Milestones in sustainability related research and useful readings

I once heard this question being asked within an interview setting for a university position. I thought then, as I do now, that it is an inspiring way to structure my thoughts regarding the different disciplines and associated worldviews I am exposed to, or work with. I find timelines and evolutionary perspectives extremely useful, especially for those who share a time orientated understanding of the world. Rather than thinking in spatial landmarks, I like to create timelines in my mind. I suppose structuring research fields would also work nicely (or even nicer) with mind maps.

Following this logic, I tried to sketch some personal answers, which would probably need some revisiting soon enough. I would like to share with you a few relatively recent trends that I see gathering even more momentum in the near future, being aware there are many other milestones one could consider. In sharing these thoughts, I think mainly about young PhD students or academia scholars, but mostly non-academia professionals, such as practitioners working in the field of sustainable development. Hence, this is fairly simplified, with only a few references and suggested readings of papers deemed representative of their respective field.

We tried to debate some of these thoughts in our yet “pilot journal club”, so this may serve as a proposition for a more “holistic” journal club session.

Photo credits: http://chelonianri.org

Photo credits: http://chelonianri.org

Ecosystem services (ES) research

Research on ES evolved quickly from conceptualization, localized documentation and modeling of ecological dynamics, to policy and management applications, such as the creation of payment schemes for ES. A very nice timeline is provided by Gómez-Baggethun et al. 2010. Ecologists, economists and policy makers now widely engage with the concept, turning ES into a heuristic tool for revealing the multiple ways in which ecosystems support human well-being, an operational tool for making decisions, and a compelling language for policy makers. At the same time, the concept has generated a lot of criticism because of its hypertrophied focus on utilitarianism and potential commodification of nature (e.g. Schröter et al., 2014). Specifically, some authors have viewed ES as a one sided simplistic metaphor of human-environment relationships (e.g. Norgaard 2010, Raymond et al. 2013), ignoring different, often non-material, values that beneficiaries may assign to ecosystems. In response, new research agendas have emerged, including issues of: co-production by social-ecological systems, socio-cultural valuation of ES (e.g. Martín-López et al. 2014, Scholte et al. 2015) depending on a wide variety of values that stakeholders assign to ES (based on well on their own held values) (e.g. Ives and Kendal 2014), equity (e.g. Pascual et al. 2014), benefit distribution and disaggregation of beneficiaries based on various criteria such as location or gender (e.g. Daw 2009). The academic discourse on ES has roughly followed down the Haines-Young and Potschin ‘cascade’ towards recognizing their stakeholder driven nature. At the current stage there is growing interest in studying and understanding the more anthropospheric side (e.g. Spangenberg et al. 2014), or the ‘subjective end’ of the cascade: the plurality of benefits and values associated with different beneficiaries and their well-being. The general discourse is moving towards stakeholders, their capabilities (e.g. Polishchuk and Rauschmayer 2012), agency, interest, power (e.g. Fisher et al. 2013, Felipe Lucia et al. 2015), preferences, inner values, and the totality of social processes influencing the cascade: mobilization, appropriation, value articulation (e.g. Ernstson 2008), management, governance, normative foundations (e.g. Abson et al. 2014).

Social-ecological systems (SES) research

This point has been thoroughly dealt with in a previous more detailed blog entry (see also here). In short and simply put, present discourses seem to focus on the fundamental connection between the social and the ecological system, and, at the same time, the risk of disconnection or the dangers of teleconnections (e.g. Challies 2014), as well as potential solutions such as innovative re-connections supporting a transition towards sustainability. To these ends, SES research is striving to accommodate and adapt its frameworks to the social dynamics of globalizing systems inherently pertaining to a global economy and market. A variety of new conceptual frameworks (e.g. Diaz et al. 2015, Diaz et al. 2011, Fisher et. al 2014) are trying to capture better the interlinkages and interdependencies between nature and people and between science and society, while acknowledging them as being an integrative part of the other, and inseparable in reality. Authors are increasingly placing the focus on the knowledge about links between “the social” and “the ecological”, knowledge that was generated beyond disciplinary boundaries, at the interface between science and society (e.g. Fischer et al. in 2015). Papers are proposing various recoupling strategies (e.g. Fischer et al. in 2012), emphasizing reconnecting social-ecological feedbacks (Folke et al. 2011), such as more effective “virtuous circles” between natural, cultural, and economic assets (e.g. Plieninger and Bieling 2013, Selman and Knight 2006).

(Cultural) landscape research

The landscape lens brings forward the landscape as an arena for sustainable development and knowledge integration. Here, I would chose to stop over the rise of landscape stewardship, as a way to operationalize moral concerns in relation to social-ecological interactions that were enounced as early as the 50s (Leopold, 1949). Science for relinking communities and landscapes draws attention to the potential of landscape stewardship as one of the ambitious but effective ways to achieve sustainable management and design inclusive rural development policies (e.g. Plieninger et al. 2015). Integrating a broad suite of landscape values through engaged forms of stewardship is thought to balance out the dependency on active outside input (again inherent to a globalized world).

Sustainability science research

An important acknowledged milestone for sustainability science is re-thinking boundaries and structures, overcoming societal roles, and transforming the science-society interface, through for example the co-design of research projects and the co-production of knowledge fitting with transdisciplinary approaches (e.g. Lang et al. 2012, Brandt et al. 2013). Other suggested pathways are the recognition of its normative foundations through mapping and deliberating sustainability held values (e.g. Miller et al. 2014).

Resilience thinking

Resilience thinking continues to receive a lot of criticism for not sufficiently acknowledged limits such as the lack of attention to normative and epistemological issues. Recent discourse on resilience aims to open towards fields more engaged with the issues of power and agency such as political ecology or sociology, which may complement the arguably functional perspective of resilience. A permanent work in progress, resilience theory continues to develop, striving for a more complete knowledge integration of human and ecological dynamics. A more detailed perspective is offered here.

Sustainability related governance research

Finally, I am not sure to which extent this is a milestone, but I retained that in addition to the governance models incorporating elements of participatory (non-state multi-actor engagement, e.g. industry, NGOs) and multi-level governance, recent literature calls for polycentricity, further emphasizing the idea of a collaborative dispersion of authority (Biggs et al. 2015). Advanced polycentric systems comprise multiple independent centers of decision making, with different levels of inclusiveness, collaborating horizontally and vertically at various scales. In theory, these systems may isolate failures, but if successful, may be reproduced elsewhere. I found this idea worthy of further explorations in contexts with a diversity of elements pertaining to the social subsystems: different formal and informal institutions, land-use preferences, management approaches, various values, perspectives and interests such as identified in Southern Transylvania.

In conclusion, I take from these potential milestones that the general trend seems to be towards integration of existing knowledge, conceptual and epistemological openness and plurality, and maybe even a ‘subjectivisation’ of science, in hope of achieving meaningful contributions towards normative goals.

As for future directions, I guess one of the main questions that stems from the above are: 1. Do we need to engage more in these pathways, and if so how can we capitalize on them? 2. Do any of these potential milestones are going to lead to any fundamental changes in approaches towards sustainability (e.g. mainstreaming transdisciplinarity?)

As already mentioned, there are many other interesting developing directions in all of the scientific disciplines I touched upon. The few selected are reflective of a particular research experience and perspective I had from my positioning as a PhD student dealing with the ecology of the social system. This is just a starting point from where the mind can continue traveling boundlessly to imagine infinite perspectives outside comfort zones.

References

  • Abson, D. J., H. Von Wehrden, S. Baumgärtner, J. Fischer, J. Hanspach, W. Härdtle, H. Heinrichs et al. “Ecosystem services as a boundary object for sustainability.” Ecological Economics 103 (2014): 29-37.
  • *Bennett, Elena M., Wolfgang Cramer, Alpina Begossi, Georgina Cundill, Sandra Díaz, Benis N. Egoh, Ilse R. Geijzendorffer et al. “Linking biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human well-being: three challenges for designing research for sustainability.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14 (2015): 76-85.
  • *Biggs, Reinette, Maja Schlüter, and Michael L. Schoon, eds. Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • *Brandt, Patric, et al. “A review of transdisciplinary research in sustainability science.” Ecological Economics 92 (2013): 1-15.
  • Challies, Edward, Jens Newig, and Andrea Lenschow. “What role for social–ecological systems research in governing global teleconnections?.” Global Environmental Change 27 (2014): 32-40.
  • *Cote, Muriel, and Andrea J. Nightingale. “Resilience thinking meets social theory Situating social change in socio-ecological systems (SES) research.” Progress in Human Geography4 (2012): 475-489.
  • Daw, Tim, Katrina Brown, Sergio Rosendo, and Robert Pomeroy. “Applying the ecosystem services concept to poverty alleviation: the need to disaggregate human well-being.” Environmental Conservation 38, no. 04 (2011): 370-379.
  • Díaz, Sandra, Fabien Quétier, Daniel M. Cáceres, Sarah F. Trainor, Natalia Pérez-Harguindeguy, M. Syndonia Bret-Harte, Bryan Finegan, Marielos Peña-Claros, and Lourens Poorter. “Linking functional diversity and social actor strategies in a framework for interdisciplinary analysis of nature’s benefits to society.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 3 (2011): 895-902.
  • Díaz, Sandra, Sebsebe Demissew, Julia Carabias, Carlos Joly, Mark Lonsdale, Neville Ash, Anne Larigauderie et al. “The IPBES Conceptual Framework—connecting nature and people.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14 (2015): 1-16.
  • Ernstson, Henrik. “The social production of ecosystem services: lessons from urban resilience research.” Ernston, H, In Rhizomia: Actors, Networks and Resilience in Urban Landscapes, PhD Thesis, Stockholm University (2008).
  • Felipe-Lucia, María R., Berta Martín-López, Sandra Lavorel, Luis Berraquero-Díaz, Javier Escalera-Reyes, and Francisco A. Comín. “Ecosystem Services Flows: Why Stakeholders’ Power Relationships Matter.” PloS one 10, no. 7 (2015): e0132232.
  • *Fischer, Joern, et al. “Advancing sustainability through mainstreaming a social–ecological systems perspective.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14 (2015): 144-149.
  • Fischer, Joern, Tibor Hartel, and Tobias Kuemmerle. “Conservation policy in traditional farming landscapes.” Conservation Letters 5, no. 3 (2012): 167-175.
  • *Fisher, Janet A., et al. “Strengthening conceptual foundations: analyzing frameworks for ecosystem services and poverty alleviation research.” Global Environmental Change5 (2013): 1098-1111.
  • Fisher, Janet A., Genevieve Patenaude, Kalpana Giri, Kristina Lewis, Patrick Meir, Patricia Pinho, Mark DA Rounsevell, and Mathew Williams. “Understanding the relationships between ecosystem services and poverty alleviation: a conceptual framework.” Ecosystem services 7 (2014): 34-45.
  • Fisher, Janet A., Genevieve Patenaude, Patrick Meir, Andrea J. Nightingale, Mark DA Rounsevell, Mathew Williams, and Iain H. Woodhouse. “Strengthening conceptual foundations: analysing frameworks for ecosystem services and poverty alleviation research.” Global Environmental Change 23, no. 5 (2013): 1098-1111.
  • Folke, Carl, Åsa Jansson, Johan Rockström, Per Olsson, Stephen R. Carpenter, F. Stuart Chapin III, Anne-Sophie Crépin et al. “Reconnecting to the biosphere.” Ambio 40, no. 7 (2011): 719-738.
  • Gómez-Baggethun, Erik, Rudolf De Groot, Pedro L. Lomas, and Carlos Montes. “The history of ecosystem services in economic theory and practice: from early notions to markets and payment schemes.” Ecological Economics 69, no. 6 (2010): 1209-1218.
  • Ives, Christopher D., and Dave Kendal. “The role of social values in the management of ecological systems.” Journal of environmental management 144 (2014): 67-72.
  • *Lang, Daniel J., et al. “Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges.” Sustainability science1 (2012): 25-43.
  • Leopold, Aldo. The land ethic. USA, 1949.
  • Martín-López, Berta, Erik Gómez-Baggethun, Marina García-Llorente, and Carlos Montes. “Trade-offs across value-domains in ecosystem services assessment.” Ecological Indicators 37 (2014): 220-228.
  • Miller, Thaddeus R., Arnim Wiek, Daniel Sarewitz, John Robinson, Lennart Olsson, David Kriebel, and Derk Loorbach. “The future of sustainability science: a solutions-oriented research agenda.” Sustainability science 9, no. 2 (2014): 239-246.
  • *Newig, Jens, and Oliver Fritsch. Environmental governance: participatory, multi-level-and effective?. No. 15/2008. UFZ Diskussionspapiere, 2008.
  • Norgaard, Richard B. “Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder.” Ecological economics 69, no. 6 (2010): 1219-1227.
  • Pascual, Unai, Jacob Phelps, Eneko Garmendia, Katrina Brown, Esteve Corbera, Adrian Martin, Erik Gomez-Baggethun, and Roldan Muradian. “Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services.” BioScience (2014): biu146.
  • Plieninger, Tobias, and Claudia Bieling. “Resilience-based perspectives to guiding high-nature-value farmland through socioeconomic change.” Ecology and Society 18, no. 4 (2013).
  • *Plieninger, Tobias, and Claudia Bieling. Resilience and the cultural landscape: understanding and managing change in human-shaped environments. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • *Plieninger, Tobias, et al. “Exploring ecosystem-change and society through a landscape lens: recent progress in European landscape research.” Ecology and Society2 (2015): 5.
  • Polishchuk, Yuliana, and Felix Rauschmayer. “Beyond “benefits”? Looking at ecosystem services through the capability approach.” Ecological Economics 81 (2012): 103-111.
  • Raymond, Christopher M., Gerald G. Singh, Karina Benessaiah, Joanna R. Bernhardt, Jordan Levine, Harry Nelson, Nancy J. Turner, Bryan Norton, Jordan Tam, and Kai MA Chan. “Ecosystem services and beyond: Using multiple metaphors to understand human–environment relationships.” BioScience 63, no. 7 (2013): 536-546.
  • Scholte, Samantha SK, Astrid JA van Teeffelen, and Peter H. Verburg. “Integrating socio-cultural perspectives into ecosystem service valuation: A review of concepts and methods.” Ecological Economics 114 (2015): 67-78.
  • Schröter, Matthias, Emma H. Zanden, Alexander PE Oudenhoven, Roy P. Remme, Hector M. Serna‐Chavez, Rudolf S. Groot, and Paul Opdam. “Ecosystem services as a contested concept: a synthesis of critique and counter‐” Conservation Letters 7, no. 6 (2014): 514-523.
  • Selman, Paul, and Melanie Knight. “On the nature of virtuous change in cultural landscapes: Exploring sustainability through qualitative models.” Landscape Research 31, no. 3 (2006): 295-307.
  • Spangenberg, Joachim H., Christina von Haaren, and Josef Settele. “The ecosystem service cascade: Further developing the metaphor. Integrating societal processes to accommodate social processes and planning, and the case of bioenergy.” Ecological Economics 104 (2014): 22-32.
  • *Turner, Matthew D. “Political ecology I An alliance with resilience?.” Progress in Human Geography (2013): 0309132513502770.

*Suggested readings

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.

LeveragePoints

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.