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.

“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.

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…

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.

Social-ecological research: achievements and next steps

By Joern Fischer

The Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) seeks to understand linkages between ecosystems and human systems. At a recent PECS meeting, we asked: (1) What key lessons have been learnt so far? (2) What are the most important challenges for the future?

figure ses

Our paper has now been published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (online for free for 50 days from today – check my ResearchGate profile after that or email me!). At least its first half provides a good news story, in the sense that social-ecological research has indeed begun to shift research and practice in important ways:

Advance 1: Recognition is growing that humanity depends on nature – it’s no longer a small community that understands that humanity fundamentally needs nature (and has an ethical obligation towards it).

Advance 2: The need for solutions to sustainability problems has increased communication and collaboration across disciplines, and between science and society – interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are growing rapidly, especially in a sustainability context.

Advance 3: Conceptual and methodological pluralism is increasing in an effort to better understand complex social-ecological systems – scientists increasingly seek to understand systems through multiple modes of enquiry.

Advance 4: Appreciation of social-ecological systems is beginning to influence major policy frameworks – although there is a long way to go still, national assessments and international frameworks now explicitly recognize social-ecological linkages.

We also identified a set of priorities for the future.

Priority 1: Social-ecological interactions between regions need to be better understood, and institutions should be developed to govern such interactions – this is the issue of “teleconnections”, which are common and important, but poorly understood and governed.

Priority 2: Both researchers and decision makers must pay greater attention to long-term drivers that gradually shape social-ecological systems – these long-term drivers continue to be (largely) ignored and include inconvenient issues such as dominant value, political and economic systems.

Priority 3: The interactions among power relations, equity, justice and ecosystem stewardship need to be better understood – this is the issue of who is in control and who benefits from ecosystems, and includes greater attention to major global injustices.

Priority 4: Commitment is needed by governments and society at large to support the development of a stronger science-society interface – we have only just begun to link science with society through transdisciplinary processes, but a step change is needed to bring about major changes.

… and major changes are what we need. As we say in the paper: Despite the progress that has been made, “there is a real danger that the growing challenges of the Anthropocene – such as climate change, global social injustices, and biodiversity loss – will outpace the progress that is being made.” A good reason to keep up the collective effort to further advance social-ecological research!

Now officially open: PhD positions on leverage points for sustainability

Please help distribute this widely — we have too few expressions of interest so far!

Applications are now officially open for 8 Leverage Points PhD Positions (start date ideally October 2015). The application deadline for all eight positions is 30th of June 2015. These are 3-year positions for scholars to complete their PhDs at Leuphana (standard time in Germany; coursework is minimal).

A pdf of this overview is available here.  Please help to distribute this widely! Thanks you!

PhD1: Institutional dynamics in sustainability transformation (RESTRUCTURE: Policy and Governance)
Principal supervisors: Prof. Dr. Jens Newig, Prof. Dr. Thomas Schomerus

This position focuses on processes of institutional change for restructuring food and energy systems. RESTRUCTURE will address dynamics (transformations) in institutional arrangements. Social structures embodied in institutions (rules, regu-lations and policies) enable, constrain and guide human action and thus are of central concern to sustainability transfor-mations. Different from most existing research, Leverage Points will not only consider institutional innovation and ‘success-ful’ institutional arrangements, but will specifically investigate what can be learnt from institutional failure, and assess how purposeful institutional decline could foster sustainability.  More detailed information on this position is available here PhD1.

PhD2: Institutional dynamics in sustainability transformation, e.g. with special focus on energy or food/agriculture systems (RESTRUCTURE: Law and Governance)
Principal supervisors: Prof. Dr. Thomas Schomerus, Prof. Dr. Jens Newig

This position focuses on legal and policy analysis regarding food/agriculture and energy, and its dynamics in a multi-level institutional setting (case study regions, countries, EU). Tasks may include: systematic review and meta-analysis of productive functions of institutional failure and decline for sustainability transformation; study of institutional redundancies and inconsistencies within study regions; compare sustainability-relevant institutional change; study of the role of citizen and stakeholder participation in institutional change, i.e. regional resistance against renewable energy and citizen’s financial participation. More detailed information on this position is available here PhD2.

PhD3: Human-Nature Connections and Institutional Dynamics
Principal supervisors: Dr. Julia Leventon, Prof. Dr. Joern Fischer

This position has a primary focus on conceptualising and quantifying human-nature connections and how changes in such connections relate to sustainability outcomes, in food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO). In addition, the position links to considerations of institutional change for restructuring food and energy systems and will address dynamics (transformations) in institutional arrangements. Social structures embodied in institutions (rules, regulations and policies) enable, constrain and guide human action and thus are of central concern to sustainability transformations. This position will consider how institutions reflect connections, and the implications for guiding human action. More detailed information on this position is available here PhD3.

PhD4: Conceptualising and quantifying human-nature connections (conceptualization)
Principal supervisors: Dr. Dave Abson, Dr. Julia Leventon

This position focuses on conceptualising human-nature connections and how changes in such connections relate to sustainability outcomes, in food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO). This will involve the conceptualisation and quantification of actors’ aspirations and appreciation of local ecosystems; consumer choices in obtaining energy and food; and how behaviour, attitudes and knowledge influence individuals ‘connectedness’ to their environments. More detailed information on this position is available here PhD4.

PhD5: Conceptualising and quantifying human-nature connections (quantification)
Principal supervisors: Prof. Dr. Henrik von Wehrden, Dr. Dave Abson

This position focuses on quantifying human-nature connections and how changes in such connections relate to sustainability outcomes, in food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO).Tasks and responsibilities may include: the creation of a literature review of the connections between people and ecosystems and quantifying ecosystem service flows within the empirical study regions. More detailed information on this position is available here PhD5.

PhD6: Sustainability-related knowledge creation and use (opportunities for change)
Principal supervisors: Prof. Dr. Daniel Lang, Prof. Dr. Ulli Vilsmaier

This position focuses on consolidating and further developing conceptual foundations related to new forms of knowledge production and use, and will apply these to local transdisciplinary case studies. The themes of the case studies will revolve around the food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO). Tasks and responsibilities may include: Systematic review of the (types of) knowledge needed for regional sustainability transformations; review of existing knowledge and experiences related to designs and opportunities of different forms of knowledge production to foster sustainability transformation; empirical analysis in how and how far knowledge and experience gained in specific contexts can be transferred between regions and themes and contribution to the organization and management of one of the transdisciplinary case studies. More detailed information on this position is available here PhD6.

PhD7: Sustainability-related knowledge creation and use (sustainability conceptualization and opportunities for change)
Principal supervisors: Prof. Dr. Daniel Lang, Prof. Dr. Henrik von Wehrden

This position focuses on consolidating conceptual foundations related to new forms of knowledge production and use, and will apply and investigate these in local transdisciplinary case studies. The themes of the case studies will revolve around the food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO). Tasks and responsibilities may include: Reviewing the state of sustainability related knowledge production and use in the study regions; analysis of sustainability conceptualisations in different contexts in the specific case study regions; identification and design of opportunities for creating new forms of knowledge production and use for regional change; and contribution to the organization and management of a transdisciplinary case study. More detailed information on this position is available here PhD7.

PhD 8: Inter- and transdisciplinary Knowledge Creation in Action
Principal supervisors: Prof. Dr. Ulli Vilsmaier, Prof. Dr. Daniel Lang

This position will analyse the processes of knowledge production in the inter- and transdisciplinary research processes in Leverage Points. It will generate a more profound understanding of integrating different epistemics, life worlds and objectives, in particular in transdisciplinary sustainability science, and transdisciplinary case studies. The cooperative team of Leverage Points and the two transdisciplinary cases studies in Lower Saxony/Germany and Transylvania/Romania will serve as principal research space. More detailed information on this position is available here PhD8.

To apply

The official job adverts for all eight positions and details of how to apply can be found at

Eight new PhD positions on leverage points for sustainability (food, energy)

The seesaw metaphor of leverage points for sustainability

By Joern Fischer

A picture is worth a thousand words — and an effective graphic can summarise complex relationships in simple terms. Perhaps the most famous graphical metaphor in sustainability science is the ball-in-cup metaphor used to communicate the concept of ecological resilience. What makes the ball-in-cup metaphor so powerful? And can the seesaw metaphor of leverage points (illustrated below) be equally powerful?

The ball-in-cup metaphor describing resilience — especially the bottom part of this figure has been very influential (Source: Kuei-Hsien Liao 2012, Ecology & Society)

Before we get to the seesaw metaphor of leverage points for sustainability, let’s “analyse” some of the key features of the ball-in-cup metaphor.

1. The ball-in-cup metaphor addresses an important issue that had been under-recognised. The concept of ecological resilience, when it was first raised, was new, and not entirely easy to understand to scientists or the public. People were used to thinking of the world as one that ought to be stable, and which, when “shocked”, would return to this stable state. The idea that a system might in fact “flip” into an alternative stable state was fairly different from what most people were thinking about. Today, thinking about these issues has culminated in the concept of “planetary boundaries”, that is, the notion that we might move our Earth system into an entirely different, and less livable, stable state. Most scientists and many members of the public can understand the idea of “planetary boundaries” — of moving outside the desired stability domain. Arguably, this would not have been the case without the “ground work” being done for a number of years by the simple ball-in-cup metaphor.

2. The ball-in-cup metaphor captures just enough complexity to be interesting, but no more. The concept of ecological resilience has many subtleties, which have in fact been captured graphically in various other ways. For example, some systems are characterised by hysteresis, that is, changes between alternative stable states that are not smoothly reversible. Also, systems may change their state not because of a shock, but because of a change in contextual conditions. Subtleties such as these can be drawn using the ball-in-cup metaphor, but not without some difficulties. It’s the basic ideas, however, that are most important to understanding ecological resilience, and that are captured really well by the ball-in-cup metaphor: (i) your system sits in one spot, but don’t take that as given; (ii) if you shock it a bit, it might recover and stay basically the same; but … (iii) if you shock it too much, it may flip into another state. This is relatively complex material to get your head around, but using the ball-in-cup metaphor, it’s fairly easy to explain.

3. The ball-in-cup metaphor makes intuitive sense. We get it: most of us have seen a ball roll down a hill, or be kicked over the top of one … and that’s about all you need, in terms of personal experience, to get this metaphor.

4. It’s imperfect, but not to the degree that it leads to wrong conclusions. The world is a lot more complex than a ball in a cup. Many of the mechanisms keeping the ball where it is — or driving it over the edge — remain hidden in this metaphor. Stability domains typically involve feedbacks to keep the system where it is. It’s the nature of these feedbacks (or new ones not previously operating) that drives system change, and causes regime shifts. One could criticise that these kinds of changes remain invisible in the ball-in-cup metaphor. It also doesn’t say anything about the nature of the drivers, and one might argue that thinking about the world as a simple ball ignores the fact that it’s the world itself that is dynamic — isolating the ball from its cup thus might be considered intellectually meaningless — when it comes to the Earth system, the ball and the cup are essentially the same thing, and even the people causing the changes (the drivers) are part of it. While these are potential criticisms, I’d just shrug them off in the sense that no metaphor can be perfect. But if it’s good enough to get an important point across, it can be powerful nevertheless.

So, what about the seesaw metaphor of leverage points for sustainability? The idea of leverage points dates back to a paper by Donella Meadows (as previously explained here). To communicate our research project on leverage points, we have simplified this using the graphical metaphor of a seesaw (in fact, the original credit goes to Dave Abson).

Meadows’ leverage points, depicted here using the metaphor of a seesaw.

How does this metaphor stack up against the features that seem to have made the ball-in-cup so useful?

Regarding point 1 — the importance of the issue at hand — I think we’re spot-on. Despite ever-increasing efforts, there is little sign that humanity (globally speaking) is moving towards sustainability, and there are plenty of signs that we’re moving away from it. A lot of what we’re doing is fiddling around the edges, while leaving some of the key issues unaddressed. In 1971, Ehrlich and Holdren spoke of environmental impact being a function of population, affluence and the technologies we use. Perhaps population is starting to level off, but hunger for affluence remains unsatisfied even among the richest, and in sum, the technologies humanity uses today are no less “impact-free” than several decades ago (though, of course, some technologies can alleviate the pressures caused by population and affluence). What’s missing from current solutions? Too many of the things we discuss don’t even go near those leverage points discussed by Meadows as the more influential ones. The system rules, the system goal, the paradigm driving the system, and the will to question it — addressing these things is where we could expect major change to come from. Not from adjusting constants or changing a few material flows. This point is both important and under-recognised.

Regarding point 2 — capturing enough complexity but no more — the seesaw metaphor is also quite useful. There are many things that this metaphor does not tell us, but there are also a few key things that it says quite immediately — push at the end of the seesaw, if you want to move it: we’ve been pushing in the wrong spot!

Regarding point 3, the seesaw is fairly intuitive. Perhaps not everybody has actually played on a seesaw … I suspect there are a lot more kids who kick around a ball than who sit on a seesaw! But as far as these things go, many of us have at least seen a seesaw in action, and so the metaphor is somewhat intuitive.

Regarding point 4: like the ball-in-cup metaphor, the seesaw metaphor is not perfect. Again, the complex system is being dumbed down to a “round thing”, and again, human agency sits outside that round thing (and not within it). Perhaps more importantly, the labels from low to high leverage points are driven by the expertise of one (albeit hugely experienced!) systems researcher, namely Donella Meadows. Despite her undeniable wisdom, her list of leverage points may not be perfect, and in her essay, she herself acknowledged that she had changed her mind on the relative importance of these leverage points through time. But that’s where research comes in: science ought to look at those things that are potentially important, but largely under-researched.

There’s no telling if the seesaw metaphor will speak to the world — and it would be crazy to even hope that it can be as successful as the ball-in-cup metaphor. But this isn’t a competition, after all! — It’s about getting important ideas across to as many people as possible.

Leverage Points for Sustainability: Four Postdoc Positions

The official advertisement will be available on the Leuphana website (here, to be precise!) — it will be identical. 

Please help to distribute this widely! Thank you!

DEADLINE for all four positions: 10th of March — very soon!!

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 will focus 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 The following four positions are postdoctoral associate positions within the Leverage Points project.  You will be expected to work closely with the research consortium, including eight Principal Investigators, and eight PhD students.

PD1: RESTRUCTURE: Institutional dynamics in sustainability transformation This position focuses on processes of institutional change for restructuring food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO). RESTRUCTURE will address dynamics (transformations) in institutional arrangements. Social structures embodied in institutions (rules, regulations and policies) enable, constrain and guide human action and thus are of central concern to sustainability transformations. Different from most existing research, Leverage Points will not only consider institutional innovation and ‘successful’ institutional arrangements, but will specifically investigate what can be learnt from institutional failure, and assess how purposeful institutional decline could foster sustainability. Full details are available here.

PD2: RECONNECT: Conceptualising and quantifying human-nature connections This position focuses on conceptualising and quantifying human-nature connections and how changes in such connections relate to sustainability outcomes, in food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO). Full details are available here.

PD3: RETHINK: Sustainability-related knowledge creation and use (Germany) This position focuses on consolidating conceptual foundations related to new forms of knowledge production and use, and will apply these to local transdisciplinary case studies.  The themes of the case studies will revolve around the food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO).  This position focuses on the Lower Saxony case, but contributes to the Transylvania case. Full details are available here.

PD4: RETHINK: Sustainability-related knowledge creation and use (Romania) This position focuses on consolidating conceptual foundations related to new forms of knowledge production and use, and will apply these to local transdisciplinary case studies.  The themes of the case studies will revolve around the food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO).  This position focuses on the Transylvania case, but contributes to the Lower Saxony case. Full details are available here.

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Joern Fischer

Have you ever thought that sustainability science seems to be missing the point, half the time? That’s we’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and that we’re fiddling around the edges? Well — you’re not alone. A group of eight scholars from Leuphana University Lueneburg (myself included) got together early in 2014 to write a project proposal on precisely this. And just a short while ago we found out that our proposal was successful, funded through an exciting initiative by the German state of Lower Saxony to fund excellence in sustainability.

Our new project is called “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation”. Conceptually, we start with an idea by Donella Meadows, which she published in 1999, in an essay called “Places to Intervene in a System“. Her idea was that there are many ways to intervene in complex systems — but some of these ways are not particularly influential (they have shallow leverage), while others are highly influential (they have deep leverage).

leverage points

Looking at the list of leverage points identified by Donella Meadows (see above), one might argue that a lot of sustainability science has focused on the things on the left — on relatively shallow leverage points. Think about the “reform” of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, of laws to ban incandescent light bulbs, or maybe even of REDD+. These are all good things, but it seems they are only small steps in the right direction; while the forces for un-sustainability continue to operate with the same strength as before.

Arguably, it’s time for sustainability science to more routinely look at the things with deeper leverage — on the right hand side in our graphic above. Our new project will try to do precisely that. For the purpose of convenience, in our new project, we will look at leverage points within three spheres, which for convenience we labelled restructure, reconnect, and rethink. Restructure will deal with the role of institutions; reconnect with relationships between people and their natural environments; and rethink will critically investigate what types of knowledge are needed to advance sustainability (including from outside academia). As focal themes, our new project will focus on food and energy; and as case study areas, we will compare Lower Saxony (in Germany) with Transylvania (in Romania).

work package structure

The project is designed to run for four years, and will start in spring 2015. There will be four postdoc positions and eight PhD positions starting in mid-to-late 2015. Stay tuned!

The other PIs on this new project are (in random order!) Ulli Vilsmaier, Dave Abson, Henrik von Wehrden, Julia Leventon, Thomas Schomerus, Jens Newig — and our speaker, Daniel Lang.