New paper: Sustainability starts within (each of us)

By Joern Fischer

Led by Chris Ives and co-written by Rebecca Freeth and me, I’d like to draw your attention to our new paper on sustainability and our “inner worlds”. In this new paper, which recently appeared in Ambio, we argue that there is a very important but largely ignored “inner dimension” to sustainability; a dimension that is all about our emotions, thoughts, identities and beliefs.

To illustrate our idea, we borrowed an observation from Ken Wilber’s integral theory (though notably, we did not borrow integral theory itself). The idea we borrowed is that human knowledge and experience about the world can be classified in a 2×2 matrix – we can engage with interior individual phenomena (“I”), exterior individual phenomena (“It”), interior collective phenomena (“We”), or exterior collective phenomena (“They”; called”Its” by Wilber).

Let’s assume for a moment that these four quadrants actually capture human experience. In a next step, we might say that sustainability science is meant to help humanity reach a sustainable future. This very broad quest, we might argue, entails challenges in all four quadrants – but, as I briefly summarise here, sustainability science has largely ignored one of these quadrants!

Let’s go through the quadrants. The “It” quadrant is all about how a thing works – for example, it might be the kind of disciplinary science needed to answer how much of a certain greenhouse gas is stored in a particular soil type, or how many bird species occur in a particular forest patch. The “They” quadrant is the plural version of “It” – it’s all about multiple phenomena in the external world and how they interact. Systems thinking fits into this quadrant, and it’s a quadrant that has been extremely useful in sustainability science. Third, the “We” quadrant is all about how we, collectively, live. This might be about culture, or about regulations or social norms – the things that influence how “we” collectively behave. This, too, has received quite a bit of attention by sustainability scientists, and has been very useful.

What’s largely missing to date… is “I”. Of course philosophers and psychologists have had an interest in what happens within individual human beings, but sustainability scientists have largely stayed away from this level of human experience.

If, however, human experiences play out in all four major dimensions; and if these dimensions all are essential to human ways of living and being – then this is a glaring omission!

Interestingly, non-scientists have engaged quite strongly with the inner worlds of individuals, including (but not only) in spiritual circles (e.g. see Chris’ previous blog post here). Sustainability science as a whole has been rather slow on the uptake … although there are also important examples within sustainability science of people who have looked at what happens within individuals. Not least of all, Donella Meadows argued that the ability to change one’s paradigm was a key way to bring about change; an idea also captured in the increasingly popular “iceberg metaphor” copied from our paper and depicted in the figure below.

Arguably, what we value, how we think about things, what we believe in, and what we think it means to be human all matter in very fundamental ways – and, we argue, we need to engage with questions such as these if we are to successfully address the grand challenges of our times.

Our paper does not provide a simple set of answers for what we now need to do, given this realization. Rather, it aims to show, first of all, that the lack of focus on the self has been a gap in mainstream sustainability research to date; and we provide a few initial pointers for where we can each start to close this gap in the future.

Academia’s obsession with quantity revisited yet again…

By Joern Fischer

Some years ago, together with a couple of colleagues, I published a little note called “Academia’s obsession with quantity”. We followed up on this with another slightly longer note outlining a roadmap for “an academia beyond quantity”. Some years have passed, and I felt it’s time to re-visit these original ideas here. Have things improved?

I’d say most decidedly no. Perhaps not all countries are quite the same, but certainly Germany strikes me as essentially insane when it comes to the business of science. The implicit incentives are to raise a lot of funding (i.e. not even to publish, or have a high h-index, just simply to raise money seems to be desirable) – it’s not uncommon for successful professors in Germany to have 10-20 members in their lab groups (who may or may not talk to one another, let alone collaborate sensibly).

I have rarely heard anyone senior question whether more is in fact better; it’s largely taken for granted that more is, by default, better. I have, however, heard many PhD students complain about their supervisors being over-committed. I have seen nominally interdisciplinary projects fail because too many investigators each invested too little time; and I have had nominally transdisciplinary endeavours fail because nobody could be bothered to actually walk the talk about making time for stakeholders. Funding bodies encourage this behaviour through favouring multi-investigator mega-projects with weak leadership; and universities encourage it through rewarding their professors for their fund-raising “successes”. On top of this, we are assessed by how many hours we teach, and nobody takes any serious notice of the actual quality of our teaching – not in any way that actually makes a difference anyway.

As I see it, we’re in an academic world that is essentially insane – those suffering the consequences, such as junior researchers, will either drop out or adapt to the model of “more is better”. I am yet to see an institution make a genuine effort to systematically find ways for everyone to simply do less, as a way of encouraging that quality is being delivered. What I see instead is countless colleagues who are rushed and performing well below their intellectual capacity; who supervise well below their mentoring capacity; and who get a lot less enjoyment out of their work than they could if things were less insane.

What is needed, from my perspective, is a systematic change in the culture of what an academic environment ought to be like, starting with strong leadership to foster such an alternative culture. Do we really want to create places where “more is better”? Or do we want to generate places that are productive, but self-regulate their commitment such that they remain focused in their publication, teaching and mentoring duties?

I’m not advocating low productivity or laziness. But I have a hypothesis: if the most “successful” senior academics on average did half the teaching, half the fund raising, and half the number of publications a year – and instead double their mentoring and reflection before they take on random extra “stuff” – academia would do much better at advancing wisdom rather than just being yet another game where the only rule is that “more is better”.

Keynote at Leverage Points 2019: Ioan Fazey

“It’s the end of the world as we know it” … with these words, Ioan Fazey began his opening keynote lecture to Leverage Points 2019. With everything changing, faster than ever before — what is our role in this? What does it mean to be a knowledge producer? Either, we will have massive transformations because of “natural” processes; or we will ourselves instigate a more mindful kind of transformation, in order to avoid some of the less desirable outcomes.


Photo by Ioan Fazey: Playing Giants, Fairies and Wizards in rural communities, Solomon Islands

Ioan moved on to show examples of how climate change, for example, will affect us, focusing on the city of New Orleans. Here, climate change is not a problem of the future, but rather of the present, with some communities already being displaced. A combination of human caused factors, here, leads to “land loss”, and in addition, there is a high incidence of hurricanes. How can such situations be governed, when traditionally, government departments were designed to address issues from within different types of sectoral silos? Three key “emergencies” need to be addressed in situations such as these: there are real emergencies, conceptual emergencies, and in fact, existential emergencies—the very real fear of facing big change.

What can we, as knowledge producers, do to support the changes that are needed? Ioan went on to explain that science and technology had, of course, generated a lot of good for the world – but they had also generated intentional destruction, power unbalances in terms of who benefits from technologies, and unpredictable, unintentional side-effects. In other words, what is happening is that we have unleashed a problem that we do not know how to control …

And from here, we went to … the sorcerer’s apprentice … in that story, a wizard’s apprentice is meant to clean up a castle. Because he is lazy, he tries to use magic to clean the castle…. And … he has just enough knowledge to get the process of cleaning going, but as he tries to stop it, the brooms take on a life of their own, become more and more, and so on … until eventually there is total chaos until the senior wizard comes home and puts an end to it all.

So – humanity’s story right now is pretty much like this … JUST WE DON’T HAVE A WIZARD to stop it all. We’re a bunch of apprentices, and it’s up to us to put an end to the insanity we have unleashed. What does this metaphor suggest for what we need to do?

  1. We need to accept we are all apprentices! This requires humility and full recognition of what is happening around us.
  2. We need to draw on more diverse kinds of knowledge. “How to” knowledge in particular, is rapidly growing, and this type of knowledge is not sufficiently being generated in universities. Ioan indicated in addition to epistemic knowledge, we need know how (techne) and phronesis (practical wisdom). So, we need to learn from doing, and researchers need to get involved in the world of practice. And so the role of scientists must change – from outside observer, to involved in the actual resolution of problems.
  3. We need to develop wisdom, not only knowledge. The apprentice, in our story, was quite selfish – he didn’t question whether it was wise to use magic because he was lazy … and his lack of wisdom led to disastrous consequences. So what is needed is not only knowledge per se, but also an understanding of what is right and good.
  4. We need to unleash creativity and the possibility for magic, accepting that there are things we don’t know at all just yet – i.e. open our minds to think in truly new ways about some of the problems we are facing.
  5. We need to ask really difficult questions, asking not only what is the right way to do things, what are the right things … but even more broadly, asking “what is right”?

Ioan concluded with a lot of challenging questions, not all of which I can reproduce here. Perhaps one of the most interesting ones was: Who should we be at the end of the world as we know it?


A new kind of hope

By Joern Fischer

A small number of people working on sustainability have long been convinced that we are heading for some sort of global collapse. But partly because collapse hasn’t happened, and partly because it seems counter-productive to predict collapse, most sustainability scientists have kept up a narrative of urgent optimism. But is this changing?

Over the last few months, I have had quite a few informal conversations with colleagues about the state of the world. And it seems that many who used to be optimistic are losing their optimism – and are increasingly using terms like “climate catastrophe” not as some outlandish thing that might happen one day, but as something that is entirely plausible in our foreseeable future or that of our children.

What does this tell us? To me it is a not-so early warning signal stronger than most, as well as an invitation to think once again what we’re doing in our science.

If we are in a situation where some kind of catastrophe has indeed become likely, how does this change what we do? To start with, how might it change our attitudes? – One might believe it will stifle all motivation and lead to depression; and therefore, we must not allow it. My sense is that this has been the dominant view among scientists – we’re not willing to face how bad things really are, because we believe that sending “negative messages” will just make everything worse, will lead to apathy and so on (and frankly, it scares us, as people not scientists!). But just like a grieving person eventually accepts her fate (for example, according to this conceptual model), there are aspects of what is happening that we simply must accept. The world as we knew it, is gone. Already, species have gone extinct. Already, we’re locked into some level of global warming. Sure, let’s work hard to minimize these problems, but already, it should be quite clear that as humanity, we are up for entirely new challenges and experiences; some further changes are already firmly locked in due to delays in system behaviour and associated feedbacks.

Facing this is not the same as giving up on a vision for a better world – but perhaps we should recognize more clearly that minor catastrophes are already happening right now, and larger ones are likely on the way. There is little benefit in denying this just because it might stifle blind optimism: if this is what is happening, then should we not face it best we can?

Having faced that many things are not going well at all means that our science can come out the other end in new, different ways. Essentially, what we need to do is navigate the trade-off between trying to rescue the systems that are (adaptation), versus letting them go, and transforming our world into a different set of systems. And importantly, we can do both: we can try with part of our energy to hang on to parts of the world as we know it (saving species, for example); but we can also prepare with the rest of our energy for a new world, at the same time. This isn’t giving up – it is seeing reality as it presents itself, and seeking genuine transformation; it is moving from denial and depression to finding entirely new ways to use our energy to make the world a better place.

And thus, as one hope dies, space emerges for a new type of hope: as hope dies that the world as we know it will persist, this makes space for hope that we can positively transform our world over the coming decades, using windows of opportunity as they arise.

If and when windows of opportunity open up – perhaps following small or major catastrophes – are we ready? Is our science ready? If we have to re-build something after some kind of collapse … do we have ideas for what that something will be? Which institutions would we favour? How would we transform our agricultural systems, personal time budgets and labour markets? Is our science sufficiently future-oriented to even ask such questions? Can we learn from positive examples, as well as localized disasters and collapses, so we can be somewhat prepared for likely small and major catastrophes? – My general sense is that most of our science wants the world to remain something it is unlikely to be; but because of this, we also miss opportunities for preparing positive visions for what a better future might actually look like.

I wonder if in hindsight, science will conclude that the Anthropocene will not be a geological era after all – simply because it will have been rather short-lived. At least the current phase of the Great Acceleration by definition cannot be sustained; so we’re out of the Holocene, but we’re clearly not yet in a new equilibrium. What we’re in right now is probably the middle of a major, global regime shift to … well, we don’t know to where.

In conclusion, then, perhaps it’s time to face that we are already facing small catastrophes, and larger ones are likely on the way. As these open windows of opportunity, it would be nice if our science is ready to offer new, positive visions for how to build something more durable than the current version of the “Anthropocene” – which, in its current, exponentially changing form, will only ever be a blink in our planet’s geological history.

New paper: Leverage points for improving gender equality and human well-being in a smallholder farming context

By Aisa Manlosa

How can factors that create and entrench gender inequality change? Approaches range from targeting visible gender gaps, changing formal institutions, and focusing on deeply entrenched social norms. In a recently published paper, we unpack gender-related changes in southwest Ethiopia and emphasize the importance of interactions between domains of changes (Fig. 1). We highlight the utility of a leverage points perspective for systems-oriented gender research.

leverage points and gender

Conceptual framework of leverage points for improving gender equality and household well-being

In the agricultural development sector where gender has been found to influence access and control of resources, participation in livelihood activities, and benefits from livelihoods, researchers who apply the gender transformative approach have called for greater focus on the factors that underlie gender inequality including formal and informal structures such as gender norms, and power relations. Gender equality is a highly pertinent issue in southwest Ethiopia. In many areas, social practices continue to be patriarchal. However, policy reforms by the government aimed at empowering women are facilitating changes. To analyze the changes that have been occurring, we applied the concept of leverage points, which are places to intervene to change a system. Dave Abson and other colleagues at Leuphana identified four realms of leverage namely paramaters, feedbacks, design, and intent. The parallel between Abson et al.’s four realms of leverage and common areas of focus in gender research including visible gender gaps (reflecting parameters), formal and informal institutions (reflecting design), and attitudes (reflecting intent) is striking. At the onset, this parallel suggested that applying leverage points as an analytical lens, can generate important sights that could contribute to ongoing conversations around facilitating and supporting gender transformative change.

Our analysis drew on qualitative data from key informant interviews, focus group discussions, and semi-structured interviews with women and men. We examined gender-related changes in southwest Ethiopia, factors driving the changes, associated household well-being outcomes, and importantly, the interplay of different types of leverage points leading to the range of changes (some clear, many tentative, nevertheless in existence). The findings section in the linked article details the range of changes identified by local residents. For example, in terms of visible gaps, the majority reported an improvement in women’s participation in public activities such as trainings and meetings. In terms of community norms which we considered as an informal institution, decision-making practices at the household level had begun to change. In terms of attitudes, we found evidence that there is an emergent positive perception concerning women’s capacities. This is significant in a context where women were traditionally viewed as lacking capacities men have. The findings section contains quotes that best convey local residents’ views. But perhaps the most important take-away message from the study stems from the overwhelming importance attributed by local residents to the government’s actions to promote gender equality. This suggested that while community norms and attitudes are deeply entrenched and therefore important areas to focus on, formal institutions in the form of policies, priorities, and programs by the government play a similarly important role. In the context of southwest Ethiopia, the changes in formal institutions related to gender are beginning to open and expand the horizon for what is possible and legitimate in communities. Therefore the interplay between different leverage points (e. g. formal and informal institutions) cannot be discounted and should be considered in facilitating processes for gender transformative change.


The Anthropocene and how suddenly, we don’t care

by Joern Fischer

A set of recent discussions inspired me to write this very simple post. I’m basically just highlighting an observation: that some trends of the Anthropocene, we try to fight, and others we accept as a given. What’s fascinating is that this can switch quite suddenly — something we wanted to fight yesterday, we accept as a given today — and it seems like the choice of things we fight versus take as given is quite “random”, or at least not grounded in anything particularly useful or intelligent.


Source: Future Earth

So, first of all — let’s be clear what I mean by the Anthropocene here. To be precise, I mean the “great acceleration” aspect of the Anthropocene. As shown above, for example, this is characterised by well known exponential increases in a wide range of social, economic, and environmental phenomena.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist (nor a system scientist) to guess that probably, when a bunch of stuff increases all at the same time, something is going on. And probably, these different trends are not independent but related. Similarly, it doesn’t take a lot of analysis to then realise that to address this stuff, you probably need to deal with the WHOLE, rather than with just a few trends in isolation.

And: it seems obvious you can’t just randomly accept some of these exponential growth curves while trying to fight the others. Or at least, that seems obvious to me… and this is where the observation begins.

Some trends, many sustainability scientists routinely argue against. Examples of this are climate change and biodiversity loss. We haven’t given up yet on these ones, and we argue that we must halt climate change! We must stop biodiversity loss!

But others, we take as given. My two favourite ones are urbanisation and food production. Large numbers of sustainability scholars accept urbanisation as an unchangeable and value-neutral phenomenon; and similarly, large numbers of scholars argue that “we must double food production” because demand “will” double.

The choice of accepting these as given while desperately fighting some of the others seems quite arbitrary to me, and frankly, illogical. What if urban lifestyles are part of the package of increasing un-sustainability (e.g. because they contributed to disconnectedness from the natural world and longer food chains)? What if increasing demand for food is a symptom of un-sustainability (e.g. because it is driven by increasingly unhealthy diets related to industrial food systems)?

My suggestion is that we either fall in love with exponential growth, and then we do it for everything. Then we can argue, and some people do, that it’s all not so bad, and we will innovate our way around planetary boundaries. Or alternatively, you can sign the ecomodernist manifesto, and argue vehemently that we can have our cake and eat it, too.

Or … well, or we have to address the great acceleration as a whole, not just a couple of the hockey sticks, but all of them.

Perhaps ever increasing urbanisation is not actually what the world needs. Perhaps doubling food production is not what the world actually needs.

Perhaps we need to keep the big picture in mind more routinely — and that is, that these trends are parts of a package of unsustainable, exponential growth. When you have a system of interlinked, reinforcing feedbacks, you can’t just choose a couple of variables and address those. It’s got to be the whole package.


Transgenic golden rice: friend or foe?

By Annika Kettenburg

How come scientists disagree quite fundamentally at times? In our new paper, we investigated the academic controversy over transgenic Golden Rice. Itself a microcosm of the broader debate surrounding genetically modified crops, it shows some unique particularities: Here, rice plants were modified to synthesize beta-carotene and thus act as an edible cure against Vitamin A deficiency – a humanitarian project developed in university halls, to be handed out for free to smallholders. It is anticipated to become available in the Philippines and Bangladesh in two to three years from now.


At first sight, the scientific position on Golden Rice seems to almost exclusively consist of utmost approval. In 2016, 131 Nobel laureates signed a petition to accelerate the introduction of Golden Rice – calling to end the “crime to humanity” committed by the GMO opposition. Though critics are outweighed in numbers, they voice various concerns. Most often, they point to an overshadowing of malnutrition’s root causes, namely the social determinants of access to food, and the inadequacy of Golden Rice in addressing these.

Corresponding to this bifurcation, our cluster analysis identified two major branches in the Golden Rice literature. Interestingly, the branches and their clusters correlated with the disciplines authors adhered to and the scope of topics they addressed. Put simply, the branch optimistic up to euphoric about Golden Rice was mostly comprised of plant scientists, and the topics our indicator analysis marked as constitutive centered on deregulation. The more critical branch consisted mostly of social scientists writing on a variety of topics relevant to sustainability.

What now is the cause for this divergence? In our paper, we argue it is mainly the authors’ starting point – the perception of the problem (also discussed in this blog here, here and here). In simplified terms, if the problem of vitamin A deficiency is a result of mainly eating rice that lacks beta-carotenes, then the solution is to enhance the rice. In contrast, if one sees the problem in a lack of access to diverse, nutritious food, then one has to pursue biophysical, economic, political and social changes altogether. This means bio-fortification of crops results to be only one out of many strategies – a short-term fix until social and political structures change.

But even if scientists were to overcome disciplinary divides and arrive at a shared conclusion on Golden Rice – is it for us to decide what people should plant and eat? Why has nobody involved affected communities in their research? When reviewing the literature I was bewildered by the paternalistic undertone of some articles: either local people were completely left out or treated as passive victims. (Would we like to have Asian scientists donating to us a GM wheat variety against high blood pressure?)

A lot of the questions I came across were ultimately ethical in nature: what type of agriculture to pursue, whose needs to prioritize, which risks to take – can the concept of sustainability provide guidance here? We argue that for this to happen it is necessary to explicitly recognize which criteria constitute sustainability in a particular context (as we tried in our paper, see Table 1) and to ultimately seek genuine dialogue across disciplines and actor groups.

The full paper is available here.

Theft or inspiration? – How good ideas spread

By Joern Fischer (apart from the bits I stole from Ioan Fazey)

Academic work, ultimately, is all about good ideas. But how do you know an idea is truly yours? In this post, I reflect on some of “my” best ideas, wondering where they came from – and posing a few different hypotheses. Perhaps there’s no such thing as an original idea…

So let’s take a few examples first, as a little reflection that serves to show that some of “my own” ideas probably have not been mine at all. I’ll then get into a few hypotheses as to what might be happening.

But first some ideas. A nice hierarchical survey design of nested triangles was used by me and my co-authors in a 2004 paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology (Fig. 1). This idea came up in a meeting with my co-author and statistical advisor at the time. Later, I learned that a very similar design had been used by Josh Dorrough, who had previously worked with the same statistician. So perhaps it had been his idea? Interestingly, a broadly similar design is also used in the large “safe project” in Indonesia (see linked Fig. 1). So perhaps there is an altogether different source of this “idea”, which neither Josh nor I knew about?

Another example is the notion of slow, substantial but difficult-to-implement change, versus rapid but easier-to-implement change. This notion was captured in Fig. 1 in a 2012 paper I published with a bunch of co-authors. But a very similar notion had been communicated by Donella Meadows a decade earlier, in her paper on leverage points.

Or take our literature review on cultural ecosystem services, published in 2013. This paper came a very short time after a paper by Terry Daniel and others on the same topic; and a very short time before a paper led by Mónica Hernández-Morcillo. I could list many more examples from my own publications, or I can extend this notion to colleagues of mine – noting for example, that Ioan Fazey was working on evidence-based conservation in the early 2000s, quite separately from work by Andrew Pullin who later set up a whole centre around this notion. And so on.

Such examples are common, and if you write a lot, invariably, sooner or later someone will come to you and wonder – more or less politely – whether you stole her or his idea. Or you might see your own idea in somebody else’s work, and wonder whether they stole it from you. (If you’re fast, you’ll experience others accusing you, if you’re slow, you’ll experience feeling they stole your ideas…)

So what’s going on here, and what do we do with it? I want to lay out four different hypotheses for what is happening, and why this is happening.

Hypothesis 1: People like me consciously steal other people’s ideas. Perhaps I liked something that someone else is doing, and I think … hmmm …. perhaps I can get a paper out of something like this, too? And then I use that idea, and bingo, track record is improved and nobody noticed. Hooray.

Hypothesis 2: People like me sub-consciously steal people’s ideas! Perhaps I liked something that someone did. I then forget about it … and then later on, it comes back into my conscious mind, and I turn it into some kind of product. Possible? Yes, this is quite possible. We hear a lot of things, all the time, and I at least can’t remember all the different places in which I hear different things. These ideas all go into some giant sub-conscious storage space, and then later get drawn on, but re-combined in new ways and without explicit reference to where they had originally come from – because there is no conscious process of tracing their origin.

Hypothesis 3: Sometimes, things are simply “ripe” for a certain idea, and different people realize this at the same time. So for example, Carl Folke was writing on “environmental services” in the mid 1990s, just before Bob Costanza published his famous paper on ecosystem services, and before Gretchen Daily published her book on ecosystem services. Earlier examples of such parallel processes abound, for example Wallace’s work on evolution being at a similar time to Darwin’s.

Hypothesis 4: The universe is all just energy, everything is connected to everything else, and good ideas float about in the ether – we just need to open ourselves to them and let them flow through us. What?! Admittedly, this hypothesis is mildly less grounded in conventional physical evidence, but there are a number of spiritual thinkers who would probably support this idea. When you have a good idea – one that feels truly original – where does it come from? Where do brilliant ideas of artists, musicians or scientists come from? What, really, is a “moment of inspiration”, what is it we are accessing then? Perhaps knowledge is there, always, and when we are in a state of flow, we can access the right knowledge to make progress at the time?

I won’t be arguing for or against any of these four hypotheses. In the scientific circuit in general, I actually think it’s a combination of all four of these going on. What’s more interesting is the question, what do we do about this?

What becomes highly evident is that ideas rarely originate in one individual. Our system of giving credit to individuals (or sets of authors) is flawed. “Breakthroughs” of any kind happen on the shoulders of many who have been there (or very close) before – funnily enough, google scholar acknowledges this when it says “stand on the shoulder of giants”. We’re all standing on each other’s shoulders, all the time, whether in physical space, or metaphysical space. No idea is truly yours, or mine, or anyone’s. And yet, we operate together in a world, and some of us have decided to operate together in ways that try to make the world a better place. It makes sense then that we should work together, rather than get hung up about who contributed what, precisely.

And yet, we live in a world of institutional incentives, and it’s probably only expert thieves (or highly inspired people? Hm…) who can afford to “not care” about who did what. The challenge thus appears to be to try to be explicit about which idea comes from where; but also to recognize that ultimately, we’re in this together – as all of humanity, that is!

So: credit where credit is due … but preferably in full recognition that we have no idea where that actually is.

(I wonder where the idea for this blog post came from. Parts for sure I stole from Ioan Fazey, and he even paid for my coffee. Pathetic, really.)

A new classification of human-environment connections

By Joern Fischer

We’ve all heard of ecosystem services, and work on “relational values” to conceptualise human-environment connections is increasing. Do we really need yet another way to classify connectedness to nature?

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In an era where leading scholars are calling for us to reconnect with the biosphere, where the loss of experiential connection to nature is seen as a possible cause for biodiversity decline (e.g. here and here), where the health benefits of engaging with nature are increasingly obvious, where capitalism is blamed for having alienated us from ourselves and the world at large … perhaps we do need a more holistic way of thinking about human-environment connections.

Chris Ives just published a new paper on this, related to our work on leverage points (stay tuned for an upcoming conference call!). In the paper, we distinguish between different kinds of connectedness — philosophical, emotional, cognitive, experiential and material (see above). Arguably, these different dimensions have not all been captured in previous conceptualisations of human-nature connectedness. Many provisioning ecosystem services, for example, are “material” in nature. But what about philosophical differences in connectedness — e.g. whether we view humanity through a Western cultural lens, or from the perspective of (as a random example) Australian indigenous people? This will fundamentally change how we view ourselves in relation to nature, which role we ascribe to nature, and as a result, how we engage with nature.

In this new paper, we try to lay out an alternative way of thinking about human-nature connectedness. We do not provide simple solutions for how to save the world based on this framework (sorry to disappoint you … I could claim we initially had this in the supplementary material but it was lost during peer review?). However, we pose a hypothesis, which may be worth examining in the future. The hypothesis is that not all types of connectedness are created equal in terms of their potential influence on sustainability — deeply “internal” connections such as our worldviews and philosophies might fundamentally shape other dimensions of nature connectedness, for example influencing how we interact with nature in material terms. In other words, dimensions of our inner worlds are likely to fundamentally influence what happens in our outer worlds — providing a strong leverage point for deep change.

Stay tuned for more work on inner worlds, and for an upcoming conference call on leverage points for sustainability at Leuphana (February 2019)!

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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.”