience. A permanent work in progress, resilience theory continues to develop, striving for a more complete knowledge integration of human and ecological dynamics. A more detailed perspective is offered here.

Sustainability related governance research

Finally, I am not sure to which extent this is a milestone, but I retained that in addition to the governance models incorporating elements of participatory (non-state multi-actor engagement, e.g. industry, NGOs) and multi-level governance, recent literature calls for polycentricity, further emphasizing the idea of a collaborative dispersion of authority (Biggs et al. 2015). Advanced polycentric systems comprise multiple independent centers of decision making, with different levels of inclusiveness, collaborating horizontally and vertically at various scales. In theory, these systems may isolate failures, but if successful, may be reproduced elsewhere. I found this idea worthy of further explorations in contexts with a diversity of elements pertaining to the social subsystems: different formal and informal institutions, land-use preferences, management approaches, various values, perspectives and interests such as identified in Southern Transylvania.

In conclusion, I take from these potential milestones that the general trend seems to be towards integration of existing knowledge, conceptual and epistemological openness and plurality, and maybe even a ‘subjectivisation’ of science, in hope of achieving meaningful contributions towards normative goals.

As for future directions, I guess one of the main questions that stems from the above are: 1. Do we need to engage more in these pathways, and if so how can we capitalize on them? 2. Do any of these potential milestones are going to lead to any fundamental changes in approaches towards sustainability (e.g. mainstreaming transdisciplinarity?)

As already mentioned, there are many other interesting developing directions in all of the scientific disciplines I touched upon. The few selected are reflective of a particular research experience and perspective I had from my positioning as a PhD student dealing with the ecology of the social system. This is just a starting point from where the mind can continue traveling boundlessly to imagine infinite perspectives outside comfort zones.


  • Abson, D. J., H. Von Wehrden, S. Baumgärtner, J. Fischer, J. Hanspach, W. Härdtle, H. Heinrichs et al. “Ecosystem services as a boundary object for sustainability.” Ecological Economics 103 (2014): 29-37.
  • *Bennett, Elena M., Wolfgang Cramer, Alpina Begossi, Georgina Cundill, Sandra Díaz, Benis N. Egoh, Ilse R. Geijzendorffer et al. “Linking biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human well-being: three challenges for designing research for sustainability.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14 (2015): 76-85.
  • *Biggs, Reinette, Maja Schlüter, and Michael L. Schoon, eds. Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • *Brandt, Patric, et al. “A review of transdisciplinary research in sustainability science.” Ecological Economics 92 (2013): 1-15.
  • Challies, Edward, Jens Newig, and Andrea Lenschow. “What role for social–ecological systems research in governing global teleconnections?.” Global Environmental Change 27 (2014): 32-40.
  • *Cote, Muriel, and Andrea J. Nightingale. “Resilience thinking meets social theory Situating social change in socio-ecological systems (SES) research.” Progress in Human Geography4 (2012): 475-489.
  • Daw, Tim, Katrina Brown, Sergio Rosendo, and Robert Pomeroy. “Applying the ecosystem services concept to poverty alleviation: the need to disaggregate human well-being.” Environmental Conservation 38, no. 04 (2011): 370-379.
  • Díaz, Sandra, Fabien Quétier, Daniel M. Cáceres, Sarah F. Trainor, Natalia Pérez-Harguindeguy, M. Syndonia Bret-Harte, Bryan Finegan, Marielos Peña-Claros, and Lourens Poorter. “Linking functional diversity and social actor strategies in a framework for interdisciplinary analysis of nature’s benefits to society.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 3 (2011): 895-902.
  • Díaz, Sandra, Sebsebe Demissew, Julia Carabias, Carlos Joly, Mark Lonsdale, Neville Ash, Anne Larigauderie et al. “The IPBES Conceptual Framework—connecting nature and people.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14 (2015): 1-16.
  • Ernstson, Henrik. “The social production of ecosystem services: lessons from urban resilience research.” Ernston, H, In Rhizomia: Actors, Networks and Resilience in Urban Landscapes, PhD Thesis, Stockholm University (2008).
  • Felipe-Lucia, María R., Berta Martín-López, Sandra Lavorel, Luis Berraquero-Díaz, Javier Escalera-Reyes, and Francisco A. Comín. “Ecosystem Services Flows: Why Stakeholders’ Power Relationships Matter.” PloS one 10, no. 7 (2015): e0132232.
  • *Fischer, Joern, et al. “Advancing sustainability through mainstreaming a social–ecological systems perspective.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14 (2015): 144-149.
  • Fischer, Joern, Tibor Hartel, and Tobias Kuemmerle. “Conservation policy in traditional farming landscapes.” Conservation Letters 5, no. 3 (2012): 167-175.
  • *Fisher, Janet A., et al. “Strengthening conceptual foundations: analyzing frameworks for ecosystem services and poverty alleviation research.” Global Environmental Change5 (2013): 1098-1111.
  • Fisher, Janet A., Genevieve Patenaude, Kalpana Giri, Kristina Lewis, Patrick Meir, Patricia Pinho, Mark DA Rounsevell, and Mathew Williams. “Understanding the relationships between ecosystem services and poverty alleviation: a conceptual framework.” Ecosystem services 7 (2014): 34-45.
  • Fisher, Janet A., Genevieve Patenaude, Patrick Meir, Andrea J. Nightingale, Mark DA Rounsevell, Mathew Williams, and Iain H. Woodhouse. “Strengthening conceptual foundations: analysing frameworks for ecosystem services and poverty alleviation research.” Global Environmental Change 23, no. 5 (2013): 1098-1111.
  • Folke, Carl, Åsa Jansson, Johan Rockström, Per Olsson, Stephen R. Carpenter, F. Stuart Chapin III, Anne-Sophie Crépin et al. “Reconnecting to the biosphere.” Ambio 40, no. 7 (2011): 719-738.
  • Gómez-Baggethun, Erik, Rudolf De Groot, Pedro L. Lomas, and Carlos Montes. “The history of ecosystem services in economic theory and practice: from early notions to markets and payment schemes.” Ecological Economics 69, no. 6 (2010): 1209-1218.
  • Ives, Christopher D., and Dave Kendal. “The role of social values in the management of ecological systems.” Journal of environmental management 144 (2014): 67-72.
  • *Lang, Daniel J., et al. “Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges.” Sustainability science1 (2012): 25-43.
  • Leopold, Aldo. The land ethic. USA, 1949.
  • Martín-López, Berta, Erik Gómez-Baggethun, Marina García-Llorente, and Carlos Montes. “Trade-offs across value-domains in ecosystem services assessment.” Ecological Indicators 37 (2014): 220-228.
  • Miller, Thaddeus R., Arnim Wiek, Daniel Sarewitz, John Robinson, Lennart Olsson, David Kriebel, and Derk Loorbach. “The future of sustainability science: a solutions-oriented research agenda.” Sustainability science 9, no. 2 (2014): 239-246.
  • *Newig, Jens, and Oliver Fritsch. Environmental governance: participatory, multi-level-and effective?. No. 15/2008. UFZ Diskussionspapiere, 2008.
  • Norgaard, Richard B. “Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder.” Ecological economics 69, no. 6 (2010): 1219-1227.
  • Pascual, Unai, Jacob Phelps, Eneko Garmendia, Katrina Brown, Esteve Corbera, Adrian Martin, Erik Gomez-Baggethun, and Roldan Muradian. “Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services.” BioScience (2014): biu146.
  • Plieninger, Tobias, and Claudia Bieling. “Resilience-based perspectives to guiding high-nature-value farmland through socioeconomic change.” Ecology and Society 18, no. 4 (2013).
  • *Plieninger, Tobias, and Claudia Bieling. Resilience and the cultural landscape: understanding and managing change in human-shaped environments. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • *Plieninger, Tobias, et al. “Exploring ecosystem-change and society through a landscape lens: recent progress in European landscape research.” Ecology and Society2 (2015): 5.
  • Polishchuk, Yuliana, and Felix Rauschmayer. “Beyond “benefits”? Looking at ecosystem services through the capability approach.” Ecological Economics 81 (2012): 103-111.
  • Raymond, Christopher M., Gerald G. Singh, Karina Benessaiah, Joanna R. Bernhardt, Jordan Levine, Harry Nelson, Nancy J. Turner, Bryan Norton, Jordan Tam, and Kai MA Chan. “Ecosystem services and beyond: Using multiple metaphors to understand human–environment relationships.” BioScience 63, no. 7 (2013): 536-546.
  • Scholte, Samantha SK, Astrid JA van Teeffelen, and Peter H. Verburg. “Integrating socio-cultural perspectives into ecosystem service valuation: A review of concepts and methods.” Ecological Economics 114 (2015): 67-78.
  • Schröter, Matthias, Emma H. Zanden, Alexander PE Oudenhoven, Roy P. Remme, Hector M. Serna‐Chavez, Rudolf S. Groot, and Paul Opdam. “Ecosystem services as a contested concept: a synthesis of critique and counter‐” Conservation Letters 7, no. 6 (2014): 514-523.
  • Selman, Paul, and Melanie Knight. “On the nature of virtuous change in cultural landscapes: Exploring sustainability through qualitative models.” Landscape Research 31, no. 3 (2006): 295-307.
  • Spangenberg, Joachim H., Christina von Haaren, and Josef Settele. “The ecosystem service cascade: Further developing the metaphor. Integrating societal processes to accommodate social processes and planning, and the case of bioenergy.” Ecological Economics 104 (2014): 22-32.
  • *Turner, Matthew D. “Political ecology I An alliance with resilience?.” Progress in Human Geography (2013): 0309132513502770.

*Suggested readings


3 thoughts on “Milestones in sustainability related research and useful readings

  1. Hi Andra

    Excellent thorough post, with great references to follow up. Your blog post would become a very nice synthesis journal article ;).

    I take you up on your second question regarding fundamental changes in the approaches to sustainability.

    Perhaps one of the challenges is that the different approaches you highlight have slightly different ontological backgrounds. For example, ES, SES and resilience bodies of literatures align more closely with positivist, scientific-method oriented ontologies, where we continue to attempt to understand how the world works by looking at specific examples of changes.
    Differently, governance research and sustainability science may align more with social constructivist ontologies. In doing so, these approaches are less concerned with deep understandings of how systems work, but rather of how the relationships and power influence them.

    As such I think the different backgrounds of the different approaches will continue to be a challenge for researchers seeking to bridge the gap between both.

    With that said, we have come a long way and there is excellent work being done to acknowledge that having different ontological trainings does not stop us from working together and looking for solutions.

    My reflections are based from this publication I recently came across, which builds an argument on linking different sustainability approaches. Published in collaboration between the STEPS Centre with Stockholm Resilience Centre authors:

    Further reflections also stemming from the work of Midgley 2000 Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, methodology and practice, Plenum Publishing.

    Thanks again for another great post!

  2. Pingback: Disaggregated contributions of ecosystem services to human well-being: a case study from Eastern Europe | Ideas for Sustainability

  3. Pingback: Hitos en la investigación y lecturas útiles relacionados con la sostenibilidad

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