Psycho-social stress? Not among our professors, apparently

By Joern Fischer

A few months back, Leuphana University instigated an assessment of “psycho-social stress” affecting its staff. Online questionnaires were sent to professors, other scientific staff and (presumably) administrators. Results were shared, and now group interviews were announced to dig more deeply into existing problems and devise solutions for these problems.

I thought it was quite laudable of our institution to investigate such factors, and so when an open invitation came to participate in a group interview with other professors, I checked whether I would be available at the time. My diary was still open, and so I registered, with the disclaimer “if there are still places available”. A message came back that I was in fact the first to register — so, all seemed good.

Funnily enough, a few days ago, a second message reached me saying the exercise was cancelled because I was in fact the only professor at the entire university who showed an interest in participating. And that’s what’s prompted this blog post …. what’s going on here?

Three alternative explanations come to mind. The first is that professors are so happy and balanced here that there is simply no need for such exercises. Everybody’s mental health is great, social processes are functioning, and so there is no need to talk about it, let alone further improve things.

The second explanation might be that professors were, generally, too busy for such an exercise. They might agree on the importance of investigating mental and emotional well-being in the workplace, but the invitation to them sounded like yet another annoying workshop, with lots of talking and no change anyway. Better then to focus on one’s direct environment and ignore this kind of lip service exercise run by the central administration.

And finally, the third explanation is that professors are so fragmented in their inner and outer selves that many are not even in a position to actively consider the possible value of reflecting on psycho-social processes.

Most likely, it’s different answers for different people; and I should not judge which of the three explanations (or perhaps others that I have not considered) dominates. But the outcome, to me, is a missed opportunity to improve the workplace.

Managing research environments: heterarchies in academia

By Joern Fischer

A little while ago, I recommended Graeme Cumming’s new work on heterarchies on this blog. Thinking about heterarchies implies thinking about system architecture in terms of (i) how hierarchical it is, and (ii) how connected the elements of the system are. This is interesting in ecosystems, in social-ecological systems … and I think also in academia!


Heterarchies in academia

As a little thought experiment, let’s bring to our minds different academic environments that are combinations of networked vs. not-networked, and hierarchical vs. not-hierarchical. Most environments are mixtures, but some are close to one kind of stereotype, while others are closer to other stereotypes.

  1. Hierarchical, but not highly networked – the “guru” model. This type of academic environment is one of strong silos, which might be lab groups. Such lab groups don’t interact very much. Each of them is headed by a professor and responds to the head of department. Within the lab groups, too, there is a hierarchical structure. Postdocs sit between professors and PhD students, acting as intermediaries. However, in his world, different postdocs and PhD students probably work on different projects, and exchange among those projects might be limited – there isn’t a culture of strong collaboration within the lab, just within specific projects, as designed from the top down. I would argue that I have seen examples that are similar to this kind of structure in some settings.
  2. Hierarchical, but highly networked – the visionary facilitator model. In this world, there is a clear lead. For example, there might be a visionary head of department, or a professor strongly driving the agenda of her research group. Still, despite such a lead, interaction among lab groups, and researchers of all levels is encouraged – even when they work on slightly different things. Senior researchers have open doors for more junior researchers, but still provide direction and a level of “control”. Again, I would argue that this way of organizing academic workplaces exists in the real world.
  3. Highly networked, but without a strong hierarchy – the collegiate model. In this world, there is strong exchange among researchers, but no clear hierarchy. In my view, this could mean a lack of strong leadership. For example, there might be a collegiate environment, where people talk and exchange ideas – but nobody is there to provide vision and direction, or make some tough decisions. Yet again – this kind of place exists, be it in certain big projects (where nobody wants to lead) or even whole departments (that pride themselves of having a flat hierarchy).
  4. Not highly networked, and lacking a strong hierarchy – the individualistic model. This is a world where everyone fights for their own survival. Corridors are empty, and behind closed office doors are individuals who “do their thing”. Some do well, some don’t. They may or may not realize that there could be benefits from talking. Nobody provides a strong vision or direction. Each is in it for their own micro-world. Yes … this world, too, does exist in some environments in academia.

Given that all of these places exist, let’s ask some questions about them. For example, other things being equal …:

  1. Which is likely to foster creativity in the best way?
  2. Which is likely to generate the most academic impact?
  3. Which is going to be most pleasant to work in?
  4. Which is likely to survive major funding cuts in the best way?
  5. Which is most likely to survive re-structuring at the level of the university?

A next step of analysis then would be to think about how to get from one kind of system to another. This might be useful for research managers to think about.

For anyone who’d like to see an “official” version of these thoughts: A refined version (largely in terms of wording) has just been published as a response to Graeme’s paper in TREE.

Mainstreamism and self-fulfilling prophecies

By Joern Fischer

It’s good to be policy-relevant, and it’s good to get published in prestigious journals. But I’m concerned that the collective desire to attain these goals is taming science to a distinctly unhelpful middle ground that everyone can agree on. It’s like in politics, where major parties end up so similar you can’t really tell the difference anymore – in an effort to appeal to the largest number of people, almost by definition, distinctive elements and innovative ideas are filtered out.

This is annoying when it happens in politics, but it’s unacceptable when it happens in science. Science ought to be about expanding our understanding of the universe, not channeling it into the centre of status quo worldviews. And yet, I find there is more and more evidence that this is precisely what is happening.

Two things today inspired me to write this slightly impassioned rant. First, one of our papers got rejected due to its less-than-mainstream methods. The argument was in fact not that our methods were bad, but rather that they were unusual and may be difficult to accept by the readership of the journal. Second, a colleague pointed me to a paper that says we can’t really change values because they change slowly, and so there’s no point in trying. In combination, I feel these events are symptomatic of a new kind of “anti-sustainability” sustainability science – implying that we need innovation, but preferably without actually changing the world or the way we look at it.

In modern science then, it seems you must not rock the boat. You must not work towards paradigm shifts, or try to look at problems too broadly. Instead, you should look for clever, incremental improvements within existing ways of thinking. In sustainability science, you must look at societal problems, but only advocate for minor changes – no matter how deep the root causes are of the problems you are looking at.

Sustainable intensification, REDD+ payments, and the right kind of messaging to an audience with unalterable values – this is now the dominant way advocated to achieve sustainability improvements.

Those who point out that radical changes are not possible successfully get their stuff published – but to me, they lack creativity (and frankly, guts) to do what needs to be done. With everybody heading for the front of the mainstream, there will be no real innovation, and no major change. Or put more bluntly: we’d have the same values as decades ago, including slavery, racial discrimination and women not taking part in politics.

Think again: Of course things can change, if we want them to, including big things, and including human values. And from a sustainability perspective all of this can happen in relevant, short periods of time, too.

Trying to work for deep changes may not always work in the short term. But the growing zeal to not even try to think boldly strikes me as much more certain to lock us into a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever greater un-sustainability.

Emotional competence in science

By Joern Fischer

In a recent discussion, I had a minor epiphany that I’d like to share, regarding the balance of rational thought and emotion in the day-to-day operation of science. It struck me that naturally emotionally attuned individuals who want to survive in science, have to work hard to train their capacity for rational thought and analysis. But the reverse is not true: individuals with a natural tendency for rational thinking are not required, and only rarely encouraged, to develop their emotional competencies. My argument here is that science, on a daily basis, suffers from this imbalance between the rational and emotional.

First things first: science is about rational arguments to understand the world. The use of logic is extremely valuable because it can be scrutinized, and fact and opinion can be carefully divided. This is extremely valuable, and to me, the key strength of science. (I use “science” in a general sense here, not only for the natural sciences, but also for the social sciences and other academic disciplines founded on logical reasoning.)

But science on a day-to-day basis, is a social process. There are supervisor-student relationships, junior and senior researcher relationships, lots of peer relationships, administrative relationships, communication tasks among all of these plus with the general public and potential readers of one’s work. Science is full of this stuff. In the context of running complex field projects, I have said they before that it’s 90% about people and 10% about science. This is perhaps an over-statement (… though I don’t think so …), but the general notion that there are lots of social processes, I think, cannot be denied.

I argue that a lot of improvements would be possible if scientists spent at least equal amounts of energy on developing their emotional competencies as on refining their analytical skills. The reason why I say “at least” equal amounts of energy is that I think science, on average, is dominated by “thinkers” with relatively little natural knack for the emotional realm. Most scientists are naturally talented at rational thought (that’s why they got into science), but fewer it seems to me are naturally talented at dealing with people.

Let us think of common problems that make for unproductive and unhappy situations: students feeling lost, insecurity regarding one’s achievements, uncertainty about future employment, power games, misunderstandings between administrative and academic staff, or poor recognition of the individual needs and strengths of different kinds of people. These situations stem from poor emotional competence – but they have ramifications for achievements in science, that is, in the purely rational realm.

My hypothesis is that the most productive science can be produced where people routinely pay attention to both the emotional and rational realm. All of us can develop skills in both areas – but traditionally, the importance of emotional skills has not been recognized sufficiently in science.

(Final point: Yes, this is related to the idea of emotional intelligence, as communicated by Daniel Goleman and increasingly recognized as important in various leadership contexts. I’m not using the term in the above because I’m not well read in this area, and so I’m not sure if what I mean maps precisely onto the idea of emotional intelligence or not. Either way: I think academic environments are not doing a good job of recognizing this “thing” that I argue is missing.)

Managing time and expectations

By Joern Fischer

Our jobs as researchers are pretty nice in many ways — we get to work on stuff we’re truly interested in, we might get to enjoy the occasional sense of achievement, and we might even feel that we’re doing something good in the world. This good side of academic life has been emphasised by some; I’ve heard senior academics complain that we should stop complaining because really, our academic lives are so privileged.

While that’s probably true in general terms, many academics are also suffering from a sense of “too much”. Or, just as commonly, their families are suffering, or their collaborators, or students, because they have to engage with somebody who is stressed and evidently over-committed.

I’d like to make one simple point here: that we ought to do a good (or even excellent) job 100% of the time in which we work; but that we should not put up with pressures, incentives or norms to work more than 100% of time. When I worked in Australia, there was a pretty simple system regarding performance agreements. Once every two years,  you sat down with your boss and discussed how you would allocate 100% of your time to teaching, research and service. Teaching involved classes but also supervision of research students; research was, well, research; and service included committees and things like that within the university, but also communication engagement or editorial boards beyond the university.

There are three key benefits of institutionalising such performance agreements. One, nobody is expected to work more than 100%. Two, if you add a percentage to something (e.g. an increase from 40 to 50%), it’s clear that something else has got to be reduced. And three, not everybody has to be equal — some people might benefit their departments through service roles, others through teaching, others primarily through research. In extreme cases, an individual might drop one of the three components altogether.

What I see in Germany is starkly different. We are incentivised to be in more and more projects; raise more and more funds; “supervise” more and more students; travel a lot; sit on committees without reward; and teach a lot of hours — and all of us should be the same, in terms of teaching load especially. What this does is it causes immediate declines in quality in all activities (nobody can be great at everything, in more than 100% of the time), and you get a bunch of over-committed, unfocused professors, left, right and centre.

Since this is systemic, there is no easy solution. But I think we should be aware of such patterns, and fight them whenever we can. As I said before: it’s not about being lazy or unproductive. It’s about recognising  that ideas are created by people who are happy in the workplace, who are reflective, and who have retained the capacity to focus to get the job done to the best of their abilities. If “excellence” is the goal (and many institutions claim that it is), you can’t keep adding stuff to people’s schedules and get the same quality out at the other end.

And then … there was a state of emergency

By Joern Fischer

An eventful week in Ethiopia lies behind me. Months ago, protests started in Ethiopia, initially relating to the expansion of the capital, Addis Ababa, into surrounding land. Protesters argued that farmers had been insufficiently compensated. The latest level of escalation was reached yesterday, when the government declared a state of emergency for the next six months.

Ethiopia has long been seen as one of the most stable countries in Africa. Outsiders have often commented that it might not be quite as democratic as it could be, but at least it was stable, and experienced impressive economic improvements.

The latest unrest stems, at least in part, from a sentiment in the population that “development” did not seem to be benefiting everyone equally. Especially in Oromia, more and more people started to protest, initially against further plans to expand Addis, but more recently also for the release of political prisoners, and against government responses to the demonstrations that they perceived as unjustly forceful. Over the last few months, numerous people were killed during demonstrations.

Then, last Sunday was a cultural holiday, and tragic events took place in Debre Zeit, a town a little way out of Addis Ababa. Official sources speak of a stampede killing 50 or more people; unofficial reports speak of many more dead, report the use of tear gas from a helicopter, and speak of shots fired into the crowd.

Following last weekend, protests intensified. In some places, road blocks were erected. Anger was unleashed against the government, cars were burnt, and rocks thrown at vehicles. An American postdoc died when the minibus she was on was attacked by protestors.

With these developments, we were unable to travel by car between our study area and Addis, and had to fly to get over the road blocks. One day after getting to Addis, news reached me that a state of emergency had been declared; and only hours after that, that a number of soldiers had shown up right in our study site. Two of our researchers and two Ethiopian colleagues are still there, in the midst of this. They’ll leave within a few days, and until then, have been assured their safety by local authorities (who had previously received our research findings with genuine interest).

This blog is about sustainability, and I’m not here to put forward a political argument – for those interested in the politics, it’s easy enough to research these issues on the internet and formulate an opinion.

All I want to say here is very simply that it makes me sad. Just days ago, we distributed initial research findings to local politicians and government experts – who, by and large, were very interested in what we had found. But now the country seems to be at a very real risk of slipping into a spiral of conflict. Conflict kills people, research, and many other good initiatives taken by both civilians and government representatives to improve human well-being while also protecting the environment. I hope for all the people of Ethiopia – regardless of political disposition – that the current situation will be resolved with as little pain to the people as possible.

A social-ecological perspective on food security and biodiversity conservation

By Joern Fischer

At last, a paper we started to think about at a SESYNC workshop in Maryland finally got published in Regional Environmental Change. The paper lays out a conceptual foundation for how to think about food security and biodiversity conservation from a social-ecological perspective. In this blog post, I’d like to highlight two key features of the paper: (1) the conceptual framework as such, and (2) its empirical basis.


First, the conceptual model recognises that both biodiversity and food security outcomes are influenced by phenomena at different scales. For convenience, we propose to consider local, landscape, regional and global scales — but depending on the example, this might be adjusted. We argue that one particularly useful scale for analysis is the “landscape” scale. Here, the biophysical landscape is composed of patches, whereas the social landscape is analogous to a community of people, composed of a series of households. Both food security and biodiversity conservation, in turn, are multi-facetted phenomena. Biodiversity encompasses wild as well as cultivated diversity; it encompasses functional diversity as well as genetic diversity. Similarly, food security encompasses availability, access, utilisation and vulnerability. Notably, for both phenomena, we also argue that considering stability is critical — it’s problematic to have outstanding biodiversity or food security right now if this is based on practices that are inherently unsustainable.

Second, I’d like to draw special attention to the empirical basis of this seemingly simple conceptual model. I reproduce here the appendix of the paper — the supplementary material — which I know many people won’t look at unless I highlight it specifically here! The supplementary material lays out in detail the basis for why we believe the variables shown in the above conceptual model deserve consideration. Or, in other words, there is ample evidence that we must look beyond production — for both food security and biodiversity conservation. The table shown below provides empirical evidence for any skeptics out there, as to why a more holistic perspective is not just a vague ambition but necessary, given available evidence.

The full paper is also available as an open access article via the journal website.

Properties Outcome affected Mechanism/Relationship Example Sources
Bio-physical properties
Global climate change; environmental change Food security Challenges to farmer livelihoods; effects on yield; uncertainty and instability in production, food supply, and food prices. Calzadilla et al. 2013; Porter et al. 2014; World Bank 2007; Ringler et al. 2010


Multiple direct and indirect effects on species habitats, ranges, stressors, and extinction risks. Staudt 2013; Fordham et al. 2011; Klausmeyer et al. 2011; Huston 2005
Soil types and fertility, soil erosion, topography Food security


Direct effect on productivity, indirect effects on production costs and market prices; soil degradation, particularly reduced soil organic matter, affects quantity and quality of food production (e.g., increases susceptibility to drought stress and nutrient deficiencies, and increases susceptibility to pest and disease outbreaks). Soil contamination directly affects food quality (e.g. arsenic in rice) and human health. Lal 2009; Khan et al. 2010; Scherr 1999
Biodiversity Biodiversity influenced directly via soil quality feedbacks on belowground biodiversity and the soil microbiome, and indirectly through soil fertility effects on net primary productivity, and/or increased fertilizer use to maintain yields on degraded soils. Postma-Blaauw 2010; McDaniel et al. 2014; Tilman et al. 1996; Mozumder and Berrens 2007
Water availability (and safety) Food security Strong contributor to malnutrition reduction (as indicator of overall health environment); importance in agricultural production. Hanjra and Qureshi 2010; Smith and Haddad 2015; Armah et al. 2011; Turral et al. 2011; Khan et al. 2010
Biodiversity Agricultural impacts on hydrologic cycles and water quality can directly threaten biodiversity. Zedler 2003; Geng et al. 2015; Gleick 1998
Amount and diversity of natural vegetation Food security Connected to dietary diversity and wild collection; provides ecosystem services to agriculture (e.g., pollination, pest control). Belanger and Johns 2008; Chappell et al. 2013; Lira et al. 2009; Power 2010


Forest degradation and fragmentation leads to loss of wild biodiversity. Godar et al. 2015; Savilaasko et al. 2013; Melo et al. 2013;

Grau et al. 2013; Fearnside 2005

Agrobiodiversity Food security Dietary diversity tied very strongly to food security directly, and to nutritional quality of diets such as reductions in hidden hunger/micronutrient deficiencies, as well as to decreased risk of crop failure and increased ecosystem services (see also references for diversity in natural vegetation).


Crop diversity can increase the stability and reduce vulnerability of both agricultural yields and farm incomes in the face of both market and biophysical perturbations to farming systems. The stabilizing/risk reducing outcome of increased agrobiodiversity (from within-crop genetic diversity, to diversified cropping patterns), is likely to be of increasing importance with increasing climate and market instability.

Abson et al. 2013; Belanger and Johns 2008;

Burlingame and Dernini 2012; Di Falco and Perrings 2003; Di Falco and Chavas 2006; Di Falco and Chavas 2009; Di Falco et al. 2010; Ericksen 2008; Fraser 2003; Frison et al. 2011; Johns and Eyzaguirre 2006; Liebman and Schulte 2015; Smith and Haddad 2015; Zimmerer 1998

Biodiversity A positive association between planned (agrobiodiversity) and associated (“wild”) biodiversity has been, according to

Vandermeer et al. (2002), established “beyond credible doubt” for vertebrates, arthropods, and non-crop plants.

Liebman and Schulte 2015; Vandermeer et al. 2002
Pests and diseases Food Security Increased pest and disease pressure directly reduces crop yields. Verberg et al. 2013;

Matson et al. 1997



Wild biodiversity and agrobiodiversity reduce pest and disease pressure (e.g., by providing habitat for natural enemies, or by serving as “trap crops” for pests). Soil microbial diversity can suppress diseases. Barthel et al. 2013; Bommarco et al. 2013; Matson et al. 1997; Garbeva et al. 2004
Social properties
Trade agreements Food security Highly contingent; often thought to be mediated via economic growth and access to cheaper food; however, connections between food prices and food security are contested
Inequity and lack of appropriate redistribution within national contexts can hinder or eliminate theorized food security gains from international agricultural trade practices.
Brown et al. 2014; FAO 2012; Wise 2009; Weis 2007; Tansey and Rajotte 2008;

Haddad 2015; Otero et al. 2013; Heady 2010

Biodiversity Complex; land-displacement literature growing; international trade is increasing invasive species. Lenzen et al. 2012; Meyfroidt et al. 2013; Bax et al. 2003
Environmental agreements Food security The focus of REDD+, CBD, and Kyoto on increasing forest cover may reduce agricultural area and productivity; inclusion of agricultural soil carbon sequestration contracts can raise income and improve food security. FAO 2013a; Antle et al. 2009; Corson and Macdonald 2012
Biodiversity Increase in conservation area may improve preservation of wild biodiversity; appropriate scale and community engagement needed for effective governance. Hodge and Adams 2014; Ewers et al. 2009; Brannstrom 2001; McAfee and Shapiro 2010
Certification systems Food security & biodiversity Fair trade: documented multiple effects on farming systems, biodiversity, livelihoods, and food security; effects vary with the social and political institutions regulating fair trade schemes. Bacon et al. 2008; Jaffee 2007; Jaffee and Howard 2009; Raynolds 2000
Financial regimes and multinational corporations Food security Investment and speculation can affect food prices and livelihoods. Davis 2001; De Schutter 2010; IATP 2008
Biodiversity Largely speculative as a “financialization of biodiversity” is still in developmental and uncertain stage; could be mediated through investments in offsets and finances of conservation. Doswald et al. 2012; Phelps et al. 2011; McAfee 1999
Research system Food security Privatization of agricultural research reduced support for research on low-input agricultural practices and subsistence models IAASTD 2009; Sumberg et al. 2012a, b; Levidow et al. 2014
Biodiversity Determinants of innovation within agricultural research systems have led to technological systems favoring specialized, low-diversity agroecosystems. Vanloqueren and Baret, 2009
Government policy


Food security Many possible avenues of effect through effects on entitlements and underlying determinant variables. da Silva et al. 2011; Lappé et al. 2013; Smith and Haddad 2000; 2015; Rocha 2009; Wise 2004
Biodiversity Affected directly by conservation policies and indirectly by many other policies (including agricultural policies).


Ceddia et al. 2013; Chopra et al. 2005; Soares-Filho et al. 2014
NGO programs social movements and civic engagement Food security Multi-faceted and variable ways in which civic engagement and civil society organizations can influence food security both positively and negatively. Can play a crucial role in mobilizing underprivileged groups to advocate for greater rights and increased access. Abebaw et al. 2010; Seed et al. 2013; Wittman and Blesh, 2015.
Biodiversity Social movements can play a crucial role in promoting biodiversity in regions of high inequality. Perfecto and Vandermeer 2008; Wittman 2010
Equity and justice Food security Affects distribution, political effectiveness, access rights, and multiple other factors. Haddad 2015; Friel and Baker 2009; Sen 1981; Sievers-Glotzbach 2014
Biodiversity Driving mechanisms/ underlying correlates unclear. Holland et al. 2009; Mikkelson et al. 2007
Political stability Food security Instability and conflict affects many elements of food security, from food supply to entitlements and rights. FAO 2000; Ó Gráda 2009
Biodiversity Possible links little-explored; legacy of conflicts may have profound indirect effects. Russell 2001; Smith et al. 2003; Hamilton et al. 2000
Migration and Demographics Food security Rural out-migration increases dependency on imported food subject to global price shocks; urbanization and changing food preferences affect global demand and supply. Otero 2011; de Janvry and Sadoulet 2010; Regmi and Meade 2013
Biodiversity Habits of urban dwellers will highly influence biodiversity outcomes. CBD 2012; McSweeney 2005
Food storage and distribution systems (imports/exports) Food security


Grain reserves aim to address food price volatility associated with food imports and exports. Murphy 2009; Gilbert 2011; Wright 2009; Brigham 2011; Headey 2010


Increased reliance on food imports may reduce pressure to expand agricultural land base, but increase deforestation in other regions.


Walker 2014; Melo et al. 2013; DeFries et al. 2010
Land tenure system and land availability Food security Food security depends on adequate land access for smallholder and domestic food supply systems. HLPE 2013; Borras 2003; 2010; 2012; White et al. 2012; FAO 2013b; Young 1999; Assies 2009
Biodiversity Property rights regimes provide both structure and incentives for natural resource use and conservation. Hodge and Adams 2014; Ostrom et al. 1999; McKean 2000; Merenlander et al. 2004; Brannstrom 2001; Wittman 2009, 2010.
Access to infrastructure and agricultural inputs Food security Market and distribution infrastructure and access to agricultural inputs shape production systems, food system resilience, and food accessibility. World Bank 2007; Sumberg et al. 2012b; IAASTD 2009;   Patel et al. 2014; Bezner Kerr 2012; 2005
Biodiversity High input agricultural systems, especially at the agricultural frontier involving land clearing, impact biodiversity and landscape degradation; road infrastructure can shape advancement of the agricultural frontier. Baletti 2012; Fearnside 2001; Matson et al. 1997; Barona et al. 2010
Political agency and rights Food security Citizen role in setting food policy affects food availability and distribution systems. Edelman and Carwil 2011; Edelman 2008; Borras et al. 2008; Wittman et al. 2009; Wittman 2011
Biodiversity Political and social entitlements shape access and use of environmental resources and services. Leach et al. 1999; Wittman et al 2010; Wittman and Blesh 2015
Education, Knowledge and Social Networks Food security Multiple benefits, including possible increases in agricultural productivity, agrobiodiversity, entitlements, maternal, and postpartum care, agency, nutritional knowledge. Smith and Haddad 2015; Alderman and Headey 2014; Nuñez-Espinoza et al. 2014; Wittman and Blesh, 2015


Biodiversity Alters the normative underpinnings for biodiversity conservation; may increase agrobiodiversity and agroecological management practices. Van Weelie and Wals 2002;

García-Barrios et al. 2008; McAfee and Shapiro 2010; Wittman et al 2010


Gender equity/women’s status Food Security Multiple benefits, including possible increases in agricultural productivity, entitlements, maternal, and postpartum care, agency, nutritional knowledge; increased say in household spending; increased productivity from equal access to resources Alderman and Headey 2014; Agarwal 2015; Smith and Haddad 2000; 2015
Biodiversity Greater gender equality can play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity in forest ecosystems; alters the normative underpinnings for biodiversity conservation. Van Weelie and Wals 2002; García-Barrios et al. 2008; Agarwal 2009; 1997; 1988; McSweeney 2005; Zimmerer et al. 2015
Affluence and capital assets Food security Income has multiple indirect effects on food security, as well as serving as a form of food entitlement. Sen 1981; Smith and Haddad 2000; 2015


Affluence drives biodiversity-harming consumption through a variety of mechanisms.


Bradshaw et al. 2010; Holland et al. 2009; Weinzettel et al. 2013


Farm practices


Food security Crop choice, diversification and farming type (for subsistence, local markets, and export) affect household and community food availability and price. Seufert et al. 2012; Badgley et al. 2007; Connor, 2007; Dahal et al. 2009; Kasem and Thapa, 2011; Jones 2015; Jones et al 2014; Blesh and Wittman, 2015


Land management decisions, including deforestation at the agricultural frontier, affect both wild and on-farm biodiversity, particularly with negative effects of high input agricultural practices; crop rotation selection, use of organic nutrient amendments, reduced chemical inputs, and building soil organic matter reserves all impact planned and associated biodiversity. Chappell et al. 2013; Frishkoff et al. 2014; IAASTD 2009; Power 2010; Norton et al. 2013; Phelps et al. 2013; Barona et al. 2010; Jarvis 2008; Blesh and Wittman, 2015


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Paper recommendation: a social-ecological analysis of coral reefs

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend the following new paper: Cinner JE et al. (2016). Bright spots among the world’s coral reefs. Nature 2016 Jul 21; 535(7612):416-9. DOI: 10.1038/nature18607

This paper presents a nice global analysis of social-ecological factors that explain the state of coral reefs. The findings suggest that more attention needs to be paid to variables other than simply fishing pressure — for example, functioning local institutions and clearly defined property rights can help to facilitate a better state of coral reefs, while conversely, technologically highly modernised systems are particularly vulnerable to degradation. These kinds of considerations have received insufficient attention by conservation biologists, not only in marine but also in terrestrial systems. The paper thus provides inspiration for how to apply social-ecological systems thinking more broadly, and is very much worth a read.

Managing rural landscapes in tradition

By Joern Fischer

Throughout the world, we find landscapes that used to be dominated by smallholder farming. Despite great differences between such places, there are also many commonalities. For example, agriculture tends to be conducted for local use rather than for distant locations; many members of the local communities are engaged in farming; farming methods are relatively simple in technological terms (and happen without a lot of input of modern technologies or fossil fuels) — and people often have “enough”, but are not able to access or accumulate large quantities of economic wealth.

Examples of such places exist around the world, and they share one more commonality: they are rapidly changing. How can rural landscapes in transition best be managed? Based on our work in Romania, I propose five common take-home messages for rural landscapes in transition.

1. Natural capital provides a solid foundation for development, while other capital stocks may be lacking

If we think about landscapes as a series of capital stocks, it becomes apparent quite quickly what the strengths and weaknesses of traditional farming landscapes might be. There is often little in terms of modern infrastructure (or physical capital), so that for example access to markets might be not very good; and agriculture might rely on large amount of human labour. Human capital then, is usually quite high when it comes to farming labour, but low when it comes to high levels of formal education. Financial capital is often lacking. Social capital is often quite high in traditional societies, but perhaps the most obvious capital stock is natural capital. Traditional farming landscapes are, often, very biodiverse. Some biodiversity may be lost when such landscapes become economically more prosperous, but at the same time, I would argue that natural capital provides a solid foundation for development, on top of which other capital stocks can be accumulated. If development focuses narrowly on just (for example) modern farming equipment and pumping investment into an area, it’s likely this would come at a high cost to natural (and quite possibly also social) capital.  So, a wise choice, to my mind, is to be aware of what these landscapes already are rich in, and not destroy this in the process of trying to improve human well-being (assuming that this is the goal, rather than just profit, in which case it’s not sustainable development anyway!).

2. Market-oriented incentives may erode a traditional stewardship ethic

A second, perhaps more speculative point is that many traditional rural landscapes use long-established methods to manage the natural environment. These methods typically go hand in hand with an understanding of what’s right and proper — certain activities ought to be done in certain seasons for example. Such traditional rules are typically upheld by informal institutions, together with a stewardship ethic of how one ought to look after the land. It follows that “modern” monetary incentives need to be used carefully. Pumping money into systems with a traditionally strong stewardship ethic can actually erode this ethic, thus accelerating environmental decline by destroying the value basis of sustainable practices.

3. Good governance is critical (accountability, trust) for sustainability

It somehow goes without saying — and was extremely obvious in our work in Romania — that not much good will come of “development” that is governed badly. When money disappears or nepotism is rife, environmental and social outcomes are unlikely to be very good.

4. Equity issues are likely to emerge as social structures change

Just like the potential danger of monetary incentives is widely under-appreciated, there is only little understanding and interest in equity issues. As development takes place, differences in wealth between the rich and poor tend to be magnified in traditional farming landscapes. Who decides who gets to win and who misses out? Questions such as this, and questions around access to ecosystem services (and also government subsidies) are likely to arise. Unless they are managed well, they can lead to major disappointment and disillusions about development among local people.

5. In the absence of a “benevolent dictator”, change must happen through empowering communities (bottom-up)

A lot of natural scientists like to recommend to decision-makers what they calculated to be optimal or efficient solutions. Well, fine. But what if there are no benevolent dictators interested in such information? I would argue that many of the world’s rural landscapes — and especially those in transition — are governed in complex or even messy ways, where it is not clear that anybody in particular is “in charge”; nor that anybody in particular is interested in guiding development in a way that is optimal or efficient from a sustainability perspective. In such cases, it’s important for scientists to be open to the idea that change will not come from the top down, through policy. Rather, I think there is value in engaging with local communities and providing information to people directly, so that nascent initiatives can work towards sustainability from the bottom up.

These five points are a subjective list of observations from our work in Romania. They may or may not apply to other locations in the world. I’d be interested in people’s thoughts on the possible generality of some of these.

Values, conservation and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

In 1992, Shalom Schwartz published a seminal paper entitled “Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries”. The paper has been cited something like 12,000 times, and the findings have been refined since then. In short, it summarises different value orientations held by individuals. On reading this paper, I began to wonder what the implications of this are for conservation and sustainability.



I’ll start with a disclaimer and a summary of what Schwartz found. First the disclaimer: perhaps everything I write below has long been known by people working on conservation and sustainability, and I’m very late in catching up. If so, I’m happy to be further educated, e.g. by people explaining to me and other readers how this has been applied to conservation and sustainability in the comments below. But if I’m somewhat “typical”, then this is not at all widely known, understood, or reflected upon within the conservation and sustainability fields. And if that is the case, there might be some pretty important implications that require our attention.

Second – a summary of what Schwartz found. In the original paper from 1992, Schwartz developed theory, and then tested it on a large sample of individuals from a number of different countries. His theory was largely confirmed, and went something like this. Different people hold different values. Some values are compatible, whereas others are oppositional. Compatible values are, for example, if I value the attainment of wealth, and if I value the achievement of social recognition. Oppositional values might be valuing tradition versus seeking excitement in life.

These kinds of constructs – compatible and oppositional values – can be depicted in a kind of circular wheel, as shown in the Figure above. This wheel was generated by a multivariate analysis of many people responding to the same questions about their values, so this is an empirically grounded theory . Adjacent sectors in this wheel are compatible values, whereas opposite sectors in the wheel are oppositional.

So far so good – how is this relevant to conservation and sustainability? I think it is in a number of ways.

A lot of the values associated with conservation and sustainability cluster in the sector on “universalism” (top right). For example, here, we find “protecting the environment”, “social justice”, and even “unity with nature”. Opposite of that, we find the sector “power”, with values such as “wealth” and “social recognition”.

We can now ask ourselves where in this wheel individuals belonging to different cultures might sit. This is relevant for conservation and sustainability, because we might pitch our messages differently, according to people’s values (e.g. see this comprehensive report, or here for a simpler summary; and here for additional materials).

But I think perhaps there is something even more interesting going on. Here, I present three testable hypotheses, which would have implications for conservation and sustainability action.

Hypothesis 1: A substantial proportion of the population (probably differing between jurisdictions) actually holds values that are compatible with universalist values (i.e. sustainability and biodiversity conservation).

Hypothesis 2: Despite this, we are seeing patterns of behaviour at an aggregate (societal) level that emphasise values that are largely oppositional to sustainability, such as achievement and power. That is, we have created institutions that foster values that are not inherently shared by people. We thus have a mismatch between the value sets fostered by institutions and the value sets held by people.

Hypothesis 3: If this is correct, the “solution” to sustainability problems becomes one of “simply” re-aligining institutions to what people actually want. This may be a major task, but is a relatively smaller problem than if people themselves actually did not hold values compatible with sustainability. In other words, we may not need to “re-educate people”, but rather draw out what people actually want, and ensure that institutions are reformed in ways that reflect the want of “the people”.

Hopelessly optimistic? Actually, people are selfish and individualistic, and care about power and wealth and nothing else? Perhaps – convince me if you can. But at this stage I think it’s more likely that we are dealing with a mis-match between values fostered through institutions and values held by individuals. I speculate, in turn, that such a mis-match has probably arisen from power dynamics that go hand in hand with how we have organized societies (including economic principles); i.e. the whole thing is an institutional and power problem, not fundamentally one of values.

If I’m right, all of this points to us needing more conversations at a societal level about what it is that we truly value — and then working towards how to (re-)organise society accordingly. And then who knows, perhaps sustainability is within closer reach than we may have thought …