Reflections on the role of environmental psychology in transitions towards sustainability

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

Author: Kathleen Klaniecki

 Earlier this month, I attended a wonderful conference on environmental psychology (ICEP 2017) in A Coruña, Spain.  This year’s theme was Theories of Change in Sustainability Transitions and Social Innovation.  As someone who straddles multiple disciplines in her research (as many of us do), this conference left me reflecting on current interactions between environmental psychology and sustainability science and how researchers in these disciplines can further collaborative for sustainability transformation.


In the Leverage Points project, we’ve had many conversations about shallow vs. deep leverage points: interventions at shallow leverage points often lead to little systemic change whereas interventions at deep leverage points have more transformational potential. But when talking about the role of environmental psychology in sustainability transformation, should we acknowledge and encourage further research on seemingly shallow leverage points?

At first glance, environmental psychology interventions are primarily focused on understanding and describing…

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Resilience 2017: Rising interest for a leverage points narrative?

Some nice observations by Maraja Riechers on the idea of leverage points and its possible importance in the future

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Maraja Riechers

At a big conference like Resilience 2017 in Stockholm last month, there are bound to be many emerging topics and interesting links to one’s own work. However, I was positively surprised by the generally warm response to our Leverage Points for Sustainability project. My colleagues and I left the conference with the feeling that the concept of leverage points is likely to become more important over the next couple of years. From dinner table talks to explicit Leverage Point-themed sessions such as: Pathways and leverage points for transformative change chaired by Ryan Plummer, Donella Meadows’ concept of leverage points seemed to generate deep interest and genuine fascination. Those discussions showed me that diverse research on leverage points is already underway, with varying focus. The themes of finding leverage points for transformational change covered biodiversity, the Water-Energy-Food-Nexus, food systems and many more. Discussions ranged from personal inner transformation…

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Empathy: The cutting edge of sustainability science?

Some nice impressions on Resilience 2017 by Rebecca Freeth, also at our Faculty at Leuphana

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Rebecca Freeth

I’ve been interested in the Resilience Alliance for many years. I’ve been impressed by the coherence of their conceptual work. This has been a luminous example of natural and social scientists meaningfully bringing their work together. When I travelled from South Africa to Germany in late 2015 to take up my PhD post at Leuphana, my suitcase proved to be many kilograms overweight. I reluctantly extracted one book after the next. But Panarchy stayed in my suitcase.

Since arriving here, and taking up my role as a formative accompanying (FAR) researcher in the team , I’ve stumbled across the work of John Parker and Ed Hackett. They have done a fascinating job of tracking the Resilience Alliance, particularly during the ‘island time’ years. In fact Parker and Hackett’s work is not dissimilar to mine here with Leverage Points, although they are outsiders whereas I am in the…

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Resilience 2017: Opening plenary

Today, “Resilience 2017” started with a joint presentation by Carl Folke and Katrina Brown. I was intrigued by the idea of a joint presentation – outlining what has been achieved in resilience science so far, and what some of the future frontiers might be.

Resilience, Calle explained, was a highly dynamic concept, capturing the ability to live with change – both gradual and rapid. Related to this then are the notions of adaptability versus transformation; where you either keep things going the way they are, or change things fundamentally.

Calle argued that transformation was increasingly necessary so that we come in tune with the Earth System and remain within planetary boundaries. While on the one hand there are many challenges – with increasing variance or “flickering” sending us warning signals that things might change in major ways in the near future – Carl emphasized that there were also important opportunities. Most of these, in turn, relate to social change; changing social norms, values, institutions and mindsets.

Kate then picked up these ideas, and reflected on how social aspects had increasingly entered resilience thinking. Kate’s presentation focused on 4 + 2 times the letter “P”.

She started with a focus on people. People, she argued were the critical, active agents in social-ecological systems. That said, poverty was one of the big barriers to people’s agency. Kate also highlighted that resilience thinking has prominently entered (and is sometimes becoming mainstream) in development arenas – providing opportunities to bring more dynamic perspectives into development scholarship and practice. Power and politics were the next issue Kate picked up. In this context, social resistance comes up as an important notion – that is, people working to disrupt status quo systems, thus representing an opportunity for social change. The fourth “P” relates to place. Indeed, place is central to understanding resilience; it relates to people’s rootedness in physical locations, with implications for their mobility and management of natural resources.

Both Calle and Kate then highlighted some of their key points. Calle’s were:

  1. Humanity is part of the biosphsere – we’re not just lined but intertwined
  2. Our situation is about global social-ecological change – not just climate change
  3. We need to think about the future of people as part of Earth – not just the environment
  4. A resilient biosphere is the basis for development, wellbeing, and health
  5. Transformation to global sustainability is necessary, possible, and desirable

Two key frontiers that Kate pointed out were first “perspective taking: empathy”. What does it mean to be human? To be part of a social-ecological system? Could empathy building with the non-human world help us live more sustainably with non-human species, and with “others” in our own species?

Kate’s final point was “practice” – the actual putting into place resilience research and its findings. This, in turn, raised a whole lot of difficult questions for how we ought to engage with the world as researchers; and how we need to question quite deeply our ways of dealing with others, reflecting on our methods, but even on our emotions. Research, Kate argued, needed to be done differently, so we can better support the transition to sustainability; but also acknowledging more fully our roles as researchers in the process.

Calle finally concluded by calling for a New Renaissance – a growing, but deep recognition that we need to wake up to the fact that we need to live differently with and on the planet that supports us. On this basis, biosphere stewardship, was a necessary approach to remain within planetary boundaries, while working to improve human wellbeing.

Paper recommendation: Local food sovereignty for global food security

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend a new paper by my colleagues Julia Leventon and Josefine Laudan.

Leventon, J. and Laudan, J. (2017). Local food sovereignty for global food security? Highlighting interplay challenges. Geoforum 85, 23-26. (LINK)

In a nutshell, the paper addresses some largely under-recognised challenges related to food sovereignty. For example, if every location or community is sovereign, then might it not be possible that one locality negatively influences another? And how does the focus on “local” sovereignty relate to national initiatives? Can a series of local initiatives be meaningfully scaled up to nations? And then, might it not be possible that different nations affect one another negatively through their strategies of national sovereignty?

These kinds of questions are tricky, and to some (me included) it feels that the food sovereignty narrative has avoided them a bit to date.

Julia and Josefine, in their new paper, suggest to tackle questions such as these through using a framework of institutional interplay. As examples (as shown in the figure below), one might ask, how do different local food sovereignty institutions within one country influence one another? How do local scale food sovereignty institutions interact with national level institutions? How do institutions related to food sovereignty relate to one another across countries?

The answers won’t always be straightforward, and I don’t see this new paper as the final solution — but rather, it’s a refreshing perspective and a suggestion for how to tackle some of the institutional complexity that inevitably arises when working across multiple scales and governance levels, especially when “sovereignty” is held as a central goal of different (interacting) institutions.


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


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


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.

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:

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

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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