Posted by: chrismaser | April 28, 2011



Note: This is part 1 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.

We, and our leaders, must now address a moral question: do those living today owe anything to the future? If our answer is “No,” then we surely are on course, because we are consuming resources and polluting the Earth as if there were no tomorrow. If, on the other hand, the answer is “Yes, we have an obligation to the future,” then we must determine what and how much we owe, because our present, irresponsible course is rapidly destroying the environmental options for generations to come. Meeting this obligation will require a renewed sense of morality—to be “other centered” in doing unto those-to-come as we wish those before us had done unto us.

To change anything, we must reach beyond where we are, beyond where we feel safe. We must dare to move ahead, even if we don’t fully understand where we are going, because we’ll never have perfect knowledge. And we must ask innovative, future-oriented questions in order to make necessary changes for the better.

True progress toward an ecologically sound environment and an equitable world society will be expensive in both money and effort. 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 hype can mend what is broken. Dramatic, fundamental change, both frightening and painful, is necessary if we’re really concerned with bettering the quality of life in the present for the present and the future. It’s really not a question of can we or can’t we change, but one of human morality—will we or won’t we change. It’s a sad fact that from world leaders down, we have chosen: “WON’T!”

I purposely avoided using the commonly accepted, bureaucratic buzzword “ecosystem management” as much as I can still make sense to you, the reader, because I am not so arrogant to think that we “manage” or “control” ecosystems. We “treat” ecosystems in one way or another, and they respond accordingly. Nature controls us. We don’t control of Nature. We exist at Nature’s forbearance, which means we had best assume a greater degree of humility in the questions we ask. 


Each question is a key that opens a door to a room filled with mirrors, each mirror a facet of the answer. Only one answer, however, is reflected in all of the mirrors in the room. If we want a new answer, we must ask a new question—open a new room with a new key.

We keep asking the same old questions, however, opening the same old door, and looking at the same old reflections in the same old mirrors. We may polish the old mirrors and hope thereby to find a new and different meaning from the old answer. Or we might think we can pick a lock and steal a mirror from a new and different room with the hope of stumbling on a new, workable answer to the same old question.

The old questions and the old answers have led us into the mess we’re in today and are leading us toward the even greater mess we will be in tomorrow. We must, therefore, look long and hard at where we’re headed with respect to the quality of the world we leave as a legacy, because only when we’re willing to risk asking really new questions can we find really new answers.

Heretofore we have been more concerned with getting politically correct answers than we have been with asking morally right questions. Politically correct answers validate our preconceived, economic/political desires. Morally right questions would lead us toward a future, where environmental options are left open, so generations to come may define their own ideas of a “quality environment” from an array of possibilities.

A good question—one that may be valid for a century or more—is a bridge of continuity among generations. We may develop a different answer every decade, but the answer does the only thing an answer can do, brings a greater understanding of the question. An answer cannot exist without a question, so the answer depends on the question we ask, not on the information we derive as illusion of having answered the question.

In the final analysis, the questions we ask guide the evolution of humanity and its society, and it’s the questions we ask—not the answers we derive—that determine the options we bequeath the future. Answers are fleeting, here today and gone tomorrow, but questions may be valid for a century or more. Questions are flexible and open-ended, whereas answers are rigid, illusionary cul-de-sacs. The future, therefore, is a question to be defined by questions.

Among the most important questions to be asked are: (1) Lifestyle—what quality of lifestyle do we want to have and want our children to be able to have? (2) Sustainability—can the Earth support our desired lifestyle? and (3) Cultural capacity—if it appears the Earth can support our desired lifestyle, how must we behave to help ensure that the Earth can continue to maintain our chosen lifestyle? 


Lifestyle is commonly defined as an internally consistent way of life or style of living that reflects the values and attitudes of an individual or a culture. We, in Western society, have made lifestyle synonymous with “standard of living,” which we practice as a search for ever-increasing material prosperity. If, however, we are to have a viable, sustainable environment as we know it and value it, we must reach beyond the strictly material and see lifestyle as a sense of inner wholeness and harmony derived by living in such a way that the spiritual, environmental, and material aspects of our lives are in balance with the capacity of the land to produce the necessities for that lifestyle.

The underpinnings of social values, and therefore chosen lifestyles, are rooted in cultural myths. A people’s thoughts and values, which are based on their cultural myths, translate into their lifestyles, and it is the cultural underpinnings of their chosen lifestyles that ultimately affect the land they inhabit.

Most Indigenous North Americans, for example, survived largely by hunting. They lived in a world, where life was always balanced on a fine line between earthly existence and non-existence—the hunter and the hunted. To survive in such an unpredictable world, they reconciled themselves with Creation through their myths and rituals—their metaphors of Creation—and through their spiritual connection with the Creator of which they were but a manifestation. Simply put, their lifestyles were spiritual Creation, because they lived their myths through enacted rituals, which remained to a large degree in harmony with their changing environment.

Our ancestors, however, brought another set of cultural myths to this country, largely from the pastoral scenes of Europe. When our ancestors arrived in the “New World, ” they saw not a land to be understood, adapted to, and nurtured but a wild, untamed continent to be conquered. Why? Because they came from “civilized” countries with “civilized” myths and lifestyles and felt the continent on whose shores they landed to be “uncivilized” and inhabited by “savages” and wild beasts, the conquest of which was not only their Christian duty but also their opportunity to garner personal wealth.

What our ancestors did not understand, was that their myths and lifestyles belonged to another place and another time in the evolution of human society and were not compatible with those of the indigenous peoples of the New World, or with the New World itself for that matter. The myths and lifestyles of the Indigenous North Americans belonged to the land they inhabited; whereas those of our ancestors belonged to a land halfway around the world. But in line with a perfectly human tendency, our ancestors’ first inclination was to survive in the wild, unknown continent and then to seek that which was familiar and comfortable by trying to force their myths and lifestyles from an “old,” known world onto a “new,” unknown world.

At best, our European, ancestral myths and lifestyles had become rigid through a long tradition of ecological exploitation and so were not compatible with the land, with the indigenous peoples, or with the reality of constant change. At worst, they were on a collision course with the survival of human society as we know it.

The Indigenous North Americans, in keeping with their myths, lived with the land and considered themselves to be an inseparable part of its spiritual harmony—something that could not be owned. The Europeans, in keeping with their myths, sought to conquer, harness, subdue, and own the land. With a few exceptions, they probably neither understood nor cared about the values or points of view of the Indigenous North Americans. Why? Because, according to Genesis, humans are given dominion over the world, and the “savages” were seen as little more than wild beasts.

This idea is not simply a characteristic of modern Americans. It is the biblical condemnation of Nature, which our forebears inherited from their own religion and brought with them, mainly from England. God and humanity are separate from Nature and so Nature is view as something to be exploited. In such a belief, we are here to master Nature and, as masters, to improve Nature’s ability to function.

Indigenous North Americans, on the other hand, had lived on and with the land more than 10,000 years. They viewed the land and all it contained as a “Thou,” which is holy and is to be revered; whereas our European ancestors viewed the same land and all it contained—including the indigenous people—as an “it,” which was simply an object to be exploited for their own, short-term, private gains. So they dominated the land; squandered its resources; slaughtered its indigenous people and its commercially exploitable wild animals; and polluted its soil, water, and air in less than 400 years, because they lacked a spiritual connection with Nature. Their connection was only with the economic converstion potential of Nature into commodities.

Our sturdy forebears brought their European science and technology to the New World and relied on them, as they had in the past, to solve their social problems. What they failed to understand—and we still fail to understand—is that science and technology are human tools and, as such, are only as constructive or destructive, as conservative or exploitive as are their users.

Science and technology have no sensitivity, no experience, no morals, and no conscience. Neither scientific endeavors nor technological advances affect the land and its people until they are somehow applied to either or both. What ultimately affects the land are the thoughts and values of the people who create and use the tools, because their thoughts and values, based on their cultural myths, translate into their lifestyles. The great irony is that our view of the land, after more than 300 years, is little different from that of our European ancestors. 


Before we can effectively discuss the impact of lifestyle on the environment, we must consider the idea of “sustainable development,” which calls for juxtaposing two mutually exclusive concepts in our modern lexicon—”sustainability” and “development.” Sustainability is the language of balance and limits, whereas development is the language of expansion, of expecting ever more in some limitless fashion.

In the short term, sustainable development seems like a viable concept, but in the long term, sustainability and development will prove to be mutually exclusive, because continual (sustained) development, as sustainable development is practiced, must ultimately exhaust the land and its resources. To understand how this works, one has only to witness the British drive for colonial expansion, which came about because their continual development was not ecologically sustainable within the limited confines of the British Isles. To continue development beyond the ecological exhaustion for their land, the British had to subjugate other cultures and steal their resources.

Like England, the Earth is an island, and development is no more sustainable globally over the long run than it was in Britain. If we, in the United States, insist on practicing “sustainable development” according to our modern lexicon, so we don’t have to change our economic values, the time will come when we, like the British, must subjugate other peoples or other planets and steal their resources.

Sustainability, on the other hand, demands a cessation to the continually increasing human population and linear-mined, economic development, which exhausts one resource after another, if human society is to survive the 21st century with any semblance of biophysical sustainability. While sustainability does not exclude the extractive use of resources, it does demand a balanced approach to their extraction, their use, and their renewal or replenishment. This means the economic divestment of resources from any ecosystem must be at least balanced by the biological reinvestment of said resources in that selfsame system, regardless of the economic impact on the profit margin, which is not now happening.

If, for example, we imagine sustaining our current, expansionist approach to economics (continually increasing development) into the future, we soon bump into environmental crises and the need to re-frame the old economic paradigm—that continued growth (development) can solve all social problems. The old question (How do we balance development and conservation?) is replaced with the new question (“Can we have the one without the other?”) The new question is critical, because conservation implies duration over time through wise use, i.e., the sustainability of that which is being conserved.

The current assumption of any strategy to raise material prosperity is that ever-expanding development is necessarily and ethically good, because it presents more material goods, which makes life “better” than it presently is. But if the importance of development is only to allow us, the adults, to achieve ever-higher levels of material prosperity, then sustaining environmental degradation only to accommodate development is at best selfish and at worse slow genocide of the world’s children. If, however, a whole and harmonious lifestyle is important, then engaging in a mode of development that is anything less than ecologically sustainable is not only hypocritical but also self-defeating. The life-sustaining obligation embodied in our choice of lifestyle must be viable options not only throughout our own lives but also throughout the lives our children and theirs into the future, which brings me to cultural capacity. 


Whether a given lifestyle is even possible depends on “cultural capacity,” an analogue of “carrying capacity,” which is the number of animals that can live in and use a particular landscape without impairing its ability to function in an ecologically specific way. If we want human society to survive the 21st century in any sort of dignified manner, we must have the humility to view our own population in terms of local, regional, national, and global carrying capacities, because the quality of life declines in direct proportion to which the habitat is overpopulated.

If we substitute the idea of “cultural capacity” for “carrying capacity,” we have a workable proposition for society. Cultural capacity is a chosen quality of life, which can be sustained without endangering the environment’s potential productivity. For example, the more materially oriented the desired lifestyle of an individual or a society, the more resources are needed to sustain it, and the smaller the human population must be per unit area of landscape. Cultural capacity, then, is a balance between how we want to live, the real quality of our lifestyles and of our society, and how many people an area can support in that lifestyle on a sustainable basis. Cultural capacity of any area will be less than its carrying capacity in the biological sense.

We can predetermine local and regional cultural capacity and adjust our population growth accordingly. If we choose not to balance our desires with the land’s capabilities, the depletion of the land will determine the quality of our cultural/social experience and our lifestyles. So far, we have chosen not to balance our desires with the capabilities of the land, because we have equated “desire,” “need,” and “demand” as synonyms with every itch of “want.” And in so doing, we have lost sight of ecological reality.

If we desire to maintain a predetermined lifestyle, we must ask new questions: (1) How much of any given resource is necessary for us to use if we are to live in the lifestyle of our choice? (2) How much of any given resource is necessary to leave intact as a biological reinvestment in the health and continued productivity of the ecosystem? and (3) Do sufficient resources remain, after biological reinvestment, to support our lifestyles of choice? or (4) Must we modify our proposed lifestyles to meet what the land is capable of sustaining?

“Necessity” is a very different proposition from the collective “desire,” “need,” and “demand” syndrome, so arguments about the proper cultural capacity revolve around what we think we want in a materialistic-spiritual sense and around what the land can sustainably produce in the social-environmental sense. Cultural capacity is a conservative concept, given finite resources and well-defined values. By first determining what we want in terms of lifestyle, we may be able to determine not only if the Earth can support our desired lifestyle but also how we must behave with respect to the environment if we are to maintain that lifestyle.


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.

Related Posts:

• Do We Owe Anything To The Future? — Part 2

• Children Deserve A Voice In Their Future

• Why Be Concerned With The Building Blocks Of Sustainable Planning

• Nature’s Rules of Engagement


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Text © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.

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