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

Paper recommendation: Rejecting Editorial Rejections Revisited: Are Editors of Ecological Journals Good Oracles?


Reommendation of: Farji-Brener A, Kitzberger T.: Rejecting Editorial Rejections Revisited: Are Editors of Ecological Journals Good Oracles? Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 2014 Jul; 95(3):238-242.

This paper looks at a topic we have been pondering for a while now (e.g. here, here or here): do editorial rejections contribute to the publication of good science or are they just arbitrary decisions that are a nuisance for authors? From our experience editorial rejections seem to be increasingly common. Sometimes (and at best) these come as friendly letters by editors who actually read the manuscript, but mostly they are just the set phrases from a rejection template. Sometimes (and in the worst case), editorial rejections are justified using arguments that contradict the actual publication practice of the very same journal (e.g. “We don’t publish papers on single species” when a similar study on the same species was published not long ago).


Our limited and anecdotal experience with editorial rejections have now been verified by this study of Farji-Brener and Kitzberger. They surveyed the fate of papers with editorial rejections and found that two thirds of the rejected papers where published at a journal of similar quality afterwards. This means that in more than half of the cases the (subject) editor’s decision to reject because of insufficient quality very likely was not justified. It also means that the role of the editors as gatekeepers in most cases does not improve the quality of the publication process, but rather makes it arbitrary and unhelpfully painful for authors.

We hope that this paper is read by many editors and scientists – for the former to challenge their practices and for the latter as a reminder that an editorial rejection will not always constitute a meaningful “expert” judgement of the quality of a given submission.

Article recommendation — Land-use change: incorporating the frequency, sequence, time span, and magnitude of changes into ecological research

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend the following paper:

Land-use change: incorporating the frequency, sequence, time span, and magnitude of changes into ecological research by Watson SJ, Luck GW, Spooner PG, Watson DM. Front Ecol Environ 2014 May; 12(4):241-9, DOI: 10.1890/130097

 Land use change is a key topic in biodiversity conservation. However, many ecologists treat land use change as a uni-directional, or one-off event. For example, they might distinguish between intact versus degraded vegetation, or they might consider an ongoing process of degradation (sometimes considering sudden changes or thresholds). Few ecologists have thought about the fact that land use may in fact change multiple times over relatively short time periods, thus creating a fluctuating mosaic of land covers.

This new paper provides a very nice way of thinking about the complexities caused by multiple land use changes happening one after the other. It deals with the frequency of land use change, the time span for which a given land cover exists in a particular location, and also how much of a contrast there is between the new land use and some prior or reference state.

In this context, the authors also raise a range of scale considerations (regarding temporal scale, spatial scale, and the resolution of underlying land cover maps or models), as well as thinking about how different ecological characteristics of target species would be affected by different temporal aspects of land cover change.

I think this is an excellent paper that landscape ecologists and conservation biologists should read because it provides a lot of food for new thoughts on how to think about landscape dynamics.

Paper recommendation: ecosystem services as a contested concept

By Joern Fischer

I highly recommend the following new paper:

Ecosystem services as a contested concept: a synthesis of critique and counter-arguments

Schröter M, van der Zanden E, van Oudenhoven A, Remme R, Serna-Chavez H, de Groot R, Opdam P.

Conserv Lett 2014 Feb, DOI: 10.1111/conl.12091

Schröter et al. provide a nicely balanced assessment of seven areas of disagreement in the field of ecosystem services research.

The superbly structured paper makes it easy to navigate through existing controversy around ecosystem services. While one may not necessarily agree with all of the ways forward suggested by the authors, the clear description of critiques and counter-critiques is extremely helpful to structure constructive debate.

Table 1 (below as a preview, click to enlarge) summarises the key arguments in a particularly accessible format.

This is an excellent overview, which — unlike many other papers dealing with similar issues — appears very balanced in its treatment of important conceptual issues.

The full paper is here.


Paper on food sovereignty now submitted for recommendation in F1000

By Joern Fischer

I have just submitted the following recommendation to F1000 (

Food sovereignty: an alternative paradigm for poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation in Latin America

Chappell M, Wittman H, Bacon C, Ferguson B … Morales H, Soto-Pinto L, Vandermeer J, Perfecto I.  F1000Res

DOI: 10.12688/f1000research.2-235.v1

Improving biodiversity conservation and food security are two of the major challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. Biodiversity conservation and food security are, however, not independent of one another. There may be trade-offs between the two (e.g. with agricultural production encroaching into natural areas), but there may also be synergies (e.g. some traditional agricultural landscapes have maintained high levels of biodiversity over centuries). Trade-offs have been prominently discussed in discourses around yield-biodiversity relationships, whereas synergies have been discussed primarily in the agro-ecological literature.

In their ambitious review, Chappell and colleagues argue for an alternative paradigm to address the nexus of food and biodiversity, namely that of “food sovereignty”. Food sovereignty is a relatively new concept. It is overtly normative, in that it is concerned with the rights of peasant communities to produce, market and consume food bundles of their own choice, without undue outside influence. The review by Chappell and colleagues is detailed and demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of a vast amount of relevant literature. The authors successfully challenge a range of conventional ideas on how to best improve both biodiversity conservation and food security.

This is an extremely ambitious and bold paper. It is an important addition to current literature because it puts forward a truly alternative lens of analysis on the nexus of biodiversity conservation and food security.


To date, I have published two short notes with Jahi Chappell, in 2011 and 2013. I recently co-organised a workshop at SESYNC (the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center) with Jahi Chappell and Hannah Wittmann. John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto have co-authored a short note I published in 2011. I have in no way been involved with the production of this article and recommend it solely for its scholarly merits.

Paper recommendation: Metaphors to understand human-environment relationships

By Joern Fischer

Recommendation of Raymond et al. (2013). Ecosystem Services and Beyond: Using Multiple Metaphors to Understand Human-Environment Relationships. BioScience.

Many different ways have been put forward to conceptualize the relationship between people and nature. Often, authors have an implicit understanding of what they believe to be the key features of this relationship. When different implicit understandings meet, this can lead to communication barriers (at best) or unproductive discussions or even arguments (at worst).


In this paper, Raymond et al. provide an elegant schematic overview to consider some of the most common ways in which human-environment relationships are being conceptualized. They distinguish between views focusing on “economic production”, on reciprocal links (“closed-loop production”), on “stewardship”, on the “web of life”, and on all life being part of an “ecocultural community”. Each of these metaphors for conceptualizing human-environment relationships, in turn, has a different ethical basis, different objectives, different indicators of success – as well as different strengths and limitations, depending on the context.

The paper is a very nice overview that brings some clarity into different ways of understanding human-environment relationships. Being more explicit about such alternative “metaphors” will be useful to advance future research.

Paper recommendation: bio-cultural refugia

By Jan Hanspach and Joern Fischer

Paper recommendation of: Bio-cultural refugia—safeguarding diversity of practices for food security and biodiversity. Barthel S, Crumley C, Svedin U. Glob Environ Change. 2013 Jun 28

With an increasing human population and climate change, food security is becoming a growing concern worldwide. One apparently easy solution might be to call for intensification to increase production, but conventional intensification, which is usually highly mechanized and demands high inputs of artificial fertilizers, as well as pesticides, is neither resilient nor sustainable. In the face of this, Barthel and colleagues offer new ideas to conceptualize how landscapes can produce food while also supporting high biodiversity. The authors introduce the concept of ‘biocultural refugia’ – landscapes where traditional knowledge of land management is maintained and practiced, while, at the same time, ecological integrity and ecosystem services are sustained. In Europe, such areas are found primarily in remote or mountainous areas where land use has not (yet) been intensified. Recognizing and supporting the value of such areas as strongholds of cultural and natural diversity should encourage the continuation of traditional small-scale farming, thus increasing food security and maintaining heterogeneous landscapes that are key for the conservation of farmland biodiversity. Although such biocultural refugia might not be as efficient as modern, industrialized agricultural landscapes, they promise to be both resilient and sustainable in the long run. 
Overall, this is a very readable paper that offers a holistic and inspiring view on how to integrate food production and biodiversity conservation in the future.

Paper recommendation: Landscape Sustainability Science

By Joern Fischer

Recommendation of Landscape sustainability science: ecosystem services and human well-being in changing landscapes
Wu JLandscape Ecol 2013 Jul; 28(6):999-1023, DOI: 10.1007/s10980-013-9894-9

In this paper, Jianguo Wu outlines the conceptual domain of “landscape sustainability science” – that is, place-based sustainability science that draws on landscape ecology as well as the social sciences and local stakeholders. “Landscape sustainability science” gives a name to what an increasing number of people believe is a useful way to conduct sustainability science, namely use-inspired, solution-oriented, transdisciplinary science in real landscapes. The global PECS initiative, for example, is motivated by just this (see Carpenter et al. in COSUST;

Wu nicely outlines many of the various facets of theory that landscape sustainability science needs to draw on, related to sustainable development, resilience, vulnerability, human well-being, and ecosystem services. The paper is an ambitious synthesis effort, but for the most part, one that very nicely brings together a vast array of relevant literature. Little gems are hidden throughout the paper, including some wonderful quotes by people such as Richard Forman, Robert Kates, and Herman Daly.

This paper gives plenty of food for thought, and I highly recommend it to everyone interested at the intersection of landscape ecology and sustainability science.


The nexus of ecosystem services and ethics

By Joern Fischer

Recommendation of Ecosystem services and ethics, Jax K, Barton D, Chan K, de Groot R and others, Ecological Economics 2013 Sep; 93:260-268

Like few other concepts, the concept of ecosystem services has captured the attention of scholars, conservationists, resource managers and policy makers. It has also facilitated integration across academic disciplines, especially ecology and economics.

Despite these successes, some remain critical of the ecosystem services concept, most importantly because they fear it may foster the commodification of nature (McCauley 2006); instead of appreciating nature for its inherent values. Opinions often appear to be divided – some researchers are strongly in favor of the ecosystem services concept, including monetary valuation, whereas some are strongly against it for “ethical reasons”.

Many leading researchers on ecosystem services have recognized for a long time that the situation is more complex than this. A polarized view of commodification versus ethics is neither helpful, nor does it in fact represent the more nuanced thinking by many leading researchers. Yet, a problem is that such nuanced thinking has rarely been effectively articulated to date.

This is why I would like to recommend the new paper by Jax et al. in Ecological Economics. It very nicely steps readers through different ethical considerations that are relevant for the ecosystem services concept, without oversimplifying the challenges, and without advocating a single “correct” way forward. Instead, Jax et al. appeal for a pluralistic approach to ecosystem services that involves many perspectives and stakeholders. By clearly articulating the goal and value dimensions of a given application of the ecosystem services concept, they argue, many of the potential ethical pitfalls of the ecosystem services concept can be avoided. They conclude (among others) that the “ecosystem services concept neither necessarily excludes the consideration of other economic values nor does it capture the whole array of values which people connect with nature”. Simple as this may be, the argument by Jax et al. is based on a nicely accessible review of relevant ethical principles.

This paper will be useful to many readers – and for natural scientists and economists not deeply familiar with ethics, it provides an excellent overview of relevant considerations. Given a general paucity of work on the nexus of ethics and ecosystem services – but an obvious need for such work – I find this a must-read for anyone working on ecosystem services.