Paper recommendation: a social-ecological analysis of coral reefs

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend the following new paper: Cinner JE et al. (2016). Bright spots among the world’s coral reefs. Nature 2016 Jul 21; 535(7612):416-9. DOI: 10.1038/nature18607

This paper presents a nice global analysis of social-ecological factors that explain the state of coral reefs. The findings suggest that more attention needs to be paid to variables other than simply fishing pressure — for example, functioning local institutions and clearly defined property rights can help to facilitate a better state of coral reefs, while conversely, technologically highly modernised systems are particularly vulnerable to degradation. These kinds of considerations have received insufficient attention by conservation biologists, not only in marine but also in terrestrial systems. The paper thus provides inspiration for how to apply social-ecological systems thinking more broadly, and is very much worth a read.

Article recommendation: heterarchies

By Joern Fischer

I warmly recommend the following article, which just appeared in Trends in Ecology & Evolution:

Cumming, G.S. (2016). Heterarchies: Reconciling Networks and Hierarchies. Trends Ecol Evol. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2016.04.009

This paper proposes that the concept of “heterarchies” be used more widely in ecology, and in social-ecological systems research. The key point is that systems can behave in complex ways (e.g. self-organisation) for at least two reasons: being organised through (i) a networked system architecture versus (ii) a hierarchical system architecture. The idea of heterarchy suggests that these two types of system structure are not mutually exclusive. Rather, ecologists may gain from considering both aspects of hierarchical organisation, and aspects of networked organisation — and, importantly, their interaction.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 12.02.50

This relatively simple conceptual framework, in my opinion, offers a fresh perspective to thinking about complex systems. Cumming demonstrates that this perspective can be applied to many different contexts. What kind of architecture characterises a particular system of interest (How networked is it? How hierarchical is it?) — and how this architecture may result in certain types of system behaviour — can be meaningfully studied in many different contexts. This, in turn, means that a comparative study of the heterarchy of different systems could be helpful to generate new, generalisable insights on the behaviour of complex (human-environment) systems.

As Cumming acknowledges, the concept of heterarchies is not new. However, it will be new to many ecologists, and is likely to stimulate a wide range of interesting new research.

Paper recommendation: power relations in ecosystem services work

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend the following paper:

Berbés-Blázquez M, González JA, Pascual U. 2016. Towards an ecosystem services approach that addresses social power relations. Curr Opin Environ Sustainability 2016 Apr; 19:134-43. DOI: 10.1016/j.cosust.2016.02.003

With the new IPBES framework and its focus on institutions, a shift towards governance-related issues is already underway in ecosystem services research. The paper recommended here adds an important new dimension, namely that of power relationships. These have, until recently, been largely ignored in ecosystem services research. The present paper makes three tangible suggestions for how power relationships should be more routinely examined in ecosystem service assessments:

1. by analysing how power shapes institutions, and how this in turn, creates winners and losers in terms of the well-being benefits generated by ecosystem services;

2. by investigating more carefully how ecosystem services are co-produced by people. Ecosystem services (especially provisioning services) are generated by combining human labour inputs with natural capital. The type of input can have substantial consequences for human well-being, even if the amount of “service” produced is equal (e.g. child labour vs. subsistence farming vs. industrialised agriculture);

3. by being cognisant of historical trajectories and their influence on shaping institutions and power relationships surrounding them.

Ecosystem services research arose in ecology and branched out into economics. Recent advances in the field (such as this paper) show that the concept is increasingly drawing on insights from other social sciences, too — this will greatly improve the value of the ecosystem services concept.

Paper recommendation: integrated landscape approaches for the future

I would like to recommend the following paper:

Reed J,  Van Vianen J,  Deakin EL,  Barlow J,  Sunderland T. 2016. Integrated landscape approaches to managing social and environmental issues in the tropics: learning from the past to guide the futureGlob Chang Biol. 2016 Mar 17, DOI: 10.3410/f.726225411.793517151

Focusing on the tropics, this paper makes a strong case for further efforts on ‘landscape approaches’ to biodiversity conservation. Landscape approaches are defined as approaches that seek, at the same time, to tackle biodiversity conservation, food security, poverty alleviation and climate change. The paper urges researchers, policy makers and practitioners alike to continue their efforts on focusing on landscapes as units for the integration of multiple interests — with the goal of maximizing synergies, while minimizing and being aware of inevitable trade-offs.

Through its holistic, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary focus, this paper is a welcome contrast to the dominant discourse in leading journals, which tends to be technocratic in nature {1}.


The intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation: a review, Glamann J, Hanspach J, Abson DJ, Collier N, Fischer J. Reg Environ Change. 2015 Oct 06; 

Paper recommendation: human value shifts and conservation

I would like to recommend the following paper.

Implications of human value shift and persistence for biodiversity conservation

by Manfredo MJ,  Teel TL,  Dietsch AM, Conserv Biol. 2016 Apr30(2):287-96. (LINK)

 In addressing human values, this is one of few articles in mainstream conservation journals that deals with some of the deeper issues underlying the present environmental crisis. The paper shows that values change only very slowly, but that there is a general shift occurring (in the USA) from domination-oriented values towards mutualism-oriented values. This value change is slow, but goes in the general direction of a more sustainability-oriented humanity.

My only slight criticism of this paper is that the authors recommend focusing on working within people’s value systems, because changing value systems may be impractical. I would argue that these two options should not be framed as mutually exclusive: it seems reasonable to work within existing value systems, while also encouraging and fostering the shift in values that is (according to this study) already underway. This is particularly the case because the authors argue in their introduction that changes in values can be stimulated, for example, by being exposed to new information or crisis situations.

The dimension of human values is greatly under-researched in a conservation context. This paper is an authoritative empirical exception that will hopefully stimulate further work in this important area.

Paper recommendation: Claire Kremen on land sparing and sharing

By Joern Fischer

Finally: an authoritative must-read paper that provides an in-depth critique on the framework of land sparing versus land sharing. I highly recommend this new paper by Claire Kremen, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (and freely available here).

The paper is an impressive synthesis of a vast amount of literature on land sparing and land sharing. While it takes a critical perspective of the framework, it also acknowledges some of the key strengths of the work by the original proponents – including density-based field sampling, and a field design that allows the careful assessment of yield-density relationships.

The paper also addresses numerous other issues that have caused controversy and confusion in the past, including inconsistent terminology, and whether higher-yielding farming will actually spare land for nature. It synthesizes nicely up-to-date insights from a governance perspective, too – showing that without effective environmental governance, higher yielding agriculture may backfire badly on biodiversity conservation. Higher yielding agriculture, by whichever method, thus will not automatically lead to the sparing or land for nature.

I particularly liked the clear critique that there must be a consideration of who is to benefit from potential yield gains achieved. As one of very few leading scientists, Claire Kremen departs from the dominant, largely technocratic perspective that first, we must increase yields, and then worry about how to best distribute the material gains thus achieved. The world doesn’t work like this, and Claire Kremen emphasizes that equity considerations, explicitly accounting for smallholders, need to be part of potential management strategies from the outset.

Finally, I agree with the author that it’s time to come up with a new framework. The framework of land sparing versus land sharing was, and is, useful for focusing the attention of researchers on the intersection of two interrelated issues: food security (or production) and biodiversity conservation. This has been a great contribution, because many ecologists who never would have thought about these issues in combination are now ready to engage with these topics.

But: it’s time to move on, and add the further nuances that are clearly needed – including issues such as governance and equity considerations. The onus here, to my mind, is not on the original proponents of this framework, who did a great job getting an important issue on many, many people’s agendas. Rather, the onus is on the scientific community as a whole to move on: respecting what we have learnt to date, but recognizing that it, alone, will be insufficient to guide future policy or management decisions.

Paper recommendation: Fostering creative thinking in science

I’d like to recommend the following paper: Dual thinking for scientists. Scheffer M, Bascompte J, Bjordam T, Carpenter S … Mazzeo N, Meerhoff M, Sala O, Westley F.  Ecology and Society 2015; 20(2). DOI: 10.5751/ES-07434-200203. Available here.

Figure one, copied from the recommended paper

Figure one, copied from the recommended paper

This paper makes an exceptionally important point. In order to generate useful, genuinely new insights, scientists need to (re-)learn to think intuitively, and balance such intuitive thinking with reasoning. This, in turn, requires space for reflection and informal activities. While this point may be obvious to some, most institutional structures still do not adequately support such non-formalised ways of doing science. This paper nicely reasons, drawing on a range of useful examples and literature, why it is important to balance reasoning with more open-minded, intuitive perception.

Paper recommendation: Common European birds are declining rapidly while less abundant species’ numbers are rising

I’d like to recommend the following paper:

Inger R, Gregory R, Duffy JP, Stott I, Voříšek P, Gaston KJ (2014) Common European birds are declining rapidly while less abundant species’ numbers are rising. Ecol Lett 2014 Nov 2, PMID: 25363472 DOI: 10.1111/ele.12387

This paper draws on the compilation of long-term data for European birds. It highlights that common species are declining, while rare species are increasing. This, in turn, raises doubts about conservation practices that are primarily focusing on the local scale, for example via creating (small) protected areas. Inger et al. imply that a broader-scale focus is needed for conservation, which needs to explicitly recognise entire landscapes. Especially from the perspective of ecosystem functioning (and ecosystem services), a decline of the most common species is particularly concerning.

This is an important paper that provides a strong empirical argument for why conservation should not target only species that are already rare.

Paper recommendation: Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services

By Joern Fischer

I recommend the following paper: Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services. Pascual U, Phelps J, Garmendia E, Brown K, Corbera E, Martin A, Gomez-Baggethun E, Muradian RBioscience 2014 Oct 1, DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biu146 (available via the journal homepage)

Equity considerations are increasingly seen as an important challenge in sustainability science. This paper by Pascual and colleagues highlights the importance of equity considerations in an ecosystem services context. The most prominent tool used to enhance the provision of ecosystem services is that of payments. This focus on payments, in turn, is heavily influenced by efficiency considerations derived from economic theory.

Pascual et al. make three important points. First, economic-theory driven, efficiency-focused schemes for payments for ecosystem services may bear little resemblance to the (messy) real world of policy implementation.

Second, the lack of consideration of equity (in terms of distribution, procedures, and context) can have negative repercussions for the effectiveness of payments for ecosystem service schemes.

Third, by considering equity, the effectiveness of such schemes can be improved. This suggests that equity considerations are not only of moral value in their own right; but also have instrumental value in that they may help improve ecological outcomes.

This paper is a must-read for all ecologists working on ecosystem services, because it makes the important (but under-recognised) point that successful governance of ecosystem services is much more than simply combining ecological data with economic theory.

Paper recommendation: Changing the intellectual climate

The following paper may be of interest to readers of this blog:

Changing the intellectual climate by Castree N, Adams W, Barry J, Brockington D, Büscher B, Corbera E, Demeritt D, Duffy R, Felt U, Neves K, Newell P, Pellizzoni L,Rigby K, Robbins P, Robin L, Rose D, Ross A, Schlosberg D, Sörlin S, West P, Whitehead M, Wynne B. Nat Clim Chang ; 4(9):763-768, DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2339 nclimate2339

 This is an extremely important paper that all global change, sustainability and conservation scientists should read. It highlights a very important point: that the type of research on “human dimensions” of global change represented by much existing work is too narrow.

The authors argue that critically important questions about fundamental questions of value, responsibility, rights, entitlements, needs, duty, faith, care, government, cruelty, charity and justice are under-represented in global environmental change science. (I would add the same is true for conservation biology in particular.)

An understanding of such foundational issues is, however, fundamental to making progress with global sustainability; and echoes earlier calls on addressing the “sustainability gap” (1, 2).

To date, only a relatively narrow subset of social sciences is regularly being integrated in sustainability research — including, for example, environmental economics and political science. A much broader set of disciplinary traditions, however, is needed to address the “foundational” issues (1) actually underpinning the current sustainability crisis.

The recommended paper makes a strong and convincing case that much more attention needs to go to the environmental humanities.

Concrete suggestions in the paper include that biophysical scientists ought to acknowledge that they have got used to a rather narrow type of work addressing the “human dimension” of global change; and that environmental humanists, in turn, must do more to engage with sustainability research.


1. Mind the sustainability gap. Fischer J, Manning AD, Steffen W, Rose DB, Daniell K, Felton A, Garnett S, Gilna B, Heinsohn R, Lindenmayer DB, Macdonald B, Mills F, Newell B, Reid J, Robin L, Sherren K, Wade A. Trends Ecol Evol (Amst) 2007 Dec; 22(12):621-4; PMID: 17997188 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2007.08.016

2. Human behavior and sustainability Fischer J, Dyball R, Fazey I, Gross C, Dovers S, Ehrlich P, Brulle R, Christensen C, Borden R. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2012 Apr; 10(3):153-160; DOI: 10.1890/110079