All posts by Line Gordon

Three new senior positions in Stockholm

There are lots of things happening in the field of resilience and social-ecological systems in Stockholm right now. The Stockholm Resilience Centre opened earlier this year, and is a new international centre that advances transdisciplinary research for governance of social-ecological systems with a special emphasis on resilience. It is a joint initiative between Stockholm University, the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics at The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, funded by the Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research, Mistra. In April next year the centre will host the Resilience 2008 conference on resilience, adaptation and transformation in turbulent times.

Right now there are three senior positions open at different research departments and organizations in Stockholm. Stockholm Resilience Centre advertises for a 3 year guest professor in social sciences. The Department of Systems Ecology at Stockholm University, which works closely with the centre has a position open for a full professor in Natural Resources Management. Finally, IGBP is advertising for a new excecutive director.

Enhancing ecosystem services in agricultural lands

Farmers are the stewards of a third of the world’s terrestrial surface, the amount of land covered by croplands and grazing areas. Although the land use in these areas might be the dominant driver behind loss of ecosystem services globally a change in focus and management here can provide enormous opportunity it terms of restoring some of the ecosystem services that have already been degraded (see e.g. The Science review by Foley et al. 2005, or the results from the MA 2005). Beside being economically very important for food production, agricultural systems like all other ecosystems, can also provide other services, including carbon sequestration, erosion control, habitat for pests or pollinators and water modification.

Peter Karieva and collaborators provide an argument in a review paper in this weeks Science for refocusing ecosystem management, from preserving natural areas to shaping the ecological processes in domesticated land for enhancing human well-being. The figure illustrate the human footprint on Earth. Human impact is expressed as the percentage of human influence relative to the maximum influence recorded for each biome.

The human footprint on Earth. Human impact is expressed as the percentage of human influence relative to the maximum influence recorded for each biome.

They argue that:

if one accepts that virtually all of nature is now domesticated, the key scientific and social questions concern future options for the type of domesticated nature humans impose upon the world

Last week, there was a different policy forum paper in the same journal by N. Jordan and colleagues called Sustainable Development of the Agricultural Bio-Economy. They argue that major gains may result from a “working landscape” approach in ecosystem management. This approach focuses on improving ecosystem processes of farmlands by rewarding farmers for delivering environmental benefits, as well as food and biomass. They particularly stress the potential of multifunctional agriculture to enhance the many synergies that actually can take place in systems that are managed for multiple services rather than optimized production of one thing. For example, inclusion of more perennial species in agricultural production have been found to reduce soil and nitrogen losses, to have greater capacity to sequester greenhouse gases than annual based systems; to increase species of concern for conservation.

Multifunctional production systems can be highly valuable. The 34-million-acre Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has been estimated to produce $500 million/year in benefits from reduced erosion and $737 million/year in wildlife viewing and hunting benefits at a cost of ~$1.8 billion. If benefits such as carbon sequestration are added, CRP likely produces a net gain in many areas, if not for the entire nation.

Karivera et al. caution against the romantic glorification of natural, or wild, ecosystems by stressing that

some paths of domestication will result in improved ecosystems both for people and for other species; other paths of domestication will result in ecosystems that are clearly better for humans but not for other species; and some paths of domestication will result in ecosystems that are too degraded to benefit people or other species. The key scientific goals for the study of domesticated nature are to understand what tradeoffs exist between the promotion or selection of different ecosystem services and to determine to what extent we can change a negative tradeoff to a positive one by altering the details of our domestication process

To be better at managing agriculture for multiple ecosystem services, they therefore argue that we need to become better at assessing trade-offs in these human dominated lands. The need for improving tools of trade-off analysis have also been emphasized by Elena Bennett and Patricia Balvanera in their recent paper in Frontiers in Ecology, as well as by Carpenter et al. in their analysis of research gaps from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Bennett, Balvanera and Carpenter et al. argue that while we are relatively good at assessing trade-offs between two or a few ecosystem services we need to develop tools to assess how whole sets of bundles of ecosystem services relates to one another. While this might seem relatively straight forward it is actually very complicated.

Figure shows a conceptual framework for analysing trade-offs among bundles of ecosystem services, from Foley et al. 2005.

One of the problems that Jordan et al. points to is that we need better experimental experience at scales that are of interest for the relevant ecosystem processes:

Multifunctional systems have been tested only at relatively small scales. We propose creation of a network of research and demonstration projects to establish and evaluate economic enterprises based on multifunctional production systems. … These projects must be sufficiently scaled to address the complexity inherent in landscape-scale multifunctionality and in the feedback loops connecting natural, human, and social resources. They should be established in medium-sized watersheds (~5000 km 2) and should be managed by groups that encompass multiple stakeholders and levels of government.

Additional aspects to the need for analysing trade-offs, some highlighted Bennett and Balvanera include:
• Increased understanding of how trade-offs are altered across spatial and temporal scales.
• Improved capacity to evaluate uncertainty in dealing with trade-offs. Several of the uncertainties are linked to non-linear ecological processes, thresholds and resilience of ecosystems.
• Just developing tools for trade-off analysis will not be enough, but is just when the hard part starts. We need better processes for, and understanding of multilevel negotiations among stakeholders, power plays, multi-stakeholder processes of learning, deliberation, negotiation, and experimentation.
• How do we deal with preferences for some of the ecosystem services that people have not yet developed preferences for, simply because we don’t understand how these contribute to enhancing our well-being? Here is a need for strongly emphasizing the ‘pre-analytic vision’ of assessments to ensure that we at least try to address issues that are important although we might not yet have realized that they are

Global Change in Swedish Media

Climate change and environmental issues have been in the headlines in Sweden over last few weeks. The evening press has “THE CLIMATE THREAT” on their billboards. It feels like some kind of ‘tipping point’ finally have been reached where interest in and consideration for these issues suddenly have taken a huge leap forwards into general discussion.


This increased interest coincides with the most costly documentary that Swedish Television have ever made – a series of four programs about Global Change called ‘The Planet‘. The documentaries interview several well known scientists in the field, including Will Steffen, Carl Folke, Gretchen Daily, Norman Meyers, and Carlos Nobre. It is possible to view the programs over the web (if you have a fast connection). There are Swedish subtitles, but the interviews are in English. And it is well photographed. Click on the links to see program 1, 2 and 3.

Along with the production the Swedish Science Council have together with Albaeco developed an interactive website (in Swedish). Even though I would have liked to see a more positive tone in the series (i.e. more focus on opportunities for change), the programs do provide a good overview of global environmental change.

World Hunger – Successes and failures on the road to meet the Millennium Development Goals

FAO released their new report on global food insecurity earlier this week. The first headline in the report is ‘Despite setbacks, the race against hunger can be won’ which to me clearly illustrates the somewhat contrasting situations when looking through regional developments across the world in relation to successes and failures to reduce hunger and mal-nutrition.

A depressing story is that globally, the number of undernourished people is basically the same today (around 800 million) as they were 10 years ago, when the leaders of 185 countries agreed at the World Food Summit (WFS) to halve the number by 2015. However, the proportion of hungry people is dropping, from 20% in the early 1990’s, to 17% today. According to FAO this suggests that the world is on a path towards meeting the Millennium Development Goal on hunger reduction (halving the proportion of hungry people in developing countries by 2015 as compared to what it was in 1990–92). FAO cautions to dismiss the period as a “lost decade since that could compound existing skepticism and would risk detracting from positive action being.

So what are the good parts of the story? Well, several regions have substantially reduced hunger and undernourishments. The largest progress can be found in Asia & the Pacific as well as in Latin America & the Caribbean (see figure). When looking at commonalities across sucess storeis Margarita Flores, secretary of the committee of food security, FAO says:

When we analyze the successful stories, most of them have at least two common characteristics. One of them is economic growth, and particularly agricultural growth. When you see the rapid growth in cities, especially in Latin America, you see a reduction of poverty in rural areas and increase in poverty in urban areas. That means a migration of poor people to the cities. We need to solve the problem in the rural areas.

Progress and setbacks
However, there are severe setbacks in several regions of the world. As usual it is most countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have some of the major challenges. At the same time the FAO report is trying to be optimistic:

Recent progress in reducing the prevalence of undernourishment is noteworthy. For the first time in several decades, the share of undernourished people in the region’s population saw a significant decline: from 35 percent in 1990–92 to 32 percent in 2001–03, after having reached 36 percent in 1995–97. This is an encouraging development, but the task facing the region remains daunting: the number of undernourished people increased from 169 million to 206 million while reaching the WFS target will require a reduction to 85 million by 2015.


The report list a series of steps that they believe are needed to eradicate hunger in the years ahead:

  • focusing programmes and investments on “hotspots” of poverty and undernourishment;
  • enhancing the productivity of smallholder agriculture;
  • creating the right conditions for private investment, including transparency and good governance;
  • making world trade work for the poor, with safety nets put in place for vulnerable groups;
  • and a rapid increase in the level of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to 0.7 percent of GDP.

Does Rainfall Increase in the Sahel Mask a Degradation Trend?

There have been heated debates about the dynamics of land degradation and climate change in the Sahel region in West Africa. The region has suffered a number of extreme droughts since the 1960’s causing famine, loss of livestock and reduced vegetation. However, a ‘greening trend’ trend has recently been detected. To a large extent this trend appears to be driven by increased rainfall (although some scientists argue that this alone can not explain the full extent of the greening trend).

Several studies, based on remote sensing, have now analyzed the reduced vegetation during the drought years and compared it to current land cover. Interestingly, they have not detected any land degradation that can be attributed to land management, which is in contrast with earlier studies suggesting that livestock management in the region is reducing productivity and increasing the systems vulnerability to drought.

A recent paper ‘Desertification in the Sahel: a reinterpretation’ by Hein and De Ridder published in Global Change Biology, suggests that the analyses based on remote sensing may be flawed and that land degradation may have been masked by rainfall.

Hein and De Ridder’s reasoning builds on the way that previous studies linked net primary production (NPP) (or actually a vegetation index – NDVI) to rainfall. These previous studies assumed that for a given site with no land degradation a linear relationship exists between NPP and rainfall (i.e. the Rain Use Efficiency (RUE) is constant). When they did not see any change in RUE over time they assumed that there has not been any land degradation.

Hein and De Ridder studied RUE in six field sites and found that in the absence of land degradation the relationship between NPP and rainfall was non-linear (followed a quadratic curve). When they looked at expected RUE values based on their quadratic estimates they found that the RUE from satellite estimates were lower than the expected ones, and thus land degradation may have occurred. They conclude:

If anthropogenic degradation of the Sahel is demonstrated, this would have repercussions for the debate on the causes of climate change in the Sahel. Currently, a weakness in the argumentations … that anthropogenic land cover changes have contributed to the occurrence of the extreme Sahelian droughts of the last decades of the 20th century is a lack of evidence of degradation from remote sensing data. Hence, if new remote sensing analyses confirm anthropogenic degradation, this would support the hypothesis that degradation of the vegetation layer, in particular through sustained high grazing pressures, has contributed to the occurrence of the 20th century droughts in the Sahel. Furthermore, if degradation of the Sahelian vegetation cover is confirmed, this would indicate that Sahelian pastoralists may be more vulnerable for future droughts than currently assumed. Because degradation of the Sahel in the 1980s and 1990s has been masked by an upward trend in annual rainfall, the consequences of a future drought for the local population could be unexpectedly severe.

Poverty traps at multiple scales

Welfare dynamics under the poverty trap hypothesis. From Barrett and Swallow 2006

Christopher Barrett and Brent Swallow recently published an interesting paper in World Development on what the authors term ‘Fractal poverty traps’. These are the sort of poverty traps that develops where multiple dynamic equilibria exist simultaneously at multiple scales of analysis. The figure to right shows welfare dynamics under the poverty traps hypothesis.

The authors argue that the strategies that people choose depends on their assets as well as on the risks that they have to deal with, and they give the following example (from Lybbert et al. 1004):

Lybbert, Barrett, Desta, and Coppock (2004) demonstrate that southern Ethiopian pastoralists face two strategies— migratory or sedentarized pastoralism—reflecting two different dynamic wealth equilibria. The dynamic wealth equilibrium associated with migration is relatively high, while that associated with sedentarization is low. Pastoralists prefer not to sedentarize, but if they start off with too small a herd or lose too many animals to drought, disease or (human or wildlife) predators, the superior strategy of transhumant grazing is not accessible to them, for reasons Lybbert et al. (2004) explain. Poorer pastoralists therefore adopt a sedentarization strategy and predictably settle into a low-level wealth equilibrium. The key to understanding the genesis of poverty traps therefore lies in understanding the nature of transitions—or, more importantly, the absence of transitions—between strategies. Why do some pastoralists remain mobile while others do not? Why do some farmers adopt improved production technologies or enter high value-added marketing channels while others do not? What are the barriers that effectively preclude adoption of superior strategies?

According to the authors this is a reason why the UN Millennium Project final report emphasises the need for large initial investments – to push poor individuals, communities, and nations over thresholds so that different strategies become available and feasible. This is particularly important in situations of ‘fractal’ poverty traps:

Small adjustments at any one of these levels are unlikely to move the system away from its dominant, stable dynamic equilibrium. Governments, markets and communities are simultaneously weak in places characterized by fractal poverty traps. No unit operates at a high-level equilibrium in such a system. All seem simultaneously trapped in low-level equilibria.

They suggest four interrelated poverty reduction strategies:

First, it is possible that significant but shortlived transfers to individuals, households, communities, and nations caught in low-level equilibria can enable them to cross crucial thresholds presently inaccessible to them and thereby make it feasible for them to switch to positive growth trajectories that can carry them out of persistent poverty. …

Second, public agencies need to assess the possibilities for eliminating or moving thresholds through interventions at aggregate scales that make previously inaccessible strategies feasible at more disaggregated scales. …
Third, there is a critical need for effective safety nets set above critical thresholds so as to prevent people from falling unexpectedly into chronic poverty. Safety nets that can prevent the non-poor from falling into poverty in response to uninsured shocks should be included in poverty reduction strategies. …

Finally, fractal poverty traps carry important implications for decentralization. … Prioritization exercises must take place at multiple scales and there must be serious attempts to integrate these, not just cursory exercises as has too often been the case.

The Greening of Sahel: Passive recovery or active adaptation?

The drought years in the Sahel in the early 1970’s that resulted in a large-scale famine gave rise to scientific and policy discussions about land degradation and desertification. A popular belief was that the limited resource base in the Sahel, with vulnerable soils and highly variable and scarce rainfall could not sustain the growing population. The droughts was seen as a stress to a system which was already struggling with a rapidly decreasing resource base (e.g. deforestation of woodlands for agricultural expansion, shortening of fallow times, and soil nutrient depletion) and bad land management practices leading to increased poverty and out-migration.

Sahel Greening.  Overall trends in vegetation greenness throughout the period 1982–2003 based on monthly AVHRR NDVI time series. Percentages express changes in average NDVI between 1982 and 2003. From Hermann et al 2005

New analysis of satellite data, by among others Olsson et al., illustrating a greening trend in the Sahel since 1983 thus comes as a surprise for many people. It has also triggered a scientific discussion of whether this greening is merely a recovery of vegetation due to increasing rainfall, or if this trend at least partially can be explained by widespread changes in land management by farmers in the region. Hutchins et al., in the introduction to a recent special issue of Journal of Arid Environments, suggests that there is increasing evidence that farmers have adapted to the changes during the droughts and made a transition from degrading land use trajectories to more sustainable and productive production systems, suggesting that the recovery in many places actually is an active adaptation by the farmers in the region.

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Is the Arctic Already Lost?

Veg/Climate Feedbacks in Arctic

Is the home of polar bears, seals and Inuit communities already doomed? asks Jon Foley in Tipping Points in the Tundra a recent commentary Science. According to him, several recent sources of evidence show that feedback mechanisms seem to be kicking into high gear as the Arctic warms up. Temperature data illustrate, for example, that from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, the Arctic warmed by 0.15 degrees Celsius per decade, but since then the warming has been nearly 0.3 to 0.4 degrees per decade.

Recent evidence comes from Terry Chapin and his co-workers who have analyzed Arctic data on surface temperature, cloud cover, energy exchange, albedo, and changes in snow cover and vegetation. They concluded that the recent changes in the length of the snow-free season have triggered a set of interlinked feedbacks that will amplify future rates of summer warming. One of these feedbacks relate to that the snowmelt has advanced by around 2.5 days per decade which has lead to an increase in the amount of energy that is absorbed and transferred to the atmosphere. The resulting regional increase in temperature is estimated to be comparable (per unit area) to the global atmospheric heating that is projected from a doubling of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

Chapin et al. also analyses the role of vegetation change for triggering positive feedbacks. Tall shrublands have increased rapidly in the surrounding region of the Arctic. Tree lines have also moved further north. Although the estimated contributions these have on warming were found to be small, the authors expect that they will continue to increase disproportionally in the future.

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Building resilience to deal with disasters

Last week Science had a special issue on Dealing with Disasters with focus on the role of building or conserving resilience. The Tsunami disaster on 26 December 2005 clearly highlighted the vulnerability of coastal communities, and has triggered a global discussion on how to deal with increasingly severe natural and human induced catastrophes. Today humanity increase the risk for extreme events by simultaneously e.g. accelerating climate change, simplifying ecosystems, and concentrating human populations in coastal areas and cities.

In the special issue, Neil Adger and co-authors focus on coastal communities and explore their social-ecological resilience by looking at the diverse mechanisms they have developed for living with, and learning from, change and unexpected shocks. The authors also discuss the complexity of how resilience can be both increased and decreased through the same development. For example, global tourism increases the risk of infectious and vector borne diseases, but enhance resilience through the development of interlinked local communities, improved communications and the growth of national and international NGO network that link societies.

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Global Consequences of Land Use

Growing world population and increasing wealth are driving demands for more food production. Croplands and pastures occupies today roughly 40% of the land surface and global land cover and is according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) the main modification humanity makes to land cover, and therefore a main driver of ecological change, and biodiversity loss at the global scale.

In a new paper in Science, Jonathan Foley et al. reviews the Global Consequences of Land Use , and discuss consequences of land use on food production, water resources, forests, regional climate and air quality and infectious diseases. They highlight the challenge of managing trade-offs between immediate human needs and maintaining the capacity of the biosphere to provide goods and services in the long term.

Current trends in land use allow humans to appropriate an ever-larger fraction of the biosphere’s goods and services while simultaneously diminishing the capacity of global ecosystems to sustain food production, maintain freshwater and forest resources, regulate climate and air quality, and mediate infectious diseases…

…The conclusion is clear: Modern landuse practices, while increasing the short-term supplies of material goods, may undermine many ecosystem services in the long run, even on regional and global scales. Confronting the global environmental challenges of land use will require assessing and managing inherent trade-offs between meeting immediate human needs and maintaining the capacity of ecosystems to provide goods and services in the future. Assessments of trade-offs must recognize that land use provides crucial social and economic benefits, even while leading to possible longterm declines in human welfare through altered ecosystem functioning.

…Society faces the challenge of developing strategies that reduce the negative environmental impacts of land use across multiple services and scales while maintaining social and economic benefits.

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