Is "ecosystem management" a modern-day equivalent to the Biblical "Tower of Babel"? Or are we in a position to make more of it? To start this year I decided to send you my answers to a questionnaire on Ecosystem Management. The questions asked for a 'personal view,' so you'll find my perspective on the kinship between ecological economics and ecosystem management throughout. 4 pages. Dave.

Ecosystem Management:
Challenges, Frustrations, Hopes
Dave Iverson

A couple of months ago I got a chance to answer some soul-searching questions on ecosystem management, questions developed by a student at the University of Utah. I thought some of you might want to see my responses.

1. What is your own personal off-the-cuff definition/understanding of ecosystem management?

"Ecosystem management" (EM) represents an interesting choice of words. At first glance EM seems to be an oxymoron since it is probably more appropriate to think that we are managed by ecosystems than vice versa. Still, we know that the culture from which EM sprang is one focused predominately on humans and on what we humans do, so it is not likely that EM was intended to be an inquiry into what ecosystems are doing to us. Yet the debate that has already been spawned by the very act of putting the two words together has given us a chance to rethink the dominant paradigm: the belief in the 'ascension' of humans from the rest of nature, the coincidental belief that we humans have divine rights of dominion over nature granted by God, by Science, or Both, along with coincidental beliefs in individualism outside the context of cultural interconnections. Putting the words "ecosystem management" together also gives us a chance to rethink the behavior and policy of the so-called land and resource management agencies.

It seems likely that if we are frightened enough by recent, impending, or perceived-to-be impending environmental calamities we might begin to rethink our cultural heritage and begin to plot a path that will take us in a different direction, especially in terms of our relationship with nature. If we are so frightened, it might give us a chance for the first time in centuries to think of stewardship instead of dominion in our thoughts about nature. And we might even begin to think in terms of oneness with nature and take stock of our own actions in terms of harmony (and dissonance) with the workings of nature. That is: we might begin to think about living in dynamic balance with other species -- even nature herself -- instead of just taking, taking, taking. We might begin to think that quality of life is more than just building another roadside attraction, another factory, or something else in a vain attempt to appease our ever-increasing addiction to consumption. To effect the type ecosystem management I'm talking about will require that we retool our thinking, replacing our "factory-model" mental image for most everything from education to commerce with an "ecology-model" image based on cooperation and competition in co-evolutionary dynamic balance one with another, and with "innovation" and "influence" as key principles replacing "efficiency" and "control." On education see David W. Orr's ECOLOGICAL LITERACY: EDUCATION AND THE TRANSITION TO A POSTMODERN WORLD, 1992. On commerce see Paul Hawken's THE ECOLOGY OF COMMERCE: A DECLARATION OF SUSTAINABILITY, 1993.

A definition for "ecosystem management":

Let's begin with a definition for management recently offered by management consultant and author Peter Drucker:

"All managers do the same things, whatever the purpose of their organization. All of them bring people--each possessing different knowledge--together for joint performance. All of them have to make human strengths productive in performance and human weaknesses irrelevant. All of them have to think through what results are wanted in the organization--and have then to define objectives. All of them are responsible for thinking through what I call the theory of the business--that is, the assumptions on which the organization bases its performance and actions, and the assumptions that the organization has made in deciding what not to do. All of them must think through strategies--that is, the means through which the goals of the organization become performance. All of the have to define the values of the organization, its system of rewards an punishments, its spirit and its culture. In all organizations managers need both the knowledge of management as work and discipline and the knowledge and understanding of the organization itself--its purposes, its values, its environments and markets, its core competencies." (Peter Drucker, "The Age of Social Transformation," ATLANTIC MONTHLY, Nov. 1994).

Now we can focus-in on a definition for ecosystem management:
Ecosystem management is the process of bringing people together to work out their best sustainable endeavors in pursuit of quality of life into the far future. Ecosystem management recognizes that we must manage ourselves within the context of interrelated physical, biological, and social systems, recognizing further that the boundaries between the three so-called systems are artificial human constructs since they are really part of one evolutionary whole. Finally, ecosystem management recognizes responsibility for leaving Earth's systems intact--to the end that we are proud of the heritage we leave to those who follow in our footprints.

2. How has EM affected your management approach in the last 5 years?

In 1989 a group of ecologists and economists formed the International Society for Ecological Economics and began a conversation about sustainability that has grown ever since. When the Society was first announced I wrote the principals to let them know that their society was the only society of economists that I could join with good conscience. With that short preface I will answer that the book that grew from the first conference of ISEE -- ECOLOGICAL ECONOMICS: THE SCIENCE AND MANAGEMENT OF SUSTAINABILITY (1991) -- has overshadowed everything I've done since. I had been familiar with the work of many of the principals beforehand, though, so Ecological Economics (or ecosystem management to use your terms) has been a part of my approach to my profession and my life for some time.

Suffice it to say that whenever I offer advice on economics I try to make it holistic, formed and presented "in context" viewing life on Earth from a variety of perspectives and temporal and spatial scales (including the scale of our human endeavor on Earth); and based on looking at processes from a perspective of "evolutionary dynamics." Evolutionary dynamics are an integral part of ecosystem management (See, for example, COMPLEXITY: THE EMERGING SCIENCE AT THE EDGE OF ORDER AND CHAOS by M. Mitchell Waldrop (1993) and ORDER OUT OF CHAOS: MAN'S NEW DIALOGUE WITH NATURE by Ilya Prigogine and Isabel Stengers (1984)). Dynamics also enter the picture specifically for each of us since to practice ecosystem management we must perceive ourselves a part of the broader workings of Earth's systems and take responsibility for our actions, paying particular attention to the fact that we are putting much stress on those systems with our lifestyles and our numbers.

3. What challenges has EM created for you as a planner? Frustrations? Hopes?

Challenges of EM: Ecosystem management (in the context of the ecological economics of sustainability--where sustainability has to do with quality of life as projected from the past to the very far future) challenges us individually and collectively to rethink our behavior, our institutions (education, government, etc.), even our culture.

Frustrations with EM: Ecosystem management seems to be a newly erected 'Tower of Babel.' It seems to hold promise to all, but on closer inspection we find many different philosophical underpinnings and there is little incentive to cooperate to better understand differing perspectives, and little incentive to work together in designing our by-necessity-intertwined future agenda.

For some, ecosystem management is a last-chance hope to reconnect to things that Modernism -- characterized by individualism, dominion over nature, and a penchant for hyperactivity -- has laid waste. To these Postmodernistic thinkers EM represents a sea change in management: (1) away from resourcism, which fragmented management into boxes for various resource disciplines and eventually resulted in a fragmented landscape. (The trend was deeper still: fragmentation of thought penetrated every aspect of our education so that we lost the ability to even think about management in the context of Earth's ecosystems), and (2) toward working up our best "bets" for things we will do individually and collectively (and more importantly for things we will refrain from doing) to better the Earth for habitation into the far future by humans in concert with others who dwell on Earth.

For others, EM seems to hold out a much different hope. EM is thought by some to be a thin veneer overlayed over past management. In the US Forest Service, for example, we often hear the idea expressed that EM means to take an ecological approach to multiple use management. Such phrasing begs the question "Where did the idea of multiple use (and wise use) come from?" "Wise use" was a phrase often used by Gifford Pinchot in the early days of the Forest Service to talk about a better way to tend land for timber, grazing, firewood cutting, and other mostly basic (sometimes called utilitarian) uses of the land. One doesn't have to read too far into the writings of Pinchot to see how he was caught-up in the progressivism that was so prevalent in his day. [Note that Pinchot helped establish the Forest Service at the dawn of the 20th century--his book BREAKING NEW GROUND was published in 1947.] The Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act was signed into law in 1960, during an era of unbridled public optimism about our ability to recreate nature better than before and use technology to bootstrap ourselves into whatever utopia we might desire (or so seemed to be the mood in the United States during that era). To tie ecosystem management (as envisioned at the dawn of the 21st century) to multiple use seems to be to anchor EM with a dead-weight. In the practice of EM we must use our collective wisdom (science, philosophy, etc.) to help plot a course for society that will move us toward ecosystem sustainability, an endeavor taken mostly for granted when MUSY was passed. Multiple use was about sustained yield. It was not about sustainable forests and sustainable communities. Ecosystem management has eclipsed multiple use, not just nudged it along. Better to look to Aldo Leopold (e.g. A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC, 1949) than Gifford Pinchot for philosophical guidance.

Hopes for EM: My hopes for ecosystem management are simple: (1) That the debate about what ecosystem management is will bring us closer together -- to better understand the effect of philosophy, method, and action on ourselves, others, and on what we call "nature," (2) That we will muster the will, individually and collectively, to begin a journey toward sustainability and away from consumerism, and (3) That along the path, early on, we will reconstruct our education system from beginning to end -- to the end of "literacy, numeracy, and ecolacy," as Garrett Hardin once suggested in a wonderful little book titled FILTERS AGAINST FOLLY: HOW TO SURVIVE DESPITE ECONOMISTS, ECOLOGISTS, AND THE MERELY ELOQUENT (1985).

4. What political, economic, scientific, and statutory influences are most in conflict with and in favor of EM?

Political, economic, scientific, and statutory influences most in conflict with ecosystem management:

Most all of them, since they stem from a culture (and few cultures on Earth are free from this stigma) that has been built on an inherently unsustainable foundation. Our institutional framing (political and legal, but also social and cultural) is short-sighted. It is individualistic. We barely tolerate (and in some cases do not tolerate) communitarian endeavors, but hold to the belief that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" can best be obtained by purchase, and that individualism and competition are the best means to obtain the wherewithall to enable the purchase. Our institutional framing is mechanistic not organic, and certainly not ecological-evolutionary.

Political, economic, scientific, and statutory influences most in favor of EM:

Emergent (yet nascent) endeavors to reframe our culture and the institutional fabric into which our lives are interwoven can be found if one takes time to look. Perchance these are seeds that when full-grown will effect a cultural transformation. Many of these are well documented by Fritjof Capra in his sequel to THE TAO OF PHYSICS titled THE TURNING POINT: SCIENCE, SOCIETY, AND THE RISING CULTURE (1982). See also BELONGING TO THE UNIVERSE, by Fritjof Capra and David Stendl-Rast (with Thomas Matus, 1991). Capra's table of contents for THE TURNING POINT reads as follows:

Beyond what Capra highlights in THE TURNING POINT we should note that cross-disciplinary discussions are emerging on many fronts to try to reconnect the fragmentation of our thought. Ecological Economics is intriguing, as are related discussions titled Environmental Ethics and Environmental Values (both with journals to codify the discussions). Conservation Biology is a brand new discipline (cross discipline) dealing with the "Biodiversity Crisis." Landscape Ecology is another new cross-disciplinary endeavor. And just last summer the International Society for Ecosystem Health and Medicine was formed. Finally, the Green Political Movement is worthy of mention.

As to politics we are just beginning, but the slate of environmental laws passed in the early 1970s (including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act) helped set the stage for further discussion and action. Even though we seem to have forgotten what we were beginning to discover in that era -- we forgot it in a last gasp to maintain the momentum of "modernism" during the 1980s -- we are now beginning to reconnect despite no help from our fragmented "sound-bite" media.

5. Any comments about the practice of EM as opposed to the concept?

For most of us we must grapple with the concept first, then begin to practice ecosystem management as we move away from denial that our lifestyles and institutions lead us away from sustainability. Once we get beyond denial, our next moves will be to recraft both our lifestyles and our institutions. But we must remember too that much learning will come from our struggles to "practice" ecosystem management. On this matter good advice is found in Bill DeVall's SIMPLE IN MEANS, RICH IN ENDS: PRACTICING DEEP ECOLOGY (1988).