Our research at Resilience 2017

By Joern Fischer

Next week much of our research group will be attending “Resilience 2017” in Stockholm, a major international conference on social-ecological systems. We’ll be live-streaming a session on food security and biodiversity conservation (stay tuned here for details, and check our twitter account!), and several researchers from our group will be presenting interim findings.

If you’re interested in attending any of the talks by our group, here is an overview, including links to the Abstracts.

Monday 21 August 2017

Session on Governance and social-ecological fit; Multi-level governance and biosphere stewardship; Room 26 (50); 14:00 – 14:40
This will include: Harmonizing food security and biodiversity governance: A multi-level governance analysis with the case study in Ethiopia, Tolera Senbeto Jiren, Ine Dorresteijn, Arvid Bergsten, Neil Collier, Julia Leventon, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Transformative agency Part I, Social-ecological transformations for sustainability, C1/C2 (250); 14:00 – 15:30
This will include: Inside-out sustainability: The role of inner transformation for system change. Rebecca Freeth, Christopher Ives, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Ecosystem Services Mapping, Tradeoffs and Synergies: Approaches and methods for understanding social-ecological system dynamics; Room 35/36 (72); 16:00 – 16:40
This will include: From trade-offs to synergies in food security and biodiversity conservation. Jan Hanspach, David Abson, Neil Collier, Ine Dorresteijn, Jannik Schultner, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Ecosystem services and stewardship: Multi-level governance and biosphere stewardship; C3 (180); 16:00 – 16:40
This will include: Local peoples’ woody plant species use, access and conservation in rural landscapes: a case study from southwest Ethiopia. Girma Shumi Dugo, Jannik Schultner, Jan Hanspach, Kristoffer Hylander, Feyera Senbeta, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Session on Governance and social-ecological fit: Multi-level governance and biosphere stewardship; Room 24/25 (70); 11:00 – 11:40
This will include: A multilevel network model of institutional fit between an actor network and multiple cross-sector issues. Arvid Bergsten, Tolera Senbeto, Julia Leventon, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Pathways and leverage points for transformative change: Social-ecological transformations for sustainability; C4 (125); 11:50 – 12:30
This will include: Leverage points for sustainability transformation in human–nature connections. Maraja Riechers, Agnes Balazsi, Tibor Hartel, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Session on Resilience and Wellbeing: Cross-cutting perspectives on resilience; Room 33 (30); 15:30 – 16:10
This will include: Environmental degradation erodes household capital assets and undermines resilience and food security. Aisa Manlosa, Ine Dorresteijn, Jannik Schultner, Joern Fischer. ABSTRACT.

Wednesday 23 August

Contributed session on Reconciling food security and biodiversity conservation in farming landscapes; C1/C2 (250); 09:00 – 10:30; Chair/s: Jan Hanspach, Joern Fischer.
Speakers will include Teja Tscharntke, Roseline Remans, Jahi Chappell, Kristoffer Hylander and Line Gordon. This session will be live streamed. Stay tuned on this blog and on our twitter account for details! Session summary and Abstracts can be found here.

Additional talks by colleagues from Leuphana University

MONDAY: In the session Drivers and outcomes of altered landscapes; Connectivity and cross-scale dynamics in the Anthropocene; Room 27 (60); 14:00 – 14:40, you will hear:
Exploring sustainable biophysical human-nature connectedness at regional scales. Christian Dorninger, Henrik von Wehrden, David J. Abson.

MONDAY: In the session Food, Agriculture and Resilience: Cross-cutting perspectives on resilience; Room 24/25 (70); 14:50 – 15:30, you will hear:
Is food security and sovereignty influenced by informal labor sharing among smallholders? Arvid Bergsten.

MONDAY: In the session Communities and resilience practices: Cross-cutting perspectives on resilience; C1/C2 (250); 16:00 – 17:30, you will hear:
Effects of the “back to the land” movement for rural sustainability a case study from Spain. Elisa Oteros-Rozas, Álvaro Fuentes, Berta Martín-López, Claudia Bieling, Daniel López, Federica Ravera, Francisco Martin-Azcárate, Irene Iniesta-Arandia.

WEDNESDAY: In the session Integrating gender and feminist research into global environmental change: Theory, Methods, and Practice; Contributed session – Approaches and methods for understanding social-ecological system dynamics; Room 21 (30); 11:00 – 12:30, you will hear:
The diversity of gendered adaptation strategies to climate change of Indian farmers: a bottom-up feminist intersectional approach. Federica Ravera, Berta Martín-López, Unai Pascual, Adam Drucker

Telling a different story about the world

By Joern Fischer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Christian Dorninger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

disconnection

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

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

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

The full open access paper can be found here.

Dorninger, C., D. Abson, J. Fischer, and H. von Wehrden. 2017. Assessing sustainable biophysical human-nature connectedness at regional scales. Environmental Research Letters 12. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aa68a5.

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}.

References

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.

 

References

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:
https://evasys.leuphana.de/evasys_02/online.php
and enter the password (“TAN/Losung”):
foodbiodiv

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: http://chelonianri.org

Photo credits: http://chelonianri.org

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.

References

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  • *Bennett, Elena M., Wolfgang Cramer, Alpina Begossi, Georgina Cundill, Sandra Díaz, Benis N. Egoh, Ilse R. Geijzendorffer et al. “Linking biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human well-being: three challenges for designing research for sustainability.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14 (2015): 76-85.
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*Suggested readings