Paper recommendation: power relations in ecosystem services work

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend the following paper:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paper recommendation: integrated landscape approaches for the future

I would like to recommend the following paper:

Reed J,  Van Vianen J,  Deakin EL,  Barlow J,  Sunderland T. 2016. Integrated landscape approaches to managing social and environmental issues in the tropics: learning from the past to guide the futureGlob Chang Biol. 2016 Mar 17, DOI: 10.3410/f.726225411.793517151

Focusing on the tropics, this paper makes a strong case for further efforts on ‘landscape approaches’ to biodiversity conservation. Landscape approaches are defined as approaches that seek, at the same time, to tackle biodiversity conservation, food security, poverty alleviation and climate change. The paper urges researchers, policy makers and practitioners alike to continue their efforts on focusing on landscapes as units for the integration of multiple interests — with the goal of maximizing synergies, while minimizing and being aware of inevitable trade-offs.

Through its holistic, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary focus, this paper is a welcome contrast to the dominant discourse in leading journals, which tends to be technocratic in nature {1}.


The intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation: a review, Glamann J, Hanspach J, Abson DJ, Collier N, Fischer J. Reg Environ Change. 2015 Oct 06; 

Disaggregated contributions of ecosystem services to human well-being: a case study from Eastern Europe

By Andra Horcea-Milcu

This new paper is part of recent efforts (e.g. Spangenberg et al. 2014) to widen the ecosystem service metaphor in order to encompass the multiple ways in which nature supports human well-being. As I tried to illustrate in more detail here, the evolution of the ecosystem service discourse has roughly followed down the Haines-Young and Potschin ‘cascade’ towards the beneficiaries’ end: their capabilities, agency, interest, power, preferences, inner values, and the totality of social processes influencing the cascade (e.g. the management of the ecosystem services flow). The question of how is human well-being connected to ecosystem services gave rise to new research agendas including issues of co-production by social-ecological systems, equity (e.g. Pascual et al. 2014), benefit distribution and disaggregation of beneficiaries based on various criteria such as gender or location (e.g. Daw 2011). Disaggregation enables studying in more depth patterns of ecosystem services flows, similarly to how a finer scale analysis allows to research different patterns in comparison to a coarse scale approach.

Adept Foundation booklet

Adept Foundation booklet

Disaggregated contributions of ecosystem services to human well-being: a case study from Eastern Europe” explores the unequal distribution of nine provisioning ecosystem services among potential beneficiary groups in Southern Transylvania and the contextual factors that explain this distribution. Data collection was based on group interviews. For analyzing the data we used an informed grounded theory approach operationalized in two iterative cycles of qualitative coding, performed similarly to how I explained here. Initially inspired by Daw et al. 2011 and by the literature on access (Ribot and Peluso 2003), this paper proposes a conceptual model based on six mediating factors that better situate the relation between human well-being and nature’s benefits. The developed model is in line with reflections on the co-production of ecosystem services by various elements and forms of capital pertaining to the social and ecological system (e.g. Palomo et al. 2016, but see also here for a total zoom out).

Conceptual model of mediating factors (MMF)

Conceptual model of mediating factors (MMF)

Factor 1 characteristics of the appropriated ecosystem services
We separated the investigated ecosystem services in three categories based on their capacity to generate indirect benefits such as cash income or employment.
Factor 2 policies, formal institutions, and markets
Factor 2 is about the visible institutional and policy contexts shaping the well-being contribution of nature’s services to humans. In our study area, these were frequently associated with the perceived effect of specific policies such as the European Common Agriculture Policy and its agri-environment measures.
Factor 3 social and power relations, and informal institutions
The intricate webs of power, knowledge and social relations among beneficiaries further enhance or block access to ecosystem services benefits.
Factor 4 household decisions and individual contexts
Well-being circumstances like income levels, abilities, preferences, livelihood decisions, and strategies at individual or more aggregated levels such as households add more complexity to the ecosystem services–well-being relationship.
Factor 5 different perceptions and understandings of equity
Mental models of fairness and adjusted expectations distort outcomes of the ecosystem services–well-being relationship. Our study illustrated that what is regarded as legitimate is linked to locals’ judgments and mental models, placing fairness in the eye of the beholder.
Factor 6 individually held values
Finally, the sixth factor pertained to values and norms held by participants.

The above factors share similarities with others identified in the recent literature (e.g. Hicks and Cinner 2014), although they may differ in terms of jargon, but less so in terms of content and meaning. The delineation of these factors is based on the analytical assumption that our model facilitates the study of ecosystem services–well-being relationships by deconstructing their contextual complexity. In reality, these factors interact (see last section before the Discussion) and future studies may reveal the ways this happens in different settings. For example, in Transylvania, the conventional discourse that regards ecosystem services as instrumental to poverty alleviation is overly simplified and ineffective. Objective needs versus subjective wants, perceptions and attitudes about who is entitled to benefit from ecosystem services, they all make a difference. Likewise, the deeply held values (factor 6), may reverse the self-reinforcing dynamic of the other factors that perpetuate the gap between winners and losers.

Group Interview

Beyond the importance of the factors and their dynamic which is detailed in the paper, I would like to take a more scientivist stance, and highlight a few place-based insights that it is worth being acknowledged in addition to the conceptual contributions of this paper. What I found most striking about this piece of research is the story it told (together with the other papers from my thesis) about who are the winners and losers that benefit the nature of Transylvania. Many studies now show that ecosystem services flow unequally to different beneficiaries (e.g. Felipe-Lucia et al. 2015). In the case of Southern Transylvania benefits seem to flow to supertenants (Romanians or foreigners living outside the village, but having economic connections to it) and much less to small scale farmers. Hence supertenants (sometimes called ‘townsmen’ like in this excerpt from my pilot study: “P1: Let’s be grateful there aren’t too many of these. P2: Yes. There are not too many townsmen who invested here”) are socially and physically disconnected from these landscapes. They are less vulnerable to changes in ecological conditions and not part of the rural communities. Meanwhile small farmers, through their practical connection to the land, are considered genuinely and functionally connected to the landscape. The extent to which supertenents may or may not be potential actors in the land grabbing phenomena remains yet to be investigated. Nevertheless, the veil of mystery surrounding their identity from the perspective of our interviewees still remains fascinating, even after such a emotional strenuous fieldwork as this study entailed, and the many challenges we faced in getting participants around the table. Despite occupying sizeable land surfaces, supertenants did not seem to occupy the mental space of our participants (largely rural community members). They were very seldom spontaneously mentioned, usually requiring prompting. Their access to land however explained many of the unknowns and question marks surging during the group interviews, such as the apparently untraceable but largely detectable vanishing of ‘the commons’, known to be ‘at the heart’ of the traditional Transylvanian villages.

As a follow up to this study and supported by our understanding of these particular social-ecological systems and human-nature relationships that we built during the past Romania project, we will try to further explore the transformative role of values and social relations. By conducting a transdisciplinary case-study in Southern Transylvania, within the Leverage Points project, we will focus on associative structures around land access for small-scale farmers, and their importance for moving towards sustainability and its intra- and inter-generational equity dimensions.



Daw, T., Brown, K., Rosendo, S., & Pomeroy, R. (2011). Applying the ecosystem services concept to poverty alleviation: the need to disaggregate human well-being. Environmental Conservation, 38(04), 370-379.
Felipe-Lucia, M. R., Martín-López, B., Lavorel, S., Berraquero-Díaz, L., Escalera-Reyes, J., & Comín, F. A. (2015). Ecosystem services flows: why stakeholders’ power relationships matter. PloS one, 10(7), e0132232.
Haines-Young, R., & Potschin, M. (2010). The links between biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being. Ecosystem Ecology: a new synthesis, 110-139.
Hicks, C. C., & Cinner, J. E. (2014). Social, institutional, and knowledge mechanisms mediate diverse ecosystem service benefits from coral reefs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(50), 17791-17796.
Palomo, I., Felipe-Lucia, M. R., Bennett, E. M., Martín-López, B., & Pascual, U. (2016). Disentangling the pathways and effects of ecosystem service co-production. Advances in Ecological Research.
Pascual, U., Phelps, J., Garmendia, E., Brown, K., Corbera, E., Martin, A., … & Muradian, R. (2014). Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services. BioScience, 64(11), 1027-1036.
Ribot, J. C., & Peluso, N. L. (2003). A theory of access*. Rural sociology, 68(2), 153-181.
Spangenberg, J. H., von Haaren, C., & Settele, J. (2014). The ecosystem service cascade: Further developing the metaphor. Integrating societal processes to accommodate social processes and planning, and the case of bioenergy. Ecological Economics, 104, 22-32.

Update: Questionnaire on food security and biodiversity conservation

A month ago we launched our questionnaire on food security and biodiversity conservation here on this blog. We have received a lot of positive feedback and support for the questionnaire so far.  We are particularly happy that it has been completed for 143 landscapes from many parts of the world (see map). A big ‘Thank you’ to all of you who have contributed to it by filling the questionnaire or by helping us to distribute it!


Map of the number of responses per country that we got in the last four weeks. Ethiopia obviously stands out as we have a case study landscape there as well and we seem to be quite well connected to experts in the country.

Map of the number of responses per country that we got in the last four weeks. Ethiopia obviously stands out as we have a case study landscape there ourselves and we seem to be quite well connected to experts in the country.

For those who had planned to fill the questionnaire, but haven’t done so yet – there is still time. Also, if you have contacts in those parts of the world where our responses are a bit thin so far, please forward the questionnaire to those colleagues. The survey will be open until 31 January 2016.

Again, here are the details.

To fill the questionnaire go to the following page:
and enter the password (“TAN/Losung”):

More information on the questionnaire can also be found here.

Flexible framings and human agency: implications for conservation

By Joern Fischer

What is the most effective way to conserve biodiversity? Much of the answer seems to depend on how we approach the problem – and which variables we believe can or cannot be altered. This little blog post is a call to more often jump between framings and assumptions about the future. The result, ideally, would be a resilient portfolio of conservation actions.

Take this introduction by myself and co-authors from 2006 (full paper available here):

“Only about 12% of Earth’s land is located in protected areas, and less than half of this is managed primarily for biodiversity conservation (Hoekstra et al. 2005). Although protected areas are an essential part of any credible conservation strategy (Margules and Pressey 2000), it is becoming increasingly clear that reserves alone will not protect biodiversity because they are too few, too isolated, too static, and not always safe from over-exploitation (Liu et al. 2001; Bengtsson et al. 2003; Rodrigues et al. 2004). For these reasons, it is now widely recognized that conservation within protected areas needs to be complemented by conservation outside protected areas (Daily 2001; Lindenmayer and Franklin 2002).”

This framing makes it quite clear that this particular set of authors simply doesn’t have much faith in protected areas. Basically, we stated that they only cover a small proportion of land – and an implicit assumption is that this is unlikely to change. In other words, our framing leads us to believe that protected areas are inherently limited. We do not believe that humanity would choose, collectively or otherwise, to set aside substantially more land than the (then current) level of 12%.

At the other end of the spectrum, we’re experiencing a rise in people once again arguing for more protected areas – these are the scientists advocating re-wilding, or advocating land sparing. But interestingly, too, papers advocating more reserves also often start with specific framings that include implicit assumptions about humanity. Most common is the “Tilman statement” – that food production must double by 2050 to meet rising demand. Authors who take this as an unalterable fact do not believe that humanity – collectively or otherwise – will get its act together to improve food distribution issues, eat less meat, and waste less food. So, just like in the previous framing, some things are considered feasible, and hence worth studying (e.g. increasing the amount of reserves), while other things are considered not feasible and hence not worth studying (e.g. reducing the need to double agricultural production).

As we jump between topics, we see that the perceived limits of human agency will again and again shape what a particular group of scientists believes we need to do. Depending in your assumptions, you will believe cities are the solution or you see them as the problem, you believe nuclear power is the solution or part of the problem, and technology in general is inherently problematic or might yet come to the rescue.

Ironically, scientific papers are devoted to describing the specific analyses following such initial, largely implicit framings. And so, more often than not, analyses will confirm what a given set of scientists already believes in: the analyses by the pro-nuclear scientists will confirm the need for nuclear energy, while the analyses by the anti-nuclear scientists will, usually, show the exact opposite.

Implicit framings cause many problems. Scientists do not come across as a united front, and as a result, science is not taken seriously by some decision makers – they pick and choose the science that most fits with their beliefs. Perhaps even more problematically, the existence of multiple truths that are contingent on framing, don’t sit easily with “objective” (positivist) natural scientists. Debates emerge, and technical details continue to be refined, when in fact misunderstandings arise from issues that are more hidden, as well as more important.

Ultimately, none of us know which assumptions about the future, and the ability of humanity to get its act together, are most reasonable. Two possible solutions emerge.

One, I would encourage scientists to try to check their own assumptions, and try to jump between different sets of worldviews. If somebody else arrives at the opposite conclusion, it’s most likely not because of different technical issues, but because of different a priori problem framings. The question then is, which bit of which framing is useful?

Second, I think this points towards us needing a portfolio of solutions. The answer is not nuclear power, nor everyone living in the countryside, nor bigger reserves. And equally, the answer most likely is not renewable energy, living in cities, and using wildlife-friendly farming. It’s not doubling food supply, and it’s not everyone being vegetarian. Uncertainty suggests we ought to be somehow prepared for all of these options – make cities more sustainable where possible, but cherish sustainable life in the countryside where that is more feasible. Make nuclear power safe where it is needed, but use renewable energy where possible. Reduce our consumption patterns as much as possible, but know this is going to be hard, and so be prepared that this alone might not be enough.

Somehow, this seems painfully obvious. Yet, disagreements on these very issues seem to be what many of us invest energy into – creating, again and again, polarized understandings in a multi-facetted world.

The insurance value of urban ecosystem services

Note: This is a guest post by Henrik von Wehrden. It was originally published as part of a broader discussion on the nature of cities blog. There, you will find additional interesting posts on the insurance value of urban ecosystem services.

What is the optimal sustainable size and management strategy of a city? Adding to the rising debate on optimal city sizes, the ecosystem service concept is increasingly recognized in urban planning. However, much of the literature to date focuses on biophysical entities of ecosystem services. Of course, planning of biophysical aspects of ecosystem services such as climate regulation or flood protection are surely necessary and helpful, but recognition of the perceptions and needs of citizens is also important. More research is needed that considers both normative perceptions and engages in transformation towards a more sustainable state of the given system.

Normative perceptions demand recognition of stakeholders, a labor intensive and often context-dependent task. However, recognition of stakeholders and their perception is crucial when it comes to recognition of the insurance risk, as it is stakeholders who will ultimately endure potential risks and claim compensation. Many urban settings are designed for the people, when they should be designed by the people. When cities started to grow massively, urban planners attempted to separate living from working, and commuting drastically increased. This potentially also led to higher disparities of risks between different neighborhoods, where some areas are at higher risk of catastrophic events than others. This concept was dramatically illustrated by the effects of Hurricane Katrina, where some neighborhoods suffered higher impacts than others.

Today, there is a global trend towards a recognition of functional diversity within cities, meaning that separation of different functions in urban settings often decreases. Neighborhoods with a higher diversity in function and ecosystem services may support a higher quality of life for citizens and a better resilience against drastic changes or catastrophes we face today. The concept of ecosystem services should therefore enable a diverse and resilient setting of services.

Urban planners should, in my opinion, not make the mistake of focusing on short-term optimization by using the ecosystem service approach. In contrast, planners need to include long-term effects of different ecosystem services signatures into their planning process. Costs that protect urban setting from rare catastrophes, especially, may only pay off on a long-term perspective. Planners and citizens need to recognize the value of these long-term services, where settings that are tightly planned may not allow for systems to tackle extremes, and may fail to deliver a just urban setting. Many stressors of urban environments are extreme by nature. Calculation of average system entities is relevant, but current challenges also demand the integration of extremes, including the interplay of extremes. For example, if heatwaves alter soil infiltration capacities, torrential rainfalls later in the year then create devastating floods. Recognizing trade-offs is, in my opinion, one strongpoint of the ecosystem service concept. Understanding the interplay between a variety of services and their temporal long-term dynamics can help us to build a better system understanding. While this is, in part, context dependent, many solutions are also transferable across different neighborhoods and economies.

Disparities are not only found within cities, but also between different economies. While insurance risks are comparably well accounted for in parts of Europe and North America, urban environments in most of the world are not covered by insurance, but are often threatened by risks. Insurance often focusses on individuals, but risks can threaten whole neighborhoods or even cities. Insurance can thus increase injustice within cities, where only those people that can afford insurance are protected. The costs of long term planning endeavors need to be added to the costs of urban settings, both for urban planners and citizens. While urban living would thus become more expensive, it may create a more just setting for all citizens. This may enable more sustainable planning for future cities by increasing equity and justice in cost calculation of urban areas. If this price is too high for citizens and planners, then we will continue to rely on insurances and tackling catastrophes only after they hit us.

Milestones in sustainability related research and useful readings

I once heard this question being asked within an interview setting for a university position. I thought then, as I do now, that it is an inspiring way to structure my thoughts regarding the different disciplines and associated worldviews I am exposed to, or work with. I find timelines and evolutionary perspectives extremely useful, especially for those who share a time orientated understanding of the world. Rather than thinking in spatial landmarks, I like to create timelines in my mind. I suppose structuring research fields would also work nicely (or even nicer) with mind maps.

Following this logic, I tried to sketch some personal answers, which would probably need some revisiting soon enough. I would like to share with you a few relatively recent trends that I see gathering even more momentum in the near future, being aware there are many other milestones one could consider. In sharing these thoughts, I think mainly about young PhD students or academia scholars, but mostly non-academia professionals, such as practitioners working in the field of sustainable development. Hence, this is fairly simplified, with only a few references and suggested readings of papers deemed representative of their respective field.

We tried to debate some of these thoughts in our yet “pilot journal club”, so this may serve as a proposition for a more “holistic” journal club session.

Photo credits:

Photo credits:

Ecosystem services (ES) research

Research on ES evolved quickly from conceptualization, localized documentation and modeling of ecological dynamics, to policy and management applications, such as the creation of payment schemes for ES. A very nice timeline is provided by Gómez-Baggethun et al. 2010. Ecologists, economists and policy makers now widely engage with the concept, turning ES into a heuristic tool for revealing the multiple ways in which ecosystems support human well-being, an operational tool for making decisions, and a compelling language for policy makers. At the same time, the concept has generated a lot of criticism because of its hypertrophied focus on utilitarianism and potential commodification of nature (e.g. Schröter et al., 2014). Specifically, some authors have viewed ES as a one sided simplistic metaphor of human-environment relationships (e.g. Norgaard 2010, Raymond et al. 2013), ignoring different, often non-material, values that beneficiaries may assign to ecosystems. In response, new research agendas have emerged, including issues of: co-production by social-ecological systems, socio-cultural valuation of ES (e.g. Martín-López et al. 2014, Scholte et al. 2015) depending on a wide variety of values that stakeholders assign to ES (based on well on their own held values) (e.g. Ives and Kendal 2014), equity (e.g. Pascual et al. 2014), benefit distribution and disaggregation of beneficiaries based on various criteria such as location or gender (e.g. Daw 2009). The academic discourse on ES has roughly followed down the Haines-Young and Potschin ‘cascade’ towards recognizing their stakeholder driven nature. At the current stage there is growing interest in studying and understanding the more anthropospheric side (e.g. Spangenberg et al. 2014), or the ‘subjective end’ of the cascade: the plurality of benefits and values associated with different beneficiaries and their well-being. The general discourse is moving towards stakeholders, their capabilities (e.g. Polishchuk and Rauschmayer 2012), agency, interest, power (e.g. Fisher et al. 2013, Felipe Lucia et al. 2015), preferences, inner values, and the totality of social processes influencing the cascade: mobilization, appropriation, value articulation (e.g. Ernstson 2008), management, governance, normative foundations (e.g. Abson et al. 2014).

Social-ecological systems (SES) research

This point has been thoroughly dealt with in a previous more detailed blog entry (see also here). In short and simply put, present discourses seem to focus on the fundamental connection between the social and the ecological system, and, at the same time, the risk of disconnection or the dangers of teleconnections (e.g. Challies 2014), as well as potential solutions such as innovative re-connections supporting a transition towards sustainability. To these ends, SES research is striving to accommodate and adapt its frameworks to the social dynamics of globalizing systems inherently pertaining to a global economy and market. A variety of new conceptual frameworks (e.g. Diaz et al. 2015, Diaz et al. 2011, Fisher et. al 2014) are trying to capture better the interlinkages and interdependencies between nature and people and between science and society, while acknowledging them as being an integrative part of the other, and inseparable in reality. Authors are increasingly placing the focus on the knowledge about links between “the social” and “the ecological”, knowledge that was generated beyond disciplinary boundaries, at the interface between science and society (e.g. Fischer et al. in 2015). Papers are proposing various recoupling strategies (e.g. Fischer et al. in 2012), emphasizing reconnecting social-ecological feedbacks (Folke et al. 2011), such as more effective “virtuous circles” between natural, cultural, and economic assets (e.g. Plieninger and Bieling 2013, Selman and Knight 2006).

(Cultural) landscape research

The landscape lens brings forward the landscape as an arena for sustainable development and knowledge integration. Here, I would chose to stop over the rise of landscape stewardship, as a way to operationalize moral concerns in relation to social-ecological interactions that were enounced as early as the 50s (Leopold, 1949). Science for relinking communities and landscapes draws attention to the potential of landscape stewardship as one of the ambitious but effective ways to achieve sustainable management and design inclusive rural development policies (e.g. Plieninger et al. 2015). Integrating a broad suite of landscape values through engaged forms of stewardship is thought to balance out the dependency on active outside input (again inherent to a globalized world).

Sustainability science research

An important acknowledged milestone for sustainability science is re-thinking boundaries and structures, overcoming societal roles, and transforming the science-society interface, through for example the co-design of research projects and the co-production of knowledge fitting with transdisciplinary approaches (e.g. Lang et al. 2012, Brandt et al. 2013). Other suggested pathways are the recognition of its normative foundations through mapping and deliberating sustainability held values (e.g. Miller et al. 2014).

Resilience thinking

Resilience thinking continues to receive a lot of criticism for not sufficiently acknowledged limits such as the lack of attention to normative and epistemological issues. Recent discourse on resilience aims to open towards fields more engaged with the issues of power and agency such as political ecology or sociology, which may complement the arguably functional perspective of resilience. A permanent work in progress, resilience theory continues to develop, striving for a more complete knowledge integration of human and ecological dynamics. A more detailed perspective is offered here.

Sustainability related governance research

Finally, I am not sure to which extent this is a milestone, but I retained that in addition to the governance models incorporating elements of participatory (non-state multi-actor engagement, e.g. industry, NGOs) and multi-level governance, recent literature calls for polycentricity, further emphasizing the idea of a collaborative dispersion of authority (Biggs et al. 2015). Advanced polycentric systems comprise multiple independent centers of decision making, with different levels of inclusiveness, collaborating horizontally and vertically at various scales. In theory, these systems may isolate failures, but if successful, may be reproduced elsewhere. I found this idea worthy of further explorations in contexts with a diversity of elements pertaining to the social subsystems: different formal and informal institutions, land-use preferences, management approaches, various values, perspectives and interests such as identified in Southern Transylvania.

In conclusion, I take from these potential milestones that the general trend seems to be towards integration of existing knowledge, conceptual and epistemological openness and plurality, and maybe even a ‘subjectivisation’ of science, in hope of achieving meaningful contributions towards normative goals.

As for future directions, I guess one of the main questions that stems from the above are: 1. Do we need to engage more in these pathways, and if so how can we capitalize on them? 2. Do any of these potential milestones are going to lead to any fundamental changes in approaches towards sustainability (e.g. mainstreaming transdisciplinarity?)

As already mentioned, there are many other interesting developing directions in all of the scientific disciplines I touched upon. The few selected are reflective of a particular research experience and perspective I had from my positioning as a PhD student dealing with the ecology of the social system. This is just a starting point from where the mind can continue traveling boundlessly to imagine infinite perspectives outside comfort zones.


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  • Martín-López, Berta, Erik Gómez-Baggethun, Marina García-Llorente, and Carlos Montes. “Trade-offs across value-domains in ecosystem services assessment.” Ecological Indicators 37 (2014): 220-228.
  • Miller, Thaddeus R., Arnim Wiek, Daniel Sarewitz, John Robinson, Lennart Olsson, David Kriebel, and Derk Loorbach. “The future of sustainability science: a solutions-oriented research agenda.” Sustainability science 9, no. 2 (2014): 239-246.
  • *Newig, Jens, and Oliver Fritsch. Environmental governance: participatory, multi-level-and effective?. No. 15/2008. UFZ Diskussionspapiere, 2008.
  • Norgaard, Richard B. “Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder.” Ecological economics 69, no. 6 (2010): 1219-1227.
  • Pascual, Unai, Jacob Phelps, Eneko Garmendia, Katrina Brown, Esteve Corbera, Adrian Martin, Erik Gomez-Baggethun, and Roldan Muradian. “Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services.” BioScience (2014): biu146.
  • Plieninger, Tobias, and Claudia Bieling. “Resilience-based perspectives to guiding high-nature-value farmland through socioeconomic change.” Ecology and Society 18, no. 4 (2013).
  • *Plieninger, Tobias, and Claudia Bieling. Resilience and the cultural landscape: understanding and managing change in human-shaped environments. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • *Plieninger, Tobias, et al. “Exploring ecosystem-change and society through a landscape lens: recent progress in European landscape research.” Ecology and Society2 (2015): 5.
  • Polishchuk, Yuliana, and Felix Rauschmayer. “Beyond “benefits”? Looking at ecosystem services through the capability approach.” Ecological Economics 81 (2012): 103-111.
  • Raymond, Christopher M., Gerald G. Singh, Karina Benessaiah, Joanna R. Bernhardt, Jordan Levine, Harry Nelson, Nancy J. Turner, Bryan Norton, Jordan Tam, and Kai MA Chan. “Ecosystem services and beyond: Using multiple metaphors to understand human–environment relationships.” BioScience 63, no. 7 (2013): 536-546.
  • Scholte, Samantha SK, Astrid JA van Teeffelen, and Peter H. Verburg. “Integrating socio-cultural perspectives into ecosystem service valuation: A review of concepts and methods.” Ecological Economics 114 (2015): 67-78.
  • Schröter, Matthias, Emma H. Zanden, Alexander PE Oudenhoven, Roy P. Remme, Hector M. Serna‐Chavez, Rudolf S. Groot, and Paul Opdam. “Ecosystem services as a contested concept: a synthesis of critique and counter‐” Conservation Letters 7, no. 6 (2014): 514-523.
  • Selman, Paul, and Melanie Knight. “On the nature of virtuous change in cultural landscapes: Exploring sustainability through qualitative models.” Landscape Research 31, no. 3 (2006): 295-307.
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*Suggested readings

Where have the big ideas gone?

By Joern Fischer

In the 1960s, island biogeography changed the way ecologists think about species distribution. In the 1970s, the first ideas for reserve design were beginning to take shape. In the 1990s, we learnt about fragmentation and edge effects. In the late 1990s, the idea of ecosystem services transformed the way we thought about conservation.

What are our big ideas today? My (controversial and perhaps mistaken) impression is that we are too often replacing the generation of new ideas with higher levels of technical sophistication when implementing the old ones. Climate change predictions are getting ever more accurate, but that hasn’t changed climate change per se. Planetary boundaries have been defined and recently refined, but that we’re beyond the limits was well known for decades before that. Technologies to refine agricultural yields are becoming more and more refined, but food distribution remains inequitable. In short: much of the highest impact science seems to just add higher levels of technical sophistication to what is already well known, but does little to address the foundational issues arguably most in need to being tackled.

This is of course, just an opinion of mine, and it may (1) be wrong, and (2) be seen as arrogant, or (3) be just plain unhelpful. As in: if I don’t like what is being researched, what then do I propose scientists ought to do more of? This is tricky, and if there was a simple answer, perhaps everyone would be doing just that. I guess I’d just like more signs from the scientific community that “we care”, that we realize that just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic will not be helpful, and that we know that simply refining our estimates and tools – within existing conceptual boundaries – won’t ultimately lead to sustainability. Not knowing the solution doesn’t mean one shouldn’t at least try to find it, beyond the space that is already well explored.

And last but not least: along with a loss of genuinely new ideas, I feel we are also increasingly losing scientists who are willing to express their vision for real, substantial changes in how humans interact with one another and with the planet. When talking in the pub, many sustainability or conservation scientists will still frankly speak about the need for major changes. But in papers … it’s just not neat and tidy enough, I guess.

Paper recommendation: Claire Kremen on land sparing and sharing

By Joern Fischer

Finally: an authoritative must-read paper that provides an in-depth critique on the framework of land sparing versus land sharing. I highly recommend this new paper by Claire Kremen, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (and freely available here).

The paper is an impressive synthesis of a vast amount of literature on land sparing and land sharing. While it takes a critical perspective of the framework, it also acknowledges some of the key strengths of the work by the original proponents – including density-based field sampling, and a field design that allows the careful assessment of yield-density relationships.

The paper also addresses numerous other issues that have caused controversy and confusion in the past, including inconsistent terminology, and whether higher-yielding farming will actually spare land for nature. It synthesizes nicely up-to-date insights from a governance perspective, too – showing that without effective environmental governance, higher yielding agriculture may backfire badly on biodiversity conservation. Higher yielding agriculture, by whichever method, thus will not automatically lead to the sparing or land for nature.

I particularly liked the clear critique that there must be a consideration of who is to benefit from potential yield gains achieved. As one of very few leading scientists, Claire Kremen departs from the dominant, largely technocratic perspective that first, we must increase yields, and then worry about how to best distribute the material gains thus achieved. The world doesn’t work like this, and Claire Kremen emphasizes that equity considerations, explicitly accounting for smallholders, need to be part of potential management strategies from the outset.

Finally, I agree with the author that it’s time to come up with a new framework. The framework of land sparing versus land sharing was, and is, useful for focusing the attention of researchers on the intersection of two interrelated issues: food security (or production) and biodiversity conservation. This has been a great contribution, because many ecologists who never would have thought about these issues in combination are now ready to engage with these topics.

But: it’s time to move on, and add the further nuances that are clearly needed – including issues such as governance and equity considerations. The onus here, to my mind, is not on the original proponents of this framework, who did a great job getting an important issue on many, many people’s agendas. Rather, the onus is on the scientific community as a whole to move on: respecting what we have learnt to date, but recognizing that it, alone, will be insufficient to guide future policy or management decisions.

Why trade-off analysis leaves me un-enthused

By Joern Fischer

Last night, I had an interesting chat over dinner about ecosystem services and trade-offs. For a long time, I’ve felt that somehow trade-off analysis just doesn’t really excite me. I think I’ve finally figured out why.

My reading of the ecosystem services literature is that it developed a bit like this. Once upon a time, people recognised that the idea of conserving biodiversity for its own sake did not appeal sufficiently to the general public. So the metaphor of ecosystem services was created as a way to emphasise to people that nature actually matters not only for its own sake, but also for human well-being.

Armed with a lot of enthusiasm about this new framing for conservation, people set out to identify the possibilities of this new metaphor. I’d say people at this early stage of ecosystem services research set out to find new synergies — for example, was it possible to conserve species simply by appealing to the conservation of ecosystem services?

Then, as the ecosystem services concept began to mature in theory and application, an increasing amount of economics came into it. Services were being quantified in biophysical, and increasingly also in monetary terms. Optimisation started becoming possible: where should we have which kind of service? And what will be the cost of having one kind of service to another kind of service? Thinking in decision-relevant trade-offs had arrived.

Right now, my sense is that thinking about trade-offs is increasingly fashionable in the same research community that once upon a time emphasised the need to find synergies. Selling win-win solutions — or framing papers around win-win solutions — has got more difficult. People will be skeptical and will say that’s just seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses and in fact there are important trade-offs that must be considered.

True, I guess, but to my mind also rather uninspiring.

Let me draw a parallel to forecasting versus backcasting. Forecasting is the dominant scientific mode; we generate numbers about the future based on our understanding of the present. And then we work out things will continue to get worse. (Hooray.) Backcasting — the alternative — starts by asking where do we want to be, and what do we need to do to get there? What do we need to do to break out of current trends, rather than assume they must continue into the future? I like backcasting because it lifts us out of the present set of perceived constraints, and opens our minds to possibilities and new, creative solutions.

To me, this is also the reason why I’m un-enthused about trade-off analysis. We can understand in ever more detail the various constraints imposed on current management decisions. But this psychological space of perceiving the world in constraints — to my mind — is likely to keep us locked into the same general structures and thought processes that quite possibly, we need to break through. Seeking win-win solutions — just like backcasting — may be less “realistic” right now, but as a mindset, it paves creative avenues to finding a better future.

I won’t deny that we should be understanding constraints and trade-offs more carefully in some situations, for example to avoid unintended side-effects on marginalised groups. But the overwhelming emphasis on trade-offs in the literature at present, instead of on synergies and win-wins strikes me as also, inadvertently, constraining our thinking to what is — rather than opening it to what can be.