The Anthropocene and how suddenly, we don’t care

by Joern Fischer

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

great-acceleration

Source: Future Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

New paper: legacy effects of land use change on tree diversity

By Girma Shumi Dugo

I am Girma, one of Joern’s PhD students working on his ERC-project that aims to identify social-ecological system properties benefiting food security and biodiversity. My background is in forestry and plant ecology – with a focus on sustainable use and conservation of woody plants. I’ve worked on participatory forest management (PFM) in coffee forests of SW Ethiopia; ecological indicators for Chilimo PFM of Ethiopia; and contributed to various research projects in forestry, agroforestry and ecosystem services in rural landscapes of Ethiopia.

ethiopia.pngIn the current project, I am working on the empirical case study conducted in the rural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia. In my research, I am assessing the effects of historical and current land use, site level forest management (e.g., disturbances, management for coffee production) and forest landscape history (e.g., primary vs secondary forest – time lag effects, edge effects) on biodiversity, more specifically on woody vegetation in both agricultural and forest landscapes. Furthermore, to better understand the link between conservation and human well-being, I am investigating local people’s woody plant use, conservation and their perception of their property rights, particularly, with respect to tenure security and the rights to withdraw or wood, which may hinder both the use and conservation of woody plants in the landscapes.

The main purpose of this post is to share with you the findings of a new paper we’ve just published where we’ve looked into land use legacy effects on woody vegetation in agricultural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia.

In our study landscape, some plant species respond to land use changes immediately while others show a time delayed response. In this regard, past land use legacy effects – extinction debts and immigration credits – might be particularly pronounced in regions characterized by complex and gradual landscape change. In order to examine the existence of such land use legacy effects, we surveyed woody plants in 72 randomly selected 1 ha sites in farmland, and grouped them into forest specialist, generalist and pioneer species. We examined their composition and distribution using non-metric multidimensional scaling; modelled their richness in response to historical and current distance from the forest edge; and examined tree diameter class distributions in recently converted versus permanent farmland sites.

Overall, we found 110 species of trees, shrubs and subshrubs, representing 48 families. Historical distance to the forest edge was a primary driver of woody plant composition and distribution. However, somewhat surprisingly, we found no extinction debt for forest specialist species, suggesting that this debt was rapidly paid off in the farming landscape (i.e. forest specialists disappeared quite quickly). In contrast, and again surprisingly, we found immigration credits in farmland for generalist and pioneer species. This might suggest that long established cultural landscapes in Africa might have unrecognized conservation value – not for forest specialist species, but for a rich array of other species. In conclusion, our results indicate that conservation measures in southwestern Ethiopia should recognize not only forests, but also the complementary value of the agricultural mosaic – similarly to the case of European cultural landscapes. A possible future priority could be to also better maintain forest specialist species in the farmland mosaic.

The gardenification of nature revisited

By Joern Fischer

In 1998, Daniel Janzen published a paper on the gardenification of nature. In that paper, he argued for the gentle and careful use of wild nature, rather than its strict protection from humans.

I liked the metaphor of the paper when it came out, and I recently thought of it again in the context of a second garden metaphor currently circulating: that of seeds of a good Anthropocene. What if we were to combine these two gardening metaphors?

Seeds of a good Anthropocene suggest that we have choices in the projects we create. We can initiate projects that contribute to the beauty of life on Earth – to social equity, prosperity, joy, and biodiversity – or we can initiate projects that are destructive. Those projects that contribute to the beauty of life are, essentially, seeds of a good Anthropocene.

Once we have planted such seeds, these seeds can put roots into the ground, thus becoming firmly established. And as the seeds spread, they create a garden of human endeavours. This garden can be beautiful, if we grow and look after the right seeds. Wild elements can persist in pockets of this garden, cherished for their intrinsic value as well as for the benefits they might provide. – What if we keep growing the wrong seeds? Then we risk creating a post-industrial wasteland.

Arguably, a good Anthropocene’s garden of human endeavours could harmoniously coexist with a wildland garden of biodiversity. What unites these two metaphors is a focus on an underlying ethos of gentle care and interaction. It seems futile to try to disengage from the endless connections among living beings. As Janzen stated: “A wildland garden with gentle trodding from caring gardeners just might achieve the partnership [between people and nature]. A wilderness faces certain annihilation as a battlefield.”

A landscape approach to sustainability

By Joern Fischer

A few days ago, I was part of an online panel discussion organised by the Global Landscapes Forum.  We discussed questions about what a landscape approach is, and how it might be implemented — and we touched on many interesting topics and identified challenges for the future. The webinar was recorded and is available on youtube; or you can watch it directly here.

NEW PAPER: From synergies to trade-offs in food security and biodiversity conservation

BY JAN HANSPACH

Some time ago, we had invited to participate in a survey on food security and biodiversity conservation on this blog. After some months of data analysis, write-up, rejections and revisions, we now we can announce that the main findings from this survey have been finally published. The paper went online just a few days ago on the journal website and will be published the November issue of Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. 

And here are the key findings shortly summarized:

(1) When comparing between landscapes we did not find a clear trade-off between food security and biodiversity.

(2) Synergies in food security and biodiversity were related to situations with equitable land access and high social and human capital. Food security was also high when market access was good and financial capital high, but that was linked to poor biodiversity outcomes.

(3) For the future, most experts expected improvements in food security, but losses of biodiversity in their landscapes.

We received responses for landscapes from a wide range of countries. The map shows the origin of the 110 cases that we used for analysis.

 

You also can directly download a pdf of the full paper and a pdf of the merged appendices here. Enjoy reading!

Finally, a big thanks to all experts that contributed to the survey!

Livestream, Wed 9 AM Stockholm time: Food security & biodiversity conservation

By Joern Fischer

Tomorrow morning at 9 AM, we’ll be live streaming a session from Resilience 2017. The live stream will be on youtube, namely here. After the event, the session should still be there as a video. We hope we’ll get the technology to cooperate with us!

Reconciling food security and biodiversity conservation in farming landscapes

C1/C2 (250), 09:00 – 10:30, Chair/s: Jan Hanspach, Joern Fischer

Providing food security and safeguarding biodiversity are two of the most prominent challenges facing humanity in the 21st century and it unclear how they possibly could be reconciled in the future. As the topic is complex and the discussion around it is often biased by disciplinary backgrounds, we propose a session where we bring together researchers from different disciplines and with different perspectives in order to transcend conceptual barriers. The presenters will be asked to address specifically how to transcend these barriers in order to reconcile food security and biodiversity conservation in farming landscapes.

Speakers and Abstracts

Rewiring food systems to enhance human health and biosphere stewardship
Line Gordon, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm, Sweden

Integrating biodiversity in agriculture
Teja Tscharntke, Agroecology, Göttingen University, Göttingen, Germany, Göttingen, Germany

Perspectives on biodiversity in Ethiopian heterogeneous agricultural landscapes
Kristoffer Hylander, Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Science, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

Indirect contributions of forests to dietary diversity in Southern Ethiopia
Roseline Remans 1, 4, Frédéric Baudron 2, Jean-Yves Duriaux 2, Terry Sunderland 3, 1 Bioversity International; Ghent University; Wageningen University & Research, Koekelberg, Belgium, 2 International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Harare, Zimbabwe, 3 Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor, Indonesia, 4 Bioversity International, Heverlee, Belgium

M. Jahi Chappell, Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University, Coventry, United Kingdom, Washington State University, Pullman, United States

 

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.