When and how to (not) make a difference

By Joern Fischer

Studying the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation in a place like Ethiopia brings up a whole lot of challenging moral and emotional dimensions (some of which were previously discussed here). When we speak to local people, they ask us almost every day about the solutions we will bring. How can we deal with this?

First, I think it’s worthwhile to understand this sentiment a bit more, of wanting us to bring solutions. By definition, it is only people who themselves feel powerless who wait for outsiders to improve things. Both knowledge systems, and systems of taking action, have for a long time been very top down in Ethiopia. The sense of awe for “those who know better” permeates throughout the country – government experts are eager to absorb western knowledge on modern farming technologies; model farmers are eager to absorb knowledge presented by government development agents; and poor people look at all these knowledgeable people and seem to feel that they don’t know enough – nor have enough – to get out of their misery. Action, similarly, is expected to come from “the government” if you’re a community member, or perhaps through international investors if you’re the government.

So that’s the first point – in a culture where everyone looks to someone “more knowledgeable” to find solutions for their respective dilemma, it is natural that we would be asked for solutions. Knowledge in this context seems to be seen as a thing you have: when you have it, all is good, and indeed, obtaining it sometimes seem to be seen as all that is needed to bring about change. (None of this is to discount the possible importance of outside knowledge or action; I’m simply stating that it is valued extremely highly here, sometimes perhaps at the expense of local knowledge or action.)

Second then, having understood a bit more what the role of knowledge is, we can perhaps understand our role a little bit better. As sustainability researchers, we can engage with real-world problems in two main ways.

On the one hand, we can build an understanding of the complexity of the challenges in the system. That is what we came to do in this study. To maximize its real-world usefulness, we can generate information, and we can try to widely share this information. We can also invite stakeholders to re-conceptualise some of the problems, or we can bring problems to the fore that they had perhaps not considered very much. This approach – providing knowledge, and sharing it widely – is essentially what we did in our previous work in Romania. The aim here is not to provide ready made solutions, but to provide new ways of thinking about problems at hand, perhaps in a more holistic fashion, or from a different perspective.

On the other hand, we could try to solve an actual problem at hand. This kind of problem solving is often what people have in mind when they think of sustainability science; they think that being of use implies there being tangible, immediate benefits. Perhaps a community might install solar panels, or be introduced to a new farming technique. This type of sustainability science is certainly valuable, but it’s not always as powerful as it might first seem: ultimately, many of the changes that are required for sustainable development are deeper than anything that could be addressed quickly; plus, of course, you need certain formal governance structures in place to effectively work with communities, which simply aren’t there in many parts of the world.

From all this, I usually take with me two thoughts of how I hope our work can make a difference. On the ground, we do our best to share our findings with authorities at different levels, and in different formats, much like we had done in Romania. But the bigger contribution, I think, happens at a more abstract level – through publishing work with a certain “flavour” on the topic of biodiversity conservation and food security, we help to shape a global discourse, hopefully nudging it away from highly technocratic towards more holistic. This will take a lot of nudging… but ultimately, shedding light on spots not adequately lit is probably all that science ever does. The question is largely one of which spots we choose to shine a light on.

Values, conservation and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

In 1992, Shalom Schwartz published a seminal paper entitled “Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries”. The paper has been cited something like 12,000 times, and the findings have been refined since then. In short, it summarises different value orientations held by individuals. On reading this paper, I began to wonder what the implications of this are for conservation and sustainability.


Source: valuesandframes.org

I’ll start with a disclaimer and a summary of what Schwartz found. First the disclaimer: perhaps everything I write below has long been known by people working on conservation and sustainability, and I’m very late in catching up. If so, I’m happy to be further educated, e.g. by people explaining to me and other readers how this has been applied to conservation and sustainability in the comments below. But if I’m somewhat “typical”, then this is not at all widely known, understood, or reflected upon within the conservation and sustainability fields. And if that is the case, there might be some pretty important implications that require our attention.

Second – a summary of what Schwartz found. In the original paper from 1992, Schwartz developed theory, and then tested it on a large sample of individuals from a number of different countries. His theory was largely confirmed, and went something like this. Different people hold different values. Some values are compatible, whereas others are oppositional. Compatible values are, for example, if I value the attainment of wealth, and if I value the achievement of social recognition. Oppositional values might be valuing tradition versus seeking excitement in life.

These kinds of constructs – compatible and oppositional values – can be depicted in a kind of circular wheel, as shown in the Figure above. This wheel was generated by a multivariate analysis of many people responding to the same questions about their values, so this is an empirically grounded theory . Adjacent sectors in this wheel are compatible values, whereas opposite sectors in the wheel are oppositional.

So far so good – how is this relevant to conservation and sustainability? I think it is in a number of ways.

A lot of the values associated with conservation and sustainability cluster in the sector on “universalism” (top right). For example, here, we find “protecting the environment”, “social justice”, and even “unity with nature”. Opposite of that, we find the sector “power”, with values such as “wealth” and “social recognition”.

We can now ask ourselves where in this wheel individuals belonging to different cultures might sit. This is relevant for conservation and sustainability, because we might pitch our messages differently, according to people’s values (e.g. see this comprehensive report, or here for a simpler summary; and here for additional materials).

But I think perhaps there is something even more interesting going on. Here, I present three testable hypotheses, which would have implications for conservation and sustainability action.

Hypothesis 1: A substantial proportion of the population (probably differing between jurisdictions) actually holds values that are compatible with universalist values (i.e. sustainability and biodiversity conservation).

Hypothesis 2: Despite this, we are seeing patterns of behaviour at an aggregate (societal) level that emphasise values that are largely oppositional to sustainability, such as achievement and power. That is, we have created institutions that foster values that are not inherently shared by people. We thus have a mismatch between the value sets fostered by institutions and the value sets held by people.

Hypothesis 3: If this is correct, the “solution” to sustainability problems becomes one of “simply” re-aligining institutions to what people actually want. This may be a major task, but is a relatively smaller problem than if people themselves actually did not hold values compatible with sustainability. In other words, we may not need to “re-educate people”, but rather draw out what people actually want, and ensure that institutions are reformed in ways that reflect the want of “the people”.

Hopelessly optimistic? Actually, people are selfish and individualistic, and care about power and wealth and nothing else? Perhaps – convince me if you can. But at this stage I think it’s more likely that we are dealing with a mis-match between values fostered through institutions and values held by individuals. I speculate, in turn, that such a mis-match has probably arisen from power dynamics that go hand in hand with how we have organized societies (including economic principles); i.e. the whole thing is an institutional and power problem, not fundamentally one of values.

If I’m right, all of this points to us needing more conversations at a societal level about what it is that we truly value — and then working towards how to (re-)organise society accordingly. And then who knows, perhaps sustainability is within closer reach than we may have thought …

Hiring now: Postdoc on human-environment connections

By Joern Fischer

Because one of our postdocs is moving on to a tenured position (congratulations!), we are looking to find a new person to join our project on “leverage points” for sustainability (see, for example, here and here, or here). This position will be collaborating closely with others, especially myself, Henrik von Wehrden, Dave Abson, Julia Leventon, and several PhD students working on the “re-connect” component of the project.

Although somebody else has previously held this position, there is a lot of flexibility for how the position can be filled with life and meaning in the future. We’re particularly looking for somebody who is interested in pursuing empirical work on human-environment (re-)connections in Transylvania (Romania) or Lower Saxony (Germany) (or both); focusing on food or energy systems (or both). You can email me if you have questions.

The official advertisement is available here. Below, I copy and paste that information, but be sure to visit the original page — this here is not the official version.


Leuphana University Lüneburg (foundation under public law), Faculty of Sustainability, is offering a post as:

Postdoctoral Research Associate – Wissenschaftliche/r Mitarbeiter/in,

salary group EG 13 TV-L, full time

Investigating human-nature connections–

Starting approximately November 2016, up to 31st March 2019. The position is part of a transdisciplinary project funded by the State of Lower Saxony and Volkswagen Foundation entitled:

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation: Institutions, People and Knowledge

 About the project

Understanding how changes in interconnected social-ecological systems facilitate the transformation to sustainability represents one of the key challenges of sustainability science. Drawing on insights from systems thinking and solution-oriented transdisciplinary research, this project focuses on hitherto under-recognized leverage points – system properties where a small shift can lead to fundamental changes in the system as a whole. Leverage Points will focus on changes in relatively intractable, but potentially highly influential, system properties that could help to realign complex social-ecological systems to the normative goals of sustainability. Specifically, we will analyse three sustainability-relevant leverage points: 1) institutional dynamics (RESTRUCTURE); 2) human-environment interactions (RECONNECT); and 3) sustainability-related knowledge creation and use (RETHINK). The three leverage points will be studied individually and with regard to their interdependencies, on two key themes (food and energy) in two contrasting case study regions (Transylvania in Romania, and Lower Saxony in Germany). For details, see www.leveragepoints.org

About the job – PD2: RECONNECT: Investigating human-nature connections

This position builds on conceptual work undertaken as part of the Leverage Points project (see Abson et al. 2016, Ambio). Its central role will be to empirically investigate human-nature connections and how changes in such connections relate to sustainability outcomes, in food and/or energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and/or in Transylvania (RO).

This position is one of five postdoctoral associate positions within the Leverage Points project. You will be expected to work closely with the research consortium, including three other postdoctoral associates (RESTRUCTURE, RETHINK and transdisciplinary case study (Germany) and RETHINK and transdisciplinary case study (Romania)), eight Principal Investigators, and eight PhD students.

Tasks and responsibilities may include a subset of the following: 1) assessing stakeholders’ aspirations and appreciation of local ecosystem services; 2) investigating consumer choices regarding food and energy; 3) testing the relations between connections, behaviour, attitudes and knowledge; 4) publication of manuscripts; and 5) co-supervision of PhD students.

Person specification

Essential selection criteria: a) PhD or equivalent doctoral degree; b) strong publication record relative to opportunity; c) highly developed conceptual and empirical skills; d) excellent communication skills (English); e) ability and willingness to work in a large, interdisciplinary research project; f) proven track record in either quantitative or qualitative data analysis (and willingness to apply both); and g) a solid understanding of human-environment relationships (e.g. grounded in concepts from psychology or ecosystem services).

Additional desirable selection criteria: a) previous experience in food/agriculture and/or energy systems; b) experience with interview analysis; c) familiarity with environmental psychology; d) experience with questionnaire analysis; e) experience with quantifying human-nature connections. (Not all of these must be met.)

An additional advantage will be fluency in German or Romanian.

Leuphana University Lüneburg is an equal opportunity employer committed to fostering heterogeneity among its employees. Applications by qualified individuals of all backgrounds are strongly encouraged. Disabled applicants with equal qualifications will be given priority consideration.

To apply

Please address all selection criteria under clearly labelled headings in up to one short paragraph for each. Please also send a motivation letter stating why you are interested in the position, a CV (including publication list), copies of relevant certificates and transcripts, and the names of up to three academic referees.

Application deadline: 11th September 2016

Please submit all materials in PDF format (as a single merged file) with the subject: Leverage Points PD2 to:

bewerbung@leuphana.de and cc abson@leuphana.de.


Leuphana University Lüneburg

Personalservice – Katrin Severloh

Subject: Leverage Points PD2

Scharnhorststr. 1

21335 Lüneburg


Files should be named with the applicant’s surname (e.g. SmithLeveragePointsPD2.pdf).

For any questions about the project and the job, please contact Prof. Dr Joern Fischer (joern.fischer@leuphana.de) or Prof. Dr. Henrik von Wehrden (vonwehrden@uni.leuphana.de)



Now published: Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Joern Fischer

Finally, the first paper is out from our Leverage Points project. It’s led by Dave Abson, and lays out a conceptual framework and research agenda, all around the notion of “deep leverage points”. Please share it through your networks.

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 10.31.56.pngThe paper draws on Donella Meadows’ notion of “deep leverage points” – places to intervene in a system where adjustments can make a big difference to the overall outcomes. Arguably, sustainability science desperately needs such leverage points. Despite years of rhetoric on sustainability science bringing about “transformation”, the big picture is still pretty dull: globally at least, there is no indication that we’re starting to turn around the patterns of exponential growth that characterize our era. A potential reason is that much of sustainability science has focused on parameters and feedbacks, rather than system design or “intent” (see above) — when actually, it’s changing a system’s design and intent that is most likely to bring about major changes in outcomes.

If the goal is to bend the curves, we need to know where to start. To this end, we identified three realms of leverage that can be taken as starting points – reconnecting people with nature, restructuring institutions, and rethinking how different types of knowledge should be brought to bear for the pursuit of sustainability. These three realms of leverage are starting points. If others come up with additional or different realms of leverage that need to be investigated, this would be equally valid. To really find out what’s a good leverage point, we suggest applying a mixture of conceptual, empirical, and transdisciplinary approaches.

Finally, we hope that the notion of “leverage points” can provide a boundary object – a common denominator – that appeals to a broad range of audiences. On the one hand, because the idea of leverage points originates from complex systems thinking, technically oriented scientists should be able to engage with the concept. On the other hand, the notion of deep leverage points can also be used as a simple (but powerful) metaphor, signaling that “we need to look deeper” than we have done.

Ultimately, digging deeper is what the idea of deep leverage points is all about: sustainability science needs an agenda to confront all those issues that are perhaps difficult to deal with – but desperately need to be dealt with because that’s where potential for real change lies.

The full paper is available here.

The eternal challenge: walking the talk

By Joern Fischer

Having recently come back from a short, long-distance trip halfway around the world in the name of sustainability science – and having blasted a vast amount of carbon into the air in the process – I couldn’t help to think, yet again, about the perpetual challenge of “walking the talk” in sustainability science. But how does one “walk the talk”? The following are some suggestions for how to think through this.

  1. If it’s work-related travel, carefully weigh the sustainability costs and sustainability benefits. Frankly, a lot of work-related travel is not needed. We have a culture of workshops and meetings, and a culture of attending lots of these even if they are far away. Travel is cheap, workshop papers (i.e. discussion blabla papers) sell well, and have become a business in their own right. Personally, I believe in (i) prioritizing fieldwork related air travel over workshop air travel, (ii) prioritizing close travel for workshops/conferences over far trips, and (iii) thinking through how much travel you are willing to do in a given year.
  2. With respect to work travel, question the difference between what is necessary versus expected versus something you simply feel like. It’s too easy to say “I was invited and so I went”. In a culture where we all travel around without a second thought on whether that is good or necessary, just travelling a lot because everyone else is doing it is a very poor argument. So, as a minimum, be honest with yourself about (i) what is necessary, (ii) what is expected of you, and by whom, and (iii) what is simply your personal preference. Things you classify as necessary, well, I guess they can’t be changed easily. For things you classify as expected you can think about whose expectations these are, and whether you need to meet these expectations. And regarding third, frankly, that might be a fine reason at times, but from a sustainability perspective you should be aware that a preference for personal gluttony is also what’s destroying the planet. So probably best to remain a bit critical with oneself on this last point!
  3. Is there a way to get there without flying? Air travel is fast, and cheap (because it does not account for externalities). But it’s not the only way to get around. For example, many trips within Europe are possible by train if you think about it a little bit in advance. Night trains exist to some places, too.
  4. Once you decide to fly somewhere, consider offsetting your carbon impact. Most likely, your workplace – even if it’s a sustainability department – won’t have an offsetting scheme (do any?? I’d be interested!). Still, you can consider offsetting your personal and work-related carbon emissions. People who fly a lot also tend to earn a lot, making this not as big a deal as it may sound. Obviously, in science, your ability to offset depends on your salary and/or career level.
  5. Beyond travel, differentiate between big-ticket items versus little things in your life. Little actions can be good because you can do many little things. But changing a few big things in meaningful ways may achieve even more in terms of sustainability. Big changes are, for example, to live somewhere where you can ride a bike to work, rather than drive every day. Or to cut down the amount of animal protein in your diet, or obtain your food more locally. Little things like turning off light bulbs are fine … But just leaving your car at home one day (when you normally drive) is like a lot, a lot of lightbulbs!
  6. Recognise that you’re part of a “system”, and work on personal change as well as systemic change. While some sustainability scientists do too little (in my, in this case, not-so-humble opinion) to walk the talk, others beat themselves up for not being perfect footprint-free creatures. I think it’s important we recognize that it’s both a personal and systemic issue. If you live in North America or Australia, it’s nearly impossible to have a lifestyle that is fully sustainable. Most likely, most things from the food you eat to the transportation systems you use, to the infrastructure you support through your taxes are unsustainable. That is why it’s worthwhile to think about what you can do, and do that – while at the same time working on systemic changes so that living more sustainably becomes mainstream. That is, the institutional and socio-cultural context we live in will ultimately need to change, but that won’t happen overnight.

Comments on how you think about “walking the talk” are, as always, most welcome!

Christianity and sustainability – Reflections on Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment

By Chris Ives

The majority of people living on the planet profess to be believers of some kind. As sustainability scholars, it’s critical then that we engage with issues of spirituality and religion. In May last year, Pope Francis released an Encyclical (a formal teaching document of the Catholic Church) on the ecological crisis, titled “On care for our common home”. Far from being only relevant to church-goers, it is a remarkable articulation of systems thinking, and in my opinion brilliantly integrates science with philosophy and theology. Francis presents the ecological and social dimensions of global problems as fundamentally interconnected and expressions of a deeper ethical and spiritual crisis. He outlines the need for a comprehensive “ecological education” that incorporates science and spirituality in order to bring about personal and systemic change. And he presents Christianity as carrying a message of hope and the moral resources needed to challenge today’s self-centred culture that perpetuates ecological and social injustice.

While there have been many writings on the theme of eco-theology within the Christian faith, this is a significant document because it outlines the official position of the Catholic Church and has potential for great influence politically and practically. Its title “our common home” is poignant, since Francis speaks against the rampant individualism in western consumerist culture and argues that we must consider other people and other species. The document is freely available for download here, but I thought a shorter summary would be useful for those who haven’t got time to read all 180 pages. By way of synthesising its content, I’ve structured this review into four sections: (1) The complexity of the problem; (2) The inadequacy of past solutions; (3) The challenge of an ethical revolution; and (4) The contribution of the Christian message.

(1) The complexity of the problem

One phrase that Francis reiterates is “everything is connected”. Although it’s not written as a scholarly document, the encyclical is one of the best articulations of the complex relationships between the ecological, social, ethical issues that face the world today. It provides some well researched science on the state of the planet, spanning issues of pollution, climate change, water security and biodiversity. (I won’t review this here, so download the encyclical if you’re interested in reading more about the science). Yet Francis also delves into social and philosophical issues such as the intrinsic value of non-human species, global economic inequality and spiritual poverty. He argues that they are all intimately related and that we are therefore “faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (p104). Below I outline some of the specific links that he identifies.

Environmental problems with social causes (human roots of the ecological crisis).

Francis argues that “[t]he human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” (p33). One example of this is the throwaway culture that is so prevalent today, reflecting a fundamental disconnection from the natural systems that provide resources and absorb wastes, and an insatiable desire for consumption. He highlights that current economic systems only encourage and reward throwing away goods, which leads to increasing environmental harm.

Social problems with environmental causes

Many if not most of the environmental problems in the world have significant social implications. This is especially the case with the extraction of resources from developing nations and the effects of environmental degradation being more pronounced in these countries. Environmental migrants are becoming increasingly common as places become increasingly inhospitable. This opens up environmental degradation as a moral issue, since it relates to issues of justice for the poor.

The ethical and spiritual roots of the crisis

Francis argues that “[o]ur relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God” (p89), and for this reason the environmental and social crises can be understood as products of an underlying ethical and spiritual problem. Christian teaching is that humanity’s broken relationship with God results also in a rupture or distortion of relationships between people and the earth and amongst one another. The lack of adequate political and personal responses to social and environmental crises reflects the loss of a sense of responsibility towards people and the planet, and a state of spiritual poverty.

(2) The inadequacy of past solutions

Pope Francis is scathing when it comes to technocratic solutions to the present environmental crisis. Although he doesn’t find there to be anything intrinsically wrong with technology, he argues that those with access to it have power, and highlights that it’s the unequal distribution and misuse of power that is at the root of so many environmental problems. While technology is intimately linked with economic development, Francis cautions technological advancement should not be confused with progress. He argues that “the technocratic paradigm promotes finance at the expense of the real economy. It doesn’t consider the negative impacts of technology on society [nor] account for the true value of the environment” (p139). The real problem then is that technological advancement has not been “accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience” (p78). Techo-fixes to environmental issues are therefore inadequate since they don’t go to the root of the problem. Similarly, the notion of balancing nature protection with financial gain is equally misguided, since this logic operates within the same system parameters that created the mess we’re in and “simply delay the inevitable disaster” (p142). Instead, Francis identifies an urgent need to contemporary society to redefine our notion of what true progress is, and to develop “a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded restraint” (p78)

(3) The challenge of an ethical revolution.

After rejecting the notion of technological advancement as the solution to the global environmental crisis, Francis gradually outlines the alternative: an ethical revolution that encompasses both individual transformation and a shift in societal values. Advancement in scientific knowledge will not be enough. He suggests that “unless we struggle with these deeper issues [of meaning and values], …our concern for ecology will [not] produce significant results” (p119). This is where forms of knowledge and wisdom that derive from religion and philosophy must contribute.

One particularly interesting perspective that Francis brings is connecting both the individual and society. It is not just de-personalised systemic change that is needed. It’s also a change in us as individuals. “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume” (p150). The state of one’s internal world influences the state of the world around us. It’s our experience of inner peace that enables us to live at peace with the planet.

The solution is found in ‘ecological education and spirituality’. But the education that Francis outlines is not simply communicating scientific facts about the state of the planet. He argues that education needs to also critique “individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market” (p154). It needs to incorporate an “ethics of ecology” and help people grow in “solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care” (p154). We need “a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature” (p157). And this new mindset must be coupled with a reclaiming of virtues such as self-restraint and humility, which have been greatly neglected in contemporary society. Indeed, “once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment” (p163)

Francis highlights the importance of environmentally responsible behaviour if we are to address the ecological crisis. Indeed, “an awareness of the gravity of today’s cultural and ecological crisis must be translated into new habits” (p153). But how can this be done? He notes that “the existence of laws and regulations is insufficient in the long run to curb bad conduct… Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment” (p154). The kind of commitment Francis presents is one that starts with small actions, such as car pooling, planting trees, and turning off unnecessary lights, for “they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread”. He argues that grassroots social change will eventually apply pressure on those who wield political, economic and social power. (Interestingly, in Leverage Points thinking, this would suggest intervening at shallow leverage points in order to build momentum for a shift in deeper leverage points over time).

(4) The contribution of the Christian message

As is expected for a document of the Catholic Church, a large part of the encyclical discusses Christian theology. If a moral and ethical rejuvenation is what’s required, the Christian message has much to offer. Contrary to popular belief, Francis argues that Christianity does not present a licence for humanity to exploit nature. Instead it offers a moral foundation for environmental stewardship, upholds the intrinsic value of nature, and provides a hope for the future. Below are a couple of themes that emerged in the letter.

Humanity’s position in Creation

The Christian doctrine of creation (that the universe exists because of an intentional act by God) has two profound environmental implications. First, it recognises that since humans and non-humans are created, humanity is part of the natural world, looking at it ‘from within’ (p160). This, Francis argues, endows us kinship with the rest of creation since we are “joined in a splendid universal communion” (p160) and God is “intimately present to each being” (p161). In addition to this, being made in God’s image, humanity also has a “vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork” (p159). The second implication of creation is that “each creature reflects something of God” (p161) and therefore has intrinsic value apart from any direct benefit that human receive from it. The Biblical scriptures emphasise that “every creature has its own value and significance” (p56). But it’s not only individual creatures that are of importance: “the universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God” (p63). For the Christian then, “a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion” (p159) since loving God is expressed (in part) by loving His creation.

A new life and a new hope

Francis argues that true Christian anthropology does not see human beings in Promethean mastery over nature (p87). Instead, humanity’s role “should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship” (p87). For Christians, the moral resources for this stance come from the person of Jesus Christ and the hope of the Christian story. As Christians look to Jesus as a picture of the nature of God, they are reminded that God is deeply concerned with the physical world since he “entered into the created cosmos [i.e. as Jesus], throwing in his lot with it, even to the cross” (p73). This is a reminder that “he does not abandon us, he does not leave us alone, for he has united himself definitively to our earth” (p177). God’s concern for nature is also highlighted in Jesus’ teachings on God’s care for the birds of the air and lilies of the field, as context for God’s love for humanity (Matthew 6:26-30).

Perhaps the most powerful contribution of the Christian message for tackling the ecological crisis is that it presents an alternative understanding of what fullness of life really means. “Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life…one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption” (p164). Indeed, Jesus teaches that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Instead, “Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack” (p164). The message of the love and acceptance of God results in a freedom to live generously and self-sacrificially. Further, the Christian future hope is that “all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast” (p177), meaning that none of the efforts towards environmental sustainability will be lost upon Christ’s return.


In summary, it is clear that the “On care for our common home” is a significant document for Christians, environmentalists and anyone interested in Christianity’s stance on environmental issues. To me, it has much to contribute to current debates about how environmental degradation and social justice ought to be tacked in our generation. Francis does not shy away from identifying the systemic nature of these problems and he digs to unearth their moral and ethical roots. The true impact of this Encyclical however will be shown in its ability to raise the profile of spirituality and religion in public discourse on these issues, and the response of the Christian Church to take heed of the moral and practical challenges set before it.

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.

“Re-connecting people and nature”: wrong term, wrong goal?

By Joern Fischer

As part of our research on leverage points for sustainability transformation, we are investigating the potential to “re-connect” people and nature in order to advance sustainability. But does this framing just reinforce a false dualism between people and the environment?

In a recent paper, Karen Malone describes child-dog encounters in La Paz, Bolivia. Focusing on poor urban children, and dogs living in the streets, she challenges the simple notion of “re-connecting” people (here, children) and nature. First, street dogs de facto represent “nature”, but a very different kind of nature from the wild and romantic images Western scholars may hold when thinking about nature. Second, children talk about their relationships with dogs as friendships, rather than as subject-object relationships, which a dualistic human-nature view would suggest. Third, anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism – i.e. people being inherently more special than other living beings – are not supported by the narratives provided by the children.

So how problematic is the concept of re-connecting people and nature? How problematic is the term?

To me, the answer is twofold. On the one hand, we need a communication tool to reach those who do think of humans as separate from nature, or of humans as being somehow different (or more advanced) from other beings. It’s all very well to highlight the non-exceptionalism of humans in academic circles, but “post-humanism” is going to be one step too far for most people to be willing to go. In the meantime, however, we might still be able to get an important point across by talking about “re-connecting” with nature. Using an anthropocentric narrative thus can be a tool to be understood in a culture where more radical (post-humanistic) messages are unlikely to be heard. This intuitive appeal of anthropocentric framing is not new: it has, in fact, been a central tenet of the ecosystem services argument. As I highlighted quite a while ago on this blog, scholars like Gretchen Daily never intended to say that nature has no worth beyond that to humans – but they chose to highlight the values to humans because it’s these values that are likely to attract an audience. (Which worked, by the way.)

On the other hand then, just like with ecosystem services, some caution is warranted. It’s fine to use a simple metaphor in the first place, knowing the world is more complex – but metaphors have an annoying habit of taking on a life of their own. Ecosystem services are no longer being thought about critically by many users of the concept. And if we’re not careful, the nascent agenda of re-connecting people and nature may also be at risk of inadvertently reinforcing the human-nature divide, rather than closing it.

This suggests scholars like us ought to use the “re-connect” term carefully, and allow for at least a couple of sentences in any given paper that explain the value of the metaphor, while acknowledging that a metaphor is by necessity a simplification of reality.

We need conceptual models so we can communicate. And to communicate effectively, we need to meet our audiences on a level that they are receptive to. Interdependent origination of all phenomena may get closer to the ultimate truth of our existence – but for that truth to come within reach at a societal level, re-connecting people and nature could be a good first step, despite the dualism implicit to the term.

Trandisciplinarity in a messy world

By Joern Fischer

In pursuit of sustainability, many have argued for the need for “transdisciplinary” research. Such research, ideally, is meant to be co-defined, and carried out in close collaboration with stakeholders – who double-act as decision-makers and thus solution-implementers. This solution-orientation defines sustainability science. But in a messy world, does this work?

The more I have thought about this, the more critical I have become of the idea of transdisciplinarity as defined above. At the same time, I don’t believe we ought to throw out the baby with the bath water (such a horrible metaphor!), and I think there are many good things about transdisciplinarity that we ought to keep. So in this post, I want to highlight three problems with an overly rigid type of transdisciplinarity, and then give a short outlook of what I think is worth keeping.

Co-defining problems with stakeholders may mean scratching the surface. Stakeholders are often quite specific in their outlook. By definition, they are interested in a given problem from the perspective of how it affects their stake in it. As a result, many transdisciplinary projects appear to work on extremely tangible, but rather simple problems. Messy problems that cannot be resolved via a simple research process often aren’t even targeted because they are not the problems of choice, of either stakeholders or researchers.

There may be no interested stakeholders. The idea of transdisciplinarity often goes hand in hand with the idea of a “decision-maker”. What if there is not one decision maker, but instead, a complex governance system? Or what if the decision-makers are disinterested in what other stakeholders are interested in – or even work actively against it? Reducing oneself as a scientist to wanting to work with (decision-making) stakeholders means reducing oneself to situations where there are “benevolent dictators”. Where those situations exist, by all means, engaging with these good queens and kings and helping them make good decisions is great. But messy systems with a diversity of conflicting views are much more common. Complex problems, quite possibly, can’t be solved but only navigated (with thanks to Dave Abson for this point!).

Stakeholders may be uninformed about some of the most important problems. Related to the first limitation of only scratching the surface, stakeholders may simply not know about certain problems that scientists do know about. For example, scientists knew about climate change long before stakeholders starting being interested in climate change. Letting stakeholders define problems thus is empowering for them – but it can mean ignoring the fact that scientists do know certain things, very well, and possibly much better than many stakeholders. Especially for problems that are looming on the horizon, it’s entirely possible that you won’t find stakeholders to work with on these problems. Yet, those problems ought to be worked on.

So, with these three problems, what’s worth keeping about transdisciplinarity? I think deep down it’s its “vibe” (has anyone seen “The Castle”? Never mind …) that is worth keeping. Deep down, transdisciplinarity is about respecting non-research stakeholders, respecting their knowledge, engaging with them, and helping them do better through one’s research. It’s this moral basis of transdisciplinarity that I believe we can apply to just about all settings, because it’s grounded in something so deep that it makes sense irrespective of context. For processes of transdisciplinarity, this means they have to be flexible and tailored to a given situation. There’s no right way of doing transdisciplinary science, no right level of transdisciplinarity, and no inherently greater value in co-defining problems with stakeholders. Rather, if the motivation underpinning stakeholder engagement is right, the rest will probably follow.

Inner change for sustainability: Science, worldviews and faith.

By Chris Ives

The normative position of sustainability science has been well accepted for a while now. As sustainability scientists, the way we define problems and the work we do to promote justice and environmental integrity is based on strong beliefs about how the world ought to be and what a good future looks like. It’s recognised that these normative goals do not come from our science, but that our science can be useful to inform how to achieve these goals. Typically, we don’t spend very much time arguing about why sustainability is a good thing; we take this as a given and get on with our research. However, you only need to talk with a few people in the street to realise that not everyone shares these same normative goals and values. In the Leverage Points project, we’re most concerned with understanding and transforming the goals and intents of systems to bring about positive change for sustainability. In order to do this, I believe the time has come for sustainability science to engage more deeply and explicitly with the various belief systems that are at the heart of individuals and communities. It is these belief systems that provide the power to either activate or disregard the science that we hope will inform action.

Joern’s recent blog post highlighted the importance of transforming inner and outer worlds in order to transform society towards sustainability. I think our inner worlds have been largely neglected in sustainability discourse. I recently came across research by Annick Hedlund-de Witt on worldviews – the lenses through which we comprehend and interpret the world. What I really liked about this work was the way it broke down our ‘inner worlds’ into five discrete components:

  1. Ontology: a perspective on the nature of reality, often enriched with a cosmogony. What is the nature of reality? What is nature? How did the universe come about? If there is such thing as the divine–what or who is it, and how is it related to the universe?
  2. Epistemology: a perspective on how knowledge of reality can become about. How can we know what is real? How can we gain knowledge of ourselves and the world? What is valid knowledge, and what is not?
  3. Axiology: a perspective on what a ‘good life’ is, in terms of morals and quality of life, ethical and aesthetic values. What is a good life? What kind of life has quality and gives fulfillment? What are our most cherished ethical and aesthetic values? What is life all about?
  4. Anthropology: a perspective on who the human being is and what his/her role and position is in the universe. Who or what is the human being? What is the nature of the human being? What is his/her role and purpose in existence?
  5. Societal vision: a perspective on how society should be organized and how societal problems and issues should be addressed. How should we organize our society? How should we address societal problems and issues?

 Together, these five components comprise different worldviews. And worldviews have a very powerful influence on how we interpret information and how we behave. For example, a study by researchers at the University of Durham explored different ‘narratives’ that fed into the public debate about nanotechology. They found that the “scientific” debate was actually a proxy for deeper philosophical views about nature and the world. These narratives included seeing nature as ‘Pandora’s box’ (risk of nature’s revenge), seeing nature as a sacred entity that should not be messed with, or viewing the world in terms of the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer. It was these stories that influenced most dramatically the public’s attitudes towards nanotechnology. This shows that our worldviews and broader narratives filter and interpret the scientific information we’re presented with.

From this point some key questions come to mind, such as how are these worldviews shaped? Which aspects of different worldviews are more or less compatible with sustainability? And how can they be influenced? Clearly the answers to these questions lie (in part) in a deeper engagement with value and belief systems, in particular the fields spirituality, religion and faith. The spiritual dimension of our lives is a significant part of being human yet has been largely neglected in sustainability research. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of the world’s population identifies with some kind of religious belief system. Joern Fischer and colleagues wrote in 2012 that “[r]eligion can provide metaphorical or experiential explanations for the underlying causes of unsustainable human behaviour”. I agree with this, but would add that religion also contributes perspectives on what a good and purposeful life consists of, what humanity’s relationship with the natural world ought to be, and what is of ultimate value. It also connects these ‘ideas’ to deeper concepts such as faith, hope and love that provide greater meaning and motivation to people’s lives.

Further, if indeed changing our ‘inner worlds’ is what we need, then religious traditions have much to offer. I see there being two aspects to changing our ‘inner worlds’: (i) transforming how we want to live (linked to how the world should be), and (ii) transforming how we live. We typically focus on the first aspect: “if only people would start caring more about other people or the planet and less about themselves then we wouldn’t be in this mess”. However, wanting to live differently is only part of the story – I might want to eat more healthily but at the end of a long day at work I can find myself ordering a pizza instead of making a salad for dinner. Religious traditions have focused strongly on the processes of inner (and outer) transformation, through spiritual disciplines and practices. I think sustainability science would do well to engage more strongly with these.

Recently some colleagues and I have been reading through Pope Francis’ recent letter to the Catholic Church on the present ecological crisis, “On care for our common home”. Given Christianity is the largest religion in the world, I thought it is worthwhile providing a summary of its main messages, how it connects to ideas of global sustainability transformation and what worldview it represents. I’ll outline these in a coming blog, so stay tuned…