Love and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Nearly 70 years ago, Erich Fromm argued that individual people as well as society at large had much to gain from developing their capacity to love. Love, he argued, was a universally important ingredient to the human journey – and actively developing a loving character orientation was both possible and beneficial (Fromm 1956).

In this short essay, I interpret some key tenets of Fromm’s seminal work in the context of sustainability. I highlight the relevance of four key ingredients of love proposed by Fromm for sustainability. Following this, I argue that some developments within sustainability science are already pointing at the importance of better understanding and working with love in order to foster sustainability – even though scientists have so far shunned away from actually using the term “love”. I suggest that much could be gained from more explicitly incorporating the concept of love in sustainability research, not least because it may be humanity’s single most powerful boundary object.

Love towards someone or something, according to Fromm, entails four components: knowledge, respect, responsibility, and care. To foster sustainability, I believe these four components are relevant towards interactions with the planet as a whole, interactions with other people (both within and between communities), and interactions with oneself.

Knowledge is critical, clearly, to understand the entities we are dealing with. Respect is a further necessary (but on its own insufficient) ingredient if we are to love someone or something – we need to deeply recognise her, his or its importance in some way. Responsibility suggests a normative link between the person who loves and the entity being loved, which suggests that interactions with this entity somehow have a moral component. And finally, to really love something or someone is reflected in care; that is, in some kind of action that benefits the loved entity.

All of these four components resonate strongly within a sustainability context. With respect to knowledge, Fromm’s definition of love quite clearly invites the pursuit of science – first of all, it is indeed critical that we understand the world and accumulate knowledge about it. The other three components of love are less well represented at present, but all have gained prominence within sustainability science in recent years. Most prominently, calls for planetary stewardship embody implicit respect towards our planet as well as recognising that in the Anthropocene, it is the responsibility of the dominant species on the planet to take care of the planet as a whole (Folke et al. 2021). Similarly, the rapid growth in literature on relational values signals a deepening of agendas within sustainability science to account for the manifold interlinkages within and between the human and non-human world, including the need to better understand its ethical dimensions (Chan et al. 2016; Norström et al. 2022). Phrases such as “ethos of care” (Staffa et al. 2021) or “empathy” (Brown et al. 2019; Kansky and Maassarani 2022) are increasingly entering the keywords of articles on sustainability matters because they influence sustainability outcomes in the real world.

James Gustave Speth famously noted that “I used to think the top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.” (; based on his interview at on BBC Radio in 2013). While this may be true, it could be that science is in fact on the way to fostering precisely the type of transformation that Speth thought was missing. Rational enquiry in pursuit of sustainability has led to the recognition that multiple facets must come together to bring about positive outcomes, including all four components that Fromm used to define love. Quite curiously thus, the rigorous and rational pursuit of science has effectively led to calls for more love – which his strikingly consistent with Fromm’s observation many decades ago: “Society must be organized in such a way that man’s social, loving nature is not separated from his social existence, but becomes one with it. If it is true, as I have tried to show, that love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence, then any society which excludes, relatively, the development of love, must in the long run perish of its own contradiction with the basic necessities of human nature.” (Fromm 1956)

A last thought that I wish to touch upon is that, if the above is indeed true, it could be worthwhile to spell out at which scales love ought to be investigated and fostered. I propose three scales as a starting point, noting that these could be broken up much more finely – the scale of the planet, the scale of human interactions, and the scale of interactions with oneself. All three matter at the same time, and thus I would argue, it is important to address all three at once rather than think we can deal with any one scale on its own, and address the rest later. Put differently, we cannot save the planet without fostering loving relationships between people; and we cannot foster loving relationships with others if we do not love (i.e. know, respect and care for) ourselves. Unsustainable personal journeys or lifestyles, therefore, are unlikely to add up to sustainable communities or a sustainable planet. As such then, the entire spectrum from self to planet would benefit, specifically for the pursuit of global sustainability, from more attention to love in both research and practice.


Brown, K., Adger, W.N., Devine-Wright, P., et al. 2019. Empathy, place and identity interactions for sustainability. Global Environmental Change 56, pp. 11–17.

Chan, K.M.A., Balvanera, P., Benessaiah, K., et al. 2016. Opinion: Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113(6), pp. 1462–1465.

Folke, C., Polasky, S., Rockström, J., et al. 2021. Our future in the Anthropocene biosphere. Ambio 50(4), pp. 834–869.

Fromm, E. 1956. The art of loving. New York: Harper.

Kansky, R. and Maassarani, T. 2022. Teaching nonviolent communication to increase empathy between people and toward wildlife to promote human–wildlife coexistence. Conservation letters.

Norström, A.V., Agarwal, B., Balvanera, P., et al. 2022. The programme on ecosystem change and society (PECS) – a decade of deepening social-ecological research through a place-based focus. Ecosystems and People 18(1), pp. 598–608.

Staffa, R.K., Riechers, M. and Martín-López, B. 2021. A feminist ethos for caring knowledge production in transdisciplinary sustainability science. Sustainability Science.

Ioan Fazey: “It’s the end of the world as we know it”

Conference Report on Leverage Points 2019, 6-8 February 2019, Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany

By Maraja Riechers and Joern Fischer

What can we do to actually turn around global patterns of un-sustainability? How can we bring about transformative change? What role do different types of leverage points play in such a transformation? – These were some of the questions addressed at the inaugural Leverage Points 2019 Conference at Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany, which was attended by well over 400 participants.

A guiding theme throughout the conference was the idea of “leverage points”, as formulated by Donella Meadows in her seminal essay on “Places to intervene in a system”. Her idea has, since then, inspired a new suite of work on leverage points, as exemplified and detailed in recent papers from Leuphana University and elsewhere (e.g. here, here, and here). Key themes addressed at the conference related to re-structuring institutions, re-connecting humans to nature, re-thinking knowledge generation, using systems thinking to understand complexity, and engaging with non-academic stakeholders to bring about real-world change.

The conference was designed to create a stimulating, challenging and caring atmosphere for exchange. In addition to keynotes and presentations (note: videos of the keynote presentations will eventually go online on the conference website!) the vast majority of sessions included other more innovative elements, such as world café discussions, panels, or were held in a workshop format. It also included numerous fun elements such as timeline of sustainability transformation and a heap of good music (for example, Brass Riot and also other excellent artists) and art. Moreover, findings from all sessions were documented via “graphic harvesting” by a highly skilled team of young artists with a background in sustainability science.

Without doubt, different participants had different experiences, and we can only share some of our personal (and biased) impressions of the event. Statements by other attendees suggested many of the people who came had a great time, and many of us at some point felt challenged in our own ways of thinking – something the organizing team had specifically tried to do! And thus, while the conference covered relatively conventional themes such as urban institutions for sustainability (e.g. in the keynote by Niki Frantzeskaki), it also gave a voice to indigenous worldviews (in the keynote by Gogo Dineo Ndlanzi), and considered the implications of quantum physics for understanding social phenomena and global change (in the keynote by Karen O’Brien).

There were of course many memorable moments, and these are summarized in a wide range of blog posts elsewhere – including on bioregional centres, where and when to intervene, or how to master learning processes but also the implications of this for systemic research, taking deep leverage points personally, or for hopeful narratives for transformation. The title of this current post – “it’s the end of the world as we know it” – is taken from Ioan Fazey’s keynote presentation. He argued that transformative change was very definitely in the air – either because humanity chooses to change things in major ways; or because global systems will force transformations onto humanity. We hope that the leverage points perspective will help us find interventions that can cause ripple effects throughout the system and foster sustainability – mindfully, and not as a panicked and forceful adaptation to increasingly painful minor and major system collapses.

Leverage Points 2019 was fun and inspirational. It brought together people from different communities, including the resilience community, the sustainability transformation community and the systems thinking and governance communities. Thanks to all participants for making this a wonderful event!

Leverage Points 2019 was organized by David J. Abson, Anne Jo Berkau, Julia Leventon, Daniel Lang, and other colleagues from the Leuphana Leverage Points project team.

This blog was written by Joern Fischer and Maraja Riechers. Joern Fischer has been professor of sustainable landscapes at the Faculty of Sustainability at Leuphana University Lueneburg since November 2010. His interdisciplinary activities focus on social-ecological systems, covering several areas of landscape ecology and the social sciences. Maraja Riechers is a postdoctoral researcher in a project on leverage points for sustainability at Leuphana University Lueneburg. Her research focuses on human-nature connectedness, relational values, human-wildlife conflicts and landscape change. 

Love as a response to ecological insanity

By Joern Fischer, Maraja Riechers, Cristina Apetrei and Rebecca Freeth

Triggered by an interesting email exchange amongst ourselves, we thought we’d share some reflections on “hope” in a time of ecological disaster. Our discussion drew on an article in The Conversation by Neville Ellis and Ashlee Cunsolo and on reflections by Donella Meadows written in 1992.

compassion-by-susan von struensee

Our conversation started with a sense of despair about the world falling apart left, right and centre. From distress about general patterns such as climate change or other detrimental global environmental changes, the threatening prospect of the health of coral reefs, rainforests or other biodiversity hotspots, to stories of the irreversible extinction of endemic species – discouraging news are flooding us from every side. As we pondered these rather sad “news,” we stumbled into this beautiful quote by Donella Meadows, in reference to the ozone crisis as it was understood at the time:

“We have to remember that there is absolutely no “external” or “objective” reason to be hopeful or hopeless – we make all that up inside ourselves, and different people make it up differently. No one person’s inner reaction to the facts of the world are any more “correct” than any other. We’d like to label denial “wrong,” but it’s a completely understandable psychological coping mechanism. In terms of utility, it’s no more paralyzing than hopelessness.

If we can make even the tiniest crack between the information and the way we feel about it, we begin to get a bit of power over how we feel about it. These days I CHOOSE how I’m going to feel about it. I don’t choose denial, and I don’t choose hopelessness, and I don’t choose to hate my fellow human beings – those are legitimate and understandable emotional responses, but they paralyze me. I try (some days it’s hard) to choose what gets me to work – a bit of fear, considerable grief, a lot of love for the planet and for all creatures on it (even us), and a tremendous faith that the universe did not evolve for four billion years to create the first form of life that could celebrate the wonders of the Earth, in order for that form of life to eliminate those wonders.

We have within us the ability to wonder, the intelligence to understand, and the love to care about that which we wonder at. I try to play to those abilities, within myself and within others, and in them I always find hope.”

This statement is touching because it spans the full range of how humanity manifests, and because it offers love as a response to ecological insanity. It also reminds us that hope is a state that we must relate not to “that which is”, but to “that which might be”, and for the latter the possibilities are infinite: we can always reorient our actions towards a better outcome in the future. In the face of news that shake us, in which feelings of helplessness and anger can be overwhelming, practicing compassion – for the planet as well as for maladaptive human behaviour – can strengthen and motivate us to go on. It is up to us to forgive the world for being as it is and at the same time gently steer it to a better place. Or, as Donella Meadows wrote in another article: “there are limits to growth, but no limits to love”.

How might we best draw on love to effect change? Perhaps at the most basic level, we can refer back to a very old post on this blog – there, Michael Soulé’s notion of “broadening one’s beam of compassion” was quoted, essentially as a guiding principle for looking after life on Earth.

And just because we haven’t had enough inspiring quotes yet, let’s throw in one more! Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

And so, it would seem, armed with inner strength and love, we might be well equipped to respond to our collective human insanity – gradually transforming and revitalizing our individual lives, communities, and our planet as a whole.

The gardenification of nature revisited

By Joern Fischer

In 1998, Daniel Janzen published a paper on the gardenification of nature. In that paper, he argued for the gentle and careful use of wild nature, rather than its strict protection from humans.

I liked the metaphor of the paper when it came out, and I recently thought of it again in the context of a second garden metaphor currently circulating: that of seeds of a good Anthropocene. What if we were to combine these two gardening metaphors?

Seeds of a good Anthropocene suggest that we have choices in the projects we create. We can initiate projects that contribute to the beauty of life on Earth – to social equity, prosperity, joy, and biodiversity – or we can initiate projects that are destructive. Those projects that contribute to the beauty of life are, essentially, seeds of a good Anthropocene.

Once we have planted such seeds, these seeds can put roots into the ground, thus becoming firmly established. And as the seeds spread, they create a garden of human endeavours. This garden can be beautiful, if we grow and look after the right seeds. Wild elements can persist in pockets of this garden, cherished for their intrinsic value as well as for the benefits they might provide. – What if we keep growing the wrong seeds? Then we risk creating a post-industrial wasteland.

Arguably, a good Anthropocene’s garden of human endeavours could harmoniously coexist with a wildland garden of biodiversity. What unites these two metaphors is a focus on an underlying ethos of gentle care and interaction. It seems futile to try to disengage from the endless connections among living beings. As Janzen stated: “A wildland garden with gentle trodding from caring gardeners just might achieve the partnership [between people and nature]. A wilderness faces certain annihilation as a battlefield.”

When and how to (not) make a difference

By Joern Fischer

Studying the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation in a place like Ethiopia brings up a whole lot of challenging moral and emotional dimensions (some of which were previously discussed here). When we speak to local people, they ask us almost every day about the solutions we will bring. How can we deal with this?

First, I think it’s worthwhile to understand this sentiment a bit more, of wanting us to bring solutions. By definition, it is only people who themselves feel powerless who wait for outsiders to improve things. Both knowledge systems, and systems of taking action, have for a long time been very top down in Ethiopia. The sense of awe for “those who know better” permeates throughout the country – government experts are eager to absorb western knowledge on modern farming technologies; model farmers are eager to absorb knowledge presented by government development agents; and poor people look at all these knowledgeable people and seem to feel that they don’t know enough – nor have enough – to get out of their misery. Action, similarly, is expected to come from “the government” if you’re a community member, or perhaps through international investors if you’re the government.

So that’s the first point – in a culture where everyone looks to someone “more knowledgeable” to find solutions for their respective dilemma, it is natural that we would be asked for solutions. Knowledge in this context seems to be seen as a thing you have: when you have it, all is good, and indeed, obtaining it sometimes seem to be seen as all that is needed to bring about change. (None of this is to discount the possible importance of outside knowledge or action; I’m simply stating that it is valued extremely highly here, sometimes perhaps at the expense of local knowledge or action.)

Second then, having understood a bit more what the role of knowledge is, we can perhaps understand our role a little bit better. As sustainability researchers, we can engage with real-world problems in two main ways.

On the one hand, we can build an understanding of the complexity of the challenges in the system. That is what we came to do in this study. To maximize its real-world usefulness, we can generate information, and we can try to widely share this information. We can also invite stakeholders to re-conceptualise some of the problems, or we can bring problems to the fore that they had perhaps not considered very much. This approach – providing knowledge, and sharing it widely – is essentially what we did in our previous work in Romania. The aim here is not to provide ready made solutions, but to provide new ways of thinking about problems at hand, perhaps in a more holistic fashion, or from a different perspective.

On the other hand, we could try to solve an actual problem at hand. This kind of problem solving is often what people have in mind when they think of sustainability science; they think that being of use implies there being tangible, immediate benefits. Perhaps a community might install solar panels, or be introduced to a new farming technique. This type of sustainability science is certainly valuable, but it’s not always as powerful as it might first seem: ultimately, many of the changes that are required for sustainable development are deeper than anything that could be addressed quickly; plus, of course, you need certain formal governance structures in place to effectively work with communities, which simply aren’t there in many parts of the world.

From all this, I usually take with me two thoughts of how I hope our work can make a difference. On the ground, we do our best to share our findings with authorities at different levels, and in different formats, much like we had done in Romania. But the bigger contribution, I think, happens at a more abstract level – through publishing work with a certain “flavour” on the topic of biodiversity conservation and food security, we help to shape a global discourse, hopefully nudging it away from highly technocratic towards more holistic. This will take a lot of nudging… but ultimately, shedding light on spots not adequately lit is probably all that science ever does. The question is largely one of which spots we choose to shine a light on.

Re-balancing … everything?

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.

Quote: “What’s troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics”

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?

Rethinking agricultural systems: first impressions, part II

By Joern Fischer

Tim Benton also gave his plenary talk at the conference I already reported on in the last blog entry. To start with, he highlighted that the average American family consumes more unequal food bundles, and vastly more calories than – for example – a sub-Saharan African family.

Regarding food security, Tim very quickly argued that food prices were important, implying that the supply side therefore was important. Given dietary changes then, it was inevitable to increase global food demand. Moreover, the food system was very much globalized; again, this highlighted the inevitability of taking a global perspective on how to address food security.

Unlike Jon, Tim was somewhat more pessimistic. Regarding climate change, for example, we are currently tracking the worst case IPCC scenario – a 4 degree increase by 2100. Extreme climate events that happened only every few centuries now happen as commonly as (almost) every decade. Tim highlighted that climate change was very much going to reduce food production in the decades to come, in several of the areas currently responsible for producing most of the world’s food.

In a nutshell, Tim’s argument went like this: Land is finite, and demand is growing, hence if the market works, reducing yield in one place (e.g. due to climate change), will put pressure to increase yields elsewhere (like it or not). Based on this assumption of market economics, Tim predicted there would be pressure for intensification on Europe (because other areas will be more severely affected by climate change).

Tim went on to talk about sustainable intensification – he actually cited the Brundtland definition, thereby signaling the need to consider social, economic and environmental issues (i.e. not only environmental issues). Right now, Tim highlighted, natural capital was providing free subsidies to agriculture. What if these subsidies decline in the future? Such decline could risk that systems may actually collapse. Moreover, different indicators of sustainability in farming systems can be negatively correlated, suggesting there may be uncomfortable trade-offs. Having more of everything therefore may be difficult.

Importantly, Tim emphasized that there was no simple solution as to what constituted sustainable agriculture. The benefits of organic farming, for example, may only be useful for biodiversity if we are dealing with low yielding organic production (Gabriel et al. J Appl Ecol). A key challenge thus is to manage entire farming landscapes, including areas that harbor ecosystem services; which in turn, may cause trade-offs with other variables (such as yields and profits).

One potential solution might be to select landscapes that can be safely intensified without losing a lot of ecosystem services, while avoiding intensification in areas that would be costly to biodiversity and ecosystem services. Smart multi-functional landscapes therefore need to be designed, and incentives must be developed for farmers to actually implement  such spatial planning – despite incentives to intensify likely growing in the future. Tim mentioned that diversification of landscapes may improve the resilience of farming systems, and this could be a possible incentive for farmers (Dave Abson wrote an earlier blog entry on this – Tim cited his work).

Finally, Tim emphasized the importance of the need to change our attitudes towards food. To have everything, cheap and abundant, just won’t be possible. Tim emphasized that it was not all about production – indeed, an increasing number of people is obese, and a lot of food gets wasted. The current situation is one where we expect that more consumption will endlessly improve human well-being – in a food context, this is not true and is causing a lot of environmental as well as health problems. Changing diets therefore could be a particularly powerful strategy to foster sustainability. At this point, Tim gave a beautiful quote by Tim Lang: “The rich have to consume less and differently so that the poor consume more and differently”.

Key challenges ahead, according to Tim, were lengthening the view of governments; finding a business case as to why it is worthwhile to invest in the environment (e.g. a resilience argument?); and we needed organizational cultural changes. Finally, academics needed to communicate their messages more clearly, and needed to better articulate how something can change, and what the actual societal impacts were going to be. Just stating that “we need conservation”, for example, was not enough, because this comes at a cost to other aspects of well-being …. and ignoring these costs was something that ecologists had done for a long time.

Like Jon Foley before him, Tim gave a great overview of some of the most pressing issues of our time, with many important facts and nuances that cannot be ignored.

Pluralism in conservation: the metaphor of love

By Joern Fischer

In a recent blog entry, I pondered what to make of changing values and approaches in conservation biology. On the one hand, we have “classic” biocentric thinking by people like Michael Soulé and Reed Noss (e.g. this paper, or this one) who argue for the intrinsic values of biodiversity and emphasize human greed as a major problem to life on Earth. On the other hand, we have people like Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier who argue that we need to be pragmatic, who emphasize ecosystem services, and who argue that we must join forces with big business where it helps to achieve conservation outcomes (their recent paper is here).

On reflection, what troubled me so much about the paper by Kareiva and Marvier was that, to me, it felt like an attack on Soulé’s original vision for conservation biology; it felt to me like it argued that the new, pragmatic conservation science was superior to the old, dreamy conservation biology that Soulé had envisioned. My reading of this may not be what the authors intended, but to me, that’s how it came across.

I find this troubling because it causes polarization between two positions in conservation biology that probably can co-exist quite happily – if only they accept each other’s emphasis, and see that their own approach does not need to be “better” or the only one. After reading the paper by Kareiva and Marvier, I’ve found it quite difficult to work through this, because it sounds just so different from the original vision of Soulé’s – can we really have both positions co-exist? If so, how? Can we make the two fit together – or are they truly opposed paradigms that cannot co-exist?

Personally, I can’t imagine a lasting conservation science that is how Kareiva and Marvier paint it, pragmatic and dispassionate, and lacking interest in even engaging with normative arguments. But I do see the point in using not only biocentric arguments for conservation: after all, some nature is useful to people, and why not investigate the conservation possibilities arising from interdependencies between people and nature?

Here, I propose that conceptions of love can provide a useful metaphor to argue for balanced pluralism in conservation. In his seminal work “The Art of Loving”, Erich Fromm defines motherly and fatherly love. In his words: “Mother’s love is peace. It need not be acquired, it need not be deserved… Motherly love by its very nature is unconditional.” On fatherly love, Fromm suggests it is quite different, based on the principle: “I love you because you fulfill my expectation, because you do your duty…” (Fromm recognized, by the way, that motherly and fatherly principles were not necessarily related to people’s gender.)

What do these conceptions of love have to do with conservation? Well, perhaps nothing. But perhaps, we can use them as a metaphor to see differences in views on conservation “science” – and as a metaphor for how and why we can sustain pluralism in approaches in conservation biology.

Motherly love is unconditional and pure, just like conservation motivated by the intrinsic values of nature. It demands nothing in return; it’s not always practical; and it may break your heart – but it is pure and gives us a safe haven.

Fatherly love, on the other hand, expects good behavior. It demands, provides rules, is more strict, and love is only forthcoming if the potential recipient performs adequately. This is quite pragmatic, and there are important lessons we can learn from fatherly love: master the harsh realities of life, and you will succeed. This has parallels with conserving nature for its utilitarian values: we will preserve the wetland, if (and only if) it provides us with clean water.

Using this metaphor, what does a healthy conservation family look like? To this day, many of the world’s most humble people have maintained that the only kind of real love is that which does not expect anything in return. A family without motherly love is cold, but still, the pragmatic demands stemming from fatherly love can also be grounded in love.

We can have both. This was beautifully captured in an interview with Gretchen Daily in Nature in 2009. In the interview, she states: “I think it is going to be a long haul for biodiversity for its own sake. For me, ecosystem services is a strategy to buy time as well as getting buy-in.” The article continues to explain: “Such sentiment reveals that the ecosystem-services approach is not necessarily that different from conventional environmentalism. Advocates of both viewpoints believe that nature is intrinsically valuable, and they hope to preserve nature by appealing to this belief in others or, where it is absent, by creating it. The difference is that Daily works to convince others by showing them the profitable side of nature first.” (The full interview is here.)

I’m not sure that things are quite this harmonious in the conservation family at present as suggested here, but at least in principle, they probably could be. To put it bluntly, an intact conservation family will benefit from motherly love as well as fatherly love. This can’t be a debate about one being better or more important than the other, but we need to have respect for both kinds of positions. Many teenagers know they can learn from both of their parents – but to me at least, things get unpleasant when the parents start arguing.

There’s no need to dismiss conservation biology as Soulé defined it, just because we also want to be pragmatic. Pragmatism needs to be grounded in something that goes deeper, and to me, Soulé’s original vision is just as relevant today as it was 28 years ago.

On Jesus, resilience, and why not to influence policy

By Joern Fischer

The title of this blog entry is a bit all over the place, but I’m aiming for the content to be as crisp as ever.

Just a few days ago, an engaged discussion that I had with a colleague (who shall remain unnamed) led to one of life’s truly grand insights — well, perhaps to be taken with a grain of salt. To all religious and non-religious people alike, don’t be offended by this insight, because indeed, it’s just a metaphor that is neither pro- nor anti-religious. So, please, don’t interpret the following metaphor as either religious zealotry nor as anti-religious propaganda, because it’s neither.

But now, the all-important metaphor: “Jesus was a basin shaper” (Anonymous, 2013)


Here’s the explanation.

Many scientists interested in sustainability or conservation believe that it is necessary to do good science — but they also see part of their mission as somehow informing (or even influencing) policy. It has become somewhat of a mantra among “sustainability scientists” that we need to work on problems and find solutions. I, personally, strongly favour science that is solution-oriented rather than “fundamental”. But perhaps I’m wrong? Here’s why.

Policies are fickle. They come and go, and they usually address problems within the boundaries of what is deemed politically feasible. Often, this amounts to managing “fast variables”, or symptoms of sustainability problems. Favouring science that is policy-relevant thus means limiting science to questions that are relevant to current policy — it implies working on things that can be tackled rather than pondering fundamental problems (or “slow variables”) that ought to be tackled, but very likely won’t be by any policies at this point in time. Fundamental sustainability questions relate to how we live, what is a good life, and how we ought to share this planet with other creatures. These are key questions: but they are not directly policy-relevant.

In some settings, you find that nobody wants to hear your science. You may find your science policy-relevant, but policy makers may feel differently. This might be because you’re doing a bad job of communicating your science; but it could also be because the question you are asking do not match the symptoms or fast variables currently on the radar of policy makers.

To those who feel their work is not relevant enough to policy, or has failed to influence things for the better: perhaps you’re wrong. Some work is hugely influential by gradually contributing to changes in how we think about problems. Thinking about problems in new ways, shedding light on problems that previously were not considered, and infecting others with such new ideas amounts to shaping an intellectual basin of attraction. If your ideas are good, others become attracted and possibly infected, and one thing leads to another…. take resilience: it started as a specific concept but gradually turned into resilience thinking, with a whole body of scholarship attached to it. We should not (only) judge Holling’s original paper by its specific relevance to forest policy — its bigger contribution may have been that it has helped to shape an increasingly influential intellectual basin of attraction.

Many people have left legacies not because of policies that they changed but because they influenced people’s thinking.

So, should we engage with policy? Probably. But perhaps an equally important service is to contribute to the shape of intellectual basins of attraction.