Managing rural landscapes in tradition

By Joern Fischer

Throughout the world, we find landscapes that used to be dominated by smallholder farming. Despite great differences between such places, there are also many commonalities. For example, agriculture tends to be conducted for local use rather than for distant locations; many members of the local communities are engaged in farming; farming methods are relatively simple in technological terms (and happen without a lot of input of modern technologies or fossil fuels) — and people often have “enough”, but are not able to access or accumulate large quantities of economic wealth.

Examples of such places exist around the world, and they share one more commonality: they are rapidly changing. How can rural landscapes in transition best be managed? Based on our work in Romania, I propose five common take-home messages for rural landscapes in transition.

1. Natural capital provides a solid foundation for development, while other capital stocks may be lacking

If we think about landscapes as a series of capital stocks, it becomes apparent quite quickly what the strengths and weaknesses of traditional farming landscapes might be. There is often little in terms of modern infrastructure (or physical capital), so that for example access to markets might be not very good; and agriculture might rely on large amount of human labour. Human capital then, is usually quite high when it comes to farming labour, but low when it comes to high levels of formal education. Financial capital is often lacking. Social capital is often quite high in traditional societies, but perhaps the most obvious capital stock is natural capital. Traditional farming landscapes are, often, very biodiverse. Some biodiversity may be lost when such landscapes become economically more prosperous, but at the same time, I would argue that natural capital provides a solid foundation for development, on top of which other capital stocks can be accumulated. If development focuses narrowly on just (for example) modern farming equipment and pumping investment into an area, it’s likely this would come at a high cost to natural (and quite possibly also social) capital.  So, a wise choice, to my mind, is to be aware of what these landscapes already are rich in, and not destroy this in the process of trying to improve human well-being (assuming that this is the goal, rather than just profit, in which case it’s not sustainable development anyway!).

2. Market-oriented incentives may erode a traditional stewardship ethic

A second, perhaps more speculative point is that many traditional rural landscapes use long-established methods to manage the natural environment. These methods typically go hand in hand with an understanding of what’s right and proper — certain activities ought to be done in certain seasons for example. Such traditional rules are typically upheld by informal institutions, together with a stewardship ethic of how one ought to look after the land. It follows that “modern” monetary incentives need to be used carefully. Pumping money into systems with a traditionally strong stewardship ethic can actually erode this ethic, thus accelerating environmental decline by destroying the value basis of sustainable practices.

3. Good governance is critical (accountability, trust) for sustainability

It somehow goes without saying — and was extremely obvious in our work in Romania — that not much good will come of “development” that is governed badly. When money disappears or nepotism is rife, environmental and social outcomes are unlikely to be very good.

4. Equity issues are likely to emerge as social structures change

Just like the potential danger of monetary incentives is widely under-appreciated, there is only little understanding and interest in equity issues. As development takes place, differences in wealth between the rich and poor tend to be magnified in traditional farming landscapes. Who decides who gets to win and who misses out? Questions such as this, and questions around access to ecosystem services (and also government subsidies) are likely to arise. Unless they are managed well, they can lead to major disappointment and disillusions about development among local people.

5. In the absence of a “benevolent dictator”, change must happen through empowering communities (bottom-up)

A lot of natural scientists like to recommend to decision-makers what they calculated to be optimal or efficient solutions. Well, fine. But what if there are no benevolent dictators interested in such information? I would argue that many of the world’s rural landscapes — and especially those in transition — are governed in complex or even messy ways, where it is not clear that anybody in particular is “in charge”; nor that anybody in particular is interested in guiding development in a way that is optimal or efficient from a sustainability perspective. In such cases, it’s important for scientists to be open to the idea that change will not come from the top down, through policy. Rather, I think there is value in engaging with local communities and providing information to people directly, so that nascent initiatives can work towards sustainability from the bottom up.

These five points are a subjective list of observations from our work in Romania. They may or may not apply to other locations in the world. I’d be interested in people’s thoughts on the possible generality of some of these.

A synthesis for everyone: 5 years of work in Romania

By Joern Fischer

After five years of work in Southern Transylvania, our first main project there has now officially finished. Our project website provides an overview of all of our research outputs as well as outreach materials. In an effort to provide an accessible overview of the various things we did, we have just completed a small book that tries to bring everything together. This book could be useful for NGOs in Romania, for engaged citizens and community leaders; but it might also be useful for researchers working on similar issues elsewhere to get a sense for how others go about this kind of work.

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Like our booklet on scenario planning, this new book is published by Pensoft, and is open access. This means you are free to download it and share it with whoever you think may be interested in it.

With this project coming to an end (there are still three or so papers in the pipeline…), one might wonder: what next? Well, we do continue to be involved in Central Romania, albeit in a slightly different way. With the new project “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation“, we’ll try to address some of the deeper challenges underpinning un-sustainability. So stay tuned …


Disaggregated contributions of ecosystem services to human well-being: a case study from Eastern Europe

By Andra Horcea-Milcu

This new paper is part of recent efforts (e.g. Spangenberg et al. 2014) to widen the ecosystem service metaphor in order to encompass the multiple ways in which nature supports human well-being. As I tried to illustrate in more detail here, the evolution of the ecosystem service discourse has roughly followed down the Haines-Young and Potschin ‘cascade’ towards the beneficiaries’ end: their capabilities, agency, interest, power, preferences, inner values, and the totality of social processes influencing the cascade (e.g. the management of the ecosystem services flow). The question of how is human well-being connected to ecosystem services gave rise to new research agendas including issues of co-production by social-ecological systems, equity (e.g. Pascual et al. 2014), benefit distribution and disaggregation of beneficiaries based on various criteria such as gender or location (e.g. Daw 2011). Disaggregation enables studying in more depth patterns of ecosystem services flows, similarly to how a finer scale analysis allows to research different patterns in comparison to a coarse scale approach.

Adept Foundation booklet

Adept Foundation booklet

Disaggregated contributions of ecosystem services to human well-being: a case study from Eastern Europe” explores the unequal distribution of nine provisioning ecosystem services among potential beneficiary groups in Southern Transylvania and the contextual factors that explain this distribution. Data collection was based on group interviews. For analyzing the data we used an informed grounded theory approach operationalized in two iterative cycles of qualitative coding, performed similarly to how I explained here. Initially inspired by Daw et al. 2011 and by the literature on access (Ribot and Peluso 2003), this paper proposes a conceptual model based on six mediating factors that better situate the relation between human well-being and nature’s benefits. The developed model is in line with reflections on the co-production of ecosystem services by various elements and forms of capital pertaining to the social and ecological system (e.g. Palomo et al. 2016, but see also here for a total zoom out).

Conceptual model of mediating factors (MMF)

Conceptual model of mediating factors (MMF)

Factor 1 characteristics of the appropriated ecosystem services
We separated the investigated ecosystem services in three categories based on their capacity to generate indirect benefits such as cash income or employment.
Factor 2 policies, formal institutions, and markets
Factor 2 is about the visible institutional and policy contexts shaping the well-being contribution of nature’s services to humans. In our study area, these were frequently associated with the perceived effect of specific policies such as the European Common Agriculture Policy and its agri-environment measures.
Factor 3 social and power relations, and informal institutions
The intricate webs of power, knowledge and social relations among beneficiaries further enhance or block access to ecosystem services benefits.
Factor 4 household decisions and individual contexts
Well-being circumstances like income levels, abilities, preferences, livelihood decisions, and strategies at individual or more aggregated levels such as households add more complexity to the ecosystem services–well-being relationship.
Factor 5 different perceptions and understandings of equity
Mental models of fairness and adjusted expectations distort outcomes of the ecosystem services–well-being relationship. Our study illustrated that what is regarded as legitimate is linked to locals’ judgments and mental models, placing fairness in the eye of the beholder.
Factor 6 individually held values
Finally, the sixth factor pertained to values and norms held by participants.

The above factors share similarities with others identified in the recent literature (e.g. Hicks and Cinner 2014), although they may differ in terms of jargon, but less so in terms of content and meaning. The delineation of these factors is based on the analytical assumption that our model facilitates the study of ecosystem services–well-being relationships by deconstructing their contextual complexity. In reality, these factors interact (see last section before the Discussion) and future studies may reveal the ways this happens in different settings. For example, in Transylvania, the conventional discourse that regards ecosystem services as instrumental to poverty alleviation is overly simplified and ineffective. Objective needs versus subjective wants, perceptions and attitudes about who is entitled to benefit from ecosystem services, they all make a difference. Likewise, the deeply held values (factor 6), may reverse the self-reinforcing dynamic of the other factors that perpetuate the gap between winners and losers.

Group Interview

Beyond the importance of the factors and their dynamic which is detailed in the paper, I would like to take a more scientivist stance, and highlight a few place-based insights that it is worth being acknowledged in addition to the conceptual contributions of this paper. What I found most striking about this piece of research is the story it told (together with the other papers from my thesis) about who are the winners and losers that benefit the nature of Transylvania. Many studies now show that ecosystem services flow unequally to different beneficiaries (e.g. Felipe-Lucia et al. 2015). In the case of Southern Transylvania benefits seem to flow to supertenants (Romanians or foreigners living outside the village, but having economic connections to it) and much less to small scale farmers. Hence supertenants (sometimes called ‘townsmen’ like in this excerpt from my pilot study: “P1: Let’s be grateful there aren’t too many of these. P2: Yes. There are not too many townsmen who invested here”) are socially and physically disconnected from these landscapes. They are less vulnerable to changes in ecological conditions and not part of the rural communities. Meanwhile small farmers, through their practical connection to the land, are considered genuinely and functionally connected to the landscape. The extent to which supertenents may or may not be potential actors in the land grabbing phenomena remains yet to be investigated. Nevertheless, the veil of mystery surrounding their identity from the perspective of our interviewees still remains fascinating, even after such a emotional strenuous fieldwork as this study entailed, and the many challenges we faced in getting participants around the table. Despite occupying sizeable land surfaces, supertenants did not seem to occupy the mental space of our participants (largely rural community members). They were very seldom spontaneously mentioned, usually requiring prompting. Their access to land however explained many of the unknowns and question marks surging during the group interviews, such as the apparently untraceable but largely detectable vanishing of ‘the commons’, known to be ‘at the heart’ of the traditional Transylvanian villages.

As a follow up to this study and supported by our understanding of these particular social-ecological systems and human-nature relationships that we built during the past Romania project, we will try to further explore the transformative role of values and social relations. By conducting a transdisciplinary case-study in Southern Transylvania, within the Leverage Points project, we will focus on associative structures around land access for small-scale farmers, and their importance for moving towards sustainability and its intra- and inter-generational equity dimensions.



Daw, T., Brown, K., Rosendo, S., & Pomeroy, R. (2011). Applying the ecosystem services concept to poverty alleviation: the need to disaggregate human well-being. Environmental Conservation, 38(04), 370-379.
Felipe-Lucia, M. R., Martín-López, B., Lavorel, S., Berraquero-Díaz, L., Escalera-Reyes, J., & Comín, F. A. (2015). Ecosystem services flows: why stakeholders’ power relationships matter. PloS one, 10(7), e0132232.
Haines-Young, R., & Potschin, M. (2010). The links between biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being. Ecosystem Ecology: a new synthesis, 110-139.
Hicks, C. C., & Cinner, J. E. (2014). Social, institutional, and knowledge mechanisms mediate diverse ecosystem service benefits from coral reefs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(50), 17791-17796.
Palomo, I., Felipe-Lucia, M. R., Bennett, E. M., Martín-López, B., & Pascual, U. (2016). Disentangling the pathways and effects of ecosystem service co-production. Advances in Ecological Research.
Pascual, U., Phelps, J., Garmendia, E., Brown, K., Corbera, E., Martin, A., … & Muradian, R. (2014). Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services. BioScience, 64(11), 1027-1036.
Ribot, J. C., & Peluso, N. L. (2003). A theory of access*. Rural sociology, 68(2), 153-181.
Spangenberg, J. H., von Haaren, C., & Settele, J. (2014). The ecosystem service cascade: Further developing the metaphor. Integrating societal processes to accommodate social processes and planning, and the case of bioenergy. Ecological Economics, 104, 22-32.

NEW PAPER: Social factors mediating human–carnivore coexistence: Understanding thematic strands influencing coexistence in Central Romania

In the last couple years I wondered a lot about what drives human-carnivore coexistence, and why people in some areas live rather peacefully with carnivores while in other regions this seems to be impossible. Being a trained ecologist, I first worked on the ecological aspects of bear distributions, and related their distribution to the frequency of conflict and people’s attitude in Southern Transylvania (see our previous blog entry here). However, human-carnivore relationships are highly complex and involve a wide variety of factors including economic, aesthetic, ecological, cultural, religious, political, and intrinsic values ascribed to carnivores. Thus, I was not fully satisfied in my attempt to come closer to an understanding of what really drives coexistence. Trying to understand more about human-carnivore coexistence motivated our recent paper, where we introduce the conceptual framework of coexistence strands to approach the complexity of coexistence.

In a team of natural and social scientists we explored factors underlying people’s perception of human-bear coexistence. Based on content and discourse analysis we collated social factors of coexistence under three coexistence strands. These coexistence strands showed different ways in which perceived interactions between people, bears and the environment shape coexistence. The “landscape-bear coexistence strand” described perceptions of the way in which the landscape offers resources for the bear, while the “landscape-human strand” related to ways in which humans experience the landscape. The “management strand” related to the way bears were managed. All three strands highlight both threats and opportunities for the peaceful coexistence of people and bears.


Conceptual framework showing the three identified coexistence strands 

Our case study shows how coexistence strands can provide detailed information of factors mediating human–carnivore coexistence, and provide insights into potential intervention points for improved carnivore management. For Southern Transylvania, we advocate for a more participatory approach to carnivore management. This approach should foster people’s connection to their landscape, and provide transparency around management interventions. More broadly, the concept of coexistence strands could help to better understand human–wildlife coexistence. Coexistence strands are grounded in local realities, and thus could be a potentially powerful heuristic for deconstructing the complexity of human–carnivore coexistence. Furthermore, they are compatible with the concept of ‘‘social-ecological systems’’ because they emphasise the integration of humans in nature. Both approaches recognise interactions among social and biophysical system components, and thus stimulate interdisciplinary integration. Notably, coexistence strands rely on four components that are common to all places with human–wildlife tensions: a wildlife component, a human component, a physical space where the interaction takes place, and the management of wildlife. Thus, the elicitation of coexistence strands can lay the ground for future analysis by directing social–ecological research towards these four areas. Whereas the deconstruction of coexistence may result in similar strands in many regions, the identification of the social factors populating each strand may differ between regions or species. Thus, future research on human–carnivore coexistence could empirically populate coexistence strands for different regions and species in order to better understand how social–ecological factors shape human–carnivore coexistence.


Interview with a local shepherd in Southern Transylvania

NEW PAPER: Functional diversity of butterfly and bird communities in Southern Transylvania


Just a few days ago the December issue of Ecosystem Health and Sustainability went online. Two things are interesting in that issue. First, a new paper from our Romania project has been published there, and second, the cover features one of the villages in our study area.

Cover of the December issue of the journal. I took the picture when we were doing bear sign surveys in 2012 and shows the village of Biertan.

Cover of the December issue of the journal. I took the picture when we were doing bear sign surveys in 2012. It shows the village of Biertan. The fortified church of Biertan is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In the paper we studied how trait composition of butterfly and bird communities relates to environmental variables in order to get a more mechanistic understanding of what drives biodiversity in this farming landscape. This is particularly interesting because currently this landscape is subject to land use changes – agricultural intensification in some places and abandonment of pastures and arable fields in other areas which will have substantial biodiversity effects. We found in our study that functional diversity strongly correlated with taxonomic diversity and that land use type was the strongest driver of butterfly trait composition (especially correlating with life history strategies) and that amounts of woody vegetation were most strongly linked to bird traits (especially nesting and foraging strategies). Importantly, both land abandonment and intensification would therefore directly influence bird and butterfly communities via their functional traits. Maintaining a small-scale mosaic of different land cover types and gradients of woody vegetation throughout the landscape would be desirable to maintain a high functional diversity in the region in the future.

This paper is part of a special feature on “Ecosystem Management in Transition in Central and Eastern Europe” in which we have already published another paper (see our recent blog post here).

NEW PAPER: Participatory scenario planning in place-based social-ecological research: insights and experiences from 23 case studies


It is more than a year ago that we had announced the publication of the results of our scenario planning in Southern Transylvania on this blog. By the time, it was the first article that went online for a special issue featuring the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) in the journal Ecology and Society. Last week and still in the very same special issue, another paper went online to which we have contributed with our work in Transylvania. This new paper was led by Elisa Oteros-Rozas  and summarizes the methods and experiences from 23 different participatory scenario planning exercises from different parts of the world (see map).


Map of the location of the 23 scenario planning case studies. Underlying are the world's biomes after Olson et al. (2001, Bioscience 51: 933-938)

Map of the location of the 23 scenario planning case studies. Underlying are the world’s biomes after Olson et al. (2001, Bioscience 51: 933-938)

In short, the paper gives an overview of how diverse participatory scenario planning can be. This includes the different objectives, methods, outcomes and experiences that are associated to this social-ecological approach. Overall, participatory scenario planning was experienced as a very valuable and flexible tool to engage with stakeholders, foster mutual learning and to raise awareness for upcoming challenges. One of the downsides of many of the cases is probably that there are usually no resources available to monitor and evaluate the long term impacts that scenario planning excersises have.



Examples of outreach material from four of the scenario planning case studies.

Examples of outreach material from four of the scenario planning case studies.


And here is the paper itself for further reading. The full version (including appendices) can be found on the Ecology and Society site.

New paper: synthesis of biodiversity drivers in Central Romania

By Joern Fischer

There is only a handful of publications still in the pipeline for our project on sustainable development in Central Romania — timely indeed, since funding finishes at the end of 2015! Today I’d like to briefly highlight a new paper that takes a first stab at synthesising what we’ve learnt in five years of research. This paper just came out in the new journal Ecosystem Health and Sustainability, which is published by the Ecological Society of America together with the Ecological Society of China. The paper is led by Ine Dorresteijn, and synthesises drivers of biodiversity.

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What causes Transylvania’s exceptional biodiversity? We came up with seven underlying drivers or processes. While these are specific to Transylvania, it seems likely that there are parallels to other traditional farming landscapes elsewhere.

1. Similar proportions of three main land-use types support a rich regional species pool. It is relatively well-known that the effects of area loss and isolation start to have severely negative synergistic effects on biodiversity when the proportion of a given land cover type is low. Some have argued around 30% is good, and below that, things start to increasingly fall apart. If that is so, this is a potential explanation for why biodiversity is so high in Transylvania — there is about 30% of forest cover, as well as about 30% of grassland; plus another approximately 30% of arable land (including field margins). So, whether you’re a forest species, a grassland species, or a species adapted to agriculture, there’s likely to be enough space for you in Transylvania.

2. Landscape complementation and supplementation facilitate the persistence of species outside their core habitat. Often, land covers in Transylvania are juxtaposed in ways that species can use more than one kind of land cover. For example, bears primarily inhabit forest, but they also come out and forage in the pastures (e.g. for ant larvae, a protein source). Similarly, some butterflies lay their eggs in grassland, but also forage in the arable mosaic; and woodpeckers move been forests and wood pastures.

3. Gradients of woody vegetation cover provide important structural diversity. Woody vegetation in farmland is generally believed to be good for biodiversity. And for many species, that’s true, and they benefit from the trees and shrubs retained throughout Transylvanian farmland. But for other species, it’s entirely treeless, open grasslands that constitute high quality habitat. Luckily, those species also find their place in Transylvania — there’s a whole gradient of woody vegetation present throughout the farming mosaic, from entirely devoid of trees and shrubs, to quite a bit of structural complexity. This mix means many different kinds of species can use the landscape.

4. Gradients in land-cover heterogeneity provide a diversity of niches. Structural complexity (trees and shrubs) is one important (vertical) feature of landscapes — another is the spatial variability of land covers, or heterogeneity. Here, too, many species benefit from the high variability in many locations, especially in the arable mosaic — small fields with distinctly different margins are useful for many species. But again, the opposite is also present, namely large areas of relatively homogenous land cover. This is the case for some forest patches, for example, and some pastures. Species that need a lot of space of “the one thing” can use such more homogenous areas.

5. Traditional land-use practices underpin landscape heterogeneity, traditional landscape elements, and human–carnivore coexistence. The ecological and land cover patterns that we see have resulted from traditional land use practices — including moving hay meadows by hand, ploughing fields by horse, and using guarding dogs to defend livestock against bears and wolves. To maintain the land cover pattern thus requires thinking about whether and how these traditional practices can be maintained.

6. Top-down predator regulation may foster biodiversity in traditional farming landscapes in some instances. Central Romania is a cultural landscape — but it’s also a wild landscape with bears and wolves. While humans structure the ecosystem in predictable ways, top carnivores also have retained an important influence. For example, they influence the kinds of herbivores (red deer vs. roe deer) that are found in different parts of the landscape; which in turn, is likely to influence vegetation dynamics.

7. Cultural ties between humans and nature support biodiversity conservation. Many Transylvanians still know their ecosystems very well, including the benefits and dis-benefits. This knowledge is deeply embedded in Transylvanian culture. Smallholder farming to many people is not just a job, but a “good” way of being — an ethic of working the land prevails among many local villagers. Maintaining biodiversity requires an understanding of how people are linked to the natural environment. Otherwise, well-intentioned policy measures (such as subsidies) may actually backfire in the long run.

These drivers range from proximal to more ultimate, from tangible towards fuzzy, and from more ecological to more social. The paper analyses in some more detail how this understanding can inform biodiversity conservation — it’s open access, and you can download it here.


New paper: Incorporating anthropogenic effects into trophic ecology

Note: this post originally appeared on Dale Nimmo’s site. I’ve reproduced it here, including the offensive, not-at-all funny bits. I’ll leave you to figure out which I might mean… so much choice!

Last year I spent six weeks with Joern Fischer and his posse (yep, he has a posse) bird watching, playing carom, and generally Germany-ing it up.

Carom is a game played all over the world, but mainly at Jan Hanspach’s place in Lüneburg, Germany.

Although the beer was alarmingly cheap, I did manage to use some of my time in a productive manner. This week, the fruits of that productivity have ripened, and are now ready to be plucked from the tree, diced finely, and added to a glass of gin and soda water.

In case you need me to spell it out for you, we’ve published a paper.

What’s it about? I’m glad you asked.

Joern and his posse ran a big research project in a very cool part of the world: Transylvania, Romania. This region is undergoing a transition from traditional to more modern, industrialised farming practices and Joern and his team are trying to figure out what that means for the people and biodiversity that call the place home.

Transylvania has a very interesting set of large mammals, including carnivores such as bears, wolves and foxes, and herbivores such as red deer and roe deer. These species occur along with the people of Transylvania and their dogs that help look after livestock. The paper examined how these species co-exist, and what are the main drivers of their occurrence throughout the landscape.

We used camera traps to monitor these species and an important aspect of this work was that we treated humans like any other species: if we recorded them on a camera trap, we could calculate an index of local human activity, much like we often do with other species.

We then modelled the entire ‘ecosystem’, including humans, to show the relative effect of people on other species, compared to the effects of species on each other. We had some expected results, such as the suppressive effects of large carnivores on herbivores. However, these effects pale in comparison to the effects that humans have on species from all trophic levels. Our work highlights the need to think about people as part of the network of species within a region.

The paper is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

Milestones in sustainability related research and useful readings

I once heard this question being asked within an interview setting for a university position. I thought then, as I do now, that it is an inspiring way to structure my thoughts regarding the different disciplines and associated worldviews I am exposed to, or work with. I find timelines and evolutionary perspectives extremely useful, especially for those who share a time orientated understanding of the world. Rather than thinking in spatial landmarks, I like to create timelines in my mind. I suppose structuring research fields would also work nicely (or even nicer) with mind maps.

Following this logic, I tried to sketch some personal answers, which would probably need some revisiting soon enough. I would like to share with you a few relatively recent trends that I see gathering even more momentum in the near future, being aware there are many other milestones one could consider. In sharing these thoughts, I think mainly about young PhD students or academia scholars, but mostly non-academia professionals, such as practitioners working in the field of sustainable development. Hence, this is fairly simplified, with only a few references and suggested readings of papers deemed representative of their respective field.

We tried to debate some of these thoughts in our yet “pilot journal club”, so this may serve as a proposition for a more “holistic” journal club session.

Photo credits:

Photo credits:

Ecosystem services (ES) research

Research on ES evolved quickly from conceptualization, localized documentation and modeling of ecological dynamics, to policy and management applications, such as the creation of payment schemes for ES. A very nice timeline is provided by Gómez-Baggethun et al. 2010. Ecologists, economists and policy makers now widely engage with the concept, turning ES into a heuristic tool for revealing the multiple ways in which ecosystems support human well-being, an operational tool for making decisions, and a compelling language for policy makers. At the same time, the concept has generated a lot of criticism because of its hypertrophied focus on utilitarianism and potential commodification of nature (e.g. Schröter et al., 2014). Specifically, some authors have viewed ES as a one sided simplistic metaphor of human-environment relationships (e.g. Norgaard 2010, Raymond et al. 2013), ignoring different, often non-material, values that beneficiaries may assign to ecosystems. In response, new research agendas have emerged, including issues of: co-production by social-ecological systems, socio-cultural valuation of ES (e.g. Martín-López et al. 2014, Scholte et al. 2015) depending on a wide variety of values that stakeholders assign to ES (based on well on their own held values) (e.g. Ives and Kendal 2014), equity (e.g. Pascual et al. 2014), benefit distribution and disaggregation of beneficiaries based on various criteria such as location or gender (e.g. Daw 2009). The academic discourse on ES has roughly followed down the Haines-Young and Potschin ‘cascade’ towards recognizing their stakeholder driven nature. At the current stage there is growing interest in studying and understanding the more anthropospheric side (e.g. Spangenberg et al. 2014), or the ‘subjective end’ of the cascade: the plurality of benefits and values associated with different beneficiaries and their well-being. The general discourse is moving towards stakeholders, their capabilities (e.g. Polishchuk and Rauschmayer 2012), agency, interest, power (e.g. Fisher et al. 2013, Felipe Lucia et al. 2015), preferences, inner values, and the totality of social processes influencing the cascade: mobilization, appropriation, value articulation (e.g. Ernstson 2008), management, governance, normative foundations (e.g. Abson et al. 2014).

Social-ecological systems (SES) research

This point has been thoroughly dealt with in a previous more detailed blog entry (see also here). In short and simply put, present discourses seem to focus on the fundamental connection between the social and the ecological system, and, at the same time, the risk of disconnection or the dangers of teleconnections (e.g. Challies 2014), as well as potential solutions such as innovative re-connections supporting a transition towards sustainability. To these ends, SES research is striving to accommodate and adapt its frameworks to the social dynamics of globalizing systems inherently pertaining to a global economy and market. A variety of new conceptual frameworks (e.g. Diaz et al. 2015, Diaz et al. 2011, Fisher et. al 2014) are trying to capture better the interlinkages and interdependencies between nature and people and between science and society, while acknowledging them as being an integrative part of the other, and inseparable in reality. Authors are increasingly placing the focus on the knowledge about links between “the social” and “the ecological”, knowledge that was generated beyond disciplinary boundaries, at the interface between science and society (e.g. Fischer et al. in 2015). Papers are proposing various recoupling strategies (e.g. Fischer et al. in 2012), emphasizing reconnecting social-ecological feedbacks (Folke et al. 2011), such as more effective “virtuous circles” between natural, cultural, and economic assets (e.g. Plieninger and Bieling 2013, Selman and Knight 2006).

(Cultural) landscape research

The landscape lens brings forward the landscape as an arena for sustainable development and knowledge integration. Here, I would chose to stop over the rise of landscape stewardship, as a way to operationalize moral concerns in relation to social-ecological interactions that were enounced as early as the 50s (Leopold, 1949). Science for relinking communities and landscapes draws attention to the potential of landscape stewardship as one of the ambitious but effective ways to achieve sustainable management and design inclusive rural development policies (e.g. Plieninger et al. 2015). Integrating a broad suite of landscape values through engaged forms of stewardship is thought to balance out the dependency on active outside input (again inherent to a globalized world).

Sustainability science research

An important acknowledged milestone for sustainability science is re-thinking boundaries and structures, overcoming societal roles, and transforming the science-society interface, through for example the co-design of research projects and the co-production of knowledge fitting with transdisciplinary approaches (e.g. Lang et al. 2012, Brandt et al. 2013). Other suggested pathways are the recognition of its normative foundations through mapping and deliberating sustainability held values (e.g. Miller et al. 2014).

Resilience thinking

Resilience thinking continues to receive a lot of criticism for not sufficiently acknowledged limits such as the lack of attention to normative and epistemological issues. Recent discourse on resilience aims to open towards fields more engaged with the issues of power and agency such as political ecology or sociology, which may complement the arguably functional perspective of resilience. A permanent work in progress, resilience theory continues to develop, striving for a more complete knowledge integration of human and ecological dynamics. A more detailed perspective is offered here.

Sustainability related governance research

Finally, I am not sure to which extent this is a milestone, but I retained that in addition to the governance models incorporating elements of participatory (non-state multi-actor engagement, e.g. industry, NGOs) and multi-level governance, recent literature calls for polycentricity, further emphasizing the idea of a collaborative dispersion of authority (Biggs et al. 2015). Advanced polycentric systems comprise multiple independent centers of decision making, with different levels of inclusiveness, collaborating horizontally and vertically at various scales. In theory, these systems may isolate failures, but if successful, may be reproduced elsewhere. I found this idea worthy of further explorations in contexts with a diversity of elements pertaining to the social subsystems: different formal and informal institutions, land-use preferences, management approaches, various values, perspectives and interests such as identified in Southern Transylvania.

In conclusion, I take from these potential milestones that the general trend seems to be towards integration of existing knowledge, conceptual and epistemological openness and plurality, and maybe even a ‘subjectivisation’ of science, in hope of achieving meaningful contributions towards normative goals.

As for future directions, I guess one of the main questions that stems from the above are: 1. Do we need to engage more in these pathways, and if so how can we capitalize on them? 2. Do any of these potential milestones are going to lead to any fundamental changes in approaches towards sustainability (e.g. mainstreaming transdisciplinarity?)

As already mentioned, there are many other interesting developing directions in all of the scientific disciplines I touched upon. The few selected are reflective of a particular research experience and perspective I had from my positioning as a PhD student dealing with the ecology of the social system. This is just a starting point from where the mind can continue traveling boundlessly to imagine infinite perspectives outside comfort zones.


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  • *Biggs, Reinette, Maja Schlüter, and Michael L. Schoon, eds. Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
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*Suggested readings

Congratulations to Ine Dorresteijn on this year’s Horst Wiehe Award!

By Joern Fischer

I’m very happy to report that Ine Dorresteijn has received this year’s Horst Wiehe Award by the Ecological Society of Germany — which is dedicated to recognising outstanding work by early career scientists. The award was presented to her at this year’s meeting of the society in Goettingen. For those who missed it, Ine’s presentation summarising her work is available here. Well done, Ine!