Talking Across the Concrete- Abstract Divide

Words are essential to communication, whether in blogdom or in person.  One  reason it’s important to discuss topics with others is that you can find out through discussion that words can  mean different things to different people.  You might be in agreement about concepts and simply word them differently.  

 I am a more literal and concrete kind of person, and many people in planning are more visionary- a kind of Myers-Briggs sensing compared to intuitive kind of thing.

Concrete and Abstract

  • A concrete word or image is specific and sensual: it evokes a material reality.
  • An abstract word or image is general, and communicates an idea; it expresses a connection that is mental rather than sensuous, sometimes one that is not immediately obvious.


First, Martin and I have always disagreed about the need for “thresholds” in NEPA documents, and specifically for forest plans which incorporate adaptive management. I have always thought that that was too vague, and there are too many possibilities with no particular reason for choosing a target level of a given thing.

 But as we were talking today in our small groups at the Roundtable, we were talking about area occupied by species and talking about establishing a target of acres of habitat occupied (collaboratively) – and if the species would go below that – a chosen number of those acres based on monitoring- , the Rule could require the collaborative group to get back together, and figure out some different approach to species protection as  an amendment. To me, the inhabited acres would be called a target and lower limits, lower limits. But looking back on it,  I think I might, by lower limit,  mean the same thing as a threshold. But without going through an example with Martin, I didn’t get it. Assuming that is what he meant. But he can weigh in here.

Second, the idea of ecological sustainability being pre-eminent never appealed to me. Strictly pragmatically, I thought we can’t always make the most protective decisions (like fencing all the people out of the Angeles National Forest if they have too many environmental impacts). But talking to Professor Wilkinson, he meant it in a visionary, righ-brained way, as a goal which people could figure out through collaborative efforts and reinvent their interpretation through time and with learning. My original thought was “ecological sustainability” was an analytical idea, and the problem was that you could do all kinds of analyses of everything and never prove something was sustainable.

Something like forest planning, and planning rules involve people from a wide array of backgrounds with different meanings for the same words. That is why it is so important to have conversations with others across different views,  including the concrete/abstract divide.


  1. When we start to sift through all the presentations at the science forum, I think we’ll see topics where presenters were talking about the same thing, but through their lenses of their discipline. In retrospect, I think it would have been helpful to mix the panels up during the discussion period, i.e. having social scientists and ecologists on the same panel (although we may have needed interpreters).

    When Sharon is talking about the preeminence of ecological sustainability, she is talking about the idea of “strong sustainability” that Mike Dockry talked about, as opposed to the three legged stool of “weak sustainability.” Dockry also talked about resolving the conflicts over the terminology through a sense-of-place concept among native peoples called “autochthony”. Meanwhile, to a landscape ecologist like Tom Sisk, sustainability is embedded in the collaborative approach in his New Mexico case study. For a professional planner like Mike Harper, these ideas are used in his approach of mapping stakeholder participants.

    Regarding Charles Wilkinson’s comment, the 2000 rule was unique because of its inclusion of “right brained” philosophy. You don’t expect that in a rule, which is typically read line by line, word by word, comma by comma. Lawsuits are won or lost by the application of specific interpretations of the words. Squishy concepts like sustainability are hard to work with in a rule. The limitations of a rule require us to consider other ways to convey expectations – a topic for another post.

    • I second John’s comment: “Squishy concepts like sustainability are hard to work with in a rule. The limitations of a rule require us to consider other ways to convey expectations – a topic for another post.”

      Rules, like lawsuits, are blunt tools. By its nature, a national rule cannot reflect regional ecological and cultural differences. Not only do the cultures within which the Forest Service operates differ, but the FS’s culture itself is heterogeneous. For example some of the more difficult whistleblower issues for FSEEE have had their origin in FS employee transfers from one internal culture to another.

      Many participants in the NFMA rule planning process have out-sized expectations. Their vision extends well beyond the underlying statute. Unless we find alternative means to address these issues, most participants are bound to be disappointed with the final rule.

  2. so then, if ecologic sustainability and species viability issues appear to become more clear because of discussion and specific examples, perhaps the “public process” section of the rule should make sure discussion with stakeholders happens?
    If it takes discussion to get to good choices, then combining ecologic sustainability and social equity could actually make access to the discussion as important as the discussion and the “best science” which informs it.

    Since I’m trapped in my little place-based bubble and have to struggle to understand the version of reality offered by scientists and planners and lawyers and other interest groups, I really appreciated the opportunity to hear so many points of view and pieces of knowledge. I also walked away with a greater appreciation and respect for the professional planners and the knowledge they bring to the process. I’m thankful they were allowed to speak.

  3. I agree about employee transfers. The Eldorado got yet another Forest Supe and was wanting to limit tractor logging to less than 15%, with cable logging taking up the 15-30% slack. This guy was from Washington State, where cable-logging seems to be the method of choice. Very rarely is cable used anymore, here in California, and for good reason!

    I think we definitely need some “boilerplate” definitions that cannot be litigated in court. Grey areas always end up in court, especially with “professional litigators”, who find easy prey on their way to a payday. Regarding thresholds, they have to be extremely site-specific, and that might make them wide-open to interpretation and litigation. The only real defense for those thresholds is to say that our thresholds are better and more accurate than theirs. The hard-core eco-groups don’t recognize some important thresholds, especially with salvage logging marking guidelines. The rift there is so VERY far apart, and the courts have sided against the science. It’s no wonder that protected perfect bark beetle habitat leads to unstoppable blooms of insect mortality.

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  5. Squishy concepts like sustainability are only squishy when people don’t know what they are talking about. The simple addition of modifiers opens people up to criticism and reveals their willingness to put their money where their mouth is in order to solve a problem.

    Ecosystem sustainability can be a non statement if it doesn’t consider what limits ecosystem sustainability as opposed to sustainability of a non keystone component species. To discuss the sustainability of a particular ecosystem one must know the controlling factors in and on the ecosystem. To define ecosystem sustainability you also need to be specific as to what ecosystem you are talking about. There can be no definition of ecosystem sustainability that applies for all ecosystems. For instance, is it a forest ecosystem or a NSO ecosystem? Can a NSO be an ecosystem if the NSO is mobile and doesn’t impact the ecosystem surrounding it but is, instead, impacted by the ecosystem around it? The NSO is only a NSO ecosystem if we are talking about its role as the host for parasites, bacteria and other microscopic organisms.

    Given the above, let’s say that the ecosystem of concern is old growth, multi-storied stands of Doug Fir and Redwood or whatever. The NSO is not the Keystone species. The NSO is only a temporal component of that ecosystem whose absence from or presence in the said ecosystem does not change the sustainability state of the particular forest ecosystem of interest.

    So sustainability of old growth, multi-storied stands of Doug Fir and Redwood forest ecosystem has to be defined in terms of modifiers/parameters of the keystone species that create the ecosystem. Sustainability would have to specify a non declining or increasing to point X and then non declining level in terms of measurable parameters like volume/trees/basal area by species by story within the multi-storied stand.

    So sustainability isn’t squishy once you’ve defined it. If it’s squishy then you are talking about things that you don’t understand well enough to be talking about so you have the cart before the horse and need to do more research.

    What about the NSO? Sustainability here is in term of numbers of a specific species or of a group of similar species within a specific area. For extremely mobile species, area most likely crosses several ecosystems. So again, you have the same problem and have the cart before the horse if you don’t know what constraining or controlling factors determine sustainability. Because the NSO prefers old growth, multi-storied stands of Doug Fir and Redwood forest, we know that it is reasonable to deduce that that particular ecosystem is a controlling factor. However, that doesn’t mean that that ecosystem is the limiting factor controlling its current struggle for survival as a species. To jump to such a conclusion without doing the necessary research is to let squishiness over rule sound scientific principles and probably make the situation worse. Did the original NSO recovery plan fail because the focus was on increasing and preserving forest ecosystems suited for nesting which led to the unintended consequence of decreasing the edge effect and the adjacent early seral forest ecosystems necessary for access to a variety of abundant prey? Did the NSO recovery plan fail because they ignored the Barred Owl? Twenty some years later, all we know for sure is that the numbers of the NSO are down significantly in spite of millions of acres of habitat being set aside for them. We also know that there were other very significant unintended consequences. Now, once again, we have committed to a new 30 year multimillion dollar recovery plan based on squishy opinions about NSO sustainability.

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