Chris Maser

Diversity is the quality of being different. It is also the variety of non-living and living things that comprise the staggering richness of the world and our human experience of it. Diversity comes in many forms, each a relationship that fits precisely into every other relationship in the universe and is constantly changing, constantly becoming something else.

The dawn of a new day in the never-ending story of our magnificent, ever-dynamic universe.

Nature crafted the world we humans inherited through the principle of cause and effect, which gave rise to the diversity of non-living matter. When the first living cell came into being, diversity not only became limitless but also was responsible for the possibility of the extinction of life. This being the case, we must understand, accept, and remember that we live in the biosphere sandwiched between the upper atmosphere (air) and the lower lithosphere (the crust of the Earth, including the soil and water), and if we destroy any one, we will be the authors of our own demise, as well as the extinction of a vast diversity of living organisms.

We are already causing the exponential loss of biological, genetic, and functional diversity worldwide. Functional diversity refers to and is a measure of the different kinds of interactions that can occur among the parts of a system. The more kinds of interactive parts a system has, the more diverse are its possible functions. Conversely, the fewer kinds of interactive parts a system has, the less diverse are its possible functions.

By way of an example, let's consider a common object, a chair. A chair is a chair because of its structure, which gives it a particular shape. A chair can be characterized as a piece of furniture consisting of a seat, four legs, a back, and often arms; it is an object designed to accommodate a sitting person. Now, if we alter the composition of the parts by adding two arms, we have an armchair wherein we can sit and rest our arms. Should we then decide to add two rockers to the bottom of the chair's legs, we have a rocking chair in which we can sit, rest our arms, and rock back and forth while doing so. Nevertheless, it is the available function of the structure (the "seat") that allows us to sit in the chair, and it is the act of sitting, that makes a chair, a chair.

Suppose I remove the seat so that the supporting structure on which you could once sit no longer exists. Now to sit, you must sit on the ground among the legs of the "chair." By definition, however, when I removed the chair's seat, it is no longer a chair since I have altered its structure and so altered its potential function. Consequently, the structure of an object defines its function, and the function we desire from an object or system defines its necessary structure, which in turn defines the necessary composition of parts, and all add to the ever-widening ripples of diversity, like a pebble dropped into a pool of quiet water.1

When, therefore, the folks of the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas began to repair an indigenous, single-species pine forest and its simple ground cover of grass along one face of the Ozark Mountains, the public erupted with indignation because the people saw it simply as a maneuver to grow an even-aged monoculture of pine trees for the pulp industry. That is when I was summoned.

My task was to help all people concerned to understand Nature's continuum of diversity: (1) how managing for small-scale diversity on all acres all of the time creates an unwelcome homogeneity of habitat across a landscape; (2) how different scales of diversity nest one inside another and in so doing create a collective landscape-scale habitat that is different than the individual habitats within a single scale of diversity; (3) that the pine/grass community the Forest Service was attempting to recreate had indeed existed where the Forest Service was attempting to recreate it, according to the journals of early settlers, as a fire-induced and fire-maintained ecosystem in times of pre-European settlement; and (4) the necessity of maintaining landscape-scale patterns of diversity if landscapes are to be adaptable to changing conditions and thereby maintain and/or produce areas suitable for human habitation over time.

Diversity, in its array of interrelating scales across the time and space of a given landscape, is little understood by the general public and so is subject to much mistrust when an agency, such as the U.S. Forest Service, attempts to deal with landscape-scale diversity. The problem is the public's concept of an acceptable scale of diversity across the landscape, a concept founded on the ignorance of scale and on distrust, both of which are understandable.

A mixed forest in Jachenau Valles (Bavaria), West Germany.

For many years, the people of Little Rock had watched, often with a feeling of enraged helplessness, as a large timber corporation clear-cut one section of forest after another, converting diverse, natural forests into monocultural plantations of row-cropped trees for the pulp market. Where the people had once seen an acre of forest with a diversity of hardwood trees and shrubs, with a few conifers occasionally mixed in, they were suddenly confronted with row after row of pines. As more and more acres were clear-cut and converted to "fiber farms" for the pulp industry, the people developed a bias against what they perceived to be economic simplification of their beloved forest solely for some timber corporation's short-term monetary gains, which came at the expense of the aesthetic quality of the landscape-scale view—their perceived commons, something they thought of as belonging to all of them.

A single-species plantation (monoculture) of Norway spruce at Starnberg (Bavaria) West Germany.

Although the conversion from forest to single-species monoculture came in two scales, people of the area were consciously aware of only one, that of a diverse forest being converted into a simplified, economic fiber farm. What they did not see was the larger picture, a picture that would have been even more disturbing had they recognized it. As the timber corporation's employees clear-cut first a few acres and then another few acres, often leaving a few acres of standing forest in between because it was not corporate land, the corporation progressively created a homogeneous landscape as well as homogeneous fiber farms.

A plantation of both red and black pine at Tagata, Hirihito, Japan.

The people who used the Ouachita National Forest, on the other hand, were unknowingly advocating a hidden homogeneity by insisting on all possible diversity on all acres all of the time, theoretically eliminating any disturbance regimes that might create diversity on a larger scale. The public's insistence on small-scale diversity was based, as noted above, on both a lack of understanding of how the various scales of diversity nest one inside another and on a profound distrust of the exploitive model of "pulp forestry."


  1. For a discussion of ecological diversity and time scales, see: Chris Maser. Ecological Diversity in Sustainable Development: The Vital and Fogotten Dimension. 1999. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 1999. 401 pp.

Sunrise is a magnificent symbol of the commons and a promise for tomorrow.

©Chris Maser 2009. All rights reserved.

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