CULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY RESTS IN ECOLOGICAL SUSTAINABILITY
This post is part 2 of a slightly modified version of a paper I gave at the Congressional Research Service Symposium in the Library of Congress, Washingon, D.C., on March 5,1992.
There are two things we must consider carefully in renegotiating our relationship with Nature in the twenty-first century: one is that the concept of development does not necessarily mean subjugating more of Nature to cultural designs; the other is that whatever cultural development we undertake must be done within the context of the surrounding landscape. To this end, we must deal with four things: (1) our choice of introductions, (2) policy, (3) biodiversity, and (4) patterns across the landscape.
OUR CHOICE OF INTRODUCTIONS
We introduce thoughts, practices, substances, and technologies into the environment, and we usually think of these in terms of a commercial strategy to use or extract a given resource. Whatever we introduce will consequently determine how the environment will respond to our presence and to our cultural desires and necessities. It’s therefore to our social benefit to pay close attention to what we introduce.
Introduction of a foreign substance, process, or technology has a much greater effect on an ecosystem’s ability to function than does taking something away. Further, our introductions represent our sense of values translated through our behavior.
Our initial introduction is our pattern of thought, which determines the way we perceive the Earth and the way we act toward it—either as something sacred to be nurtured or as a commodity to be converted into money. Because our pattern of thought determines the value we place on various components of an ecosystem, it’s our sense of values that determines the way we treat those components and through them the ecosystem as a whole.
In our linear, product-oriented thinking, for example, an old-growth forest is an economic waste if its “conversion potential” is not realized—that is, the only value the old-growth trees have is their potential for being converted into money. Conversion potential of resources counts so heavily because the effective horizon in most economic planning is only five years away. Thus, in our traditional linear economic thinking, any merchantable old tree that falls over and reinvests its biological capital into the soil is an “economic waste” because its potential for conversion into money was not realized.
New equipment is therefore constantly being devised to make harvesting resources like trees ever more efficient. The chain saw, for example, greatly speeded the liquidation of old-growth forests worldwide. Possessed by this new tool, the timber industry and the forestry profession lost all sense of restraint and began cutting forests faster than the trees could regrow. And no forested ecosystem has yet evolved to cope ecologically with the massive systematic and continuous clear-cutting made possible by the chain saw and the purely economic thinking behind it.
Another example is our search for “national security” and cheap energy, in which we are introducing concentrated nuclear waste into many ecosystems, an introduction the impact of which is both global in scale and complex in the extreme. And there is no safe way to introduce the concentrations we are creating. The melt-down of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in the old Soviet Union was not potentially so dangerous as was the buried nuclear dump that blew up near Chelyabinsk, in the southern Ural Mountains, in late 1957 or early 1958. The land around Chelyabinsk was dead, and will be perhaps for centuries, over an area of roughly one thousand square kilometers. All that was left standing after the explosion were chimneys.
We have not the slightest idea how to deal safely with the concentrations of nuclear wastes we are introducing into the world. Yet instead of committing our efforts to producing safe, clean solar and wind energy, we cling steadfastly to unsafe, dirty nuclear energy and create thousands of tons of nuclear waste annually through the military-industrial complex and peacetime technology. If we continue this course, the biosphere will eventually adapt to high, generalized concentrations of radioactivity, but most life as we know it will not be here to see that adaptation take place.
The development of the High Aswan Dam is an example of unforeseen effects of many of our introductions. The engineers building the High Aswan Dam had intended only to store more water and to produce electricity: they did. But, deprived of the nutrient-rich silt of the Nile’s annual floodwaters, the population of sardines off the coast the Nile Delta in the southwestern Mediterranean diminished by ninety-seven percent. In addition, the rich delta, which had been growing in size for thousands of years, is now being rapidly eroded by the Mediterranean, because the Nile is no longer depositing silt at its mouth.
Until the High Aswan Dam was built, the annual sediment-laden waters of the Nile added a millimeter (a little less than a sixteenth of an inch) of nutrient-rich silt to the farms along the river each year. Now that the new dam has stopped the floods, the silt not only is collecting upriver from the dam, thus diminishing its water-holding capacity, but also is no longer being deposited on the riverside farms, thus decreasing their fertility. Soon the farmers will have to buy commercial fertilizer—something most probably can’t afford. In addition, irrigation without flooding causes the soil to become saline, so the Nile Valley, which has been farmed continuously for five thousand years, will have to be abandoned within a few centuries.
Because of unforeseen and usually undesirable effects from many of our introductions, we must shift our thinking from managing for particular short-term products to managing for a desired long-term condition on the landscape, an overall desired outcome of our decisions and actions. To accomplish this, we must be innovative and daring, and we must focus on controlling the type and amount of processes, substances, and technologies that we introduce into an ecosystem to effect a particular outcome. With prudence in our decisions, we can have an environment of desirable quality that still produces a good mix of products and amenities, but on an ecologically sustainable basis.
If we ensure that any “waste” materials we introduce into the environment would be biodegradable as food for organisms like bacteria, fungi, and insects, then our waste would be their nutriment. In addition, if we use solar- and wind-based energy instead of fossil fuels and nuclear energy, and if we use minimally and recycle maximally all resources in perpetuity, we will shift our pattern of thought from one that is ecologically exploitive and finite to one that is ecologically friendly and sustainable.
Waste that threatens the environment and human life rather than sustaining it must be relegated to the strictly linear materialistic economics of the twentieth century. But to leave our non-sustainable twentieth-century ways behind, our sense of development must evolve from an exploitive relationship with Nature to one of compatible harmony in which we develop ever better and gentler ways of living within our environment. The twenty-first century must therefore begin the era of balances, of cyclic-linear ecologically sound economics in which the health and welfare of our home planet takes precedence over our materialistic wants.
We must understand and accept that it’s the collective thoughts, practices, substances, and technologies that we introduce into the environment that determine the way the landscape will respond to our presence and our social desires and necessities over time. This new way of being will, of course, require new policies.
Laws and legal mandates contain inherently conflicting language about what may and may not be allowed in the name of management, although the intent of the law is usually abundantly clear. But agencies, either because of tradition or because of the instruction of a political administration, often use the interpretation of a specific law in the form of a policy to get around a given law and its mandates, even one with clear intent. Policy is thus used to meet corporate/political desires rather than to meet the ecological necessities of the environment for which the law was originally intended: witness the extended struggle over the Endangered Species Act.
Policy is therefore a seriously weak link within agencies, because values can neither be legislated nor mandated. So, despite the best intentions of public law, policy is used by those with vested economic/political interests to “legally” circumvent the law.
Then, to fix the problems resulting from such immoral uses of policy, policy is used to justify rewarding or subsidizing agency personnel, industrialists, and politicians to cause them to fulfill not only their legal duties but also their moral obligations to the public, present and future. Such incentives are moral bribes.
If we are to have an environmental policy that is commensurate with ecological sustainability, it must reflect, both in letter and in spirit, the law and its mandates. Such policy must be conceived by the people through democratic process, not the self-serving agendas of the agencies, which are at the mercy of the self-serving agendas of Congress, the presidential administration, and private industry. For an environmental policy to be authentic and workable, we also must achieve a policy that protects the ecological integrity of the environment from the irreversible negative aspects of continual exploitive development.
To create and accept sound policies on environment and development, we must first agree that the long-term health of the environment takes precedence over the short-term profits to be made through careless or continual exploitive development. Then we must agree that ecological sustainability is primarily an issue of managing ourselves in terms of our behavior—limiting our population and being careful of what we introduce into the environment. We thus come to a different kind of distinction about sustainability: nothing can or will be sustained without our first deciding what we choose to sustain and develop and why, and what we choose not to sustain or develop and why.
Converting any part of Nature’s landscape into a culturally oriented landscape requires a balance between the paths of development that are sustainable and those that are not. In some situations, development is consistent with creating an enjoyable, productive, and sustainable culturally oriented landscape. But everything that is sustained and developed in a finite world is chosen selectively. Only in a constantly-expanding world could we avoid the choices of items to sustain and develop and those not to sustain and develop.
The type of development we choose is based on and controlled by policies, stated and unstated. Each policy is either a true or false reflection of public law; in that sense, the path of development may be more or less cooperative and environmentally benign or more or less competitive and environmentally malignant. But whichever path we choose, that choice is ours. We cannot escape it.
This brings us back to the question of sustainability. We cannot manage sustainability for its own, because sustainability is most often regarded in terms of some one thing: corn, salmon, water, cattle, trees, and so on. Beyond that, every ecosystem evolves inevitably toward a critical state in which a minor event sooner or later leads to a catastrophic event, one that alters the ecosystem in some way.
As a young Douglas-fir forest grows old, for example, it converts energy from the sun into living tissue, which ultimately dies and accumulates as organic debris on the floor of the forest. There, through decomposition, the organic debris releases the energy stored in its dead tissue. A forest is therefore a dissipative system in that energy acquired from the sun is dissipated gradually through decomposition or rapidly through fire.
Of course, rates of decomposition vary. A leaf rots quickly and releases its stored energy rapidly. Woody material, on the other hand, rots much more slowly, often over centuries. As the woody material accumulates, so does the energy stored in its fibers. Before their suppression, fires burned frequently enough to generally control the amount of energy stored in the accumulating woody debris by burning it up, thus protecting the forest for decades, even centuries, from a catastrophic fire that would kill the forest.
Over time, however, a forest eventually builds up enough woody debris to fuel a catastrophic fire. Once available, the fuel needs only one or two very dry, hot years with lightning storms to ignite such a fire, which kills the forest and sets it back in succession to the earliest stage of grasses and herbs. From this early stage a new forest again evolves toward the old-growth stage, again accumulating stored energy in dead wood, again organizing itself toward the next critical state—a catastrophic fire, which starts the cycle over.
After a fire, earthquake, volcanic eruption, flood, or landslide, a biological system may eventually be able to approximate what it was through resilience—the ability of the system to retain the integrity of its basic relationships. A 700-year-old forest that burned could, therefore, be replaced by another, albeit different, 700-year-old forest on the same acreage. In this way, despite a series of catastrophic fires, a forest ecosystem could remain a forest ecosystem. In this sense, the old-growth forests of western North America have been evolving from one catastrophic fire to the next, from one critical state to the next.
Because of the dynamic nature of the evolving ecosystems and because each system is constantly organizing itself from one critical state to another, we can only “manage” an ecosystem for its possible evolution, not for a sustained yield of products. The only sustainability for which we can manage, therefore, is whatever ensures an ecosystem’s ability to adapt to evolutionary change (such as warming of the global climate) in a way that may be favorable for us. In other words, we need to manage for choice, which is synonymous with biodiversity.
With or without the human hand, every ecosystem adapts in some way. Our past and current heavy-handedness precludes our ability to guess, much less to know, what kind of adaptations will emerge. We must therefore pay particular attention to ecological redundancy, of which biodiversity is the “nuts and bolts.”
Biodiversity—the diversity of living species and their biological functions and processes—acts as an ecological insurance policy for the flexibility of future choice of management options, because every ecosystem adapts in some way to changes in its environment. In turn, the degree of a system’s adaptability depends on the richness of its biodiversity, which provides a redundancy of function that retains the system’s ability to respond to continual change.
Backups—repetition of the elements of a system—provides alternative functional channels in case of a failure. Each ecosystem contains built-in backups that give it the resilience to resist change or to bounce back after disturbance. Biophysical backups thus strengthens the ability of an ecosystem to retain its integrity, which means the loss of one or two species is not likely to result in such severe functional disruptions as to cause an ecosystem to collapse because other species can make up for the functional loss.
There is a point, however, at which the loss of one more species will tip the balance and cause the system to begin an irreversible change that may well signal a decline in quality and productivity. This point of irreversibility is an unknown biological threshold in that we don’t know which species’ extinction will trigger its effects. That’s why it pays us to save every species we can.
Species variety is important because each species has a shape and a structure that in turn allows certain functions to take place. These functions interact with those of other species in creating a viable system. All of this is ultimately governed by the genetic code that, by replicating species’ character traits, builds a certain amount of redundancy into each ecosystem.
Thus, while an ecosystem may be stable and respond positively to disturbances to which it is adapted, it also may be exceedingly vulnerable to the introduction of foreign disturbances to which it is not adapted. Diversity of plants and animals therefore buffers an ecosystem against disturbances from which it cannot recover. When we lose species, we lose not only their combination of structural and functional diversity but also their genetic diversity, which eventually results in complex ecosystems becoming unable to sustain either them or us.
We must therefore make the only viable choice we can: the purposeful protection of biodiversity as our major source of renewable energy and the novelty of environmental adaptation. After all, the selection of items to sustain and not to sustain in our capitalistic system is a choice of priorities in economic allocation—of wants, desires, needs, and demands as opposed to necessities.
Long-term ecological wholeness and biological richness of the landscape is a necessity that must become the measure of economic health. If we want the land to be able to provide for us, we must do our best to care first and foremost for land. This matter of caring for the land brings us to the patterns we create across its landscape.
PATTERNS ACROSS THE LANDSCAPE
Spatial patterns we see on landscapes result from complex interactions among physical, biological, and social forces. Most landscapes have also been influenced by the cultural patterns of human use, so the resulting landscape is an ever-changing mosaic of unmanaged and managed patches of habitat, which vary in size, shape, and arrangement.
The pattern of changes in the North American forest before the Europeans settled here was more closely related to topography and to the pattern of Nature’s disturbances, especially fire. When the Europeans began to disturb the landscape through such introductions as livestock grazing and the fire suppression, they selectively altered the landscape patterns, because the patterns accompanied human settlement and the consequent exploitation of the land. Nevertheless, those human-created disturbances began to cause unforeseen changes in the landscape, changes we are now having difficulty dealing with.
A disturbance is any relatively discrete event that somehow disrupts the ecosystem as a whole and thereby changes the physical environment. We can characterize cycles of ecological disturbances ranging from small grass fires to major hurricanes by their distribution in space and the size of disturbance they make, as well as their frequency, duration, intensity, severity, synergism, and predictability.
In the Pacific Northwest, for example, vast areas of unbroken forest that were at one time in our National Forest System have been fragmented by clear-cutting and have been rendered homogeneous by cutting small patches of old-growth forest, by converting these patches into plantations of genetically-selected nursery stock, and by leaving small, uncut patches between the clear-cuts. This “staggered-setting system,” as it is called, required an extensive network of roads. So before half the land area was cut, logging roads penetrated almost every water catchment. And the whole of the National Forest System became an all-of-a-piece patchwork quilt with few, if any, forested areas large enough to support those species of birds and mammals that required the interior of the forest as their habitat.
Changing a formerly diverse landscape into a cookie-cutter sameness has profound implications. The spread of such ecological disturbances of Nature as fires, floods, windstorms, and outbreaks of insects, coupled with such disturbances of human society as urbanization and pollution, are important processes in shaping the landscape. The function of those processes is influenced by the diversity of the existing landscape pattern.
Disturbances vary in character and are often controlled by physical features and patterns of vegetation. The variability of each disturbance, along with the area’s previous history and its particular soil, leads to the existing mosaic of vegetation.
The greatest single disturbance to the ecosystem is human disruption—introductions of practices, substances, and technologies. These disruptions result most often from our attempts to control the size—minimize the scale—of the various cycles of Nature’s disturbance with which the ecosystem has evolved and to which it is continually adapting.
As we struggle to minimize the scale of Nature’s disturbances, we alter the system’s ability to resist or to cope with the multitude of invisible stresses to which the system adapts through the existence and dynamics of the very cycles of disturbance that we “control.” Today’s forest fires, for example, are more intense and more extensive than in the past because of the build-up of fuels since the onset of fire suppression. Many forested areas are now primed for catastrophic fire.
The precise mechanisms by which an ecosystem copes with stress varies, but one mechanism is tied closely to the genetic selectivity of its species. Thus, as an ecosystem changes and is influenced by increasing magnitudes of stresses, the replacement of a stress-sensitive species with a functionally similar but more stress-resistant species maintains the ecosystem’s overall productivity. Such replacements of species—backups—can result only from within the existing pool of biodiversity. Nature’s redundancy must be protected and encouraged.
Human-introduced disturbances, especially fragmentation of habitat, impose stresses with which the ecosystem is ill adapted to cope. Biogeographical studies show that “connectivity” of habitats with the landscape is of prime importance to the persistence of plants and animals in viable numbers in their respective habitats–again, a matter of biodiversity. In this sense the landscape must be considered a mosaic of interconnected patches of habitats like vegetated fencerows and green belts, which act as corridors or routes of travel between patches of other suitable habitat.
Whether populations of plants and animals survive in a particular landscape depends on the rate of local extinctions from a patch of habitat and on the rate with which an organism can move among patches. Those species living in habitats isolated as a result of fragmentation are less likely to persist. Fragmentation of habitat, the most serious threat to biological diversity, is the primary cause of the present global crisis in the rate of biological extinctions.
Modifying of the connectivity among patches of habitat strongly influences the abundance of species and their patterns of movement. The size, shape, and diversity of patches also influence the patterns of species abundance, and the shape of a patch may determine the species that can use it as habitat. The interaction between the processes of a species’ dispersal and the pattern of a landscape determines the temporal dynamics of its populations. Local populations of organisms that can disperse great distances may not be as strongly affected by the spatial arrangement of patches of habitat as are more sedentary species.
Our responsibility now is to make decisions about patterns across the landscape while considering the consequences of our decisions on the potential biological/cultural sustainability of the environment for the generations of the future. The decisions are up to us. One thing is clear, however, the current trend toward homogenizing the landscape is devastating to the long-term, biological sustainability of the environment and the cultural quality our children will inherit.
It’s not the relationship of numbers that confers stability on ecosystems; its the relationship of pattern. Stability flows from the patterns of relationship that have evolved among the various species. A stable, culturally oriented system, even a very diverse one, that fails to support these co-evolved relationships has little chance of being sustainable.
To create viable culturally-oriented landscapes we must stop managing for fragmentation by focusing on such commodity-producing artifacts as forest clear-cuts, agricultural fields, and urban-growth boundaries. Ecological sustainability and adaptability depend on the connectivity of the landscape. We must therefore ground our culturally designed landscapes within Nature’s evolved patterns and take advantage of them if we are to have a chance of creating a quality environment that is both pleasing to our cultural senses and biologically adaptable.
If we are to have adaptable landscapes with desirable cultural qualities to pass to our heirs, we must do four primary things: (1) control our population, (2) refocus our concept of development from the exploitive subjugation of Nature to harmonious cultural evolution with Nature, (3) care for and “manage” for a sustainable connectivity and biological richness between such areas as forest clear-cuts, agricultural fields, and urban-growth boundaries within the context of the landscape as a whole, and (4) protect existing biodiversity—including habitats—at any price for the long-term sustainability of the ecological wholeness and the biological richness of the patterns we create across its landscapes.
The great irony is that for any of the four above-mentioned items to mean anything, we must clean the world’s air. If we fail in this, whatever else we accomplish in building a sustainable environment will be only an academic exercise, because polluted air circumvents the globe and will ultimately kill almost everything from the blue arch of the heavens to the depth of the deepest sea. Our’s is the choice of action. To our children, their children, and their children’s children unto the seventh generation and beyond we bequeath the consequences. How do you choose?
We already have most of the laws and mandates necessary to give us license to manage our environment in an ecologically sound manner, that is to comply with the above. Now we must find the moral courage and the political will to follow both the intent and the spirit of those laws for the long-term good of the people, present and future—regardless of the short-term, economic costs and the political uncertainties. If current laws are environmentally and morally sound, they can be protected and obeyed, but if they are neither environmentally nor morally sound, better ones can be passed as necessary. The choice is ours—a choice of morality based on the honesty with which we uphold our professed cultural values, especially those of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, because they are intended to serve all peoples equally.
Robert F. Tarrant (former Director of the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, Portland, OR), Will Moir (Research Ecologist with the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fort Collins, CO), and Ross Gorte (Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.) kindly read and improved this paper. I am grateful for the help.
Return to: Do Animals Have “Rights?”
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Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.