Sparing, sharing, sparing, sharing …

The Food Climate Research Network just posted a new online discussion on land sparing and land sharing. This discussion, in turn, was triggered by Elena Bennett’s comment on land sparing/sharing in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

I am reproducing my own response here — please take a look at the full discussion, too, where you will find other, contrasting perspectives also. And of course, consider if you would like to submit a response on the discussion website yourself.

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When I first came across this online debate, I thought “Oh no, another discussion on land sparing – do we really need this?” And my intention was to ignore it. It’s only after several colleagues encouraged me to contribute that I changed my mind. I think there is a whole range of reasons why it is indeed time to “move on”. The framework on land sparing versus land sharing has perhaps given us some useful insights – most importantly it has put back in focus the fundamental importance of strictly protected areas for biodiversity conservation, especially for rare or range-restricted species. But as I argue below, beyond this message I think the framework has reached its potential.

So, what about protected areas? In theory, we have known the importance of protected areas for many decades. But, let’s give some credit to advocates of land sparing – perhaps the vital importance of protected areas had occasionally got lost in the 1990s, when the focus increasingly shifted to biodiversity conservation in farmland. Especially in frontier landscapes – where land clearing is rampant – the message that we must ensure there are sufficient protected areas needs to be heard. I think this is an important point that we can take from the sparing versus sharing framework.

What about beyond this message? Beyond this, I argue that the sparing versus sharing framework leads us astray for at least three reasons.

First, the land sparing framework focuses on food production, not food security. However, food production and malnourishment are weakly linked. “Meeting rising demand” (which is often mentioned hand in hand with a focus on land sparing – though not by the more reflected advocates) therefore is not a meaningful goal. Especially when global commodity crops are involved, it often feeds the wants of the wealthy (including those of us already overweight), not the needs of the poor.

Second, the land sparing framework depends on a link between intensification and protected area establishment. Such links rarely exist, although admittedly they can, and perhaps should, be actively fostered.

And third, the land sparing framework represents a simplification of reality into two dimensions – production and biodiversity. This over-simplifies real-world complexity to a point that is analytically elegant, but of doubtful practical value.

From my perspective, much would be gained by employing a social-ecological systems perspective, and by moving beyond a dichotomous framing of black versus white. We don’t need sharing or sparing. We quite evidently need both. The question is how much of which will work best in which context – and this is a question that cannot be answered by simple analytical models, but only by contextualized, interdisciplinary studies that take into account the complex social-ecological realities in different settings.

Mainstreamism and self-fulfilling prophecies

By Joern Fischer

It’s good to be policy-relevant, and it’s good to get published in prestigious journals. But I’m concerned that the collective desire to attain these goals is taming science to a distinctly unhelpful middle ground that everyone can agree on. It’s like in politics, where major parties end up so similar you can’t really tell the difference anymore – in an effort to appeal to the largest number of people, almost by definition, distinctive elements and innovative ideas are filtered out.

This is annoying when it happens in politics, but it’s unacceptable when it happens in science. Science ought to be about expanding our understanding of the universe, not channeling it into the centre of status quo worldviews. And yet, I find there is more and more evidence that this is precisely what is happening.

Two things today inspired me to write this slightly impassioned rant. First, one of our papers got rejected due to its less-than-mainstream methods. The argument was in fact not that our methods were bad, but rather that they were unusual and may be difficult to accept by the readership of the journal. Second, a colleague pointed me to a paper that says we can’t really change values because they change slowly, and so there’s no point in trying. In combination, I feel these events are symptomatic of a new kind of “anti-sustainability” sustainability science – implying that we need innovation, but preferably without actually changing the world or the way we look at it.

In modern science then, it seems you must not rock the boat. You must not work towards paradigm shifts, or try to look at problems too broadly. Instead, you should look for clever, incremental improvements within existing ways of thinking. In sustainability science, you must look at societal problems, but only advocate for minor changes – no matter how deep the root causes are of the problems you are looking at.

Sustainable intensification, REDD+ payments, and the right kind of messaging to an audience with unalterable values – this is now the dominant way advocated to achieve sustainability improvements.

Those who point out that radical changes are not possible successfully get their stuff published – but to me, they lack creativity (and frankly, guts) to do what needs to be done. With everybody heading for the front of the mainstream, there will be no real innovation, and no major change. Or put more bluntly: we’d have the same values as decades ago, including slavery, racial discrimination and women not taking part in politics.

Think again: Of course things can change, if we want them to, including big things, and including human values. And from a sustainability perspective all of this can happen in relevant, short periods of time, too.

Trying to work for deep changes may not always work in the short term. But the growing zeal to not even try to think boldly strikes me as much more certain to lock us into a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever greater un-sustainability.

Topics on the rise in conservation and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Research on any given topic tends to come and go. Searching the scopus database, I had a bit of a look at some terms I am interested in. Some of these are gaining in popularity, and some are on their way out. I’ve summarised these trends in the graphs below. Keep in mind that “constant” interest probably means a tripling in the number of mentions since 2000, simply because the number of journal articles has increased a lot. I found the patterns interesting, and so thought I’d share them here.

My overall interpretation is that ecosystem services and social-ecological systems are starting to reach saturation point. In contrast, sustainable intensification and food sovereignty are shooting up. Landscape ecology and habitat fragmentation used to attract more attention than they do now.

Not earth-shattering, but kind of interesting…


Post-peak terms:

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Not so obvious terms (in terms of trend):

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And “hot topics” still on the rise, or recently starting to gain popularity:

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Conservation and governance

By Joern Fischer

Conservation science emerged primarily out of the biological sciences. In the last decade, there has been a lot of engagement with economics, especially in the context of ecosystem services and land use optimisation. Here, I argue that the next key challenge for conservation scientists is to engage more deeply with academic work on governance — especially considering multi-level governance.


Conventionally, scientists have often seen their job as providing “facts”, which then ought to be implemented by policy-makers. Such an approach can be criticised for being overly technocratic — that is, an expert (the scientist) finds the fix to a problem, and then it’s up to the benevolent dictator (the policy-maker) to implement this fix. But what if there is no benevolent dictator? What if there are a bunch of contested interests operating all at once, if the science does not have a single “true” answer, and if multiple ecological scales and administrative levels interact?

In a recent paper, we argued that conventional notions of evidence for conservation practice could be more useful if they were embedded in the context of a multi-scaled ecological vision; while explicitly acknowledging the realities of multi-level governance. How might this work?

First, a set of multi-scaled ecological principles can help to generate a vision of what a sustainably managed landscape, region, or continent would look like. Such multi-scaled visions have been discussed, for example, in forestry (see Lindenmayer and Franklin’s seminal book). Such visions enable a clear articulation of different kinds of goals at different scales, as well as shedding light on likely cross-scale interactions. Bits of “evidence” (including expert understanding) can then help to refine an ecological vision, and to assess how well a current state of implementation matches with the envisioned situation.

Second, evidence can’t be put into practice without a good understanding of multi-level governance, and the constraints and opportunities arising from it. Questions conservation scientists can ask (together with governance experts) include: which level of governance should be responsible for a particular conservation intervention? Does this interfere with decisions made at other levels? Is there sufficient democratic legitimacy for successful implementation? Which government and non-government actors have stakes in a potential conservation intervention?

Considering multi-level governance is not a magic bullet for conservation. But it will help to get away from overly technocratic, potentially simplistic understandings of how science interacts with policy decisions.

Our full paper is available in Conservation Letters. All papers in Conservation Letters are now open access.

Revival of landscape-scale research?

By Joern Fischer

It’s easy to by cynical about the state of the world, and the state of academia. A recent commentary in Nature suggested that “current trajectories threaten science with drowning in the noise of its own productivity”. Leading journals are full of technocratic formulas for how to fix the world; while the deeper questions underpinning our sustainability crisis remain unaddressed. But every now and then, there’s a glimmer of hope.

I’ve recently been hopeful about a possible revival of landscape-scale research. To me, conservation science went a bit like this: general principles were being established in the 1960; reserves were advocated in the 1970s; reserve planning was perfected in the 80s and 90s; the “matrix” outside protected areas attracted attention in the 1990s, along with a rise in landscape ecology; ecosystem services arose as a new field of enquiry in the 2000s; and protected areas re-gained attention via the concept of land sparing in the last few years, with areas outside protected areas losing in popularity.

But just recently, it appears there is also a revival of the “landscape” bubbling under the surface, along with genuinely better integration across disciplines. This latent revival of the landscape as a focal area of interdisciplinary research efforts is despite prestigious journals favouring larger scales. If you read only the highest impact journals, you may miss out altogether on the landscape scale. But if you read work one or two notches below in terms of supposed “prestige” of the journals, landscape research is alive, and perhaps even on the rise.

I was encouraged to see, for example, Reed’s latest paper in Global Change Biology; or Wu’s paper on landscape sustainability science. Similarly, the PECS network encourages investigation of social-ecological systems in actual physical locations – often landscapes, as shown in a recent review of literature on scenario planning.

There are several (different) communities of people who are passionate about getting out into the field; working in real landscapes; and investigating issues in depth from multiple perspectives. Perhaps part of the problem is that those communities do not (yet?) speak the same language – without having done a citation or network analysis, my guess is that work on the “landscape approach” (sensu Sayer or Reed) is largely separate from work on “landscape sustainability science” (sensu Wu) and “social-ecological systems” (sensu PECS). In addition, there are many “conventional” ecologists and social scientists who continue to focus on landscapes even when the incentives are skewed towards scaling up – but they may not read any of the interdisciplinary work listed above. These communities of people thus look different at first glance, but they probably share key interests and aversions: including the interest to actually “get out there” rather than just model things from a distance; and healthy skepticism regarding simplistic fixes for complex problems.

There’s nothing magic as such about the landscape as a focal scale – but as a space for integration across disciplines and between researchers and stakeholders, it is uniquely relevant. My hope is that over the next few years, we’ll see a major revival of landscape-scale research – and who knows, maybe even the high-impact journals will realize that bigger is not always better.

Paper recommendation: integrated landscape approaches for the future

I would like to recommend the following paper:

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

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

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


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

(Mis-)Framing for Impact

By Joern Fischer

In our recent review of papers on the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation, we showed that there was a “biophysical-technical” branch of work. This branch talks about food security, when actually, it’s largely about food production. A recent paper in Nature Communications provides a perfect example of some of the most widespread (mis-)framings in a food security context currently prevalent among scientists (especially natural scientists).

The paper is by Sattari et al. It’s on global phosphorus budgets, and it’s an interesting read. I see nothing wrong with the research as such, but I found its Abstract irritating. I’ll copy parts of it here, with the “offending” bits highlighted:

“Grasslands provide grass and fodder to sustain the growing need for ruminant meat and milk. Soil nutrients in grasslands are removed through withdrawal in these livestock products and through animal manure that originates from grasslands and is spread in croplands. …  Combined with requirements for cropland, we estimate that mineral P fertilizer use must double by 2050 to sustain future crop and grassland production. Our findings point to the need to better understand the role of grasslands and their soil P status and their importance for global food security.”

Framing is all about the hook to sell your paper, and it’s typically evident in the first sentence, and the last big “so-what”. Here, the authors chose to frame their paper around “the need” for more meat and milk, and “global food security”. Both of these statements show utter disregard for what actually drives food security. What’s growing is the global demand for meat and milk, especially in China and India (respectively). What’s at stake by producing more milk and meat is meeting the wants of the increasingly wealthy, not anyone’s needs (and especially not the need to the most food insecure people). Similarly, global food security is not currently limited by a lack of milk and meat — rather, the nations with the highest levels of consumption of these goods are most plagued by obesity.

Petty, perhaps, but it’s what continues to be sold to us by journals that pride themselves of being the most authoritative sources of the best science. Reading simplistic statements on global food security again and again in these journals shows a fundamental lack of respect and understanding for the difference between what is (high demand for meat) and what ought to be (e.g. sustainability); and an implicit and uncritical subjugation to growth-mania (accepting that growth is the thing that ought to be). You can just about bet that anything with an impact factor higher than 10 will routinely publish things under the banner of “food security” that are actually primarily about “global commodity production”. It’s time to realise that these are two different things!

I’m sorry to single out Sattari et al., and I repeat that their study seems quite fine to me — just not the framing in the Abstract. By continuing to accept overly simplistic framings in the context of “global food security”, we risk to continuously miss the point in our science and policy advice.

So, to all editors and authors engaged with high-impact journals: please stop perpetuating this unhelpful trend!


Empires, credibility, and a happy workplace atmosphere

By Joern Fischer

Bigger is better in academic reward structures: more grants, more students, more papers, more impact factor. But is there a limit to how big research groups (or “labs”) ought to be? What are the pros and cons of big, medium, or large research groups in terms of producing quality science, scientific credibility, and a happy working environment?

I figured thinking through this could be interesting, but as you will see, I didn’t get very far! Let’s start with very small research groups. Small groups can produce very good science if the individual researchers are very good. This might be especially the case for subjects where it is not necessary to draw on many different kinds of expertise, or where individuals work largely on their own. Here, it’s really largely the quality of the individual researchers that matters. If they’re very good, the science produced will be very good – and nobody would have any doubts about its credibility. On the other hand, if the individuals are weak in some areas, there are few opportunities to buffer one another in such a situation (e.g. if there are three people, and none of the three is good at statistics, then the statistics ends up … well, just not very good!). And complex subject matters, which require multiple different perspectives probably can’t be dealt with very well in extremely small research groups.

Medium-sized groups then … the most obvious advantage here is individuals can buffer one another more effectively, and there are more opportunities for mutual learning and collaboration. There is also the chance of having the beginnings of a “critical mass” of people who collectively can push forward a common approach or idea. In medium-sized groups, communication within the group is still quite straightforward, and the potential for people to be happy (in a social sense) is quite high.

What about really big groups? Well, they are clearly the most prolific. A glance at google scholar suggests that several of the world’s leading conservation scientists now produce over 50 publications a year, for example. So, is this the way to go, something to be frowned upon – or just something that needs to be managed very carefully? To start with, I guess the benefit of having a critical mass cannot be denied in such big groups. They are basically “centres”, though often somewhat more coherent in subject area because they are run by a single senior academic. On the downside, various risks also increase in really large groups. There’s a risk that the quality of the individual researchers in the group can’t be consistently high – it’s more difficult to hire large numbers of truly excellent people all at the same time than to hire a small number of truly excellent people. And then there’s the risk that people will be impressed by, but at the same time cynical, about very large groups: can anyone really contribute meaningfully to more than 50 papers a year? (I’m not sure, but I am sure that many people would say “no”!) And finally, there’s also the risk that overall group cohesion is lower, partly because communication within a large group is much more difficult. And so, very large groups in reality often split into a number of smaller sub-groups.

In the end then, if such sub-groups are working well, there is no reason to believe that large groups should be inherently less pleasant to be part of than small ones. They might even be particularly nice because they have a critical mass of like-minded people. If their governance is organized sensibly, perhaps large groups are in fact the best research environments … ? Or perhaps it’s small groups for some purposes, and larger ones for other purposes?

As I’m approaching the end of this blog post, I have not reached a definitive conclusion on what to make of academic group sizes. Perhaps size is just not an interesting feature in its own right: perhaps it’s how the group is run that matters in terms of the quality of the science and the workplace atmosphere … I’d be interested in people’s thoughts! What do you think, and what are your experiences with small versus large research groups?

The tyranny of coarse scales in sustainability science and policy

By Joern Fischer

Scale has fascinated geographers for a very long time – but still, this important concept is not getting the attention it deserves by sustainability scientists or policy makers. What’s worse is that the biases introduced through several disciplines (and major journals) all go the same way, namely shedding light on coarse scales at the expense of finer scales.

Coarse-scale analyses are equivalent to aggregation of finer-scaled phenomena. Such aggregation happens in geographical space as well as in time, and also in thematic resolution. For example, ecological data may be scaled to large grid cells, or socioeconomic data may be scaled to the level of nations. Food production may be calculated for average years (ignoring the highs and lows through time), and households may be lumped into cities. Such aggregation is valid, and can be useful, or even important. But it’s also important to recognize that different patterns will be revealed by analyses at finer scales.

In the ecosystem services literature, this was recognized (for example) by Daw et al., who discuss the importance of disaggregating the beneficiaries of ecosystem services. This is because it’s possible that a lot of ecosystem services are generated by a system, but they all flow to the same beneficiary. Such a pattern is masked, however, by aggregated analyses. In economic analyses, disaggregation has been used, too, for example, when investigating income inequalities in a given country. In ecological data, some regions may look like they are rich in biodiversity when in fact, all of that diversity is clustered in a small area, such as a protected area (i.e. most of the region has low biodiversity). In terms of biophysical patterns, aggregated data tell us, for example, that Eastern Europe is a region with high yield gaps – but locally, this may or may not be the case.

Coarse-scale relationships such as the ones listed above are often particularly appealing to policy makers – and then an entire “aggregated bunch of things” is treated with one method, even though there are potential differences within. For example, it can be shown that high economic growth at the national level is related to national level food security. It follows then (at least at first glance) that any policy that boosts economic growth ought to have positive effects on food security. Or take land sparing: getting the highest biodiversity in a given region (can be achieved by creating a nature reserve and intensifying the land around it. At a coarse scale, at least in the first instance, this maximizes biodiversity.

The problem is that major journals and policy makers are a little too excited about such coarse-scale patterns. It’s not like they’re wrong, but they also don’t tell a very complete story. It pays to consider the effects of potential actions at multiple scales. For example, in the pursuit of economic growth, are certain stakeholders left behind? In generating wealth out of ecosystems, do all households in an area benefit equally? When protecting biodiversity, are small pockets of high diversity created or are entire landscapes managed to be ecologically self-sustaining?

So, by all means, we should look at coarse-scale patterns. Their generality is appealing and if we didn’t aggregate, we’d be entirely stuck. But coarse-scale patterns result from the aggregation of finer-scaled phenomena, and we should keep this in mind. In a way, it’s not only the “mean” outcome, but also its “distribution” that matters. Communicating this is difficult, but both leading journals and policy makers would be well advised to consider disaggregated analyses alongside aggregated analyses to make wise (editorial or policy) decisions.

Trandisciplinarity in a messy world

By Joern Fischer

In pursuit of sustainability, many have argued for the need for “transdisciplinary” research. Such research, ideally, is meant to be co-defined, and carried out in close collaboration with stakeholders – who double-act as decision-makers and thus solution-implementers. This solution-orientation defines sustainability science. But in a messy world, does this work?

The more I have thought about this, the more critical I have become of the idea of transdisciplinarity as defined above. At the same time, I don’t believe we ought to throw out the baby with the bath water (such a horrible metaphor!), and I think there are many good things about transdisciplinarity that we ought to keep. So in this post, I want to highlight three problems with an overly rigid type of transdisciplinarity, and then give a short outlook of what I think is worth keeping.

Co-defining problems with stakeholders may mean scratching the surface. Stakeholders are often quite specific in their outlook. By definition, they are interested in a given problem from the perspective of how it affects their stake in it. As a result, many transdisciplinary projects appear to work on extremely tangible, but rather simple problems. Messy problems that cannot be resolved via a simple research process often aren’t even targeted because they are not the problems of choice, of either stakeholders or researchers.

There may be no interested stakeholders. The idea of transdisciplinarity often goes hand in hand with the idea of a “decision-maker”. What if there is not one decision maker, but instead, a complex governance system? Or what if the decision-makers are disinterested in what other stakeholders are interested in – or even work actively against it? Reducing oneself as a scientist to wanting to work with (decision-making) stakeholders means reducing oneself to situations where there are “benevolent dictators”. Where those situations exist, by all means, engaging with these good queens and kings and helping them make good decisions is great. But messy systems with a diversity of conflicting views are much more common. Complex problems, quite possibly, can’t be solved but only navigated (with thanks to Dave Abson for this point!).

Stakeholders may be uninformed about some of the most important problems. Related to the first limitation of only scratching the surface, stakeholders may simply not know about certain problems that scientists do know about. For example, scientists knew about climate change long before stakeholders starting being interested in climate change. Letting stakeholders define problems thus is empowering for them – but it can mean ignoring the fact that scientists do know certain things, very well, and possibly much better than many stakeholders. Especially for problems that are looming on the horizon, it’s entirely possible that you won’t find stakeholders to work with on these problems. Yet, those problems ought to be worked on.

So, with these three problems, what’s worth keeping about transdisciplinarity? I think deep down it’s its “vibe” (has anyone seen “The Castle”? Never mind …) that is worth keeping. Deep down, transdisciplinarity is about respecting non-research stakeholders, respecting their knowledge, engaging with them, and helping them do better through one’s research. It’s this moral basis of transdisciplinarity that I believe we can apply to just about all settings, because it’s grounded in something so deep that it makes sense irrespective of context. For processes of transdisciplinarity, this means they have to be flexible and tailored to a given situation. There’s no right way of doing transdisciplinary science, no right level of transdisciplinarity, and no inherently greater value in co-defining problems with stakeholders. Rather, if the motivation underpinning stakeholder engagement is right, the rest will probably follow.