Chris Maser

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 and Mythology

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 and killing. 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.

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.


The foregoing discussion has been necessary to set the stage for another discussion—how we can create and maintain a culturally sustainable environment as a legacy for the future. Such a legacy requires a solid foundation, which in turn must rest on four cornerstones: (1) the choice of introductions, (2) policy, (3) biodiversity, and (4) patterns across the landscape.

The Choice of Introductions

We introduce thoughts, practices, substances, and technologies into the environment. Such introductions usually are thought of in terms of development. Therefore, development of any kind is the collective introduction of thoughts, practices, substances, and technologies in a commercial strategy to use or extract a given resource, which consequently determines how the environment will respond to our presence and to our cultural necessities. It is, therefore, to our social benefit to pay close attention to what we introduce.

Introduction of a foreign substance, process, or technology has an affect on an ecosystem's ability to function, which set into motion a never-ending story of cause and effect, a perpetual dance that is immediately out of our control. By way of illustration, let's consider the impacts of some of the things we have introduced into the environment, because they represent both our sense of values and our behavior.

Our initial introduction is our pattern of thought, which determines how we perceive the Earth and how we act towards it—either as something sacred to be nurtured or only 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 how we treat those components, and through them the ecosystem as a whole.

In our linear, product-oriented thinking, for example, an ancient forest is an economic waste if its "conversion potential" is not realized—the only value old trees have is their potential of being converted into money. Such notions stimulated Garrett Hardin to observe: "Economics, the handmaiden of business, is daily concerned with 'discounting the future,' a mathematical operation, that under high rates of interest, has the effect of making the future beyond a very few years essentially disappear from rational calculation." Unfortunately, he is correct.

Conversion potential of resources counts so heavily, because the economically 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 nutrient capital into the soil is an "economic waste," because its material potential was not converted into money.

New equipment is therefore constantly being devised to make harvesting resources, such as trees, evermore efficient. The chain saw, for example, greatly speeded the liquidation of old 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 they could re-grow. Further, 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. Nuclear waste is another example of our strickly linear, short-term, product-oriented thinking.

In our search for "national security" and cheap energy, concentrated nuclear waste is being introduced into many ecosystems, the impact of which is both global in scale (through air, water, and soil) and complex in the extreme (through the biophysical vagaries of time due to the long half-life of the elemental components of nuclear waste). And there is no safe way to introduce the concentrations into the environment that we are creating.

The meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl 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 was dead, perhaps for centuries, over an area of roughly 1,000 square kilometers. All that was left standing were chimneys.

It sould come a no surprise the we have not the slightest idea of 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, wave, 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 may 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.

As our collective, human behavior illustrates again and again, our "management" of the world's resources is always to maximize the output of material products, the conversion potential. In so doing, we not only deplete the resource base but also produce unmanaged and unmanageable "by-products," often in the form of hazardous "wastes." In unforeseen ways, these by-products are altering how our biosphere functions. In reality, however, there is no such thing as a by-product; there is only an unforeseen, unintended product, which more often than not is undesirable.

Because of unforeseen and usually undesirable impacts from introductions, such as domestic livestock and the suppression of fire, we must shift our thinking from managing for particular, short-term products to "caretaking" for a desired, long-term condition on the landscape, an overall, desired outcome of our decisions and actions. For example, only now, decades after the instigation of livestock grazing and fire suppression into northern Arizona and eastern Oregon, has the significance of the changes in the structure and composition of forests become evident in many areas.

To illustrate, the ecological degradation of the ponderosa pine forests in northern Arizona and eastern Oregon in recent times is because of too many trees. This increase in the density of trees was caused by the introduction of livestock grazing and the suppression of fire, which have shifted the open, parklike, pre-European forests of huge, old, stately trees to dense, closed-canopy stands of less-vigorous, young trees—an entirely different forest ecologically.

During the last 80 to 100 years, there has been a general increase in the number of trees and a corresponding increase in the amount of woody fuels on the floor of the forest. There also has been a decrease in the extent of quaking aspen, which often resprouts from roots following fire, and an increase in those species of trees that are more tolerant of the shaded conditions in closed-canopy forests.

Intensive study of historical fires has failed to document any cases wherein stand-replacing, crown fires (treetop fires) occurred in the ponderosa pine forests of the southwestern United States prior to 1900. In contrast, however, there have been numerous fires since 1950 that have exceeded 5,000 acres and that have totally razed the forests down to mineral soil. The intensity of these fires is attributed to the amount of woody fuels on the floor of the forests and to the dense stands of young trees within the forests—both of which have become established since 1900.

Some of the trees in these dense thickets, which may include trees of differing ages, have grown into the canopy and form a ladder up which a fire can burn from near the ground into the crowns of the larger trees. Although it is possible that climatic change could account for the increased numbers of large fires, ironically, the changes in the forests brought about by more than 70 years of fire suppression is the most likely cause of an increasing incidence of large "wildfires."

Thus, to accomplish a desired, long-term condition on the landscape, 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 of what to introduce into an ecosystem and how, we can have a quality environment, which produces a good mix of products and amenities on an ecologically sustainable basis and is supportive of a desired lifestyle.

If, for example, we ensure that any materials we introduce into the environment are biodegradable as food for such organisms as bacteria, fungi, and insects, our "waste" would be their nutriment. In addition, if we use solar, wave, and wind energy instead of fossil fuels; and if we curtail our rabid consumption; and it we recycle all nonrenewable resources in perpetuity; we will be shifting our pattern of thought from one that is ecologically exploitive to one that is ecologically friendly and sustainable. This, of course, will require new policies.


Laws and legal mandates contain inherently conflicting language as to what may and may not 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, all too often use the interpretation of a specific police 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 current struggle over the Endangered Species Act, the Clear Air Act, and the protection of roadless areas in our national forests.

Policy is therefore a seriously weak link within agencies, because values cannot be legislated or mandated by law. So, those with vested economic/political interests use policy to "legally" circumvent the law. Then, to fix the problems of such legal abuse of a law's intent, policy is used to justify rewarding the abusers in an attempt to cause them to fulfill both their legal duties and moral obligations to the public, present and future. Such incentives are simply moral bribes.

If we are to remain within our cultural capacity, we must caretake the landscape for a desired condition, which means that policy must reflect—in letter and spirit—the law and its mandates. Therefore, if we are to have an environmental policy that is commensurate with ecological sustainability and cultural capacity, it must be achieved by a consensus of the people, 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 consensus on a policy that protects the ecological integrity of the environment and its cultural capacity from the negative, irreversible aspects of continual 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 development. Then we must agree that ecological sustainability is primarily an issue of managing ourselves in terms of cultural capacity and secondarily an issue of how we treat our environment. And so, we come to a different kind of distinction about sustainability: Nothing can or will be sustained without our first deciding what we choose to sustain, develop, and why—and what we choose not to sustain or develop, and why.

Converting Nature's landscape toward a culturally oriented landscape requires a balance between those paths of development that may, in fact, be sustainably and those that clearly are not. There are situations in which carefully considered development appears consistent with creating an enjoyable, productive, sustainable landscape (both in the short and long term) that is culturally oriented—cultural capacity. But everything that is sustained or developed in a finite world must be chosen selectively. Only in a constantly expanding world, could we avoid the choices of what to sustain and develop and where, how, and why—or what not to.

The path of development that we choose is based on and controlled by policies, both stated and unstated. Each policy is either a true or a 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—nor can the children to whom we bequeath the consequences of our choices.

This brings me back to the question of sustainability. We cannot "manage" sustainability for its own, because sustainability most often is regarded in terms of some one thing: corn, salmon, water, cattle, trees, etc. Beyond that, every ecosystem inevitably evolves toward a critical state in which a minor event sooner or later leads to a catastrophic event, which alters the ecosystem in some way.

For example, as a young Douglas-fir forest grows to old age, it converts energy from the sun to living tissue, which ultimately dies and accumulates as organic debris on the floor of the forest. Here, through decomposition, the organic debris releases the energy stored in its dead tissue. A forest, therefore, is a dissipative system in that energy acquired from the sun is dissipated gradually through decomposition or rapidly through fire.

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. Prior to their suppression, fires burned frequently enough to generally control the amount of energy stored in the accumulating woody debris by burning it up and thus protected a forest for decades, even centuries, from a catastrophic fire that would kill the forest.

Over time, however, a forest eventually built up enough woody debris to fuel a catastrophic fire. Once available, the fuel needed only one or two very dry, hot years with lightening storms to ignite such a fire, which killed the forest and set it back in succession to the earliest stage of development. From this stage, a new forest again evolved toward old age, again accumulating stored energy in dead wood, again organizing itself toward the next critical state, a catastrophic fire that would started the cycle over.

A biological system eventually may be able to approximate what it was after a fire, an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a flood, or a landslide through resilience, which is the ability of a system to retain the integrity of its basic relationships. Thus, a 700-hundred-year-old forest that burned could be replaced by another, albeit different, 700-hundred-year-old forest on the same acres. In this way, a forest ecosystem could remain a forest ecosystem following each catastrophic fire. In this sense, the old 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 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. Therefore, the only sustainability for which we can manage is that which 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, which, in turn, is an ecological insurance policy for the flexibility of future choice.


Every ecosystem adapts in some way, with or without the human hand. Our heavy-handedness precludes our ability to guess, much less to know, what kind of adaptations will emerge. Ergo, we must pay particular attention to ecological backup systems, of which biodiversity is the "nuts and bolts."

Each ecosystem contains built-in backups, which means it contains more than one species that can perform similar functions. Such backups give an ecosystem the resilience to either resist change or to bounce back after disturbance. But we have little knowledge about which species do what and how. So when we tinker willy-nilly with an ecosystem's structure to suit our short-term, economic desires, we lose species to extinction, and thus reduce the ecosystem's biodiversity. With decreased biodiversity, we lose choices for management, which directly affects the Earth's cultural capacity, and therefore our lifestyles. The loss of biodiversity may so alter the ecosystem that it no longer can produce that for which we valued it in the first place—a particular service and/or commodity that accommodates a desired lifestyle.

If we want to choose the quality of our lifestyle by determining the cultural capacity of the land over time, we must abandon the cherished, mechanical notion of sustained yield. We must, instead, shift our attention to managing for a sustainable array of choices, which means we must afford the maximum protection to the existing biodiversity, regardless of the apparent, short-term, economic and political costs.

To those who insist that we can't convert our economic system to an ecologically friendly form quickly enough to protect existing biodiversity, I point out that our entire economy was transformed to a wartime basis in a matter of a year or so at the beginning of World War II. And it was changed back again to a peacetime economy in a similarly short time at the end of the war. The mechanism that allowed the shift to the wartime economy and back again was simply a choice of priorities. Similarly, a shift to an ecologically friendly economy today, which also will serve tomorrow and beyond, is a choice of industrial/political/military priorities.

We must make the only viable choice we can, to consciously convert our society to an ecologically friendly economic system as quickly as possible through the purposeful protection of biodiversity as our major source of renewable energy and the novelty of environmental adaptation. After all, what to sustain and what not to sustain in our economic system is a choice of priorities in the allocation of attention, advertising, and investment in catering to our perceived wants, desires, needs, and demands, as opposed to ensuring the availability of our social-environmental necessities.

Long-term, ecological wholeness and biological richness of the landscape must become the measure of economic health. We must therefore do our best to care first and foremost for the land and all it contains, if we want the land to be able to provide for us, which brings the patterns we create across the landscape to the fore.

The spatial patterns observed on landscapes result from complex interactions among physical and biological forces, which have been influenced by the cultural patterns of human use. The resulting landscape, therefore, is an ever-changing mosaic of unmanaged and managed patches of habitat that vary in size, shape, and arrangement.

Patterns Across the Landscape

The pattern of changes in the North American forest and prairies prior to European settlement was closely related to topography and to the pattern of Nature's disturbances, especially fire. Subsequent human-caused disturbances (introductions), such as livestock grazing, plowing, and the suppression of fire, have been selective in changing the patterns of our forests and ranges, because they accompanied European settlement and the consequent exploitation the land.

A disturbance is any relatively discrete event that disrupts the structure of a population and/or community of plants and animals, or disrupts the ecosystem as a whole and thereby changes the availability of resources and/or restructures the physical environment. Regimes of ecological disturbance, ranging from small grass fires to major hurricanes, can be characterized by distribution in space, size of disturbance, frequency, duration, intensity, severity, synergism, and predictability.

In the Pacific Northwest, for example, vast areas of unbroken forest, our original National Forest System, have been fragmented by clear-cutting and rendered homogeneous by cutting small patches of old timber, 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" required an extensive network of roads. Thus, before half the land area was cut, the cumulative effect was that almost every water-catchment was roaded. 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 habitat.

Such rendering of a formerly diverse landscape into cookie-cutter sameness has profound implications. The spread of Nature's disturbances, such as fires, floods, windstorms, and outbreaks of insects, coupled with the disturbances of human society, such as urbanization and pollution, are important ecological processes across the landscape. Those processes are both influenced by the diversity of the existing landscape pattern and influence that pattern in return.

Disturbances vary in character and are often controlled by physical features and patterns of vegetation. The variability of disturbance, along with an area's previous history, particular its soil, leads to the existing vegetational mosaic.

The greatest, single disturbance to the ecosystem is human disruption:  introductions of practices, substances, and technologies. These disruptions most often result from our attempts to control the size—minimize the scale—of the various regimes of Nature's disturbance with which an ecosystem has evolved and to which it has become adapted. Among the most obvious (and well intentioned) is the suppression of fire.

As we have struggled, and are struggling, to minimize the scale of Nature's disturbances in ecosystems, we have altered and are altering the system's ability to resist or to cope with the multitude of invisible stresses to which the system is adapted and is adapting through the existence and dynamics of the very regimes of disturbance that we are attempting to "control." Today's forest fires, for example, are more intense and more extensive than in the past due to the build-up of fuels since the onset of fire suppression. Many forested areas are primed for catastrophic fire. Outbreaks of plant-damaging insects and diseases spread more rapidly over areas of forest and rangeland stressed through the removal of Nature's disturbances to which they are adapted and which control the insects and diseases. And then there is the added effect of global warming, which exacerbates such phenomena as drought and fire.

The precise mechanisms whereby ecosystems cope with stress vary, but one is closely tied 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 preserves the ecosystem's overall productivity. Such replacements of species (backups) can result only from the within the existing pool of biodiversity.

Human-introduced disturbances, especially fragmentation of habitat, impose stresses with which ecosystems are ill adapted to cope. Biogeographical studies show that connectivity of 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 as a mosaic of interconnected patches of habitat, such as streamsides and vegetated fencerows, which act as corridors or routes of travel between patches of farm forest, livestock allotments, or other suitable habitat.

The survival of populations of plants and animals in a 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 of habitat. Therefore, those species living in habitat isolated as a result of fragmentation have a lower probability of persistence. 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. On public lands much, if not most, of the fragmentation of the habitat is a "side effect" of management policies that stress the short-term production of commodities at the long-term expense of the environment. There are, however, no "side effects"—only unintentional effects!

Modifications of the connectivity among patches of habitat strongly influence 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 what species can use it as habitat. The interaction between the processes of dispersal and the pattern of a landscape determines the temporal dynamics of its populations. Local populations of organisms, which 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 is to make decisions about patterns across the landscape while considering the consequences of our decisions on the potential, cultural capacity of the generations of the future. The decisions are up to us, but one thing is clear:  while the current trend toward homogenizing the landscape may help maximize short-term, monetary profits, it devastates the long-term, biological sustainability and adaptability of the land, and so the potential, long-term cultural capacity.

The pattern of relationships, rather than of numbers, confers stability on ecosystems. Put differently, stability flows from the self-reinforcing feedback loops of relationships that have evolved among the various species. A stable, culturally oriented system, even a very diverse one, which does not 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, livestock-grazing allotments, and so on. Ecological sustainability and adaptability depend, instead, on the connectivity of the landscape, so culturally designed landscapes must be grounded within, and take advantage of, Nature's evolved patterns if we are to have a chance of creating a quality environment that is both pleasing to our cultural senses and ecologically adaptable.

We must move toward connectivity of the landscape. If we are to have adaptable landscapes with desirable cultural capacities to pass to our heirs, we must focus on two primary things:  (1) caring for the sustainable connectivity and biological richness of those areas between such artifacts as forest clear-cuts, agricultural fields, and livestock-grazing allotments within the context of the landscape as a whole, and (2) protecting existing biodiversity—including habitats—at any price. We must garden the Earth for the long-term sustainability of the ecological wholeness and the biological richness of the patterns we create across its landscapes.


Do we owe anything to the future? If so, we must understand and accept that there are no external fixes for internal, moral imperatives; there are only internal shifts of consciousness and morally correct intentions and behaviors. We also must understand and accept that all we can bequeath to the generations of the future are options—the right to choose as we have done and some things of value from which to choose.

To protect that right of choice, we must ask new, morally right, future-oriented questions, questions that determine the quality of lifestyle we want to have and want our children to be able to have. We need to determine first and foremost how much of a given resource is necessary to leave intact in the environment as a biological reinvestment in the health and continued productivity of the ecosystem. We must, at any cost, be it economic or political, protect the quality of the soil, water, and air of our home planet if humanity and its society is to survive. We must also view the environment from the standpoint of biological and cultural necessities as opposed to limitless cultural wants, desires, needs, and demands, and, if necessary, alter our lifestyles to reflect what the ecosystem can in fact sustainably support.

We must account for the intrinsic, ecological value of all natural resources, as well as for their conversion potential into money, and we must accept that the long-term health of the environment takes precedence over the short-term profits to be made through destructive exploitation and continual development. Concurrently, we must convert our society—immediately, rapidly, consciously, and unconditionally—to an economic system that views long-term, ecological wholeness and biological richness of the environment as the measure of long-term economic health. After all, both "ecology" (which represents Nature) and "economy" (which represents humanity) have the same Greek root oikos, a house. Ecology is the knowledge of the house. Economy is the management of the house. And it is the same house, one we divide at our peril.

To this end, it's imperative that we pass clearly stated, precisely worded, unambiguous laws in which the intent is so simply articulated that it cannot be distorted and hidden by bureaucratic policy. We must create environmental policy that is commensurate with ecological sustainability and cultural capacity, and we must simultaneously create policy that protects the ecological integrity of the environment and cultural capacity from the negative, irreversible aspects of continual development. Such policies are to be achieved by popular consensus to protect them from the self-serving agendas of the agencies, which are at the mercy of self-serving agendas of Congress, the Presidential Administration, private industry, and the military.

We must also accept that the only sustainability for which we can manage is one that ensures the ability of an ecosystem to adapt to evolutionary change, which means we must manage for choice (maximum biodiversity), regardless of the economic and political costs. In turn, biodiversity can be protected only by abandoning our cherished, unworkable notion of "sustained" ever-increasing yield of resources to feed the global, industrial coffers.

To achieve such a desired condition, we must stop today's practice of managing for fragmentation of the landscape by focusing only on commodity-producing resources. We must, instead, focus on and manage for the connectivity of habitats to help ensure the ecological wholeness and the biological richness of the patterns we create across the landscape.

Finally, if we are to be successful guardians and trustees of the future's right of choice, we must unfailingly manage the only thing we can truly manage—ourselves, including what we introduce into the environment, in such a way that we conscientiously live within the ecologically sustainable confines of our cultural capacity. The importance of living within our cultural capacity cannot be over-emphasized because, when all is said and done, the great and only gift we can give to our children is the right of choice and something of value from which to choose.


We, the people, are the trustees of the future's options; we must therefore find and test our moral and political courage. The body politic must act in the following manner, regardless of any ensuing short-term, economic hardships and political uncertainties:

1) The Questions We Ask:

  1. Ask really new, morally right questions.
2) The Lifestyle We Choose:
  1. Determine the quality of lifestyle we want and that which we want our children to be able to have;

  2. Determine how much of any given resource must necessarily be left intact as a biological reinvestment in the health and continued productivity of the ecosystem;

  3. Determine how much of any given resource is necessary for us to use if we are to live in the lifestyle of our choice, and take only that much;

  4. Compare the necessities of the land with the necessities of our desired lifestyle and the cultural capacity of the Earth, locally and globally. If the land is capable of supporting our chosen lifestyle, then determine how we need to behave toward the environment to help ensure that the land can continue to maintain the option for such a lifestyle. If the land cannot support our chosen lifestyle, determine how we must adjust our lifestyle to meet what the land is ecologically capable of sustaining;

  5. Accept that ecological sustainability is primarily an issue of managing ourselves in terms of cultural capacity (including the size of our population), which is the main issue when it comes to caring for our environment; and

  6. Decide in terms of cultural capacity what to sustain and develop and why, and what not to sustain and develop and why.

3) The Economics We Employ:

  1. Account for the intrinsic, ecological value of natural resources, as well as for their conversion potential into money;

  2. Accept that the long-term health of the environment must take precedence over the short-term profits to be made through the exploitation Nature; and

  3. Convert our society—immediately, rapidly, consciously, and unconditionally—to an economic system that views long-term, ecological wholeness and biological richness of the landscape as the measure of economic health.

4) The Policy Under Which We Manage:

  1. Pass clearly-stated, precisely-worded, unambiguous laws in which the intent is so simply spelled out that it cannot be obfuscated by bureaucratic policy; and

  2. Create environmental policy commensurate with ecological sustainability and cultural capacity. In other words, create policy that protects the ecological integrity of the environment and cultural capacity from the negative, irreversible aspects of over-development, such policy to be achieved by popular consensus.

5) The Landscape Patterns We Create:

  1. Accept that the only sustainability for which we can manage is that which ensures the ability of an ecosystem to adapt to evolutionary change. Therefore, we must manage for choice (maximum biodiversity), regardless of the economic and political costs;

  2. Abandon our cherished, unworkable notion of "sustained," ever-increasing yield of industrial resources; and

  3. Manage for the connectivity of habitats to help ensure the ecological wholeness and the biological richness (biodiversity) of the patterns we create across the landscape. Thus, we must give up today's practice of managing for fragmentation of the landscape by focusing only on commodity-producing resources.

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.


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Note:   This is a slightly modified version of a paper I gave at the Congressional Research Service Symposium in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., on March 5,1992.

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