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Altered Disturbance Regimes and Novel Ecosystems: Understanding and Managing Ecosystem State Change in the Forest-Peatland Ecotone of Southwest Patagonia

January 24, 2020
By 25980

Using an SRA award, Kyla Zaret, a 2018 Sylff fellow from Portland State University, visited Southwest Patagonia in Chile to conduct fieldwork from March to May 2019. She has been continuously visiting this area since 2003, when she was enchanted by the natural beauty of the region. After learning approaches to conservation and development during her master’s program, she began building networks with local people and stakeholders. Her Sylff SRA fieldwork was based on her long-term commitment and experiences.


Patagonia looms large in the imaginations of individuals across the world, though many people are surprised to learn that the region encompasses more than one million square kilometers and extends from Chile’s fjords in the west to Argentina’s cliff-lined coast to the east, thus traversing both the Andes Mountains and national borders. While the global mythos of Patagonia as a pristine landscape of rivers flowing freely from glaciated peaks through primeval rainforest or across windblown steppe is not entirely false, it does belie the region’s historic and current patterns of land use and landscape change, which are becoming increasingly influenced by climate change and globalization. My academic research and goals as a Sylff fellow are responses to my first-hand experiences of how the above factors affect Patagonia’s ecosystems and people and my desire to lead conservation efforts that transcend socio-political boundaries to engage a diversity of stakeholders in fostering the resilience of this critical, yet vulnerable, region of the world.

Mosaic of burned wetlands and forests along the Vargas River, which parallels the “Southern Highway” and flows into the Baker River (also shown) in the Aysén Region, Chilean Patagonia. Photo by Adam Spencer, 2017.

I first arrived in Patagonia in 2003 as a backpacker, eager to explore the region’s remote and rugged beauty; however, my perspective of people and place has since deepened, as has my commitment to generating positive social change. I began conducting scientific fieldwork in southwest Patagonia in January 2010 while completing an independent research project as part of the International Conservation and Development option of the master’s program in which I was enrolled at the University of Montana (UM). I chose to undertake my practicum in Patagonia because observations that I had made during my initial travels (e.g., the conversion of native forest to nonnative tree plantations, evidence of landscape-scale fires, and a controversial hydroelectric project that would displace families from their homesteads) inspired numerous questions about natural resource management and environmental justice—questions that catalyzed my pursuit of graduate study.

Through the interdisciplinary program at UM, I learned approaches to conservation and development that prioritize local peoples’ knowledges, needs, and perceptions while striving to promote the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem function. Within the doctoral program at Portland State University (PSU), I have been applying those teachings and building upon my master’s research to investigate how patterns of social interaction influence whose information and knowledge about altered ecosystems becomes integrated into decision-making processes, thus determining the next trajectories of ecological and social change. This research is needed because land use practices such as burning, logging, and, more recently, peat moss harvest, continue to dramatically alter the mosaic of temperate rainforests and wetlands (i.e., the “forest-peatland ecotone”) that characterize the landscape of southwest Patagonia, calling into question the continued resilience of sensitive ecosystems and the human communities who depend upon them.

A burned forest site that was once dominated by the cedar tree Pilgerodendron uviferum (Ciprés de las Guaitecas) but is now being harvested for the peat moss Sphagnum magellanicum (pon pon or pompoñ).

Historically, poorly drained sites along river valley bottoms in southwest Patagonia were dominated by a slow-growing, rot-resistant cedar tree (Pilgerodendron uviferum), whose harvest and sale formed the cornerstone of local people’s livelihoods and cultural identities, as I learned through my master’s research (Zaret 2011). Currently, however, almost all of these sites are characterized by fire-charred snags and stumps that rise from a saturated carpet of red-orange peat moss (Sphagnum magellanicum), and the cedar tree is listed as a globally threatened species (IUCN 2010). The change in dominance from cedar tree to peat moss is reflected in a transition in the resource use of these sites: in some parts of southwest Patagonia, people have shifted from harvesting cedar to harvesting peat moss. Thus, trade-offs must be made in the socio-political-economic realm regarding which potential ecosystem services of these now nonforested sites should be encouraged through management decisions. For example, should the keystone species and culturally iconic cedar tree be restored to burned sites, or is there greater perceived value in maintaining such sites in their current state of enhanced peat moss growth (e.g., so as to allow for continued harvest and sale of the moss to the horticulture market)? Conflicts are starting to arise between managers and landowners and other resource users given the passage of a new national law (Decreto 25, August 2019) that regulates the harvest of peat moss on public and private lands. Deciding how best to manage these cedar–peat moss (or “forest-peatland”) sites is further complicated by a dearth of information: none of Chile’s state agencies have been dedicated to wetland management, and very little knowledge is held by agency personnel regarding these altered ecosystems (Fernán Silva, Agricultural Service, pers. comm.).

In response to this situation, my dissertation has two overarching goals, which pertain more to the ecological or social domain of forest-peatland resource use and management of southwest Patagonia. My first goal incorporates ideas of ecosystem resilience (e.g., Holling 1973) and ecological tipping points (e.g., Scheffer and Carpenter 2003) to investigate patterns and mechanisms of ecosystem change across waterlogged sites in southwest Patagonia due to altered climate and fire regimes. I am working on this goal using forest reconstructions, paleoecological data, and vegetation surveys at control and burned sites to compare historical and contemporary relationships between climate, fire, and vegetation. My second goal is to evaluate whether the network of stakeholders engaged in natural resource use and management is structured so as to foster “social learning” (e.g., Muro and Jeffrey 2008), which may be a prerequisite for managing the complex (and novel) multiscalar dynamics of ecosystems comprising this ecotone (Folke et al. 2005). This goal has been made possible by the Sylff Graduate Fellowship and Sylff Research Abroad (SRA) award, which have allowed me to complete the qualitative and quantitative data collection needed to apply the technique of social network analysis (e.g., Bodin and Crona 2009).

Old-growth cedar trees (Pilgerodendron uviferum) rise in the distance beyond tall bulrushes in an unburned area of the Exploradores Valley of the Aysén Region, Chilean Patagonia.

The social dimension of my dissertation research is driven by my interest in whether actors who differ in their capacities (or power) to make decisions that strongly affect their occupations or livelihoods (e.g., governmental land managers vs. resource-dependent landowners or resource harvesters) communicate their knowledge and observations of the natural world with one another. This exchange is needed not only in order to best understand rapidly changing ecological dynamics but also to assure that the perspectives and needs of all stakeholders are taken into account in the management process. Thus, my SRA project was designed to help me answer the research question: Can patterns of information and knowledge exchange within the egocentric networks of distinct socio-political actors be explained by (a) the distribution of relational ties that are constrained, voluntary, or imposed by a third party (i.e., “terms of connection”; Rocheleau and Roth 2007: 434), and/or (b) scale-related differences in perspectives regarding the value(s) of forest-peatland sites?

To begin answering the above question, I conducted fieldwork in the Aysén Region of southern Chile from March to May 2019. (Aysén is where I completed my master’s research and where I have been building my own social network since 2010.) There, I traveled from the capital city of Coyhaique to rural towns and homesteads, engaging in participant observation, meeting with key informants, identifying stakeholders and potential research participants, and conducting semistructured interviews. To find and recruit interview participants, I used purposive snowball sampling to locate individuals representing opposite ends of the socio-political scale ranging from high-interest, low-power individuals to high-interest, high-power individuals. Ultimately, I conducted participant observation with 26 individuals from the land management, commercial, natural resource harvest, and nonprofit science, education, and conservation sectors, and I conducted 12 semistructured interviews (8 with individuals on the high-interest, high-power side of the socio-political scale and 4 with individuals of high interest but low power). This small sample size, especially of low-power individuals, reflects (1) the limited numbers of individuals who are currently regularly engaged in forest-peatland resource use in Aysén[1] and (2) the degree of distrust characterizing landowners’ and resource users’ relations with land managers. That is, a recent campaign by land managers to inform stakeholders of the new rules to be instituted under Decreto 25 resulted in feelings of frustration, and even persecution, on the part of landowners and resource users. Thus, when I arrived at people’s homesteads to discuss the subject of peat moss harvest, many individuals and families were still aggravated over their interactions with land managers. While some people were still open to talking with me—perhaps given my perceived neutral role as a foreign researcher—I felt it inappropriate to request a formal, recorded interview unless I had some prior history and establishment of trust with the research participant.

A view from within a stand of old-growth cedar (Pilgerodendron uviferum) in the Exploradores Valley of the Aysén Region, Chilean Patagonia.

My SRA fieldwork was most productive in terms of connecting me with land managers from the Agricultural Service who will be responsible for implementing the new regulations under Decreto 25. They are actively engaged in building their capacity to understand and monitor the dynamics of forest-peatland sites and to conduct effective education and outreach campaigns. Given my prior work with Round River Conservation Studies (RRCS), a conservation organization that leads study abroad programs for undergraduates and that has been partnering with land management agencies in Aysén since 2012, I was able to participate in several meetings with the Agricultural Service in which I advocated for the recognition of landowners’ and resource harvesters’ knowledge and perspectives. During one of those meetings, a commitment was formed between RRCS and land managers to jointly host a series of workshops for landowners and resource harvesters in which a primary objective would be creating an opportunity to share their experiences and knowledge of forest-peatland sites and to offer feedback on land managers’ activities and regulatory tools.

Back in the United States, I am currently in the process of coding interview data in preparation for conducting the social network analysis (SNA). Following the methods of Knoke and Yang (2008) and Prell (2012), I will map, analyze, and compare the egocentric networks of my research participants in terms of the proportion and quality of information- and knowledge-exchange ties that occur between individuals of the same versus different socio-political scales. These egocentric network maps will display social actors as nodes of different shapes (depending on their socio-political scale) that are connected by arrows, whose direction will indicate whether the exchanges are unidirectional or mutual and whose thickness will represent the quality of the exchange (e.g., whether voluntary or imposed; Rocheleau and Roth 2007). I will use content analysis of the interviews to qualitatively interpret patterns of information and knowledge exchange in the maps in light of people’s own perceptions of their socio-political scales and the value/importance they attribute to forest-peatland sites and their own observations of the natural world.

My preliminary findings, from participant observation and informal conversations, suggest that despite land managers’ new imperatives to identify and communicate with stakeholders, the flow of knowledge and information within and across socio-political scales is currently impaired due to the following: (1) landowners’ frustrations with past interactions with land managers; (2) landowners’ and resource harvesters’ lack of awareness of or appreciation for their own knowledge of the natural history of forest-peatland sites; (3) land managers’ lack of recognition of landowners and resource users as legitimate knowledge holders; and (4) structural aspects of regional institutions that limit communication between land managers, even within a single agency. Ultimately, I hope that the network maps—the visual products emerging from this research—can be used to pinpoint and convey where efforts to enhance communication and collaboration between stakeholders have the best chance to ensure that all perspectives and insights are brought into play to guide the wise use and continuing availability of natural resources in southwest Patagonia. I also intend to use the outcomes of my research to draw attention to other understudied nonboreal forest-peatland ecotones of the world. These areas have received scant attention from the global scientific community despite their vulnerability to climate change and their potential to contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions if burned (Davies et al. 2013), thus threatening the resilience of local and nonlocal ecosystems and actors.

The Sylff fellow, so excited to have finally located an old-growth stand of cedar trees (Pilgerodendron uviferum) in the Exploradores Valley of the Aysén Region, Chilean Patagonia.

As a Sylff fellow and SRA awardee, I am thankful to have been able to expand my dissertation to include a social line of inquiry that (1) will generate new conceptual and methodological links between governance, scale, and social network theory that pertain to knowledge and information exchange regarding the use and management of altered ecosystems and (2) has an applied goal of active “network weaving” (Vance-Borland and Holley 2011). In this way, I feel that I am becoming a conservation scientist and practitioner who works to transform environmental governance into a process that is equitable and inclusive for all natural resource stakeholders.


Bodin, Ö., and B.I. Crona. 2009. The role of social networks in natural resource governance: What relational patterns make a difference? Global Environmental Change 19 (3): 366–74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2009.05.002.

Davies, G.M., A. Gray, G. Rein, and C.J. Legg. 2013. Peat consumption and carbon loss due to smouldering wildfire in a temperate peatland. Forest Ecology and Management 308 (November): 169–77.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2013.07.051.

Folke, C., T. Hahn, P. Olsson, and J. Norberg. 2005. Adaptive governance of social-ecological systems. Annual Review of Environmental Resources, 30: 441–73. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.energy.30.050504.144511

Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4: 1–23.

Knoke, D., and S. Yang. 2008. Social Network Analysis. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc. http://methods.sagepub.com/book/social-network-analysis.

Muro, M., and P. Jeffrey. 2008. A critical review of the theory and application of social learning in participatory natural resource management processes. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 51 (3): 325–44. https://doi.org/10.1080/09640560801977190.

Prell, C. 2012. Social Network Analysis: History, Theory and Methodology. Los Angeles: SAGE Publishing.

Rocheleau, D., and R. Roth. 2007. Rooted networks, relational webs and powers of connection: Rethinking human and political ecologies. Geoforum 38 (3): 433–37. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.10.003.

Scheffer, M. and S.R. Carpenter. 2003. Catastrophic regime shifts in ecosystems: Linking theory to observation. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 18 (12): 648–656.

Vance-Borland, K. and J. Holley. 2011. Conservation stakeholder network mapping, analysis, and weaving: Conservation stakeholder networks. Conservation Letters 4 (4): 278–88. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00176.x.

Zaret., K. 2011. Distribution, use and cultural meanings of ciprés de las Guaitecas in the vicinity of Caleta Tortel, Chile. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Montana.


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REDD+ and the Forest Commons in Nepal

November 22, 2019
By 21457

Sylff fellow Shangrila Joshi, a researcher on environmental studies and climate justice, held workshops and a forum on REDD+, one of the climate mitigation initiatives, for forest community users in Nepal, with funding from Sylff Leadership Initiatives (SLI). Although REDD+ is widely promoted as a global effort to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, Joshi argues that the implementation of associated projects often lacks informed consent by all stakeholders, and it is often the case that community forest users are left out from the discussion. Joshi conducted the SLI project to raise proper understanding of REDD+ among forest users with the ultimate goal in mind of realizing climate justice.

* * *

As climate change moves from being an impending crisis to an ongoing planetary emergency, it is important to critically evaluate the many so-called climate solutions that have arisen in response. REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is one of the mitigation options that have emerged out of the United Nations deliberation process. It is a market-based mechanism to address climate mitigation by promoting the sequestration of carbon dioxide in forests while facilitating a global trade in certified emission reductions of sequestered carbon. This arrangement allows high emitters to meet their emission reduction targets by financing emission reduction programs in forest-rich developing countries.

Internationally, REDD+ has been heavily criticized and opposed by affected communities, scholars, and activists due to concerns about land grabs and human rights abuses and for not addressing the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions, namely fossil-fuel-based industries. Nepal has been an attractive prospect for those seeking to pursue these mitigation attempts while minimizing their worst side effects, because REDD+ has been proposed for community forests with a proven record of governance that empowers local communities while enhancing forest cover.

Shangrila Joshi with members of Chaturmukhi Community Forest in Gaduwa, Chitwan.

SLI Project Highlights

The perceptions of REDD+ among Nepal’s community forest users have been the focus of my research investigations for the past few years. Specifically, I interviewed forest users and conducted participant observation in the three sites in Nepal where the REDD+ pilot project was implemented—Gorkha, Dolakha, and Chitwan—during the monsoon of 2017. I conducted follow-up meetings and site visits in Chitwan in 2018. During August 2019, with SLI support, I facilitated a series of workshops in Chitwan and a three-day forum in Pokhara bringing together 24 members of the Community Forest User Group (CFUG) and Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN) from 12 districts of the Terai, where Nepal’s first World Bank program for REDD+ is slated for implementation.


Participants hearing a presentation by Dr. Joshi at the three-day forum in Pokhara.

Conversations in the workshops and forum revealed that while the desire of forest users to benefit from REDD+ is strong, their knowledge of how REDD+ specifically and carbon trading more generally operates in the local, national, and international contexts is weak. There is high demand for such knowledge to be widely disseminated in areas where REDD+ programs are to be ushered in. Participants were highly enthusiastic about welcoming REDD+ to their communities in ways that maximize economic and ecological benefits while avoiding harm to local communities. There was strong consensus among all participants that knowledge regarding REDD+ is highly inadequate in the local communities to be affected by REDD+, that access to such knowledge is desirable and necessary, and that any policies and benefit sharing should be equitable and just and involve meaningful participation of all stakeholders from the start. Community forest users at the forum and workshops overall expressed a strong desire to be active participants, not passive recipients in Nepal’s REDD+ programming.

Without a proper understanding among those who would be most affected by REDD+ of how REDD+ operates, how it strives to mitigate climate change, and how local forests and forest users are implicated, I argue that its proponents risk ignoring the principle of free, prior, and informed consent. The deliberations of the forum and workshops have been summarized in a white paper that has been shared with concerned officials in the Ministry of Forests and Environment, the World Bank, and FECOFUN, as well as media outlets in Nepal, so that the voices of community forest users may reach concerned authorities. In the white paper, I argued that meaningful participation and fully informed consent were not facilitated in all community forests in the Terai before the agreement on REDD+ was made between Nepal and the World Bank. If REDD+ is to move forward in Nepal, it is urgent that these gaps and oversight be rectified with a coordinated drive to involve local forest stakeholders in all REDD+ districts, through educational programs and discussion about the complex connections between climate change and forests, how REDD+ operates, what the rights of local forest users are, and how they can best advocate for their rights, if REDD+ is to move forward in Nepal.



Neoliberal Climate Solutions and the Commons

Although Nepal does not present blatant cases of disenfranchisement such as land grabs in areas where REDD+ projects are being introduced, concern is warranted for possible erosion of progressive structures. REDD+ is often characterized as a neoliberal solution, meaning it is predicated on the problematic assumption that free trade is the best way to maximize well-being and that the market is the best place through which to resolve social and environmental problems by virtue of the enlightened behavior of consumers buying and selling commodities. This is a decidedly different approach to resolving problems from that of members of a community deciding to impose rules and regulations to change behavior and address identified problems. Those interested in learning further about these two distinct ways to conceptualize and resolve problems may wish to look into the work of Elinor Ostrom, who tirelessly sought to correct the misconceptions introduced into the realm of environmental problem solving by Garrett Hardin through his highly influential yet problematic article “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

Is the tragedy of the atmospheric commons best solved through collective action—such as through a concerted global effort to scale back the burning of fossil fuels, addressing the problem at the source—or by commodifying the atmosphere, buying and selling carbon credits in the global marketplace? Carbon trading commodifies the atmospheric commons by assigning a price for a unit of reduced emissions: a carbon credit that can be bought and sold in the global carbon market. As a commodity, the price of carbon is determined not by its actual worth but rather by the vagaries of the market, and hence it is greatly underpriced. Ironically, the buyers of carbon credit—the ones creating emissions—determine the price of emissions reduction, while those who are already relatively blameless have little to no say. The latter are also more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, hence the importance of a climate justice lens to evaluate these neoliberal climate solutions.

Not only do those members of the global community who are making a carbon trade possible due to their labor and everyday choices have little power to influence the price of the carbon commodity they are selling; they are in many cases enabling this trade without their fully informed consent. Intermediaries such as the World Bank and government agencies often mediate the transactions between the buyers and sellers of carbon credits in ways that diminish the agency of the seller. Even if blatant instances of disenfranchisement may not occur in Nepal, these subtle ways of what geographer David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession” are concerning. In addition to these issues that are generic in the world, the stakes are high for Nepal also because of credible threats to common pool resource governance structures such as community forestry.

Community forestry users and leaders are generally highly welcoming and desirous of REDD+ projects due to the resources they promise, even if and perhaps precisely because the complex connections between forests, community forestry institutions, and global climate change are not well understood. The integration of local forests into a regime of global carbon trade requires quantification and measurement of carbon sequestered in forests in such a manner that privileges reductionist ways of managing forests. A related concern then is whether a move to embrace REDD+ might disenfranchise forest users from their ability to use their local and/or traditional ecological knowledge for forest management in ways that disproportionately privilege outsiders with technological skills and training in “scientific forestry.”

Power dynamics in the local context are important to understand as well. Specifically, programs such as REDD+ operate within an established culture of patriarchal domination, caste privilege, and disproportionate power of the urban educated elite. Attempts at gender sensitization and gender mainstreaming are laudable if insufficient, but there are indications that efforts to encourage equity for Dalit and Janjati groups are occurring in problematic ways that appear to further exacerbate animosity between social groups. If these instruments of carbon trading are to continue and do so in socially just ways, the question of what constitutes a “fair trade” in carbon as commodity at multiple scales begs serious attention.

The climate crisis can be seen as creating opportunities to reevaluate power dynamics at multiple scales, as well as to re-envision how the earth’s resources are used. Even as climate change offers new frontiers for the decades-long project of commodifying nature, thus enhancing the power of corporations, it has strengthened the resolve of activists who are striving to keep remaining fossil fuels in the ground and to hold companies and countries accountable for the climate crisis. In Nepal, there are opportunities to strengthen existing institutional arrangements designed to empower ordinary people to engage in ecologically sustainable behavior. The challenge is to do so equitably and in meaningful, not tokenizing, ways. The current moment in Nepal—and the world—serves as a reminder that the stakes for a battle between these competing forces have never been higher.

Shangrila Joshi, author of the article, visiting Baghdevi Community Forest in Parsa, Chitwan.

(All photos by Addison Joshi Felizola)

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Rural Restructuring in the Visegrad Group after the Political and Economic Transition

March 30, 2018
By 24143

Specializing in rural geography and socioeconomic modeling, József Lennert, a 2017 Sylff fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, shares highlights of his doctoral dissertation concerning the process and trends of counterurbanization after the fall of socialism in the Visegrad countries: Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Lennert made a comparison with the experiences of Western countries as well as among those of the four Visegrad countries, which pose both similar and distinctive aspects.



Thanks to the long-lasting influence of the romanticized Anglo-Saxon narrative of rural idyll, rural areas are still often perceived as stagnant, untouched by modernity, and resistant to any change. However, this is far from the truth: change never avoided rural areas, its rate simply varied during the course of history. From the 1970s a fast-paced rural transformation process started in the first world, bringing about fundamental changes in many aspects of rurality. These intertwining change processes are often summarized with the umbrella term “rural restructuring.”

Some of these changes included shifts in migration processes. Before rural restructuring, rural areas had been suffering for a long time from rural out-migration (with the exception of some settlements in the vicinity of an urban center, which were affected by suburbanization). Around the 1970s, a new migration trend called counterurbanization appeared in many first-world countries. Counterurbanization meant the (partial) reverse of previous trends, and migration surpluses appeared even in some previously depopulating remote rural areas. One of the driving forces of these new migratory movements was the increasing appreciation of natural and cultural amenities of rural areas—amenity migration. Rural restructuring also had an impact on land use. Instead of a landscape dominated by monocultural, productivist agriculture, a more diverse, multifunctional countryside is now preferred. These changes also opened up new future prospects and development possibilities for many previously neglected rural areas.

While the first world underwent rural restructuring, political and economic transition brought different changes and challenges to rural areas of the former socialist bloc. Realizing this, I set the main goals of my research as follows:

  • to analyze the transformation of rural areas of the Visegrad Group after the political and economic transition;
  • to distinguish those processes similar to Western rural restructuring from those processes derived from the political and economic transition;
  • to identify the similarities and differences between the four countries and explore the role of historical backgrounds;
  • to map the spatial structure of rural areas in the light of the aforementioned processes; and
  • to determine whether the development policies in place are capable of addressing the ongoing transformation processes and territorial differences.

To achieve these aims, I conducted my research in the following manner:

  • I analyzed trends in migration processes and changes in land cover in the Visegrad Group after the political and economic transition;
  • I created a typology of the rural areas of the Visegrad Group; and
  • through a case study, I examined how the allocation of European Union funds varied between different types of settlements.

In the following sections, I would like to share some of the most important findings of this research.

Material and Methods

Figure 1. Urban areas, commutable rural areas, and remote rural areas of the Visegrad Group. Own elaboration.

To examine the processes at the lowest possible level, I conducted my analysis in the spatial level of local administrative units (LAU 2). While my units of analysis are not completely analogous with the municipalities and settlements of the four countries, I will refer to them as such for the sake of a more straightforward discussion.

To achieve the goals stated above, I used a two-step delimitation method. I considered all units of analysis with less than 5,000 inhabitants, as well as those municipalities that have higher populations but do not possess city rights, to be rural (regardless of administrative status). Based on the Western experiences of rural restructuring, I made a further distinction between commutable rural and remote rural areas. I defined remote rural areas as rural areas that require 45 minutes or more of driving to reach the nearest city with at least 50,000 inhabitants; the remaining rural settlements are considered commutable rural (Figure 1).

According to this definition, even though most units of analysis can be considered rural, only 28.9%  of the population of the Visegrad Group lives in commutable rural areas and another 11.5% in remote rural areas. Among the Visegrad countries, Slovakia was characterized with the highest and Hungary with the lowest share of rural residents.

For the purposes of analyzing migration trends, I used data from the statistical offices of the four countries: Központi Statisztikai Hivatal (KSH) in Hungary, Główny Urząd Statystyczny (GUS) in Poland, Český Statistický Úřad (ČSÚ) in the Czech Republic, and Štatistický úrad (ŠÚ) in Slovakia.

Figure 2. The typology of the selected rural settlements. Own elaboration.

The Corine Land Cover database was used to analyze land cover changes of the Visegrad Group. From the original 44 land cover categories, I created 8 aggregated categories: artificial surfaces, arable land, vineyards and fruit cultivations, grasslands, heterogeneous agricultural areas, forests, wetlands and other natural areas, and water bodies.

To analyze the allocation of funds from the European Union, I used Hungary as a case study. I randomly selected 50 commutable rural and 50 remote rural municipalities. Based on the results of the previous analysis, I classified them into groups with distinguishable migration and land use characteristics. I also took into account the state of the built environment, which is a good indicator of ongoing social changes (Figure 2). Finally, I analyzed EU-supported projects from the 2007–2013 programming period for the selected 100 municipalities.


Figure 3. Rural migration trends in the Visegrad Group after the political and economic transition. Own elaboration based on data from KSH, GUS, ČSÚ, and ŠÚ.


The results indicate that the transition brought about drastic changes in the rural migration trends of the Visegrad Group. While rural out-migration dominated in the decades of state socialism, after 1990 the rural areas can be characterized with an increasingly positive balance (Figure 3). However, this surplus was mostly limited to the commutable rural areas. These results indicate the widespread emergence of suburbanization: the concentration of the population in suburban settlements around the central city of an urban agglomeration (Figure 4). Whereas in Western Europe and North America this process had already begun to take wings in the early twentieth century, it was restrained to a great extent in the centrally planned economies until the transition. After the fall of socialism, however, the former constraints lifted, and a rapid urban sprawl took place. This partially controlled process also had an impact on land cover change.

Figure 4. Rural migration trends in the Visegrad Group at the municipality level. Own elaboration based on data from KSH, GUS, ČSÚ, and ŠÚ.


Counterurbanization had a central role in the rural turnaround of the first world, but the appearance of this process in the research region is limited to a few destinations. Rural depopulation still persists in a large part of the remote rural areas of the Visegrad Group. Also, some remote rural locations became migration destinations for the socioeconomically disadvantaged. This unfavorable process is driven by economic necessities: those who are excluded from the work market are sometimes left with only one solution—to sell their former residence for a less valuable location and use up the difference for day-to-day expenses. Ultimately, this movement reduces their chances of reintegration into the labor market and leads to their further deprivation.

Figure 5. Land cover change trends in the Visegrad Group between 1990 and 2012. Own elaboration based on Corine Land Cover data.


The increase of artificial surfaces and forests and the decrease of arable land were already present during the decades of state socialism, and the results of the analysis show that the political and economic transition did not alter these long-term trends in land cover change (Figure 5). After the political and economic transition, however, the loosely controlled urban sprawl led to more chaotic expansion of artificial surfaces than in previous decades.

While some general trends are common for each country, we can still observe significant differences in the rate of change and in the spatial patterns. For example, despite the general shrinkage in the acreage of arable land, we can still identify areas of increase in the eastern regions of Poland (Figure 6). In these areas small-scale family farming persisted during the socialist era. The relatively low unemployment of these regions indicates that many former industrial workers returned to subsistence farming. This safety net function explains why market-controlled land abandonment did not reach the region.

Figure 6. Changes in the area of arable land between 1990 and 2012. Own elaboration based on Corine Land Cover data.


The significant transformation from arable land to grassland in the Czech peripheries stands in stark contrast to the trends in Eastern Poland. Behind this, we can once again find region-specific reasons. This area was inhabited by Sudeten Germans since the Middle Ages, but after World War II the Czechoslovak government expelled the vast majority of them. This event was shortly followed by the reorganization of agricultural land into state farms and cooperatives, thus preventing the new residents from forming emotional ties with their land before the socialist transformation of agriculture. After the restitution, this lack of attachment led to land abandonment in the changing market environment, where farming was no longer profitable.

These two examples reveal that in regions with divergent socioeconomic and historical backgrounds, even similar challenges can induce radically different changes, leading to further differences in the socioeconomic circumstances of the localities.

The results discussed above pose the question of whether the allocation of EU funds takes into account the differences between rural communities. In order to close the development gap, disadvantaged settlements should be favored, and the implemented projects should reflect the unique needs of these settlements. Fund allocation in the 100 municipalities selected for the case study shows us a mixed picture. Generally, the per capita fund allocation favors the disadvantaged (e.g., remote rural) municipalities. However, the combination of several socioeconomic challenges (e.g., small population coupled with rural out-migration) can lead to insufficient human capital and completely prevent the absorption of the EU funds.

Moreover, disadvantaged settlements that receive a sufficient amount of resources may nonetheless not use them in the most efficient way. In socially and economically balanced settlements, a significant percentage of the resources are spent on increasing the competitiveness of local business. But this is not true for the disadvantaged settlements; there the emphasis is shifted to investments in settlement infrastructure and local services. While these are important aims, without a more dynamic local economy, there is little to stop the decline and decay of these settlements.

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Own Fate: Self-Managing the Future―How to Link Academic Knowledge and Local Practice

January 5, 2018
By 19685

On September 8 and 9, 2017, five Sylff fellows organized an event aimed at promoting sustainable development in Hungary: Professor Eva Kiss, Dr. Andrea Kunsagi, Dr. Viktoria Ferenc, Dr. Viktor Oliver Lorincz, and Dr. Loretta Huszak. Mari Suzuki, director for leadership development of the Tokyo Foundation, attended the two-day event as a representative of the Sylff Association secretariat to support the fellows’ initiatives. The event was significant in that many participants as well as speakers consisted of past and current Sylff fellows. This opportunity served not only to encourage cooperation between academics and local practitioners in Hungary but also to strengthen the bonds among Sylff fellows in Hungary.


The Role of Bottom-Up Local Initiatives in Sustainable Development

A round-table discussion during the event, titled “Sustainability Initiated ‘Bottom-Up’: Is It Possible?” The participants are (from left to right): Zsolt Molnar, Andras Jakab, Balazs Hamori, Eva Deak, and Andras Takacs-Santa.

A round-table discussion during the event, titled “Sustainability Initiated ‘Bottom-Up’: Is It Possible?” The participants are (from left to right): Zsolt Molnar, Andras Jakab, Balazs Hamori, Eva Deak, and Andras Takacs-Santa.

Economically and ecologically sustainable development has become a universal concern. It merits the attention and action of all of us. Hungarian fellows of the Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (Sylff) have realized that efforts are needed on a variety of fronts to promote sustainable development. Local and bottom-up initiatives have significant impact and are indispensable for sustainable development. Accordingly, more attention should be paid to them.

Post-communist civil societies, like the one in Hungary, are characterized by a lower level of participation in bottom-up initiatives by ordinary citizens.[1] Nonetheless, recent academic literature indicates that an increasing number of municipalities in Hungary possess local strategies for sustainable development or support initiatives related to sustainability.[2] These initiatives are designed to use and develop the municipalities’ own resources and internal potential to change society for the better.

The focus of the two-day Sylff event was on analyzing how imperative local bottom-up initiatives are to the economic, social, cultural, political, and legal development of modern societies and understanding how their sustainable development can be ensured and observed in Hungary. The first day was dedicated to academic analysis of the above themes, and the second day was a field trip to Szigetmonostor—one of the most active municipalities in Hungary, where the local administration is very much engaged in cooperation with grassroots initiatives. The object of the initiative was to facilitate a bottom-up dialogue between academics and local leaders and initiators. The chief patron of the event was Laszlo Lovasz, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.[3]

Conference Day at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

 The first day of the initiative was an interdisciplinary forum, which took place at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest. It was dedicated to the academic analysis of sustainability and to the scientific elaboration of the role of bottom-up local initiatives in sustainable development. After the opening addresses, Andras Takacs-Santa, program director at Eötvös Loránd University Budapest, gave an opening lecture on “The need for a protective science in the light of the ecological crisis.”[4] He pointed out that the imperative of sustainable development is forcing us to think in new ways but that the way to an ecologically sustainable future is not at all yet clear. Human ecology and the sustainable way of thinking about the Earth’s resources should “run out in all directions” and find their path to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences too.

Section 1 of the forum focused on “the spatial dimensions of sustainable development” with five presentations. The well-prepared speakers approached sustainability from different aspects - environmental, economic, and social - and on diverse spatial levels. They dealt with different parts of the world, from the regional to micro level: China, the Carpathian Basin, Visegrad countries, the South-Bekes microregion, and underdeveloped regions of Hungary. Taken as a whole, the presentations significantly contributed to the success of the conference and to a better understanding of the processes of sustainability on different spatial levels. After the presentations, there was a lively discussion in which the audience raised several questions.

Section 2 analyzedthe successes and anomalies in communication and their role in community generating, business, and social life.” These aspects were investigated from psychological, marketing, management, and human-ecological collateral perspectives. The impact of people on their environment also prevails by numerous forms of manifestation in communication. Making public property from successes and anomalies in communication may help initiate more constructive societal, business, and grassroots movements and give these movements sustainability.

The human dimension of biodiversity” was studied in section 3. Biodiversity can be found in both nature and culture. Our world is a living network made up of the millions of species of plants and animals and thousands of human cultures and languages that have developed over time. Languages, cultures, and ecosystems are interdependent. For humanity at large, the loss of cultural and linguistic diversity represents a drastic reduction of our collective human heritage. In this section, Sylff fellows discussed human communities that have special attributes in ethnic, linguistic, and cultural respects and whose existence is endangered. The topic is highly relevant in Europe as well as in the Hungarian context. The objective of the panel was to shed light on the importance of maintaining these communities and to link the knowledge represented by Sylff fellows to the practice of local actors and decision makers in Hungary.

Topping the presentation part of the forum was the legal section, which focused onlaw and equity in a sustainable society.” Beyond environmental law, the question of sustainability also emerges in other domains of legal studies and political sciences, such as constitutional law, the institutional background of the protection of future generations, populism versus long-term policymaking, and the economic aspects of environmental damages and its legal consequences.

The conference day closed with a round-table discussion. Invited participants talked about the question of “sustainability initiated ‘bottom-up’: is it possible?” It was a valuable discussion, not only in that it summarized the main findings of the conference day but also because it brought together academia and municipalities with bottom-up local initiatives, as well as nongovernmental organizations, and raised expectations for the field trip that was to follow the next day. 

A key point of the conference day was that the presentations went beyond the speakers’ own research, adding aspects of sustainable economic development. They encouraged the audience to analyze the theme from broad perspectives and led to a successful forum, as audience members were able to understand the contents without specialized knowledge. The perspectives that were offered helped not only to identify research interests shared by the different disciplines but also to link academic knowledge with local practice.

Workshop Day in the Idyllic Village of Szigetmonostor

Discussion during the workshop in Szigetmonostor.

Discussion during the workshop in Szigetmonostor.

The field trip to Szigetmonostor was aimed at disseminating and applying academic knowledge to the field. To achieve these goals, academics—scientists employed by HAS (research institutions) and people employed by institutions of higher education—went to the field and experienced knowledge spillovers to the locals. Another aim was to heighten the awareness of local initiators about how academics can support and help their initiatives, thereby helping theoretical academic projects take on a more applied and realistic role; in other words, to help academic projects realize themselves in a more practical pragmatic environment.

The main reason for choosing Szigetmonostor was its isolation. Although the village is just 25 km from Budapest, it is difficult to access due to poor infrastructure; because there is no direct motorway, the only ways of reaching it are via a 50-km detour or by ferry.[5] This makes the village unique in its inhabitants’ reliance on one another. Given the natural beauty and environment of the place, which has been underdeveloped to date, it is an ideal spot to develop tourism. There is a need to create job opportunities within Szigetmonostor, as its geographic location makes it difficult for the locals to seek job opportunities in central Budapest.

Activities provided by Sylff fellows included raising awareness of the historical background of Szigetmonostor among the academic participants. Mayor Zsolt Molnar of Szigetmonostor elaborated on the current situation that the half-island was facing.[6] He gave his account at the dam, with the Danube and the city of Budapest visible in the background. This setting enhanced and inspired the visitors’ interest.

After this opening, the focus turned to local initiatives. Local initiators presented their activities and highlighted the key social challenges that they wanted to be tackled. A short group session followed, in which participants were divided into groups and had to identify possible solutions to local issues. These discussions were led by professional mediators as well as local experts. The idea was to find a common ground between the academics and locals to help with Szigetmonostor’s advancement in terms of tourism, education, local job creation, and so forth.

The group work was then followed by participants presenting new ideas and possible solutions to existing difficulties. The group activities provided a great platform for initiating future collaboration between the academics and local initiators.

Discussion during the Workshop in Szigetmonostor.

Hungarian Sylff fellows and locals in Szigetmonstor, with the newly planted Sylff tree in the background. Holding the plaque for the tree at center are Mariann Tarnoczy, who has been working with Sylff at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences since the program’s inception, and Mari Suzuki, director of leadership development at the Tokyo Foundation.

Hungarian Sylff fellows and locals in Szigetmonstor, with the newly planted Sylff tree in the background. Holding the plaque for the tree at center are Mariann Tarnoczy, who has been working with Sylff at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences since the program’s inception, and Mari Suzuki, director of leadership development at the Tokyo Foundation.

To mark Sylff’s contribution and its recognition for future collaboration, the group of workshop participants went out to a beautiful park built by the local volunteers, where they planted a South European flowering ash tree as a symbol for future collaboration. With the help of locals, the academics dug the ground and planted and watered the new tree.

Impact of the Initiative

The two-day event was well attended, which is an objective indicator of success. Eighty-one people attended the conference day, almost half of whom were Hungarian Sylff fellows. The workshop day in Szigetmonostor saw the participation of 45 academics and locals; the number of Sylff fellows was 12.

The initiative aspired to link academic knowledge and local practice. Analyzing sustainable local initiatives and their impact on society was a new activity field for most of the participants. The researchers who gave presentations had been invited to combine their actual research with this important topic. It was an experiment that made great demands of the presenters but led to unforeseen ties between researchers from different disciplines—to real-time interdisciplinary interactions. 

The initiative also had the aim of contributing to society. Understanding basic human ecology principles and the operation of local initiatives can help to map out and evaluate alternatives. The participants identified such principles and recognized new opportunities for cooperation between local initiators and academics. We hope that this future cooperation will lead to positive social change in such forms as increased citizens’ participation in local initiatives, better understanding of the significance of such initiatives among scholars, and more academic projects taking on advanced applied and realistic roles.

A well-informed public is crucial for sustainable development. The media can help reach a wider audience, inform local stakeholders, and direct attention to the role of local initiatives in Hungary’s sustainable economic development. The first report of the initiative has already been published; an article appeared in the local online newspaper of Szigetmonostor, informing local stakeholders about the event..[7]

The organizers of the initiative have prepared a special edition for Magyar Tudomany, the periodical of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. All manuscripts are completed and should be published in the coming weeks. In addition, a seven-minute video on the initiative will be published soon on social media and Internet channels (YouTube and Facebook).

The main organizers of the event (from left to right): Viktoria Ferenc, Andrea Kunsagi, Eva Kiss, Loretta Huszak, and Viktor Lorincz.

The main organizers of the event (from left to right): Viktoria Ferenc, Andrea Kunsagi, Eva Kiss, Loretta Huszak, and Viktor Lorincz.

[1] Marc Marje Howard, The Weakness of Civil Society in Post-Communist Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. i.

[2] Henrietta Nagy, Tamas Toth, and Izabella Olah, “The Role of Local Markets in the Sustainable Economic Development of Hungarian Rural Areas,” Visegrad Journal on Bioeconomy and Sustainable Development, vol. 1, no. 1 (2012): pp. 27–31. https://vua.uniag.sk/sites/default/files/27-31.pdf

[3] For a list of elected chief officers of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences see:


[4] For further information on Andras Takacs-Santa visit: http://tatk.elte.hu/en/staff/TakacsSantaAndras

[5] Official website of the municipality: http://szigetmonostor.hu/ (in Hungarian)

[6] For further information on Zsolt Molnar visit: http://szigetmonostor.hu/index.php/onkormanyzat/polgarmester (in Hungarian)

[7] Loretta Huszak, “Az MTA kutatóinak és ösztöndíjasainak látogatása Szigetmonostoron,” Ujsagolo, vol. 23, no. 10 (October 2017): pp. 1, 10. http://szigetmonostor.hu/images/dokumentumok/ujsagolo/ujsagolo_2017_10.pdf

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Environmental Geopolitics in the Anthropocene: Understanding Causes, Managing Consequences, Finding Solutions

September 28, 2017
By 19631

An SLI forum organized by University of Oregon Sylff fellow Corey Johnson, currently associate professor and head of the Department of Geography at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, brought together a group of policy-minded academics on March 22–24 at Greensboro. Experts specializing in such fields as the economy, security, geography, and energy policy discussed the best governance for sustainable development under the current circumstances, where solutions remain uncertain to the environmental challenges of global warming and the drain of natural resources. The public symposium that was conducted as part of the forum also attracted many students and citizens. A copy of the panel poster for the public discussion can be downloaded at the following link: https://geo.uncg.edu/wp-content/themes/Geo/assets/Panel-Poster.pdf.



Johnson, speaker on the left.

In recent years, the international political community has come to take more seriously the challenges of global increases in resource consumption, climate change, and sustainable development. The adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change mark important milestones in multilateral commitments to making progress on these issues. However, as Brexit in Britain and the election of a populist-nationalist president in the United States suggest, the center of gravity of leadership on the most pressing global issues of the day—foremost among them environmental change—is shifting, perhaps irrevocably, away from the transatlantic alliance. This is happening at a crucial moment in time when coordinated leadership, foresight, and evidence-based policy are required if the planet is to not only avert the profound impact that climate change will have but also manage the geopolitical upheavals that can increasingly be linked to environmental change.

The forum “Environmental Geopolitics in the Anthropocene: Understanding Causes, Managing Consequences, Finding Solutions” brought together a group of policy-minded academics to delve into the convergence of these momentous environmental and political trends. Our goal was to better understand the causes and consequences of, and possible solutions to, some of these mega-challenges in the face of much uncertainty in the spaces of governance where resolute decisions will be required.

Events Overtake Good Intentions

When I proposed this forum to the Sylff Leadership Initiatives grant program in spring 2016, the United States was in the midst of an unprecedented presidential race. It was growing clear that the nominees of the two major parties would be Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Like many observers, I thought it highly unlikely that Trump—with his unorthodox views on the issues to be addressed by the forum—would actually be elected to the most powerful office in the land. My working assumption at the time was that by spring 2017, when the forum would take place, there would still be plenty of debate over the ambitions and technical details of the Paris Agreement but the United States would still be a party to it and would lead efforts to mitigate climate change as the country that has emitted more greenhouse gases to the earth’s atmosphere since 1850 than any other.

Instead, when we met in March 2017, the forum participants were faced with a confusing and deeply unsettling landscape. President Trump campaigned on a platform that included very vocally dismissing international institutions and agreements including the United Nations and the Paris Agreement. Not surprisingly, given his dismissal of climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” he has since announced the government’s intention to withdraw from Paris, effectively ceding leadership on climate change to other countries, especially China.

In proposing the forum, I noted the huge gaps between the lofty rhetoric of multinational agreements, on the one hand, and our rather thin understanding of the best governance pathways to achieve sustainable development and climate change mitigation, on the other. I also noted that not only was environmental change—which has always played a role in geopolitics—accelerating, but a number of important geopolitical developments in recent years could at least in part be tied to environmental events. The upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East since 2011 are just the most visible of what is a broader set of realities about global geopolitical dynamics, namely that there are feedback loops between human-caused environmental changes and political events, and these relationships are not particularly well understood.

The Time-Scale Problem of the Anthropocene

Even as political winds shift and policy priorities change in the short term, the longer-term challenges of the unbending curve of growing resource consumption, a hotter planet, and the unsustainability of how economic growth has historically been achieved remain as vexing as ever. It is abundantly clear that the very health of the planet and of humankind hinges on our ability to successfully address the problems of constrained natural resources in an epoch where humans are themselves a serious geophysical force. The forum was framed by considering geographic and temporal scales together, and the following assumptions informed and provided material for further discussion:

  • Humans have the now-unmistakable ability to act as a destructive geophysical force, creating what many scholars have described as a new geological era called the Anthropocene. In terms of climate change, this new era was roughly two centuries in the making; many of those who contributed to it are no longer living, and many who will face its consequences have not yet been born. Due to the complexity of earth systems and the forces that affect them, there is often a considerable time lag between the human activities that create the problem and humans’ ability to perceive the changes.
  • There is a perennially vexing governance difficulty in making hard decisions in the short term about such issues as resource consumption and models of economic growth that might be required to reduce the potentially catastrophic long-term impacts of climate change, especially when the impacts are predicted rather than occurring. The same difficulty could be said to apply to governance decisions around geo-engineered solutions, given the potential for massively screwing up earth systems through human intervention.
  • There is considerable geographic variation in the type and intensity of the effects of climate change, as well as in the types of institutions, governments, nonstate actors, and so forth that can play a role in addressing the effects. The governance landscape is highly uneven, and global regimes continue to be fragile and ill equipped.

All Doom and Gloom?

As academics we are accustomed to identifying problems, lamenting how they came to be, bemoaning how not enough is being done to address them, and then moving on. While this forum and the contributed papers had their share of this, the participants were also able to think about possibilities for future developments that give at least some cause for optimism. The Anthropocene, as Simon Dalby pointed out in his paper, is at its root the result of the “fire species” of humans manipulating, managing, and, above all, burning available resources to such an extent that any assumption of “geographic and geological stability as the background to the human story” must be discarded. Shaping the Anthropocene, which is now reality, requires a set of political choices that more intelligently seeks not just to reduce carbon combustion but also to reconfigure land use, urbanization patterns, and other aspects of human existence with changed earth conditions as the new baseline. Understanding that the global economy is a geological phenomenon requires what many, but not nearly enough, states and corporations have recognized: how capital is invested a more proactive accounting for how it contributes to environmental change.

There were numerous synergies between Simon Dalby’s intervention on the “geological turn” in Anthropocene geopolitics and Stacy VanDeveer’s governance strategies and mechanisms for reducing the material throughput of our economies. The Anthropocene, as many observers have pointed out, is an era during which the material footprint of the human species on the planet is more than appreciable to the point of being system altering. VanDeveer suggests that governance responses should seek to effect long-term reductions in consumption patterns through a variety of tools, including tax and subsidy changes, binding policies, certification and labeling, research, and normative transformation. While recent history has shown that humans are not particularly adept at sacrificing in the short term for longer-term benefits, there are examples where—given the right incentives and framing—longer-term, enlightened thinking can prevail.

Indeed, being open to the types of thinking that can “make it otherwise,” to cite participant Shannon O’Lear’s paper, will be necessary. Part of the shift in thinking that is needed among policy makers involves moving away from the assumption that isolated case studies are somehow representative and instead incorporating multiscalar analysis of connections between and among places and processes. Land acquisitions, common in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as in Middle America and elsewhere, are not just local events but rather reflect global capital flows and consumption habits. Much in line with Simon Dalby’s suggestion of laying out Anthropocene political choices much broader than simply in terms of how much CO2 we emit, O’Lear argues that knowledge production needs to take more seriously what forms of new knowledge are required to deal with Anthropocene realities. The framing questions take on additional significance in this respect.

Even before the strange turn of politics in the United States, it was clear all along that transitions of the massive energy system that fuels economic activity and daily life in much of the world would be incremental, not sudden. The case of natural gas illustrates this element of environmental geopolitics in the Anthropocene: is there a role for the lesser of fossil-fuel evils moving forward? Tim Boersma walked us through the role of gas in energy transition pathways in various parts of the world and offered his thoughts on the oft-heard trope of gas as the “bridge” or “pathway” fuel. Undoubtedly, for a variety of reasons—fracking, perceived environmental benefits vis-à-vis coal and petroleum, easier mobility of gas thanks to liquefied natural gas—natural gas has assumed a greater share of the world’s energy use in recent years, and that is expected to rise. But from an environmental perspective, the “bridge” needs policy in place for there to be an opposite side that is not simply burning more gas. In non-OECD countries, policy makers will seek a greater role for gas not only as a means of meeting climate goals but also for the shorter-term reason that gas is preferable in addressing atrocious air quality. Historically in Europe and North America, gas was first and foremost an urban fuel due to the infrastructure required to make it economically viable, and this can be expected to be the case in fast-growing places in the Global South as well.

As suggested by several authors, Anthropocene geopolitics requires an acknowledgment that change is already happening, and policy makers must incorporate adaptation strategies alongside well-intentioned efforts to mitigate further change. As a growing body of scholarship suggests, environmental governance happens in multilevel, polycentric fashion, with cities and subnational jurisdictions assuming an ever-increasing role. Eric Chu illustrates in his paper the ways in which cities can be more responsive and innovative as well as sensitive to local specificities related to the challenges of environmental change than can larger-scale governments. Through transnational municipal networks, cities can also share best practices and raise awareness. At the same time, Chu reminds us that there are some pitfalls in what he calls “methodological cityism,” in that there are substantial political, institutional, and scalar constraints to cities enacting progressive environmental policies. Facing such issues as sea level rise and climate-induced migration will require a multilevel set of responses that must include, but not be limited to, cities.


The Anthropocene is not an “environmental problem.” It is a human problem. It requires that we think systematically about, in the words of O’Lear, the possibilities of “otherwise.” This forum and what comes after represent a contribution to the rich debates happening in many places about what an “otherwise” might look like and how it might be achieved. This is not to understate the hurdles in the way of such change, which are substantial. But in this time of considerable political, economic, and social flux, it is entirely possible that the present is an opportunity to think outside the box and to shift our mindset into the Anthropocene.

Panelists of the Forum

The panel poster for the public discussion.

Simon Dalby, CIGI Chair in the Political Economy of Climate Change and Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies, Wilfrid Laurier University

Stacy VanDeveer, Professor in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance, McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts

Shannon O’Lear, Professor of Geography and Director of the Center for Global and International Studies, University of Kansas

Eric Chu, Assistant Professor of Urban Studies in the Department of Geography, Planning, and International Development Studies, University of Amsterdam

Tim Boersma, Senior Research Scholar and Director of Global Natural Gas Markets at the Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs

Michael Klare, Five College Professor of Peace and World Security Studies and Director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies, Hampshire College

Erika Weinthal, Lee Hill Snowdon Professor of Environmental Policy and Associate Dean for International Programs, Duke University