Chris Maser

No person, institution, or nation has the right to participate in activities that contribute to large-scale, irreversible changes of the Earth's biogeochemical cycles or undermine the integrity, stability, and beauty of the Earth's ecologies-the consequences of which would fall on succeeding generations as an irrevocable form of remote tyranny. — David Orr

Much has been written through the centuries about Utopia, which is "nowhere" until we imagine it, and then it always becomes "somewhere." The Utopias imagined by philosophers are difficult to reach; they can be glimpsed only after strenuous, focused, intellectual and physical effort. But whosoever has succeeded in making the journey to the shores of possibility on the Idyllic Isle brings back tales of a land where people love one another; where work is transformed into labors of love or "play," as some would call it; and where earthly social-environmental problems, entwined as they are almost beyond recognition, are untangled with patience, compassion, and ease. Earth, too, could be like this, so the story goes, if only…

The difficulty with utopias is not that they are imagined perfection, but rather that they are imagined cures for imperfection, and therein lies the problem. Namely, a solution is conjured in an attempt to move away from an unwanted negative circumstance rather than moving toward a desired positive outcome. Put another way, instead of moving toward the ideal, most solutions attempt to cure an imperfection by moving away from it, an action that is neither physically nor psychologically possible.

To heal and protect our home planet in an ecologically sustainable condition, we must have a destination in the form of a vision toward which to journey. The ideal can then help define an agenda that rests firmly on the bedrock of a shared vision, one that incorporates the collective wisdom, personal courage, and political will needed to inspire true social progress. Despite the usual elusiveness of Utopia, treating Planet Earth as a biological living trust is within the realm of human attainability, should people choose to make it so. It is, after all, only a choice and the will to carry it out.

Here I ask you to remember that success or failure is a crisis of the will and the imagination, not of the possibilities. To me, the only real failure is not to risk trying. For clearly, there can be no gain without risk. In fact, success or failure is not the event in itself, but rather an interpretation of the event, as illustrated by story of Flambeaux:

Flambeaux left Cut Off, Louisiana, and moved to De Berry, Texas, where he bought a donkey from an old farmer for $100. The farmer agreed to deliver the donkey on the following day.

The next day, the farmer drove up and said," I'm sorry, but I have some bad news … the donkey died last night."

"Well den, Sir," said Flambeaux," jus' give me money back."

"I can't do that Sir," replied the farmer," I spent it already."

"OK, den. Jus' unload dat donkey."

"What are you gonna do with him?" the farmer wanted to know.

"I'm gonna raffle 'im off."

"You can't raffle a dead donkey, you dumb Cajun!"

"Well dats where you wrong. You wait an' you learn jus' how smart we Cajuns is!"

The farmer saw Flambeaux a month later and asked, "What happened with that dead donkey?"

"I raffled dat donkey off. I sold 500 tickets at two dollars apiece and made $998."

"Didn't anyone complain?" asked the farmer in disbelief.

"Jus' dat guy who won. So, I gived 'im 'is two dollars back," said Flambeaux with a grin.¹


As we nurture Nature back toward ecological sustainability for all generations, we heal ourselves. As we heal ourselves, we heal our society—one person, one community at a time. As we heal society, we heal our environment. As we heal our environment, we begin to understand what it really means to be a compassionate human being entrusted with the care of Planet Earth. — Chris Maser

Although most people speak of land "stewardship," I personally prefer the concept of "trusteeship" because "stewardship" does not in and of itself have a legally recognized "beneficiary"—someone who directly benefits from the proceeds of one's decisions, actions, and the outcomes they produce. Although a "steward," by definition, is someone who "manages" another's property or financial affairs and thereby acts as an agent in the other's stead, there is nothing explicit in the definition about a legal beneficiary. For this reason, "stewardship" is a much more wishy-washy term than "trusteeship" because the fiduciary responsibility of a "steward" is to the shareholders; whereas the fiduciary responsibility of a "trustee" is to the beneficiaries, none of whom need to be physical shareholders.
Wooded stream
A trust is like a promise, something made today, but about tomorrow. In making a promise, we relinquish a little personal freedom with the bond of our word. In keeping our promise, we forfeit a little more freedom in that we are limited in our behavior, but to break a promise is to lose some of our integrity and a bit of our soul. The reason people hesitate to make promises lies in the uncertainty of circumstances on the morrow. Helping to quelling the fear of uncertainty is the purpose of a "living trust."

A "living trust," in the legal sense, is a present transfer of property, including legal title, into trust, whether real property (such as land) or personal property (such as livestock, jewelry, or interest in a business). The person who creates the trust (such as a landowner) can watch it in operation, determine whether it fully satisfies his or her expectations, and, if not, revoke or amend it.

A living trust also allows for the delegation of administering the trust to a professional "trustee," which is desirable for those who wish to divest themselves of managerial responsibilities. The person or persons who ultimately receive the yield of the trust, for better or worse, are the legal beneficiaries. The viability of the living trust is the legacy passed from one generation to the next, which means we must think in terms of "potential productivity" instead of constant production.
Though a trustee may receive management expenses from the trust, meaning that a trustee may take what is necessary from the interest, at times even a reasonable stipend, the basic income from the trust, as well as the principle, must be used for the good of said beneficiaries. In our economic system, however, natural resources are assumed to be income or revenue, rather than capital. That said, a trustee is obligated to seek ways and means to enhance the capital of the trust—not to diminish it. Like an apple tree, one can enjoy the fruit thereof, but not destroy the tree. A living trust, after all, is about the quality of life offered to the generations of the future; it is not about the acquisition of possessions.

Because the Earth is a living entity, it can be thought of as a "perpetual, biological living trust," (hereinafter referred to as "biological living trust") in which individual people—as well as their relationships among one another, Nature, their communities, and generations—have value and are valued, as are all living beings. sandstone
For humanity to survive throughout the twenty-first century in any kind of a dignified manner, it must accept the moral essence of a biological living trust. It must also advance beyond resisting change as a condition to be avoided (clinging to the current, linear, reductionistic, mechanical worldview, including the necessity of exploitive, economic competition) and embrace change as a process filled with hidden, viable ecological-social-economic opportunities in the present for the present and the future—the beneficiaries. People with the necessary courage to unconditionally accept change are rare, but I remember meeting one in Slovakia in 1992.

I had been asked to examine a forest in eastern Slovakia and give the people my counsel on how to restore its ecological integrity after years of abusive exploitation by the Communists. During the process, I worked with employees of the Slovakian Federal Forest Service. One man, the Chief Forester, then near the end of his career, had been in charge of the forest during the days of the Communists. As I was about to leave Slovakia, the Chief Forester took me aside and said, with great emotion: "Chris, if I learned one thing from you, it is that the forest is sacred—not the plan. Thank you." With that, this man reversed the thinking of his entire 40-year career. I have seldom encountered such courage, humility, and dignity.

We all need such courage, humility, and dignity if we are to be worthy trustees of Planet Earth as a biological living trust. But before trusteeship and the precept of a biological living trust can be fruitfully discussed as means of caretaking Planet Earth, you and I must be able to understand and integrate two perspectives of time, that of a clock and that of an hourglass.

Time as measured by the ticking of a clock is constant in tempo. With a clock, you see the hands move from second to second, minute to minute, and hour to hour—as 'round and 'round the clock's face they go. While to a child time seems to drag, even stand still, to an older person time seems to fly, despite the fact that watching a clock's hands make their appointed rounds belies both the impatience of youth and the sensation of time as fleeting in old age.

Contrariwise, if you measure time through the functioning of an hourglass, you have the distinct impression that time is "running out," like the sand pouring to the beck and call of gravity from the top of the hourglass, through the small hole in its middle, to the bottom. Most adults view time with a growing sense that theirs is running out, so they must grab all of life they can before their time is "spent," a fear of loss that champions material acquisitiveness in the supposed "safety" of the status quo. This sense of impending loss as time "runs out" causes people to avoid, as best they can, the inevitable admission of change.

In reality, of course, time does not run out; our bodies expire instead. And it's precisely the dual sense of time running out and the demise of our bodies that causes many people to seek a way to continue their sense of being in the world, like the continual ticking of the clock. One way to accomplish such continuance is through a living trust.

If we have the courage and the willingness to adopt and implement the concept of a "biological living trust," we are practicing social-environmental sustainable in which ever-adjusting relationships—ecological, social, and economic—become the creative energy that guides a vibrant, adaptable Planet Earth through the present toward the future. After all, trusteeship constantly opens the mind with growing conscious awareness because the social-environmental sustainability of tomorrow will be created out of the inspirations, discernment, choices, decisions, and activities of today. In addition, social-environmental sustainability honors the integrity of both society (intellectually, spiritually, and materially) and its environment, thereby fulfilling the concept of a biological living trust in that it maintains positive outcomes for both the Earth as a dynamic system and the beneficiaries who depend on the Earth for their well-being.


A biological living trust is predicated on systemic "holism" in which reality consists of an organic and unified whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts. That is to say, the desired function of a system defines its necessary composition. The composition, in turn, defines the structure, which allows the functional processes to continue along their designated courses. Consequently, wisdom dictates that we must learn to characterize a system by its function, not its parts. The basic assumptions underpinning a biological living trust (all externalities within the current economic framework of the global economy) are:

  • Everything (including us humans) is an interactive, interdependent part of a systemic whole.

  • Although parts within a living system differ in structure, their functions within the system are complementary and benefit the system as a whole.

  • The whole is greater than the sum of its parts because how a system functions is a measure of its ecological integrity and biological sustainability in space through time.

  • The ecological integrity and biological sustainability of the system are the necessary measures of its economic health and stability.

  • The biological integrity of processes has primacy over the economic valuation of components.

  • The integrity of the environment and its biological processes have primacy over human desires, when such desires would destroy the system's integrity (= productivity) for present and future generations.

  • Nature determines the necessary limitations of human endeavors.

  • New concepts must be tailored specifically to meet current challenges because old problems cannot be solved in today's world with old thinking.

  • The disenfranchised, as well as future generations, have rights that must be accounted for in present decisions, actions, and potential outcomes.

  • Non-monetary relationships have value.

In a biological living trust, the behavior of a system depends on how individual parts interact as functional components of the whole, not on what each part, perceived in isolation, is doing. The whole, in turn, can only be understood through the relationship/interaction of its parts.

Hence, to understand a system as a functional whole, we need to understand how it fits into the larger system of which it is a part. This understanding gives us a view of systems, supporting systems, supporting systems, ad infinitum. Consequently, we move from the primacy of the parts to the primacy of the whole, from insistence on absolute knowledge as truth to relatively coherent interpretations of constantly changing knowledge, and from an isolated personal self to self in community.

At this point, you might wonder if Planet Earth can be a living trust in the legal sense. The answer is, "Yes."


A new consciousness is developing, which recognizes that we are one species. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves, but also to that cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring. — Carl Sagan

All we have to offer our children and the generations of the future—ever—are choices to be made and some things of value from which to choose. Those choices and things of value, both biological and social (= legal), can be held within Planet Earth as a living trust, of which we, the adults of the current generation, are the legal caretakers or trustees for the next generation. Although the concept of a trustee or trusteeship seems fairly simple, the concept of a trust is more complex because it embodies more than one connotation of "trust." Consider, for example, the Earth as a legal living trust.

The Earth (or any part thereof) is a biological living trust in the present for all generations. A living trust represents a dynamic process, whether in the sense of a legal document or a living entity. Human beings inherited the original living trust—Planet Earth—long before legal documents were invented. The Earth, as a living organism, is the ultimate biological living trust of which we are the trustees and for which we're all responsible. Our trusteeship, in turn, is colored, for better or worse, by the values our parents, peers, teachers, experiences in life, and the ever-accruing knowledge of how the Earth functions as an ecosystem have instilled in us.

Even so, the administration of our responsibility for the Earth as a living trust has been progressively delegated throughout history to professional trustees in the form of elected or appointed officials when and where the land has been, and is, held in legal trust for the public. In so doing, we empower elected or appointed officials with our trust, our firm reliance, belief, or faith in the integrity, ability, and character of the person who is being empowered.

Such empowerment carries with it certain ethical mandates, which in themselves are the seeds of the trust in all of its senses—legal, living, and personal:

  • "We the people," present and future, are the beneficiaries; whereas the elected or appointed officials and their hired workers are the contractual trustees.

  • We have entrusted these people to follow both the letter and spirit of the law in its highest possible sense.

  • We have entrusted the care of Planet Earth (whether forests, prairies, cities, rivers, or oceans to officials and professionals, such as planners, foresters, scientific commissions, and so on), with a variety of expertise, all of whom are sworn to accept and uphold their responsibilities and to act as professional trustees in our behalf.

  • The land—and all it contains, present and future—is the primary "asset" of the biological living trust.

  • We, the American people, have entrusted these officials and professionals with our lands as "present transfers" in the legal sense, meaning we have the right to revoke or amend the trust (the empowerment through our vote and the courts) if the trustees do not fulfill their mandate:  Planet Earth is to remain healthy and capable of benefiting all generations.

  • To revoke or amend the empowerment of our delegated trustees, should they fail to fulfill their mandates, is both our legal right and our moral obligation as individual, hereditary trustees of the Earth, a trusteeship from which none of us cannot divorce ourselves.

  • As U.S. citizens, we have additional responsibilities to critique the professional trusteeship of our public lands because we are taxed to support not only the delegated trustees but also to provide public services with respect to those lands, and elected officials make the dollar allocations on our behalf. Their decisions about where and how to spend "our" money are reflected in both the present and future condition of our public lands.

How might this work if we are both beneficiaries of the past and trustees for the future? To answer this question, we must first assume that the administering agency is both functional and responsible. The ultimate mandate for the trustees, be they employees of an agency or otherwise, would then be to pass forward as many of the existing options (the capital of the trust) as possible.

These options would be forwarded to the next planning and implementation team (in which each individual is a beneficiary who becomes a trustee) to protect and pass forward in turn to yet the next planning and implementation team (the beneficiaries that become the trustees), etc. In this way, the maximum array of biologically and culturally sustainable options could be passed forward in perpetuity.

Should the officials and/or professionals fail to fulfill their obligations as trustees to our satisfaction, their behavior can be critiqued through the judicial system, assuming the judicial system is functional. In this way, the carefully considered effects embodied in our decisions as trustees of today could create a brighter vision for the generations to come. In order for this to happen, however, the notion of a biological living trust must become a "big idea."


Sustainability is the basis of nonviolence with nature. — Anonymous

Real learning—the remembrance of things forgotten and the development of things new—occurs in a continuous cycle. Learning encompasses theoretical and practical conceptualization, action, and reflection, including equally the realms of intellect, intuition, and imagination. Real learning is important because overemphasis on action, one part of which is competition, simply reinforces our fixation on short-term, quantifiable results. Our overemphasis on action precludes the required discipline of reflection, a persistent practice of deeper learning, which often produces measurable consequences over long periods of time.

Many of today's problems resulted from yesterday's solutions, and many of today's solutions are destined to become tomorrow's problems. This simply means that our quick-fix, social trance blinds us because we insist on little ideas that promote fast results, regardless of what happens to the system itself. What society really needs are "big fixes" in the form of systemic ideas that promote and safeguard social-environmental sustainability, e.g., a collective vision of Planet Earth as a biological living trust—or at least our portion of it.

Where, asked the late publisher Robert Rodale, are the "big ideas," those that change the world? They probably lie unrecognized in everyday life since our culture lacks sufficient free spaces for unregulated, general thought.

A "big idea," according to Rodale, must:

  • be generally useful in good ways—a biological living trust translates into a healthy environment and available resources;

  • appeal to generalists and give them a leadership advantage over specialists—a biological living trust requires an understanding of the system as a whole and so necessitates an amalgamation of generalists and specialists, with generalists in charge;

  • exist in both an abstract and a practical sense—a biological living trust, as seen in number one above, is practical it its outcome, but it is also abstract in that its practical outcome requires people to work together with love, respect, humility, acceptance, wonder, and intuition, as well as their intellect;

  • be of some interest at all levels of human concern—a biological living trust requires the continual building of relationships, which is all we humans really do in life and so touches all levels of society, both within itself and with Nature;

  • be geographically and culturally viable over extensive areas—a biological living trust is a general necessity if the natural world is to remain viable and habitable for all generations;

  • encompass a multitude of academic disciplines—to caretake Planet Earth as a biological living trust requires the integration of all disciplines, such as soil science, mycology, philosophy, sociology, theology, education, politics, ecology, forestry, and economics;

  • have a life over an extended period of time—a biological living trust is, by definition, an instrument of continuity within and among generations²

A biological living trust seems to meet all of Rodale's requirements. It also helps people to understand that life is not condensable, that any model is an operational simplification (a working hypothesis) always ready for and in need of improvement. When we accept that there are neither shortcuts nor many "hard" facts, we will see how communication functions as a connective tool through which we can and must share experience, invention, cooperation, and coordination.

When people speak from and listen with their hearts, they unite and produce tremendous power to invent new realities and bring them fruition through collective actions. While today's environmental users with narrow, special interests will not be around by the end of this century, all of the environmental necessities will be, and that makes "trusteeship," critically important.

"Trusteeship," in terms of Planet Earth, is a process of building the capacity of people to work collectively in addressing the common interests of all generations within the context of sustainability—biologically, culturally, and economically. A biological living trust, in turn, means honoring the productive capacity of an ecosystem within the limitations of its biophysical principles. This said, Planet Earth can be on a trajectory toward sustainability if we begin now to caretake our collective inheritance as a biological living trust, which is a "big idea." After all, sustainability is only a choice—our choice, but one that must be carefully and humbly planned if it is to endure the often shortsighted, contradicting political vagaries of human governments.

Remember, to protect the best of what we have in the present for the present and the future, we must all continually change our thinking and our behavior to some extent. Society's saving grace is that we all have a choice. Accordingly, whatever needs to be done can be—if enough people want it to be done and decide to do it, and that, too, resides in the realm of possibility based on choice.


  1. I found the story of Flambeaux (which I have slightly modified) a long time ago, but can't remember where.

  2. Robert Rodale. "Big new ideas-where are they today?" Unpublished speech given at the Third National Science, Technology, Society (STS) Conference, February 5-7, 1988. Arlington, VA.

Note:   I have posted a similar piece, but one referring specifically to forests in the United States, on my Forestry page, under Forest Trusteeship.

To leave the world a bit better... To know even life has breathed easier because you have lived... This is to have succeeded. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

First and last photographs by Sue Johnston.

The western tanager is a US Fish and Wildlife Service photograph taken many years ago by my departed colleague, Jay Gashwiler.

©Chris Maser 2006. All rights reserved.

Protected by Copyscape Web Copyright Protection