A Social-Ecological Approach to Ecosystem Restoration in an Era of Global Change


The coming ten years were recently declared the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration by the United Nations. In their opinion article, Fischer et al. (2020) reflect on the future of restoration as a science and practice. To that end, the authors review recent social-ecological systems research and summarize key themes that could help to improve ecosystem restoration in dynamic social contexts. Based on these reflections, Fischer et al. (2020) suggest two cross-cutting new research priorities specifically focusing on social-ecological restoration.

The UN declared 2021-2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

Ecosystem restoration – the process of assisting the recovery of a degraded, damaged, or destroyed ecosystem – faces many new challenges rooted in global social-ecological change: shifts in environmental and social baselines call for restoration goals to not only include ecological criteria for success but to also consider effects on human benefits, landscape multifunctionality, and resilience. Fischer et al. (2020) suggest that…

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Teaching environmental science in an era of destruction

By Joern Fischer

Today it’s Friday. And our children and students are back in the streets, doing what they can to bring about social change from the bottom up. The next generation is seriously concerned, and this concern is particularly prevalent among those studying subjects like ecology, sustainability, or environmental science. How do we, as teachers and lecturers, best meet these students?

Things are different now than they were just a few years ago. The sense of urgency is higher among those interested in sustainability issues; and the general sense of frustration is also heightened. We live in a polarized era, “dancing around the volcano”, with major change in the air, but with little clarity of what exactly that major change is going to be. There’s a backlash against science (in some countries more than others), but there are also more and more concerned young people specifically interested in the science of sustainability. Virtually all students I meet these days are interested not only in the science of the environment, but are also seriously and deeply concerned about the state of the world.

This poses three challenges, which have probably always been there, but are somehow more acute now.

First, how do we draw the line between sustainability science and sustainability activism? What is a good scientific argument, and what is merely a political argument? I see in our students that their passion to change the world for the better, collectively, is at an all time high. But what is the role of science in this?

We need to be clear about what academic training can and can’t do. Academic training can’t, hasn’t and won’t single-handedly solve the world’s problems. However, it can make sure our arguments are rooted in reflected positions underpinned by a sound understanding of the problem at hand. One widely recognised aspect of this is to base arguments on facts rather than argue simply by assertion. In our teaching, we can make sure that we get students to disentangle what is a passionate argument versus what is an academically strong argument. Mind you, it’s not only certain narcissistic politicians who argue by assertation without a factual basis – weak arguments and unfounded assertions are also made by supporters of sustainability, including at times, by sustainability scientists.

Second, we can try to teach a certain degree of mental agility – depending on our assumptions or worldviews, what is a rational and obvious course of action for one individual is not at all sensible for someone else. Ongoing questioning of the deeper foundation of our arguments thus is central to meaningfully engage with the glut of information we are now confronted with. Is agricultural modernization going to help Africa, or is the green revolution paradigm underpinning such modernization just a new type of colonialism?

When there is no obvious right or wrong, listening, reasoning and ongoing learning are needed – there is no simple answer to complex and value-laden problems. Especially in the natural sciences, where many students still expect that there should be right and wrong, it is healthy to acknowledge that scientists and non-scientists alike construct discourses that are rooted in certain worldviews; where different discourses will lead to different recommendations for policy or management.

Third, a more recent challenge when teaching environmental science, is to confront growing levels of worry, anxiety and grief about the state of the world in our students. Deeply engaging with issues such as environmental destruction or institutionalised inequity can be truly depressing. As student activists in the street are shouting for climate justice, they feel a sense of empowerment, and anything seems possible. But when these same students come back to their classrooms, being taught in intricate detail how the world is falling apart, but without a sense that things are going to change anytime soon … things can feel pretty heavy. I suggest making space in our classes for discussing questions of hope and despair, of worries and anger about the state of the world.

Last but not least, the issues raised here are not only relevant to students, but also to more experienced scientists. We are grappling with the same challenges as our students, just perhaps with a few more years of experience – making us older (definitely) but not necessarily any wiser (unfortunately). We, too, need to regularly differentiate between a passionate argument and a good argument. We, too, need to remain open to multiple different perspectives, which includes listening to and engaging with worldviews we’d rather stay away from. And we, too, need to cope with the state of the world.

I am humbled by our children and students. Thank you, next generation, for not closing your eyes to the many sustainability problems of our times. Science won’t give you all the answers, but perhaps scientific training can help you apply your intellect carefully to the complex problems you will face over the coming decades.

Water is Life: Exploring the Forest-Water Nexus in a Mexican Watershed


Water ecosystem services (ESw) play a central role in human well-being: they provide drinking water, act as flood mitigation, facilitate recreational activities, and serve many more functions. These services are related to aquatic ecosystems and to the interaction with water and land in areas such as forests, agricultural lands, riparian areas, wetlands, and water bodies. Water resources in these systems are sensitive to landscape changes and have been significantly modified worldwide due to changes in land-use and land-cover. Ávila-García et al. (2020) explore the forest-water nexus and provide an overview of the water management related to potential hydrological impacts of land-use and land-cover change in a watershed in southeastern Mexico.

The Río Grande de Comitán-Lagos de Montebello watershed is located in the region of highlands of Chiapas which exhibits high biodiversity and environmental heterogeneity. Water ecosystem services are reported to be of vital importance to the watershed’s social-ecological functioning. However…

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Fair Trade? Patterns and Consequences of Ecologically Unequal Exchange


Humanity depends on natural resources. Worldwide, in part driven by international trade, their use has reached unprecedented levels and will presumably further rise in the coming decades. However, unequal trade patterns result in global socio-economic inequalities and obstruct sustainability. This asymmetry of international trade is a crucial determinant of the capacity of individual nations to accumulate capital and technological infrastructure and thereby achieve economic growth. In their recent paper, Dorninger et al. (2020) analyse patterns of resource consumption and economic growth in order to empirically demonstrate the occurrence of ecologically unequal exchange as a persistent feature of the global economy.

Traditionally, the conversation on economics is centred around monetary flows. The theory of ecologically unequal exchange, however, argues that in order to provide an exhaustive account of economic growth, the net transfers of material resources must be included. In other words, the mainstream definition of value as based on monetary…

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Exploring the Health of the Earth: Living Planet Report 2020


Biodiversity is fundamental to human life on Earth. Yet, it is being destroyed by us at a rate unprecedented in history. The biennially published Living Planet Report constitutes the world’s leading scientific analysis of the state of the planet: it documents developments and trends in biodiversity, ecosystems, and human demand of natural resources and their effects on people and wildlife. In other words, the report synthesizes a variety of research to provide a comprehensive view of the health of the Earth. 

The Living Planet Report is based on the Living Planet Index which tracks the abundance of almost 21,000 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians around the world. Trends in species populations can act as a measure of overall ecosystem health: serious declines are a proxy for the unravelling of nature. While land-use change has been the most important direct driver of terrestrial biodiversity loss in the last…

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Going Beyond Binary Rural Development Models: Recognizing Diversity and Change in Farming Landscapes with a Biocultural Perspective


by Stefan Ortiz Przychodzka

Farming landscapes in the Global South are increasingly suffering the pressures of multiple global crises involving social, economic, environmental and political factors. Narratives on how to resolve this situation and to guide the design of public policies often juxtapose two idealized development models: agroindustrial farming versus traditional agriculture. This dualistic perspective on rural development fails to acknowledge the heterogeneity of farming practices, therefore providing simplistic solutions for wicked problems.

In this post I synthetize reflections on this topic presented during a panel discussion on “Development models and ecology in the Global South” which took place in the International Forum 2020 “Wellbeing and subjectivities across the Global South” at the University of Tübingen in July 2020.

In my presentation I described examples of indigenous farming landscapes in Colombia to highlight the contribution of biocultural approaches to better understand the opportunities, challenges and contradictions of indigenous…

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“Super Wicked Problems” – The Coronavirus Pandemic as an Analogy for Future Sustainability Challenges


A pandemic is changing the world: Covid-19 is causing an unprecedented disruption of social and economic systems on a global level. In their recent comment, Engler et al. (2020) draw comparisons between two challenges the world is facing at the moment: the coronavirus outbreak and anthropogenic climate change. The authors argue that the current pandemic may provide an illustrative analogy for sustainability challenges, highlight shared characteristics, and outline how to evaluate and approach these challenges with novel and drastic solution attempts.

The worldwide crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic may foreshadow the disruptive force with which other wicked problems such as anthropogenic climate change might affect our global economic system and society. Picture: ecomatcher.com

Engler et al. (2020) focus on shared characteristics of Covid-19 with climate change and other sustainability challenges that humanity will face during the twenty-first century. Importantly, the pandemic and climate change occur on different temporal scales…

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Human-Nature Connectedness in Changing Landscapes


All over the world, landscapes are changing – some rapidly, some hardly noticeably. Processes like abandonment and intensification result in structural simplification of landscapes which represents a key threat to terrestrial ecosystems. In addition to the numerous well-documented ecological consequences, landscape change can also have detrimental effects on human–nature connectedness. In their recent study, Riechers et al. (2020) explore multiple dimensions of human–nature connectedness in four contrasting landscapes to elicit the interplay between landscape change and the connections between humans and nature.

Humans and nature are connected in a myriad of ways. These connections have beneficial effects ranging from positive outcomes for health to overall happiness. However, the wide-spread simplification of landscapes is feared to trigger a downward spiral of ever increasing disconnection of people from nature and to thereby further exacerbate the global environmental crisis by enhancing unsustainable trajectories. Riechers et al. (2020) draw on a conceptualization of human-nature…

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Plural Valuation as a Tool for Transformative Change – Combining Insights from Ten Case Studies


From climate change to biodiversity loss – the world is facing complex social-ecological problems. In order to address unsustainable trajectories and social inequalities, fundamental changes at system level are required. Here, recognising people’s diverse values of and about nature and integrating plural knowledges into decision making and actions can facilitate transformative change. An approach called plural valuation constitutes one way to elicit diverse values of stakeholders and transform gained insights into consequent action. In their recent study, Zafra-Calvo et al. (2020) analyze multiple case studies to explore how different social-ecological contexts play a role in translating plural valuation into decisions and outcomes.

Plural valuation of nature is emerging from the interplay of different research traditions and aims to make the diversity of values people hold of and about nature visible by using a wide range of tools. The final goal of this process is to find solutions geared towards achieving…

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Potentials of Biocultural Approaches for Sustainability Research


Sustainability science is a discipline actively seeking solutions to current sustainability challenges. Core components include the adoption of a social-ecological systems perspective, the implementation of inter‐ and transdisciplinarity, and the commitment to solution-oriented work. For sustainability science to foster equality and amplify marginalized voices, the plurality of human–nature interactions and worldviews needs to be accounted for. To that end, a concept called biocultural approaches is increasingly perceived as a valuable tool. In their recent paper, Hanspach et al. (2020) present a systematic review of the application of biocultural approaches to sustainability in scientific journal articles published over the last 30 years. The authors identify seven distinct ways of understanding and applying biocultural approaches and analyze them with regard to their relation to the key aspects of sustainability science.

The concept of biocultural approaches to sustainability originates from the field of biological anthropology. Over the last decades, however, it has been…

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