Love as a response to ecological insanity

By Joern Fischer, Maraja Riechers, Cristina Apetrei and Rebecca Freeth

Triggered by an interesting email exchange amongst ourselves, we thought we’d share some reflections on “hope” in a time of ecological disaster. Our discussion drew on an article in The Conversation by Neville Ellis and Ashlee Cunsolo and on reflections by Donella Meadows written in 1992.

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Our conversation started with a sense of despair about the world falling apart left, right and centre. From distress about general patterns such as climate change or other detrimental global environmental changes, the threatening prospect of the health of coral reefs, rainforests or other biodiversity hotspots, to stories of the irreversible extinction of endemic species – discouraging news are flooding us from every side. As we pondered these rather sad “news,” we stumbled into this beautiful quote by Donella Meadows, in reference to the ozone crisis as it was understood at the time:

“We have to remember that there is absolutely no “external” or “objective” reason to be hopeful or hopeless – we make all that up inside ourselves, and different people make it up differently. No one person’s inner reaction to the facts of the world are any more “correct” than any other. We’d like to label denial “wrong,” but it’s a completely understandable psychological coping mechanism. In terms of utility, it’s no more paralyzing than hopelessness.

If we can make even the tiniest crack between the information and the way we feel about it, we begin to get a bit of power over how we feel about it. These days I CHOOSE how I’m going to feel about it. I don’t choose denial, and I don’t choose hopelessness, and I don’t choose to hate my fellow human beings – those are legitimate and understandable emotional responses, but they paralyze me. I try (some days it’s hard) to choose what gets me to work – a bit of fear, considerable grief, a lot of love for the planet and for all creatures on it (even us), and a tremendous faith that the universe did not evolve for four billion years to create the first form of life that could celebrate the wonders of the Earth, in order for that form of life to eliminate those wonders.

We have within us the ability to wonder, the intelligence to understand, and the love to care about that which we wonder at. I try to play to those abilities, within myself and within others, and in them I always find hope.”

This statement is touching because it spans the full range of how humanity manifests, and because it offers love as a response to ecological insanity. It also reminds us that hope is a state that we must relate not to “that which is”, but to “that which might be”, and for the latter the possibilities are infinite: we can always reorient our actions towards a better outcome in the future. In the face of news that shake us, in which feelings of helplessness and anger can be overwhelming, practicing compassion – for the planet as well as for maladaptive human behaviour – can strengthen and motivate us to go on. It is up to us to forgive the world for being as it is and at the same time gently steer it to a better place. Or, as Donella Meadows wrote in another article: “there are limits to growth, but no limits to love”.

How might we best draw on love to effect change? Perhaps at the most basic level, we can refer back to a very old post on this blog – there, Michael Soulé’s notion of “broadening one’s beam of compassion” was quoted, essentially as a guiding principle for looking after life on Earth.

And just because we haven’t had enough inspiring quotes yet, let’s throw in one more! Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

And so, it would seem, armed with inner strength and love, we might be well equipped to respond to our collective human insanity – gradually transforming and revitalizing our individual lives, communities, and our planet as a whole.


A new classification of human-environment connections

By Joern Fischer

We’ve all heard of ecosystem services, and work on “relational values” to conceptualise human-environment connections is increasing. Do we really need yet another way to classify connectedness to nature?

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In an era where leading scholars are calling for us to reconnect with the biosphere, where the loss of experiential connection to nature is seen as a possible cause for biodiversity decline (e.g. here and here), where the health benefits of engaging with nature are increasingly obvious, where capitalism is blamed for having alienated us from ourselves and the world at large … perhaps we do need a more holistic way of thinking about human-environment connections.

Chris Ives just published a new paper on this, related to our work on leverage points (stay tuned for an upcoming conference call!). In the paper, we distinguish between different kinds of connectedness — philosophical, emotional, cognitive, experiential and material (see above). Arguably, these different dimensions have not all been captured in previous conceptualisations of human-nature connectedness. Many provisioning ecosystem services, for example, are “material” in nature. But what about philosophical differences in connectedness — e.g. whether we view humanity through a Western cultural lens, or from the perspective of (as a random example) Australian indigenous people? This will fundamentally change how we view ourselves in relation to nature, which role we ascribe to nature, and as a result, how we engage with nature.

In this new paper, we try to lay out an alternative way of thinking about human-nature connectedness. We do not provide simple solutions for how to save the world based on this framework (sorry to disappoint you … I could claim we initially had this in the supplementary material but it was lost during peer review?). However, we pose a hypothesis, which may be worth examining in the future. The hypothesis is that not all types of connectedness are created equal in terms of their potential influence on sustainability — deeply “internal” connections such as our worldviews and philosophies might fundamentally shape other dimensions of nature connectedness, for example influencing how we interact with nature in material terms. In other words, dimensions of our inner worlds are likely to fundamentally influence what happens in our outer worlds — providing a strong leverage point for deep change.

Stay tuned for more work on inner worlds, and for an upcoming conference call on leverage points for sustainability at Leuphana (February 2019)!

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The gardenification of nature revisited

By Joern Fischer

In 1998, Daniel Janzen published a paper on the gardenification of nature. In that paper, he argued for the gentle and careful use of wild nature, rather than its strict protection from humans.

I liked the metaphor of the paper when it came out, and I recently thought of it again in the context of a second garden metaphor currently circulating: that of seeds of a good Anthropocene. What if we were to combine these two gardening metaphors?

Seeds of a good Anthropocene suggest that we have choices in the projects we create. We can initiate projects that contribute to the beauty of life on Earth – to social equity, prosperity, joy, and biodiversity – or we can initiate projects that are destructive. Those projects that contribute to the beauty of life are, essentially, seeds of a good Anthropocene.

Once we have planted such seeds, these seeds can put roots into the ground, thus becoming firmly established. And as the seeds spread, they create a garden of human endeavours. This garden can be beautiful, if we grow and look after the right seeds. Wild elements can persist in pockets of this garden, cherished for their intrinsic value as well as for the benefits they might provide. – What if we keep growing the wrong seeds? Then we risk creating a post-industrial wasteland.

Arguably, a good Anthropocene’s garden of human endeavours could harmoniously coexist with a wildland garden of biodiversity. What unites these two metaphors is a focus on an underlying ethos of gentle care and interaction. It seems futile to try to disengage from the endless connections among living beings. As Janzen stated: “A wildland garden with gentle trodding from caring gardeners just might achieve the partnership [between people and nature]. A wilderness faces certain annihilation as a battlefield.”

When more of the same won’t do…

By Joern Fischer

Sometimes we reach a point where things simply aren’t moving. We keep trying to do the same thing, over and over, but we’re not making progress. We all know this from our personal lives – and unfortunately, we also know it from our experience as researchers on sustainability issues.

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From Fazey et al. 2018:

In our personal lives, we might know this situation of things just not moving from relationship crises. We get stuck, and nothing we do seems to work. This can even happen when everyone involved really wants to solve the situation – but somehow, things are stuck. How can such problems be resolved? – I’m sure there are a million answers, but somehow, often what is required is two things: a fresh perspective, and some tangible progress. Combined with a fresh perspective and some tangible “action items”, it is then possible to get apparently hopeless situations unstuck again. By contrast, if we insist on the same old perspective, and if we refuse to change anything tangible… probably we remain stuck.

Arguably, the same is true in a sustainability context. In the above, I reproduced a figure from a new paper by Ioan Fazey and colleagues. In the paper, they recommend ten essential action items for researchers working on climate change – with the goal to give climate change research a push in a direction that actually fosters social change, rather than describing our demise in ever greater detail.

The paper – as summarized in the above figure – proposes ten key action items. Just knowing more, and incrementally improving the performance of existing systems is seen as insufficient. Rather, the authors argue for a more fundamental overhaul of how science is conducted, so that it engages with society, and has the potential to facilitate transformative change that actually transcends existing problems. Engaging with normative questions of what matters, understanding science as part of social learning, and boldly striving for transformative change are among the key recommendations.

And so, funnily enough … just like in a personal relationship that is stuck in a crisis, what is needed for sustainability seems to be a mixture of taking a fresh perspective, and actually doing something tangible, in a different way. This new paper gives a valuable set of ideas for how to start getting unstuck. Worth a read, and certainly useful beyond the specific problem of climate change!

What do we value?

By Joern Fischer

In 2012, I led a paper on “Human behavior and sustainability”. Alongside that paper, I wrote a blog post encouraging people to reflect on what it is what we truly value. This was summarized in an open letter, which you can find here.

I thought it’s a nice time to reflect on where my own thinking on this topic is at. With a few years of distance between that initial paper and the open letter and now, some things I see much the same way – and others I see a bit differently.

In the open letter, I implied that many of us probably don’t truly value “ever more stuff” as their deepest life philosophy, but yet we are not actively pursuing what it is that we actually are interested in having more of in our lives. Much of humanity acts as a passive victim of the institutions it created in the past. We’ve locked ourselves into certain trajectories – starting with our mindsets, which are too uncomfortable to question, and our institutions, which are rigid and complex, and it’s hard to know where to even start to fundamentally change anything.

Despite its imperfections, I still think the central tenet of the letter from 2012 is right: we need to start having a conversation about what we truly want. And I think it’s still fundamentally correct that if the answer is “gluttony, even if it’s unjust”, then all is well in the sense that we’re moving in precisely that direction. But … for most of humanity, I don’t think “gluttony, even if it’s unjust” is the philosophy by which they would really like to live. People thrive on good social relations, on balanced time budgets, on a healthy environment, and on “enough” material wellbeing rather than ever more stuff.

Still, this is contentious. In the following, I want to highlight three ways in which my own thinking has slightly moved on since that original paper.

First, there appears to be a clash between two paradigms: the paradigm that we can’t change values, and therefore should work within existing value sets – versus the paradigm that changing values might be hard, but since this is the root cause of our problems, we’d better get started on engaging with this difficult topic. This clash was nicely exemplified in a discussion between Manfredo et al. and Ives and Fischer in a recent issue of Conservation Biology. We argued that value change within instants may not be likely, but social change including fundamental changes in value orientations has been common in human history – and to discount this possibility (when it looks like it’s a necessity) and the possibility of fostering such change seems … well … not so useful. Another nice idea related to societal change and value change is that of a “ripple effect”, which implies that changes in the world can permeate up and down scales – from individual to society, or from society to individual. Things (including values) can change, and do change, and we all play a role in it.

A second area in which I think we can poke around in more is that of deep leverage points – places in a system where small interventions can lead to major changes. Truly deep leverage points relate to shifting to new paradigms and on that basis, re-define system goals. This is very much in line with the idea of reflecting on what we truly value – if the goals of our global system of “gluttony for those who can afford it” are not actually in line with what we want, we’d better change them. This is not straightforward, but would be very influential as a leverage point for social change.

And finally, some colleagues and I have been thinking a bit about how to bring change in our inner and outer worlds into alignment. Sustainability science has firmly focused on our external worlds, but has largely discounted the hidden lived experiences within individuals. Arguably, those are the origin of external phenomena, and it’s only through inner change that stable changes for the better will emerge in the outer world. For now, I’ll just point you to an Abstract of a paper that Rebecca Freeth presented at Resilience 2017 – a full paper on this topic is in preparation.


A landscape approach to sustainability

By Joern Fischer

A few days ago, I was part of an online panel discussion organised by the Global Landscapes Forum.  We discussed questions about what a landscape approach is, and how it might be implemented — and we touched on many interesting topics and identified challenges for the future. The webinar was recorded and is available on youtube; or you can watch it directly here.

New paper: Coffee management and the conservation of forest bird diversity in southwestern Ethiopia

By Patricia Rodrigues


I am Patrícia, one of Joern’s PhD students working on his ERC-project that aims to identify social-ecological system properties benefiting food security and biodiversity. Very briefly, my background is in ecology and conservation biology and I’ve worked on topics such as the biogeography of Angolan mammals, the effects of cashew expansion on biodiversity in Guinea-Bissau, or on land use changes in a landscape undergoing farmland abandonment in Portugal.

On the way to Guido Bere forest at sunrise

Within this ERC-project I am working on the empirical case study that takes place in the rural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia. In my research, I am assessing the effects of coffee production and forest fragmentation on biodiversity, more specifically on birds and mammals. Also, and taking advantage of our awesome inter and transdisciplinary research group, I am looking at a global driver of change in our planet – population growth. I am doing this using a lens from the social sciences, and trying to understand which factors influence women’s fertility decisions and what promotes or hinders the use of family planning methods in the region.

But let’s move on to the main purpose of this post, which is to share with you the findings of a new paper we’ve published where we’ve looked into the effects of coffee management and landscape context on forest bird diversity in southwestern Ethiopia.

In the landscapes of our study area, coffee is mostly grown under the shade of native trees, and management varies in intensity but it is mostly done using traditional practices (such as the clearing of the understory and thinning and pruning of the canopy). In order to understand if the variation in coffee management had an effect on the bird community we sampled birds (between Nov 2015 and Feb 2016) in a total of 66 forest points that differed in their degree of coffee management and accessibility. Some of the points were located on the forest interior, in nearly undisturbed and very hard to access forest, while other points were located in relatively intensively managed coffee forest.

Overall, we found a diverse community of forest birds (76 species, 6 endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea) and we found no effect of coffee management and landscape context on total species richness and total abundance of birds. However, the richness of forest and dietary specialists increased with higher forest naturalness (a local effect), and with increasing distance from the edge and amount of forest cover (a landscape effect). Wrapping up, our results indicate that conservation measures need to consider both local and landscape scales, and that, on the one hand traditional shade coffee management practices can maintain a diverse suite of forest birds, on the other, the conservation of forest specialists hinges on the maintenance and protection of large undisturbed areas of natural forest.

Treating unsustainability: learning from addiction

By Joern Fischer

Unsustainability is bad. Humanity is screwing up big time – what was it thinking? Humanity must change its ways. So we set targets … and fail. Have you ever noticed how similar this is to people suffering from addiction? Can we learn by drawing a parallel between the successful treatment of addiction and the successful treatment of unsustainability?

Addictions, at their root, are habituated responses to emotional pain. Individuals learn that something about them is wrong or inadequate, and to feel better reach for some kind of “drug” or pattern. This makes them feel better temporarily – but typically results in spirals of pain and shame. Feeling pain and shame makes them feel worse, of course, and so reaching for more drugs becomes highly appealing… and so on. There are of course chemical dependencies with some drugs, too, but let’s just stick to the psychological spiral for now.

How do people overcome such addictions?

It seems that what does not work is simply telling addicts that what they’re doing is “wrong”. In fact, this just reaffirms the feelings of worthlessness and pain that underlie the destructive patterns in the first place. What does tend to work is identifying the deep causes; integrating aspects of personality that were “forbidden” or suppressed earlier on in life and that caused pain or inner dissonance – shining truth on patterns of pain; and healing these patterns through compassion and love by others and to oneself. Many previous addicts also find spiritual practices and supportive peer communities useful to experience connectedness with a greater whole.

So … let’s take the jump to sustainability. Are there parallels?

If we see humanity at large as the patient, we find that humanity is overdosing on material growth. Exponential patterns of economic activity or resource extraction from an increasingly depleted planet mirror escalation of addictive behaviours that are increasingly affecting the lives and bodies of addicts.

Now, the interesting thing is that we largely treat sustainability by telling the patient he must do better. We say it’s “wrong” to have endless resource extraction – it will kill you, Mr. Humanity (or Ms., of course)! Mr. Humanity feels bad for a moment, and organizes some conferences – and sets targets. Okay, he promises, I won’t do it again! But then … he does. Again, the parallels to the addict are quite clear.

What then if we were to treat unsustainability as an addiction? We’d need to reintegrate humanity’s shadow – to look those aspects of what it is to be human in the eye that we have moralized away but that are undoubtedly there. Humanity can be physically powerful. Humanity can be sinful in so many different ways. Instead of saying these forces are “wrong” – can we lovingly look at them and recognize their presence? Can we see that humanity’s “sins” are simply humanity having lost its way? And through greater awareness of the many forces at play, can we harness their energy in constructive instead of destructive ways?

Can we find out why humanity is “acting out” the way it is – what’s it suppressing, and what as a result, is it over-compensating in its ever intensifying patterns of binge drinking? Where is humanity hurting – and what does it need to heal?

From this framing, it seems likely that the answers lie in “deep leverage points”, around paradigms and values underpinning how we organize our societies. For example, can we exchange competitiveness and individualism with care, busy-ness with being, and dissatisfaction or anger with love? Can we replace unhealthy habits (institutions) with healthy ones?

While the parallel between unsustainability and addiction doesn’t offer an immediate solution for what does work (it’s only a blog post, after all!), it does suggest that a few things might simply not work: reprimanding the addict, forcing him to resolve to do better, and setting him ultimatums and threats of further love deprivation – these aggressive methods act on shallow leverage points, and will fail. What might work is looking beneath the surface – what is humanity aching for, and how can we collectively heal an increasingly sick patient?

NEW PAPER: From synergies to trade-offs in food security and biodiversity conservation


Some time ago, we had invited to participate in a survey on food security and biodiversity conservation on this blog. After some months of data analysis, write-up, rejections and revisions, we now we can announce that the main findings from this survey have been finally published. The paper went online just a few days ago on the journal website and will be published the November issue of Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. 

And here are the key findings shortly summarized:

(1) When comparing between landscapes we did not find a clear trade-off between food security and biodiversity.

(2) Synergies in food security and biodiversity were related to situations with equitable land access and high social and human capital. Food security was also high when market access was good and financial capital high, but that was linked to poor biodiversity outcomes.

(3) For the future, most experts expected improvements in food security, but losses of biodiversity in their landscapes.

We received responses for landscapes from a wide range of countries. The map shows the origin of the 110 cases that we used for analysis.


You also can directly download a pdf of the full paper and a pdf of the merged appendices here. Enjoy reading!

Finally, a big thanks to all experts that contributed to the survey!

Resilience 2017: Care, knowledge and agency as a basic for ecosystem stewardship

Session summary

Johan Enqvist first summarized work in progress, outlining the findings of a systematic literature review. Based on a preliminary review, four themes (ethics, motivation, action, outcomes) were identified. These themes were then examined in more detail in approximately 1000 different papers.

Research on stewardship has increased over the last 27 years, especially with respect to “action” and “outcomes” – and these, in turn, were mostly published in natural science articles. In contrast, “ethics” initially took up approximately a third of the existing literature, but accounts for a substantially smaller fraction of current research on stewardship. Given such disparity in focus within the theme of stewardship, how can the different themes – outcomes, actions, motivation, ethics – be bridged?

Johan proposed to do this via care, knowledge and agency – at the intersection of care and knowledge, we find “ethics”; at the intersection of care and agency, we find “motivation”; and at the intersection of agency and knowledge, we find “outcomes”. Action sits at the intersection of all three key dimensions. These three dimensions to stewardship – care, agency and knowledge – thus appear to capture key aspects of stewardship literature, and manage to capture the different emphases that different researchers place on different components of stewardship. Interestingly, with respect to social-ecological work, “care”, in particular has not received as much attention as knowledge and agency.

Following this opening talk, Raphaël Mathevet continued with an ecological solidarity perspective. Ecological solidarity has in fact been enshrined in French law since 2016. It recognizes interdependence between humans and other species, and considers landscape units and watersheds, species area requirements, complementarity of different land covers, movements, metapopulation dynamics, and changes in species distributions. These ecological “needs”, in turn, are “connected” with human values and actions via the concept of “solidarity”. Ecological solidarity, in comprising human and ecological elements, thus seeks to provide guidelines or a vision for ecological stewardship, including considerations of political economy. Departure from traditional management can be “reformist vs. radical”, and “prosaic versus imaginative”. Crossing these two axes then results in four types of stewardship approach: sustainability stewardship, transformative stewardship, reformist stewardship, and adaptive stewardship. Each of these, in turn, exhibit different characteristics, strengths and weaknesses.

Rosemary Hill continued this session, drawing on her experience of working with indigenous Australians. She asked whether Johan’s framework could be applied to indigenous Australia, and how or to what extent. First, she showed that agency and care are very strong in Australian indigenous people. She continued with positive examples of “outcomes”. Examining the drivers of what constitutes success factors driving the success of indigenous land stewardship, Ro highlighted that motivation and ethics were often key factors. Having gleaned over some limitations of Johan’s framework, Ro concluded with a few suggestions for how the stewardship framework could be improved: (1) by improving reciprocity between earth and us, i.e. it’s not one-way; (2) economies need to come into it; and (3) legacy issues and barriers need to be more clearly included.

The final speaker in this session was Terry Chapin. Terry specifically focused on scaling the notion of “care”. The evolutionary instincts of people, in the first instance, support competition and greed. But at the same time, “care” is just as evident in many species – typically, it stops at the barriers of family or local community. The notion of stewardship then, requires us to scale up notions of care. In evolutionary terms, the notion of care is most useful at the small group level. But what about higher levels? Here, there may need to be interactions between ethical and instrumental motivations – where instrumental actions motivate short-term behaviour, while ethics motivate longer-term behaviours.

At the global scale, especially, ethical arguments become critically important. Many actors are notable at this scale – the UN, religious groups, NGOs, corporations and science-based organisations. Terry also reflected on the role of fear: will fear always stop us from action? Or can it help foster action in some instances?

In summary, Terry suggested that instrumental and care-based actions may need to be mixed. This is because people are, fundamentally, motivated by both competition and care. Local action can work, drawing on both care and selfishness. But at the global scale, competition based elements are less helpful – here, it really appears to be care that is more important in order to enact ecological stewardship.