I find strength in your presence.

This season can be difficult. It is dark more than it is light, and many of the seasonal rituals that help us cope with this time are stark reminders of what I have lost this year. It has become easy to focus on the void and loss.
I decided to be kind to myself today and take it a bit easy and take advantage of the day’s light – which started with a run around our little lake with the rising sun.
I stopped in front of a birch tree on the lake’s edge and looked out at the water – where a very thin layer of ice had formed over night. The icy stillness gave way to a dark silhouette of pine forest on the other side, reaching into a dull orange sunrise. My perspective from warrior pose drew my gaze to the birch branches, whose frosty contours shimmered brightly against the dark pine silhouette in concentric rings – an ephemeral eternity. I was reminded then that you are with me.

And I find strength in your presence.


“With Our Own Hands” arriving home

Latofat, a school principle in the most remote valley of the Pamir mountains sometimes wondered if the two foreigners who 4 years showed up at her door unannounced saying they were collecting recipes about Pamiri food would ever return. She was also a bit skeptical about whether there would ever be a book. When she heard on Monday that we were returning to Siponj village, with books in tow, that very day, she said she simply could not wait to see the book.

With Our Own Hands: A celebration of food and life in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan” has arrived back in the Pamirs, and 1500 copies have been started be distributed to every community in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs. The book began as a simple recipe book, to fulfill a promise to a grandmother and to document the rich unwritten knowledge about the unique agricultural biodiversity in the Pamirs. Over the course of 5 years, the book became much more. Nearly 700 pages of English, Tajik and Dari text and many photographs, describe the domestication of the mountains, the influence of the silk road, the importance of wild food, the resilience of transhumance and bring into sharp focus conflicting futures of the region.

5000 kg of book traveled from the Netherlands over land to Tajikistan. They arrived in Dushanbe two days before our own arrival last week. Here, Frederik and I are sitting on the 5 tons of book in storage at the Ismaili centre in Dushanbe.

While this felt like a small victory in itself, the next challenge was to get the books in a Kamaz for the multiple day trip to Khorog over precarious mountain passes. In the meantime, we took off in a taxi-jeep with 20 books on top of the car.

book4Latofat is the Principle of the school in Siponj village in Bartang Valley. The village is often completely isolated in the winter months when snow closes-in the valley. Perhaps because of this isolation, the valley maintains a ‘pure’ Pamiri language and is home to some of the strongest traditions in the Pamirs. The school in Siponj celebrates an annual national food day, where students ask their grandparents and elders how to make traditional foods from the unique agriculture all around them. 4 years ago, we ate many different dishes, like Baht, Khomnigul, and Boj.  We took some photos of the beautiful and proud children, and with those, we conclude the book. This day brought us a lot of hope – that food, tradition and knowledge have a place not just in preserving the past, but also in imagining the future of the Pamirs. Naturally, we decided to return to this village first.

Initial reactions were often of surprise and sheer glee!

Initial reactions were often of surprise and sheer glee!

Why the title, “With Our Own Hands”? First is because the Pamirs would be a desolate wilderness, the way Sir Francis Younghusband described it to the Royal Geographical society in 1892. People make life-giving soil with their own hands. One thing that was never in question was the title of the book.

But another reason became much more apparent as we saw people react to the book. People were reacting to the knowledge that cannot be spoken, but is expressed through ‘doing’, in their own hands. Bobbi, who drove us to Siponj, admitted to us that he thought this was an impressive volume ‘about’ the Pamirs, but didn’t really know what it was all about. He spent the next few days, while waiting for us, going through it page by page, and then told us that this was a great service to the Pamiri people – it captured invisible knowledge.


He asked, how is it possible that two foreigners wrote this book? Why was it not Pamiris?

We often asked ourselves this question while writing the book – why us?

First, it was not just us. It was supported enormously by a group of dedicated Pamiri scientists who collected recipes, verified information and made all the connections for us. And the knowledge of course, is entirely from the Pamirs. All we did was pull it together.

The other answers are maybe more complex. Because we are outsiders, so we have the luxury and distance to observe.

And we didn’t only do it for the Pamirs. We also did it for ourselves. I grew all up all over the place – the Pamirs are as much home to me as the other places I have spent meaningful time. The pamirs are an intensely special place. Yes, intensely. One cannot visit the Pamirs without being overwhelmed by the grandeur of the mountains, the blue of the sky, the force of the rivers… the diversity of seeds, language and culture. From a purely functional perspective, we will need the seeds in the Pamirs as the climate continues to change for human prosperity. But more importantly, I want my children and grandchildren to grow up in a world where the Pamirs exist.

Perhaps my favourite reaction was when Akorbirsho, the father of a good friend and ethno-botanist collaborator, read the first recipe he recognised “Noshkukpa” and started shrieking with laughter. He then went through every page of the book.

Perhaps my favourite reaction was when Akorbirsho, the father of a good friend and ethno-botanist collaborator, read the first recipe he recognised “Noshkukpa” and started shrieking with laughter. He then went through every page of the book.

What next?

The books arrived in Khorog by Kamaz on Thursday. I was already on my way to Dushanbe by car. Frederik and a Dutch film maker were there to capture it! Supposedly a line human chain of 30 people formed from the back of the Kamaz to a basement where 5,000 kg of books were passed from hand to hand.

Everyone who has seen the book, whether in the police, the bus stop or bazaar, has immediately asked how to get one. The Mountains Societies Development Support Programme will help distribute them to every community, to ensure that at least one copy is accessible in a public space.

The book should live, it is not a monument set in stone. Already we have received critiques: mistakes in spelling, which differs from valley to valley based on pronunciation; differences in recipes from grandmother to grandmother, village to village and certainly valley to valley; and discontent about showing some of the less appealing sides of the Pamirs (like the opium addiction especially on the Afghan side). We would love to find a way to facilitate the making of the book into a live forum for discussion, to capture these differences and nuances – to open up a space for imaginings.

New Paper: Applying a capitals approach to understand rural development traps

New Paper: Applying a capitals approach to understand rural development traps. Check out reflections from the Ideas for Sustainability blog, or download our paper: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264837714002415

Ideas for Sustainability

In an increasingly globalized world, rural areas are confronted with enormous development challenges. Agriculture, and in particular smallholder farming, often provides the backbone of rural livelihoods, but the future viability of this sector is threatened by a rising integration of rural areas into the global economy, and thus an increasing exposure of primary product markets to liberalized trade regimes. As a result, rural residents often need to diversify their incomes, specialize, or shift away from traditional farming activities – a set of changes that is closely linked with the notion of rural development. Several models of rural development have been proposed, but they do not always adequately explain why development stagnates in certain regions.

In our new paper we provide a possible explanation for such stagnation, illustrated by a case study from Central Romania. Based on qualitative interviews with over 350 inhabitants from 66 villages, our aim was to understand…

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Agricultural Biodiversity Community video link now out!

Agricultural biodiversity is at stake worldwide. Monocultures are becoming ever more populair, with grave effects on biodiversity. We are losing plant and animal species every day. This loss has a big negative impact on food sovereignity of countries, it makes farmers dependant of seed corporations and it threathens a healthy food supply for the people living on Earth. The Agricultural Biodiversity Community is aimed at preserving and conserving the agricultural biodiversity worldwide. We build strategies and take action. Please join us and get involved. Click on the link!

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Beyond Divides: Prospects for synergy between resilience and pathways approaches to sustainability

What does an (un)sustainable world look like? How might we ‘know’ and research (un)sustainability? How should sustainability researchers position themselves in relation to civil society, policy, business and academic communities?

These are some of the questions friends and I at the Stockholm Resilience Centre ask in a new paper “Beyond Divides: Prospects for synergy between resilience and pathways approaches to sustainability” (led by Simon West) which we think will be useful for young interdisciplinary scientists beyond the scope of resilience and pathways. We explore how resilience thinking and a pathways approach address such questions, untangling similarities and differences in their ontologies, epistemologies and areas of strategic action. Through examples such as the debate between Johan Rockstrom and Melissa Leach (documented here and here), as well as examples from our own research, we find that the most exciting areas of sustainability research lie in the boundaries between emerging trans-disciplinary research communities such as the SRC and STEPS centre.

Here are some highlights from our conclusions:

In this paper we discussed how the ontological commitments of resilience and pathways lead us to see the world differently. While both work within systems frameworks, the willingness in resilience research to draw firmer system boundaries enables researchers to establish functional relations and identities. In contrast, the emphasis in pathways research on the production of system boundaries enables researchers to uncover the discursive (and contingent) mechanisms that enable us to establish identities and relations in the first place. Given these ontological stances we then examined the epistemological strategies of resilience and pathways. We established that, generally speaking, the resilience emphasis on functionality leads to questions of ‘what works?’. In the pathways approach the emphasis on distribution leads to questions of ‘who’s losing, who’s benefiting?’. Therefore, while participatory governance structures are encouraged in resilience research primarily as a means of increasing the pool of knowledge available, in pathways oriented research they are promoted to facilitate deliberation and contestation between different knowledges. These epistemologies, supported by distinct methods, frame the role of the trans-disciplinary sustainability researcher in different ways. For resilience-oriented researchers, appropriate action for sustainability, conceived as maintenance of biophysical processes, may take the form of empowering ‘system-level’ resilience, engaging with a wide range of actors from the private sector, civil society and the state. Pathways researchers, conceiving of sustainability in terms of social inequity and inequality, are more likely to see their role as highlighting marginalised perspectives and subaltern narratives, in which case engaging with powerful private sector voices may not be so relevant. However, at the same time, we see pathways and resilience researchers acting in the same policy arenas, and, in some areas, supporting each other’s agendas. This suggests that these two visions for the role of the sustainability researcher may not be mutually exclusive but actually beneficial. The problem remains, however, how to work across these perspectives and produce trans-disciplinary, rather than simply multi-disciplinary, spaces.

We found the STEPS summer school to be an incredibly enriching experience, and are really happy to see a newly formed Alumni Association in which we hope to continue these dialogues.

Download the pdf by clicking on it

Download the pdf by clicking on it



Dialogue Advance

Like many things do, it started on the shore of Lake Balaton. A small group of us were discussing some of the particular challenges we face as young interdisciplinary researchers/practitioners who are interdisciplinary to the point that we don’t feel like we have any discipline to fall back onto. In could have been any topic of discussion, but at some point we felt a transcendence of some sort into a different space of conversation, where we all felt we were building something new, rather than amalgamating disperse ideas together.

So over the next months, we talked about creating a space to have these types of conversations on any topic that we mutually cared about. We knew we wanted an open, creative space in which ideas could fester and have the chance to grow. And a place in which we could experiment with a small group. A few of the ideas we initially started with were: 1) Improving dialogue between humanities + natural sciences, 2) Learning for sustainability / Sustainability Literacy, 3) Storytelling/framing (as a meta-theme). What is the underlying story that we are living by? Do we need a new one/new ones? What do they look like? 4) Context (how does it affect our mental models/worldviews? or the way we think?), 5) Scale (what is appropriate scale when it comes to various cultural, social, technical, economic solutions for sustainability?), 6) Interplay between arts/science/spirituality in context of sustainability.

We had a few ideas of how we wanted to go about this. Quite early on, thanks to the suggestion of another Balaton member, we were inspired by they work of physicist David Bohm, who wrote a book called On Dialogue.

Some other ways of conversing we were inspired by:

Dialectic Reasoning http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectic#Buddhist_dialectic

Flow http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)

Accountable Talk https://www.coursera.org/course/accountabletalk

The location was a remote cabin in the North of Sweden, built by one of the co-conspirators for the dialogue’s grandfather who was an artist. The three of us invited a few more people, so we were seven in total who made the trip.

What follows are some snippets from my diary on the experience.


Day 1

The walk to the in melting May snow was treacherous. One meter high deep snow… we were drenched by the time we reached the cabin. But at last, after taking off rubber boots in vain, in a mosaic of birch trees, we stand. It’s stunning in it’s isolation. This place. An artist’s creation, full of haunted masterpieces. Some dead, others alive.

In the atelier, we sat on giant colourful pillows on the ground, encircling candles, chocolate and tea. It was a safe space, full of energy. We began just by chatting about any issues close to our hearts, not in any formal way. In fat, we spent most of our time talking about time. And the double edged sword it is. On the one hand, we feel we have too many time constraints and too much discipline in our lives and yet on the other hand, most of us are craving some sort of disciplined space. Space in which we mediate, exercise, write, make something creative, do something with our hands everyday. A discipline. Have we become anti-disciplinary?

In the spirit of not giving away thoughts that are not my own and shared in that space, I will skip to my own reason for wanting to have this dialogue.

… I went next, in our circle of no or endless direction.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to say until I opened my mouth. But unlike lately, I actually felt I had something worthwhile to say. It came out coherently and meaningfully.

I started at the lake. The moment of insight the three of us had shaped. The need to push beyond an amalgamation of ideas. We really are among the first generation of thinkers who come from many angles, to solve increasingly complex and global problems.  But I am often overwhelmed, by which angle I should take. And get impatient with one, and jump to the next because I can. Maybe a matter of discipline.

But if a group of 6 people, each looking at a problem in a different way, can change that thought productively rather than chaotically, maybe we can come with something great. Where are the points of fusion? Where ideas fuse before they tackle the problem? How do we create new ideas and synergies in this spaces?

The second point I made was the path-dependency of ideas. And I thought of a tree. How you choose what path you want to take. Once you take that path, there is no turning back.

The way we, or at least I, was educated and trained is to have a discussion by responding to everything everyone says. Even when I don’t have anything meaningful or productive to say. I should say something because they main goal is to keep the conversation going. This is what creates Bad Ideas. I think it was Bateson who coined the term The Ecology of Bad Ideas. Maybe that’s how an ecosystem of bad ideas starts. And it happens so often.

Because new ideas are the buds of new branches on a tree. And they grow slowly, and they take time—rather than following the path of an idea already traveled.

So what I would like to learn from this Dialogue is how to STOP.

Someone else mentioned:

“The types of solutions we need to solve some the most complex problems come precisely at moments when we are not thinking about them.”

Format: we listened, allowed for silence. We did not steer the process which was difficult and confusing at times. Often ideas would spring up in my head and rather than assert them, I would keep them in my head… most them long forgotten.

Day 2

Improve, research questions, experimentation. A lot of moving in many different directions!

Day 3

Convergence, divergence, convergence.

Convergence: we meditated. An interesting thing happened. I didn’t think: oh, I need to be better at mediating, I’m so rubbish at this and everyone else around me has spent time in monasteries and must be so good at this. Instead, I found myself at times succeeding in some sort of transcendence, but most of the time I was just happily reflecting on ideas and conversations.

Align attention with intention.

Meditation is not about transcendence, it’s about allowing things to be the way they are.


We silently took off in our own directions, walking, collecting, creating something.

I sit and look at the slender birth tree. Swaying, in silence.

Inside. Five around. All is still.

I look out the window at the tree and it sways gently in the wind. But I hear nothing.

What is the silent world? Where are all the unspoken words?

How much of life happens without me having a clue?

My world is tiny and all that matters is today and tomorrow and how I feel in this day. How I make others feel in this day.

… and my haikus…


We then had lunch on the porch in scorching sun with the snow melting all around. Have you ever heard the snow melt? We had each created divergent pieces of art. Here is a summary of a few of the discussions:

  • to create and not to conserve. The courage and power of letting go of something we have created.
  • Medium: Charcoal… it’s nice not to have an undo.
  • Bauhaus sketch: Placement of elements makes the background active; making the white space active.  Slow and fast thoughts. What is behind the object? What are the things in between? As an act of design. Trust as white space… what do we have to build to keep the trust? Hurrying slowly. Can we fabricate flow?
  • Usually when we do things, the why is overwhelming. Use a typewriter, and just do it.

Through our convergence of art exchange, we came up with questions, somehow. They looked like this:



We then just rolled a dice and chose one: What is the source of action?


We had an incredible discussion. The conversation went one way and then another for a couple hours and we ended up with a surprising conclusion we all agreed we never would have ended up with on our own, or in another forum. It’s really too difficult to reproduce here, but here are some thoughts on method:

  • Purest democracy I have ever seen. We all put an idea into the centre of the circle but didn’t necessarily feel the need to respond to it in anyway. After a while, certain ‘towers’ or collection of ideas were built. Some ideas gained more traction than others and we stuck with those.
  • Often when we built two towers, we would jump between them and eventually one would fall.
  • Pre-cooked thoughts are often the ones that win people over. But in this case, that did not exist. Here we really entered with incomplete thoughts and other people completed them.
  • We were able to sneak things into the heart space.
  • It would be interesting to experiment with speed and structure. We had a very slow discussion, because we didn’t want to jump in and we wanted ideas to grow on their own without interrupting with our own experience. It may have been interesting also to experiment with the speed of conversation.
  • Ideas picked up without acknowledgement and become one.

Didn’t ditch; but finally hitched!

In November of last year I blogged about wanting to quit my Master’s degree at Cambridge because I felt under-stimulated, frustrated with lack of collective vision and a general absence of action research. The general feeling I left Cambridge with was that the ivory towers are comfortable and that students should take heed not to shake them up. For the record, I had chosen to go to Cambridge to gain a critical perspective on how critical social discourse views social-ecological resilience. The critique is useful, but its limited scope for analysis and inapplicability render it increasingly meaningless in my mind.

I did not drop my Master’s, despite nearly giving up in despair a few times through lack of support in fieldwork and general disapproval of my mixed-methods approach. Many people told me it would get better and I would learn to like it. I didn’t. However, in the end, I did learn a lot, primarily through my own mistakes. I spent 5 weeks in rural Tajikistan, assessing why some communities manage their forests better than others. I had the incredible support from GIZ to conduct over 50 interviews and 30 surveys.  My department was skeptical as to why I wanted to use such a deductive quantitative survey, but at least they didn’t stop me from doing it. Sure enough, as expected, the survey was unable to pick up the nuances of deceit and corruption that I gathered in my qualitative research.

I found out what I enjoyed. I do not enjoy formal dinners which last 3 hours and only the Fellows of primarily elderly white men get cheese at the high table. I do not like inter-collegiate competition, or reading groups where people are unable to look out the room at the world. So I avoid those things, and instead impose on lunchtime seminars in other departments…

So was this year at Cambridge a waste of my time? No!! I have learned a lot, mostly from my own mistakes. I have enjoyed the intellectual freedom of reading in coffee shops, and listening to and sharing pints in the pub with hugely respected figures like Melissa Leach, Bob Watson and Piers Blaikie, even if I disagree with some of them. And besides, the Universe has an uncanny way of pulling us in the right direction at the right time, which in this case resulted in meeting my most incredible partner.

The Master’s chapter is over, and a new one has begun. Just coming back from a retreat with the Stockholm Resilience Centre on a small Swedish island, the feeling could not be different. Collective action, ‘saving world’, trust and friendship were common words. Sure, many would ask: saving the world from what? For whom? But let’s just accept for a second that science is normative and having an optimistic outlook on how to make the world a better place for the most people, putting the biosphere at its base is a good place to start. This is not a sociological analysis (for that check out Parker and Hackett’s paper on the Resilience Alliance),  but it’s quite obvious to me that great ideas and good science do not emerge through competition, greed and hierarchy, but rather in spaces where people are having fun, enjoying each other and their environment.

What a feeling! to work with people you respect and trust towards an overall common vision of improving the world. More posts to come… with a renewed passion… and I’m finally hitched to resilience!

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