Anthropocentrism and Nature Conservation

In the environmental debate the claim can be often heard that granting nature intrinsic value would solve our problems – in other words, the difficulties we have with protecting nature are due to our overly human-centred perspective. Instead of invoking anthropocentrism one should, so the argument goes, move towards some sort of physiocentrism, i.e., grant some non-human entities intrinsic value. According to this view, anthropocentrism necessarily leads to destruction of the natural world. It is pathocentrism or biocentrism or ecocentrism or holism that would “save the world”. I already once showed that anthropocentrism is not as bad as claimed by those self-proclaimed physiocentrists. Today I would like to go further and show that meaningful conservation of nature is not compatible with physiocentrism – i.e., physiocentrism cannot consistently justify attempts to protect the natural world. Continue reading

Sustainability Science is Puzzling.

Sustainability science can be fun, too.

Ideas for Sustainability

First a warning: If you like your blog entries, insightful, well-structured and written with concision and clarity, you may wish to stop reading at this point (there are many other entries by Joern and others on this blog that can satisfy those peculiar cravings). If on the other hand you enjoy a somewhat rambling blog entry, that uses tenuous analogies, stretched to breaking point, then read on dear reader, read on.

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When I say sustainability science is puzzling, I don’t mean that it is literally bewildering, bamboozling or baffling, although it certainly can be, rather, I mean it is figuratively like the act of ‘puzzling’, more specifically jigsaw puzzling (apologies for using puzzle as a verb, but when in Germany do as the Germans do).

Our world (bless its little cotton socks) is a complex, confusing and often chaotic place. To make sense of that complexity we have developed science…

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Being policy-relevant vs. asking uncomfortable questions

Another very interesting post by Jörn Fischer.

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Many scientists working on sustainability issues are in this business because they are concerned about the state of the world. It seems self-evidently reasonable that, therefore, we ought to try to use our science to improve the state of things.

Most scientists, when they think of being relevant, or changing the state of the world for the better, automatically think of informing or influencing policy. This can be a very useful way to change things for the better. For example, new protected areas have been declared on the basis of scientific input to policy; and restoration activities in degraded landscapes have been improved by scientific input delivered to government and non-government organisations. Seeking to inform policy therefore can be a useful activity for scientists trying to improve the world.

When looking at my own work, some of it has been policy-relevant, but some has not – but…

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The Not-So-New Climate Economy Report

An alliance of the most influential global institutions, including the UN, World Bank, IMF and OECD, just issued a report of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, chaired by Felipe Calderón and Nicholas Stern. The report’s title is Better Growth, Better Climate: The New Climate Economy. In a nutshell, it says that not only is climate action compatible with economic growth, but the two may actually work as a positive feedback loop: more climate action leading to more growth, “smart” growth-spurring policies reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. By and large, the report does not contain any new arguments, as it is more of a synthesis of existing research. Alas, it is a synthesis of only a part of existing research, which can be already seen in the title: economic growth is a main objective along with the mitigation of climate change. You’ll vainly look for any reference to the degrowth and a-growth debates, and so the report, while valuable in some respects, reproduces many of the common errors of growth-enthusiasts. Continue reading

On Economic Valuation and Sick Mothers

I have spent most time this week at the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, which takes place in Leipzig. In one of the sessions today, my doctoral father had the pleasure(?) to defend the economic (valuation) approach to environmental problems in a panel discussion. Most arguments used in this discussion against the economic approach were, I say it frankly, nonsense. Either they resulted from misunderstanding or from confusion or they just didn’t have anything to do with the issue. The only two valid arguments I was able to filter out were: a) that economists often treat ecosystems atomistically in that they value single ecosystem services and then just “add them up”, which is a practice I am very concerned about, too, and b) that the economic approach hasn’t achieved anything so far (which is debatable, but still a valid critique, as there is no systematic assessment of this issue to be checked against). Today, however, I would like to respond to one of the misconception-based arguments, for I think that it shows in an impressive way what economics is (not) and why we need economic analysis. Continue reading

Ecosystem Services or The Downsides of Choosing the Wrong Namesake

Just a few days ago I published a post in which, among other things, I criticised economists for using the term “value of a statistical life”, as it begs to be misinterpreted and opens up space for criticism that is actually based on misconception. Today, I realised that often I must deal with a similar issue in my own research field. “Ecosystem services”, while arguably originally an eye-opening metaphor, seen from today’s perspective was a badly chosen term. It invites criticisms of the approach that are at odds with its essence, but are suggested by its name. Continue reading

Some key areas of “group think” among scientists

Another insightful post by Jörn Fischer. In my work I encounter most of the “group think” phenomena mentioned here, and I can only confirm that they do exist and that they constitute serious problems in the area of sustainability research.

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Researchers operate within networks, and people within those networks tend to share certain worldviews. None of us are free of this — different researchers see the world through different analytical lenses, which one might also call “paradigms”. My sense is that we’d get a lot further in terms of insight if relatively less research energy was put into developing sophistication within paradigms, instead focusing on the differences between paradigms and ways to learn from multiple paradigms. One might also call this “epistemological pluralism“, or less technically, it would be nice if scientists were a little more open-minded.

This phenomenon of “group think” amongst different sets of research groups is something I have found fascinating for a long time, and I think it exists in various topic areas. I list some of those areas here where “group think” appears quite strong, and potentially this causes some problems. These topic…

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Productivity Growth in a Post-Growth Society

In Robert Solow‘s (in)famous growth model, perhaps the most important part was what is now called the “Solow residual” or “Total Factor Productivity” (TFP)–the part of economic growth that cannot be explained by changes in the input of the factors “capital” and “labour”, which is, in effect, the result of technological progress. In other words, TFP is a reflection of us learning how to produce more with the same amount of input. A recurrent theme in this blog is that quantitative GDP growth is highly problematic, mainly due to the related pressures on natural ecosystems. However, even if we decide to stop growing–or, better, to stop focusing on growth–, it is not obvious that we can actually achieve it. And TFP is one of the reasons why this isn’t as simple as many in the degrowth movement seem to believe. Continue reading

Development AND resilience vs. development OR resilience

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

At the Resilience 2014 conference, Dennis Meadows kicked off today’s plenary session by highlighting that the conference we’re at is called “Resilience AND Development” – but alternatively, it could be called “Resilience OR Development”, if we believe that humanity has already surpassed planetary boundaries. This very pertinent question was then reflected on (and later debated) by Melissa Leach and Johan Rockström, two of the big thinkers on these issues of our times.

Johan first gave a short presentation, in which he highlighted that the Holocene had actually been a climatically very stable period – enabling humanity, among other things, to develop agriculture. Leaving the Holocene behind, however, we have now entered the Anthropocene, which is characterized by rapid and exponential growth in a wide range of biophysical variables; driven by exponential growth in social and economic variables.

What makes the changes taking place in the Anthropocene particularly…

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3 Reasons Why a Post-Growth Society Is Not Within Reach

For reasons explained elsewhere (see, e.g., this post and that one), I am among those dreaming of a post-growth society. Of course, it is not entirely clear what a post-growth society would look like, and even less is known about the road there. Still, many people around the world–for instance those coming to Leipzig in September for the 4th International Degrowth Conference–agree that one of the greatest problems of the current societal-economic model is that it is heavily dependent on economic growth. And that at least the first steps towards it should be done soon, for the longer we wait the more we put our civilisation at danger of collapse of one kind or another. Nevertheless, there are numerous obstacles that hinder the urgently needed transition. In what follows, I would like to present three reasons why a post-growth society is not within reach, which are related to three aspects of human psychology: laziness, narratives and conservative inertia. Continue reading

Land Sharing vs. Land Sparing: A Spurious Dichotomy?

There is an ongoing debate within conservation research known as the “land sharing vs. land sparing” controversy: in a nutshell, it is about the perceived land-use trade-off between food (+biofuel) production needs and conservation of natural ecosystems. Should we create natural reserves and let nature thrive there, while intensifying agriculture on the remaining land? Or should we rather promote extensive agro-ecological systems, where protection of biodiversity is combined with food production (but with lower yields per unit of area)? The debate has not really moved forward for some time, possibly because the perspectives involved have been too narrow. However, it may also be that in some cases the dichotomy does not even exist:

As an ambitious program in Colombia demonstrates, combining grazing and agriculture with tree cultivation can coax more food from each acre, boost farmers’ incomes, restore degraded landscapes, and make farmland more resilient to climate change. [more]

Yes, this sounds too good to be true. But, as you may read in the original source of this quote, it actually is true. And while this specific case most likely cannot be generalized, it still provides a lot of “food for thought”. Enjoy.

How and Why: Economic Valuation of Nature

Since I started working on my PhD thesis, I have been asked many times what it is about. I must admit that it is hard for me to explain. First, because attaching price tags to forests or wetlands is not quite something that people expect to be done by scientists. It is strange. Second, because most people do not like the idea. Even if they are not aware of this term, what they fear is going by the name of “commodification” and is a highly controversial topic in scientific literature, including a famous commentary in the prestigious journal Nature by Douglas McCauley, aptly titled Selling Out on Nature. While I do have some answers to the questions and doubts of my friends and relatives, they are too complicated and comprehensive for a casual conversation at the coffee table. Therefore, I decided to write a blog piece about this, at least for those of my friends and relatives who understand English. Continue reading

A plea to our leaders

One of the (implicit) messages of my blog is that to achieve sustainability, we have first to figure out what we want as a society. The open letter below is a call for just that.

Halt and Reflect

Whether you are a national leader, a journalist, an engaged religious person, or a school headmaster – this letter is directed to all of you who have a special voice in your community.

As global citizens and scholars, we urge the world’s societal leaders, at all scales, to instigate discussions on the simple question: “What is it that we value?”

We are a group of scholars with formal academic training. Many (though not all) of us would consider themselves “next generation scientists” – that is, many of us will be senior academics in the not too distant future. A minority of us already work in senior academic positions.

Traditionally, many people chose science as a career path because they were interested in how the world works. Many insights have now been obtained on this. Young people still enter scholarly training because they want to understand the world – but increasingly…

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The Case for A-Growth, Not De-Growth

It is always a very nice feeling when you find thoughts similar to yours in an influential publication. Once upon a time, some 1 1/2 years ago, I published here a text entitled Stop Debating Growth and Focus on What Is Important (yeah, I admit that titles are not quite a strength of mine). Today I read a paper by Jeroen van den Bergh, published two years ago in the Ecological Economics journal, entitled Environment versus growth — A criticism of “degrowth” and a plea for “a-growth”. To my pleasure, his credo is very similar to what I wanted to emphasize in the Stop Debating text. Continue reading

Who Is Responsible for Achieving Sustainability?

Most people in the world would probably agree that sustainability is a good idea. We would probably not agree as easily on what sustainability is. And it is highly improbable that we would agree on who is responsible for achieving sustainability. Is it us consumers in rich countries? Or rather the governments in poor countries? Or is it the UN? Or maybe transnational corporations? Can this broadly put question be sensibly answered at all, or should we rather discriminate between different aspects of sustainability – by which we return to the question of what sustainability is? In what follows I would like to offer some possible answers to these questions. Continue reading

Getting Prices Right vs. Getting Morals Right

One major justification of my work on the economic valuation of ecosystems is that we need to “get the prices right”. Economists think that factoring the value of ecosystem services into the prices of goods and services traded in markets is one important way of creating incentives to use these ecosystems sustainably. Opponents of the economic approach, however, fear the resulting “commodification of Nature”. Instead, the Douglas McCauleys and Mark Sagoffs of this world suggest that, instead of getting the prices right, we should attempt at getting morals right. In their view, this is the right approach to end the ongoing destruction of Nature, rather than the harmful valuation exercises conducted by economists. Continue reading

The Northern Lifestyles Problem or On Arrogance and Hypocrisy

There is a frequently recurring theme in the discussions about global environmental problems. It starts with the observation that we, the so-called “West” or “global North”, have overused global resources and sinks badly, be it reserves of minerals and metals (rare earths, oil, phosphorus…), the atmosphere or the oceans. Part of the problem seems to be our common modes of consumption. All too often, the destruction of nature does not take place in our own neighbourhoods, but in the so-called “global South”, where many of our resources come from and where many sinks tend to be located (or where the overuse of the latter is most visible – vide climate change). But the problem of the near future is often perceived not to be us, not only us at least, but the societies of the so-called emerging economies – particularly China and India, but also South Africa, Brazil, Argentina or many countries in South-East Asia. Continue reading

Sustainability and Post-Normal Science

Who should decide what the proper policy towards genetically engineered plants in agriculture is? Should it be experts who determine, say, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that is acceptable (after they had defined what “acceptable” means)? What about other sustainability-related problems: biodiversity loss, Peak Everything? Are science and scientific analyses enough, or do we need a different basis for decision-making? Continue reading

The Myth of Decoupling

It is something probably every junkie dreams of – to be able to keep taking drugs and feeling free, careless or just high, but without all the unpleasant side-effects like health issues, financial ruin, destroyed social networks etc. This, however, is illusion and no reasonable person would deny that it is. It is therefore astonishing how many otherwise reasonable persons fall prey to this illusion with regard to the great societal addiction – economic growth. They invoke the idea of decoupling GDP growth from resource use, environmental pollution and the like. But decoupling growth has nothing to do with reality, it is a myth. Continue reading