Tony Baltic shares frustrations, insights, and hopes of our current plight in "Are We at a Breaking Point or a Turning Point?" I suspect we can all find some of our own frustrations and hopes in this two-page commentary. As we work through the 'best of times/worst of times' dilemma of our present age we could do much worse than to keep Tony's insights in mind. In addition he gives us glimpses of a few good books. Dave. Baltic works at the Rocky Mt. Experiment Station, US Forest Service.

Are We At A Breaking Point Or A Turning Point?
Tony Baltic

That is the question that comes to my mind upon reading "Public Lands, Private Rights, Public Responsibilities" by Dave Iverson. The intense atmosphere of blame and distrust that now dominates public discourse suggests to me that we are close to a breaking point, if we are not, in fact, already there. In spite of more and more voices like Dave's that are attempting to steer us toward a turning point, the momentum that is carrying us to a breaking point just seems to be too strong. I sincerely want to embrace a vision like Dave's and other's such as Manfred Max-Neef (Max-Neff 1992, Max-Neff 1989), Peter M. Senge (Senge 1990, Senge 1994) and Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot (Pinchot and Pinchot 1994) just to name a few, but I must admit that I am often caught up in the currents of blame and distrust. It is very hard for me to believe that the current assault on public lands and government in general is not driven by a fundamental avariciousness of character in those who are leading this assault. But then I am also astonished by a similarly shortsighted conviction among others that the infrastructure of public lands and government regulation is some kind of elitist conspiracy to destroy the liberty of the individual. Thus, I have come to accept that if we are going to reach a turning point and avoid the universal suffering at a breaking point, the only viable assumption we can go on is that there are no bad guys. We need to focus on the "what's", not the "who's". What are the "bads", what are the "goods", and what are the dynamics that make them part of individual and collective realities?

Such a focus requires a further assumption that, as Max-Neff have suggested, the "goods" are universal in nature. They are the satisfaction of fundamental human needs which are finite, few, classifiable and the same in all cultures and in all historical periods. Furthermore, human needs have a twofold character: as deprivation and as potential. What is different between cultures and can change over time is what Max-Neff calls "satisfiers", the ways or means by which the needs are satisfied. For example, Max-Neff classifies values as a type of satisfier which has a very different connotation than the conventional western notion of values. According to Max-Neff's theory of needs, individuals, groups and whole cultures construct values to facilitate the satisfaction of identifiable needs. The dominant western economic paradigm in general, and western science in particular, takes values as a given and questions neither their source or validity. As Max-Neff states, the notion of preferences is used to avoid the issue of needs and questions of values.

Max-Neff's characterization of the "bads" is also an important assumption to adopt. He suggests that these are "poverties" that result when any fundamental human need is not adequately satisfied. These poverties generate confusion, isolation, frustrations, fears, dislocations and general psychic pain that manifests itself in the multiple and collective "pathologies" (like war, racism, bigotry, hunger, homelessness, disease, crime, unemployment, underemployment, environmental degradation, etc.) that seem to be intensifying everywhere in the world today.

But perhaps the most important assumption we must consciously make is that the dynamic that leads to these bads is not driven by a fundamental avarice or malice on the part of any individuals or groups. That is not to say they don't exist -- they do, but this is symptomatic of a collective social pathology. The dynamic that is taking us to a breaking point has its origin, I believe, in a human identity crisis. We have allowed our fundamental human identity as "learners" to atrophy and be dominated by metaphors such as customer, consumer, user, taxpayer, interest group, stakeholder, etc. This extremely narrow view of who we are ultimately stunts our vision of human needs and, as Max-Neff explains in his theory of needs, the satisfiers we employ and empower can become out of balance and eventually destructive under such circumstances. Exacerbating the situation is the intense atmosphere of blame and distrust that is distracting us from the critcal task of refocusing on that identity.

I don't think we can turn away from a breaking point unless we consciously and deliberately seek to develop the dialogue, inquiry and systems thinking skills that Peter Senge calls the "learning disciplines" and Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot characterize as "effective" or "collaborative community", and apply these to the kinds of issues raised by Max-Neff These kinds of issues -- and it needs to be emphasized that they are not normative in nature -- together with the learning skills needed to address them, in my view, encompass what the U.S. Forest Service has labeled the "human dimension" of ecosystem management but has yet to adequately define. The Forest Service has established itself as a leader in developing an ecological basis for ecosystem management but those efforts will essentially be wasted if it does not also become a leader in integrating the ecological with the human dimension as articulated so well by the likes of Max-Neff, Senge, and the Pinchots. Fortunately, the Forest Service has a core of social scientists and network of collaborators that can lead such an effort. Hopefully, this potential will not be lost in the coming budget crunch.

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