Congratulations, Dr. Girma Shumi Dugo!

By Joern Fischer

About a week ago, our project on food security and biodiversity conservation culminated in yet another completed PhD! Girma Shumi Dugo successfully defended his thesis. Congratulations Girma!

Girma’s thesis had an emphasis on biodiversity conservation, but also included several social-ecological aspects. The overall focus of the thesis was on woody vegetation, including its conservation values but also its values to local people.

Following a synthesis chapter, Girma’s first data chapter investigated woody vegetation in forest sites. This work found that many forest sites were highly species rich, especially in undisturbed locations deep within the forest. Historical effects and edge effects appeared to influence species richness and composition. This first data paper was published in Biological Conservation.

The second data paper is also published already, namely in Diversity and Distributions. This paper looked at woody species composition and richness in farmland areas. It found there was a significant effect of landscape history — and possibly an immigration credit. That is, sites in long-established farmland locations had a higher number of pioneer and generalist species than sites in recently established farmland.

The third data chapter in the thesis is currently in revision; it examines the relationship between the diversity of woody vegetation in plots throughout the landscape with the diversity of ecosystem services generated by woody vegetation in those plots. The findings suggest that woody species diversity leads to landscape multi-functionality, and that all land use types in the study area (farmland, coffee forest, forest without coffee) are essentially multifunctional.

Finally, the last chapter contains a detailed inventory of which species are used by local people for which different purposes. Nearly 100 species of woody vegetation are used by local people for 11 different purposes — this chapter thus demonstrates that woody vegetation is vital to the lives of local people. The chapter is in the final round of minor revisions for publication in Ecosystems and People.

A big congratulations to Girma for a well-rounded thesis!

New paper – Capital asset substitution as a coping strategy: practices and implications for food security and resilience in southwestern Ethiopia

By Aisa Manlosa

Smallholder farmers in various parts of the world often have to cope with a range of livelihoods-related challenges. These challenges may be associated with a lack in the capital assets they need to implement their livelihoods, or to food shortage. How farmers cope with these challenges has an impact on their food security and resilience. We investigated farmer’s coping strategies using capital asset substitution as an analytical lens. We sought to address the following questions: (1) How do smallholder farming households cope with shortage in capital assets and shortage of food?; (2) What role does capital asset substitution play in coping strategies?; (3) How do different types of capital asset substitution influence a given household’s state of capital assets, and what are the implications for their resilience and food security? The paper which is newly published in Geoforum, is available here.

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A common view of the landscape in southwest Ethiopia showing people’s homes, gardens, and livestock in a farm field. (Photo taken by Jan Hanspach)

The study was conducted in southwestern Ethiopia where our team has been doing research since 2015. The analysis was based on qualitative data from an open-ended section of a survey with over 300 respondents and from semi-structured interviews with a subset of 30 interviewees. Data from the survey provided information about the common livelihood challenges in the study area, while semi-structured interviews provided substantive narratives concerning how people coped with the challenges, and the outcomes of their coping strategies.

In sum, the study revealed that “most commonly identified challenges were related to the natural capital such as crop raiding, and land scarcity. Households coped in various ways and most of their strategies involved drawing on the capital assets they had access to in processes of capital asset substitution. Coping strategies that involved drawing on social and human capitals which were very common tended to maintain the capital asset base of households. For example, a collaborative scheme called didaro helped augment labour input needed to guard the fields from wild animals. On the other hand, those that involved a liquidation of physical and economic capitals without commensurate returns tended to erode capital asset base. The erosive effect of certain coping strategies was found to result in reduced resilience or reduced abilities to maintain livelihoods and be food secure.” The paper concluded that “policies which seek to leverage smallholder agriculture for food security need to expand their focus beyond increasing production, and better integrate the aspect of resilience. In actionable terms, institutional investments are needed to support non-erosive coping strategies and to develop alternatives for erosive coping strategies. Since non-erosive coping strategies are likely to differ across contexts, identifying what these strategies are at the local level and building on them will be key to increasing resilience and supporting food security in specific geographies. Given the pervasiveness of challenges associated with natural capital, policies for prioritizing non-erosive strategies over erosive ones will need to be complemented with a sustained effort to reduce challenges associated with natural capital.”

This study furthered showed that the concept of capital asset substitution can be applied in livelihoods analysis to unpack interlinkages between different types of capitals. The application of the concept highlights that some capital assets such as natural capital, are elemental to the construction of livelihoods, and as proponents of strong sustainability have argued, are not fully interchangeable. The distinctive importance of different types of capital assets and interlinkages between them should be incorporated in livelihoods analyses for better understanding of the dynamic preconditions underlying smallholder farming.

 

The future of conservation

By Joern Fischer

I just finished teaching a Master’s level semester-long course on “conservation biology”. Today’s class finished with a student-led discussion on “the future of conservation”. Because I found it a very inspiring discussion – and indeed, a very nice semester (thanks to a lovely group of students!) – I wanted to briefly reflect on this discussion here.

The students running the session chose to base the discussion on a recent paper by Chris Sandbrook and colleagues, which reported on the diversity of views about how to achieve conservation in the scientific community. Their work was published in a high-profile paper, and there is also a website to go with it, where you can assess what kind of conservationist you are.

Interestingly, my class had students who were “traditional conservationists” – emphasizing the importance of science and ecocentric values, and being somewhat skeptical of capitalism; as well as “new conservationists” – who were relatively more people-oriented and more in favour of working with capitalism. Our discussion around these issues was quite deep but relaxed: as Sandbrook et al. point out in their paper, it’s not necessary nor useful to play out the different perspectives against one another. Depending on their background and life experiences, people will favour different kinds of approaches. And most likely, we need different approaches! In such instances I am always reminded of a talk by Michael Soulé, which I covered many years ago on this blog – there are multiple “life-affirming movements”, and from a practical perspective, we probably do better by recognizing what we have in common across our different mindsets than by focusing on what is dividing us.

Unlike my students, my own conservation profile is a little bit different. I thought this is kind of good, because it suggests I haven’t indoctrinated them to the extent that they simply repeat what I say  🙂

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According to the online tool, I’m a fairly middle-of-the-road conservationist, but if anything, I’m a “critical social scientist”. I find this highly amusing because I am regularly annoyed by academia being dominated by a culture of critique… but I guess the point is that I am both a bit skeptical about capitalism, as well as being fairly people-centred in my views on conservation. I see this as a result of my personal experiences; working in human-modified landscapes, and also working in contexts where human well-being depends on nature. As to capitalism, I am greatly skeptical because I see it as closely intertwined with the problems of our era (so how can it be the solution?), and too often, I feel it ends up benefiting the powerful but not those whose well-being is actually most at threat.

Thanks again to my students for a nice semester, and check out the nice work by Sandbrook et al. if you haven’t seen it already!

Another special issue: Human-nature connectedness as leverage point for sustainability transformation

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Maraja Riechers

The notion of human-nature connectedness and specifically the idea of reconnecting people to nature are rapidly gaining prominence in sustainability science, conservation biology, environmental psychology and education. Scholars argue, for example, that an emotional and experiential connection with nature has many positive outcomes for human well-being, especially health or the cognitive development of children and pro-environmental behavior and may promote conservation initiatives of natural and cultural heritage.

Ignoring these effects could lead to a downward spiral of ever increasing disconnection of people and societies from nature, which may further exacerbate the global environmental crisis by enhancing un-sustainable behavior patterns. Based on this, scholars state a need for strengthening human connections with nature. Yet, many calls for such ‘reconnection’ lack concrete insights about what human-nature connection means and how it might be fostered.

In our special issue in the journal Ecosystems and People we would like to address…

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Learning to collaborate while collaborating

An interesting new paper by Rebecca Freeth on how to collaborate in interdisciplinary contexts. Originally posted on the Leverage Points blog.

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Rebecca Freeth

None of us was born knowing how to collaborate. We learn to collaborate. For most of us working as researchers or practitioners in the field of sustainability, collaboration is intrinsic to how we work. Which gives us endless opportunities to learn to collaborate while collaborating.

There’s ample evidence that projects designed for intensive collaboration, whether inter- or transdisciplinary, get watered down to “additive multidisciplinarity” (Roy et al., 2013: 745). This is at least in part due to failures to navigate collaboration challenges, from finding conceptual common ground to managing interpersonal tensions (Haider et al., 2017; Klein, 1996; Strober, 2011). Indeed, collaboration is “unabatedly demanding” (Defila and Di Giulio, 2018: 101). Even if you’re a researcher with considerable team experience, a new project can present novel and unexpected collaboration challenges. Learning to collaborate is life-long.

In the Leverage Points project, we also experienced some challenges. During my interviews…

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Back to the truth: when there’s nothing new to say

By Joern Fischer

I have to admit I’m pretty tired of science right now. Back in 2012, I led a paper that essentially said “we have enough science, it’s time to do something”. And perhaps not surprisingly… that’s still the case. Frankly, science can get tiring when there is nothing new to say.

There are of course scientists who are simply so excited to find new ways of thinking about the world, or new aspects that are as yet not well understood that they will keep going, and going, and going. I applaud those people driven by endless curiosity – they are the “real scientists”, and it’s wonderful that we have them. But I guess in conservation and sustainability, there are many other scientists, too, who have a hope that their work is somehow of use. And those can get pretty disillusioned when there’s nothing fundamentally new to be said – when it’s just the same old stories, re-hashed over and over, telling different versions of the same overall plot, namely that the world as we know it, is falling apart.

If science is to be useful, rather than just “new”, what does it have to look like?

Sometimes, it feels we’re in an endless science factory of generating ever more nuanced knowledge when frankly, it’s not a lack of knowledge that is keeping us from creating a healthier world. Most of the insights important for biodiversity conservation are many, many decades old – bigger patches still have more species than small ones, species have their bioclimatic niches, intensive agriculture leads to simplified landscapes and those have fewer species, chemicals harm the environment, etc etc etc … frankly, the kind of understanding we need to actually understand, in general terms, our environmental crisis is at a basic undergraduate level. The rest is simply different types of exciting little turrets that academics stick onto their conceptual castles because … well, because they like turrets.

And so we talk about this turret and that one, is my turret better than yours, and we talk and publish and write and (over-)work … while Rome is burning.

What do we do, as scientists, when there is simply nothing new to say, nothing more to do than construct ever more refined turrets? What do we do when entire groups of peers, and funding bodies, deeply believe in turret construction as a way of making an academic living? What do we do when disillusionment hits us, telling us that science is largely just the addition of turrets to a very well founded understanding already constructed? – If it’s not a lack of turrets that is causing the world’s problems, what then is it? And what is science, in that context?

One answer is that science is simply part of learning some aspects of truth (those knowable via science, i.e. possibly just a small fraction of truth at large). So when there is nothing new to say, I suggest we simply go back to the truth, at a foundational level, rather than building more turrets. Large patches have more patches than small ones, for example – it’s still true, and it’s extremely useful to know at a time when we’re losing species dozens of times faster than in prehistoric times. The Global North is exploiting the Global South – also still true, and also still useful to know. Climate catastrophe is on its way – still true, too, and useful to hear. These truths are unexciting to scientists, they tell us nothing new. But they matter.

As scientists, we communicate an understanding of the world, in various formats. Along with other people who speak to large audiences – such as artists, teachers, politicians or clergymen – we thus have the opportunity to share truth. The importance of a given truth, I’d argue, is not measured by how new it is, but how necessary it is to be heard, at a given time.

And so … when there’s nothing fundamentally new to say, I suggest we simply accept that this is how it is. And we can simply repeat those aspects of scientific truth that are most urgently needed at the time. Is that still science then, when we’re not primarily putting ourselves at the service of novelty? Perhaps to some it’s not. But at least it’s useful. Perhaps it can be more fruitful to state simple truths a million times over instead of going along with the illusion that more turrets of truth are needed before we can actually transform our world.

New paper: Sustainability starts within (each of us)

By Joern Fischer

Led by Chris Ives and co-written by Rebecca Freeth and me, I’d like to draw your attention to our new paper on sustainability and our “inner worlds”. In this new paper, which recently appeared in Ambio, we argue that there is a very important but largely ignored “inner dimension” to sustainability; a dimension that is all about our emotions, thoughts, identities and beliefs.

To illustrate our idea, we borrowed an observation from Ken Wilber’s integral theory (though notably, we did not borrow integral theory itself). The idea we borrowed is that human knowledge and experience about the world can be classified in a 2×2 matrix – we can engage with interior individual phenomena (“I”), exterior individual phenomena (“It”), interior collective phenomena (“We”), or exterior collective phenomena (“They”; called”Its” by Wilber).

Let’s assume for a moment that these four quadrants actually capture human experience. In a next step, we might say that sustainability science is meant to help humanity reach a sustainable future. This very broad quest, we might argue, entails challenges in all four quadrants – but, as I briefly summarise here, sustainability science has largely ignored one of these quadrants!

Let’s go through the quadrants. The “It” quadrant is all about how a thing works – for example, it might be the kind of disciplinary science needed to answer how much of a certain greenhouse gas is stored in a particular soil type, or how many bird species occur in a particular forest patch. The “They” quadrant is the plural version of “It” – it’s all about multiple phenomena in the external world and how they interact. Systems thinking fits into this quadrant, and it’s a quadrant that has been extremely useful in sustainability science. Third, the “We” quadrant is all about how we, collectively, live. This might be about culture, or about regulations or social norms – the things that influence how “we” collectively behave. This, too, has received quite a bit of attention by sustainability scientists, and has been very useful.

What’s largely missing to date… is “I”. Of course philosophers and psychologists have had an interest in what happens within individual human beings, but sustainability scientists have largely stayed away from this level of human experience.

If, however, human experiences play out in all four major dimensions; and if these dimensions all are essential to human ways of living and being – then this is a glaring omission!

Interestingly, non-scientists have engaged quite strongly with the inner worlds of individuals, including (but not only) in spiritual circles (e.g. see Chris’ previous blog post here). Sustainability science as a whole has been rather slow on the uptake … although there are also important examples within sustainability science of people who have looked at what happens within individuals. Not least of all, Donella Meadows argued that the ability to change one’s paradigm was a key way to bring about change; an idea also captured in the increasingly popular “iceberg metaphor” copied from our paper and depicted in the figure below.

Arguably, what we value, how we think about things, what we believe in, and what we think it means to be human all matter in very fundamental ways – and, we argue, we need to engage with questions such as these if we are to successfully address the grand challenges of our times.

Our paper does not provide a simple set of answers for what we now need to do, given this realization. Rather, it aims to show, first of all, that the lack of focus on the self has been a gap in mainstream sustainability research to date; and we provide a few initial pointers for where we can each start to close this gap in the future.

Academia’s obsession with quantity revisited yet again…

By Joern Fischer

Some years ago, together with a couple of colleagues, I published a little note called “Academia’s obsession with quantity”. We followed up on this with another slightly longer note outlining a roadmap for “an academia beyond quantity”. Some years have passed, and I felt it’s time to re-visit these original ideas here. Have things improved?

I’d say most decidedly no. Perhaps not all countries are quite the same, but certainly Germany strikes me as essentially insane when it comes to the business of science. The implicit incentives are to raise a lot of funding (i.e. not even to publish, or have a high h-index, just simply to raise money seems to be desirable) – it’s not uncommon for successful professors in Germany to have 10-20 members in their lab groups (who may or may not talk to one another, let alone collaborate sensibly).

I have rarely heard anyone senior question whether more is in fact better; it’s largely taken for granted that more is, by default, better. I have, however, heard many PhD students complain about their supervisors being over-committed. I have seen nominally interdisciplinary projects fail because too many investigators each invested too little time; and I have had nominally transdisciplinary endeavours fail because nobody could be bothered to actually walk the talk about making time for stakeholders. Funding bodies encourage this behaviour through favouring multi-investigator mega-projects with weak leadership; and universities encourage it through rewarding their professors for their fund-raising “successes”. On top of this, we are assessed by how many hours we teach, and nobody takes any serious notice of the actual quality of our teaching – not in any way that actually makes a difference anyway.

As I see it, we’re in an academic world that is essentially insane – those suffering the consequences, such as junior researchers, will either drop out or adapt to the model of “more is better”. I am yet to see an institution make a genuine effort to systematically find ways for everyone to simply do less, as a way of encouraging that quality is being delivered. What I see instead is countless colleagues who are rushed and performing well below their intellectual capacity; who supervise well below their mentoring capacity; and who get a lot less enjoyment out of their work than they could if things were less insane.

What is needed, from my perspective, is a systematic change in the culture of what an academic environment ought to be like, starting with strong leadership to foster such an alternative culture. Do we really want to create places where “more is better”? Or do we want to generate places that are productive, but self-regulate their commitment such that they remain focused in their publication, teaching and mentoring duties?

I’m not advocating low productivity or laziness. But I have a hypothesis: if the most “successful” senior academics on average did half the teaching, half the fund raising, and half the number of publications a year – and instead double their mentoring and reflection before they take on random extra “stuff” – academia would do much better at advancing wisdom rather than just being yet another game where the only rule is that “more is better”.

Towards Sustainability in EU-Brazil Trade Negotiations

Originally posted by Jens Newig on his blog, re-blogged here…

SUSTAINABILITY GOVERNANCE

By Jens Newig, Benedetta Cotta, Johanna Coenen, Andrea Lenschow, Edward Challies and Almut Schilling-Vacaflor

While European countries and EU policies have made some progress in enhancing domestic sustainability, we are pretty much failing when it comes to taking responsibility for the far-away consequences of our way of living. Chemical pollution and loss of native forests are two striking examples of such distant effects of our local meat production that relies on Brazilian soy imports as protein-rich animal feed. We call such distant effects “global telecoupling”. Labels for sustainable production standards developed by private industry and non-governmental organizations (such as by the Round Table for Responsible Soy) have not proven overly effective. Governmental bodies in Europe should therefore stronger than they did previously take up their responsibility to pass effective policies. In our team, we are currently studying the  governance responses to unsustainable global telecoupling, in the DFG-funded project “GOVERNECT”

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Congratulations, Dr. Aisa Manlosa and Dr. Tolera Senbeto Jiren!

By Joern Fischer

Today was a big day for our research group: two of four PhD students on our project on food security and biodiversity conservation defended their PhDs! Congratulations, Aisa and Tolera – you made it!

The four PhD theses in this project cover aspects of biodiversity, ecosystem services, livelihoods and governance. Two theses are social-science oriented, and two are ecologically oriented. And this time … the social scientists were faster!

Aisa’s thesis covers local livelihood strategies, including their links to food security and access to capital assets; it covers coping strategies and household resilience; gender dynamics and institutional dynamics; and finally, the role of social norms in relation to equity.

Tolera’s thesis addresses governance issues in relation to food security and biodiversity conservation. It starts with an assessment of current discourses on food security (and biodiversity), which range from food sovereignty to produtivist framings; it assess the land sparing/sharing framework from a (local) governance perspective; includes a social network analysis of governance actors; investigates various types of process-related governance mismatches; and concludes with a chapter on scenarios of the future for the study area.

The two theses are written as papers, such that everything that is not publically accessible yet will become accessible in the foreseeable future. Some papers are published already, and you can find them in standard databases and on our project website … or email Aisa or Tolera for reprints, if you need a pdf of the papers!

A big thank you from me, at this point, to both Aisa and Tolera, for their hard work, great team spirit, and for doing a wonderful job in filling with life and substance what, once upon a time, was just a project idea! And thanks also to the examiners who contributed to getting these two theses marked: Julia Leventon, Kate Brown, Victor Galaz and Jens Newig.

Not far behind are two excellent theses on the ecology of southwestern Ethiopia … stay tuned!