Institute for Social-Ecological Research
  • Frankfurt am Main, Hesse, Germany
Recent publications
Increasing pressure on land resources necessitates landscape management strategies that simultaneously deliver multiple benefits to numerous stakeholder groups with competing interests. Accordingly, we developed an approach that combines ecological data on all types of ecosystem services with information describing the ecosystem service priorities of multiple stakeholder groups. We identified landscape scenarios that maximize the overall ecosystem service supply relative to demand (multifunctionality) for the whole stakeholder community, while maintaining equitable distribution of ecosystem benefits across groups. For rural Germany, we show that the current landscape composition is close to optimal, and that most scenarios that maximize one or a few services increase inequities. This indicates that most major land-use changes proposed for Europe (for example, large-scale tree planting or agricultural intensification) could lead to social conflicts and reduced multifunctionality. However, moderate gains in multifunctionality (4%) and equity (1%) can be achieved by expanding and diversifying forests and de-intensifying grasslands. More broadly, our approach provides a tool for quantifying the social impact of land-use changes and could be applied widely to identify sustainable land-use transformations. Managing landscapes sustainably is challenging given the competing interests of different stakeholder groups. By combining broad ecological data with information on the ecosystem service priorities of multiple stakeholder groups, this study provides a tool to quantify the social impact of land-use changes.
An understanding of traditional ecological knowledge systems is increasingly acknowledged as a means of helping to develop global, regional and national, but locally relevant policies. Pastoralists often use lands that are unsuitable for crops due to biophysical and climatic extremities and variabilities. Forage plants of pastures are utilized by herding communities by applying locally relevant multigenerational knowledge. We analyzed the forage-related knowledge of pastoralists and herders by reviewing scientific papers and video documentaries on forage plants and indicators, their use in land management, and plant-livestock interactions. Semi-structured interviews were also conducted with key knowledge holders in Iran, Mongolia, Kenya, Poland and Hungary. We found 35 indicators used by herders to describe forage species. The indicators described botanical features, livestock behavior during grazing, and the impact of plants on livestock condition and health. The indicators were used in context-specific management decisions, with a variety of objectives to optimize grazing. We identified ten global principles, including, among others, a livestock-centered perspective, close monitoring and targeted pasturing of various (preferred or avoided) forages, and the use of different livestock types and well- planned spatial movements at multiple scales to optimize the utilization of available plant resources. Although pastoralists vary greatly across the globe, the character and use of their traditional forage-related knowledge do seem to follow strikingly similar principles. Understanding these may help the local-to-global- level understanding of these locally specific systems, support bottom-up pastoral initiatives and discussions on sustainable land management, and help to develop locally relevant global and national policies.
The flood event in July 2021 in the uplands of the Eifel-Ardennes mountains in Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands and their foreland was caused by heavy rainfall and resulted in one of the largest flood disasters in Western Europe for decades. Due to climate change, it can be assumed that such events will become more frequent in future. Even though such extreme flood can happen at any time, the consequences and impacts can be significantly reduced by appropriate technical and non-technical measures. However, such measures always require a comprehensive understanding and knowledge of previous events and comparable processes. Therefore, this special issue aims at collecting the scientific evaluation and its implications of the 2021 extreme summer flood. This editorial serves as an introduction for an article collection published in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe, providing an overview of the current state of integrative assessment of the 2021 summer flood in Central Europe.
Traits have become a crucial part of ecological and evolutionary sciences, helping researchers understand the function of an organism's morphology, physiology, growth and life history, with effects on fitness, behaviour, interactions with the environment and ecosystem processes. However, measuring, compiling and analysing trait data comes with data-scientific challenges. We offer 10 (mostly) simple rules, with some detailed extensions, as a guide in making critical decisions that consider the entire life cycle of trait data. This article is particularly motivated by its last rule, that is, to propagate good practice. It has the intention of bringing awareness of how data on the traits of organisms can be collected and managed for reuse by the research community. Trait observations are relevant to a broad interdisciplinary community of field biologists, synthesis ecologists, evolutionary biologists, computer scientists and database managers. We hope these basic guidelines can be useful as a starter for active communication in disseminating such integrative knowledge and in how to make trait data future-proof. We invite the scientific community to participate in this effort at
The impact of local biodiversity loss on ecosystem functioning is well established, but the role of larger-scale biodiversity dynamics in the delivery of ecosystem services remains poorly understood. Here we address this gap using a comprehensive dataset describing the supply of 16 cultural, regulating and provisioning ecosystem services in 150 European agricultural grassland plots, and detailed multi-scale data on land use and plant diversity. After controlling for land-use and abiotic factors, we show that both plot-level and surrounding plant diversity play an important role in the supply of cultural and aboveground regulating ecosystem services. In contrast, provisioning and belowground regulating ecosystem services are more strongly driven by field-level management and abiotic factors. Structural equation models revealed that surrounding plant diversity promotes ecosystem services both directly, probably by fostering the spill-over of ecosystem service providers from surrounding areas, and indirectly, by maintaining plot-level diversity. By influencing the ecosystem services that local stakeholders prioritized, biodiversity at different scales was also shown to positively influence a wide range of stakeholder groups. These results provide a comprehensive picture of which ecosystem services rely most strongly on biodiversity, and the respective scales of biodiversity that drive these services. This key information is required for the upscaling of biodiversity-ecosystem service relationships, and the informed management of biodiversity within agricultural landscapes.
In central northern Namibia, challenges in water governance related to scarcity meet needs in capacity development on municipal levels. Reuse of treated water in agriculture forms a technical innovation in urbanizing arid regions, because it potentially contributes to both improving water availability and reducing pollution from waste water in arid regions. Governing this transformative approach entails a complexity of processes and actors at different levels and in a range of sectors. The aim of this research is to assess the potential of an informal municipal partnership to (a) support capacity development in implementation of innovation in urban water systems (here: water reuse), and (b) compensate for lack of coordination in governance. Establishing a municipal partnership for wastewater treatment was part of a living lab approach analyzing the potential for water reuse, in collaboration of an interdisciplinary team of researchers, municipal decision-makers, engineers and farmers. Findings show the potential and limitations in capacity development in municipal water governance by means of an informal partnership. The lessons learnt on establishing an informal municipal partnership for learning and capacity development in water governance provide valuable insights for water governance in both research and practice, in particular but not limited to the field of water reuse as means of transforming socio-hydrological relations toward sustainability. The research thus contributes to research on water reuse governance, and to transformative research on water in social-ecological systems.
With regard to water supply constraints, water reuse has already become an indispensable water resource. In many regions of southern Africa, so-called waste stabilisation ponds (WSP) represent a widespread method of sewage disposal. Since capacity bottlenecks lead to overflowing ponds and contamination, a concept was designed and piloted in order to upgrade a plant and reuse water in agriculture. Using a social–ecological impact assessment (SEIA), the aim of this study was to identify and evaluate intended and unintended impacts of the upgrading of an existing WSP to reuse water for livestock fodder production. For this purpose, semistructured expert interviews were conducted. In addition, a scenario analysis was carried out regarding a sustainable operation of the water reuse system. The evaluation of the impacts has shown that intended positive impacts clearly outweigh the unintended ones. The scenario analysis revealed the consequences of an inadequate management of the system and low fodder demand. Furthermore, the analysis showed that good management of such a system is of fundamental importance in order to operate the facility, protect nature and assist people. This allows subsequent studies to minimize negative impacts and replicate the concept in regions with similar conditions.
Nomadic pastoralism is of vital importance for grasslands worldwide. As one of the largest, widely intact, temperate grasslands in the world, the eastern Mongolian steppe looks back on a millennia-old tradition of nomadic pastoralism. Thus, this type of use of the ecosystem plays an important role in providing and maintaining ecosystem functions, e.g. seed dispersal, nutrient distribution and composition of plant communities. In addition, the nomadic way of life has important cultural and social functions. Global change processes like urbanisation, globalisation, digitalisation and climate change confront societies worldwide with the need for substantial sustainability transformations. While pastoralists are also strongly affected by these changes, their experiences and way of life, which have been evolving and adapting for millennia, can prove very helpful in addressing the transformation challenges. With this paper, we aim to reflect a new form of nomadic pastoralism for Mongolia in the twenty-first century. Implementing a transdisciplinary research process, we conducted a series of stakeholder workshops, surveys and co-writing periods, involving pastoralists, local and national authorities, economic and conservation actors, as well as scientific project partners from a wide range of disciplines. In doing so, we developed exploratory scenarios of contrasting plausible futures of the Mongolian steppe.
Effective knowledge exchange at science-policy interfaces (SPIs) can foster evidence-informed policy-making through the integration of a wide range of knowledge inputs. This is especially crucial for conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystem services (ES), human well-being and sustainable development. Early-career researchers (ECRs) can contribute significantly to knowledge exchange at SPIs. Recognizing that, several capacity building programs focused on sustainability have been introduced recently. However, little is known about the experiences and perceptions of ECRs in relation to SPIs. Our study focused on SPI engagement of ECRs who conduct research on biodiversity and ES, as perceived and experienced. Specifically, we addressed 'motivations', 'barriers' and 'opportunities and 'benefits'. A total of 145 ECRs have completed the survey. Our results showed that ECRs were generally interested to engage in SPIs and believed it to be beneficial in terms of contributing to societal change, understanding policy processes and career development. Respondents perceived lack of understanding about involvement channels, engagement opportunities, funding, training, perceived credibility of ECRs by other actors and encouragement of senior colleagues as barriers to engaging in SPIs. Those who have already participated in SPIs generally saw fewer barriers and more opportunities. A key reason for dissatisfaction with experience in SPIs was a lack of impact and uptake of science-policy outputs by policymakers-an issue that likely extends beyond ECRs and implies the need for transformations in knowledge exchange within SPIs. In conclusion, based on insights from our survey, we outline several opportunities for increased and better facilitation of ECR engagement in SPIs.
Commuting is an integral part of many people’s everyday life providing a transition between private and working life. It does, however, lead to negative impacts at a personal and social-ecological level (health impacts, lack of time, climate emissions, etc.). This article is based on the transdisciplinary research project “CommuterLab” (PendelLabor), which investigates commuting practices in the German Rhine-Main region. Using a practice-theoretical approach, we conducted a qualitative empirical study to explore how commuters organise the transition between their personal life and job. Through our analysis, we were able to identify different meanings of commuting and its strong interconnection with other everyday practices. This allowed us to gain deep insight into the social (non-)sustainability of commuting. At the core of our results are four different types of commuting practice whose impact on social sustainability differs widely. Furthermore, since the interviews were conducted during the coronavirus pandemic, respondents had their first experience of strongly reduced commuting. This in turn allowed insights into the changing organisation of everyday life and the impact of reconfigured commuting practices on social sustainability. Based on these results, we drew conclusions about the dynamics of commuting in terms of social sustainability.
1. Tropical forest frontier areas support the well-being of local populations in myriad ways. Not only do they provide the material basis for people's livelihoods , they also sustain socio-cultural foundations through relational values. They host some of the most biodiverse ecosystems and largest carbon stocks on the planet, and are thus a focus of global conservation efforts. They are also a prime location for the production of many global agricultural commodities. These dynamics-often intertwined-may trap local populations between powerful interests, with the potential to affect their well-being. 2. We conducted 100 structured interviews in four biodiversity-rich landscapes of northeastern Madagascar to investigate how multi-dimensional human well-being is affected by the recent establishment of protected areas and surge in cash crop prices. We asked households about their satisfaction-and changes in satisfaction-with locally relevant well-being components, mapping their answers through Nussbaum's Central Capabilities approach. We also investigated the cultural significance of key natural resources beyond the material benefits they provide. All issues were explored along four variables: site, main source of rice, gender and household land use portfolio. 3. Our findings are as follows: first, human capabilities are interconnected and mutually interdependent, with relational values linking many of them. Second, subjective accounts of well-being are influenced by cognitive biases, such as treadmill effects, adaptive preferences and recency bias. Third, while households perceived a positive influence of protected areas, those most reliant on forest land and products held a more negative view of conservation interventions. And
Vietnam is at the heart of the marine plastic pollution challenge, as a worldwide hotspot for post-consumption plastics leaking into the oceans. Plenty of global recommendations on how to combat land-based sources of plastic pollution exist, but how local actors experience, understand and respond to local actors has been studied surprisingly little. Taking Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam’s tourism magnet, as a vivid case in point, this paper explores ‘whose problem is plastic pollution and why’ by grounding it on qualitative data, using a risk perception approach and research into waste governance as an analytical frame. The paper shows how high visibility, haptic experiences and greater knowledge of plastic impacts make plastic waste-associated risks increasingly tangible. By this, the overall increasing visible everyday waste pollution and the ill-equipped waste governance come into focus. Interviews reveal a linkage between the observation of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ disposal practices with distinct perceptions of island places and waste pollution responsibilities. That, in turn, shapes both response strategies to combat plastic pollution and to improve the island’s overall waste governance. This research points to the complexity of waste governance, especially when convenience and ignorance clash with attempts to protect the environment. Action repertoires range from beach clean-ups, awareness-raising, and usage of eco-friendly reusable materials to managerial waste infrastructure improvements. Yet, hierarchies, budget constraints, the absence of an environmentally sound waste collection and treatment system and inadequate environmental knowledge limit perceived agency, genuine commitment and ultimately an effective waste governance.
Plastic pollution through small particles, so-called microplastics, is acknowledged as an environmental problem of global dimension by both politicians, and the public. An increasing number of environmental studies investigate the exposure and effects of microplastics. Although there are many open questions, current scientific evidence does not confirm a high risk for the environment. At the same time, the issue receives great public attention, which in turn motivates various political and policy actions. So far, little research has examined the underlying social dimensions, i.e., the factors explaining individual risk perception of microplastics. This paper studies the perception of risks associated with microplastics concerning the environment and human health using data from a representative online survey conducted in Germany (n = 1027). We particularly examine the role of socio-demographics, individual awareness, knowledge factors, and the media’s influence on risk perception. Our results show that a majority of the respondents rates the risks through microplastics very high for both the environment and human health. Regression analyses demonstrate that environmental awareness and knowledge of media narratives are the strongest predictors for this risk perception. Our study illustrates the incongruence between scientific knowledge, media framing, and the public opinion concerning the risk posed by microplastics.
In a recent editorial in the journal Nature Sustainability , the editors raised the concern that journal submissions on water studies appear too similar. The gist of the editorial: “too many publications and not enough ideas.” In this response, we contest this notion, and point to the numerous new ideas that result from taking a broader view of the water science field. Drawing inspiration from a recently hosted conference geared at transcending traditional disciplinary silos and forging new paradigms for water research, we are, in fact, enthusiastic and optimistic about the ways scientists are investigating political, economic, historical, and cultural intersections toward more just and sustainable human-water relations and ways of knowing.
Conflicts between agriculture and biodiversity conservation in Europe are increasing, due to multiple demands from agricultural ecosystems, including a growing need for high quality and good-value agricultural products, as well as the provision of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Currents trends such as globalization, European policies, and global change, such as climate change and nitrogen atmospheric deposition are potentially driving the emergence or evolution of biodiversity conflicts in Europe. These trends are interwoven with continuing debates around land-sparing and land-sharing, that often lead to conflicting perspectives and social dynamics that influence how local actors interact with each other over agriculture. Whilst some strategies have been put in place to address the potential competition between agriculture and biodiversity, such as reglementary and market-based mechanisms, and non-monetary voluntary approaches, these need to be reflected upon and improved for a future agriculture where the negative impacts of conflicts are minimized. This paper provides a comprehensive update on the current and future trends and evaluates current strategies, to highlight the importance of addressing conflict not only through technical fixes but by developing approaches that involve profound changes in agricultural systems and a shift in how people collaborate, perceive conflict and address it. We propose three emerging pathways—agroecology, a shift to partnerships, and conflict transformation—that would support a positive change for the future of biodiversity conflicts in agriculture.
Groundwater is essential for drinking water supply, food production and ecosystem functioning. At the same time, human-groundwater interactions often critically lead to overexploitation and quality degradation. In this chapter, we explore anthropogenic activities and their direct consequences for quality and quantity in the agricultural, domestic and industrial sectors. In addition, we reflect upon indirect effects from anthropogenic activities in terms of the likely impacts of climate change on groundwater systems. Here we focus on potential alterations in groundwater recharge and the inherent uncertainty in data. Finally, we consider current groundwater governance strategies and carve out potential pathways for future developments.
Community-based energy systems are gaining traction among policymakers and practitioners as promising models for implementing a low-carbon energy transition. As a result, there has been a proliferation of concepts in the scientific literature, such as community energy, energy communities, community solar, and community wind. However, what scholars mean by "community" in these contexts is often unclear and inconsistent. This paper provides further conceptual clarity in the field by analyzing how the term of community is conceptualized in the scholarly literature on energy systems, through a systematic review of 405 articles. We combine an author keyword network analysis of this corpus with an in-depth analysis of 183 definitions extracted from these articles and systematically coded across three dimensions: meanings, activities and objectives of communities. Our findings show that the meanings attached to the notion of community and the alleged objectives pursued by communities vary substantially across concepts and over time. In particular, there has been a shift away from a notion of community understood as a process that emphasizes participatory aspects toward a notion of community primarily referring to a place. Furthermore, there is a growing focus on communities' economic objectives rather than their social or political goals. These findings suggest a weakening of scholars' attention to "transformative" notions of community emphasizing collective and grassroots processes of participation in energy transitions, to the benefit of "instrumental" notions. This trend runs the risk of placing the sole emphasis on the market value of communities, thereby diluting their distinctiveness from more commercial actors.
Since the emergence of transdisciplinary research, context dependencies, innovative formats and methods, societal effects, and scientific effects are key aspects that have been discussed at length. However, what is still missing is an integrative perspective on these four aspects, and the guidance on how to apply such an integrative perspective in order to realize the full transformative potential of transdisciplinary research. We provide an overview of each aspect and highlight relevant research questions that need to be answered to advance transdisciplinary research.
1. Differences in ecosystem service (ES) priorities often lead to conflicts between stakeholders. While differences in priorities have often been described, the so-ciocultural factors, including differences in cultural worldview, which drive them have not. We propose that the cultural theory of risk and its 'grid-group' typology, which classifies people as individualists, hierarchists, egalitarians and fatalists, can provide a conceptual framework for doing this. 2. We examined the relationship between ES prioritisation by stakeholders and underlying cultural (cultural worldviews, and related environmental nature and risk perceptions), sociocultural (region, stakeholder group, political party preference) and socio-demographic factors. This was achieved by applying multivariate statistics to data from a survey with 321 respondents, conducted across 14 stakeholder groups in three German regions. 3. Results show that most stakeholders prioritised many services but gave the highest priority to services linked to their stakeholder group. We identified four 'ES priority bundles': cultural services, open-land provisioning services, environmental protection services and forest provisioning services. 4. Each ES priority bundle was consistently associated with particular cultural worldviews, perceptions of nature and sociocultural factors, meaning that we could identify 'cultural types'. Two of these associations were particularly strong: Prioritisation of open-land provisioning ES was high for the agriculture stake-holder group, associated with individualism, a perception of nature as durable but unpredictable, and support for economic liberal, conservative political parties. In contrast, those who prioritised environmental protection tended to hold egalitarian cultural worldviews and perceive nature as tolerant and sensitive. They also often belonged to the research and nature conservation stakeholder groups, with a mostly left-leaning political party preference. 5. The identification of cultural types of stakeholder with consistent ES priorities and cultural worldviews may provide a useful construct in the future ES research. Furthermore, it may allow communications regarding ES to be tailored to improve
Groundwater is essential for drinking water provision and food production while hosting unique biodiversity and delivering key ecosystem services. However, overexploitation and contamination are prevailing threats in many regions worldwide. Even integrated governance schemes like the European Union Water Framework Directive often fail to ensure good quality and quantity conditions of groundwater bodies. Contributing factors are knowledge gaps on groundwater characteristics, limited financial, staff and land resources, as well as policy incoherencies. In this paper, we go further and argue that current groundwater challenges cannot be understood when considering the local situation within hydrologic boundaries only. New long-distance processes are at stake—so called telecouplings—that transgress watershed and administrative boundaries and significantly influence the state of local groundwater bodies. We provide three literature-based examples of European groundwater systems that are impacted by telecouplings, and we show how research and solution perspectives may change when acknowledging the de-localization of groundwater(s). We elaborate on virtual water trade, remote water supply, and seasonal tourist flows that connect sending, receiving and spillover systems. These processes can induce groundwater depletion and contamination but may also help to conserve the resource. Our hypothesis calls for a new spatial paradigm to groundwater management and highlights the need for transdisciplinary research approaches as envisioned in socio-hydrogeology.
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52 members
Egon Becker
  • Transdisciplinary Methods and Concepts
Alexandra Lux
  • Transdisciplinary Methods and Concepts
Fanny Frick-Trzebitzky
  • Water Resources and Land Use
Flurina Schneider
  • Transdisciplinary Methods and Concepts
Immanuel Stieß
  • Energy and Climate Protection in Everyday Life
Hamburger Allee 45, 60486, Frankfurt am Main, Hesse, Germany
Head of institution
Prof. Dr. Flurina Schneider