Parsing Economic Sustainability: 2012 NFMA Rule

To make sense of economic sustainability we have to delve into sustainability. Then we can see what sense is (or is not) made of ‘economic sustainability’ in the 2012 proposed NFMA rule (pdf).

At root, what we call sustainability (Wikipedia link) is a vision quest—a movement to better align human action with Nature and natural systems evolution. In Wikipedia, sustainability is said to have ecological, social and economic dimensions. All dimensions are interconnected. Sustainability found its way into the 2000 NFMA rule, and has been there since. But the framing has been tweaked at bit since. Let’s take a close look at “economic sustainability” as framed in the newly proposed NFMA rule, in the context of the overall quest for sustainability.

Social and Economic Sustainability

(b) Social and economic sustainability. The plan must include plan components, including standards or guidelines, to guide the plan area’s contribution to social and economic sustainability, taking into account:
(1) Social, cultural, and economic conditions relevant to the area influenced by the plan;
(2) Sustainable recreation; including recreation settings, opportunities, and access; and scenic character;
(3) Multiple uses that contribute to local, regional, and national economies in a sustainable manner;
(4) Ecosystem services;
(5) Cultural and historic resources and uses; and
(6) Opportunities to connect people with nature.

Sustainability Defined

§ 219.19 DEFINITIONS. … Sustainability. The capability to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. For purposes of this part, “ecological sustainability” refers to the capability of ecosystems to maintain ecological integrity; “economic sustainability” refers to the capability of society to produce and consume or otherwise benefit from goods and services including contributions to jobs and market and nonmarket benefits; and “social sustainability” refers to the capability of society to support the network of relationships, traditions, culture, and activities that connect people to the land and to one another, and support vibrant communities. {emphasis added}

I don’t quibble with the framing on social sustainability, but the language on economic sustainability seems tortured to me. Worse perchance is the fact that what is called ‘economic sustainability’ is not linked to ‘ecological sustainability’, not even to ‘social sustainability’. How bizarre is this ‘economic sustainability’ frame? As I read the 2012 rule, economic actors can do whatever they want with an umbrella of ‘economic sustainability’ overhead. Is this by intent? By oversight? Or am I off base in my allegation?

I looked to the 2000 NFMA Rule (pdf) to see if they had allowed such discretion. Nope. Not that I agreed with that rule either, but at least that particular mistake was avoided. I went to the 2005 rule (pdf) to see if the economic sustainability language was separate from ecological sustainability. Yep. This is where it began. It was framed as if economic sustainability and ecological sustainability were competitors instead of compliments. The 2008 rule (pdf) is similar to the 2005 rule in this regard. And so is the proposed 2012 rule.

The Wikipedia page on Sustainability, by contrast does not allow for such separation of ecological, social and economics in their rendition of sustainability. In Wikipedia, sustainability is said to have ecological, social and economic ‘dimensions’. All is interconnected.

Perhaps I’m nitpicking. But I believe that something is lost when ‘dimensions’ or aspects of sustainability are framed separately as if they are independent, without interconnections to affirm wholeness. Bridging the gap from philosophy to actionable procedure proves difficult when dealing with something as novel, important, and threatening to the status quo as sustainability. I get that. But the Forest Service has had a few years to mull over this misstep. How was it missed? Or was the separation set up on purpose? Anyone care to clear the air on this?

Personal Addendum (for sustainability nuts)
I began promoting sustainability in the early 1990s (see, Eco-Watch Archives, particularly 1991 , 1994, 1995). In 1994 Zane Cornett and I even proffered a definition for sustainability in the context of what we then called ecosystem management. Our definition, like most others, focuses both on the need for humans to relate better to the environment, and for humans to act in less destructive ways toward the environment. Like most others we tied ALL together, following John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Here is our rendition:

Sustainability is a relationship between dynamic cultural, economic, and biophysical systems associated across the landscape such that quality of life for humans continues — both for individuals and cultures. It is a relationship in which the effects of human activities do not threaten the integrity of the self-organizing systems that provide the context for these activities.

To further clarify this definition of sustainability, we need a complementary definition for integrity. The philosophy of ecosystem management integrates biophysical, cultural, and economic systems into the single concept of “ecosystems”.

An ecosystem has integrity if it retains its complexity and capacity for self-organization (arguably its health) and sufficient diversity, within its structures and functions, to maintain the ecosystem’s self-organizing complexity through time.

The definition for integrity is applicable to each of the economic, cultural, and biophysical subsystems, as well as to the integrated ecosystem.

At the end of the 1998, when I penned my First Epistle to the Clinton Era NFMA Committee of Scientists, I anchored the whole of my commentary around sustainability and the contextual, multi-scale/scope nature of public lands management. To approach sustainability, public lands management must interrelate various ecological and social systems at various scale across multiple ownerships. Anything short of this is to miss important linkages needed to inform prudent decision-making in setting policy, in program development, and project design. At least that was how I saw it then. I’m still preaching that gospel today, e.g my Adaptive Governance Roadmap for a NFMA rule rewrite.

1 thought on “Parsing Economic Sustainability: 2012 NFMA Rule”

  1. Dave, I would go even further and propose that economic and social sustainability are not just interconnected, but impossible without ecological sustainability. (no ecosystem, no society) When Jack Ward Thomas was Chief, he described ecological sustainability as the platform upon which the other two rested. Post JWT, the Agency depiction of sustainability became a triangle. This is not nit-picking, it’s fundamental, in my humble and Jack’s not-so-humble opinions.


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