Where do we go from here? A blog post on crisis and leverage

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

This post is written by Julia Leventon, Ioana Duse, Felix Beyers, Tamara Schaal and Josefine Laudan. They work together as a research group at Leuphana University, headed by Julia. The projects they work on are primarily focused on systems change for sustainability, within the food and textiles systems. Julia is currently in the Czech Republic with her family (and therefore in week 2 of lock-down), the others are at home in Germany.

On day 5 of quarantine, I (Julia) walked to the top of the hill at the back of my house. I sat for a bit and listened to the bird song. And for the first time in days, I felt like there might be some hope. I am scared right now, for my family and friends, for my colleagues, and for people I have never met; for humanity. Covid-19 is challenging and removing the…

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A Sustainability Scientist’s Perspective on the ‘Refugee Crisis’

Today, I was motivated to focus on a more social manifestation of our lack of sustainability: the refugee crisis. In my research I tend to focus on the environmental expressions of sustainability problems. But sustainability is also about social sustainability. My perspectives on the refugee crisis are therefore based on some of the framings I have developed while studying the local and global connections in environmental problems.

**Note: This blog post has been written in anger and disgust, and therefore may not be as articulate as I would like.**

I’m distressed by state of humanity in Western Europe.

  • PEOPLE are ‘living’ in appalling camps around Calais, waiting to enter Britain.
  • PEOPLE are ‘living’ in over-crowded refugee centres with little sanitation and facilities.
  • PEOPLE are suffering danger and exploitation, and arduous journeys to arrive in these camps.
  • PEOPLE are drowning as they try to cross the Mediterranean on rubber dinghies.

To me, this is the crisis – the pain and the suffering. It is depressing in itself. I find it upsetting that life can be so intolerable that such conditions are better. I lie awake at night thinking about this.

But the final straw for me is our collective reaction.

  • Hungary wants to put up a wall along the Serbian border.
  • Britain and France argue over the responsibility for migrants, and label them as ‘illegal’ based on where they want to register as asylum seekers.
  • Britain, Germany and France turn their backs on Greece and Italy, forcing them to handle the crisis in their already over-stretched public services and charities, arguably making ‘living’ conditions worse for many.
  • Our politicians argue that we don’t have capacity to take everyone, and spend weeks arguing over who should be paying what, and hosting who, and how to stop the flow, rather than saving the thousands of PEOPLE dying on their way here.
  • British holiday-makers complain that their holiday is ruined by there being untidy migrants in the vicinity of their holiday resorts.

These reactions frame the crisis as being the impact to the West. This makes me feel sick and ashamed.

Firstly, because we are talking about PEOPLE. Real, living, breathing, feeling people. And all of them just unlucky enough to have been born into the time and situation they were born into.

Secondly, because I find the social construct of a ‘country’ or a ‘territory’ fascinating (and also the construction of nationalism). I query the validity of borders such as we currently define and enforce them. My sustainability science experience means I am fully aware that we don’t actually live within our borders here in Western Europe – we import materials and products and we export negative impacts. These impacts are in terms of environmental consequences such as climate change, or communities in the developing world living with no clean water because of our need for oil. And impacts are in terms of social consequences; for example political instability in areas we colonized (e.g. Nigeria) or invaded (e.g. Iraq) to secure resources. We do not keep to ‘our’ own allocation of resources in order to support our lifestyles here in the West. And to therefore defend our physical space from people fleeing our exported consequences is essentially saying “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is also mine”.

In short, what this boils down to is a call for us all to “check your privilege”. To those who argue that we can’t cope with everyone who wants to come here, I call bullshit. We can’t cope if we don’t change and adjust, and yes maybe make some material compromises. But we have more than enough, its just not distributed very fairly. And it’s us in the West who have too much, who don’t experience the real impacts, and who are reinforcing the disparity.

Reflections on Impact

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about impact. The ideas in this post have been brewing for a while. But got a bit solidified this week because we were visited by Professor Mark Reed. Mark has done some great sustainability research with impressive impact, and has published on the topic of impact through research. I encourage you to look at his website. Mark gave a good seminar, and as a group we then followed this up with some in-depth discussion. The seminar included ideas for incorporating impact into research, with innovative ideas on how to do so. For me, this resulted in many thoughts, including these on the impact discourse; forms of impact; the role of our limits in impact; and finally, my own personal recommendations of impact for happy researchers.

** Important note: These thoughts are only prompted by talking with Mark and the group this week, and are in no way to be considered a response to, or a criticism of, anybody’s work! **

The Impact Discourse

Having spent time in the UK higher education sector during the last REF round, I am very aware of a particular framing or discourse as to what counts as impact. It feels slightly as though we are being asked to change the world through every piece of research we touch. For those of us who have engaged in-depth with a particular problem in a particular place, and often found that these problems are shaped by a much broader political economy, it can be difficult to really find a solution and make it happen. Especially in a short project. Alternatively, we understand a small component of a system, and so can’t really advocate for a solution that is applicable to that entire system.

However, pressure to have impact and global applicability often seems to lead to authors trying to make large-scale policy recommendations or to be concerned with inputting their science into the policy arena. I agree that we should fully disseminate findings in appropriate ways, but (and as noted by the new editor of conservation letters), not all science has policy relevance. And nor should it necessarily. Indeed, high profile UK academics have criticized the current focus on ‘impact’ as constraining innovative science.

However, as sustainability scientists, I think many of us are motivated by certain desires to make things better (whatever better may be) in addition to being fuelled by pure curiosity. And therefore the vast majority of us would like to feel like there is a purpose to what we are doing. And the purpose is how I consider impact in my own research.

**Interesting note: One of the researchers here (Dave Abson) said that he actually preferred to do no harm, rather than strived for impact. I thought this was also a nice stance.**

Forms of Impact

Research Process Impact

I think we should celebrate the impact we have as a result of being academics. We should seek to maximize the beneficial aspects of these impacts, by being good colleagues, mentors, students, and stakeholders in a research location.

Impact comes through teaching and supervision/participation, in the research community. For example, I think I have impact when I work with a colleague on their methodology, sharing my experiences with them. I have impact when I share case study experiences in a classroom, and motivate a student about a previously unknown issue.

Impact comes locally in research study locations, as a result of just doing the research. For example, I perhaps raise awareness with a community, or demonstrate that the world is aware of a problem. I have impact when I show a group of mining engineers that social-environmental scientists aren’t yoghurt-knitting tree huggers. I have impact when I bring together diverse stakeholders, and provide a forum for all to air their views and discuss for the first time.

Research Results Impact

Arguably, in a transdisciplinary, iterative project, impact from research results is also part of the research process. However, our results often have implications for how stakeholders in our research problem could act. I think we need to think hard about who this is, and therefore who our audience is and where we should be aiming to have impact.

For example, in my research outcomes might be recommendations for how a Hungarian municipality can alter their drinking water management approach. My impact here should be at the municipality level. I can also have recommendations on how the public health authorities communicate with the municipality; and how the national ministries organize their drinking water improvement programmes. In which case my impact should be to the public health authorities and the environment ministry, respectively. From this particular study, I also contributed to discussions around the EU’s democratic deficit… but I cannot use my single case study finding to suggest how the EU should change their decision making procedures. Instead I publish, and intend that it contributes to the knowledge of someone with far more expertise in this than I have.

The role of our limits in impact

As highlighted above, sometimes findings from multiple researchers and projects need to be put together to be ‘policy-relevant’ and to create realistic solutions. Maybe as individual scientists we can’t do it all. Indeed, there is a whole area of research on knowledge brokers and boundary organisations about bridging between research and policy. Sometimes as impact-aware researchers, we should be investigating how to contribute to existing structures and organisations, instead of trying to re-invent the wheel with our own impact approaches.

I think as scientists we also need to be honest and self-aware around what we don’t understand. I don’t expect all ecologists (for example) to know how EU policy-making and governance works. But often, ecologists might like to think about where they try to feed their findings. There is not a single decision-maker, and not all information is relevant for the same kind of decision. Thinking about where information might be used should guide where we seek to intervene. But this is a 2-way criticism: the physical scientists should draw on their governance colleagues, and as governance researchers, we should get better at showing our relevance to our physical colleagues (maybe we should see it as a form of impact).

My own personal recommendations on impact for happy researchers

  • It’s OK if you can’t change the entire world tomorrow (yeah, I feel guilty about it too, but lets try not to).
  • Celebrate all forms of impact – with your colleagues, your research area, and through the relevance of your findings.
  • Appreciate those who impact upon you and your work.
  • Once you have recognized the impacts that you have, seek to enjoy and be good at those, targeting your efforts to be effective.
  • Be honest about what you can’t do, and work with people who know what you don’t so you can work together for impact.
  • Be honest about what you can do, and seek out those who might benefit from that so you can work together for impact.

Job opening: MULTAGRI project

Joern has kindly given me permission to briefly use the blog to distribute the advert for a position on a research project called ‘MULTAGRI: Rural Development through Governance of Multifunctional Agricultural Land Use’.  Thanks Joern!

The project aims to investigate how governance of agricultural landscapes in Europe can promote rural development by promoting sustainable production alongside the provision of a range of ecosystem services provided by biodiversity.  Its an exciting project, based across eight research institutes and engaging with ecologists, economists and political scientists.

The position is for a research associate in ‘Institutional Change for the Governance of Sustainable Agriculture’.    We have been working on assessing current governance systems in four case study sites, and have been developing ecologically-informed, multi-level governance scenarios.  The focus of the advertised position will be on assessing the changes necessary to move from the current systems to the scenarios, and on assessing the acceptability of these changes to stakeholders.  It can be done on a full- or part-time basis and is ideal for someone looking to develop a career in research in sustainability science.

Details of the position, how to apply and where to direct questions are here: MULTAGRI JobAd

My new post at IATP’s ThinkForward: “‘Sustainable intensification’ is unsustainable”

Beginning to End Hunger

“Sustainable intensification” is unsustainable

Posted September 3, 2014 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell    

(Photo used under creative commons license from leisaworldnet: https://www.flickr.com/photos/leisaworldnet) Technicians and farmers discussing the results of sustainable intensification on a rice farm in Nepal.

In a newpaper led by collaborators at Leuphana University Lueneburg (Germany) and just released in print in the scientific journal Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment, my colleagues and I question one of the buzzwords in international conversations about hunger and conserving the environment: sustainable intensification (SI). Explained briefly, sustainable intensification seeks to produce the most food, on the least land, with the lowest environmental impact.

SI has been the subject of a recent European Union report, proposals by  prominent scholars, and is a major theme area of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. SI is often seen by some experts as “key” to agriculture’s…

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A post that might be about scales, or levels, but certainly includes ecosystem services and leverage points

This post was originally intended to be about my frustration with the ecosystem services concept. In trying to articulate and understand this frustration, I’ve gone through a range of thoughts, which I will explain here. I am getting a bit paranoid that I always seem to come back to issues of scale in my research, and I seem to have done it here again. But I hope it makes some sense, and is more than just an incoherent rambling.

I will start with why I like the ecosystem service concept. I am an interdisciplinary researcher studying natural resource management. The ecosystem service concept is a clear framework for connecting the social world to the physical world. It makes explicit the links between a component of an ecosystem and the various things that it is valued for by people. It seems simple; pollinators are valued because they pollinate crops and other plants, and we like this because we eat, we like pretty meadows, etc. We can then follow this on to further services supported by the pretty meadows, such as recreation and the existence values humans ascribe to such meadows. Being able to follow these chains is useful in understanding the socio-ecological system in any given location. It is also useful for explaining to people how environmental change might directly affect them by impacting on the things they value.

I do share frustrations with other researchers over the grouping together of services and benefits, and the different stages of service (and benefit) in the ecosystem service concept. For this reason, I try to use the idea of intermediary services, final services and benefits. Whereby pollinators pollinating is an intermediary service, the crop is the final service, and the profit from that crop is the benefit to the producer. The consumer may also experience benefit through having food to eat, and preferably at a lower price than they would have been willing to pay. These groupings get long, and interconnect with each other. So the pollinators could lead to multiple benefits, but also could be created through multiple earlier services. Then we are more within a cascade model (e.g. Haines-Young and Potschin, 2010), whereby there is structure (e.g. habitat), process, function, service and benefit.

I find that my main frustrations are introduced when we start to use the concept for practical management. We start to think about how we can increase the number of pollinators. But then we need to recognise that such actions have a trade-off; for example increasing wildflower meadows to support bees may decrease the crop production space, or the habitat for another animal, which then negatively impacts upon another ecosystem service, or multiple ecosystem services in a complex web whereby we need to trade-off goals and priorities (see e.g. Bennet et al., 2009; Raudsepp-Hearne et al., 2010 and others). Some researchers have started to ‘bundle’ ecosystem services to simplify understandings of such trade-offs. Bundles comprise of services that usually appear together and are influenced similarly, such that actions that are beneficial to one service in the group will be beneficial to others, but possibly act negatively on another group. Indeed, a benefit of the ecosystem services concept is that we have a framework for thinking about trade-offs. However, for management purposes, we really lack the knowledge of what actions done in what quantity have which impacts (positive and negative) over which ecosystem services.

While thinking about various actions that could manage ecosystem services, I started to think about ecosystem services within a systems thinking framework. I borrowed the figure below from Donella Meadows’ essay ‘Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System’. The idea being that where there is a discrepancy between how we want a system to look, and how it really looks, we can target either the inflows or the outflows from that system in order to remove the discrepancy. Meadows outlines leverage points as being points to intervene in a system, with changing parameters as shallower (and less effective) points, and changing goals as deeper (and more effective). If we use the ecosystem service concept within this framework, we could put pollinators in the central box. Then we can define the goal (e.g. to produce a given amount of oil seed rape). Then we find leverage points to target either the inflow (births, in-migration) or outflow (death through habitat loss, disease) of pollinators in the landscape such that the discrepancy reduction becomes the practical problem.


Currently, according to the way the ecosystem services concept is being operationalized, we are seeking to understand how to target inflow and/or outflow. Most systems are complex, such that this individual component is connected with many others. And often, relationships between components work differently across space. Thus if we are to manage by ecosystem services, we need to model relationships for all locations where there may be variation. And this is being done; we are characterising benefits, understanding how changes in the system affect them. In doing so, I feel somewhat as though we are distracting ourselves by creating ever more complex physical constructs that require even more detailed physical understandings, and ever more complex chains of structures, processes, services and benefits. Great – it is interesting, and should be pursued in the interests of knowledge. But in the end, we are left with very prescriptive sets of measures that can be applied in very specific circumstances locations, depending on what goals we want to achieve.

And to me, it is this questions of ‘what goals?’ and ‘who decides?’ that are my fundamental concerns with the ecosystem services concept. The way the ecosystem service concept is currently being enacted encourages us to work backwards. We are picking a small number of services, and defining goals for each, or for small groups by making decisions on trade-offs. But we aren’t looking at the overall collective system. We are defining the interventions for small components of the system before defining the overall goals. In doing so, we aren’t allowing ourselves to target the deepest, most effective leverage points. We should be asking questions around what we want to manage the system for. Do we want to optimise certain services? Or balance all services? Do we have a particular goal for a resilient system? If we had a goal, we could start to really think about what the discrepancy is, and how to intervene; knowledge could be targeted towards it.

I wonder if we need to start by considering scales of a nested system. If we have started out at the most detailed scale with individual ecosystem services, the next scale up might be biodiversity as the system that incorporates the individual services. This way, the services included within the biodiversity system and their goals influence the working definition of biodiversity. Alternatively, or at same time, by setting goals around biodiversity, we could follow these back to figure out what goals to set for individual ecosystem services. I’m not sure biodiversity is the right grouping concept at this scale – perhaps others have thoughts?! We also get to consider the larger scale system that ‘biodiversity’ (or whatever we settle on) is a part of. Perhaps that system is one of sustainable development (or perhaps I’ve skipped some scales), in which biodiversity might be a sub-system, alongside public health, economic growth, education, etc. Again, we get to define goals for this system, but also see that the sub-systems provide operational definitions for the system goals through their own goals.

So in short, I think I have ended up with my frustration with ecosystem services being that they isolate components of an ecosystem from its broader, interlinked, multi-scale ecosystems. And I have yet to be able to use it to manage anything.