By Joern Fischer
By Joern Fischer
Here is a short video summarising key findings of my research group on food security and biodiversity conservation in Ethiopia. The talk was presented at Leuphana University in October 2019.
By Joern Fischer and Berta Martín-Lopez
We’re writing this post to highlight some of the options for people who already have their PhDs to join us at Leuphana University. We’d particularly like to encourage expressions of interest with direct relevance to our existing research priorities in the area of social-ecological systems (including but not limited to these). Especially for people from outside Germany there are some really good options to join us for a postdoc or “more” … we’ll outline four possibilities below. (Follow the links to check the specific rules!)
There are, of course, other options as well — for example Jan Hanspach leads a BMBF junior research group, and Jacqueline Loos is a Bosch Junior Professor — but the above are some of the most accessible ones for people from outside Germany who finished their PhDs in the not too distant past. So, if you have a strong track record relative to your career stage, and you’re interested in pursuing your social-ecological research amongst a bunch of nice colleagues, we’d be happy to hear from you, and discuss your ideas and a possible application.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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!
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.
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.
Conference Report on Leverage Points 2019, 6-8 February 2019, Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany
By Maraja Riechers and Joern Fischer
What can we do to actually turn around global patterns of un-sustainability? How can we bring about transformative change? What role do different types of leverage points play in such a transformation? – These were some of the questions addressed at the inaugural Leverage Points 2019 Conference at Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany, which was attended by well over 400 participants.
A guiding theme throughout the conference was the idea of “leverage points”, as formulated by Donella Meadows in her seminal essay on “Places to intervene in a system”. Her idea has, since then, inspired a new suite of work on leverage points, as exemplified and detailed in recent papers from Leuphana University and elsewhere (e.g. here, here, and here). Key themes addressed at the conference related to re-structuring institutions, re-connecting humans to nature, re-thinking knowledge generation, using systems thinking to understand complexity, and engaging with non-academic stakeholders to bring about real-world change.
The conference was designed to create a stimulating, challenging and caring atmosphere for exchange. In addition to keynotes and presentations (note: videos of the keynote presentations will eventually go online on the conference website!) the vast majority of sessions included other more innovative elements, such as world café discussions, panels, or were held in a workshop format. It also included numerous fun elements such as timeline of sustainability transformation and a heap of good music (for example, Brass Riot and also other excellent artists) and art. Moreover, findings from all sessions were documented via “graphic harvesting” by a highly skilled team of young artists with a background in sustainability science.
Without doubt, different participants had different experiences, and we can only share some of our personal (and biased) impressions of the event. Statements by other attendees suggested many of the people who came had a great time, and many of us at some point felt challenged in our own ways of thinking – something the organizing team had specifically tried to do! And thus, while the conference covered relatively conventional themes such as urban institutions for sustainability (e.g. in the keynote by Niki Frantzeskaki), it also gave a voice to indigenous worldviews (in the keynote by Gogo Dineo Ndlanzi), and considered the implications of quantum physics for understanding social phenomena and global change (in the keynote by Karen O’Brien).
There were of course many memorable moments, and these are summarized in a wide range of blog posts elsewhere – including on bioregional centres, where and when to intervene, or how to master learning processes but also the implications of this for systemic research, taking deep leverage points personally, or for hopeful narratives for transformation. The title of this current post – “it’s the end of the world as we know it” – is taken from Ioan Fazey’s keynote presentation. He argued that transformative change was very definitely in the air – either because humanity chooses to change things in major ways; or because global systems will force transformations onto humanity. We hope that the leverage points perspective will help us find interventions that can cause ripple effects throughout the system and foster sustainability – mindfully, and not as a panicked and forceful adaptation to increasingly painful minor and major system collapses.
Leverage Points 2019 was fun and inspirational. It brought together people from different communities, including the resilience community, the sustainability transformation community and the systems thinking and governance communities. Thanks to all participants for making this a wonderful event!
Leverage Points 2019 was organized by David J. Abson, Anne Jo Berkau, Julia Leventon, Daniel Lang, and other colleagues from the Leuphana Leverage Points project team.
This blog was written by Joern Fischer and Maraja Riechers. Joern Fischer has been professor of sustainable landscapes at the Faculty of Sustainability at Leuphana University Lueneburg since November 2010. His interdisciplinary activities focus on social-ecological systems, covering several areas of landscape ecology and the social sciences. Maraja Riechers is a postdoctoral researcher in a project on leverage points for sustainability at Leuphana University Lueneburg. Her research focuses on human-nature connectedness, relational values, human-wildlife conflicts and landscape change.
Elena Bennett was our second keynote speaker this morning. Elena spoke of the role of “narrative” in bringing about societal transformation. Narratives should be inspiring and plausible – and they need to help us link tangible actions to ambitious targets.
Science at its best, Elena argued, needed to tell a good story about how the world works. One branch of science, Elena argued, had been particularly useful in this context, namely the branch of “scenario development”. Scenario approaches have been influential in many sustainability contexts by now – Elena mentioned, for instance, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, as well as scenarios developed around the lakes of Wisconsin. Scenarios work on the notion of “what if” … getting people to think about how things might turn out under different circumstances.
Despite scenario work having been prominent and powerful in numerous sustainability contexts, Elena highlighted three possible weaknesses. First, scenarios to date have mostly focused on a small number of drivers, including technology, addressing questions such as whether technology will save us or cause more problems than benefits. Second, scenarios have often highlighted single solutions, rather than addressing multiple interconnected challenges. Third, scenario work to date has often focused on the “end point”, e.g. in 30 years, without much guidance for stakeholders as to how we might get there.
So, narratives and visions of the future are powerful, but there is more to be done.
A new method for scenario development advocated by Elena is to start with the positive things already happening today. These positive incidences of change already taking place are what Elena terms Seeds of Good Anthropocenes. Many hundreds of such seeds (i.e. real-world narratives) have now been collected by her and her colleagues, and Elena detailed a couple of examples in her presentation.
Seeds, as they are being mentioned and analyzed by Elena, can teach us many different things. They teach us about what is wrong about the world today; they show us that some kinds of approaches are useful for tackling specific problems; while others are useful for tackling a whole range of interconnected problems. We might learn how context influences whether a given local initiative takes off or not; and indeed, we might learn from such positive seeds how to generate new, forward-looking scenarios for the future.
A new technique advocated by Elena was the “three horizons method”, recently discussed in depth in Ecology & Society by Sharpe et al.. This method, Elena argued, seemed more suited to drawing out some of the deeper issues that past scenario work perhaps could not get to; it also enabled users to directly see pathways towards the future, rather than simply focusing on an endpoint.
Hope and story telling, Elena concluded, could be very powerful leverage points for a better future.
“It’s the end of the world as we know it” … with these words, Ioan Fazey began his opening keynote lecture to Leverage Points 2019. With everything changing, faster than ever before — what is our role in this? What does it mean to be a knowledge producer? Either, we will have massive transformations because of “natural” processes; or we will ourselves instigate a more mindful kind of transformation, in order to avoid some of the less desirable outcomes.
Ioan moved on to show examples of how climate change, for example, will affect us, focusing on the city of New Orleans. Here, climate change is not a problem of the future, but rather of the present, with some communities already being displaced. A combination of human caused factors, here, leads to “land loss”, and in addition, there is a high incidence of hurricanes. How can such situations be governed, when traditionally, government departments were designed to address issues from within different types of sectoral silos? Three key “emergencies” need to be addressed in situations such as these: there are real emergencies, conceptual emergencies, and in fact, existential emergencies—the very real fear of facing big change.
What can we, as knowledge producers, do to support the changes that are needed? Ioan went on to explain that science and technology had, of course, generated a lot of good for the world – but they had also generated intentional destruction, power unbalances in terms of who benefits from technologies, and unpredictable, unintentional side-effects. In other words, what is happening is that we have unleashed a problem that we do not know how to control …
And from here, we went to … the sorcerer’s apprentice … in that story, a wizard’s apprentice is meant to clean up a castle. Because he is lazy, he tries to use magic to clean the castle…. And … he has just enough knowledge to get the process of cleaning going, but as he tries to stop it, the brooms take on a life of their own, become more and more, and so on … until eventually there is total chaos until the senior wizard comes home and puts an end to it all.
So – humanity’s story right now is pretty much like this … JUST WE DON’T HAVE A WIZARD to stop it all. We’re a bunch of apprentices, and it’s up to us to put an end to the insanity we have unleashed. What does this metaphor suggest for what we need to do?
Ioan concluded with a lot of challenging questions, not all of which I can reproduce here. Perhaps one of the most interesting ones was: Who should we be at the end of the world as we know it?