13 October 2002
Chris Maser's approach to sustainability reflects an usually high degree of practical wisdom. It is distinctive in that it emphasizes the intimate connection between the particulars of place and the more abstract and philosophical universals that are at the core of sustainability. However, Maser is not some detached philosopher concerned only with abstract ideals. On the contrary, he is trained as a zoologist with a long track record as a research scientist in natural history and ecology in forest, shrub steppe, sub-Arctic, desert, and coastal settings. Today he writes and lectures, works as a facilitator in resolving environmental disputes, leads groups in visioning processes, and acts as a mentor for those interested in pursuing sustainable community development.
When I asked Maser where I could go to explore his work with a community, he mentioned Lake County, Oregon, and suggested I contact the local program officer from Sustainable Northwest, the Portland-based, non-profit organization that was coordinating the sustainability initiative there. The Lake County Sustainability Initiative office in Lakeview provided access to the community and helped with introductions. I traveled to Oregon hoping to gain a more sophisticated understanding of how the particulars of Lake County brought practical wisdom to bear on the challenges of sustainable development that community faced.
Maser's involvement helped to steer the Lake County Sustainability Initiative in a very specific direction. Instead of focusing exclusively on the hard science related to degraded ecosystems—clearly a crucial element in any sustainability initiative, Maser encouraged the participants to assume a much larger and ultimately more challenging agenda. Maser addressed the group as they were about to spend a day in the forest, telling them: "I've had a love affair with science all my life, but I left active research so I could concentrate on this question: How can social questions and science be put together so the landscape and society can coexist sustainably?"
Here was a natural science "expert" acknowledging the importance of considering what the National Research Council, in its Our Common Journey, identifies as the core element of an emerging science of sustainability—this "small set of understudied research questions central to a deeper understanding of the interactions between society and the environment" (NRC, 1999:10). However, Maser went on to warn the group that science could not answer the questions they were gathered to address, saying: "You are struggling with social questions. Have the courage to answer them socially."
As they prepared to embark on their journey, Maser counseled the group that the territory ahead would be full of the paradoxes one comes to expect in complex systems: "In this Information Age of ours, learn to doubt your knowledge and trust your intuition—it's your greatest gift. And you have to learn to honor your ignorance because that's where all wise questions come from. One of the most important things you can ever do is learn to ask a good question because a society evolves toward the questions it asks. So if you focus on wise questions, you'll move toward appropriate solutions."
Maser recalled, during our interview, that the group was struggling to verbalize their vision of where they wanted to go: "I said, 'Okay, now I want from each of you a one- or two-sentence statement of what you think this all means, what you want you community's future to be like.' They wrote. Some of them had to write a paragraph, but a vision statement has to be one or two sentences. … The challenge is that most adults come from their heads. So, we went around the room and they read their statements, but each one was rejected—until they came to a girl who was a sophomore or junior in high school. (I had told them in the beginning that I wanted some children to participated. I wanted young folks.) When the young woman read her statement—which came straight from here (refers to heart), unadulterated—they all said, 'Yes! That's it!'"
This moment was singled out by several of the participants as one of the most memorable of the entire process. Months later, it was recalled with a mixture of incredulity and pride. Even some of the "old-timers," who expressed impatience with the emphasis paid to "process," had a noticeable shift in energy and enthusiasm when making the recollection.
An official with the Forest Service recalled: "They went through all kinds of gyrations at the meetings—identifying their mission and value systems, those kinds of things. Some of them worked and some of it was probably wasted energy—but the interesting thing is a lot of the stuff in here came from a couple of high-school kids. I was at that meeting, and what came out of those kids was really like a light went on to that committee! Gee! That's what we're really here for! That was of value to me. I thought, man! That's great! When the local kids see what they want out of their landscape—and they live here—not the adults—it's the kids…."
By asking participants to respond to questions of value, meaning, and social significance, and by helping them to create a decision-making environment in which they found it conducive to answer the questions, Maser's approach to sustainable development is an exemplar of a participatory process that successfully integrates scientific and policy expertise within the larger social context in which it is embedded. Those who engaged in the process were quick to acknowledge the power of this approach. One participant remarked: "As far as a facilitator, I don't think we could've found a better one. It's a real shame that there is only one Chris around. Why don't we have hundreds of them?"