Paper recommendation: The undisciplinary journey

By Joern Fischer

The following paper just came out:

L. J. Haider, L.J., Hentati-Sundberg, J., Giusti, M., Goodness, J., Hamann, M., Masterson, V. A., Meacham, M., Merrie, A., Ospina, D., Schill, C., Sinare, H. (2017). The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science. Sustainability Science. PDF available here.

This paper should be particularly interesting to early-career researchers working in interdisciplinary environments, or themselves being “interdisciplinarians”. It should also be of interest to more established scientists who train more junior researchers in such areas, especially in sustainability science.

In a nutshell, the paper is built on the premise that a new generation of sustainability scholars is emerging. These scholars often are interdisciplinary in their orientation from the outset. This makes them different from many of the currently “senior” (i.e. older) sustainability scientists, the vast majority of whom were trained in a specific discipline, and then started to reach out to other disciplines.

But what if you start off without ever having had a strong affinity for a single traditional discipline? This is increasingly common for young sustainability scholars, and it leaves them with certain typical challenges — which are what this paper is about. For example, how do you balance depth and breadth? How can you make sure you are taken seriously by your peers, or by more senior scientists? How can you navigate institutional environments that are largely based on disciplines?

To navigate a journey of being “undisciplinary”, the paper provides a compass — a simple conceptual model that can be used to think about how to develop into a good sustainability scientist. A “good” scientist, in this sense, needs two key attributes: agility to move between different ways of thinking, and a good methodological foundation.

Agility to move between different ways of thinking is needed because sustainability is such a broad challenge — to solve problems related to forest degradation, for example, you might have to understand issues of governance, social justice, and ecology. Each of these, in turn, will have a different epistemological foundation; what counts as valid knowledge for an ecologist comes about in a different way from the knowledge deemed valid by a political scientist.

A good methodological foundation is needed because, although sustainability science is an extremely broad field, this can’t be an excuse to not base one’s insights on solid methods. This can be challenging, because the range of potentially relevant methods is vast — but to be a “good” sustainability scientist, it pays to have some clearly identifiable methodological strengths, or at least a solid methodological foundation.

The link to the paper is given above. As I said, I think it’s a nice reflection, as well as really good food for thought for scholars who either are, or are working with, the “next generation” of sustainability scientists. Well worth a read!

Paper recommendation: understanding human-wildlife coexistence

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend the following paper: Pooley et al. (2017) An interdisciplinary review of current and future approaches to improving human-predator relations. Conserv Biol 2017 Jun; 31(3):513-523. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12859

Pooley et al. shine a fresh light on human-wildlife conflicts – or put differently, on human-wildlife coexistence and coadaptation. The authors argue that much research on human-wildlife conflicts has been heavily influenced by ways of thinking that are typical of the natural sciences. While this is not surprising, the authors argue that much could be gained by engaging more deeply with concepts and insights generated by scholars from other disciplines, including political ecology, history and human geography.

Key points include that both reasons and consequences of how humans and wildlife coexist have roots that are far deeper than natural sciences alone can discover. A neat example is that some species are protected for spiritual reasons, while others are persecuted for spiritual reasons – how should conservation biologists engage with such instances? As Pooley et al. point out, surely not selectively, simply maximizing conservation benefits. Another interesting example relates to the extent to which negatively affected communities engage with or shy away from political approaches to addressing their problems – issues of power and fear (as well as knowledge and time) can easily undermine some stakeholders’ willingness or ability to speak up about their problems to relevant authorities.

This paper highlights that the living together of people and wildlife is hugely multi-dimensional, involving depths of problems and opportunities from historical to political, emotional and even spiritual, that have rarely been explored. By citing a lot of relevant material from different disciplines, the authors provide a very nice starting point to engage with these issues. I highly recommend this paper to anyone working on human-wildlife coexistence or conflict.

Three things that went wrong today (#FONA2017)

By Joern Fischer

The thing about blogging is that you can say things that otherwise may or may not be heard. And so I use my privilege as a blogger to make three observations of what I think went wrong at the FONA Forum that I attended today: (1) much emphasis on the concrete, but too little appreciation of the foundational; (2) six men, and zero women in a final panel discussion; and (3) no black Africans in the discussion on sustainability in Africa.

Why are these three issues problematic? Let’s start with something positive.

The best speaker today, to my mind, was Hartmut Rosa – a sociologist who challenged our contemporary growth-oriented thinking. He painted a picture of humanity addicted to constant “more”, in all spheres of life – more science, more wealth, more access to the world, to new experiences and new places. Constant striving for “more” instead of finding satisfaction in our interactions with others and our immediately available environment, according to Hartmut Rosa, leads to stress as well as to unsustainability. He argued for a change in our relationships, towards greater reciprocity with other beings and places.

His talk was very well received, it seemed. But his talk aside, the vast majority of speakers focused on things like concrete measures, indicators of success, a manual for how to fly Spaceship Earth, recommendations to policy, and steps that need to be taken.

Concrete steps are great – but who, in this era, is taking responsibility for getting humanity to halt and reflect? Scientists are no longer interested in this, it seems – they are much too busy coming up with tangible recommendations and concrete measures. Apparently just shifting discourses – arguably one of the most important things we must do, as a foundation for concrete measures to be effective – is not something many people are interested in. Or, in leverage points language, the vast majority of people speak of shallow leverage points, considering it a waste of time to reflect. – Funny in this context: Hartmut Rosa’s talk seemed really popular, suggesting that people want to be challenged to reflect more deeply. But at the same time, the same people applaud and reinforce structures that only reward tangible outcomes that can be measured.

My last two concerns about today are simple and painful: no women in the final panel discussion, and no black Africans in the Africa session. The latter had about 50 people in it. Admittedly, the session was in German, but come on. Surely, with a bit of effort one could have come up with mechanisms and ways to include people who can contribute their authentically African perspective. How can we meaningfully listen to people speaking of cooperation “at eye level”, or of “partnerships” in this context? The comment regarding no women in the panel discussion evidently points in a similar direction.

This post will be published and tweeted – perhaps someone else who attended the conference will respond, and correct my perspective if it needs correcting. I would appreciate feedback, especially by people who were also here. Thanks!

It’s not like there were no good moments today, or good people, or great insights. There were many. But the three issues singled out here are such that, in 2017 Germany, they make me concerned.

Telling a different story about the world

By Joern Fischer

I’m on my way to Berlin, to the FONA Forum 2017. The Forum is organized by Germany’s Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF), and brings together policy makers, scientists and business representatives. A central question is what to make of, and do with, the UN’s 2030 Agenda and its associated Sustainable Development Goals.

As always when attending such a forum – and even more so when given the opportunity to speak – the question arises how to make a useful contribution. This same question that I ask myself in preparation for this forum, a farmer recently asked me in a public talk; and a class of students asked me after I told them about my research on food security and biodiversity: how is any of this going to make a difference?

It’s the million dollar question of sustainability science, and indeed, the million dollar question for anyone working to make the world a better place. How do we actually do this?

For the time being, the answer I most commonly give is that I believe we need to tell a different story about the world. The dominant story we’re hearing, and that keeps being reinforced in public fora, is overly simplistic, and misses a whole bunch of important issues that ultimately, we need to face head on.

At the FONA forum, I’ll talk about land as a scarce resource, which is related to Sustainable Development Goal 15 (“Life on Land”), but potentially clashes with other goals, such as Goal 2 (“Zero Hunger”). And like in much of the rest of sustainability science, the dominant story on land is simple, often too simple. It’s a story that tells you that you can have your cake, and eat it too. It’s a story of meeting endless demand, including for the foods that make us unhealthy, because supposedly we “have to”. It’s a story of sustainable intensification, of green growth, of trickle down effects that will eventually reach the poor. It’s a story that does not rock the boat, that is palatable to status quo thinking, and to living within existing paradigms. It’s a story of shallow leverage points, of not challenging let alone shaking up the dominant paradigms that we have built our world around.

It’s this dominant story that I’ll seek to challenge, because frankly – if people with the privilege and freedom to study the world in whichever way they want to don’t challenge this story, who will? Building on our work critiquing sustainable intensification, reviewing social-ecological systems thinking, and most recently seeking synergies between food security and biodiversity conservation, I will try to tell a different story. A different story is less comfortable, but optimistic at the same time. This different story is one that speaks of the possibility of having enough for all, of including justice within and between generations, of beginning to recognize complexity in the form of drivers, dominant actors, and feedbacks.

I’m excited to take this story to a sizeable forum and take part in discussions of how to deal with the Sustainable Development Goals. Working within the boundaries of what current policies can do is all very well – but to me, a timely contribution will be to rock the boat a bit more than that – to tell a different story and thus hopefully contribute to ultimately shifting entire discourses, away from the very mindsets that have got our planet into trouble in the first place.

New Paper: Assessing sustainable biophysical human–nature connectedness at regional scales

By Christian Dorninger

Humans are biophysically connected to the biosphere through the flows of materials and energy appropriated from ecosystems. While this connection is fundamental for human well-being, many modern societies have—for better or worse—disconnected themselves from the natural productivity of their immediate regional environment by accessing material and energy flows from distant places and from outside the biosphere.

In the search for the most “efficient” sustainability solutions for land-use based management issues modern societies often tend to supplement, or replace, (potentially) naturally renewable regional energy—its net primary production (NPP)—with external material and energy inputs (e.g. fossils, metals, and other minerals extracted from the lithosphere). The extent and consequences of these biophysical disconnections remain unclear.

In our new paper, we conceptualize the biophysical human–nature connectedness of land use systems at regional scales. We distinguish two mechanisms by which the connectedness of people to their regional ecosystems has been circumvented.

  1. ‘Biospheric disconnection’ refers to people drawing on non-renewable minerals from outside the biosphere (e.g. fossils, metals and other minerals). It is characterized by a strong dependence on industrial inputs which delay or displace ecological constraints. This raises concerns about intergenerational justice, because it creates societal structures that cannot be maintained indefinitely, and diminishes the biosphere’s life-supporting conditions for future generations (e.g. through causing climate change).
  2. ‘Spatial disconnection’ arises from the imports of biomass and mineral resources from outside of a given region. This spatial disconnection of resources creates unsustainable lifestyle patterns through long-distance trade relationships that, potentially, disadvantage the ‘source’ regions. Spatial disconnectedness may thus compromise intragenerational justice, especially if the teleconnections are strong and unbalanced.

Both mechanisms allow for greater regional resource use than would be possible otherwise, but both pose challenges for sustainability, for example, through waste generation, depletion of nonrenewable resources and environmental burden shifting to distant regions or future generations.

Moreover, Cumming et al. (2014) argued that such disconnections weaken direct feedbacks between ecosystems and societies, thereby potentially causing overexploitation and collapse. In contrast, biophysically reconnected land use systems may provide renewed opportunities for inhabitants to develop an awareness of their impacts and fundamental reliance on ecosystems. For this reason, we argue for a reconnection of human activities to the biosphere and its regenerative cycles. This, in turn, implies not only a reduction of industrial material use and a limitation of human domination of ecosystems, but also a strengthened sense of being connected with and knowing the limits of nature. Material realities of human-nature interactions have cognitive consequences and vice versa, e.g. perceptions and understandings of human-nature relationships might have a significant influence on how biophysical interactions are structured. For example, biophysical regional disconnectedness might foster belief and trust in technological progress and technocratic solutions to solve any sustainability issue, or reinforce the idea that sustainable land use is a “problem of other people”.

We propose a conceptual framework to analyze regional-scale biophysical human–nature connectedness. The proposed framework builds on the regional land use system as unit of analysis. Yet it explicitly recognizes not only regional land use, but also global material trade and energy flows.


Figure: The potential net primary production (NPPpot) shows the productivity of the biosphere through the process of photosynthesis in one region without any human interference. By applying labor humans appropriate a certain share of this productivity. Stage 1 indicates the fraction of the NPP appropriated by humans and what remains in the ecosystems for other species. Stage 2 shows biospheric disconnection by means of extra-biospheric inputs and emissions, whereby it is important to differentiate between regionally sourced and imported mineral inputs as indicated by the dotted line. Stage 3 shows spatial disconnections caused by intraregional biomass imports and exports. As indicated by the dashed area at the bottom, imported minerals can additionally be considered as causing spatial disconnectedness. Applying both aspects of disconnectedness to the intraregional connectedness results in the full assessment of biophysical human-nature disconnectedness at regional scales (Stage 4).

Our framework provides a new lens through which land-use sustainability can be investigated, which goes beyond ‘on site’ efficiency thinking. The operationalization of this model can be applied as a heuristic tool to reveal complex social–ecological interlinkages, raising awareness of the challenge in managing biophysical connections across scales. This in turn might help to shift the focus of sustainable land use management to a more comprehensible and holistic perspective. Instead of making humanity’s reliance on the biosphere ever more opaque, reconnected regional land use systems will require a greater focus on self-reliance and self-sufficient land use systems. Such regionally reconnected systems may, in turn, facilitate more foresightful, responsible and conscious behaviors.

We are currently undertaking empirical research to demonstrate the utility of the framework developed in the paper and to contrast our findings with results on cognitive human-nature connectedness in the same case study regions. We hope that this will provide deeper insights into the relationship between material and cognitive (dis-)connectedness, and thereby potentially reveal hitherto unrecognized, deep leverage points for sustainability transformation.

The full open access paper can be found here.

Dorninger, C., D. Abson, J. Fischer, and H. von Wehrden. 2017. Assessing sustainable biophysical human-nature connectedness at regional scales. Environmental Research Letters 12.

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 …