New paper: A fresh perspective on food and biodiversity

By Joern Fischer

I’m writing to share new paper of ours that just appeared online in Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Following from our earlier work, this is our most concrete attempt yet to show what a social-ecological approach to the food-biodiversity nexus might look like. The PDF is available here.

SES food and biodiversity

In a nutshell, we argue to conceptualise the food-biodiversity nexus via four archetypical outcomes. Hypothetical outcomes regarding food security and biodiversity conservation could be win-win, win-lose, lose-win, or lose-lose. We then argue that all of these outcomes can be observed in the real world, and that – importantly – they are not entirely idiosyncratic. Rather, each has typical system characteristics associated with it. These characteristics are (i) features of the system (e.g. the kinds of capital stocks and governance arrangements in the system); (ii) drivers of the system (external influences that push the system in a certain direction); and (iii) feedbacks that maintain the system (the things that keep it going).

In the paper, we look at the four archetypes with respect to these three sets of system characteristics. Drawing on examples, we then generate hypotheses for what typical lose-lose systems look like; or what typical win-lose systems look like, and so on. This new framework provides a dynamic way of thinking about food security and biodiversity conservation. That is, it provides first indications of what needs to be done to change a situation for the better – for example, to turn a lose-lose system into a better state, it would be important to activate drivers of a more desired state; and overcome the feedbacks that currently maintain the system in its lose-lose dynamics. Once the undesired feedbacks are broken, and new drivers are activated, the system is “ready to go” in a more desirable direction.

A key challenge for the future will be to more carefully consider what all this means in a teleconnected world. Near the end, we cite a paper by Crona et al. on social-ecological syndromes – constellations of globally connected factors influencing a particular system – and indeed, this idea could be fruitfully explored further in a context of food and biodiversity conservation.

Finally, a small anecdote: When writing this paper, we had gone to great lengths to not again “bash” the popular framework on land sparing versus land sharing. Our intention, very simply, was to provide a genuine alternative, instead of continuously complaining that the dominant framing is not good enough. During peer review, this approach backfired. One reviewer felt we had unduly “ignored” existing science, thereby forcing us to put back explicit discussion on the sparing/sharing framework. This is how Box 1 came about – our attempt to succinctly summarise why a new framework is needed. Perhaps it strengthens the paper… but a big part of me would have preferred to simply provide an alternative, without yet again having to go over the various arguments why we think it’s time to move on from the currently dominant framing.

Book recommendation: Resilience, Development and Global Change

By Joern Fischer

I would like to warmly recommend Katrina Brown’s new book entitled “Resilience, development and global change”. I found it a thoughtful, authoritative book that links and transcends several deeply entrenched ideas and discourses. As such, I think it is an excellent input (or even entry point) for people working on social-ecological systems – especially, but not only in the Global South.

The book articulates different, partly conflicting understandings of resilience, both in science and policy arenas. This overview of existing perspectives is useful, simply because resilience is used in so many different ways, by so many different people, that it’s helpful to get an overview of who actually means what. A key point here is that in much of development policy, resilience is employed to argue for status quo approaches to development. Perhaps needless to say, that’s a long way from the paradigm shift some scientists might envisage ought to come with focusing on resilience.

But to my mind, the book got most interesting at the point where it speaks of “experiential resilience”. Here, different case studies from around the world are used to highlight how people experience their own resilience (or lack thereof) in relation to surprises or shocks. Resilience dimensions touched on include winners and losers within and between households, gendered responses, different narratives of change, cultural and political dynamics, and place attachment – to name just a few.

In her conclusion, Katrina Brown argues for a re-visioning of resilience in a development context. Such a re-visioning should include three aspects of resilience. First, resistance denotes the ability to absorb shocks, but in a social context also taking an active stance against threatening outside forces. Second, rootedness denotes the deeply place-based nature of resilience, especially in a social context, but also with respect to human-environment interactions. And third, resourcefulness relates to the capacities and capabilities that people have to absorb and adapt to change.

In summary, this book bridges gaps between disciplines, between theory and practice, and between different discourses on resilience. It thus makes a theoretical contribution — but one that promises to make resilience have greater practical value.

Mainstreamism and self-fulfilling prophecies

By Joern Fischer

It’s good to be policy-relevant, and it’s good to get published in prestigious journals. But I’m concerned that the collective desire to attain these goals is taming science to a distinctly unhelpful middle ground that everyone can agree on. It’s like in politics, where major parties end up so similar you can’t really tell the difference anymore – in an effort to appeal to the largest number of people, almost by definition, distinctive elements and innovative ideas are filtered out.

This is annoying when it happens in politics, but it’s unacceptable when it happens in science. Science ought to be about expanding our understanding of the universe, not channeling it into the centre of status quo worldviews. And yet, I find there is more and more evidence that this is precisely what is happening.

Two things today inspired me to write this slightly impassioned rant. First, one of our papers got rejected due to its less-than-mainstream methods. The argument was in fact not that our methods were bad, but rather that they were unusual and may be difficult to accept by the readership of the journal. Second, a colleague pointed me to a paper that says we can’t really change values because they change slowly, and so there’s no point in trying. In combination, I feel these events are symptomatic of a new kind of “anti-sustainability” sustainability science – implying that we need innovation, but preferably without actually changing the world or the way we look at it.

In modern science then, it seems you must not rock the boat. You must not work towards paradigm shifts, or try to look at problems too broadly. Instead, you should look for clever, incremental improvements within existing ways of thinking. In sustainability science, you must look at societal problems, but only advocate for minor changes – no matter how deep the root causes are of the problems you are looking at.

Sustainable intensification, REDD+ payments, and the right kind of messaging to an audience with unalterable values – this is now the dominant way advocated to achieve sustainability improvements.

Those who point out that radical changes are not possible successfully get their stuff published – but to me, they lack creativity (and frankly, guts) to do what needs to be done. With everybody heading for the front of the mainstream, there will be no real innovation, and no major change. Or put more bluntly: we’d have the same values as decades ago, including slavery, racial discrimination and women not taking part in politics.

Think again: Of course things can change, if we want them to, including big things, and including human values. And from a sustainability perspective all of this can happen in relevant, short periods of time, too.

Trying to work for deep changes may not always work in the short term. But the growing zeal to not even try to think boldly strikes me as much more certain to lock us into a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever greater un-sustainability.

A social-ecological perspective on food security and biodiversity conservation

By Joern Fischer

At last, a paper we started to think about at a SESYNC workshop in Maryland finally got published in Regional Environmental Change. The paper lays out a conceptual foundation for how to think about food security and biodiversity conservation from a social-ecological perspective. In this blog post, I’d like to highlight two key features of the paper: (1) the conceptual framework as such, and (2) its empirical basis.


First, the conceptual model recognises that both biodiversity and food security outcomes are influenced by phenomena at different scales. For convenience, we propose to consider local, landscape, regional and global scales — but depending on the example, this might be adjusted. We argue that one particularly useful scale for analysis is the “landscape” scale. Here, the biophysical landscape is composed of patches, whereas the social landscape is analogous to a community of people, composed of a series of households. Both food security and biodiversity conservation, in turn, are multi-facetted phenomena. Biodiversity encompasses wild as well as cultivated diversity; it encompasses functional diversity as well as genetic diversity. Similarly, food security encompasses availability, access, utilisation and vulnerability. Notably, for both phenomena, we also argue that considering stability is critical — it’s problematic to have outstanding biodiversity or food security right now if this is based on practices that are inherently unsustainable.

Second, I’d like to draw special attention to the empirical basis of this seemingly simple conceptual model. I reproduce here the appendix of the paper — the supplementary material — which I know many people won’t look at unless I highlight it specifically here! The supplementary material lays out in detail the basis for why we believe the variables shown in the above conceptual model deserve consideration. Or, in other words, there is ample evidence that we must look beyond production — for both food security and biodiversity conservation. The table shown below provides empirical evidence for any skeptics out there, as to why a more holistic perspective is not just a vague ambition but necessary, given available evidence.

The full paper is also available as an open access article via the journal website.

Properties Outcome affected Mechanism/Relationship Example Sources
Bio-physical properties
Global climate change; environmental change Food security Challenges to farmer livelihoods; effects on yield; uncertainty and instability in production, food supply, and food prices. Calzadilla et al. 2013; Porter et al. 2014; World Bank 2007; Ringler et al. 2010


Multiple direct and indirect effects on species habitats, ranges, stressors, and extinction risks. Staudt 2013; Fordham et al. 2011; Klausmeyer et al. 2011; Huston 2005
Soil types and fertility, soil erosion, topography Food security


Direct effect on productivity, indirect effects on production costs and market prices; soil degradation, particularly reduced soil organic matter, affects quantity and quality of food production (e.g., increases susceptibility to drought stress and nutrient deficiencies, and increases susceptibility to pest and disease outbreaks). Soil contamination directly affects food quality (e.g. arsenic in rice) and human health. Lal 2009; Khan et al. 2010; Scherr 1999
Biodiversity Biodiversity influenced directly via soil quality feedbacks on belowground biodiversity and the soil microbiome, and indirectly through soil fertility effects on net primary productivity, and/or increased fertilizer use to maintain yields on degraded soils. Postma-Blaauw 2010; McDaniel et al. 2014; Tilman et al. 1996; Mozumder and Berrens 2007
Water availability (and safety) Food security Strong contributor to malnutrition reduction (as indicator of overall health environment); importance in agricultural production. Hanjra and Qureshi 2010; Smith and Haddad 2015; Armah et al. 2011; Turral et al. 2011; Khan et al. 2010
Biodiversity Agricultural impacts on hydrologic cycles and water quality can directly threaten biodiversity. Zedler 2003; Geng et al. 2015; Gleick 1998
Amount and diversity of natural vegetation Food security Connected to dietary diversity and wild collection; provides ecosystem services to agriculture (e.g., pollination, pest control). Belanger and Johns 2008; Chappell et al. 2013; Lira et al. 2009; Power 2010


Forest degradation and fragmentation leads to loss of wild biodiversity. Godar et al. 2015; Savilaasko et al. 2013; Melo et al. 2013;

Grau et al. 2013; Fearnside 2005

Agrobiodiversity Food security Dietary diversity tied very strongly to food security directly, and to nutritional quality of diets such as reductions in hidden hunger/micronutrient deficiencies, as well as to decreased risk of crop failure and increased ecosystem services (see also references for diversity in natural vegetation).


Crop diversity can increase the stability and reduce vulnerability of both agricultural yields and farm incomes in the face of both market and biophysical perturbations to farming systems. The stabilizing/risk reducing outcome of increased agrobiodiversity (from within-crop genetic diversity, to diversified cropping patterns), is likely to be of increasing importance with increasing climate and market instability.

Abson et al. 2013; Belanger and Johns 2008;

Burlingame and Dernini 2012; Di Falco and Perrings 2003; Di Falco and Chavas 2006; Di Falco and Chavas 2009; Di Falco et al. 2010; Ericksen 2008; Fraser 2003; Frison et al. 2011; Johns and Eyzaguirre 2006; Liebman and Schulte 2015; Smith and Haddad 2015; Zimmerer 1998

Biodiversity A positive association between planned (agrobiodiversity) and associated (“wild”) biodiversity has been, according to

Vandermeer et al. (2002), established “beyond credible doubt” for vertebrates, arthropods, and non-crop plants.

Liebman and Schulte 2015; Vandermeer et al. 2002
Pests and diseases Food Security Increased pest and disease pressure directly reduces crop yields. Verberg et al. 2013;

Matson et al. 1997



Wild biodiversity and agrobiodiversity reduce pest and disease pressure (e.g., by providing habitat for natural enemies, or by serving as “trap crops” for pests). Soil microbial diversity can suppress diseases. Barthel et al. 2013; Bommarco et al. 2013; Matson et al. 1997; Garbeva et al. 2004
Social properties
Trade agreements Food security Highly contingent; often thought to be mediated via economic growth and access to cheaper food; however, connections between food prices and food security are contested
Inequity and lack of appropriate redistribution within national contexts can hinder or eliminate theorized food security gains from international agricultural trade practices.
Brown et al. 2014; FAO 2012; Wise 2009; Weis 2007; Tansey and Rajotte 2008;

Haddad 2015; Otero et al. 2013; Heady 2010

Biodiversity Complex; land-displacement literature growing; international trade is increasing invasive species. Lenzen et al. 2012; Meyfroidt et al. 2013; Bax et al. 2003
Environmental agreements Food security The focus of REDD+, CBD, and Kyoto on increasing forest cover may reduce agricultural area and productivity; inclusion of agricultural soil carbon sequestration contracts can raise income and improve food security. FAO 2013a; Antle et al. 2009; Corson and Macdonald 2012
Biodiversity Increase in conservation area may improve preservation of wild biodiversity; appropriate scale and community engagement needed for effective governance. Hodge and Adams 2014; Ewers et al. 2009; Brannstrom 2001; McAfee and Shapiro 2010
Certification systems Food security & biodiversity Fair trade: documented multiple effects on farming systems, biodiversity, livelihoods, and food security; effects vary with the social and political institutions regulating fair trade schemes. Bacon et al. 2008; Jaffee 2007; Jaffee and Howard 2009; Raynolds 2000
Financial regimes and multinational corporations Food security Investment and speculation can affect food prices and livelihoods. Davis 2001; De Schutter 2010; IATP 2008
Biodiversity Largely speculative as a “financialization of biodiversity” is still in developmental and uncertain stage; could be mediated through investments in offsets and finances of conservation. Doswald et al. 2012; Phelps et al. 2011; McAfee 1999
Research system Food security Privatization of agricultural research reduced support for research on low-input agricultural practices and subsistence models IAASTD 2009; Sumberg et al. 2012a, b; Levidow et al. 2014
Biodiversity Determinants of innovation within agricultural research systems have led to technological systems favoring specialized, low-diversity agroecosystems. Vanloqueren and Baret, 2009
Government policy


Food security Many possible avenues of effect through effects on entitlements and underlying determinant variables. da Silva et al. 2011; Lappé et al. 2013; Smith and Haddad 2000; 2015; Rocha 2009; Wise 2004
Biodiversity Affected directly by conservation policies and indirectly by many other policies (including agricultural policies).


Ceddia et al. 2013; Chopra et al. 2005; Soares-Filho et al. 2014
NGO programs social movements and civic engagement Food security Multi-faceted and variable ways in which civic engagement and civil society organizations can influence food security both positively and negatively. Can play a crucial role in mobilizing underprivileged groups to advocate for greater rights and increased access. Abebaw et al. 2010; Seed et al. 2013; Wittman and Blesh, 2015.
Biodiversity Social movements can play a crucial role in promoting biodiversity in regions of high inequality. Perfecto and Vandermeer 2008; Wittman 2010
Equity and justice Food security Affects distribution, political effectiveness, access rights, and multiple other factors. Haddad 2015; Friel and Baker 2009; Sen 1981; Sievers-Glotzbach 2014
Biodiversity Driving mechanisms/ underlying correlates unclear. Holland et al. 2009; Mikkelson et al. 2007
Political stability Food security Instability and conflict affects many elements of food security, from food supply to entitlements and rights. FAO 2000; Ó Gráda 2009
Biodiversity Possible links little-explored; legacy of conflicts may have profound indirect effects. Russell 2001; Smith et al. 2003; Hamilton et al. 2000
Migration and Demographics Food security Rural out-migration increases dependency on imported food subject to global price shocks; urbanization and changing food preferences affect global demand and supply. Otero 2011; de Janvry and Sadoulet 2010; Regmi and Meade 2013
Biodiversity Habits of urban dwellers will highly influence biodiversity outcomes. CBD 2012; McSweeney 2005
Food storage and distribution systems (imports/exports) Food security


Grain reserves aim to address food price volatility associated with food imports and exports. Murphy 2009; Gilbert 2011; Wright 2009; Brigham 2011; Headey 2010


Increased reliance on food imports may reduce pressure to expand agricultural land base, but increase deforestation in other regions.


Walker 2014; Melo et al. 2013; DeFries et al. 2010
Land tenure system and land availability Food security Food security depends on adequate land access for smallholder and domestic food supply systems. HLPE 2013; Borras 2003; 2010; 2012; White et al. 2012; FAO 2013b; Young 1999; Assies 2009
Biodiversity Property rights regimes provide both structure and incentives for natural resource use and conservation. Hodge and Adams 2014; Ostrom et al. 1999; McKean 2000; Merenlander et al. 2004; Brannstrom 2001; Wittman 2009, 2010.
Access to infrastructure and agricultural inputs Food security Market and distribution infrastructure and access to agricultural inputs shape production systems, food system resilience, and food accessibility. World Bank 2007; Sumberg et al. 2012b; IAASTD 2009;   Patel et al. 2014; Bezner Kerr 2012; 2005
Biodiversity High input agricultural systems, especially at the agricultural frontier involving land clearing, impact biodiversity and landscape degradation; road infrastructure can shape advancement of the agricultural frontier. Baletti 2012; Fearnside 2001; Matson et al. 1997; Barona et al. 2010
Political agency and rights Food security Citizen role in setting food policy affects food availability and distribution systems. Edelman and Carwil 2011; Edelman 2008; Borras et al. 2008; Wittman et al. 2009; Wittman 2011
Biodiversity Political and social entitlements shape access and use of environmental resources and services. Leach et al. 1999; Wittman et al 2010; Wittman and Blesh 2015
Education, Knowledge and Social Networks Food security Multiple benefits, including possible increases in agricultural productivity, agrobiodiversity, entitlements, maternal, and postpartum care, agency, nutritional knowledge. Smith and Haddad 2015; Alderman and Headey 2014; Nuñez-Espinoza et al. 2014; Wittman and Blesh, 2015


Biodiversity Alters the normative underpinnings for biodiversity conservation; may increase agrobiodiversity and agroecological management practices. Van Weelie and Wals 2002;

García-Barrios et al. 2008; McAfee and Shapiro 2010; Wittman et al 2010


Gender equity/women’s status Food Security Multiple benefits, including possible increases in agricultural productivity, entitlements, maternal, and postpartum care, agency, nutritional knowledge; increased say in household spending; increased productivity from equal access to resources Alderman and Headey 2014; Agarwal 2015; Smith and Haddad 2000; 2015
Biodiversity Greater gender equality can play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity in forest ecosystems; alters the normative underpinnings for biodiversity conservation. Van Weelie and Wals 2002; García-Barrios et al. 2008; Agarwal 2009; 1997; 1988; McSweeney 2005; Zimmerer et al. 2015
Affluence and capital assets Food security Income has multiple indirect effects on food security, as well as serving as a form of food entitlement. Sen 1981; Smith and Haddad 2000; 2015


Affluence drives biodiversity-harming consumption through a variety of mechanisms.


Bradshaw et al. 2010; Holland et al. 2009; Weinzettel et al. 2013


Farm practices


Food security Crop choice, diversification and farming type (for subsistence, local markets, and export) affect household and community food availability and price. Seufert et al. 2012; Badgley et al. 2007; Connor, 2007; Dahal et al. 2009; Kasem and Thapa, 2011; Jones 2015; Jones et al 2014; Blesh and Wittman, 2015


Land management decisions, including deforestation at the agricultural frontier, affect both wild and on-farm biodiversity, particularly with negative effects of high input agricultural practices; crop rotation selection, use of organic nutrient amendments, reduced chemical inputs, and building soil organic matter reserves all impact planned and associated biodiversity. Chappell et al. 2013; Frishkoff et al. 2014; IAASTD 2009; Power 2010; Norton et al. 2013; Phelps et al. 2013; Barona et al. 2010; Jarvis 2008; Blesh and Wittman, 2015


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Values, conservation and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

In 1992, Shalom Schwartz published a seminal paper entitled “Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries”. The paper has been cited something like 12,000 times, and the findings have been refined since then. In short, it summarises different value orientations held by individuals. On reading this paper, I began to wonder what the implications of this are for conservation and sustainability.



I’ll start with a disclaimer and a summary of what Schwartz found. First the disclaimer: perhaps everything I write below has long been known by people working on conservation and sustainability, and I’m very late in catching up. If so, I’m happy to be further educated, e.g. by people explaining to me and other readers how this has been applied to conservation and sustainability in the comments below. But if I’m somewhat “typical”, then this is not at all widely known, understood, or reflected upon within the conservation and sustainability fields. And if that is the case, there might be some pretty important implications that require our attention.

Second – a summary of what Schwartz found. In the original paper from 1992, Schwartz developed theory, and then tested it on a large sample of individuals from a number of different countries. His theory was largely confirmed, and went something like this. Different people hold different values. Some values are compatible, whereas others are oppositional. Compatible values are, for example, if I value the attainment of wealth, and if I value the achievement of social recognition. Oppositional values might be valuing tradition versus seeking excitement in life.

These kinds of constructs – compatible and oppositional values – can be depicted in a kind of circular wheel, as shown in the Figure above. This wheel was generated by a multivariate analysis of many people responding to the same questions about their values, so this is an empirically grounded theory . Adjacent sectors in this wheel are compatible values, whereas opposite sectors in the wheel are oppositional.

So far so good – how is this relevant to conservation and sustainability? I think it is in a number of ways.

A lot of the values associated with conservation and sustainability cluster in the sector on “universalism” (top right). For example, here, we find “protecting the environment”, “social justice”, and even “unity with nature”. Opposite of that, we find the sector “power”, with values such as “wealth” and “social recognition”.

We can now ask ourselves where in this wheel individuals belonging to different cultures might sit. This is relevant for conservation and sustainability, because we might pitch our messages differently, according to people’s values (e.g. see this comprehensive report, or here for a simpler summary; and here for additional materials).

But I think perhaps there is something even more interesting going on. Here, I present three testable hypotheses, which would have implications for conservation and sustainability action.

Hypothesis 1: A substantial proportion of the population (probably differing between jurisdictions) actually holds values that are compatible with universalist values (i.e. sustainability and biodiversity conservation).

Hypothesis 2: Despite this, we are seeing patterns of behaviour at an aggregate (societal) level that emphasise values that are largely oppositional to sustainability, such as achievement and power. That is, we have created institutions that foster values that are not inherently shared by people. We thus have a mismatch between the value sets fostered by institutions and the value sets held by people.

Hypothesis 3: If this is correct, the “solution” to sustainability problems becomes one of “simply” re-aligining institutions to what people actually want. This may be a major task, but is a relatively smaller problem than if people themselves actually did not hold values compatible with sustainability. In other words, we may not need to “re-educate people”, but rather draw out what people actually want, and ensure that institutions are reformed in ways that reflect the want of “the people”.

Hopelessly optimistic? Actually, people are selfish and individualistic, and care about power and wealth and nothing else? Perhaps – convince me if you can. But at this stage I think it’s more likely that we are dealing with a mis-match between values fostered through institutions and values held by individuals. I speculate, in turn, that such a mis-match has probably arisen from power dynamics that go hand in hand with how we have organized societies (including economic principles); i.e. the whole thing is an institutional and power problem, not fundamentally one of values.

If I’m right, all of this points to us needing more conversations at a societal level about what it is that we truly value — and then working towards how to (re-)organise society accordingly. And then who knows, perhaps sustainability is within closer reach than we may have thought …

Topics on the rise in conservation and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Research on any given topic tends to come and go. Searching the scopus database, I had a bit of a look at some terms I am interested in. Some of these are gaining in popularity, and some are on their way out. I’ve summarised these trends in the graphs below. Keep in mind that “constant” interest probably means a tripling in the number of mentions since 2000, simply because the number of journal articles has increased a lot. I found the patterns interesting, and so thought I’d share them here.

My overall interpretation is that ecosystem services and social-ecological systems are starting to reach saturation point. In contrast, sustainable intensification and food sovereignty are shooting up. Landscape ecology and habitat fragmentation used to attract more attention than they do now.

Not earth-shattering, but kind of interesting…


Post-peak terms:

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Not so obvious terms (in terms of trend):

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And “hot topics” still on the rise, or recently starting to gain popularity:

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Now published: Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Joern Fischer

Finally, the first paper is out from our Leverage Points project. It’s led by Dave Abson, and lays out a conceptual framework and research agenda, all around the notion of “deep leverage points”. Please share it through your networks.

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 10.31.56.pngThe paper draws on Donella Meadows’ notion of “deep leverage points” – places to intervene in a system where adjustments can make a big difference to the overall outcomes. Arguably, sustainability science desperately needs such leverage points. Despite years of rhetoric on sustainability science bringing about “transformation”, the big picture is still pretty dull: globally at least, there is no indication that we’re starting to turn around the patterns of exponential growth that characterize our era. A potential reason is that much of sustainability science has focused on parameters and feedbacks, rather than system design or “intent” (see above) — when actually, it’s changing a system’s design and intent that is most likely to bring about major changes in outcomes.

If the goal is to bend the curves, we need to know where to start. To this end, we identified three realms of leverage that can be taken as starting points – reconnecting people with nature, restructuring institutions, and rethinking how different types of knowledge should be brought to bear for the pursuit of sustainability. These three realms of leverage are starting points. If others come up with additional or different realms of leverage that need to be investigated, this would be equally valid. To really find out what’s a good leverage point, we suggest applying a mixture of conceptual, empirical, and transdisciplinary approaches.

Finally, we hope that the notion of “leverage points” can provide a boundary object – a common denominator – that appeals to a broad range of audiences. On the one hand, because the idea of leverage points originates from complex systems thinking, technically oriented scientists should be able to engage with the concept. On the other hand, the notion of deep leverage points can also be used as a simple (but powerful) metaphor, signaling that “we need to look deeper” than we have done.

Ultimately, digging deeper is what the idea of deep leverage points is all about: sustainability science needs an agenda to confront all those issues that are perhaps difficult to deal with – but desperately need to be dealt with because that’s where potential for real change lies.

The full paper is available here.

Article recommendation: heterarchies

By Joern Fischer

I warmly recommend the following article, which just appeared in Trends in Ecology & Evolution:

Cumming, G.S. (2016). Heterarchies: Reconciling Networks and Hierarchies. Trends Ecol Evol. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2016.04.009

This paper proposes that the concept of “heterarchies” be used more widely in ecology, and in social-ecological systems research. The key point is that systems can behave in complex ways (e.g. self-organisation) for at least two reasons: being organised through (i) a networked system architecture versus (ii) a hierarchical system architecture. The idea of heterarchy suggests that these two types of system structure are not mutually exclusive. Rather, ecologists may gain from considering both aspects of hierarchical organisation, and aspects of networked organisation — and, importantly, their interaction.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 12.02.50

This relatively simple conceptual framework, in my opinion, offers a fresh perspective to thinking about complex systems. Cumming demonstrates that this perspective can be applied to many different contexts. What kind of architecture characterises a particular system of interest (How networked is it? How hierarchical is it?) — and how this architecture may result in certain types of system behaviour — can be meaningfully studied in many different contexts. This, in turn, means that a comparative study of the heterarchy of different systems could be helpful to generate new, generalisable insights on the behaviour of complex (human-environment) systems.

As Cumming acknowledges, the concept of heterarchies is not new. However, it will be new to many ecologists, and is likely to stimulate a wide range of interesting new research.

Conservation and governance

By Joern Fischer

Conservation science emerged primarily out of the biological sciences. In the last decade, there has been a lot of engagement with economics, especially in the context of ecosystem services and land use optimisation. Here, I argue that the next key challenge for conservation scientists is to engage more deeply with academic work on governance — especially considering multi-level governance.


Conventionally, scientists have often seen their job as providing “facts”, which then ought to be implemented by policy-makers. Such an approach can be criticised for being overly technocratic — that is, an expert (the scientist) finds the fix to a problem, and then it’s up to the benevolent dictator (the policy-maker) to implement this fix. But what if there is no benevolent dictator? What if there are a bunch of contested interests operating all at once, if the science does not have a single “true” answer, and if multiple ecological scales and administrative levels interact?

In a recent paper, we argued that conventional notions of evidence for conservation practice could be more useful if they were embedded in the context of a multi-scaled ecological vision; while explicitly acknowledging the realities of multi-level governance. How might this work?

First, a set of multi-scaled ecological principles can help to generate a vision of what a sustainably managed landscape, region, or continent would look like. Such multi-scaled visions have been discussed, for example, in forestry (see Lindenmayer and Franklin’s seminal book). Such visions enable a clear articulation of different kinds of goals at different scales, as well as shedding light on likely cross-scale interactions. Bits of “evidence” (including expert understanding) can then help to refine an ecological vision, and to assess how well a current state of implementation matches with the envisioned situation.

Second, evidence can’t be put into practice without a good understanding of multi-level governance, and the constraints and opportunities arising from it. Questions conservation scientists can ask (together with governance experts) include: which level of governance should be responsible for a particular conservation intervention? Does this interfere with decisions made at other levels? Is there sufficient democratic legitimacy for successful implementation? Which government and non-government actors have stakes in a potential conservation intervention?

Considering multi-level governance is not a magic bullet for conservation. But it will help to get away from overly technocratic, potentially simplistic understandings of how science interacts with policy decisions.

Our full paper is available in Conservation Letters. All papers in Conservation Letters are now open access.

Paper recommendation: power relations in ecosystem services work

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend the following paper:

Berbés-Blázquez M, González JA, Pascual U. 2016. Towards an ecosystem services approach that addresses social power relations. Curr Opin Environ Sustainability 2016 Apr; 19:134-43. DOI: 10.1016/j.cosust.2016.02.003

With the new IPBES framework and its focus on institutions, a shift towards governance-related issues is already underway in ecosystem services research. The paper recommended here adds an important new dimension, namely that of power relationships. These have, until recently, been largely ignored in ecosystem services research. The present paper makes three tangible suggestions for how power relationships should be more routinely examined in ecosystem service assessments:

1. by analysing how power shapes institutions, and how this in turn, creates winners and losers in terms of the well-being benefits generated by ecosystem services;

2. by investigating more carefully how ecosystem services are co-produced by people. Ecosystem services (especially provisioning services) are generated by combining human labour inputs with natural capital. The type of input can have substantial consequences for human well-being, even if the amount of “service” produced is equal (e.g. child labour vs. subsistence farming vs. industrialised agriculture);

3. by being cognisant of historical trajectories and their influence on shaping institutions and power relationships surrounding them.

Ecosystem services research arose in ecology and branched out into economics. Recent advances in the field (such as this paper) show that the concept is increasingly drawing on insights from other social sciences, too — this will greatly improve the value of the ecosystem services concept.