Category Archives: General

Who are we and how do we hang out?

Yesterday at the PECS2015 conference we joined a great session with “young” scholars to reflect on who we are as a community of researchers and how we do what we do. SAPECS scholars Vanessa, Jessica and Odi convened it and we focused on three key questions: 1) What is our identity as SES researchers? 2) What are the challenges we experience in applying suitable tools and approaches for place-based, transdisciplinary research? and 3) How do we build a career as SES researchers? We addressed these questions through a debate, speed talks on place-based case studies, and a panel discussion with some of the “elders” of our community.

In reflecting on our CS9hfufWUAA-ZyCidentity as social-ecological researchers we considered what name to give our community. This was done as a roleplay of a community, which had been forced to adopt a new name. Marika Haeggman was our elected Mayor who facilitated the debate. The proposed name was Sustainable Transdisciplinary Resilience Ecosystem Science for Society, needless to say the acronym is STRESS! These were the reactions from the extended community:

The discussion seemed to indicate that the participants preferred to remain unnamed and have a more open identity. The openness that such an identity brings is both challenging, but also allows for creativity in how we do our research. One of the speakers, Johan Enqvist said that we might be more defined by the questions we ask and the issues we address, than our methods and disciplinary backgrounds. Caroline Schill reflected that interdisciplinary research can sometimes feel like walking a tightrope: on the one side we need to dare to be unconventional in our methods, on the other hand we need to be aware of the “disciplined” way of doing things if we want to publish our work in a certain field. One of the wise panelists, Joshua Lewis, shared his experiences of fitting into different disciplinary homes during his career and learning to adapt his language depending on the norm of each institution. Joana Carlos Bezerra stated that instead of being in a place where everyone does what she does, she would rather find a space where you are allowed to do what you want to do, how you want to do it.

The ethical dilemmas we face in engaged place-based emerged as an important discussion point. Vanessa Masterson shared an interesting insight from her work in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, where she faced a dilemma in providing honest (critical) feedback to the community, which may jeopardize the relationship of trust she built with them during her research. How do we meet the expectations of the local communities we work with? Another panelist, Tom Chaigneau, proposed that instead of disseminating our findings, which are often complex, we could throw a party for the research participants! Shauna Mahajan raised another ethical conundrum: she faced difficulties in maintaining neutrality when encountering gatekeepers in her research in Kenya.

Alta de Vos’s final CS9hgcoXAAAa_CW_002word was that she takes with her how supported she has been. There is a lot of support out there that we definitely should seek out when we are doing this type of high-stakes, tightrope-dancing research! However, it is not only the students who need to prepare for this; we also need to build institutional capacity in training and create spaces and cultures that encourage reflection.

Get involved in our emerging community of practice to reflect more on how we do research, share tips, and connect with each other: join our list serve by e-mailing

@jess_cockburn & @MySellberg

How do we do this?!?

Morning coffeeYesterday we had great discussions with a group of about 30 early career scholars at a learning event by SAPECS on participatory action research in social-ecological systems, facilitated by Christo Fabricius. Basically it was about how we engage in a meaningful way in our research with other people in society. I quickly realized that participants were interested in a wide range of engagement, both facilitating participatory processes and reporting back research results to communities, for example, and in lots of different contexts.

I really enjoy having those pre-meetings with a smaller group of people – now there are lots of familiar faces to chat more with during the conference! Here are some reflections from one of the organizers, Odirilwe Selomane, on why these types of events are useful:

A recurrent theme was the need to have time to connect with people outside academia, build relationships and build trust. Time to actually listen to the needs of communities. But the emphasis on time also brought up a challenge: how to find time during your PhD to both engage in a meaningful way with stakeholders and write high-quality scientific papers? Check out Jessica Cockburn’s discussion with Professor Karen Esler about this:

As Karen mentioned, a strategy to deal with this tension is to make transdisciplinary research a team effort and not an individual endeavor. Your own research can be part of a bigger project that is already established, where some of that time-consuming trust-building already has been done. Another strategy was to connect with partners outside the university that can facilitate the participatory process. From this discussion I’m more hopeful that there are ways to work this out in the current system, but in the longer-term I think there is a need to question the major incentive on researchers to allocate most their time on producing scientific publications.

I’m also asking myself how I have dealt with this issue so far? For one of the municipalities that we are collaborating with (Sellberg et al. 2015), it certainly helps that we have worked together since 2011, we already have built a lot of trust and got to know each other, and that the key people at the municipality driving the project really have an own interest in engaging with new research.




Prepping for PECS

We landed in beautiful Cape Town, ‘The Mother City’, and the air is filled with excitement of all the social-ecological system discussions to come. Our preparations for PECS have so far included exploring Old Biscuit Mill market, visiting the resident penguins of Boulders Beach, taking in the views from Cape Point, and experiencing the best of Bree and Long Street.

Today and tomorrow we will change residencies to Stellenbosch and dive deeper into the conference mode. My will participate in the pre-conference SAPECS learning event on participatory action research in social-ecological systems. We will give a report back tomorrow on all the most interesting ideas and opportunities that came up.

The main event kicks off with welcome drinks and snacks on Monday to set the stage for the coming days of science, socializing and Spier wine. It will be fun to see who is here and start to get to know new people and catch up with some familiar faces.

We are both checking out the program to try and decide our schedules for the coming days. The young scholars’ session on Wednesday, ‘’What does it mean to be a place-based social-ecological systems researcher?’’, should be a highlight. We also know that the conversations outside the sessions will be just as important. It is going to be a busy few days. We are already looking forward to the relaxing walks around Spier to digest it all!

Twitter: @MySellberg & @meganmeacham

PhDs at PECS 2015

Hi Everyone,

Megan MeachamIt is My Sellberg and Megan Meacham here to introduce ourselves to you and kick off a series of blog posts dedicated to PECS 2015! PECS 2015 is a scientific conference focused on the social ecological dynamics of the anthropocene, hosted by the Programme on ecosystem change and society (PECS) in Stellenbosch, South Africa the 3rd – 5th November, 2015.

My SellbergWe are both PhD students at the Stockholm Resilience Centre as well as one half of the dream team that makes up the PECS International program office. Megan’s PhD work focuses on the dynamics of multiple ecosystem services and My’s PhD engages with the development and practice of resilience assessment.

We will be among the waves of social ecological systems scholars descending upon South Africa next week to join with the dynamic SES community based there. We are hoping for a week full of discussions, lively debates, provoking presentations, lots of fun, and of course a bit of wine.

We will use this space to share our perspectives on the conference and surrounding events as well as engage with other young and young-at-heart scholars. We hope that you will follow along as we depart the ever darker Stockholm and immerse ourselves in all the science and fun of sunny Stellenbosch and Cape Town.

Follow us on Twitter: @meganmeacham and @MySellberg

Reflections to “Time to Rei(g)n Back the Anthropocene?”

This is a short reflection to Andy Stirling’s recent post “Time to Rei(g)n Back the Anthropocene?”  about the Anthropocene, “planetary boundaries” and politics. Feel free to join the discussions in the comment field here, or at the STEPS-blog

First of all, I would like to thank Andy Stirling for getting this discussion started with a very thought provoking post. I would also like to point out that the opinions raised here are my own, and should in no way be viewed as an “official” Stockholm Resilience Centre reply: there are simply too many different perspectives of the issues raised in the blogpost at SRC, which means that I possibly can’t make them all justice in a quick reflection. So I write this in hope that others will join the discussion.

I agree with you that this indeed is an important discussion. What I still don’t understand however (and this is what I see as the key argument in the blog piece), is how the Anthropocene concept lays “the foundation for planetary geoengineering”, “planetary management”, or how it contributes to an “authoritarian control agenda”. This issue has been raised before (by Melissa Leach here, and Robyn Eckersley here), but I simply don’t buy into the argument. Allow me to elaborate briefly.


For some reason, the notion of “earth system governance” (ESG) is mentioned side by side with the term “planetary management”. This I believe, is an incorrect and very unfortunate conflation of the two terms. ESG is a research agenda – not a specific governance model – that brings together a very rich community of social scientists from a diversity of disciplines. ESG includes a number of important of research perspectives and projects exploring exactly the sort of critical questions that are raised in the blog post, including agency, accountability, allocation and access. In short, the ESG does not at all “confirm and elaborate what Anthropocene ambitions mean in practice”. Instead, the community shows the need to critically explore the messy and unavoidably political nature of governance at multiple levels of the Earth system. It does not endorse nor support simplistic notions of planetary “management” or “control”. The reference to “planetary management” is a link to Eckersley’s text, and provides no evidence that  Anthropocene scholars  (and there are many, many more than Paul Crutzen, John Schellnhuber and Johan Rockström!) have a preference for top-down or authoritarian modes of governance.

Maybe it’s the ESG-community’s strong emphasis on international institutions that creates such a space for misinterpretation, but surely we must be able to explore international institutional challenges in the Anthropocene without “laying the foundations” for an “authoritarian control agenda”?

Another example of why I don’t buy into the argument is the summary made of David Christian’s lecture on Big History during the Transformation 2015 conference in Stockholm.

Indeed, in another wonderfully animated talk just before Johan’s [Rockström, my addition] own, Australian scholar of ‘big history‘ David Christian outlined a very graphic fourteen billion year ‘origin story’ for the Universe as a whole. Deliberately presented as a creation myth, this reproduced the usual analytic-normative duality of all such narratives: diagnosing in the same theme as the prescription.

And this theme was, again, control: emphasising this time not only how the destiny of humanity, but the identity of life itself, can (and should) be seen in terms of ever-growing capacities to command information in order to control the external world. In this potent allegory, the advent of humans is suggested as a “threshold moment” not just for the Earth, but for the Universe more widely.

This is an interesting reflection, but this was not at all what I brought with me from Christian’s lecture (and this is actually the second time I hear this talk). If anything, “Big History” teaches us that many of the processes that shape the planet are truly emergent – sum of interacting forces with transformative effects, but with highly limited predictability and beyond simple “control”. The argument that increased information processing drives growth in biosphere and social complexity is – in my mind – not at all about control. On the contrary, it is an observation about how profoundly evolution and information are related (for en excellent and lengthy overview, see  Gleick’s book “The Information”).

There is also a very important issue about terminology here, and how different terms are interpreted. The blogpost mentions  “Anthropocene planetary boundaries as “control variables” – this is clearly mainly about control.” I’m not a systems scientist, but my layman understanding of a “control variable” is a variable that in important ways shapes the behavior of a system. One example would be incoming solar radiation and global temperature. Now, identifying/proposing a variable such as this does not imply that it is possible nor desirable to “control” it. In my example, it might be (and I would say even is) both impossible and undesirable to launch a major Solar Radiation Management scheme. So I might argue that X is a control variable for Y, without inevitably suggesting that X needs to be “controlled”, even though I might term it a “control variable”. Happy to hear some more informed reflections about this issue from others. However, “non-negotiable”, “absolutely no uncertainty”, and “no compromise” are terms that I personally would not use, so I would ask others to respond to that particular critique!

But you are making a very important point that I fully agree with. “Real political choices are being made, about how Sustainability is to be interpreted, the directions in which it is going – and the kinds of futures to which it might lead.” We (STEPS, SRC and others) have important responsibilities in this regard.  I’m very happy that we are able to discuss issues such as these  in an open, and constructive way. I worry however that claims about ‘the Anthropocene’ always contributing to an “authoritarian control agenda” not only is an unfair summary of the immensely rich governance debate emerging in different parts of the world. It also risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s bring more nuances and voices to this important discussion.

Harder, Faster, Stronger – How Financial Markets are Shaping the Biosphere

Should ecologists and sustainability scientists care about financial markets? The answer is a loud and resounding “yes”, and I’m delighted to finally be able to share our latest article published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution yesterday, co-authored with colleagues Johan Gars, Fredrik Moberg, Björn Nykvist and Cecilia Repinski.

The article not only shows how financial systems connect to social ecological change at the global scale. It also shows the ultra-speed by which financial information flows through international commodity markets, often supported by sophisticated trading algorithms (Figure 1 below). Bluntly put: financial systems have a harder, faster, and stronger – and not necessarily better (for those familiar with the Daft Punk song) – impact on social-ecological connections in the Anthropocene than previously understood.

Figure 1. Algorithmic trade with commodity derivatives

Figure 1. Map showing the world’s 20 largest commodity derivatives markets, denoted with their official acronyms (KCBT = The Kansas City Board of Trade; ROFEX = The Rosario Futures Exchange; etc). Symbols indicate the main commodity derivative traded, and the purple-colored circles show where indications of algorithmic trade have been found (blue circles = no indication of algorithmic trade). The graph in the lower right corner shows the rapid increase from year 2005 in the turnover of commodity futures contracts traded in organized exchanges. For details, see Galaz et al. 2015 in TREE

Debates about the “financialisation of nature” and the potential of divestment from fossil fuels  is not new of course. Our article broadens these debates in two ways as I see it.

One is that it challenges recent arguments about the lack of “intercontinental connectivity” between ecosystems across the world put forward by Brook and colleagues in TREE in 2013 (see my previous critique here). As others have explored already, globalization has created a number of “telecouplings” across the planet (e.g. Liu and colleagues), often through trade flows. We show for the first time, that intercontinental connectivity between ecosystems also increasing unfolds through financial flows, financial innovation and associated technologies (illustrated in Figure 2 from McKinsey Global Institute (2014) .

Figure 2. Global Financial Flows, 2002 vs. 2012. Picture from McKinsey Global Institute (2014). Global flows in a digital age: How trade, finance, people, and data connect the world economy (pp. 12).

The second contribution I believe, is that we take a closer look at what normally (and sometimes too vaguely) is referred to as “Wall Street” (like here) or the “financialisation of nature” (e.g. here). These are valid and important contributions, but only give us a first glimpse of the complexities and dynamics of global financial systems and capital flows.

Put bluntly: “Wall Street” is not an amorphous “black box” system  – it consists of financial actors such as investment banks and hedge funds; instruments such as commodity derivatives; and technologies such as algorithmic trading. Understanding how financial connectivity evolves in the Anthropocene should include more than general criticisms against financial systems. It should also try to map how these actors, their relations, and associated capital flows shape the biosphere.

What happens in Wall Street and other international financial centers matters. Hopefully our article provides a first step in opening the financial “black box”.

Critically reflecting on social-ecological systems research

Guest post from Simon West, Diego Galafassi, Jamila Haider, Andres Marin, Andrew Merrie, Daniel Ospina-Medina, Caroline Schill

Critical reflection is a core competence for sustainability researchers and a crucial mechanism through which research evolves and breaks new ground. For instance, Lance Gunderson and C.S. Holling stress in the canonical social-ecological systems (SES) book Panarchy that SES research will develop through critical interrogation of their work and identifying where their heuristics do not apply. However, critical reflection can also be tricky – it requires moving out of safety zones, challenging established perspectives, and having open and frank discussions. Productive critical reflection also requires mutual respect, decency, and high standards of academic integrity.

For our critical reflection seminar Andrea J. Nightingale gave the talk, ‘Conceptualizing society-environment dynamics: social-ecological systems, socionatures, or something else?’

Prof. Nightingale is Professor in Environmental Social Sciences at the School of Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Her work navigates the intersections between critical development studies, political ecology, and human geography – including a longstanding engagement with ‘socionatures’ concepts (linked to theorists such as Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour). Prof. Nightingale was an speaker for the CRS – her 2012 paper ‘Resilience thinking meets social theory,’ written with Muriel Cote, critically examines the treatment of social change within social-ecological resilience thinking. It is often cited at the SRC as one of the more useful and engaging critiques of resilience thinking from a critical social science perspective.

Prof. Nightingale’s presentation sparked lively and exciting debate in the public seminar and the PhD workshops that followed (with PhD students from the SRC and the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg).

What follows is a narrative tracing Prof. Nightingale’s critique of SES research and the discussions it provoked. Prof. Nightingale’s comments have been paraphrased, and the subsequent discussions have been condensed into a single narrative voice for ease of reading (this should not be taken to mean that there was a single ‘unified response’ among the students to Prof. Nightingale’s comments). All omissions remain the fault of the authors of this blog.

A new Enlightenment from the old? 

Prof. Nightingale:

Our ways of thinking about the world are largely inherited from the Enlightenment era, where domains of “society” and “nature” were constructed as means of knowing the world. This system of thought allows for the construction of analytical objects that are clearly ‘natural’ or ‘social,’ and produces mechanistic interpretations of the world. Today we are finding these distinctions difficult to maintain and a profusion of research approaches – including resilience, social-ecological systems, political ecology, the livelihoods framework, assemblages, actor-network theory and socionatures – have emerged that challenge this division between humans and the environment. 

However, none of these approaches have yet managed to satisfactorily figure out how to think outside of the domains of ‘society’ and ‘nature.’ Imagine a forest: the forest consists of relations between all sorts of organisms, the structure of the forest is affected by the harvesting activities of people as well as by various other creatures, the biophysical processes of vegetation growth are affected by atmospheric chemistry, which in turn is shaped by human activities across the globe, the content of the soil reflects the chemicals used by surrounding agricultural areas, and perhaps the forest only exists because it sits on land designated as a “conservation area.” What in the forest is ‘social’ and what is ‘natural’?


Perhaps all emerging approaches to studying human-environment relations would recognize the Enlightenment heritage we are working with. Indeed, SRC Science Director Carl Folke in his new book Reflections on People and the Biosphere, suggests we are now entering a ‘new Enlightenment’ that recognizes interdependency of humans and the environment. The difficulty is conceiving of these relations in terms other than those we have inherited, while still thinking and speaking comprehensibly to a wide audience – are we hamstrung by language? The profusion of approaches to studying human-environment relationships has brought with it a flood of hyphens, plurals, and portmanteaus. However, existing terms such as ‘socionatures,’ ‘social-ecological systems’ and so on, are all to some extent reifying past distinctions. 

Are social-ecological systems interactions or processes? Are they characterized by feedbacks or emergence?

Prof. Nightingale:

New ways of understanding human-environment relationships can be broadly grouped into ‘interactional’ and ‘relational’ approaches in terms of their underlying ontologies. Interactional approaches include social-ecological systems, adaptive cycles, the livelihoods framework, and political ecology. Here ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ components are considered to be distinct but interacting; the focus is therefore on ‘linked’ or ‘nested’ systems and on the interactions across spatial and temporal scales. ‘Feedbacks’ are the crucial devices to understand human-environment dynamics, and the analytical imagery is largely of boxes with connecting arrows.

In contrast, relational approaches such as socionatures, assemblages and actor-network theory rely on a ‘process-based’ ontology. They insist that entities only come into being in relation to each other, and therefore that it is impossible to clearly distinguish social and ecological ‘components’ of a system. Human-environment dynamics are captured through the concept of emergence rather than feedbacks, and the imagery is of ‘hybrids’ or ‘cyborgs.’ Neither interactional or relational approaches are ‘right,’ rather, each allows us to see different things.


Despite emphasis on feedbacks, SES work is – like much of ‘socionatures’ – founded upon ontological commitments to emergence, complex processes, and co-production of social-ecological dynamics. However, distinctions between ‘ecological’ and ‘social’ components in SES research are often made in order to more easily measure and study human-environment relations. The assumption that we can analytically separate ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ in order to study emergent processes is a crucial tension that many SES researchers struggle with. 

Moreover, SES research is characterized by wide heterogeneity in ontologies and epistemologies. It is therefore difficult to make broad categorizations of ‘relational’ versus ‘interactional’ approaches. These difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that ontologies in particular are often not explicitly discussed. A more open discussion about ontologies and epistemologies, and how they are expressed and ‘connected’ in our work, will strengthen and clarify trans-disciplinary SES research. 

Analytical constructs or heuristics?

Prof. Nightingale:

When we discuss interactional and relational approaches, it is crucial to be aware that all science deals with signs (semiotics) – and therefore we need to distinguish between analytical constructs (which try to reflect reality and may offer methodological tools and entry points), and boundary objects (which act as metaphors, drawing attention to particular dynamics but not intended to directly reflect reality or to be directly operationalized). 

Without being aware of this distinction, there is a high risk of ‘slippage’ and confusing analytical constructs and boundary-objects or metaphors with ‘life itself.’ Social-ecological systems (and socionatures) are not ‘life itself’ – rather, each reduce it in particular ways. So the focus should be on how the concepts reduce, what aspects of life they allow us to see, and what aspects they obscure.


The debate about whether social-ecological resilience, adaptive cycles, and social-ecological systems are ‘boundary-objects’ – useful metaphorically and heuristically but not something directly observable/measurable – has been ongoing for some time. Indeed, it connects to broader historical debates about the ‘reality’ of ecological concepts. In a previous post on this blog, Allyson Quinlan has outlined the tensions inherent in widespread moves to measure resilience (considered by some to be inherently un-measurable).

While practising scientists may consider it self-evident that such representations are not ‘life itself,’ there is a risk that a lack of clarity on these issues can prompt ‘slippage’– especially when these concepts enter the public realm. For instance, the use and communication of concepts like ecosystem services, the anthropocene and planetary boundaries in academic, policy and public debates can become ‘ontologized.’ Concepts also play different roles in different realms – an analytical construct in one discipline may be used as a metaphor or heuristic in another (for instance the use of ecological concepts such as ‘metabolism’ and ‘rhizome’ as metaphors in socionatures); likewise a heuristic in academia may become something more ‘concrete’ in policy discourse. 

How do we ‘see’ and ‘know’ relations? 

Prof. Nightingale:

Just like Enlightenment thinking, SES and socionatures perspectives allow us to ‘see’ some things and not others. The ontologies and epistemologies we use provide us access to different realities (not different aspects of the same one). SES allows us to see how the character of systems are constituted from relations between things rather than only the qualities of things in themselves, how system dynamics operate within and across scales, and the importance of small-scale, rapid rate change for shaping large-scale, slower rate change. However, system components currently remain relatively discrete in SES models (obscuring the way that ‘components’ are often at once social and ecological), social processes are not as neatly ‘nested’ as ecological processes appear to be, and social scale does not correspond to rate in the same way as ecological scale tends to.  These are problems for SES because it means that social processes like learning, scale and governance are undertheorized, and currently cannot account for the dynamics of change considered central to social systems – such as power, politics and justice.

Relational thinking allows us to see the operations of power, politics and justice in systems, the inextricability of ‘social’ and ‘natural’ objects, and the process-based dynamics through which these objects come into being. But relational approaches generally have a poor understanding of ecological and environmental dynamics, a resistance to using established ecological methods (because of their ‘ontological baggage’), and carry unresolved tensions over bounding studies (where do networks begin and end), defining methodological objects, and developing methodological tools that keep ‘society’ and ‘nature’ together.

In conclusion, the challenge to Enlightenment thinking represented by these new approaches to human-environment relations is easier to operationalize conceptually than methodologically, and fundamental questions remain over the consequences of our simplifications and abstractions. No approach is ‘life itself’ but rather a particular rendering of reality – so questions turn to the role of the researcher, what kinds of role they play, and what kind of change they are trying to effect. Moreover, no research strand has ‘figured it all out yet,’ and satisfactorily overcome the ‘society’/’nature’ divide. Some crucial further questions are: How do we develop new research tools that can ‘see’ process-based dynamics and objects that are at once ‘social’ and ‘natural’? How do we retain attention to power and politics while also attempting to speak for other species (beyond anthropocentrism and ecocentrism)? Who decides what change is desirable?


Firstly, is ‘not seeing’ justice, power and politics a problem for SES? If all approaches and frameworks only ‘see’ certain aspects of the world, wouldn’t ‘not seeing’ only become a problem if the end goal of SES approaches was to develop a theory of everything? Is this what we do or imply? Or is the problem rather that justice, power and politics may potentially be crucial to the operation of SES and we are ‘missing out’ by not including them in our work? 

Secondly, is it the case the SES necessarily does not see power, politics and justice? Many of us would argue not. Indeed, an increasing number of SES researchers frame social-ecological resilience (defined in a broad sense including adaptive capacity and transformation) as an emergent quality arising from negotiations and contestations over knowledge, including ideas of justice, politics and power. A current special issue in Ecology and Society is exploring potential contributions from social theory to SES research.

There is a wide heterogeneity of ontologies and epistemologies in SES research. Indeed, in the experience of discussants, scholars can be committed to a more relational understanding of SES – for instance, emphasizing the importance of processes that co-produce emergent properties – but decide to adopt more interactional epistemologies and methodologies because they are easier to ‘operationalize.’ How is it possible to work in between and among differing epistemologies and ontologies? The answers to these questions are likely to reside in the particular ways these dilemmas are managed in each individual research project, but productive research will be more likely to come from researchers who have reflected on and explored these issues. 

Trans-disciplinary sustainability science sits at the boundaries of multiple, quite different, epistemologies and ontologies. How can we work and speak between these worlds? Life in the ‘border zone’ of sustainability science renders these questions ever-present: our goal for Critical Reflection Seminars is to provide a space to help us navigate them.

In the comments below we welcome further discussions, and invite suggestions about aspects of social-ecological systems you judge important to consider critically – as well as suggestions for future speakers.


Business & Resilience: Convergence or critical mismatch?

Guest post from Margot Hill Clarvis and Michael Schoon

In the aftermath of major global weather events such as Superstorm Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan, companies have increasingly focused on resilient infrastructure, business continuity, and secure supply chains. But are business continuity and rapid recovery the hallmarks of resilience, or has there been a disconnect between the scientific understanding of resilience and its implementation by business?

1. Why do it?

It’s clearly in the interests of the private sector to invest in resilience-building activities.  More and more corporations are embracing resilience as a framework to maintain core operations, fulfil corporate responsibilities, and develop new business opportunities as global economic, social and environmental conditions shift ever more rapidly.  By resilience we mean  social-ecological resilience, which integrates systems of people and the natural environment, as opposed to engineering or psychological resilience.

IBM, for example, has focused on developing resilience-based infrastructure management solutions that help both cities and companies prepare for major disruption from natural and man-made hazards. Their insurance sector scorecards support ways to vary insurance premiums according to reductions in hazard exposure and vulnerability, thus creating a financial incentive to invest in resilience.

Swiss Re is part of the Resilience Action Initiative, a multi-stakeholder partnership to support multinationals build their own resilience and that of the surrounding communities. PWC increasingly supports private and public-sector organisations in building disaster risk resilience.

Meanwhile Zurich Insurance wants to transform community flood resilience through its alliance with the International Federation of the Red Cross, International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, and the Wharton School. It is building partnerships that support community innovation for preparedness rather than post-disaster responses.

2. Convergence or critical mismatch?

These are encouraging examples, but for anyone familiar with the central tenets of social-ecological resilience, some troubling blind spots emerge in the way corporations implement resilience thinking. Businesses tend to focus on shorter-term issues that directly challenge their own specific and immediate operations, developing systems robust to isolated shocks. This pits local versus global resilience and individual supply chain resilience versus a broader perspective of resilience.

Although businesses often talk about addressing chronic, long-term stresses, in reality they focus far more on critical, immediate stresses, failing to recognise broader ‘systems’ issues, which track across sectors, economies and regions. To avoid these traps, business leaders should reflect on a few key questions:

  • Is resilience a short-term objective or a longer-term approach to help shape sustainable practice?
  • Is resilience being used to reduce vulnerability to specific risks or to optimise the system in which they do business?
  • And does the over-riding focus on short-term fixes still allow for taking longer-term, systemic issues into account?

Businesses would do well for themselves and the communities in which they operate by addressing some of the core complexities at the heart of resilience thinking.

The Capital Institute is one such example. Its Evergreen Direct Investing concept calls for the end of quarterly financial reporting, which incentivises short-term thinking at the expense of long-term stability and growth.  As another example, the R!SE initiative brings together the public and private sectors with civil society to scale up isolated best practice on disaster risk resilience for a more systemic response.

Business must also be better supported to understand how this kind of cross-scale complexity can become directly or indirectly relevant to them.

At the international scale, recent work has led to the translation of a set of ‘Planetary Boundaries’ (i.e. carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification and global freshwater use) from global levels of resource consumption and pollution into more specific societal and business relevant targets. At a national level, Earth Security Group has developed a risk dashboard to simplify the complexities of interdependent resource risks across trade partners and commodity supply chains.

As aggregate levels of risk collide with the growing interdependence of our global economy, it will become increasingly vital to take a longer-term and wider perspective to avoid unintended consequences.

3. Persistent challenges remain.

Firstly, resilience, as a concept, lacks clarity.  Academics need to critically address whether current research and its communication is suitable for supporting the resolution of urgent real-world problems.

Secondly, while companies may often think in the longer-term, our economic structures and financial practices remain captivated by quarterly timeframes and the pursuit of efficiency to the detriment of long-term systemic resilience. We need a more diverse and flexible financial system that is capable of factoring ‘general resilience’ into risk-adjusted returns on investment.

About the authors: Dr Margot Hill Clarvis of the University of Geneva and Earth Security Group, and Professor Michael Schoon of the School of Sustainability, Arizona State University. The authors would like to thanks participants of the Resilience of Business Event at the Resilience Conference 2014 for their insights that informed this post.

Making Sense of the Anthropocene Debate(s)

by Victor Galaz | @vgalaz

Do you find it hard to keep track of ongoing discussions about the Anthropocene? So do I. Part of the reason why it is easy to loose track, is that there is actually not only one – but (at least) five parallel Anthropocene debates.

Last week’s event hosted by the German HKW Anthropocene project, is an excellent example of this increasing diversity of perspectives that nowadays frame the Anthropocene debate.

Anthropocene Working Group, 16/10-2014 via @AnthropoceneObsAnthropocene Working Group, 16/10-2014 via @AnthropoceneObs

The first debate is what I would call the classical Anthropocene debate – has humanity formally left the Holocene, and entered a new geological epoch? If that is the case, when did it start? The epicenter of this discussion is the work of the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (neatly summarized by Elizabeth Kolbert here , and updated by Andrew Revkin’s here).

Over the years however, a number of parallell debates have evolved as well. These focus is not on geological epochs and insights from the Earth system science, but rather on the social, institutional and political dimensions of the Anthropocene concept.

The second for example, is what I would denote a debate about  Anthropocene framings. In short: does the concept really capture the social and economical dynamics that have shaped planet Earth? Does the emphasis of the Anthropocene on “humanity” and  “human domination” overlook critical underlying issues of social power, global injustices, and unequal exchange in the history of mankind? Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg (PDF here), and Ninad Bodre (here), have raised this point.

A very different version of this debate is the argument that the concept contains elements of catastrophism that could lead to fatalism, and a failure to inspire to collective action. Raj Patel raises the point here, as well as Ruth DeFries and colleagues here.

The third debate is not about geology nor framings, but rather about Anthropocene politicsWhat are the political and institutional implications of entering the Anthropocene era? Does the increased understanding of the Earth system calls for profound transformations of the way we organize international institutions? This argument can be found in the recent works of Frank Biermann and colleagues (here), and myself in my recent book “The Anthropocene Gap” here.

The fourth debate is about the notion of a Good Anthropocene is it fruitful, or even possible visualising a positive Anthropocene considering the vast negative repercussions that could unfold as the result of e.g. runaway climate change? The debate between Clive Hamilton and Andrew Revikin here is the clearest example . It should be noted however, that this issue is an emerging research area e.g. the newly launched project “Seeds of a Good Anthropocene”.

"Spare us a Manthropocene"

“Spare us a Manthropocene” from Kate Raworth.

The last debate is about the Anthropocene and Knowledge Production. This debate focuses on issues of legitimacy and the lack of gender, ethnic and disciplinary diversity in existing processes of knowledge production associated with the Anthropocene concept. Bluntly put: how representative are the scientist exploring the implications of this new epoch? Kate Raworth’s widely spread tweet and picture commenting on the obvious absence of female researchers at the Anthropocene Working Group at HKW (first picture), is an excellent case in point. Ola Uhrqvist’s recently published Ph.D. thesis explores similar issues about the linkages between knowledge production and power in the Earth system sciences.

So, let’s acknowledge not only the diversity of voices, but also the diversity in the Anthropocene debate itself.



Sacredness, protection and taboos: how values can (not) be traded and shape our thoughts and behaviour

A Stockholm Resilience Centre Cognition reading group guest post from Tim Daw, Jamila Haider, Britt Stikvoort

Imagine the scenario: one day a government official walks into the Stockholm Resilience Centre lobby and proclaims that the biosphere has now become redundant, humans can live completely independently from ecological systems, and therefore, our research institute has become unnecessary. Imagine the nightmare for economists if that same official barges in telling him proof has been given that economic growth is not necessary. Or what if the official started telling people, about a millennium ago, that the earth was round? Such (unrealistic) stories make one thing clear: we do not like challenging our most ‘sacred’ and protected values. But sometimes we have to. In fact, sometimes it can be very useful to! Yet still, challenging such values feels bad, and that is perfectly natural. You are supposed to feel bad if someone asks you about eating babies (such as Jonathan Swift’s satirical Modest Proposal). But as researchers, we are also supposed to be able to step back from such feelings, and observe and reflect. This is what we have tried to do for this cognition meeting.


We read three papers to understand from a psychological perspective how values develop, are held and traded-off.

  • Tetlock, P.E., Kristel, O.V., Beth, S., Green, M.C., and Lerner, J.S. (2000). The psychology of the unthinkable: Taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78, 853–870.
  • Baron, J., and Leshner, S. (2000). How serious are expressions of protected values?  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 6, 183–194.
  • Waldmann, M.R., Nagel, J., and Wiegmann, A. (2012). Moral judgment. The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning 364–389.

Below we provide a brief summary of each of the readings:

Waldeman et al. was a useful introduction to the interdisciplinary field of Moral Judgement, including introducing the ‘Trolley dilemma’, the ‘Drosophila’ of moral reasoning experiments. Most relevant for this reading group discussion was the section which introduced sacred values (SV) and protected values (PV). Both refer to values which are held as infinite in that people are unwilling to put a price on them or trade them off against secular values, in particular money. However Tetlock and colleagues work on SV conceptualise them as serving a group cohesion function, “The motivation of people to hold SVs is to preserve their identity as full-fledged moral being (p. 293)” while Baron and colleagues see PV as a mental short-cut to efficiently make decisions. An important distinction is that the SV work suggests two parallel sets of motivations (the sacred and the profane), while PV scholars adhere to a model of a single metric of utility. Both theories point to a surprising degree of flexibility in the supposedly infinite SV or PV, which is influenced firstly by context and also by framing.

Tetlock and colleagues (2000) see a sacred value as “possessing infinite or transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs or other mingling with secular values”. These untouchable principles cannot be traded off for monetary ones in an economical market (taboo trade-offs), nor can we use cold statistics and hard facts on them (forbidden base-rates), nor can we make ‘what-if’ assumptions about past events and alternative happenings (heretic counterfactuals). Tetlock bases his idea on the Sacred Value Protection Model, which resembles the more well-known dissonance theory but which explains motivations to thoughts and behaviour both as an ego-improving as well as a social reputation-supporting tool. Harm done to sacred values (e.g. by making taboo trade-offs) is compensated for by exhibiting moral outrage towards the offender or if the offender is oneself – moral cleansing (overly moral behaviour to compensate for the transgression).

Baron and Threshner (2000) define protected values in a utilitarian sense: the marginal rate at which one good can substitute another is infinite. The purpose of their study is to test whether protected values are as absolute as they seem when they are first expressed. They test a number of hypotheses (with regards to when trade-offs are made) through experimental design. Important to note here is that they measure digression from a protected value through an expression of guilt, rather than behaviour. For example, if reducing emission of CO2 is my protected values, but I still fly, the action of flying does not discredit my protected values but whether or not I feel guilty about flying.  Baron and Threshner conclude that protected values are often unreflective overgeneralisation, that people are reluctant to believe that protected values can conflict and that it is immoral to make compromises, but will in the end make the trade-off when confronted with it. People also seem to give up values when the probability of harm is low: for example, people may have anti-GMO as a protected value, but if the risk is calculated to be low they are more likely to give up their protected values. They conclude “our results suggest that protected values are strong opinions, weakly held.”




1.    Differences between Baron and Tetlock and how this can be used in our own work

Generally we found Tetlock’s approach to be more valuable to social ecological system (SES) research. Particularly, we found Tetlock’s notion of trade-offs to be helpful, since SES governance and management often involves difficult trade-offs. Sometimes, when a sacred value is pitted against a secular one, we encounter what Tetlock calls a taboo trade-off, which makes most people feel bad. Think about trading off the life of a baby against, say, a thousand euros or a nice car. Most people would find this trade-off immoral, and if someone else is making that decision, you would respond to that person choosing the car over a baby’s life with outrage. Moral outrage is just that, a behavioural expression of anger against those who go against sacred values by choosing a secular one over a sacred one (or even thinking about such a choice!). ‘Moral cleansing’ is when you yourself are making this tough decision (say, protecting nature or selling the piece of land for real estate development). In fact, even thinking about a taboo trade-off makes you feel bad, even if you still choose to keep the patch of pristine nature in the end!  What happens is you then get the urge to show compensation behaviour after making a morally bad decision, or even thinking about it, against sacred values. Yes, you just sold your patch of pure pristine nature to a real-estate agent, but you’ll make up for it, by donating to Greenpeace! These Taboo trade-off dynamics can both impede and assist real life trade-offs with nature (nature is often seen as one of the sacred values we hold).

One of the main differences between Tetlock and Baron, is how each defines values. Tetlock defines values through a theory of social cohesion, whereas Baron bases values entirely on utility. Baron’s thoughts are quite disempowering and imposing, causing the reader moral outrage. It would be interesting to think about how and whether these results as a more individual level can be applied to a societal level, where context and politics plays an even more important role.

2. How are values defined?

There is a useful distinction made between ‘norms’ and ‘moral rules’: They both come from culture, and go beyond formal rules but people usually claim that moral rules are in some way universal (which they wouldn’t necessarily do for norms, like driving on the right side of the road). There do not seem to be any universal (transdisciplinary) definitions of either concept, and so it depends from what school of thought you come if you even have definitions, and if so, what they stipulate. It seems there is some room here for further clarification!

3. Origin of values

At first sight, we observed that values seem not to be universal, since nearly any value you can think of is transgressed in one or more other cultures across the world. However, the thought rose that maybe this is because we simply haven’t phrased the context or the value itself correctly, and if we do so, if we get to the ‘core’ of the value, we would maybe be able to find universal values. Perhaps if we formulate them as wanted ideals, this was a suggestion.

If values are not universal, what does seem universal is our need for ‘having’ values in human societies. This may even be an innate characteristic of human beings, although none of us was certain of such an assertion.

Next, we discussed protected values. What if, by shaking it, we can make any protected value lose its ‘protectedness’ (for instance by insisting on counter examples)? Doesn’t that make the term a bit void? But if we see the protected values as a sort of network, where more than one protected value is tied together with others in a sort of ‘ideology’ network, then it becomes easier to consider the loss of one protected value without doing harm to the whole (and thus the person’s feeling of integrity). We looked at this from an individual’s point of view, but as was later mentioned in the plenary discussions, values are products of society and culture, and so need to be viewed from such an aggregate level too. Having one person lose the ‘protectedness’ of a value due to a counter example doesn’t make the value ‘go down the drain’. Here the social-reputation aspect of values comes into play. Even if you yourself do not ‘believe’ in the protectedness of a value anymore, it is still important for your reputation to not harm that value, because other people still do hold that value sacred.

4. Stockholm Resilience Centre values

What could possibly be a protected value of the SRC? We first made a distinction between what could be protected values of people working at the SRC (assuming there is a certain ‘type’ of people working here, there might be a self-selection process going on resulting in people with like-minded values working here). We, however, were interested more in the values of the SRC as an institution in itself. What would shake the institution to its foundations, if it was refuted? What would no SRC staff member ever want to trade for money, or all the luxury in the world?

We came up with biodiversity first, but it seemed that there were plenty of easy cases in which we could imagine being confronted with a situation where less biodiversity was the more desirable situation (look at BBOP for example). No foundation-shaking shock there. So Resilience was next. However, this did not pass scrutiny either. Social-ecological (linked and interdependent) systems came up next, and we were not able to wholly refute this as a sacred value for the SRC. On the more individual level, we discussed that academic integrity was a value that likely would be central for most SRC staff members. Another prominent share sacred values at the resilience centre is re-connecting to the biosphere.

We could think of reconnecting the biosphere as an axiological value. With that, we simply mean it is part of the ‘study of values’ and not something else (e.g. epistemological). Spinning from that we may have various ontologies: there is a real physical social ecological system, ‘connected’ knowledge, whether local or indigenous is scared (though not everyone agreed on that). The possibilities seem endless, and are at the very least abundant. One hour is definitely not enough to come to the core values of the SRC, this is a conclusion we can draw with certainty! But that said, it is both fun and insightful to try, and experience firsthand how difficult such a thing can be!

Finally, we want to add that understanding the existence of sacred or protected values, and the way in which they influence us – be it through social image and reputation or via heuristic shortcuts in our decision making – can help us SES researchers in understanding (even modelling?) the behaviour of stakeholders in governance structures. This could shed some light on the dynamics in resource management dilemma’s and explain thus-far unexplained ‘deviant’ behaviour of stakeholders that are not playing the game as rational actors.