Where have the big ideas gone?

By Joern Fischer

In the 1960s, island biogeography changed the way ecologists think about species distribution. In the 1970s, the first ideas for reserve design were beginning to take shape. In the 1990s, we learnt about fragmentation and edge effects. In the late 1990s, the idea of ecosystem services transformed the way we thought about conservation.

What are our big ideas today? My (controversial and perhaps mistaken) impression is that we are too often replacing the generation of new ideas with higher levels of technical sophistication when implementing the old ones. Climate change predictions are getting ever more accurate, but that hasn’t changed climate change per se. Planetary boundaries have been defined and recently refined, but that we’re beyond the limits was well known for decades before that. Technologies to refine agricultural yields are becoming more and more refined, but food distribution remains inequitable. In short: much of the highest impact science seems to just add higher levels of technical sophistication to what is already well known, but does little to address the foundational issues arguably most in need to being tackled.

This is of course, just an opinion of mine, and it may (1) be wrong, and (2) be seen as arrogant, or (3) be just plain unhelpful. As in: if I don’t like what is being researched, what then do I propose scientists ought to do more of? This is tricky, and if there was a simple answer, perhaps everyone would be doing just that. I guess I’d just like more signs from the scientific community that “we care”, that we realize that just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic will not be helpful, and that we know that simply refining our estimates and tools – within existing conceptual boundaries – won’t ultimately lead to sustainability. Not knowing the solution doesn’t mean one shouldn’t at least try to find it, beyond the space that is already well explored.

And last but not least: along with a loss of genuinely new ideas, I feel we are also increasingly losing scientists who are willing to express their vision for real, substantial changes in how humans interact with one another and with the planet. When talking in the pub, many sustainability or conservation scientists will still frankly speak about the need for major changes. But in papers … it’s just not neat and tidy enough, I guess.

Communicating beyond the ivory tower (or why comics matter)

Foodcrisis Chapter 2 Cover

I am a somewhat cynical person (note the English understatement) and my philosophy is more “do no harm” than “save the world”. In a sense then I am quite comfortable in my (tiny) ivory tower, labouring away to add a few new levels to the tower every year. Why do I want a taller ivory tower? Well in part so that others can marvel at my achievements (“look on my works ye mighty, and despair!”) and in part because a taller tower gives me a better angle for firing shots at other ivory towers that displease me.

In this way Academia pootles along, like a huge ‘care in the community’ scheme where the somewhat bewildered hordes of academe build and knock down their towers while being more or less quietly ignored by the wider world (like a global community of Don Quixotes… ”Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, [their] brain[s] dried up and [they] went completely out of [their] mind[s]”). Of course we hope that while firing at other ivory towers some of our lofty ideas will fall to the ground where a grateful public are waiting eagerly to receive them.

Clearly, the notion of ivory tower academics is a caricature and peer-reviewed science can and does have a fundamental impact on policy and governance. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ and more recently the ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘sustainable agricultural intensification’ concepts are ideas that arose from science and have/are having significant effects on how policy makers andthe wider public see the world. Somewhat sadly all three of these notions are interpreted in ways that are often at odds with the subtleties and nuance of the scientific debates. My own experience of working on the UK national Ecosystem Assessment and the subsequent interpretation of this report by the UK government makes me wary of the “fire and forget” (publish and pay no attention to?) strategy of scientific communication with non-scientists. Similarly I despair when I read about science in the media as the reporting of science is so poor, admittedly I read the Guardian, which probably does not help.

So what is the alternative? Well at some point if we wish to engage the public (on our own unfiltered terms) we need to clamber down from our ivory towers. I have had the privilege to work with a number of academics who actively seek to engage with non-scientists. This year Joern Fischer (owner of this blog and my boss) and his team undertook a scientific roadshow to discuss their research with the people in their study region. Jahi Chapell (another contributor to this blog) actively engages with policy-makers to change dominant narratives regarding the management of food systems). Tibor Hartel (yet another contributor to this blog) is actively engaging local and national politicians regarding the preservation of the beautiful wood pastures of Romania. Dan O’Neill is a tireless and effective communicator of the need for Steady State Economics.

I find all of these people and their approaches to communicating beyond the ivory tower inspiring, and here would like to add one more to the list. Evan Fraser, (a former PhD supervisor of mine) along with his team at Guelph University work on food security issues and has created a marvellous resource in https://feedingninebillion.com/ using different forms of media to engage the public in the food security discourse. His latest effort is a graphic novel about global food security (the first two issues are available here). Despite my innate cynicism I think these different approaches to engaging the public are hugely important. My long journey to becoming a sustainability scientist with an interest in food systems was initially motivated by a comic book story about poverty, food security and power that I read as a teenager (the excellent Third World War published in Crisis comics) and gavanized by a wandering Sadu in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh (a story for another post). If even a cynical old curmudgeon like me can be motivated a graphic novel there is hope!

A post that might be about scales, or levels, but certainly includes ecosystem services and leverage points

This post was originally intended to be about my frustration with the ecosystem services concept. In trying to articulate and understand this frustration, I’ve gone through a range of thoughts, which I will explain here. I am getting a bit paranoid that I always seem to come back to issues of scale in my research, and I seem to have done it here again. But I hope it makes some sense, and is more than just an incoherent rambling.

I will start with why I like the ecosystem service concept. I am an interdisciplinary researcher studying natural resource management. The ecosystem service concept is a clear framework for connecting the social world to the physical world. It makes explicit the links between a component of an ecosystem and the various things that it is valued for by people. It seems simple; pollinators are valued because they pollinate crops and other plants, and we like this because we eat, we like pretty meadows, etc. We can then follow this on to further services supported by the pretty meadows, such as recreation and the existence values humans ascribe to such meadows. Being able to follow these chains is useful in understanding the socio-ecological system in any given location. It is also useful for explaining to people how environmental change might directly affect them by impacting on the things they value.

I do share frustrations with other researchers over the grouping together of services and benefits, and the different stages of service (and benefit) in the ecosystem service concept. For this reason, I try to use the idea of intermediary services, final services and benefits. Whereby pollinators pollinating is an intermediary service, the crop is the final service, and the profit from that crop is the benefit to the producer. The consumer may also experience benefit through having food to eat, and preferably at a lower price than they would have been willing to pay. These groupings get long, and interconnect with each other. So the pollinators could lead to multiple benefits, but also could be created through multiple earlier services. Then we are more within a cascade model (e.g. Haines-Young and Potschin, 2010), whereby there is structure (e.g. habitat), process, function, service and benefit.

I find that my main frustrations are introduced when we start to use the concept for practical management. We start to think about how we can increase the number of pollinators. But then we need to recognise that such actions have a trade-off; for example increasing wildflower meadows to support bees may decrease the crop production space, or the habitat for another animal, which then negatively impacts upon another ecosystem service, or multiple ecosystem services in a complex web whereby we need to trade-off goals and priorities (see e.g. Bennet et al., 2009; Raudsepp-Hearne et al., 2010 and others). Some researchers have started to ‘bundle’ ecosystem services to simplify understandings of such trade-offs. Bundles comprise of services that usually appear together and are influenced similarly, such that actions that are beneficial to one service in the group will be beneficial to others, but possibly act negatively on another group. Indeed, a benefit of the ecosystem services concept is that we have a framework for thinking about trade-offs. However, for management purposes, we really lack the knowledge of what actions done in what quantity have which impacts (positive and negative) over which ecosystem services.

While thinking about various actions that could manage ecosystem services, I started to think about ecosystem services within a systems thinking framework. I borrowed the figure below from Donella Meadows’ essay ‘Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System’. The idea being that where there is a discrepancy between how we want a system to look, and how it really looks, we can target either the inflows or the outflows from that system in order to remove the discrepancy. Meadows outlines leverage points as being points to intervene in a system, with changing parameters as shallower (and less effective) points, and changing goals as deeper (and more effective). If we use the ecosystem service concept within this framework, we could put pollinators in the central box. Then we can define the goal (e.g. to produce a given amount of oil seed rape). Then we find leverage points to target either the inflow (births, in-migration) or outflow (death through habitat loss, disease) of pollinators in the landscape such that the discrepancy reduction becomes the practical problem.


Currently, according to the way the ecosystem services concept is being operationalized, we are seeking to understand how to target inflow and/or outflow. Most systems are complex, such that this individual component is connected with many others. And often, relationships between components work differently across space. Thus if we are to manage by ecosystem services, we need to model relationships for all locations where there may be variation. And this is being done; we are characterising benefits, understanding how changes in the system affect them. In doing so, I feel somewhat as though we are distracting ourselves by creating ever more complex physical constructs that require even more detailed physical understandings, and ever more complex chains of structures, processes, services and benefits. Great – it is interesting, and should be pursued in the interests of knowledge. But in the end, we are left with very prescriptive sets of measures that can be applied in very specific circumstances locations, depending on what goals we want to achieve.

And to me, it is this questions of ‘what goals?’ and ‘who decides?’ that are my fundamental concerns with the ecosystem services concept. The way the ecosystem service concept is currently being enacted encourages us to work backwards. We are picking a small number of services, and defining goals for each, or for small groups by making decisions on trade-offs. But we aren’t looking at the overall collective system. We are defining the interventions for small components of the system before defining the overall goals. In doing so, we aren’t allowing ourselves to target the deepest, most effective leverage points. We should be asking questions around what we want to manage the system for. Do we want to optimise certain services? Or balance all services? Do we have a particular goal for a resilient system? If we had a goal, we could start to really think about what the discrepancy is, and how to intervene; knowledge could be targeted towards it.

I wonder if we need to start by considering scales of a nested system. If we have started out at the most detailed scale with individual ecosystem services, the next scale up might be biodiversity as the system that incorporates the individual services. This way, the services included within the biodiversity system and their goals influence the working definition of biodiversity. Alternatively, or at same time, by setting goals around biodiversity, we could follow these back to figure out what goals to set for individual ecosystem services. I’m not sure biodiversity is the right grouping concept at this scale – perhaps others have thoughts?! We also get to consider the larger scale system that ‘biodiversity’ (or whatever we settle on) is a part of. Perhaps that system is one of sustainable development (or perhaps I’ve skipped some scales), in which biodiversity might be a sub-system, alongside public health, economic growth, education, etc. Again, we get to define goals for this system, but also see that the sub-systems provide operational definitions for the system goals through their own goals.

So in short, I think I have ended up with my frustration with ecosystem services being that they isolate components of an ecosystem from its broader, interlinked, multi-scale ecosystems. And I have yet to be able to use it to manage anything.

From government to governance and onward to adaptive governance

by Andra I. Milcu

“Governance” is now fashionable, but as old as human history (Weiss, 2000). The World Bank (1991) played a major role in popularizing the term as “the manner in which management power is exercised in the management of a country’s economic and social resources for development”.

Ruhanen et al. (2010) identified two fields of studies originating in political sciences and corporate management that attempt to define governance. These two bodies of work were confirmed by a quick search on ISI Web of Knowledge and started recently being complemented by a third: resilience thinking. In this post, I am going to talk about governance in the light of political sciences and about what the recent resilience perspective can bring to the debate on governance.

In the political sciences, governance has been defined as the ‘‘conscious management of regime structures with a view to enhancing the legitimacy of the public realm’’ (Hyden, 1992 quoted by Ruhanen et al., 2010). Another highly cited paper on governance (Rhodes, 1996) developed a definition that was strongly influenced by the political context in the UK at that time. It relates governance to self-organizing networks characterized by interdependence between organizations, continuing interactions between network members and a significant degree of autonomy from the state. Interestingly enough the author kept his definition unchanged in his 2007 article, “Understanding governance: Ten years on”.

The meaning of the term “Governance” evolved significantly since its being a synonym for the word “Government” (Stoker, 1998) to being ultimately concerned with creating conditions for ordered rule and collective action (ibid.). Today Governance is distinct from Government. Governance is a way to manage power and policy, while government is an instrument to do so. Governance is seen as an alternative to conventional top-down government control, yet issues of legitimacy and accountability abound in the literature on governance. “Governance clearly embraces government institutions, but it also subsumes informal, non-governmental institutions operating within the public realm” (Bøås, 1998 quoted by Weiss, 2000). In the same vein, environmental governance is best understood as the establishment, affirmation, or change of institutions to resolve environmental conflicts (Paavola, 2007).

As a process, governance may operate at any scale: from a company (corporate governance), to EU institutions (European governance) or to all of humanity (global governance). Governance emerges from negotiation and interaction between numerous different national and supranational actors and institutions spread across multiple sites in the state-society complex and “can be institutionalized or expressed through subtle norms of interactions or even more indirectly through influencing agendas and shaping contexts in which actors contest decisions and access resources” (Folke et al., 2005).

It is increasingly recognized that environmental governance is often neither small-scale nor large-scale, but cross-scale (Berkes, 2002 quoted by Adger et al., 2003). It is still unclear how local-level, bottom-up, participatory approaches can be congruent with international and national top-down regulatory strategies in a consistent way (Adger et al., 2003). Some part of the response lies in the transdisciplinary framing of scale and governance so that a broad variety of stakeholders can join the decision making process (Kok and Veldkamp, 2011). Ostrom (1999 quoted by Adger et al., 2003) highlights the utility of local and global lessons in managing large-scale environmental problems added to which institutional diversity and redundancy are essential. A better matching of the scale of governance to the scale of ecological and social processes leads to increased capacity to adapt to change (Walker et al., 2009).

The most pressing contemporary environmental challenges involve systems that are intrinsically global. Global governance has enticed and startled humankind from its dawn and kept crossing the centuries. The idea was strongly resisted when questioning national boundaries, yet more easily embraced when facing global menaces. Consequently, nearly 1000 international environmental agreements are now into force (Biermann, 2007).  Yet “how to create a global and effective architecture for earth system governance that is adaptive to changing circumstances, participatory through involving civil society at all levels, accountable and legitimate as part of new democratic governance beyond the nation state, and at the same time fair for all participants” (ibid.) is the holy grail of today’s world. The UN has made some attempts in this direction, e.g. its strategy for climate. It is based upon multilateralism, interstate negotiations and quantitative targets but bears the failure of effectiveness, legitimacy and above all scale matching. However, in light of its universality and scope, Weiss (2000) credited the UN with a special role, albeit not a monopoly, on future leadership for global governance.

Aside from the UN, Europe represents a mandatory case study when it comes to supranational governance and it may be not so far-fetched to see the EU as trend setter in environmental governance. The EU was among the first actors going from government to governance. The rhetoric of deliberation, the engaging with science and technology (STAGE project 2001-2005), the “good governance” (White Paper, 2001), the label of multilevel governance are all part of the EU’s history and built its claim to have developed a distinct progressive model: the European governance (Shore, 2011). Even if is limited and hampered by divergent cultures and political preferences, there is still a strong number of EU supporters pledging in favor of a common baseline of administrative tools and practices.

With its overarching tool box of policy instruments and cross-cutting strategies, the EU is one of the best examples for regarding governance as a complementary way to pursue environmental objectives and to operationalise sustainable development by dealing with strategic aspects. In the nexus between conservation and development, Governance provides an opportunity for rethinking multi and cross-scale relations in meaningful ways for the livelihoods of individuals and communities (Hyden, 2002). In the complex policy issue of sustainable development, governance points to the need for changing institutional relations and rules.

Change is creatively but rigorously addressed by the resilience perspective. The approach focuses not only on the social dimension of development but on coupled social-ecological systems. Its contribution to the present quest for new models of governance is called “adaptive governance” and is mostly about being both flexible and stable at the same time. Adaptive governance has the capacity to cope with, and make use of external perturbations and challenges in the broader social-ecological environment (Folke, 2005, Dietz et al., 2003). Hence, it needs strengthening social capital and operationalization through adaptive co-management, a process by which institutional arrangements are tested and revised by stake-holders operating and collaborating at different levels. Bridging organizations, polycentric institutions, active learning, collective action and trust are emphasized as particularly important in this context. The relationship between governance and resilience is found to be bidirectional. Explorations by Lebel et al.(2006) indicate that the capacity to manage the resilience of social-ecological  systems may influence the form that governance takes and that ecological feedbacks may constrain both governance and this capacity

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Stoker, G., 1998. Governance as theory: five propositions. International Social Science Journal 50, 17-28.

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Folke, C., Hahn, T, Olsson, P., Norberg, J., 2005. Adaptive Governance of Social-Ecological Systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 30, 441-473.

Adger, W.N., Brown, K., Fairbrass, J., Jordan, A., Paavola, J., Rosendo, S., Seyfang, G., 2003. Governance for sustainability: towards a “thick” analysis of environmental decision-making. Environment and Planning 35, 1095-1110.

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Umbrella species: a waterproof concept for conservation?

By Ine Dorresteijn

(Introductory note by Joern Fischer: We are introducing a new category in our blog — ‘concepts in sustainability and conservation’. In this category, we will briefly summarise some of those key concepts that we all ought to know about, including a small number of key references. The concepts discussed will come from both the social and natural sciences. I hope this new category will be of interest to you!)

Biodiversity conservation is an integral part of sustainability. In practice, biodiversity conservation often relies on the use of shortcuts due to (a) a lack of available data on abundance and distribution of species of conservation concern and (b) limited funding and time. One of the shortcuts in conservation management is the use umbrella species. Umbrella species are species whose conservation grants the protection of a large number of co-occurring species (Roberge & Angelstam 2004). The concept of umbrella species was introduced in the eighties when it was suggested to focus management on species with a large-ho

me range size so that the rest of the community within this home range would be protected as well. Area loss was perceived as a major threat to habitat degradation, and by protecting large species (most often mammals or birds) large tracts of habitat have to be maintained. Besides using umbrella species to set minimum requirements for protective area size, umbrella species have also been suggested as a basis for selecting conservation sites.

The use of umbrella species for conservation management has received substantial critique. First of all, very few studies have evaluated the effectiveness of conservation schemes based on umbrella species. Empirical studies that tested this presumption showed (a) very little support for the effectiveness of using an umbrella species to determine area requirements for conservation sites and (b) although the site selection approach received more support, the results were still equivocal (Roberge & Ange

lstam 2004). However, judging from basic ecological concepts this is not an unexpected result (Lindenmayer & Fischer 2003). The coexistence of species is possible through niche differentiation, and responses to environmental conditions and threats are species-specific. Therefore, it seems unlikely that one or a set of few species can be used as a proxy for the rest of the community. Despite the fact that the biological knowledge on both the umbrella species and the co-occurring species determine the feasibility of a conservation scheme, most schemes had failed to include important ecological or life-history history traits of the umbrella species (e.g. population persistence, sensitivity to disturbance, movements). Nonetheless, even though the limitations of umbrella species were known, a potential for umbrella species has been recognized and the concept has been further developed and refined. New guidelines and criteria for selecting umbrella species have been proposed which include a more detailed knowled

ge on ecology and natural history, a large home range size, the co-occurrence with species of conservation concern, a moderate sensitivity to human disturbance, and address the feasibility of sampling (Seddon & Leech 2008). Still, empirical evaluations of the umbrella species concept remain few and the potential use of umbrella species other than birds and mammals have received little attention. Recently, Branton and Richardson (2011) performed meta-analysis on 15 published studies to test whether umbrella species (birds and mammals) actually do protect co-occurring species. They also tested whether specific pre-defined criteria would help in the guidance to find appropriate umbrella species (taxonomic group, taxonomic similarity to co-occurring species, body size, generality of resource use, and trophic level). Overall, they found that abundance and richness of co-occurring species were higher in sites were umbrella species were present compared to sites were they were absent.  Furthermore, cons

ervation schemes based on avian umbrella species were more effective than schemes based on mammalian umbrella species. However, the meta-analysis did not support the use of specific criteria they had set for selection of umbrella species. Thus, again they found a potential for the use of umbrella species, but the selection criteria remain unclear.

Despite the uncertainties in selecting the right umbrella species, the concept of umbrella species remains a popular tool in conservation. For example, WWF uses the concept for promoting the protection of tigers. More applicable to our study interest, large carnivores have been suggested as umbrella species in the Romanian Carpathians since many mammalian and avian species of conservation concern would benefit from their protection (Rozylowicz et al. 2010). Since meeting all individual and species-specific needs of complex ecological communities in conservation management is not feasible,
umbrella species will most likely continue to be used frequently in the future. Since selection criteria for umbrella species can be uncertain, it means that it will be important to act with care when implementing a conservation scheme based on umbrella species. For example, Rozylowicz et al. (2010) acknowledged the li

mitations of using large carnivores as umbrella species for conservation management. However, they proposed to use them as a temporary solution, which allows time for a an efficient protected area network to be set up while at the same time halting unsustainable forestry practices such as uncontrolled clear cutting. Thus, the use of umbrella species might be a valuable tool complementary to other strategies. Wiens et al. (2008) presented a good example of how to set up an conservation plan based on multiple umbrella species which incorporates the nature of the system, the objectives and available knowledge. They highlight the importance to evaluate the effectiveness of the conservation plan, and to assess whether the assumptions of the umbrella species meet the management objectives.

Environmental regulations and a feasible environmental management plans
are considered to be essential to ensure sustainable conservation. Due to the difficulties concerning the selection of umbrella species, the concept does not provide a waterproof approach for biodiversity conservation. Nevertheless, the use of multiple umbrella species on its own or complementary to other strategies offers potential for biodiversity conservation. Additionally and importantly, umbrella species is an understandable concept that is successful in raising people’s awareness of environmental problems and the need for conservation.



Branton M, Richardson JS (2011) Assessing the Value of the Umbrella-Species Concept for Conservation Planning with Meta-Analysis. Conserv Biol 25:9-20

Lindenmayer DB, Fischer J (2003) Sound science or social hook – a response to

Brooker’s application of the focal species approach. Landscape and Urban Planning 62:149-158

Roberge JM, Angelstam P (2004) Usefulness of the umbrella species concept as a conservation tool. Conserv Biol 18:76-85

Rozylowicz L, Popescu VD, Patroescu M, Chisamera G (2010) The potential of large carnivores as conservation surrogates in the Romanian Carpathians. Biodiversity and Conservation 20:561-579

Seddon PJ, Leech T (2008) Conservation short cut, or long and winding road? A critique of umbrella species criteria. Oryx 42:240-245

Wiens JA, Hayward GD, Holthausen RS, Wisdom MJ (2008) Using surrogate species and groups for conservation planning and management. Bioscience 58:241-252