Rethinking for sustainability: a prelude

By Dr Liz Clarke and David P. M. Lam, Leuphana University Lüneburg

At the heart of our efforts to make the shift to a sustainable world is the process of rethinking. Rethinking what is important to us, how we should live, what makes us happy, what ‘nature’ means to us, of questioning the very foundations of our assumptions, beliefs, values, and rules, all of which make up the fabric of how we understand the world. And what is sustainability if not an idea, an aspiration, a way of rethinking?

A few weeks ago, we facilitated a workshop in Sighisoara, under the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains and within sight of the towers and rooftops of the ancient birthplace of the legendary Count Dracul (or Vlad the Impaler as he was known to his fearful Transylvanian countrymen and women).

With participants from various Non-Governmental Organisations in Southern Transylvania we did some of this rethinking. All of these participants are engaged in change – change for sustainability, better livelihoods, and a better future. They are focusing on a wide range of projects – from protecting communal grazing rights, preserving the unique Transylvanian hay meadows, preserving biodiversity, restoring heritage buildings, promoting sustainable tourism, improving livelihoods, to creating sustainable businesses.

Over the past few years, they have developed an inspiring common future vision: Balance Brings Beauty. This vision incorporates sustainable livelihoods, where tradition and nature are both valued, as well as aesthetics and wellbeing, which draws visitors to Transylvania in droves.

We sat in a hotel surrounded by some of the most committed and motivated people in the province, and we asked them to look deep within at their foundational thinking to understand what drives them to dedicate so much of their energies to this vision.

The answers were not surprising but very salient. Driving all of them was their passion, their ideas and their belief in a better future. They talked about the importance of empowerment and self-esteem, of the uniqueness of their culture and natural environment, the value of history and tradition, of happiness, fun and love. One participant said, “Without this uniqueness, I will lose my interest and love”. Improving the local economy was mentioned but as a means to an end – to create happier, safer, and more secure lives.

This positions the people of Southern Transylvania as firmly connected and integrated with this unique landscape and also with each other. What did we learn from the workshop? The journey to Balance Brings Beauty is a long one – there are many more years ahead. But rethinking is a collective and collaborative process, and happens when a group of engaged and passionate people come together to share their passion, ideas, and love for their culture and natural environment.

 

Paper recommendation: The undisciplinary journey

By Joern Fischer

The following paper just came out:

L. J. Haider, L.J., Hentati-Sundberg, J., Giusti, M., Goodness, J., Hamann, M., Masterson, V. A., Meacham, M., Merrie, A., Ospina, D., Schill, C., Sinare, H. (2017). The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science. Sustainability Science. PDF available here.

This paper should be particularly interesting to early-career researchers working in interdisciplinary environments, or themselves being “interdisciplinarians”. It should also be of interest to more established scientists who train more junior researchers in such areas, especially in sustainability science.

In a nutshell, the paper is built on the premise that a new generation of sustainability scholars is emerging. These scholars often are interdisciplinary in their orientation from the outset. This makes them different from many of the currently “senior” (i.e. older) sustainability scientists, the vast majority of whom were trained in a specific discipline, and then started to reach out to other disciplines.

But what if you start off without ever having had a strong affinity for a single traditional discipline? This is increasingly common for young sustainability scholars, and it leaves them with certain typical challenges — which are what this paper is about. For example, how do you balance depth and breadth? How can you make sure you are taken seriously by your peers, or by more senior scientists? How can you navigate institutional environments that are largely based on disciplines?

To navigate a journey of being “undisciplinary”, the paper provides a compass — a simple conceptual model that can be used to think about how to develop into a good sustainability scientist. A “good” scientist, in this sense, needs two key attributes: agility to move between different ways of thinking, and a good methodological foundation.

Agility to move between different ways of thinking is needed because sustainability is such a broad challenge — to solve problems related to forest degradation, for example, you might have to understand issues of governance, social justice, and ecology. Each of these, in turn, will have a different epistemological foundation; what counts as valid knowledge for an ecologist comes about in a different way from the knowledge deemed valid by a political scientist.

A good methodological foundation is needed because, although sustainability science is an extremely broad field, this can’t be an excuse to not base one’s insights on solid methods. This can be challenging, because the range of potentially relevant methods is vast — but to be a “good” sustainability scientist, it pays to have some clearly identifiable methodological strengths, or at least a solid methodological foundation.

The link to the paper is given above. As I said, I think it’s a nice reflection, as well as really good food for thought for scholars who either are, or are working with, the “next generation” of sustainability scientists. Well worth a read!

A blessing in disguise? Why Trump’s pull-out of the Paris Agreement may open up a window of opportunity

SUSTAINABILITY GOVERNANCE

Following his campaign promise and a period of intense speculation, on Thursday June 1, the President of the United States announced his intention to withdraw from the 2015 Climate Accord previously ratified by his predecessor, Barack Obama, claiming it undermines U.S. competitiveness and jobs, and would have a negligible impact on the world’s climate. Inevitably, the series of events were quickly compared to another defining moment in history, when, in 1997, the newly instated United States Government of George W. Bush failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol negotiated under the Clinton-Gore presidency.

World leaders were quick to condemn the unilateral decision, with the Secretary General of the United Nations calling it a “major disappointment for global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote global security”, and the leaders of France, Germany and Italy almost immediate issuing a joint statement reaffirming their strong commitment to implement the agreement.

Trump’s decision…

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Making oceans plastic free – reducing plastic bag use in Indonesia

BY JAN HANSPACH

Plastic is one of the blessing of our time – it’s cheap, it’s versatile and it’s made to last. Unfortunately, its durability is turning it more and more into a curse. Per year more then 300 million tones of new plastic are produced and only a tiny part is being recycled or properly disposed of. Plastic nowadays can virtually be found everywhere in the world from the arctic to the deep sea. Especially in the oceans, plastic is accumulating (80% coming from terrestrial sources) with unforeseeable effects on marine species and ecosystems.

https://makingoceansplasticfree.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/MOPF_wastepiechart_EN.jpg

Made to last – plastic garbage is everywhere and quite often it ends up in the ocean. The numbers are estimated percentages of waste items collected Bali’s biggest beach clean-up in history where more than 12.000 volunteers collected 40 tons of waste. (Credit: Making Oceans Plastic Free).

Well, this is known to most of us, but doing something about it often is tedious and takes energy and courage. A good friend of mine, Paritosha Kobbe, together with some other people, now has started an initiative with the ambitious vision of “Making oceans plastic free” and the more tangible goal of reducing plastic bag usage in Indonesia. Indonesia is the second largest producer of marine plastic garbage (China is on the infamous first place here) and plastic bags constitute a large share of it (see the waste pie chart above). Pari and his friends designed a reusable bag made from recycled plastic and today they started their crowdfunding campaign to bring this into production, raise environmental awareness and to make people in Indonesia to use fewer plastic bags. Here is a short video describing their project:

If you like, you can support the initiative through crowd-funding:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/tasini-the-key-to-break-the-plastic-bag-habit

More information on the project (including press material, contacts and nice pictures) can be found here:

https://makingoceansplasticfree.com/press-kit/

Good luck with this… and maybe soon the idea will be exported to China as well!

A (hopefully lasting) return to original content: Big update – The Book is Done!

Jahi Chappell’s new book is out, and he introduces it on his blog — which I reproduced here. Likely to be of interest to a number of readers of ideas4sustainability, too!

Beginning to End Hunger: AgroEcoPeople

Hello fine folks of the interwebs–

It’s been pretty much nothing but reposts for months now here on Agroecopeople. I have been focusing on finishing a fairly major project! That is, my (first?) book, Beginning to End Hunger: Food and the Environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Beyond, due out this December from University of California Press! Based on my research in Belo Horizonte, Brazil over the past 15 years, the book presents BH’s story.

Vista do mirante no bairro Mangabeiras em Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brasil. (c) bcorreabh / Adobe Stock

From the official summary at UC Press, Belo Horizonte

“is home to 2.5 million people and one of the world’s most successful city food security programs. Since its Municipal Secretariat for Food Security was founded in 1993, malnutrition in Belo Horizonte has declined dramatically, allowing it to serve as an inspiration for Brazil’s renowned Zero Hunger programs. The Municipal Secretariat’s work with local small family farmers also offers a…

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New Paper: Refocusing ecosystem services towards sustainability

BY DAVE ABSON

The ecosystem services concept has evolved considerably over its 30 odd year history. Its earliest incarnation was as an eye opening heuristic for thinking about sustainability and the interdependence of human well-being and conservation of the environment (see for example, the wonderful “Rivet Poppers” metaphor by Paul and Anne Ehrlich). This initial discursive phase was followed by a relatively manic phase of classifications, typologies, mapping, modelling and the development of valuation methods. Now there are increased calls for the ecosystem service concept to be used as an explicit decision making tool (e.g. Bateman et al. 2013). In many ways this is a positive trajectory. If we are serious about the ecosystem services concept as part of “solution oriented” sustainability science we need to move beyond metaphors and towards practical tools for addressing unsustainability. However, with regard to ecosystem services research we are in danger of losing something vital along the way.

Once the notion of ecosystems moves beyond a concept and becomes a tool there is a danger that it becomes an indiscriminate end in its own right without regard to the reason we wanted such a tool in the first place (“if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail”). For example, does it really make sense to conceptualize non-renewable peat extraction (e.g. the UK NEA) or industrialized crop production as ‘valued’ ecosystem services to be conserved in the pursuit of sustainability?

In a new paper we attempt to realign the ecosystem services with the normative goal of sustainability from which it originally arose. We identify seven key sustainability strategies (see Figure) for linking ecosystem services and sustainability outcomes and discuss how these strategies can be pursued when operationalizing the ecosystem service concept.

ES and Sus figure

The seven strategies are:

1. Equitable intergenerational distribution: Ecosystem services assessments should account for the potential liquidation of natural capital, for example, by differentiating between food provision that maintains or erodes so soil fertility. Assessments should also consider how ecosystem service appropriation can maintain and support the long-term capacity of valued social-ecological systems, including the maintenance of the less tangible benefits related to the direct interaction of humans with nature.
2. Equitable intragenerational distribution: Aggregate valuations can gloss over gross inequalities in who has access to, and can benefit from, the appropriation of ecosystem services. Here more focus is required on who benefits from the multiple services that flow from specific ecosystems, rather than on maximizing the provision of individual, often market oriented, ecosystem services. For example, plantations maximize timber production may conflict with conserving diverse forests from which people can collect wild foods, or enjoy cultural ecosystem services.
3. Equitable interspecies distribution: Here we need to acknowledge that humans are not the only species that appropriate energy and material flows from ecosystems. In almost all cases a ‘just’ appropriation (in relation to the needs of other species) is likely to be less that the capacity of an ecosystem to sustainably provide those flows.
4. Fair procedures, recognition and participation: Ecosystem service assessments and management should move beyond simply assessing ecosystem services benefits and study the procedures by which ecosystem services are appropriated and the extent to which such procedures are inclusive, just and address issues of political, social or economic power.
5. Sufficiency: ecosystem services research need to start asking “how much ecosystem service appropriation is enough?” rather than ‘‘how do we maximize ecosystem service provision?” A focus on sufficiency requires a greater focus on our normative goals, for example, by considering what an ideal social-ecological system might look like, rather than on how many services can we squeeze out of a given ecosystem.
6. Efficiency: The efficient use of ecosystems should be explicitly considered only as an instrumental means to a clearly defined normative goal, not as an intrinsic ends in its own right.
7. Persistence: ecosystem services research should acknowledge that ecosystems are dynamic and consider temporal ecosystem dynamics, potential regime shifts and long term degradation of ecosystem properties. Research should also identify to what extent the appropriation of benefits from ecosystems are dependent on non-renewable inputs and how this influences the long term persistence of the flows of ecosystem services.

We hope that highlighting strategies, in some small way, can help reorient ecosystem services research towards a more sustainability focused solutions based science.

The full paper can be found here.

Schröter, M., Stumpf, K.H., Loos, J., van Oudenhoven, A.P.E., Böhnke-Henrichs, A. and Abson, D.J. (2017) Refocusing ecosystem services towards sustainability, Ecosystem Services, 25, 35-43, doi.org/10.1016/j.ecoser.2017.03.019.

Critiquing the ‘Double food production’ narrative

There is little doubt that 9-10 billion people will need to be fed during the next few decades. How we do it is open for debate. The research in our group focusses on the food-biodiversity nexus (Fischer et al 2017), i.e. the challenge of attaining food security for all while conserving global biodiversity. In this field a couple of arguments on how to achieve these goals dominate the discourse. If you want to read more about them then see here, here, here and here for some examples.

Typically, papers addressing these two challenges begin with statements about how agriculture is a major driver of biodiversity loss, something like “Land use change is the biggest threat to biodiversity”, and then the attention turns to food security. Here is where you will more often than not read about the need to increase food production by 70-100 % to feed 9-10 billion people. These two statements are very convenient, and compelling, arguments with which to frame a paper and convince policy-makers. The first statement is uncontroversial. The second statement however uses statistics which are the focus of an excellent critique in the Journal of Rural Studies (Tomlinson 2013).

Tomlinson presents a very good analysis of the origin of this statistic and how it is being used to support academic and policy discourses. I think it is important to note that I have used this statement (with some hesitation) because of its sheer simplicity and the perception that it’s nearly beyond reproach. The paper demonstrates that these data can be used out of context and lack nuance, with the effect of presenting a ‘cut-through’ message for academics and policy-makers. The analysis is far more comprehensive than this so I strongly encourage you to read this paper because it reveals how statistics can be used to influence very important discussions about how we deal with issues of public policy.

References

Tomlinson, I. (2013). Doubling food production to feed the 9 billion: A critical perspective on a key discourse of food security in the UK. Journal of Rural Studies 29: 81-90.

PhD position on butterflies in a social-ecological context (with Jacqueline Loos)

By Joern Fischer

A little while ago, Jacqueline Loos finished her PhD research in my lab. Among other things, she worked in agricultural intensification and butterfly conservation — both in a context of social-ecological systems thinking, or if you like, landscape sustainability science. Jacqueline has now moved on to bigger and better things, and is setting up an exciting new research project on butterfly conservation in South Africa. Like her past work, this work will have a strong foundation in ecology, but will strongly link with the social context, including socio-economic issues and questions of what is valued by local landholders.

The position will be based in Goettingen, Germany.

For this new research, Jacqueline has just advertised a PhD position. The due date is 28 February 2017. The details are described in the PDF that I provide below. (Please do not contact me about this position, but Jacqueline, whose contact details are in the PDF!)

Please help distribute this nice opportunity through your various channels! Thank you!

For details, see this advertisement (PDF): butterfly-phd-position-with-jacqueline-loos

Book recommendation: Resilience, Development and Global Change

By Joern Fischer

I would like to warmly recommend Katrina Brown’s new book entitled “Resilience, development and global change”. I found it a thoughtful, authoritative book that links and transcends several deeply entrenched ideas and discourses. As such, I think it is an excellent input (or even entry point) for people working on social-ecological systems – especially, but not only in the Global South.

The book articulates different, partly conflicting understandings of resilience, both in science and policy arenas. This overview of existing perspectives is useful, simply because resilience is used in so many different ways, by so many different people, that it’s helpful to get an overview of who actually means what. A key point here is that in much of development policy, resilience is employed to argue for status quo approaches to development. Perhaps needless to say, that’s a long way from the paradigm shift some scientists might envisage ought to come with focusing on resilience.

But to my mind, the book got most interesting at the point where it speaks of “experiential resilience”. Here, different case studies from around the world are used to highlight how people experience their own resilience (or lack thereof) in relation to surprises or shocks. Resilience dimensions touched on include winners and losers within and between households, gendered responses, different narratives of change, cultural and political dynamics, and place attachment – to name just a few.

In her conclusion, Katrina Brown argues for a re-visioning of resilience in a development context. Such a re-visioning should include three aspects of resilience. First, resistance denotes the ability to absorb shocks, but in a social context also taking an active stance against threatening outside forces. Second, rootedness denotes the deeply place-based nature of resilience, especially in a social context, but also with respect to human-environment interactions. And third, resourcefulness relates to the capacities and capabilities that people have to absorb and adapt to change.

In summary, this book bridges gaps between disciplines, between theory and practice, and between different discourses on resilience. It thus makes a theoretical contribution — but one that promises to make resilience have greater practical value.

New paper: Many pathways to sustainability, not conflict but co-learning between transition narratives

There is an increasing focus in sustainability science on transitions and transformative change and an increasing number of proposed pathways for transitioning towards sustainability. In a new paper by Chris Luederitz and colleagues we discuss four archetypical transitions narratives (the green economy; low-carbon transformation; Ecotopian solutions and the transitions movement) in terms of the kinds of interventions these different approaches engender and the ‘depth’ and nature of systemic change they seek achieve.

In addition to summarizing critiques of these four approaches to transformative change, we draw on Donella meadows’ ‘leverage points’ concept (see also here) in order to characterize the different narratives in terms of their potential to enable systemic change.  The different transitions narratives seek to act on different system characteristics ranging from system parameters (taxes, incentives, rules) and system dynamics through to challenging the fundamental design, rules, values and goals of the system. We therefore argue that rather than representing competing visions for societal change, there is considerable scope for co-learning between these different approaches. By understand where in a system a given transitions approach does or does not seek to intervene we believe it is possible to combine facets of these approaches to create a more holistic transitions pathways that act on multiple leverage points for systemic change.

Luederitz, C., Abson, D.J., Audet, R. and Lang, D.J. (2016) Many pathways toward sustainability: not conflict but co-learning between transition narratives, Sustainability Science. doi: 10.1007/s11625-016-0414-0