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.

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.