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




Excerpt from: You are what you EAT @ #SES_Link

“Are you happy? (asks Feike Sijbesma from DSM).

–       yes! (Audience)

Oh. Did you hear about the horrible crisis today? Where 9,000 people died?

–       no.

That’s because nobody is talking about it. 1, 2, 3, 4… 4 seconds go by and another person dies from hunger.

9,000 will die today, and another 9,000 will die tomorrow.

So, Are you still happy?”

Yet, obesity and overweight kills more people than underweight. The richest billion people in the world consume 40% of the resources.

This is the global food crisis.

We were presented this dilemma during the EAT forum plenary. The first annual EAT Forum was hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Stordalen Foundation to bring together environmental and health impacts of the food we eat.This type of narrative may get people to act. It is certainly one approach, and undoubtedly a successful one if business leaders are using it. I’ve written a more comprehensive blog about it on our #SES_Link homepage.

But I found myself thinking: why should we be unhappy? I know the world is unjust and try to work everyday in small ways to reduce that inequity. But does it mean that I should be so miserable that I can’t act? To be honest, some days I am. Those days when the world feels too heavy, the problems too big, and my own contribution completely insignificant, or even worse, counterproductive. Speaking for myself, what I need  to hear are more positive stories, not horror stories.

A more important critique though, is that by always framing things in the negative, we may find solutions to those problems , but we won’t change the system in which the problems arose. Improving seed varieties may solve aspects of world hunger, but it won’t change the system which makes hunger pathological.

So back to my mantra, why should use food as a lens to talk about global food problems: 1) Food frames problems in the positive;  2)  Food is evocative; food is more than just calories that feed us, and more than just ingredient that create a recipe. Everyone has a story, an emotion, associated with food. This is what is behind the sovereign space in which ideas are created;  3) Food is simple and levels the playing field; everyone can talk about food.  You can read more about our approach on the SIANI blog, or on my own.

As Bill Clinton said in his keynote at the EAT Forum: “What kills people is believing that their tomorrows will be like today.” Maybe talking about food can open up new tomorrows.

Food Futures: Correction to my blog on SIANI

A few weeks ago I wrote this blog for SIANI about food. It’s a story of how our book “With our hands: A celebration of food, and life, in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs” came to be, and why we think it’s important both for the preservation of beautiful cultural traditions in the Pamir Mountains, and also globally important for social-ecological response diversity.

Link to SIANI blog

Link to SIANI blog

The point if this current blog is to make a correction: A Pamiri friend who read the SIANI blog quickly pointed out that Pamiri people are not ashamed of their food, but that it is a much more complex story than that. Of course she is absolutely right and the last thing I would ever want is to misrepresent that. The blog has now been corrected, and here is a more detailed explanation of my own interpretation of ‘ashamed’ as an outsider to the Pamirs.

This Pamiri friend explained that she loves Osh, it’s her favourite food. But that her mother made it only occasionally because it takes a long time to prepare. Many women in the Pamirs work full time jobs, are more than full time mothers, often supporting their parents, or the parents of their husbands, and very often other extended family. Pamiri women are truly superwomen. And it’s very to me to not misrepresent this.

So, using the word “ashamed”, was absolutely the wrong one! However, I think the original rationale behind it is important. Pamiri people, we found, did not like to prepare traditional food for foreigners. They rather prepared modern Russian dishes, with meat preferably, which is a sign of wealth. This is of course not at all unique to the Pamirs. My own grandmother in Austria would never dream of serving a guest a meal without meat, even if she prepares ‘simple’ local vegetarian food regularly for herself. A second anecdote which informed my use of the word ashamed includes Pamiri peoples “second flour.” Many Pamiri households have at least two kinds of flour. The first flour, is (now usually bought) white flour usually from Kazakhstan. The second flour, is a locally milled mixed flour which is much darker in colour and much more nutritious (as it’s often mixed with legumes). Again as a guest, we would only ever be served the bread of the first flour, unless explicitly asking for the second, when it was only brought out with confused and shy manners. No restaurant in the main Pamiri city of Khorog sells local food (with the exception of one seasonal summer dish, and one thermos full of Osh at the local market!), because it is presumed that people will not buy it.

As a final note, an outsider’s perspective will never be complete or wholly representative, no matter how thorough we have tried to be. After three years of work and constant conservation with Pamiris themselves, I am hoping we are not doing the Pamirs a disservice! Dialogue is the way to get through this, so I am extremely grateful for the correction!

Guattari revisited

At the Stockholm Resilience Centre in the past month, there has been an amazing initiative to revisit the classics: Durkheim, Weber, Marx. You can read about that on the resilience science blog

Frederik and I have often over the years gone back to the classics in thinking about our work on food sovereignty, development and cultural heritage in the Pamirs. Over two years ago we were inspired by French thinker, Felix Guattari, and I posted a few first reflections here. Those thoughts turned into a paper (free access here), published a year ago in a somewhat obscure French journal.

Why do I like using the classics in thinking about change social ecological systems? I have found beauty in the way that classics can provide framing my thinking in a narrower frame, much like a poetic style can channel creativity leading to the emergence of something entirely unexpected.

… we borrow from the concept of ‘the three ecologies’, developed by the French thinker Félix Guattari (1989). With this concept he distinguishes between three dimensions—environmental, social, and mental—of the current crisis of nature (both ecological and human) and illustrates how these are affected by the economic system that he considers to be the crisis’ main cause. These ‘three ecologies’ guide our analysis of development issues and the formulation of alternatives.

Implied in the following examples is the call, also emphatically stated in Guattari’s text, to abandon the professed neutrality of “pseudo-scientific paradigms” (ibid: 131) in favour of the subjectivity of aesthetic ones. In other words, to turn away, if only for the purpose of reflection, from the informational, ‘professional’, or ‘academic’ (i.e. external) narratives as a basis for conceiving development trajectories, towards the singularity and aesthetics of popular stories and memories rooted in local culture. Huyssen (2003: 2) relates the “fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures” to the differential treatment of history vs. memory. Development activities predicated on memory will be different from those based on a linear account of history and, arguably, allow for greater flexibility and creativity in responding to environmental, economic or geopolitical changes.

We go on to describe each of these ecologies in turn, the environmental, social and finally, mental:

Perhaps the most important point made by Guattari is that the degradation of the environmental and the social sphere cannot be seen separate from the impoverishment of the mind, or the mental ecology:

“Indeed, if we continue, as the media would have us do—to refuse squarely to confront the simultaneous degradation of these three areas, we will in effect be acquiescing in a general infantilization of opinion, a destruction and neutralization of democracy. We need to ‘kick the habit’ of sedative consumption […] we need to apprehend the world through the interchangeable lenses of the three ecologies” (Guattari 1989: 34).

The “media” to which Guattari refers can be seen as analogous to the role that development organizations play in the region. People aspire to achieve a model of development which they do not only poorly understand, but which, often, causes marginalization and erodes (food) sovereignty.


Afghan women baking wheat bread in a traditional oven, called kitsor. © Theodore Kaye

Food OtherWise

Food is the source of immense energy and power.

I attended the “Food Otherwise” conference hosted at Wageningen University this weekend, where this power brought together 800 academics, politicians, and farmers to discuss the revolution we need in the food system.

Vandana Shiva spoke about why we need a different food system. Her response was “… because the current one was never meant to be.”  It’s impossible to recount even with a fraction of the eloquence and power with which Shiva tells this story, so it’s better you watch the video yourself!

Her core message was that the relevance of small-scale farming cannot be disputed. Supporting small-scale farmers is not a small scale problem, and it’s not an issue that anyone interested in global food security and the daunting task of feeding 9 billion can ignore. 70% of the world is fed by small holders, using 30% of natural resources, whereas large scale industrial agriculture feeds 30%, using 70% of natural resources. This is one of the reasons FAO has announced 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming.

Oliver de Schutter was stunningly eloquent and convincing. He echoed Shiva’s point that the food system as developed in the 1960s was developed to boost production at all costs. But as his convincing stats demonstrated, this is simply no longer the end goal. Agricultural production has continued to grow at 2.1% /year since the 60s.

We need to shift from an input intensive system to a knowledge intensive system. He described the cyclical nature of hunger and poverty and 4 types of lock-in that are making the transformation in the food system difficult.

  1. Socio-technical lock-in: the system was developed for the growth of industry, and companies now struggle to deal with sunk costs.
  2. Socio-economic lock-in: the incumbent power yielded by agro-chemical systems.
  3. Socio-cultural lock-in: we are used to a fast food culture, we want convenient calories.
  4. Socio-political: politicians and lobbyists still have the veto power.

What we need is food democracy, at the local, the regional and the global level. At the local level we need to imagine food systems based on something other than the market, focus on the direct relationships we have with land. At the regional level, we need to stop talking about agricultural policies, and start talking about food policies. At the global level we need a global commitment to food security. This starts at the dinner table, he said, with making and eating food together.

We (my book co-author and I) were asked to present as part of Oxfam-Hivos Knowledge programme on some of our insights on using food as a lens to uncover sovereign development wishes and trajectories of small-scale farmers. We are working on a think piece for the programme in which we dig into the paralysis often encountered in development practice in our attempts to give the subaltern a voice (see Spivak), without influencing that voice with our own perspective. We frame this problem at three scales. First, being aware of the limitations of development interventions themselves. In framing the problem in negatives: hunger, war, destitution, we may find solutions to those problems, but we won’t change the system in which they arose. External solutions, by their nature of being outside of the system, can’t provide the knowledge generation necessary for long-term adaptation. Second, when we turn to participatory methods, to include the internal point of view, we may find that it has no voice. Food, as a method I describe below, may help (point 2). However, there is a third level of this paralysis to act. Even in our most well-meaning participatory interventions, we may find that these voices have nothing to say.

We propose that food can be a source of new novel ideas, and using food as a method has multiple advantages:

a)    Food frames problems in the positive

b)   Food is simple and levels the playing field; everyone can talk about food. Food makes the woman the expert, and the expert the fool (thanks F!).

c)    This doesn’t mean it’s not complex; Food enables us to talk about interactions between people, their landscape and ideas. Understanding food cultures tell us a geopolitical and environmental history.

d)   Food is evocative; food is more than just calories that feed us, and more than just ingredient that create a recipe. Everyone has a story, an emotion, associated with food. This is what is behind the sovereign space in which ideas are created.

But once we have arrived at this sovereign space in which new ideas emerge, how do they take root? We draw on Bateson’s concept of an ecology of ideas, and Foucault’s analysis of power dynamics on a genealogy of ideas, to assess how different ideas acquire power. More to come!

It was a beautiful conference, a beautiful meeting of ideas, and I left inspired to make the world better, starting one seed at a time.


Sedative consumption of science

Limits, boundaries & thresholds. Real or constructed. Motive for action, or a power grab by elite scientists? The concept of planetary boundaries has become a somewhat heated polarized debate, which you can read more about from Victor Galaz on the Resilience Science blog,or Robert Pielke Jr’s blog, or Melissa Leach in the Huffington Post.

Erle C. Ellis wrote in the New York Times this week that ‘Overpopulation is Not the Problem.’ I am part of a global sustainability group, called the Balaton Group set up by Donella and Dennis Meadows (authors of Limits to Growth) in 1982 to discuss planetary issues in one of the few places where ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ scientists could meet in the 1980s, on the shores of lake Balaton. The op-ed by Ellis has sparked a lively debate amongst this heterogeneous group of scientists. We have our annual meeting later this week to discuss “Technology and Transformation—Meeting human and planetary needs.” I will present on Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability: Equity and sustainability in the governance of science, technology and innovation.

Many, on the planetary boundaries side, might say that this debate distracts from actually doing something about the challenges we face. On the other side, there is great discomfort about the top-down science that the concept of nonnegotiable boundaries promote.  I think the interesting challenge here is how can critical pluralism, as Andy Stirling calls it, lead to positive action? This seems to be the challenge we face: to maintain a diversity of alternative options in a democratic open space. We seem to be all too willing to give into the seduction of clean, clear boundaries that call for the change we ultimately all wish to see.

Ellis: “The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems. In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.”

Stirling: As knowledge can be power, so power tries to shape knowledge – including green knowledge. And few oppressions are more forceful than closure of imaginations. So, for all their seductive appeal; concentrated power, expert certainty and fallacies of control remain the oldest enemies. Despite pressing constraints, the great strength of green politics lies in its critical pluralism. This means hope-inspired democratic choice, not fear-driven technical compliance.

At a local scale, this is how I, with Frederik van Oudenhoven proposed igniting local imaginations for alternative futures:

We propose to “abandon the professed neutrality of pseudo-scientific paradigms in favour of the subjectivity of aesthetic ones. In other words, to turn away, if only for the purpose of reflection, from the informational, ‘professional’, or ‘academic’ (i.e. external) narratives as a basis for conceiving development trajectories, towards the singularity and aesthetics of popular stories and memories rooted in local culture. Huyssen (2003) relates the “fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures” to the differential treatment of history vs. memory. Development activities predicated on memory will be different from those based on a linear account of history and, arguably, allow for greater flexibility and creativity in responding to environmental, economic or geopolitical changes.

In a development context, in one that I know well, have a read of our article on how development organizations erode the very pathways they try to build, and the subjects of development become exactly that, subjected to development. So the real challenge in creating a sustainable future is to maintain diversity in imagination.

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


Accountable Talk

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.
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