Posted by: chrismaser | September 23, 2009



Principles and Concepts


Chris Maser


If our civilization is to survive, we must begin now to learn history’s most consistent and challenging lesson: to save our civilization, we must conquer ourselves.  In the material world, self-conquest means bringing one’s thoughts and behaviors in line with the immutable biophysical laws governing the world in which we live, such as the law of cause and effect and the law of entropy.  In the spiritual realm, this means disciplining our thoughts and behaviors in accordance with the highest spiritual/social truths handed down through the ages, such as treat others as you want them to treat you.

The outcome of self-conquest is social-environmental harmony (manifested through social/environmental sustainability), which must be the next cultural stage toward which we struggle.  Social-environmental harmony is that stellar space beyond self-centeredness for which there needs to be an ethical foundation and a world government.

Many people with whom I have conversed over the years have lent, at best, a cynical ear to these ideas.  In fact, a recent review of one of my books (Sustainable Forestry: Philosophy, Science, and Economics) is a case in point:

In his conclusion, Maser advocates increased environmental protections for U.S. forests to demonstrate to the world our commitment to sustainability.  Say what?  U.S. consumers are the most voracious in the world and are hardly candidates for global role models.  In fact, one could argue that our current environmental protections, coupled with free trade, simply export the production of “messy” goods to other parts of the globe.  Such “exporting” of environmental degradation from developed nations shares some responsibility for the appalling environmental conditions found in many developing countries.

Implicit in this statement is the often-heard refrain that this is simply the way we are, as though we somehow cannot change.  I submit, however, that it is precisely because we are the most voracious consumers in the world that we must become the world’s role models if sustainability is to be anything more than a hopeful daydream.  Environmental protection is the necessity to which economics must adapt—not the other way around.  Economics without humility is every bit as dangerous as science without morality.  And Western society (particularly in the United States) is at best unhumble or we would not be forcing the rest of the world to fulfill our economic appetites, which are the outgrowths of our appalling lack of self-discipline.

True progress toward an ecologically sound environment and a socially just culture will be initially expensive in both money and effort, but in the end will determine whether our society survives.  The longer we wait, however, the more disastrous becomes the environmental condition and the more expensive and difficult become the necessary social changes.

No biological shortcuts, technological quick fixes, or political promises can mend what is broken.  Dramatic, fundamental personal and social change is necessary.  It is not a question of can we or can’t we change, but one of will we or won’t we change.  Change is a choice, a choice of individuals reflected in the collective of society and mirrored in the landscape.

If we fail in our bid for social/environmental sustainability, our civilization will follow at least 26 other great civilizations down the corridors of extinction because, as British historian Arnold Toynbee concluded, they could not or would not change their direction, their way of thinking, to meet the changing conditions of life.

“We cannot say [what will happen] since we cannot foretell the future,” says Toynbee.  “We can only see that something which has actually happened once, in another episode of history, must at least be one of the possibilities that lie ahead of us.”  And social collapse through moral decay, uncontrolled population growth, and unrestrained economic exploitation that outstrips the source of available energy has been disturbingly repetitive throughout the annals of history.

Consider, for example, that circumstantial changes in a communit’s resource base may require a dramatic shift in its frame of reference, its identity, such as a community built around lumbering when harvestable timber runs out or a coastal town built around commercial fishing when the fish stocks are depleted.  A community’s challenge thus becomes how to change from being narrowly specialized, and therefore dependent on a given resource for its cultural identity and economic survival, to becoming diversified in a sustainable fashion, ecologically, economically, and culturally.  For a democratic community to be sustainable, it must be active with intelligence, which means the community must take the time to reflect on the meaning, purpose, and direction of its activity if social-environmental sustainability is to prevail.

Instead of focusing on the fear of loss or fear of change by ruminating in the past, a community must shift its focus and use change as a fulcrum of hope and choice for a more sustainable direction in the present for the future, which brings us to the notion of sustainable community development.  I have seen various attempts to define “sustainable,” “development,” “community,” “sustainable development,” and “sustainable community development.”  In fact, I have attempted a few definitions myself and have come to the conclusion that a definition of sustainability, as my friend Duncan Taylor says, “is elusive, like a horizon, receding whenever one attempts to discover it boundaries.”

I am now convinced that none of these terms, either singly or in combination, is completely definable linguistically when discussing sustainable community development.  Rather, they compose the pieces of a dynamic, interactive, interconnected, interdependent system of being, which by its very nature is definable not in words but rather by the functional interactions of its pieces as a whole.

Community, in the sense of sustainable development, focuses on the primacy and quality of relationships among the people sharing a particular place and between the people and their environment, particularly their immediate environment.

In the sense of sustainable community, development means personal and social transformation into a higher level of consciousness of cause and effect and a greater responsibility to be one another’s keepers through all generations.  Development does not mean continual physical/economic growth, which is neither biologically nor economically possible without destroying the umbilicus between ecosystem and economy.  (An ecosystem includes all living organisms interacting with their nonliving physical environment, considered as a unit.)

Sustainability, in the sense of community development, is the act of one generation saving options by passing them to the next generation, which saves options by passing them to the next generation, and so on.  Sustainability will demand a shift in personal consciousness—from being self-centered to being other-centered.

While I do not pretend to have the answers, and while my perception of the truth may in fact be incorrect in some cases, I may nevertheless be able to help frame some of the questions.  Therefore, I intend to explore various aspects of sustainability (within the context of community development and its relationship to landscape), recognizing that sustainability is a continual process, instead of some finite end point at which one arrives.

Although I use illustrative examples from a number of places in the world in my discussion, I naturally keep coming back to those I know best—the local examples of my hometown and its surroundings in western Oregon.  And here an important point needs to be made.

It has become clear to me over the years that many, if not most, people in Western society tend to focus on the differences among things rather than their commonalities.  Yet it is the commonalties of the unifying principles and concepts that keep the differences within the perspective of a functional whole.  So I ask you to focus on the principles and concepts offered in this book; to the extent they are correct, you will find that the specifics largely fall into place.


“An approach to sustainable development that begins in the American backyard instead of in Africa or Indonesia and poses a refreshing point of view:  the most voracious consumers in history must change. Maser challenges preconceptions of sustainable development’s meaning, developing the idea of sustainable community as a continual process in which there are no definitive answers, thus demanding that local groups, governments, and leaders must begin to make value choices which can be passed to the next generation. The foundation of the argument lies in ‘think globally, act locally,’ but the heart is fixed on changing consciousness as the vehicle to a shared societal vision.”—© Book News, Inc. Portland, OR.

“This book is so good and relevant to real life and common community development. I only wish I could own it, but since I’m just a … student, I can’t afford paying, otherwise I would like to have my hands on it, not only for my own benefit, but for those communities I intend to serve after my Masters next year.”—Reviewer from Cape Town, South Africa via

Sustainable Community Development:  Principles and Concepts. 1997. St. Lucie Press, Delray Beach, FL. 257 pp.

If you want more information about this book or want to purchase it, visit “BOOKS” on my website.

If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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