Ioan Fazey: “It’s the end of the world as we know it”

Conference Report on Leverage Points 2019, 6-8 February 2019, Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany

By Maraja Riechers and Joern Fischer

What can we do to actually turn around global patterns of un-sustainability? How can we bring about transformative change? What role do different types of leverage points play in such a transformation? – These were some of the questions addressed at the inaugural Leverage Points 2019 Conference at Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany, which was attended by well over 400 participants.

A guiding theme throughout the conference was the idea of “leverage points”, as formulated by Donella Meadows in her seminal essay on “Places to intervene in a system”. Her idea has, since then, inspired a new suite of work on leverage points, as exemplified and detailed in recent papers from Leuphana University and elsewhere (e.g. here, here, and here). Key themes addressed at the conference related to re-structuring institutions, re-connecting humans to nature, re-thinking knowledge generation, using systems thinking to understand complexity, and engaging with non-academic stakeholders to bring about real-world change.

The conference was designed to create a stimulating, challenging and caring atmosphere for exchange. In addition to keynotes and presentations (note: videos of the keynote presentations will eventually go online on the conference website!) the vast majority of sessions included other more innovative elements, such as world café discussions, panels, or were held in a workshop format. It also included numerous fun elements such as timeline of sustainability transformation and a heap of good music (for example, Brass Riot and also other excellent artists) and art. Moreover, findings from all sessions were documented via “graphic harvesting” by a highly skilled team of young artists with a background in sustainability science.

Without doubt, different participants had different experiences, and we can only share some of our personal (and biased) impressions of the event. Statements by other attendees suggested many of the people who came had a great time, and many of us at some point felt challenged in our own ways of thinking – something the organizing team had specifically tried to do! And thus, while the conference covered relatively conventional themes such as urban institutions for sustainability (e.g. in the keynote by Niki Frantzeskaki), it also gave a voice to indigenous worldviews (in the keynote by Gogo Dineo Ndlanzi), and considered the implications of quantum physics for understanding social phenomena and global change (in the keynote by Karen O’Brien).

There were of course many memorable moments, and these are summarized in a wide range of blog posts elsewhere – including on bioregional centres, where and when to intervene, or how to master learning processes but also the implications of this for systemic research, taking deep leverage points personally, or for hopeful narratives for transformation. The title of this current post – “it’s the end of the world as we know it” – is taken from Ioan Fazey’s keynote presentation. He argued that transformative change was very definitely in the air – either because humanity chooses to change things in major ways; or because global systems will force transformations onto humanity. We hope that the leverage points perspective will help us find interventions that can cause ripple effects throughout the system and foster sustainability – mindfully, and not as a panicked and forceful adaptation to increasingly painful minor and major system collapses.

Leverage Points 2019 was fun and inspirational. It brought together people from different communities, including the resilience community, the sustainability transformation community and the systems thinking and governance communities. Thanks to all participants for making this a wonderful event!

Leverage Points 2019 was organized by David J. Abson, Anne Jo Berkau, Julia Leventon, Daniel Lang, and other colleagues from the Leuphana Leverage Points project team.

This blog was written by Joern Fischer and Maraja Riechers. Joern Fischer has been professor of sustainable landscapes at the Faculty of Sustainability at Leuphana University Lueneburg since November 2010. His interdisciplinary activities focus on social-ecological systems, covering several areas of landscape ecology and the social sciences. Maraja Riechers is a postdoctoral researcher in a project on leverage points for sustainability at Leuphana University Lueneburg. Her research focuses on human-nature connectedness, relational values, human-wildlife conflicts and landscape change. 

Keynote at Leverage Points 2019: Elena Bennett

Elena Bennett was our second keynote speaker this morning. Elena spoke of the role of “narrative” in bringing about societal transformation. Narratives should be inspiring and plausible – and they need to help us link tangible actions to ambitious targets.

Science at its best, Elena argued, needed to tell a good story about how the world works. One branch of science, Elena argued, had been particularly useful in this context, namely the branch of “scenario development”. Scenario approaches have been influential in many sustainability contexts by now – Elena mentioned, for instance, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, as well as scenarios developed around the lakes of Wisconsin. Scenarios work on the notion of “what if” … getting people to think about how things might turn out under different circumstances.

Despite scenario work having been prominent and powerful in numerous sustainability contexts, Elena highlighted three possible weaknesses. First, scenarios to date have mostly focused on a small number of drivers, including technology, addressing questions such as whether technology will save us or cause more problems than benefits. Second, scenarios have often highlighted single solutions, rather than addressing multiple interconnected challenges. Third, scenario work to date has often focused on the “end point”, e.g. in 30 years, without much guidance for stakeholders as to how we might get there.

So, narratives and visions of the future are powerful, but there is more to be done.

A new method for scenario development advocated by Elena is to start with the positive things already happening today. These positive incidences of change already taking place are what Elena terms Seeds of Good Anthropocenes. Many hundreds of such seeds (i.e. real-world narratives) have now been collected by her and her colleagues, and Elena detailed a couple of examples in her presentation.

Seeds, as they are being mentioned and analyzed by Elena, can teach us many different things. They teach us about what is wrong about the world today; they show us that some kinds of approaches are useful for tackling specific problems; while others are useful for tackling a whole range of interconnected problems. We might learn how context influences whether a given local initiative takes off or not; and indeed, we might learn from such positive seeds how to generate new, forward-looking scenarios for the future.

A new technique advocated by Elena was the “three horizons method”, recently discussed in depth in Ecology & Society by Sharpe et al.. This method, Elena argued, seemed more suited to drawing out some of the deeper issues that past scenario work perhaps could not get to; it also enabled users to directly see pathways towards the future, rather than simply focusing on an endpoint.

Hope and story telling, Elena concluded, could be very powerful leverage points for a better future.

Keynote at Leverage Points 2019: Ioan Fazey

“It’s the end of the world as we know it” … with these words, Ioan Fazey began his opening keynote lecture to Leverage Points 2019. With everything changing, faster than ever before — what is our role in this? What does it mean to be a knowledge producer? Either, we will have massive transformations because of “natural” processes; or we will ourselves instigate a more mindful kind of transformation, in order to avoid some of the less desirable outcomes.

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Photo by Ioan Fazey: Playing Giants, Fairies and Wizards in rural communities, Solomon Islands

Ioan moved on to show examples of how climate change, for example, will affect us, focusing on the city of New Orleans. Here, climate change is not a problem of the future, but rather of the present, with some communities already being displaced. A combination of human caused factors, here, leads to “land loss”, and in addition, there is a high incidence of hurricanes. How can such situations be governed, when traditionally, government departments were designed to address issues from within different types of sectoral silos? Three key “emergencies” need to be addressed in situations such as these: there are real emergencies, conceptual emergencies, and in fact, existential emergencies—the very real fear of facing big change.

What can we, as knowledge producers, do to support the changes that are needed? Ioan went on to explain that science and technology had, of course, generated a lot of good for the world – but they had also generated intentional destruction, power unbalances in terms of who benefits from technologies, and unpredictable, unintentional side-effects. In other words, what is happening is that we have unleashed a problem that we do not know how to control …

And from here, we went to … the sorcerer’s apprentice … in that story, a wizard’s apprentice is meant to clean up a castle. Because he is lazy, he tries to use magic to clean the castle…. And … he has just enough knowledge to get the process of cleaning going, but as he tries to stop it, the brooms take on a life of their own, become more and more, and so on … until eventually there is total chaos until the senior wizard comes home and puts an end to it all.

So – humanity’s story right now is pretty much like this … JUST WE DON’T HAVE A WIZARD to stop it all. We’re a bunch of apprentices, and it’s up to us to put an end to the insanity we have unleashed. What does this metaphor suggest for what we need to do?

  1. We need to accept we are all apprentices! This requires humility and full recognition of what is happening around us.
  2. We need to draw on more diverse kinds of knowledge. “How to” knowledge in particular, is rapidly growing, and this type of knowledge is not sufficiently being generated in universities. Ioan indicated in addition to epistemic knowledge, we need know how (techne) and phronesis (practical wisdom). So, we need to learn from doing, and researchers need to get involved in the world of practice. And so the role of scientists must change – from outside observer, to involved in the actual resolution of problems.
  3. We need to develop wisdom, not only knowledge. The apprentice, in our story, was quite selfish – he didn’t question whether it was wise to use magic because he was lazy … and his lack of wisdom led to disastrous consequences. So what is needed is not only knowledge per se, but also an understanding of what is right and good.
  4. We need to unleash creativity and the possibility for magic, accepting that there are things we don’t know at all just yet – i.e. open our minds to think in truly new ways about some of the problems we are facing.
  5. We need to ask really difficult questions, asking not only what is the right way to do things, what are the right things … but even more broadly, asking “what is right”?

Ioan concluded with a lot of challenging questions, not all of which I can reproduce here. Perhaps one of the most interesting ones was: Who should we be at the end of the world as we know it?

 

Taking a fresh look at sustainability via a “leverage points perspective”

By Joern Fischer & Maraja Riechers

Have you ever wondered why, with all the science, and all the talk of sustainability, the world still seems to be going the wrong way? – One explanation is that we’ve done plenty of things, but … perhaps not the right things. A leverage points perspective is emerging as a new analytical lens to tackle sustainability problems. We summarize what this perspective can do for sustainability in our new paper in People & Nature; and from 6-8 February a leverage points perspective will take centre stage at the inaugural international conference “Leverage Points 2019” at Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany.

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A leverage points perspective on sustainability.

The idea of leverage points as such is not new to people working on complex systems, such as social-ecological systems. However, the idea of a “leverage points perspective” is more than just recognizing that we can intervene in systems at different points – it’s about recognizing that some interventions are more powerful than others, and that it’s not just about cause-and-effect relationships, but also about getting our goals right … but before we get carried away, let’s see how a leverage points perspective came about.

Origin of a leverage points perspective

A leverage points perspective, as we now articulate it, dates back to 1999, when Donella Meadows published a seminal essay entitled “Leverage points: places to intervene in a system”. In this essay, she proposed there were different kinds of interventions we could consider when trying to change the trajectory of a complex system. Based on her personal experience as a complex systems analyst, she argued that some interventions seemed to be relatively ineffective, while others seemed to be more powerful. This idea was picked up and further elaborated by Dave Abson and colleagues in 2017 in a paper in the journal Ambio. This paper reasoned that there were shallow and deep interventions – and it seemed that a lot of sustainability science was actually focusing on shallow interventions, while neglecting the deeper ones.

Since this paper came out in 2017, a team of researchers at Leuphana University Lueneburg has worked to put further life into the idea of a leverage points perspective. This work is now culminating in the upcoming “Leverage Points 2019” conference, which will have several hundred attendees.

Key features of a leverage points perspective

Our new paper in People & Nature provides a succinct entry point to get a sense for what a leverage points perspective is all about. In short, it’s a fresh way of thinking about deeply engrained sustainability problems. Without getting too technical in this blog post (you can read the paper for that), a leverage points perspective suggests four key priorities for sustainability.

First, we can’t just set ambitious targets, but we need to firmly link such targets to tangible actions (and vice versa). Change arises both from the intent we pursue, as well as from the ways in which interventions and outcomes are causally related. Scientists have often focused on causal explanations of change, and politicians have often focused on setting targets – but the two have rarely been effectively linked. As we describe in our new paper, technically, this priority is about linking the concepts of causality and teleology.

Second, we need to start discussing and challenging deeply entrenched beliefs and worldviews that stand in the way of a sustainable future. Can we really expect, for example, that we will reach environmental sustainability or social justice while we organize our economic systems around endless material growth? Technically, this priority means we need to look at deep leverage points, such as the goals and paradigms underpinning our social-ecological systems.

Third, we need to better understand how different types of policy interventions pave the way for change. Easy interventions, like reducing the use of plastic bags, are often advocated in order to do something tangible, and are believed to also trigger a change in mindsets. But does this logic work in practice? How should we best intervene in the world in order to ultimately bring about truly transformative change? Technically, this priority suggests we need to understand how interventions at shallow and deep leverage points interact.

Finally, we need ways to link different types of people and their diverse understandings of the world. We need to link academics from different disciplines with one another, as well as with stakeholders from politics, industry and society at large. Technically speaking, a leverage points perspective can be used as a boundary object that speaks to many different audiences.

 Further information

To find out more, read our new paper in People & Nature or attend Leverage Points 2019 in Lueneburg! The conference will ask: how do we transform ourselves, our science, our institutions, our interventions and our societies for a better future? Inspired by the way a leverage points perspective can shape scientific and social practice, the conference will use many different formats to facilitate learning: scientists, practitioners and students will engage in different sessions that use various interactive and discussion-oriented formats. Information from the many sessions will be harvested and refined by a team of graphic facilitators. This way key findings and take-home lessons from the conference will be re-distributed among the participants from all around the world, allowing for cross-pollination of challenging questions and inspiring ideas.

New paper: Leverage points for improving gender equality and human well-being in a smallholder farming context

By Aisa Manlosa

How can factors that create and entrench gender inequality change? Approaches range from targeting visible gender gaps, changing formal institutions, and focusing on deeply entrenched social norms. In a recently published paper, we unpack gender-related changes in southwest Ethiopia and emphasize the importance of interactions between domains of changes (Fig. 1). We highlight the utility of a leverage points perspective for systems-oriented gender research.

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Conceptual framework of leverage points for improving gender equality and household well-being

In the agricultural development sector where gender has been found to influence access and control of resources, participation in livelihood activities, and benefits from livelihoods, researchers who apply the gender transformative approach have called for greater focus on the factors that underlie gender inequality including formal and informal structures such as gender norms, and power relations. Gender equality is a highly pertinent issue in southwest Ethiopia. In many areas, social practices continue to be patriarchal. However, policy reforms by the government aimed at empowering women are facilitating changes. To analyze the changes that have been occurring, we applied the concept of leverage points, which are places to intervene to change a system. Dave Abson and other colleagues at Leuphana identified four realms of leverage namely paramaters, feedbacks, design, and intent. The parallel between Abson et al.’s four realms of leverage and common areas of focus in gender research including visible gender gaps (reflecting parameters), formal and informal institutions (reflecting design), and attitudes (reflecting intent) is striking. At the onset, this parallel suggested that applying leverage points as an analytical lens, can generate important sights that could contribute to ongoing conversations around facilitating and supporting gender transformative change.

Our analysis drew on qualitative data from key informant interviews, focus group discussions, and semi-structured interviews with women and men. We examined gender-related changes in southwest Ethiopia, factors driving the changes, associated household well-being outcomes, and importantly, the interplay of different types of leverage points leading to the range of changes (some clear, many tentative, nevertheless in existence). The findings section in the linked article details the range of changes identified by local residents. For example, in terms of visible gaps, the majority reported an improvement in women’s participation in public activities such as trainings and meetings. In terms of community norms which we considered as an informal institution, decision-making practices at the household level had begun to change. In terms of attitudes, we found evidence that there is an emergent positive perception concerning women’s capacities. This is significant in a context where women were traditionally viewed as lacking capacities men have. The findings section contains quotes that best convey local residents’ views. But perhaps the most important take-away message from the study stems from the overwhelming importance attributed by local residents to the government’s actions to promote gender equality. This suggested that while community norms and attitudes are deeply entrenched and therefore important areas to focus on, formal institutions in the form of policies, priorities, and programs by the government play a similarly important role. In the context of southwest Ethiopia, the changes in formal institutions related to gender are beginning to open and expand the horizon for what is possible and legitimate in communities. Therefore the interplay between different leverage points (e. g. formal and informal institutions) cannot be discounted and should be considered in facilitating processes for gender transformative change.

 

The Anthropocene and how suddenly, we don’t care

by Joern Fischer

A set of recent discussions inspired me to write this very simple post. I’m basically just highlighting an observation: that some trends of the Anthropocene, we try to fight, and others we accept as a given. What’s fascinating is that this can switch quite suddenly — something we wanted to fight yesterday, we accept as a given today — and it seems like the choice of things we fight versus take as given is quite “random”, or at least not grounded in anything particularly useful or intelligent.

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Source: Future Earth

So, first of all — let’s be clear what I mean by the Anthropocene here. To be precise, I mean the “great acceleration” aspect of the Anthropocene. As shown above, for example, this is characterised by well known exponential increases in a wide range of social, economic, and environmental phenomena.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist (nor a system scientist) to guess that probably, when a bunch of stuff increases all at the same time, something is going on. And probably, these different trends are not independent but related. Similarly, it doesn’t take a lot of analysis to then realise that to address this stuff, you probably need to deal with the WHOLE, rather than with just a few trends in isolation.

And: it seems obvious you can’t just randomly accept some of these exponential growth curves while trying to fight the others. Or at least, that seems obvious to me… and this is where the observation begins.

Some trends, many sustainability scientists routinely argue against. Examples of this are climate change and biodiversity loss. We haven’t given up yet on these ones, and we argue that we must halt climate change! We must stop biodiversity loss!

But others, we take as given. My two favourite ones are urbanisation and food production. Large numbers of sustainability scholars accept urbanisation as an unchangeable and value-neutral phenomenon; and similarly, large numbers of scholars argue that “we must double food production” because demand “will” double.

The choice of accepting these as given while desperately fighting some of the others seems quite arbitrary to me, and frankly, illogical. What if urban lifestyles are part of the package of increasing un-sustainability (e.g. because they contributed to disconnectedness from the natural world and longer food chains)? What if increasing demand for food is a symptom of un-sustainability (e.g. because it is driven by increasingly unhealthy diets related to industrial food systems)?

My suggestion is that we either fall in love with exponential growth, and then we do it for everything. Then we can argue, and some people do, that it’s all not so bad, and we will innovate our way around planetary boundaries. Or alternatively, you can sign the ecomodernist manifesto, and argue vehemently that we can have our cake and eat it, too.

Or … well, or we have to address the great acceleration as a whole, not just a couple of the hockey sticks, but all of them.

Perhaps ever increasing urbanisation is not actually what the world needs. Perhaps doubling food production is not what the world actually needs.

Perhaps we need to keep the big picture in mind more routinely — and that is, that these trends are parts of a package of unsustainable, exponential growth. When you have a system of interlinked, reinforcing feedbacks, you can’t just choose a couple of variables and address those. It’s got to be the whole package.

 

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.

compassion-by-susan von struensee

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: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629617304413

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!