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.



Understanding systems through a social-ecological “landscape interface”

By Joern Fischer

Throughout the world, we witness rapid change in traditional rural landscapes. As part of the synthesis efforts of our work in Southern Transylvania, Andra Horcea-Milcu just published what is one of my favourite papers from the entire project (PDF). The paper describes two new concepts: that of the “landscape interface”, and that of the “value change debt” (or in short “value debt”). I’ll describe these concepts below, hoping the paper will be of interest to many others working on changing social-ecological systems.

Rural social-ecological systems – apart from those in frontier landscapes – are typically characterized by the gradual co-evolution of social and ecological features. These, in turn, tend to shape and in turn be reinforced by value systems that somehow “fit” the social and ecological characteristics of the landscape.

In the context of such landscapes, the landscape interface can then be understood as the central meeting point, or intersection, of social and ecological phenomena. It is where the lived experiences of people come together with biophysical realities; where these two entities shape one another. The landscape interface is shaped by the local value system, and upholds it through particular understandings of how to use the land, and how the landscape works in response to human activities. The landscape interface thus is a critical space in which sustainable land use practices can evolve and be upheld.

What happens when people spend less time in the landscape, and stop using it in traditional ways? Essentially, the landscape interface loses its prominent role in upholding sustainable land use practices. External changes take place – for example, people from elsewhere move into the region, or new land use practices are adopted that have not co-evolved with local culture or experience.

What is fascinating to observe in Southern Transylvania, is that at first glance, the landscape is relatively resilient to external change. However, upon close investigation, this resilience may in fact be a lag effect… In ecology, people speak of extinction debts when species are still present, but declining such that they will eventually go extinct. Analogous to this, land use practices in Transylvania appear to be partly upheld by a value debt. Many smallholder farmers still act according to the value systems they inherited from the past, even though the external world has changed. And thus, certain practices persist, for the benefit of sustainability – but are declining, and at risk of being lost.

When an extinction debt is identified by conservation biologists, this may come as a shock because it looks like yet another species is doomed. But it is also an opportunity: as long as the species is still there, it is possible to work with the remaining individuals, and perhaps recover its population numbers.

The value debt is similar: it is an opportunity to engage with local people facing rapid and massive landscape change at a time when they are still connected to nature; at a time when the landscape interface is still strong enough to provide a foundation for a sustainable future. The point here is not that the past will be restored: but not all has been lost thanks to the memory in the social sub-system. The value debt thus is both a warning signal and an opportunity to engage before it’s too late.

The paper (PDF) provides many additional details, especially with respect to Transylvania. We hope the concepts provided here will also be of use to better understand and work with changing human-environment interactions elsewhere.

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!

Paper recommendation: understanding human-wildlife coexistence

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend the following paper: Pooley et al. (2017) An interdisciplinary review of current and future approaches to improving human-predator relations. Conserv Biol 2017 Jun; 31(3):513-523. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12859

Pooley et al. shine a fresh light on human-wildlife conflicts – or put differently, on human-wildlife coexistence and coadaptation. The authors argue that much research on human-wildlife conflicts has been heavily influenced by ways of thinking that are typical of the natural sciences. While this is not surprising, the authors argue that much could be gained by engaging more deeply with concepts and insights generated by scholars from other disciplines, including political ecology, history and human geography.

Key points include that both reasons and consequences of how humans and wildlife coexist have roots that are far deeper than natural sciences alone can discover. A neat example is that some species are protected for spiritual reasons, while others are persecuted for spiritual reasons – how should conservation biologists engage with such instances? As Pooley et al. point out, surely not selectively, simply maximizing conservation benefits. Another interesting example relates to the extent to which negatively affected communities engage with or shy away from political approaches to addressing their problems – issues of power and fear (as well as knowledge and time) can easily undermine some stakeholders’ willingness or ability to speak up about their problems to relevant authorities.

This paper highlights that the living together of people and wildlife is hugely multi-dimensional, involving depths of problems and opportunities from historical to political, emotional and even spiritual, that have rarely been explored. By citing a lot of relevant material from different disciplines, the authors provide a very nice starting point to engage with these issues. I highly recommend this paper to anyone working on human-wildlife coexistence or conflict.

Three things that went wrong today (#FONA2017)

By Joern Fischer

The thing about blogging is that you can say things that otherwise may or may not be heard. And so I use my privilege as a blogger to make three observations of what I think went wrong at the FONA Forum that I attended today: (1) much emphasis on the concrete, but too little appreciation of the foundational; (2) six men, and zero women in a final panel discussion; and (3) no black Africans in the discussion on sustainability in Africa.

Why are these three issues problematic? Let’s start with something positive.

The best speaker today, to my mind, was Hartmut Rosa – a sociologist who challenged our contemporary growth-oriented thinking. He painted a picture of humanity addicted to constant “more”, in all spheres of life – more science, more wealth, more access to the world, to new experiences and new places. Constant striving for “more” instead of finding satisfaction in our interactions with others and our immediately available environment, according to Hartmut Rosa, leads to stress as well as to unsustainability. He argued for a change in our relationships, towards greater reciprocity with other beings and places.

His talk was very well received, it seemed. But his talk aside, the vast majority of speakers focused on things like concrete measures, indicators of success, a manual for how to fly Spaceship Earth, recommendations to policy, and steps that need to be taken.

Concrete steps are great – but who, in this era, is taking responsibility for getting humanity to halt and reflect? Scientists are no longer interested in this, it seems – they are much too busy coming up with tangible recommendations and concrete measures. Apparently just shifting discourses – arguably one of the most important things we must do, as a foundation for concrete measures to be effective – is not something many people are interested in. Or, in leverage points language, the vast majority of people speak of shallow leverage points, considering it a waste of time to reflect. – Funny in this context: Hartmut Rosa’s talk seemed really popular, suggesting that people want to be challenged to reflect more deeply. But at the same time, the same people applaud and reinforce structures that only reward tangible outcomes that can be measured.

My last two concerns about today are simple and painful: no women in the final panel discussion, and no black Africans in the Africa session. The latter had about 50 people in it. Admittedly, the session was in German, but come on. Surely, with a bit of effort one could have come up with mechanisms and ways to include people who can contribute their authentically African perspective. How can we meaningfully listen to people speaking of cooperation “at eye level”, or of “partnerships” in this context? The comment regarding no women in the panel discussion evidently points in a similar direction.

This post will be published and tweeted – perhaps someone else who attended the conference will respond, and correct my perspective if it needs correcting. I would appreciate feedback, especially by people who were also here. Thanks!

It’s not like there were no good moments today, or good people, or great insights. There were many. But the three issues singled out here are such that, in 2017 Germany, they make me concerned.

Telling a different story about the world

By Joern Fischer

I’m on my way to Berlin, to the FONA Forum 2017. The Forum is organized by Germany’s Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF), and brings together policy makers, scientists and business representatives. A central question is what to make of, and do with, the UN’s 2030 Agenda and its associated Sustainable Development Goals.

As always when attending such a forum – and even more so when given the opportunity to speak – the question arises how to make a useful contribution. This same question that I ask myself in preparation for this forum, a farmer recently asked me in a public talk; and a class of students asked me after I told them about my research on food security and biodiversity: how is any of this going to make a difference?

It’s the million dollar question of sustainability science, and indeed, the million dollar question for anyone working to make the world a better place. How do we actually do this?

For the time being, the answer I most commonly give is that I believe we need to tell a different story about the world. The dominant story we’re hearing, and that keeps being reinforced in public fora, is overly simplistic, and misses a whole bunch of important issues that ultimately, we need to face head on.

At the FONA forum, I’ll talk about land as a scarce resource, which is related to Sustainable Development Goal 15 (“Life on Land”), but potentially clashes with other goals, such as Goal 2 (“Zero Hunger”). And like in much of the rest of sustainability science, the dominant story on land is simple, often too simple. It’s a story that tells you that you can have your cake, and eat it too. It’s a story of meeting endless demand, including for the foods that make us unhealthy, because supposedly we “have to”. It’s a story of sustainable intensification, of green growth, of trickle down effects that will eventually reach the poor. It’s a story that does not rock the boat, that is palatable to status quo thinking, and to living within existing paradigms. It’s a story of shallow leverage points, of not challenging let alone shaking up the dominant paradigms that we have built our world around.

It’s this dominant story that I’ll seek to challenge, because frankly – if people with the privilege and freedom to study the world in whichever way they want to don’t challenge this story, who will? Building on our work critiquing sustainable intensification, reviewing social-ecological systems thinking, and most recently seeking synergies between food security and biodiversity conservation, I will try to tell a different story. A different story is less comfortable, but optimistic at the same time. This different story is one that speaks of the possibility of having enough for all, of including justice within and between generations, of beginning to recognize complexity in the form of drivers, dominant actors, and feedbacks.

I’m excited to take this story to a sizeable forum and take part in discussions of how to deal with the Sustainable Development Goals. Working within the boundaries of what current policies can do is all very well – but to me, a timely contribution will be to rock the boat a bit more than that – to tell a different story and thus hopefully contribute to ultimately shifting entire discourses, away from the very mindsets that have got our planet into trouble in the first place.

New Paper: Assessing sustainable biophysical human–nature connectedness at regional scales

By Christian Dorninger

Humans are biophysically connected to the biosphere through the flows of materials and energy appropriated from ecosystems. While this connection is fundamental for human well-being, many modern societies have—for better or worse—disconnected themselves from the natural productivity of their immediate regional environment by accessing material and energy flows from distant places and from outside the biosphere.

In the search for the most “efficient” sustainability solutions for land-use based management issues modern societies often tend to supplement, or replace, (potentially) naturally renewable regional energy—its net primary production (NPP)—with external material and energy inputs (e.g. fossils, metals, and other minerals extracted from the lithosphere). The extent and consequences of these biophysical disconnections remain unclear.

In our new paper, we conceptualize the biophysical human–nature connectedness of land use systems at regional scales. We distinguish two mechanisms by which the connectedness of people to their regional ecosystems has been circumvented.

  1. ‘Biospheric disconnection’ refers to people drawing on non-renewable minerals from outside the biosphere (e.g. fossils, metals and other minerals). It is characterized by a strong dependence on industrial inputs which delay or displace ecological constraints. This raises concerns about intergenerational justice, because it creates societal structures that cannot be maintained indefinitely, and diminishes the biosphere’s life-supporting conditions for future generations (e.g. through causing climate change).
  2. ‘Spatial disconnection’ arises from the imports of biomass and mineral resources from outside of a given region. This spatial disconnection of resources creates unsustainable lifestyle patterns through long-distance trade relationships that, potentially, disadvantage the ‘source’ regions. Spatial disconnectedness may thus compromise intragenerational justice, especially if the teleconnections are strong and unbalanced.

Both mechanisms allow for greater regional resource use than would be possible otherwise, but both pose challenges for sustainability, for example, through waste generation, depletion of nonrenewable resources and environmental burden shifting to distant regions or future generations.

Moreover, Cumming et al. (2014) argued that such disconnections weaken direct feedbacks between ecosystems and societies, thereby potentially causing overexploitation and collapse. In contrast, biophysically reconnected land use systems may provide renewed opportunities for inhabitants to develop an awareness of their impacts and fundamental reliance on ecosystems. For this reason, we argue for a reconnection of human activities to the biosphere and its regenerative cycles. This, in turn, implies not only a reduction of industrial material use and a limitation of human domination of ecosystems, but also a strengthened sense of being connected with and knowing the limits of nature. Material realities of human-nature interactions have cognitive consequences and vice versa, e.g. perceptions and understandings of human-nature relationships might have a significant influence on how biophysical interactions are structured. For example, biophysical regional disconnectedness might foster belief and trust in technological progress and technocratic solutions to solve any sustainability issue, or reinforce the idea that sustainable land use is a “problem of other people”.

We propose a conceptual framework to analyze regional-scale biophysical human–nature connectedness. The proposed framework builds on the regional land use system as unit of analysis. Yet it explicitly recognizes not only regional land use, but also global material trade and energy flows.


Figure: The potential net primary production (NPPpot) shows the productivity of the biosphere through the process of photosynthesis in one region without any human interference. By applying labor humans appropriate a certain share of this productivity. Stage 1 indicates the fraction of the NPP appropriated by humans and what remains in the ecosystems for other species. Stage 2 shows biospheric disconnection by means of extra-biospheric inputs and emissions, whereby it is important to differentiate between regionally sourced and imported mineral inputs as indicated by the dotted line. Stage 3 shows spatial disconnections caused by intraregional biomass imports and exports. As indicated by the dashed area at the bottom, imported minerals can additionally be considered as causing spatial disconnectedness. Applying both aspects of disconnectedness to the intraregional connectedness results in the full assessment of biophysical human-nature disconnectedness at regional scales (Stage 4).

Our framework provides a new lens through which land-use sustainability can be investigated, which goes beyond ‘on site’ efficiency thinking. The operationalization of this model can be applied as a heuristic tool to reveal complex social–ecological interlinkages, raising awareness of the challenge in managing biophysical connections across scales. This in turn might help to shift the focus of sustainable land use management to a more comprehensible and holistic perspective. Instead of making humanity’s reliance on the biosphere ever more opaque, reconnected regional land use systems will require a greater focus on self-reliance and self-sufficient land use systems. Such regionally reconnected systems may, in turn, facilitate more foresightful, responsible and conscious behaviors.

We are currently undertaking empirical research to demonstrate the utility of the framework developed in the paper and to contrast our findings with results on cognitive human-nature connectedness in the same case study regions. We hope that this will provide deeper insights into the relationship between material and cognitive (dis-)connectedness, and thereby potentially reveal hitherto unrecognized, deep leverage points for sustainability transformation.

The full open access paper can be found here.

Dorninger, C., D. Abson, J. Fischer, and H. von Wehrden. 2017. Assessing sustainable biophysical human-nature connectedness at regional scales. Environmental Research Letters 12.