Join Leuphana University for a postdoc … or more

By Joern Fischer and Berta Martín-Lopez

We’re writing this post to highlight some of the options for people who already have their PhDs to join us at Leuphana University. We’d particularly like to encourage expressions of interest with direct relevance to our existing research priorities in the area of social-ecological systems (including but not limited to these). Especially for people from outside Germany there are some really good options to join us for a postdoc or “more” … we’ll outline four possibilities below. (Follow the links to check the specific rules!)

  1. A fellowship by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. This option is open to people with a PhD at all stages of their scientific career who live outside Germany; or who have only arrived in Germany very recently. For people within the first four years of the PhD, you can apply for postdoc positions of up to 2 years; if it’s been longer, you can still apply for fellowships up to 18 months (and these can even be divided into multiple stays). In all cases, there is a comfortable living stipend as well as some funds to do actual research.
  2. A Georg Forster fellowship by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. This is very similar in terms of the conditions to Option 1 outlined above, but specifically targeting applicants from a list of less developed countries.
  3. A Marie-Curie Fellowship. This is a competitive programme by the EU that provides funding for a 2-year postdoc.
  4. A Sofja Kovalevskaja Award by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. This is a very competitive programme, and it remains to be seen when the next call comes out for it. But … if and when there is a new call, it’s a great programme that can truly transform your research career. In short, it’s five years of funding to set up your own research group; it’s open to people within six years of the PhD.

There are, of course, other options as well — for example Jan Hanspach leads a BMBF junior research group, and Jacqueline Loos is a Bosch Junior Professor — but the above are some of the most accessible ones for people from outside Germany who finished their PhDs in the not too distant past. So, if you have a strong track record relative to your career stage, and you’re interested in pursuing your social-ecological research amongst a bunch of nice colleagues, we’d be happy to hear from you, and discuss your ideas and a possible application.

Creating pockets of sanity: an ecosystem analogy

By Joern Fischer

In my previous post, I argued that academia had gone increasingly insane. Here, I will draw an analogy to degraded ecosystems – in fact, I’ll draw an analogy with scattered trees in agricultural landscapes. Such trees have been termed “the living dead”, in the sense that they are the remnants of forest patches but in many frontier landscapes they are not regenerating. Are pockets of sanity in the academic system the living dead?

By pockets of sanity, I mean safe spaces in which reflectivity, focus and shared commitment to a greater good is valued; essentially I mean healthy academic environments. Just like with scattered trees, such healthy academic environments persist in only a few places, while the majority of the academic landscape has been converted to intensive, intellectual mass production.

So in this sense, scattered trees are the living dead, and pockets of sanity in the academic system could similarly be thought of as the living dead – they are not able to reproduce in an evolutionary environment that selects against their traits.

But … there’s also an upside to this. Many years ago, Adrian Manning pointed out that scattered trees could also be a “lifeline to the future”. That is, in a world beyond the initial wave of ecological destruction for the sake of industrial agriculture, scattered trees hold the genetic potential to re-build some of what was destroyed.

And in just the same way, the pockets of academic sanity that still persist become disproportionately more important as the world around them gets more and more “intensified”. There’s one big difference though: trees have no agency; humans do. And thus, we have a choice to keep some pockets of sanity, to keep pushing back against insanity, and to thus maintain pockets of focused and meaningful academic work, in environments that care about the people involved.

Of course, this analogy can be extended infinitely to the world at large… especially for those of us expecting some kind of societal collapse, it’s important to maintain some kind of hope. Perhaps not the hope that everything will be alright: but instead, the hope that we can maintain pockets through the current storm of insanity that can serve as a lifeline to the future … eventually.

Collapse?

By Joern Fischer

Many years ago, I published “Academia’s obsession with quantity”. Similar arguments about unhelpful trends have been made in many places, including recently in a nice piece by Paasche and Österblom. My sense is increasingly that many university systems are deeply broken already. Arguably, we have a new wave of “crowding out” unfolding: Just like many visionary and talented people don’t get into politics (because what you need there is not just talent and vision but a thick skin and a big ego), I’d argue that we are seeing many of the truly talented people dropping out of academia (for much the same reasons).

In the past, I argued there were changes needed from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Re-reading that analysis from years ago, I still think it mostly holds. I reproduce a key part of the 2012 paper here:

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So, are we moving in the right direction, or if not, why not?

Unfortunately, I believe there are very few academic institutions in the world that are moving in the right direction. The societal pull towards insanity is strong, and not even the most wonderful institution is immune to the forces towards “more” which so dominate our era at large. Moreover, there are truly dangerous undercurrents that suck academia ever more deeply into the depths of insanity. One of the most dangerous undercurrents is of an evolutionary nature: those who “make it” to positions of decision-making power in academia are increasingly not those who value the kinds of things I highlighted in the roadmap above.

To stylise the current predicament, one might argue we have four types of academics: (i) those who can actually keep up and do an amazing job; (ii) those who think they can keep up and think they do an amazing job (but they do not); (iii) those who realise they can’t keep up but don’t know what to do; and (iv) those who simply collapsed and are functioning well below their actual capacity.

If we were to put percentages onto these groups of people, those who actually do really well in terms of the quality of what they do are very, very few. Those who think they are doing great things, in turn, are more, and it’s this group who manages to climb university ladders because they “perform” so nicely. It’s only when you speak to their students, see their actual input into papers, and so on that you realise that all is not well at all—you have to look deeply to uncover such instances because on paper the performance of many in this group looks very compelling.

It’s not uncommon then, for example, that senior professors get together, sell their science as inter- and transdisciplinary in order to get project funding; and then put in little time into either inter- or transdisciplinary collaboration, and sometimes not even into supervision (what are postdocs for, after all?). It’s not uncommon for the students involved in such projects to be deeply lost and disappointed by the process; and it’s not uncommon for the whole thing to then be sold back to the funding body as a “big success”. This story is something that repeats itself over and over at not just one university.

If I’m right, this is a self-enhancing process of maladaptive evolution: university institutions will increasingly become mediocre mass producers of scholarly “stuff”, produced on the backs of not yet over-committed PhD students and postdocs, whose products are used as highly prized chess pieces in political games among senior professors. The students and postdocs who stay and continue the climb up university ladders are not the brightest, but the toughest.

The situation raises serious questions about whether to engage or escape. With many other systems equally sick, escaping is not necessarily a feasible option. I see an urgent need for those who truly want to change things to stick with our academic institutions for a little longer; keep challenging the status quo; and bring about better ways of working from the bottom up.

Why am I writing this post? Because in an era of widespread insanity, I believe there is a need for solidarity among those who are not interested in simply keeping up with what I called earlier an “ever-faster treadmill to intellectual nowhere”. As a colleague of mine said a few days ago: just because everyone else is running increasingly fast to fall off the cliff like a lemming, that in itself is hardly a good justification to join the crowd. And hence my plea is to walk the tightrope between engaging with a sick system, while trying to uphold different norms within small pockets wherever we can …

to be continued in the next blog post ….

The future of conservation

By Joern Fischer

I just finished teaching a Master’s level semester-long course on “conservation biology”. Today’s class finished with a student-led discussion on “the future of conservation”. Because I found it a very inspiring discussion – and indeed, a very nice semester (thanks to a lovely group of students!) – I wanted to briefly reflect on this discussion here.

The students running the session chose to base the discussion on a recent paper by Chris Sandbrook and colleagues, which reported on the diversity of views about how to achieve conservation in the scientific community. Their work was published in a high-profile paper, and there is also a website to go with it, where you can assess what kind of conservationist you are.

Interestingly, my class had students who were “traditional conservationists” – emphasizing the importance of science and ecocentric values, and being somewhat skeptical of capitalism; as well as “new conservationists” – who were relatively more people-oriented and more in favour of working with capitalism. Our discussion around these issues was quite deep but relaxed: as Sandbrook et al. point out in their paper, it’s not necessary nor useful to play out the different perspectives against one another. Depending on their background and life experiences, people will favour different kinds of approaches. And most likely, we need different approaches! In such instances I am always reminded of a talk by Michael Soulé, which I covered many years ago on this blog – there are multiple “life-affirming movements”, and from a practical perspective, we probably do better by recognizing what we have in common across our different mindsets than by focusing on what is dividing us.

Unlike my students, my own conservation profile is a little bit different. I thought this is kind of good, because it suggests I haven’t indoctrinated them to the extent that they simply repeat what I say  🙂

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According to the online tool, I’m a fairly middle-of-the-road conservationist, but if anything, I’m a “critical social scientist”. I find this highly amusing because I am regularly annoyed by academia being dominated by a culture of critique… but I guess the point is that I am both a bit skeptical about capitalism, as well as being fairly people-centred in my views on conservation. I see this as a result of my personal experiences; working in human-modified landscapes, and also working in contexts where human well-being depends on nature. As to capitalism, I am greatly skeptical because I see it as closely intertwined with the problems of our era (so how can it be the solution?), and too often, I feel it ends up benefiting the powerful but not those whose well-being is actually most at threat.

Thanks again to my students for a nice semester, and check out the nice work by Sandbrook et al. if you haven’t seen it already!

Back to the truth: when there’s nothing new to say

By Joern Fischer

I have to admit I’m pretty tired of science right now. Back in 2012, I led a paper that essentially said “we have enough science, it’s time to do something”. And perhaps not surprisingly… that’s still the case. Frankly, science can get tiring when there is nothing new to say.

There are of course scientists who are simply so excited to find new ways of thinking about the world, or new aspects that are as yet not well understood that they will keep going, and going, and going. I applaud those people driven by endless curiosity – they are the “real scientists”, and it’s wonderful that we have them. But I guess in conservation and sustainability, there are many other scientists, too, who have a hope that their work is somehow of use. And those can get pretty disillusioned when there’s nothing fundamentally new to be said – when it’s just the same old stories, re-hashed over and over, telling different versions of the same overall plot, namely that the world as we know it, is falling apart.

If science is to be useful, rather than just “new”, what does it have to look like?

Sometimes, it feels we’re in an endless science factory of generating ever more nuanced knowledge when frankly, it’s not a lack of knowledge that is keeping us from creating a healthier world. Most of the insights important for biodiversity conservation are many, many decades old – bigger patches still have more species than small ones, species have their bioclimatic niches, intensive agriculture leads to simplified landscapes and those have fewer species, chemicals harm the environment, etc etc etc … frankly, the kind of understanding we need to actually understand, in general terms, our environmental crisis is at a basic undergraduate level. The rest is simply different types of exciting little turrets that academics stick onto their conceptual castles because … well, because they like turrets.

And so we talk about this turret and that one, is my turret better than yours, and we talk and publish and write and (over-)work … while Rome is burning.

What do we do, as scientists, when there is simply nothing new to say, nothing more to do than construct ever more refined turrets? What do we do when entire groups of peers, and funding bodies, deeply believe in turret construction as a way of making an academic living? What do we do when disillusionment hits us, telling us that science is largely just the addition of turrets to a very well founded understanding already constructed? – If it’s not a lack of turrets that is causing the world’s problems, what then is it? And what is science, in that context?

One answer is that science is simply part of learning some aspects of truth (those knowable via science, i.e. possibly just a small fraction of truth at large). So when there is nothing new to say, I suggest we simply go back to the truth, at a foundational level, rather than building more turrets. Large patches have more patches than small ones, for example – it’s still true, and it’s extremely useful to know at a time when we’re losing species dozens of times faster than in prehistoric times. The Global North is exploiting the Global South – also still true, and also still useful to know. Climate catastrophe is on its way – still true, too, and useful to hear. These truths are unexciting to scientists, they tell us nothing new. But they matter.

As scientists, we communicate an understanding of the world, in various formats. Along with other people who speak to large audiences – such as artists, teachers, politicians or clergymen – we thus have the opportunity to share truth. The importance of a given truth, I’d argue, is not measured by how new it is, but how necessary it is to be heard, at a given time.

And so … when there’s nothing fundamentally new to say, I suggest we simply accept that this is how it is. And we can simply repeat those aspects of scientific truth that are most urgently needed at the time. Is that still science then, when we’re not primarily putting ourselves at the service of novelty? Perhaps to some it’s not. But at least it’s useful. Perhaps it can be more fruitful to state simple truths a million times over instead of going along with the illusion that more turrets of truth are needed before we can actually transform our world.

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.

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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.