Rethinking for sustainability: a prelude

By Dr Liz Clarke and David P. M. Lam, Leuphana University Lüneburg

At the heart of our efforts to make the shift to a sustainable world is the process of rethinking. Rethinking what is important to us, how we should live, what makes us happy, what ‘nature’ means to us, of questioning the very foundations of our assumptions, beliefs, values, and rules, all of which make up the fabric of how we understand the world. And what is sustainability if not an idea, an aspiration, a way of rethinking?

A few weeks ago, we facilitated a workshop in Sighisoara, under the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains and within sight of the towers and rooftops of the ancient birthplace of the legendary Count Dracul (or Vlad the Impaler as he was known to his fearful Transylvanian countrymen and women).

With participants from various Non-Governmental Organisations in Southern Transylvania we did some of this rethinking. All of these participants are engaged in change – change for sustainability, better livelihoods, and a better future. They are focusing on a wide range of projects – from protecting communal grazing rights, preserving the unique Transylvanian hay meadows, preserving biodiversity, restoring heritage buildings, promoting sustainable tourism, improving livelihoods, to creating sustainable businesses.

Over the past few years, they have developed an inspiring common future vision: Balance Brings Beauty. This vision incorporates sustainable livelihoods, where tradition and nature are both valued, as well as aesthetics and wellbeing, which draws visitors to Transylvania in droves.

We sat in a hotel surrounded by some of the most committed and motivated people in the province, and we asked them to look deep within at their foundational thinking to understand what drives them to dedicate so much of their energies to this vision.

The answers were not surprising but very salient. Driving all of them was their passion, their ideas and their belief in a better future. They talked about the importance of empowerment and self-esteem, of the uniqueness of their culture and natural environment, the value of history and tradition, of happiness, fun and love. One participant said, “Without this uniqueness, I will lose my interest and love”. Improving the local economy was mentioned but as a means to an end – to create happier, safer, and more secure lives.

This positions the people of Southern Transylvania as firmly connected and integrated with this unique landscape and also with each other. What did we learn from the workshop? The journey to Balance Brings Beauty is a long one – there are many more years ahead. But rethinking is a collective and collaborative process, and happens when a group of engaged and passionate people come together to share their passion, ideas, and love for their culture and natural environment.


A blessing in disguise? Why Trump’s pull-out of the Paris Agreement may open up a window of opportunity


Following his campaign promise and a period of intense speculation, on Thursday June 1, the President of the United States announced his intention to withdraw from the 2015 Climate Accord previously ratified by his predecessor, Barack Obama, claiming it undermines U.S. competitiveness and jobs, and would have a negligible impact on the world’s climate. Inevitably, the series of events were quickly compared to another defining moment in history, when, in 1997, the newly instated United States Government of George W. Bush failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol negotiated under the Clinton-Gore presidency.

World leaders were quick to condemn the unilateral decision, with the Secretary General of the United Nations calling it a “major disappointment for global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote global security”, and the leaders of France, Germany and Italy almost immediate issuing a joint statement reaffirming their strong commitment to implement the agreement.

Trump’s decision…

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New Paper: Refocusing ecosystem services towards sustainability


The ecosystem services concept has evolved considerably over its 30 odd year history. Its earliest incarnation was as an eye opening heuristic for thinking about sustainability and the interdependence of human well-being and conservation of the environment (see for example, the wonderful “Rivet Poppers” metaphor by Paul and Anne Ehrlich). This initial discursive phase was followed by a relatively manic phase of classifications, typologies, mapping, modelling and the development of valuation methods. Now there are increased calls for the ecosystem service concept to be used as an explicit decision making tool (e.g. Bateman et al. 2013). In many ways this is a positive trajectory. If we are serious about the ecosystem services concept as part of “solution oriented” sustainability science we need to move beyond metaphors and towards practical tools for addressing unsustainability. However, with regard to ecosystem services research we are in danger of losing something vital along the way.

Once the notion of ecosystems moves beyond a concept and becomes a tool there is a danger that it becomes an indiscriminate end in its own right without regard to the reason we wanted such a tool in the first place (“if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail”). For example, does it really make sense to conceptualize non-renewable peat extraction (e.g. the UK NEA) or industrialized crop production as ‘valued’ ecosystem services to be conserved in the pursuit of sustainability?

In a new paper we attempt to realign the ecosystem services with the normative goal of sustainability from which it originally arose. We identify seven key sustainability strategies (see Figure) for linking ecosystem services and sustainability outcomes and discuss how these strategies can be pursued when operationalizing the ecosystem service concept.

ES and Sus figure

The seven strategies are:

1. Equitable intergenerational distribution: Ecosystem services assessments should account for the potential liquidation of natural capital, for example, by differentiating between food provision that maintains or erodes so soil fertility. Assessments should also consider how ecosystem service appropriation can maintain and support the long-term capacity of valued social-ecological systems, including the maintenance of the less tangible benefits related to the direct interaction of humans with nature.
2. Equitable intragenerational distribution: Aggregate valuations can gloss over gross inequalities in who has access to, and can benefit from, the appropriation of ecosystem services. Here more focus is required on who benefits from the multiple services that flow from specific ecosystems, rather than on maximizing the provision of individual, often market oriented, ecosystem services. For example, plantations maximize timber production may conflict with conserving diverse forests from which people can collect wild foods, or enjoy cultural ecosystem services.
3. Equitable interspecies distribution: Here we need to acknowledge that humans are not the only species that appropriate energy and material flows from ecosystems. In almost all cases a ‘just’ appropriation (in relation to the needs of other species) is likely to be less that the capacity of an ecosystem to sustainably provide those flows.
4. Fair procedures, recognition and participation: Ecosystem service assessments and management should move beyond simply assessing ecosystem services benefits and study the procedures by which ecosystem services are appropriated and the extent to which such procedures are inclusive, just and address issues of political, social or economic power.
5. Sufficiency: ecosystem services research need to start asking “how much ecosystem service appropriation is enough?” rather than ‘‘how do we maximize ecosystem service provision?” A focus on sufficiency requires a greater focus on our normative goals, for example, by considering what an ideal social-ecological system might look like, rather than on how many services can we squeeze out of a given ecosystem.
6. Efficiency: The efficient use of ecosystems should be explicitly considered only as an instrumental means to a clearly defined normative goal, not as an intrinsic ends in its own right.
7. Persistence: ecosystem services research should acknowledge that ecosystems are dynamic and consider temporal ecosystem dynamics, potential regime shifts and long term degradation of ecosystem properties. Research should also identify to what extent the appropriation of benefits from ecosystems are dependent on non-renewable inputs and how this influences the long term persistence of the flows of ecosystem services.

We hope that highlighting strategies, in some small way, can help reorient ecosystem services research towards a more sustainability focused solutions based science.

The full paper can be found here.

Schröter, M., Stumpf, K.H., Loos, J., van Oudenhoven, A.P.E., Böhnke-Henrichs, A. and Abson, D.J. (2017) Refocusing ecosystem services towards sustainability, Ecosystem Services, 25, 35-43,

New paper: Many pathways to sustainability, not conflict but co-learning between transition narratives

There is an increasing focus in sustainability science on transitions and transformative change and an increasing number of proposed pathways for transitioning towards sustainability. In a new paper by Chris Luederitz and colleagues we discuss four archetypical transitions narratives (the green economy; low-carbon transformation; Ecotopian solutions and the transitions movement) in terms of the kinds of interventions these different approaches engender and the ‘depth’ and nature of systemic change they seek achieve.

In addition to summarizing critiques of these four approaches to transformative change, we draw on Donella meadows’ ‘leverage points’ concept (see also here) in order to characterize the different narratives in terms of their potential to enable systemic change.  The different transitions narratives seek to act on different system characteristics ranging from system parameters (taxes, incentives, rules) and system dynamics through to challenging the fundamental design, rules, values and goals of the system. We therefore argue that rather than representing competing visions for societal change, there is considerable scope for co-learning between these different approaches. By understand where in a system a given transitions approach does or does not seek to intervene we believe it is possible to combine facets of these approaches to create a more holistic transitions pathways that act on multiple leverage points for systemic change.

Luederitz, C., Abson, D.J., Audet, R. and Lang, D.J. (2016) Many pathways toward sustainability: not conflict but co-learning between transition narratives, Sustainability Science. doi: 10.1007/s11625-016-0414-0


Two New Post Doctoral Postions in Leverage Points

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

Leuphana University Lüneburg (foundation under public law), Faculty of Sustainability invites applications for 2 new post doc positions within the  transdisciplinary project funded by the State of Lower Saxony and Volkswagen Foundation entitled: Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation: Institutions, People and Knowledge

The first position (PD3a) “transdisciplinary case studies” contributes to the consolidation of the epistemological and methodological foundations of transdisciplinary case studies.  The themes of the case studies will revolve around the food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE).

The second position (PD3b) “Sustainability-related knowledge creation and use” focuses on consolidating conceptual foundations related to the role of knowledge including (new) forms of knowledge production and use to foster sustainability transformation.

both positions are for  50% post doctoral research associates– Wissenschaftliche/r Mitarbeiter/in, salary group E 13 TV-L. Starting ideally September 2016, up until 31st March 2019.

Successful candidates will join an interdisciplinary team of eight principal investigators, five…

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From counting carbon to commodifying nature: the pre-analytical ties that bind

Recently I read an article in the Guardian with the headline “The solution for the melting polar ice caps may be hiding in the rainforest”. It was written by Dr Paul Salaman, the CEO of Rainforest Trust. The article was, at least tangentially, about a recent paper by Houghton et al. in Nature Climate Change about the carbon stored in the tropical forests (which can be found here). The Houghton et al. paper is purely a biophysical assessment of net primary productivity in rainforests. Dr Salaman used that scientific paper as a starting point to argue:

“Rainforest conservation is also incredibly economical. One acre of Amazon rainforest in Peru, which stores up to 180 metric tonnes of CO2, can be protected for just a few dollars; the same is true elsewhere in Latin America and Africa. The implications here are astounding and should give us pause: for the cost of a meal – or even a coffee – each of us could save an area of forest about the size of four football pitches and safely store about 725 metric tonnes of CO2. To put this in perspective, the annual emissions of a typical passenger vehicle in the United States is less than 4.5 metric tonnes of CO2.”

On reading this I had two thoughts (two more than my usual daily ration). My first thought was: “Hmm he is confusing stocks and flows…” This is not a very helpful way of relating a stock carbon in standing trees to reducing emissions, which are flows.

My second thought was: “Why am I letting this technical issue (stocks versus flows) occupy my mind when there is a much bigger and more important issue of ‘pre-analytical frames’ To be honest I not sure where the term ‘pre-analytical frames’ comes from or even if it exists, as I understand it, outside my own befuddled mind. For what it is worth, to me, pre-analytical frames are those, often unexplored, views and assumptions we hold about the world. By this I don’t just mean the really abstract stuff like ontology and epistemology, but also more pragmatic things like our ideas of progress, justice, the role of science in society, social and ethical norms.

So why do pre-analytical frames matter in science? Both the paper and the newspaper article essentially frame the conservation of rainforests as being of instrumental value to humanity. Because rainforests can sequester carbon we appropriate and burn from elsewhere it buys us precious time to change our polluting ways. The paper provides an essentially a consequentialist, pre-analytical framework for making judgements about conserving the rainforests (things will be better if we do). Dr Salaman deftly takes this broad consequentialist starting point to provide a narrower utilitarian argument, and one based on aggregate utility maximization (another pre-analytical frame) – no consideration of the distribution of costs and benefits of that choice. I would argue there are many other important underpinning assumptions such as Dr Salaman’s call for buying rainforests, because it is an “economical” means of mitigating climate change, implying that notions such as efficiency and cost effectiveness are the metric by which we should judge such choices. What role does that leave for notions such as rights, justice, or responsibility (as expressed in traditional deontological arguments for conservation)?

There is an argument that multiple ethical arguments can co-exist, that we can simultaneously ascribe to utilitarian and deontological ethical arguments for conservation. Certainly I would say I do this as an individual, even if it is sometimes awkward. However, the rub (as I see it) is that that adherence to these ethical frameworks is to some extent a social construct. Our ethics and world views are shapes by our experiences, relationships, and what we learn (and are told) about the world. This matters because, we can reinforce and legitimize certain ethical framings through the institutions of science and the pre-analytical frames science is built on.

Science holds a unique position in our societies. Scientific knowledge has legitimacy, and therefore power, because it is still seen as disinterested, observation of the world. However, here I would argue that science is built on a tradition of instrumentalization of the world. When science abstracts complex reality it has traditionally done so with the questions like “what causes this”, or “how does this effect that”. And indeed Utilitarianism itself comes out of the same tradition. Science and Utilitarianism share some of the same pre-analytical frames. So when traditional descriptive (describing states of the world), natural sciences evolves into normative (making judgements about states of the world) science, like conservation biology, it seems natural that it gravitates towards an instrumentalist (i.e. utilitarian) ethical framing, even if the individual scientists hold quite different personal ethical positions.

I would argue that because other ethical frameworks are not so amenable to instrumentalization, they do not receive the same legitimization through science. I believe this can lead to an, unintended, crowding out of other equally legitimate ethical framings for conservation science and sustainability science more generally. This crowding out is both in terms of dominant social and political discourses and ethical crowding where one ethical framework becomes the legitimate framing for judging states of the world. For example, the influential planetary boundaries discourse, is largely premised on and legitimizes an (aggregated) consequentialist ethical framing of sustainability. Ditto for the land sparing versus land sharing debate (with added assumptions about efficiency as an intrinsic good; food security as a technical rather than social problem; scientists as those responsible for defining how states of world should be judged etc, etc..).

So, what does these all mean (other than rehash of an old, possibly tired, debate)? Well for me it suggests that we need to think more about the scientific models we create. We should be mindful of the pre-analytic frames our models are the based on, and what discourse and values these in turn legitimize. I know there are thoughtful, erudite debates on these issues in the literature, but these ‘academic’ debates seem very isolated from the ‘sharp end’ of conservation and sustainability science.

As scientists not just our models of the world, but also our methods and metrics shaped by these value laden pre-analytical frames. Here Shannon diversity is not a million miles from $ per hectare in terms of the strength of the worldview that shapes that measure. Not that that there is anything wrong with those methods, metrics, or models (I thought I might not be able to slip an alliteration in here but that is quite smooth!), their normativity is unavoidable. For me it is crucially that if our science makes judgements about states of the world, in however an abstract of unattended way, it behoves us to make the basis for those pre-analytical judgments as transparent as we do the methods by which we do our science. A discussion of these, to me, fundamentally important issues seems puzzlingly missing from ‘every day science’.


As always I would be very interested in others’ opinions.

How to deal with bad reviews

Recently a paper I co-authored came back with three reviews from a reputable and respected journal, one of which was very bad. By which I don’t mean that the reviewer did not like the paper (although they absolutely did not), but rather that is was just a horribly written review. The entire review was less than 250 words long and consisted of eight bullet points which I will summarize below (and these genuinely are the extent of the reviewers critiques):

1) “Your hypothesis is flawed”. We had no hypothesis, which makes this statement a bit puzzling to say the least, particularly when no explanation whatsoever of those flaws were provided.
2) “Your work is not innovative” Again absolutely no explanation of why this is the case.
3) “This sentence is inconsistent” No explanation of inconsistent with what, or why it is inconsistent.
4) “You should discuss this thing” Which we already discuss in some detail.
5) “You failed to cite the right papers”. Without providing any idea of what the ‘right’ papers are how can the authors possibly know what the reviewer thinks is missing? Are we supposed to just randomly add new literature in the hopes of hit on those papers the reviewer (secretly) thinks are important?
6) “The use of the second person is sign of poor quality”. As opposed to a perfectly reasonable, and easily replaceable, stylistic choice?
7) “Don’t cite papers that are not published yet”. Despite the fact the Journal guidelines expressly allow you to do just that.
8) “Your reference list is incomplete”. Fair enough they got us on that one.

The reviewer recommended rejection. As it happens the other two reviews, while both disappointingly brief, liked the paper and recommended very minor revisions. However, it is entirely possible that based on this ’review’ that this paper could have been rejected. I believe there is something fundamentally wrong a paper being rejected based on the subjective, unsupported assertions of a very unprofessional reviewer.

So how do we deal with this? Well for this paper I think the solution is easy, we simple state to the handling editor that we do not believe it is possible to meaningfully engage with such an unconstructive assertions and therefore, apart from fixing the reference list, we will simply ignore this review (it deserves nothing more). In more general terms I think we need a change in peer-review culture.

When a handling editor receives a review like this I believe the correct thing to do is thank the reviewer, but clearly state to the reviewer that the review is not of sufficient rigour or quality (explaining why) and therefore will not be used in the peer-review process.

With reviewers I think that all is really needed is for us to think about what sort of reviews we want to receive and make sure that if we accept the invitation to review a paper that we provide one of the type of quality we ourselves would wish to receive. My personal checklist for a quality review would include:

1) Don’t make arguments by assertion. If, for example, you think a paper is not novel enough point out where the ideas have been presented before, just saying the paper is “not novel” is entirely unconstructive and provide no help for the authors in improving the manuscript.
2) If you think literature is missing say what that literature is and why it matters.
3) Acknowledge that just because you don’t like a particular approach that does not make it wrong.
4) Provide examples. If, for example, you don’t think the conclusions match the findings, provide illustrative examples of where this is the case.
5) Don’t ask the authors to add lots of new text/references, when the paper is already at the word count/reference count limit.
6) Don’t ask the author to cite your papers, unless doing so would change the paper in some substantive way. If your work is cited but the paper is fine without it, sorry but that is just tough cheese. You should not try and strong arm others into cite your work.

I would be particularly interested to hear others reviewing does and don’t.

Models that are simple elegant and wrong

In the words of George Box “all models are wrong, some models are useful”, what I want to highlight here is not so much the ‘wrongness’ of many models, but rather their limited usefulness (and usefulness is an explicit goal of sustainability science).


(A model pipe)

My starting point is that all science is modelling. Science functions by the codified abstraction of the vastly complicated real world, those abstractions are, in the broadest sense of the term, models. One of the main means by which scientific models simplify reality is by creating rules and assumptions that shape what is included (and excluded) from a particular model. This model bounding seems to me perhaps the most crucial step in the scientific process as it constrains and shapes the nature of the results that science generates. Model bounding seems to receive relatively little attention within the scientific process. Yet as Lawrence Slobodkin said “any simplification limits our capacity to draw conclusions… How we simplify can be critical. Careless simplification leads to misleading simplistic conclusions”. My contention is that we are bounding the world to create simple, elegant models that are, not very wrong, but also not very useful.

Here I use the land sparing/sharing model as an example, not because I think it needs further critique, but because it provides a nice example of some of the issues with simple models in sustainability science. Equally I could talk about ‘planetary boundaries’, ‘sustainable intensification’ “IPAT” etc… The Sparing/sharing model bounds the world in terms of a physical space providing two ‘goods’: biodiversity and ‘food’ with food production framed as an intrinsic good. Only those two goods are of concern, and land can be allocated in a way that ‘optimizes’ the delivery of those two goods. Everything else in the world is effectively outside of the model. While many sparing/sharing analyses are elegant, with well thought out research designs and sophisticated statistical analysis, there are many things that these models cannot tell us. They cannot tell us who has what preference for those two goods. Or why we have the current allocations of land (and their related goods), or how those allocations are likely to change in the future. The Sparing/sharing model cannot tell you about the ultimate benefits that that food production provides (e.g. food security), or if more production is even a desirable outcome? The sparing/sharing model is bounded in terms that effectively exclude addressing such issues. In particular the ethical component of the model is fixed (i.e. what is a ‘good’ and how to judge different states of the world are defined by the model boundaries).


(A pipe model)

So why then are such simple, elegant models so popular? In part I think the answer is that they provide a comfortable, neat and clear narrative (e.g. food security and biodiversity management as a solvable technical issue rather than a potentially intractable ethical/social issue). In addition, simple models can be rigorously operationalized. You can plug data into the models and produce, fully replicable, generalizable, ‘objective’, empirical research, baring all the hallmarks of ‘good science’. Finally, in the age of ‘policy relevant’ and ‘solution oriented’ science such models do provide solutions (useless as they may be). In contrast if your starting position is that we need models that are more complex, that deal with power, ethics, multiple values, even multiple system goals, then you are unlikely to create a clear narrative, replicable, rigorous empirical research (“you said all these things matter but most of them you don’t measure”) and are less likely to create the solutions the science itself is calling for.

So what does all this mean? Perhaps that we need to spend more effort judging the quality of science based on how well the model is bounded to address a particular societal rather than how well operationalized the model is (regardless of how appropriate the model is). It raises the question: can you do ‘good science’ with ‘bad models’? My gut instinct is that we probably need models that are more complex and therefore ‘wronger’ (less rigorously/fully operationalized) but more useful for addressing complex real world problems.

PhD opportunity PES and Equity at the Basque Centre for Climate Change

I am hoping that Joern will not be upset at me hijacking his blog, but given that he is on holiday in Ethiopia (sorry I mean on fieldwork in Ethiopia) I figured it is better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Anyway…

There is an exciting PhD opportunity at the Basque Centre for Climate Change and Osnabrück University focused on equity and Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES), With Unai Pascual and Stefanie Engel (see below for details). I don’t know Stefanie, but Unai is a super smart and super friendly guy and I would encourage you to spread this job advert to your networks.

Cheers Dave

One PhD position at the Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3)

The Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3) in collaboration with the Institute for Environmental Systems Research, University of Osnabrueck, offers one full-time PhD research fellowship as assistant for a research project partially funded by the Basque Government.

The PhD position as assistant/collaborator is part of a research project concerning the role of social equity and fairness in the design of environmental policy instruments. An important part of the work includes responsibility for design and implementation of surveys and experiments in Mexico, as well as data analysis.

Required qualification
The successful candidates should hold a Master’s degree in economics and ideally have previous training in areas related to environmental, development, experimental and/or behavioral economics. Candidates must have solid quantitative skills and very good writing skills. Fluency in English is required and a working level of Spanish would be desirable. A strong motivation, interest in environmental issues and interdisciplinary collaboration and ability to work independently is also desirable.

The candidate will be located at the Basque Centre for Climate Change, Bilbao, Spain, and at the Institute of Environmental Systems Research, University of Osnabrueck for at least one third of the duration of the contract. The successful candidate will also be expected to spend some periods of time in Mexico while conducting fieldwork.

The successful candidate will be jointly supervised by Prof. Unai Pascual (BC3) and Prof. Stefanie Engel (University of Osnabrueck). The successful candidate will be registered as PhD student at the University of Osnabrueck.

We are offering an excellent research environment and close cooperation with a dynamic team and a network of international collaborators. The position is for a period up to three years (likely starting date: Feb 2016) and includes the writing of a dissertation thesis. Salary and working hours are in accordance with the salary scales of the Basque Government’s grant and adapted to cover German living expenses, as well as, a fund to travel between Spain, Germany and Mexico and cover field work costs.

Additional information:
As a certified family-friendly institutions, BC3 and Osnabrück University are committed to furthering the compatibility between work/studies and family life. BC3 and Osnabrück University are particularly concerned with creating equality opportunities for women and men. Women with relevant qualifications are therefore strongly encouraged to apply for the position.

How to apply: 
If you are interested, we invite you to apply before January 8, 2015. We aim to fill the positions by February 1st, 2015. Please send a cover letter including a brief description of research interest and relevant experiences, a 2-page CV, two letters of references and copies of your university diploma and transcripts in one pdf-file to noting in the subject of the message “PhD position on equity and PES”. Informal enquiries can be made to Prof. Unai Pascual (

Applications close: 8th of January 2016 (CET 17:00).

New Paper: The intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation: a review

In a new paper Josefine Glamann and colleagues conducted a review of literature addressing the food security- biodiversity conservation nexus. We identified two main branches of literature. The “biophysical-technical” branch focused on productivity, natural science and seeking generalizable, often global models. In contrast the “social-political” branch focuses more on specific contextualized localities with a greater emphasis on economic, political and social factors. Bridging the divide between these two branches is vital for addressing the interlinked problems of food security and conservation.

Dendrogram illustrating how the analyzed papers addressed the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation.

Dendrogram illustrating how the analyzed papers addressed the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation.

Historically, food security and biodiversity conservation have been dealt with as separate issues, each with their own scholarly approaches, debates, and understandings. However, recently there is increased awareness that conserving biodiversity and ensuring the food security of a growing human population are inextricably interrelated issues. Arable land and land under permanent crops cover approximately 11 % or 1.5 billion hectares of Earth’s land surface, and there are approximately 2.7 billion hectares of land under some form of agricultural use, whether crop production, livestock grazing, or agroforestry. Within the next few decades, developing countries as a whole could increase cultivated land by approximately 110 million hectares. Such an expansion of agricultural land, in turn, would pose a major threat to biodiversity, especially because most of this expansion is expected to take place in areas with high conservation value.

Despite close connections between food security and biodiversity conservation, there is no coherent body of academic literature specifically addressing the nexus of food security and biodiversity conservation. Different approaches and perspectives are driven, in part, by the assumptions and traditions of the scientific disciplines that engage in this topic. Some existing approaches emphasize single issues such as increasing food production while minimizing impacts on biodiversity. Other approaches strive to address the food–biodiversity nexus more holistically, for example, through social-ecological system analysis that considers the connection between issues such as poverty, equity, and corruption in addition to food supply. Given the limitations of “one size fits all solutions”, pluralistic approaches to studying and managing the nexus of food and biodiversity conservation are to be welcomed. However, we need to better understand the broad types of approaches found in this emerging field, and how these approaches relate to one another. For this reason, we undertook a quantitative review of recent academic literature on the food–biodiversity nexus.

The aim of the analysis was to evaluate the framings and perspectives regarding the nexus of food security and biodiversity conservation covered by each article. To that end, a scheme with 68 questions was developed to allow us to consistently assess these issues across the analysed articles. We used agglomerative hierarchical cluster analysis, to find grouping structures within the literature.

Research on the nexus of food security and biodiversity conservation is a relatively recent phenomenon. However, already this research appears to be coalescing into two distinct and potentially oppositional worldviews, which are driven by different underlying assumptions regarding both the nature of the problem and the best means to address this. We identified two main branches of literature, containing a total of six clusters of papers. The “biophysical-technical” branch (clusters: “sustainable intensification” and “production focus”) was dominated by the natural sciences, focused strongly on the production aspect of food security, and sought general solutions. In contrast, the “social-political” branch (clusters: “social-ecological development”; “empowerment for food security”; “agroecology and food sovereignty”; and “social-ecological systems”) often drew on the social sciences and emphasized social relations and governance, alongside broader considerations of sustainability and human well-being. While the biophysical-technical branch was often global in focus, much of the social-political branch focused on specific localities. Two clusters of papers, one from each branch, stood out as being particularly broad in scope—namely the clusters on “sustainable intensification” and “agroecology and food sovereignty.” Despite major differences in their conceptual basis, we argue that exchange between these two research clusters could be particularly helpful in generating insights on the food–biodiversity nexus that are both generally applicable and sufficiently nuanced to capture key system-specific variables.

To facilitate greater cross-fertilization between research clusters, one major challenge will be recognition of the benefits and limitations of models favoured by the two broad approaches to the food security–biodiversity nexus—relatively simple, generalizable “neat” models versus relatively “messy,” complex- and context-dependent models. Bridging this divide will require explicit consideration of the scientific traditions and related, often normative, assumptions that underpin different heuristic model. George Box famously stated that “all models are wrong, the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful”. This is a question that researchers on the nexus of food security and biodiversity conservation need to engage with more deeply. In particular, how can relatively simple, biophysical-technical models be usefully contextualized to account for important social, political, and ecological factors that determine real-world food security and biodiversity outcomes? One potential bridge between these two branches is to use a social-ecological systems approach to facilitate improved integration. Both aggregate levels of agricultural production and local conditions influence food security and biodiversity conservation outcomes at multiple scales. Systems approaches acknowledge such cross-scale interactions. Here, the outcomes in terms of food security and biodiversity conservation are conceptualized as responses to dynamic, interacting, multiscale, biophysical, socioeconomic and political processes, or system properties. Relevant system properties include land-use patterns, levels of production and intensification, but crucially also the mediating sociopolitical factors from local to global scales.

Glamann, J, Hanspach, J, Abson, D, Collier, N, Fischer, J (2015) The intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation: A review. Regional Environmental Change, 1-11. (PDF)