A new kind of hope

By Joern Fischer

A small number of people working on sustainability have long been convinced that we are heading for some sort of global collapse. But partly because collapse hasn’t happened, and partly because it seems counter-productive to predict collapse, most sustainability scientists have kept up a narrative of urgent optimism. But is this changing?

Over the last few months, I have had quite a few informal conversations with colleagues about the state of the world. And it seems that many who used to be optimistic are losing their optimism – and are increasingly using terms like “climate catastrophe” not as some outlandish thing that might happen one day, but as something that is entirely plausible in our foreseeable future or that of our children.

What does this tell us? To me it is a not-so early warning signal stronger than most, as well as an invitation to think once again what we’re doing in our science.

If we are in a situation where some kind of catastrophe has indeed become likely, how does this change what we do? To start with, how might it change our attitudes? – One might believe it will stifle all motivation and lead to depression; and therefore, we must not allow it. My sense is that this has been the dominant view among scientists – we’re not willing to face how bad things really are, because we believe that sending “negative messages” will just make everything worse, will lead to apathy and so on (and frankly, it scares us, as people not scientists!). But just like a grieving person eventually accepts her fate (for example, according to this conceptual model), there are aspects of what is happening that we simply must accept. The world as we knew it, is gone. Already, species have gone extinct. Already, we’re locked into some level of global warming. Sure, let’s work hard to minimize these problems, but already, it should be quite clear that as humanity, we are up for entirely new challenges and experiences; some further changes are already firmly locked in due to delays in system behaviour and associated feedbacks.

Facing this is not the same as giving up on a vision for a better world – but perhaps we should recognize more clearly that minor catastrophes are already happening right now, and larger ones are likely on the way. There is little benefit in denying this just because it might stifle blind optimism: if this is what is happening, then should we not face it best we can?

Having faced that many things are not going well at all means that our science can come out the other end in new, different ways. Essentially, what we need to do is navigate the trade-off between trying to rescue the systems that are (adaptation), versus letting them go, and transforming our world into a different set of systems. And importantly, we can do both: we can try with part of our energy to hang on to parts of the world as we know it (saving species, for example); but we can also prepare with the rest of our energy for a new world, at the same time. This isn’t giving up – it is seeing reality as it presents itself, and seeking genuine transformation; it is moving from denial and depression to finding entirely new ways to use our energy to make the world a better place.

And thus, as one hope dies, space emerges for a new type of hope: as hope dies that the world as we know it will persist, this makes space for hope that we can positively transform our world over the coming decades, using windows of opportunity as they arise.

If and when windows of opportunity open up – perhaps following small or major catastrophes – are we ready? Is our science ready? If we have to re-build something after some kind of collapse … do we have ideas for what that something will be? Which institutions would we favour? How would we transform our agricultural systems, personal time budgets and labour markets? Is our science sufficiently future-oriented to even ask such questions? Can we learn from positive examples, as well as localized disasters and collapses, so we can be somewhat prepared for likely small and major catastrophes? – My general sense is that most of our science wants the world to remain something it is unlikely to be; but because of this, we also miss opportunities for preparing positive visions for what a better future might actually look like.

I wonder if in hindsight, science will conclude that the Anthropocene will not be a geological era after all – simply because it will have been rather short-lived. At least the current phase of the Great Acceleration by definition cannot be sustained; so we’re out of the Holocene, but we’re clearly not yet in a new equilibrium. What we’re in right now is probably the middle of a major, global regime shift to … well, we don’t know to where.

In conclusion, then, perhaps it’s time to face that we are already facing small catastrophes, and larger ones are likely on the way. As these open windows of opportunity, it would be nice if our science is ready to offer new, positive visions for how to build something more durable than the current version of the “Anthropocene” – which, in its current, exponentially changing form, will only ever be a blink in our planet’s geological history.

Sharing research findings in Ethiopia (continued)

By Joern Fischer

In my last post, I shared some impressions of our efforts to communicate our research findings to policy makers and other actors at relatively “high” levels of governance. Today, I’ll say a few words on our efforts to reach people on the ground — farmers.

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We tried to visit the six kebeles (municipalities) where we had previously worked. We succeeded in four of the six… unseasonably muddy weather meant we were unable to get into the other two places. Instead, we sent out materials via government officers, so at least those would eventually reach local communities.

For those places where we did manage to get in, we had organised meetings with local farmers, at which they would be served coffee and lunch, and discuss with us our research findings, and what these might mean for the future of their communities. We outlined findings on biodiversity, ecosystem services, ecosystem disservices, livelihoods strategies and food security and governance — and we showed them four different scenarios of what the future might look like. (The scenarios will receive more attention in a future blog post — stay tuned!)

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(… for those with a sense of humour, check out the T-shirt of one of the farmers…)

The reactions were mixed, depending on the community we visited. Close to a major town, people engaged in a very focused way, and many immediately grasped the usefulness of our findings to their lives. In a small village, to which we had to walk for 1.5 hours because of poor road conditions, things went a bit differently – initially, farmers challenged quite directly how this would be of any use. One farmer said – “You showed us which bird lives where, but we know all these birds! They are new to you, but not to us!” – Reactions such as this, when you’re standing there trying to do something useful, are scary, and wonderful, I find. They challenge us scientists, in a beautifully direct, brutal way. And then … it’s up to us to see how we navigate this. What can we do, and what can’t we do? What can science do for such communities and what can it not do?

Following the above reaction and a few more similar comments, we explained our position on this once more (it’s not something you do just once!). And in short, it is that we’re here to help make explicit what many people already know, plus find out a few new things; we’re here to link the social and the ecological, which is rarely done; we take serious our responsibility of sharing our findings with decision makers; and especially through the scenario work, we can help people link ideas in ways they never had before.

Following this explanation, the mood shifted, with a local leader expressing enthusiasm that this gave them an opportunity to think about their future. Break-out groups followed, and discussions as to what government should do – and what local communities themselves could do to get to the future they aspire to.

Research in these kinds of settings is not easy, and generating meaningful “impact” is not obvious. But personally, I’d rather leave a sense of empowerment, good information, and more “systemic” thinking behind as a legacy than some kind of “quick fix” that ignores the complexity of actual social-ecological inter-relations. A cop-out? … I guess each scientist needs to judge this for her- or himself.

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Sharing research findings in Ethiopia

By Joern Fischer

My last blog post spoke of a number of planned activities to distribute our research findings to date in Ethiopia. Let’s start today … with the last of all events during that trip, a mini-conference with government and non-government stakeholders from the zonal, regional and federal levels.

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We had about 50 participants, who we engaged through numerous talks, discussions and in breakout groups. We covered topics of biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services and disservices, human livelihoods, gender and equity, governance, and future scenarios – all based on our original research over the last few years (see our project website).

Together, our findings tell a story of a rapidly changing landscape. The biggest challenges for local people relate to land scarcity (owing to population growth), crop raiding by wild animals (especially baboons; see here) and unhelpful policies around fertilizer use. We learned that especially the poor depend on the integration of conservation and production activities (this paper), and that the forest and also trees in farmland are used widely, in many different ways. We learned that gender equity had improved, but that there was still a long way to go (this paper); and we learned that there is a systematic communication gap between some stakeholders engaged in food security and biodiversity conservation (this paper).

Our small conference went well, and our findings were well received. What was particular interesting was the last session – on the future of southwestern Ethiopia. In this session, we presented multiple scenarios of what the future may bring – depicted in the bilingual book we just published, and distributed at the conference. Here, we were dealing with a mix of attendees, but most of them represented various government bodies.

And … essentially universally, they reasoned the best way forward was a scenario based on diversification of land uses and livelihoods; including strict protection of some forest patches, and modern organic practices throughout the rest of the landscape. This observation is interesting, because it is not reflected in what we heard from stakeholders on the ground … they, too, largely have this preference, but they speak of government policies that push intensification and commercialization, rather than diversification.

So it looks like to me like the people involved in various agencies are further than their policies – when asked as individual experts, their vision for a sustainable future is diversification-based. When we look at what is actually encouraged through policies, however, it’s less clear that diversification takes centre stage – rather, it seems we hear a lot of talk about various new varieties and fertilizers, and surplus production, and trade-offs between conservation and intensification.

This conversation won’t get resolved overnight, but it was interesting to share our findings, and stimulate discussion – including about what is the right direction for southwestern Ethiopia. Our attendants at least, seemed to largely agree with us – we need a systems perspective, bringing together livelihoods and conservation, and likely need diversified livelihoods and solutions.

Our presentations from the mini-conference – a total of 200-300 slides or so – are available on our project website within a few days of this blog post being published; as is the book summarizing the scenarios. Through time, other materials from this last field trip will also be there.

Food and biodiversity: a research update

By Joern Fischer

As many readers of this blog know, the primary focus of my research group at present is on the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation. How can these two societal goals be harmonized? A major part of this work is a detailed case study in southwestern Ethiopia. Here, I summarize a bit where things are at with this research. All materials I refer to below can be found on the project website, linked here, or if you have trouble finding something, you can email me.

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The most exciting news is that we’re planning a visit to our study area in November this year to systematically communicate our findings to key stakeholder. Some years ago, my research group organized a similar “outreach tour” in Transylvania, Romania – some videos and other materials documenting that event can be found on the website for that project. Things in Ethiopia will run a bit differently, obviously, but the basic idea is the same: to use a range of different materials in order to “give back” some of our findings to stakeholders in the study area.

We’re planning activities at three levels – the kebele level (these are rural municipalities where we worked in depth), the woreda level (administrative districts, where one woreda is comprised of several kebeles), and the policy level.

At the kebele level, we have invited community members we previously interviewed or otherwise engaged with, as well as the rest of the local community to join an open information session. Here, we will report back on what we found. We will use illustrations of various sorts – drawings on a flipchart, posters, and many hundreds of postcards showing artwork of what the landscape may look like in the future, under different scenarios. The idea here is that we make ourselves available and accessible to all local people, including the least powerful groups or individuals, who usually do not get heard. We’ll see how well this works, but we expect quite a turnout in the six communities where we previously worked.

At the woreda level, we are dealing primarily with government officials who are in charge of implementing various policies developed at higher levels. These officials often have a very good idea of local challenges, but are heavily constrained by the both policy content and administrative red tape, both of which are largely beyond their control. Here, our empirical research findings will be of particular interest, as well as scenarios about the future. Which livelihood strategies are best for food security? Who suffers most from crop damage caused by wild mammals? What is biodiversity like in managed coffee forest, as opposed to more natural forest? – And importantly, what can be done to create a future that works for both biodiversity and people?

At the policy level, we’re running a two-day conference, discussing themes on biodiversity conservation, food security, ecosystem services and disservices, governance, and scenarios of the future. We expect more than 50 participants – importantly, including local government representatives, but also higher level policy makers from Addis Ababa. Our previous work showed that people rarely communicate across administrative levels, and so this will be an exciting opportunity to create conversations that do not happen very often.

Some fun facts? We’re travelling with more paper than ever before!! We’ll be carrying many hundreds of books depicting scenarios of what the future might look like – you can access this book here as a PDF, it’s in English and Aafan Oromo. We’ll also carry thousands of postcards with us, depicting the scenario pictures of what the future might look like in southwestern Ethiopia. These are primarily to be handed out to (mostly illiterate) local community members. A given postcard shows the status quo landscape, a possible future landscape, and on the back (for those who can read), includes simple guiding questions to stimulate discussions. We’ve also prepared posters to show the scenario artwork, and will be carrying hundreds of those (designed by Jan Hanspach — beautiful as ever! …I mean the artwork, but you’re allowed to find Jan beautiful, too…) And then … 26,000 pages of printed scientific papers for participants at the policy level workshop! A list of our scientific papers so far is available on our project website, with quite a few more to come over the coming months.

In total, we’ll reach a diverse set of stakeholders, hopefully in ways that empower them to approach their future proactively, with consideration for key interlinkages between social and ecological phenomena in mind. I’m excited about the upcoming trip … and hope to report more on how it went later on!

New paper: Leverage points for improving gender equality and human well-being in a smallholder farming context

By Aisa Manlosa

How can factors that create and entrench gender inequality change? Approaches range from targeting visible gender gaps, changing formal institutions, and focusing on deeply entrenched social norms. In a recently published paper, we unpack gender-related changes in southwest Ethiopia and emphasize the importance of interactions between domains of changes (Fig. 1). We highlight the utility of a leverage points perspective for systems-oriented gender research.

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Conceptual framework of leverage points for improving gender equality and household well-being

In the agricultural development sector where gender has been found to influence access and control of resources, participation in livelihood activities, and benefits from livelihoods, researchers who apply the gender transformative approach have called for greater focus on the factors that underlie gender inequality including formal and informal structures such as gender norms, and power relations. Gender equality is a highly pertinent issue in southwest Ethiopia. In many areas, social practices continue to be patriarchal. However, policy reforms by the government aimed at empowering women are facilitating changes. To analyze the changes that have been occurring, we applied the concept of leverage points, which are places to intervene to change a system. Dave Abson and other colleagues at Leuphana identified four realms of leverage namely paramaters, feedbacks, design, and intent. The parallel between Abson et al.’s four realms of leverage and common areas of focus in gender research including visible gender gaps (reflecting parameters), formal and informal institutions (reflecting design), and attitudes (reflecting intent) is striking. At the onset, this parallel suggested that applying leverage points as an analytical lens, can generate important sights that could contribute to ongoing conversations around facilitating and supporting gender transformative change.

Our analysis drew on qualitative data from key informant interviews, focus group discussions, and semi-structured interviews with women and men. We examined gender-related changes in southwest Ethiopia, factors driving the changes, associated household well-being outcomes, and importantly, the interplay of different types of leverage points leading to the range of changes (some clear, many tentative, nevertheless in existence). The findings section in the linked article details the range of changes identified by local residents. For example, in terms of visible gaps, the majority reported an improvement in women’s participation in public activities such as trainings and meetings. In terms of community norms which we considered as an informal institution, decision-making practices at the household level had begun to change. In terms of attitudes, we found evidence that there is an emergent positive perception concerning women’s capacities. This is significant in a context where women were traditionally viewed as lacking capacities men have. The findings section contains quotes that best convey local residents’ views. But perhaps the most important take-away message from the study stems from the overwhelming importance attributed by local residents to the government’s actions to promote gender equality. This suggested that while community norms and attitudes are deeply entrenched and therefore important areas to focus on, formal institutions in the form of policies, priorities, and programs by the government play a similarly important role. In the context of southwest Ethiopia, the changes in formal institutions related to gender are beginning to open and expand the horizon for what is possible and legitimate in communities. Therefore the interplay between different leverage points (e. g. formal and informal institutions) cannot be discounted and should be considered in facilitating processes for gender transformative change.

 

NEW PAPER: Navigating protected areas networks for improving diffusion of conservation practices

Ecosystem Services Laboratory - Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania

Circa one year ago we had a phone talk with Laurentiu Rozylowicz where he presented his idea to approach the Natura 2000 network through network analysis; within such an approach the protected areas could be the nodes and the shared species are the edges (connections) between them. If we consider species as ecological information about a given biological entity, then addressing the protected area network of a country through network analysis could help in identifying those protected areas which are ecological information hubs (protected areas which are best positioned for an efficient knowledge transfer and diffusion of information within the network). If a protected area is such a hub, this could represent challenges and opportunities for the administrators of these sites as well as for the local communities (e.g. for brand, landscape labeling).

Quite fast after that talk, the manuscript was developed by analyzing 389 Sites of Community Importance (SCI…

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University leadership: why I`m not good at it

Ponderings on university leadership positions by Tibor Hartel.

Ecosystem Services Laboratory - Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania

In the recent past I was proposed for leadership position in an academic institution. The proposal came from colleagues and the actual leader of that group, therefore I felt honored. Below I mention the main arguments used by colleagues to convince me to accept the invitation, and also my responses to them for why I will not accept it. I share them here with the hope that these can be helpful to someone, in whichever sense.

Argument 1.’ You have many publications therefore you know how science works.’

My reaction: Having several scientific papers is not a guarantee for good leadership (I am tall but am not a good basketball player).
Within the Romanian academic context, having a formal leadership position such as being department director or dean or similar, requires an increased administrative activity. For example if I am in an administrative type of meeting I loose…

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The Anthropocene and how suddenly, we don’t care

by Joern Fischer

A set of recent discussions inspired me to write this very simple post. I’m basically just highlighting an observation: that some trends of the Anthropocene, we try to fight, and others we accept as a given. What’s fascinating is that this can switch quite suddenly — something we wanted to fight yesterday, we accept as a given today — and it seems like the choice of things we fight versus take as given is quite “random”, or at least not grounded in anything particularly useful or intelligent.

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Source: Future Earth

So, first of all — let’s be clear what I mean by the Anthropocene here. To be precise, I mean the “great acceleration” aspect of the Anthropocene. As shown above, for example, this is characterised by well known exponential increases in a wide range of social, economic, and environmental phenomena.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist (nor a system scientist) to guess that probably, when a bunch of stuff increases all at the same time, something is going on. And probably, these different trends are not independent but related. Similarly, it doesn’t take a lot of analysis to then realise that to address this stuff, you probably need to deal with the WHOLE, rather than with just a few trends in isolation.

And: it seems obvious you can’t just randomly accept some of these exponential growth curves while trying to fight the others. Or at least, that seems obvious to me… and this is where the observation begins.

Some trends, many sustainability scientists routinely argue against. Examples of this are climate change and biodiversity loss. We haven’t given up yet on these ones, and we argue that we must halt climate change! We must stop biodiversity loss!

But others, we take as given. My two favourite ones are urbanisation and food production. Large numbers of sustainability scholars accept urbanisation as an unchangeable and value-neutral phenomenon; and similarly, large numbers of scholars argue that “we must double food production” because demand “will” double.

The choice of accepting these as given while desperately fighting some of the others seems quite arbitrary to me, and frankly, illogical. What if urban lifestyles are part of the package of increasing un-sustainability (e.g. because they contributed to disconnectedness from the natural world and longer food chains)? What if increasing demand for food is a symptom of un-sustainability (e.g. because it is driven by increasingly unhealthy diets related to industrial food systems)?

My suggestion is that we either fall in love with exponential growth, and then we do it for everything. Then we can argue, and some people do, that it’s all not so bad, and we will innovate our way around planetary boundaries. Or alternatively, you can sign the ecomodernist manifesto, and argue vehemently that we can have our cake and eat it, too.

Or … well, or we have to address the great acceleration as a whole, not just a couple of the hockey sticks, but all of them.

Perhaps ever increasing urbanisation is not actually what the world needs. Perhaps doubling food production is not what the world actually needs.

Perhaps we need to keep the big picture in mind more routinely — and that is, that these trends are parts of a package of unsustainable, exponential growth. When you have a system of interlinked, reinforcing feedbacks, you can’t just choose a couple of variables and address those. It’s got to be the whole package.

 

Can a transdisciplinary PhD contribute to transformative change?

Social-ecological systems Scholars

This is the fifth post in the series on ‘Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys’.

My name is David Lam. I am a PhD student at Leuphana University Lüneburg Germany in the research project ‘Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformations’ and currently a guest PhD researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden.

I am doing research in a transdisciplinary case study in Southern Transylvania, Romania. I aim to make my research in Transylvania useful in two ways: First, to better understand a sustainability problem in a specific context. Second, to contribute to possible solutions. We are working with a network of approximately 30 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which try to foster sustainable development in the region by, for instance, supporting small-scale farmers, conserving the cultural heritage, or protecting the unique landscape with its  high biodiversity value. With my PhD research, I want to understand how these inspiring NGOs increase their impact…

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Governing food security and biodiversity: a network analysis from Ethiopia

By Tolera Senbeto Jiren

The sustainable governance of interdependent policy goals such as food security and biodiversity conservation is often facilitated or constrained by the broader political economy of a country. This is true because institutional configurations are shaped by the underlying premises of the chosen political economy. For instance, while numerous countries currently pursue a market based neoliberal institutional arrangement, Ethiopia has adopted Democratic Developmentalism as its paradigm – a developmental state thesis with a strong state dictation both in the human and economic development of the country. While the qualitative study around this unique form of political economy is interesting, it is also important to understand how institutions are aligned or networked to address two pertinent development agendas, namely ensuring food security and biodiversity. Understanding the governance network for these two agendas is important because it lays the foundation for how different interests, policies, and strategies can be integrated.

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Under Joern Fischer’s ERC funded project, social-ecological system properties benefiting food security and biodiversity, I am looking at the governance dimension of food security and biodiversity conservation, looking at the case study in Ethiopia. Here, we want to share the findings of our recent paper published in Land Use Policy that uncovered the governance structural pattern for the integrated governance of food security and biodiversity in a multi-level governance context. For this, using the snowball sampling technique, we identified and collected relational data from 244 stakeholders (a group of individuals and organizations), from the local to the national governance level. Through a social network analysis, we mapped the structural pattern, integration mechanisms and stakeholders’ roles in the integration of food security and biodiversity.

Of the 244 stakeholders, we found that 80% of them were governmental organizations, and 71% were simultaneously involved in the governance of both food security and biodiversity. These stakeholders maintained 1884 collaborations in total, of which approximately half were about food security alone. Concerning the structural pattern, we mapped the stakeholders pattern of interaction in both sectors (see Fig. 2 in the paper). We found that stakeholders were hierarchically structured, with no reported direct interaction spanning two levels of governance, only ever to the same or the nearest level up or down the governance hierarchy. Moreover, despite sharing geographical boundaries, no horizontal linkages were reported between stakeholders in the adjacent three districts (“woredas”). This could create structural gaps and consequently lead to an implementation deficit and institutional misfit.

Importantly, we identified two mechanisms through which stakeholders integrated food security and biodiversity goals. One the one hand, individual stakeholders – mostly at the implementation governance level – integrated the two goals through forming interactions with other partners separately for the food security and biodiversity issues. That means, individual stakeholders held both policy goals but with interaction separately either about food security or biodiversity, which we termed individual integration. On the other hand, few stakeholders – mostly administrative sector stakeholders – had integrated the two policy goals by forming interaction with other partners simultaneously about food security and biodiversity. Here, an interaction between stakeholders simultaneously carried both food security as well as biodiversity issues, which we termed collaborative integration. We argue that individual integration could help a specific stakeholder to pursue their own respective goals in a coherent fashion, while collaborative integration facilitates the system-level integration of food security and biodiversity conservation.

Interestingly, we found that stakeholders with connecting roles (measured in terms of high betweenness centrality, and liaison brokerage) were largely from administrative sectors, who held formal authority, key structural positions, and popularity. While this could help these stakeholders effectively exercise their roles, however, unless properly managed, there is a high risk of power capture by these stakeholders. In general, we concluded that sustainability could be enhanced through multiple horizontal and vertical connections. Thus, a governance network that fosters stakeholders’ multi-level ties across jurisdictions, and enhances multi-sector interaction would likely improve integration outcomes, social learning, and provide opportunities to identify integration problems.