A Reconciliation of Success in Times of a Global Crisis

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By Jacqueline Loos

Currently, many people are worrying about their lives and the lives of their beloved ones. Some people, especially the most vulnerable among us, may be losing the little income they have during this time of shutdown, or work under circumstances that won´t allow them the luxury of physical distancing, not enjoying any health insurance, while maybe having no access to clean water or facing domestic violence during #stayhome.

Meanwhile, worries about a scientific career or general academic productivity seem irrelevant, yet there is a real pressure for success for people working in research. Maybe it´s a good time now to reconcile what we can consider a success at day-to-day basis. Here some suggestions what we can consider successes instead:

  • Every minute of focus on or constructive thoughts about work is already a tiny step towards our original goals.
  • Accepting the current condition is already a crucial step…

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Growing Hope – Supporting Biodiversity and Enhancing Human Well-Being


A myriad of factors drive habitat loss from the local to the global level: global warming, land-use change, pollution, agricultural intensification and land abandonment all contribute to the current decline in biodiversity. Although not as visible as large mammals, insects are also subjected to a loss in their species richness. This in turn directly and indirectly affects human well-being. A documentary shot by the students of the seminar Ecological Restoration for Sustainability in the Sustainability Science Minor at Leuphana University (Germany) illustrates how agricultural production is linked to habitat loss resulting in a decline of insects and other species all over the world and presents people and projects actively working for a more sustainable world.

In the documentary, 12 undergraduate students interviewed scientists as well as non-academic actors in the field of ecological restoration, conservation and alternative food production. The documentary Growing Hope both presents an overview of the problems…

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Where do we go from here? A blog post on crisis and leverage

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

This post is written by Julia Leventon, Ioana Duse, Felix Beyers, Tamara Schaal and Josefine Laudan. They work together as a research group at Leuphana University, headed by Julia. The projects they work on are primarily focused on systems change for sustainability, within the food and textiles systems. Julia is currently in the Czech Republic with her family (and therefore in week 2 of lock-down), the others are at home in Germany.

On day 5 of quarantine, I (Julia) walked to the top of the hill at the back of my house. I sat for a bit and listened to the bird song. And for the first time in days, I felt like there might be some hope. I am scared right now, for my family and friends, for my colleagues, and for people I have never met; for humanity. Covid-19 is challenging and removing the…

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Human Disturbances and Land-Cover Types: Understanding Woody Plant Species Diversity in Ethiopia


In the 21st century, there are no places left on earth which are truly untouched by humans. This also holds true for the Wanchi watershed in the Ethiopian highlands. There, a mix of human land-use change and environmental variables shape local ecosystems. To find out how the diversity of woody plant species in the area responds to anthropogenic disturbances and topographic parameters, Angessa et al. (2020) recently analysed three different land-cover types in the watershed.

Three of the 104 woody plant species found in the study area. Right: Erica arborea (picture: Francisco Clamote). Middle: Hagenia abyssinica (picture: Alberto Vascon). Left: Myrsine melanophloeos (Robert von Blittersdorff).

From creating habitats for animal species to providing a myriad of ecosystem services critical for human well-being: Plant communities are a central factor shaping liveable environments by supporting local biodiversity. Yet, their sustainable management can turn out to be a complex challenge. Human induced disturbances…

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Sustainability on and off campus: food for thought

By Joern Fischer

During my postdoc, Will Steffen directed the institute where I worked in Australia. He referred to the Anthropocene as a “non-analogue state” — i.e. there was no historical parallel to what was happening to the Earth system. I’ve often thought of this phrase over the last few days: what the world is experiencing now is a fascinating case study of the Anthropocene in a nutshell. The number of sustainability lessons in front of us right now is pretty much endless.

In this blog post, I won’t even try to come anywhere close to a comprehensive list of what we can learn from current events (a nice reflection on conservation specifically by the way, can be found here). But there are three things that keep coming to my mind, and that I’d like to raise here.

  1. Exponential growth in urbanisation and global hyper-connectedness are part of the Anthropocene — the dangers of leaving these patterns unquestioned are becoming apparent more than ever just now. According to resilience theory, hyper-connected systems are often not very resilient. More than ever, we see the downside of exponential growth in urbanisation and hyper-connectedness unfolding in front of our eyes. While praying to the Gods of Efficiency and Specialisation, humanity has essentially forgotten to remain healthy and resilient; which often requires less connectivity, and may even call for “wasting time”, as Marten Scheffer put it so nicely at the Resilience Conference in Stockholm a few years ago.
  2. Moreover, speaking of resilience and efficiency, there are real questions as to what ought to be the appropriate response of universities to the current situation. There’s much to be said for keeping universities running, and for shifting teaching activities to online formats whenever possible. This will, after all, maintain a certain level of normality in these not-so-normal times; it will keep both students and teachers occupied in meaningful social conduct; and it may even be especially interesting in sustainability-oriented subjects because of the current events.

    But here, too, a focus on delivering high-quality education content to keep things going is a double-edged sword: while it’s sensible and responsible to keep things running, it might also be dangerous to expect that we can keep things running as if everything was entirely normal. Our global social-ecological system has just punched us in the stomach, and we’d be well advised to at least take note of this — and take it as a warning signal that not all is well with that system. We can, of course, just put all teaching content online, and plan to go back to normal in autumn … but that’s a huge wasted opportunity to not face the current situation for what it actually could be: a social-ecological warning call that actually reaches Europe, and that unlike most of the other social-ecological crises around the world, wealthy nations at last cannot fully ignore. It would be nice to learn from this warning call — including the all-important lessons about resilience and efficiency that I raised in point 1. If we think we can keep everything going as normal, we’ll further undermine the resilience of many aspects of our personal “inner systems” … which takes me to point 3.

  3. People are people, not robots (and that’s a good thing). At university, this goes for both university teachers and university students. As robots, we could just shift everything online and keep up our efficient learning endeavours. As people, we are emotionally involved in what is going on, and we have relationships that need attention — including relationships with our children, other loved ones, and our inner selves. Extra energy is needed by each and every individual right now to make sense of the current events, and to cope in practical ways as well as emotionally. Some university teachers and students have children they need to look after, for example. There’s a reason we have a “workplace” normally, namely that being equally productive from home is not always possible, especially not when engaged in childcare! So based on this alone, we need to seriously reduce our expectations as to what is actually possible right now, in terms of continuing “business as usual”.

    But equally important, people are emotional beings, and making sense of all that is happening requires time and energy: and if we don’t want to further undermine our collective resilience, we’d be well advised to invest that energy into ourselves and our relationships, as a top priority, ahead of keeping “business” going. Many people are seriously distressed right now, and that’s not only those who are actually sick, or are in touch with someone who’s sick. For many of us, it’s simply painful to see the world as we know it fail; and many of us (in science) have analysed exponential growth curves for many years, and highlighted their inevitable dangers. Dealing with the present situation as such is also an emotional challenge. As such, this time presents an opportunity for introspection and strengthening relationships. If we don’t take our being human and not robots seriously, we risk seeing a wave of new mental health problems while “social distancing” is taking place, as well as missing a global invitation to gradually adjust humanity’s trajectory towards a more sustainable one.

Or in short: Slow down, now.

Not so different after all? Linking sustainability science and social-ecological systems research to foster transformation


The sustainability challenges we face in the Anthropocene are diverse and complex. Different disciplines, all aiming at creating socially relevant sustainability outcomes, have developed distinct approaches to knowledge creation over time. Typically, these disciplines collaborate to generate solutions to sustainability problems. Horcea-Milcu et al. (2020) take a closer look at sustainability science and social-ecological systems research to find synergies and differences in these two research fields in order to gain insights to foster transformation.

Sustainability science and social-ecological systems research share a common purpose: they seek to foster sustainability transformations. But while sustainability science tends to focus on actionable contextualized knowledge concerned with interventions in systems, social-ecological systems research aims to understand the system dynamics in order to identify where to intervene in the system. These different approaches influence the way knowledge is created, shared, and used in practice.

By exploring the interlinkages between the two research fields, the authors…

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Return to Sender: Bringing Back the Science to Stakeholders and Communities


By Jannik Schultner

Taking back the results of our social-ecological research to stakeholders and communities is key to making our science relevant in the real-world. To make an effort beyond putting a policy-relevance section at the end of our publications may seem tedious, but can have massive impact at the level where our science is most urgently needed.

En-route to meeting stakeholders and communities in Ethiopia.

During the past two weeks our research team set out for a trip that focused on outreach and stakeholder engagement in southwestern Ethiopia. We wanted to feed back our past research on food security and biodiversity conservation to stakeholders and communities, which have particularly been involved in a co-creative process that developed future scenarios for the region.

During our current trip, we revisited the regional centre, three local centres and the rural landscapes of our study region. We re-engaged with dozens of stakeholder organizations…

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Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation: Understanding research on interventions in food and energy systems


What kind of research is needed for a transformation towards sustainability? Which interventions have the potential to trigger systemic change? And how do problem framing and scientific approaches bias our research on transformative change? A recent article by Dorninger et al. (2020) examines interventions in two types of social-ecological systems – food and energy systems – to find out how different scientific approaches shape and constrain research on transformative change. The authors argue, that most scientific attention has been given to rather simple, “shallow” interventions that are easy to conduct but are not likely to achieve system wide change in isolation. On the other side, potentially more powerful interventions that address more “deep” systems properties, such as the underpinning drivers of current trajectories, are under researched.

Dorninger et al. (2020) use the concept of leverage points to classify different interventions in food and energy systems according to their potential to…

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Beneath the Tip of the Iceberg: Exploring Inner Worlds for a Sustainability Transformation


Sustainability science seems to be an all-rounder: it generates comprehensive knowledge on complex environmental and societal challenges and also provides practical solutions. Yet, Ives et al. (2019) argue, that some aspects of reality have been largely neglected by researchers. With their paper, they aim to shine light on the prevailing disregard of our inner worlds in sustainability research and practice. Additionally, the authors want to stimulate a new discourse on how engaging with inner worlds may help effect change towards sustainability.

Dimensions underpinning a system (Ives et al . 2019, 7).

Similar to an iceberg where you only see the tip but are ignorant of what hides beneath the surface, not everything is visible in a sustainability context either. Underlying dynamics that significantly shape systems often remain hidden at first sight. These deepest levels of a system, however, are exceptionally powerful when it comes to changing paradigms and navigating towards…

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Better Together: Knowledge Co-Production to Address Sustainability Challenges

Another paper co-authored by members of the SES group at Leuphana


From biodiversity loss to food security issues, finding solutions for the challenges we face in the Anthropocene requires working with multiple groups of people. The co-production of knowledge through the collaboration of academics and non-academics has proven to be an effective way to generate new insights and ideas to address sustainability challenges. In a recent paper published in Nature Sustainability, an international team of 36 sustainability scientists reflect on the use of knowledge co-production in sustainability research and present four principles for high-quality knowledge co-production in sustainability research. 

Co-producing knowledge is not a new concept. Over the past 40 years, different forms of knowledge co-production have become more and more prominent. For example,  problem-oriented participatory and transdisciplinary research approaches have emerged as a response to current environmental challenges. Today, a shift towards knowledge co-production is increasingly seen as a possibility to foster sustainable futures. However, to date, the term knowledge…

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