By Joern Fischer
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.
The 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.
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.
By Joern Fischer
Working in a sustainability context quite regularly leaves me frustrated. Quite regularly, my sense is that, on balance, we’re continuing to move away from sustainability rather than towards it. And to my mind anyway, this sucks, because it’s screwing up the lives of people who are already disadvantaged as well as the lives of countless other organisms.
But occasionally I’m struck by a glimmer of hope, and because there’s so much bad news out there, I thought why not share such a glimmer of hope. The thing that gives me more hope than anything else – and hence is more motivating than anything else – is working with “the next generation” of sustainability scientists. In the last few weeks, I have read numerous applications, grant proposals and PhD proposals, and a surprising proportion of them made me very happy. There’s a highly skilled, intelligent, and motivated generation of scientists emerging; people who are not (yet?) cynical, and whose motivation is not primarily tied to h-indices but to doing research for a better world.
Of course, a little while back, I was one of those people, so one might ask if anything has changed since then. In some ways, I think, it has. As reported in our recent paper, there has been a real coalescing of different ideas, disciplines and methodologies. Today’s generation of young scholars can “hit the ground running” when it comes to integrating insights for the benefit of the world, because a lot of the disciplinary ground-work has been done. This is a great challenge (because integration is hard) but also a great opportunity.
My occasional glimpse of hope about the state of the world thus stems from seeing a growing, increasingly well equipped generation of new sustainability scientists. Two challenges emerging from this are (i) fostering the academic development of such people as much as possible, and (ii) building bridges between different people so they can join forces. The latter strikes me as particularly important because many disjointed, individual efforts at “doing good” may not suffice to turn around the trajectory of the world.
Here’s a goal worth thinking about then: Within my lifetime, I’d like to get the sense that humanity is managing to “bend the curve”, that is, at least begin to turn towards a sustainable future, rather than keep racing away from it. It will take scaling up existing efforts, but with all the good people involved … perhaps we can do it?
By Joern Fischer
In a particularly insightful comment to a recent blog post of mine, Jahi Chappell challenged the ultimate benefits of ever-increasing specialisation. Having thought about this a bit, I was struck by the generality of what this may mean. I was amazed by just how often, the problems we discuss in sustainability science result from society having favoured specialisation over balance. In this blog post, I just want to substantiate this observation by highlighting well-known examples where re-balancing would have benefits for sustainability. There is no particular order to these examples.
The time budgets of individuals. Let’s start with the point that Jahi raised – the time budgets of individuals are increasingly lob-sided. We’re encouraged to be super-stars (= workaholics) in one thing, rather than spreading our time across a variety of things; rather than “just being” (in Jahi’s words) in our communities. “Academia’s obsession with quantity”, as we called it, is just one manifestation of this general societal push towards specialisation. The time budgets of many modern people appear to need “re-balancing” – to embrace a wide range of things that give meaning, rather than focus on one thing primarily.
Global equity. Clearly, to sustainability scientists, it’s no news that the distribution of global wealth could do with some re-balancing. The wealthy nations are causing most of the environmental problems, directly or indirectly, because of lifestyles that require more resources than we have available per capita (on average). At the same time, too many people in poor nations still struggle to make a half-decent living, and lack access to services (education, medical) that are taken for granted in many rich nations. According to a recent Oxfam study (thanks Tim Lang, for your Tweet!), 1% of the global population owns 48% of wealth and 80% owns only 5.5% of wealth. More balance would be preferable from a sustainability perspective (i.e. intra-generational equity).
Knowledge generation. For a long, long time, Western scientists have valued specialisation. Knowledge has been divided into disciplines and sub-disciplines. Any given (modern) scientist knows a lot about a very narrow set of issues. As Konrad Lorenz put it (as I’ve learnt from my dear friend Tibor Hartel): “Every man gets a narrower and narrower field of knowledge in which he must be an expert in order to compete with other people. The specialist knows more and more about less and less and finally knows everything about nothing.” From a sustainability perspective, we’re now arguing for re-balancing knowledge generation. We’re arguing that having lost sight of the whole has caused all kinds of problems; and that we must get out of our disciplinary silos and embrace different ways of knowing. That’s where the terms interdisciplinarity and transdiscipinarity stem from.
Supply of ecosystem services. As famously summarised in Jon Foley’s paper in 2005, and also highlighted in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the ecosystem service bundles of intensively used agricultural landscapes are highly skewed towards provisioning services – while everything else is taking a heavy toll. Many scientists have argued for more balanced sets of ecosystem services. Recent concepts such as “ecological intensification”, for example, have suggested that we can have high levels of provisioning services while also having higher levels of other services – advocating a more balanced set of services, in other words.
Beneficiaries of ecosystem services. Recent work on ecosystem services has highlighted that the benefits of ecosystem services typically do not reach all possible beneficiaries equally. Rather, some people get a lot, while others get very little. Perhaps not surprisingly, one might argue that those places where the bundles of ecosystem services are least balanced might also be those places where the benefits are least equitably distributed… time to re-balance both, perhaps?
Resilience versus efficiency. Last but not least, an obvious example is Meffe and Holling’s classic “pathology of natural resource management”. They argue, basically, that a desire for narrowly focused efficiency has undermined the resilience of natural resource systems; making them less able to absorb shocks and continue functioning.
Perhaps this has been obvious all along, but I was quite struck really by how widespread this phenomenon of “need for more balance” appears to be. From personal lives, to ecosystem services, to knowledge generation … and I’m sure there are many more examples I could have included.
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).
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).
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.
By Joern Fischer
Many scientists working on sustainability issues are in this business because they are concerned about the state of the world. It seems self-evidently reasonable that, therefore, we ought to try to use our science to improve the state of things.
Most scientists, when they think of being relevant, or changing the state of the world for the better, automatically think of informing or influencing policy. This can be a very useful way to change things for the better. For example, new protected areas have been declared on the basis of scientific input to policy; and restoration activities in degraded landscapes have been improved by scientific input delivered to government and non-government organisations. Seeking to inform policy therefore can be a useful activity for scientists trying to improve the world.
When looking at my own work, some of it has been policy-relevant, but some has not – but was nevertheless motivated by a desire to improve the state of the world. Much of that work falls in the category of what may be called “asking uncomfortable questions”. For example, my analyses with colleagues from the social sciences and humanities have highlighted that many of the current sustainability problems require all of us to reflect on the value and belief systems underpinning the patterns of un-sustainability that we observe. Such calls to “halt and reflect” are not policy-relevant in a direct sense. When talking about such issues, I have therefore sometimes been asked: “What’s the point of all this? How is complaining about value and belief systems going to change anything?”
My response is that, in its own right, complaining of course does not do anything. However, as a scholarly community, what we talk and write about shapes or influences scientific and broader societal discourses. For example, a current discourse that many ecologists feed into is centred around the idea of environmentally benign agricultural production. Especially in a food security context, it would be possible for ecologists to feed less energy into this discourse, and instead think more about the intersection of biodiversity conservation with education (see my presentation in the previous blog post). Or – equally possible in principle – ecologists could take a systems perspective, and see whether systems are actually designed to meet objectives such as biodiversity conservation or sustainable development. Many systems were not designed for these purposes, and so we should not be surprised if they do not deliver outcomes that they were never designed to deliver in the first place. If scholars were to routinely point out inconsistencies between what our systems were originally designed to do and what may be a modern set of societal goals (e.g. sustainable development), this would create a different discourse from what we see today. In stylised terms, it is thus feasible that sustainability scholars help “create” (or strengthen) a discourse around societal goals and values, rather than continue to feed into discourses that may well amount to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
These two ways of engaging with the world – being policy-relevant versus asking uncomfortable questions – can and should go hand in hand. Of course it makes sense to work within existing structures and paradigms to improve sustainability outcomes wherever possible. But ultimately, unless we also challenge those structures and paradigms to keep up with modern (and long-term viable) societal goals, we may win many small fights but ultimately lose the overall battle.
From my perspective, it would be helpful if a larger proportion of scholars working on sustainable development, in a larger proportion of their work, highlighted the underyling problems of our sustainability crisis and the need to address those. This would alter dominant discourses, thereby creating momentum for more fundamental societal changes which very likely, ultimately will be required. Building momentum in this way means engaging with society at large, and not singling out policy makers as the single most important “end users” of scholarly work. Many societal actors play important roles in setting the overall direction the world is heading, including scientists and “ordinary” citizens – and if it is the overall direction we are worried about, it is not just policy makers that we need to talk to.
In short: being policy-relevant is useful, but as an end goal for a sustainability science community, it is not enough.
By Joern Fischer
Does this quote seem suitable for current discussions on climate change you may be following? Probably — as well as for lots of other public discussions about sustainability that you read about. And for the record: This quote is by Barack Obama, from his book “The Audacity of Hope”. When it comes to climate change, and sustainability issues more general, is there still room for hope? Is there any sign that the “smallness of our politics” will somehow change in the foreseeable future?
It is difficult not to be disillusioned when looking at the public discourse on climate change. Germany is sometimes hailed as a positive example of real progress on this front, partly because it decided to phase out fossil fuels within the medium-term future. But a closer look at Germany, to me at least, does not reveal big and bold politics either — sustainability here is more of a mainstream issue than in some other countries, but the dominant set of drivers that Germany is fundamentally based on seems just as unsustainable as elsewhere.
That said, ranting about this is not terribly helpful, and a more meaningful question may be to ask what scientists can do. Not very much perhaps, because decisions are not made by scientists (though civil society can be critically important!). But still, scientists can, and ought to, do more than provide just “data”. Most importantly, we should be questioning the world, and asking fundamentally important questions. That is, I see an urgent need for us scientists to look beyond the proximate causes of climate change and biodiversity loss, and instead open our eyes to the ultimate drivers underpinning these global trends. To me, too much of sustainability science is occupied with tangible solutions to tangible problems — when it’s the nasty, big, intangible problems that we most urgently need to grapple with. It’s for this reason that I previously put together an open letter (already signed by over 200 fellow scientists) stating the need to reflect on society’s core values.
Is there room for hope? To my mind, not unless we start asking fundamental questions related to global equity, our core values, and what it is to lead a good life. It’s not just the smallness of our politics, but also the smallness of our “science” (in a broad sense) that needs to change. As Donella Meadows pointed out long ago: the most influential way to change complex systems in a big way is to transcend the paradigms underpinning the system. Based on this, we should ask (prominently!): which paradigms underpinning our modern global society remain largely unquestioned, but ought to be challenged?
By Joern Fischer
The Sheffield Institute for International Development recently launched a new collaborative project, which aims to identify the 100 most important questions for international development. You can participate in this project by contributing questions that you think are important here.
The questions need to follow the following format (copied and pasted from the website linked above). They …
(i) Must be answerable through a realistic research design,
(ii) Must be of a spatial and temporal scope that reasonably could be addressed by a research team
(iii) Must not be formulated as a general topic area
(iv) Must have a factual answer and must not be answerable with ‘it all depends’
(v) Except if questioning a precise statement (e.g. ‘does the earth go round the sun?’), should not be answerable by ‘yes’ or ‘no’
(vi) If related to impact and interventions, must contain a subject, an intervention, and a measurable outcome
Views on the likely usefulness of this kind of exercise will very likely be divergent. On the negative side, one might argue that highly focused questions fitting the above format will – by definition – not help to address the deep, fundamental issues that we urgently need to grapple with. On the positive side, it’s likely that the questions being generated won’t go unnoticed by key international players – and on that basis, I’d argue it’s worthwhile to contribute some questions.
Here are the questions I submitted to this process:
I wrote these “big and broad” questions (rather than more specific ones) because I think it is important that this initiative pushes boundaries. Identifying the 100 most important questions for international development without questioning the paradigms underpinning global un-sustainability would be entirely meaningless, to my mind.
If you agree, I suggest you contribute your own questions that push boundaries to this process via the project’s website. I think this project is an important opportunity. But I also think it’s important it does not end up dominated by imminently doable but essentially superficial questions.
By Joern Fischer
I just received the following email. It relates to a consensus statement by scientists about the need for urgent, bold action for sustainability. Please read the message below, follow the link, and HELP DISTRIBUTE this. It is headed, and has been endorsed, by some of the best ecologists in the world. Thank you!
Earth is rapidly approaching a tipping point. Human impacts are causing alarming levels of harm
to our planet. As scientists who study the interaction of people with the rest of the biosphere using a wide range of approaches, we agree that the evidence that humans are damaging their ecological life-support systems is overwhelming.
We further agree that, based on the best scientific information available, human quality of life will suffer substantial degradation by the year 2050 if we continue on our current path.
Science unequivocally demonstrates the human impacts of key concern:
•Climate disruption–more, faster climate change than since humans first became a species.
•Extinctions–not since the dinosaurs went extinct have so many species and populations died out so fast, both on land and in the oceans.
•Wholesale loss of diverse ecosystems–we have plowed, paved, or otherwise transformed more than 40% of Earth’s ice-free land, and no place on land or in the sea is free of our direct or indirect influences.
•Pollution–environmental contaminants in the air, water and land are at record levels and increasing, seriously harming people and wildlife in unforeseen ways.
•Human population growth and consumption patterns–seven billion people alive today will likely grow to 9.5 billion by 2050, and the pressures of heavy material consumption among the middle class and wealthy may well intensify.
By the time today’s children reach middle age, it is extremely likely that Earth’s life-support systems, critical for human prosperity and existence, will be irretrievably damaged by the magnitude, global extent, and combination of these human-caused environmental stressors, unless we take concrete, immediate actions to ensure a sustainable, high-quality future.
As members of the scientific community actively involved in assessing the biological and societal impacts of global change, we are sounding this alarm to the world. For humanity’s continued health and prosperity, we all–individuals, businesses, political leaders, religious leaders, scientists, and people in every walk of lifemust work hard to solve these five global problems,
(As of May 21, 2013, the full statement was signed by 521 global change experts from 44 countries. Those signatures
were obtained within a month of completion of the statement, by direct email requests from the authors and their close colleagues to a targeted group of well-regarded global change scientists. The signers include 2 Nobel Laureates, 33 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, 42 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and several members of scientific academies in other countries.)