by Doug MacCleery1 I applaud the authors' efforts to come to grips with what is a central issue to successfully implementing ecosystem management -- defining sustainability, or to state it in another way, to define what values, uses, and natural processes we will purposely seek to sustain over time. There are many efforts currently going on to define sustainable development, sustainable forest management as a subset of sustainable development, as well as the criteria and indicators that will be used to measure them. Your paper is a constructive addition to this discussion. You are brave to take on the task -- doubly brave to seek to deal with it in a page and a half. The following are some questions, thoughts, and suggestions.
For example, would the forest ecosystems of the eastern U.S., which were heavily logged and burned in the late 19th century, but which have since recovered, be sustainable under your definition? Do these ecosystems have integrity, as you have defined it? What about the forests of Scandinavia, which have been under active human management for at least 600 years. Certainly, in both cases, human activities have eliminated all or most of the late successional forest and have resulted in the extirpation of some species characteristic of the original forest -- a loss in some components of ecosystem complexity. But in other respects, these forests have regained aspects of ecosystem complexity previously lost, as evidenced by recovered populations of many wildlife species and development of mature forest components. In many respects, these forests appear sustainable for the objectives they are currently being managed for, as well as having the capability to be managed for other objectives in the future, if need be. How do they fare under your definition?
What about your definition if applied to predominantly agricultural landscapes? Is it possible for landscapes which has been substantially transformed and simplified by human action to be considered sustainable and having integrity under your definition? Many such landscapes have been maintained in agriculture for centuries, yet they continue to provide important elements of the Earth's life support system, both for humans and for a variety of native plant and wildlife species.
Some current efforts at defining sustainability also include identifying the criteria and indicators for measuring it. Some examples of such possible measures would be helpful to understand the practical application of these definitions.
We sometimes forget that ecosystems themselves are value neutral -- they just are. Sustainability and ecosystem health are entirely human constructs. It is humans that define them and ascribe values to them. While nature provides the physical and biological context, it is humans who decide what it is we will seek to sustain and at what cost.
But not all human societies ascribe the same values that we do to forests and biodiversity. Witness the position of the U.S. and other developed countries today on the question of tropical rainforests, as compared to that of the developing countries, such as Brazil, where those forests are located.
Indeed, our own values on these matters have shifted rather dramatically over the years. In the mid-1970s, there was a major national debate over the future of the national forests. It was called the "Monongahela Crisis" and led to the passage of the National Forest Management Act. Clearcutting and conversion of hardwoods to pine in the South were the big issues then. Much of what is so hotly debated today -- old-growth, spotted owls, rainforests, biodiversity, global warming, and ecosystem management -- were not even on the scope in the mid-1970s, a short 20 years ago.
And it really wasn't all that many decades ago that we in this country were clearing forests in much the same way that many tropical countries are today.
Today, we seem to have a raging intellectual debate going on between those advocating what may be referred to as "biocentric" approaches to resource decision-making, as opposed to "anthropogenic" approaches. While this may be an interesting polemic, it seems in many ways similar to the Medieval philosophical debates about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It presumes that we have the power to decide whether we are a part of, or separate from, the natural world.
While your definition of sustainability encompasses the need for maintaining the "quality of life" for human individuals and cultures, by far the most space is devoted to the biophysical world. Human activities are mentioned primarily as things that need to be circumscribed to protect "ecosystem integrity." Ecosystems in this instance, do not seem to include humans, except as threats to their "self-organizing" capacities. Indeed, the "axioms" appear entirely focused on the biophysical, rather than the human, world. Maybe this was not intended, but it comes across as such. The last axiom (differential fragility), which mentions that ecosystems have varying capacities to "absorb and equilibriate human-caused disruptions to their creative processes," is a case in point. Is it only human-caused disruptions that ecosystems must "equilibriate" as threats to their "creative processes." Or would some natural processes and events also fall into that category. Maybe if it's "natural" it's OK. Anyway, the approach, whether intended or not, seems to separate humans from the ecosystems in which they live.
To put it into one of the above categories, the definitions appear to be strongly "biocentric." Actually "biocentric" is an oxymoron, for the reasons described above -- that is, that all such definitions have a set of human values embedded in them, whether recognized explicitly of not. I believe the best approach is to make those values explicit from the start. Even use of the terms "equilibriate" and ecosystem "self-organization" and "creative processes" reflect a set of values and beliefs about how natural systems work that may not be shared universally in the scientific community. More about that later.
According to Rehn, the book is partially a response to the 1987 report titled "Our Common Future" by the World Commission on Environment and Development (also called the "Brundtland Report"), which defines sustainable development as that which "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" In addition, Rehn listed three complementary definitions of sustainability given in the book:
What I would like to see more people recognize and talk about is that today human societies and economies are also linked at various scales. And those linkages have environmental consequences that also should be considered when we assess sustainability. One prime example is the fact that reducing federal timber harvesting in the Pacific Northwest to protect the northern spotted owl did not eliminate the impact of timber harvesting. It merely transferred it to ecosystems somewhere else -- to private lands in the Pacific Northwest or to the U.S. South, to British Columbia, or overseas. It also resulted in higher consumer prices for wood products and increased the use of wood substitutes, such as steel framing, which require considerably more energy to produce than does wood, therefore putting more C02 into the atmosphere.
We hear a lot of rhetoric today about the need to think holistically -- that everything is connected. The buzz word is "Think globally, act locally." I'd like to see a lot more people recognize that this idea applies as equally to economic and trade flow linkages, as it does to natural ecosystems. What we see is a lot of people acting locally and ignoring globally. Much of the current rhetoric on ecosystem management on the National Forests suffers from this same blind spot. We are virtually ignoring the environmental transfer implications related to National Forest management. That's not what ecosystem management should be about.
Unless and until our concept of sustainability encompasses these national and global human dimensions, it will be limited and parochial.
I am not suggesting that you subscribe to any of the above, but there is so much baggage associated with these concepts that your use of the term "self-organizing" cries out for further explanation. At some level, even highly degraded ecosystems will have some dimensions of what might be called self-organization. How does one determine when things have become unsustainable? Again, it comes back, I believe, to human values and objectives concerning what we wish to sustain over time. Whether our motivation is enlightened self-interest, or a feeling that all forms of life have a right to exist, it is us who determines what we will seek to sustain.
Is it possible to develop rational strategies for forest sustainability that encompass many decades, or even centuries, when our human concepts about what we want to sustain are so illusive? When our growing urban populations are so divorced from a knowledge of what sustains them economically, and of the environmental consequences of their consumption choices? And when the world is so complicated? I don't claim to have a lock on the answer to that, but think that there are at least three dimensions that are important.
One is to seek to understand our past and how we got to be where we are today. Today, we have a vast collective blind spot when it comes to understanding the natural and human history of our ecosystems and their role in sustaining us as human communities.
The second is to seek to obtain better data and information, through forest inventory and research, to assess where we are today and to help us understand the biological and social implications of alternative approaches to forest sustainability at various scales. We need better biological and environmental information. We need better economic and social information. Specifically, we need better information on the implications of our individual and collective consumption habits on the ecosystems that sustain us. The lack of these kinds of information causes debates on these issues to be more ideological than they ought to be. Information can help narrow the debate and focus it more constructively.
And the third is to be flexible about the future -- what is often called "adaptive management" under the new ecosystem management paradigm. We need to be able to respond to new information, of course. But history demonstrates that the most volatile dimension in this arena is changing human ideas about the values and objectives we would like to see sustained. The need to seek a global social consensus on these values/objectives is one of the single biggest challenges that faces us.
Yours is a constructive effort to grapple with this formidable challenge. Good luck on your search, and thanks for the opportunity to comment!