Rural System's

Sustainability

Sustained? -- Its Meaning for this Forest

Sustained - (1) a perceived condition, at a place and point of time, typically resulting after a series of actions, as in "after the project, the species was sustained;" (2) within a human-influenced system, species or functions not yet extinct, extirpated, or destroyed; (3) a perceived condition over a period, possibly with an unstated (but needed) period of time, periodicity, fluctuation, perceived resiliency, and contingencies and constraints; (4) not permanent, but almost, as long as all of the conditions needed persist in quantity, quality, and sequence, and interventions, when needed, are in place; (5) a past-tense verb, to have caused the condition of the system to exist, e.g., by the combined efforts of A, B, and C, they sustained the production of the region."

To sustain - To cause a system to be sustained (as defined above). "Sustain" for how long? The life of a tree? A human life expectancy? Ten generations? An expression of an approximate period of concern seems needed as well as the connotation of on-going inputs and processes. Sustain is a verb, generally meaning that a proposed or observed action should not seriously harm, impair, or significantly change (negatively or rarely positively) a structure, process, or output of a system.

Sustainable - An identified system having characteristics and conditions that allow the present condition or one of "sustained" to be achieved (1) ever, (2) in some specified, implied, or policy-bound period. Able to be sustained. Sustainable is a prospective noun, a condition, a processing state or status, … e.g., the system might be made or reshaped to become sustainable. A system may be asserted to be sustainable at some level (or implicitly 'now') when some time scale and conditions are also stated…as in "it is sustainable for the next 5 years but only with major volunteer effort and twice the stated budget."

Sustainability - Having conditions and forces that may allow, perhaps expressed with a probability greater than zero, a condition of "sustained" (as defined above) to be reached. Sustainability meaning "ability to maintain an effort at a given level or intensity" encounters difficulty if that "given level" is a declining rate (e.g., - 0.05 for toxicant removals or population rate of change). A word excessively and indiscriminately used in 2002- 2005, it, as other faddish words, hopefully, fortunately had use that was not sustainable.

Stable - Having a zero rate of change over a specified period. The bounds or limits of that rate, if an estimate, need to be discussed and decided if the condition "stable" is to be asserted.

Static - A system at rest or in equilibrium, not moving, not active (however, a person walking well is said to be in equilibrium).


Having many meanings and connotations (and these are still debated) , having a "sustained" system implies using practices and approaches that assure that the present system (or perhaps an evolved or improved one for the future) will persist. I want the staff of the Forest to know what sustainable really means because I can imagine going to court and being confronted with the argument that we have not sustained a resource, or that our work resulted in a condition (even if it was our intent) that was unsustainable. The fight has to be on … and won. The subtleties can be missed by people who have not resolved the difference between words like ""continuous" and "continual." Some dictionaries suggest they are synonymous but the latter word may include recurring events, regular or not. We have to say precisely what we mean in many situations, the more the better, because then we can build a strong conceptual structure as well as avoid the passing assaults of those who do not understand what we attempt to do and avoid the limitations and dangers lurking behind every rural bush.

"What has the future ever done for me?" quips a humorist. Sustaining good things into the future may be costly and some people may not want to invest on behalf of those who will live then. Not so funny is the need to decide on a relevant time frame for any planning and eventually to confront the issue of intergenerational justice, i.e., how can we decide on a criterion which, if met, assures us that we are continuously behaving justly toward future generations? It may be that assuring justice is a required condition for sustainability of a system. Without it, history is writ large about societies that have not been sustained, frequently disrupted by those believing they had been treated unjustly. Unjust or just unfair-seeming because of the disproportional wealth of some people, organizations continue to bear the heavy burden of past decisions, wishing to avoid that sustained handicap and lock on the door to the future.

In forestry and agriculture, it is well known that perfectly stable productivity is unlikely. Production practices change; nutrients are removed. The efforts to assure sustainability are intrinsic to the Forest and Rural System. They are designed to manage successfully to meet changing human needs without degrading the environment or the natural resource base upon which achieving the objectives depends. Achieving sustainability is treated as a dynamic activity, allowing for and adapting demands in combined ways that do not reduce and do enhance future options for effective resource utilization. Sustainability, addressed throughout Rural System and hopefully very soon the Forest, also includes emphases or special actions in:

  1. introducing wide genetic diversity into cultivars to avoid genetic erosion and increase crop and resource efficiency
  2. gaining improved knowledge of host-plant and predator-prey relations and methods for using this knowledge
  3. developing integrated component technologies for reducing harmful chemical fungicide and insecticide use
  4. including sustainability topics in training programs
  5. developing a useful index of sustainability
  6. diversifying activities, products, and projects as well as work over a broad area, perhaps something identified as an ecoregion.

In the adjacent figure is the foundation of our concerns about sustainability and its meaning. What if Q is a performance measure for how any system, large like the Forest, or small, is performing? (It can be deer, profits, songbird sightings, or pounds of fish removed from ponds.) Then we can argue that in line A, the system has been sustained. It is now flat-line, although once declining. In the system described by line B, the average rate is the same, flatline, but perhaps the drop at the end may be intolerable. The annual rate of change is zero, but this is probably not what has been desired. In the system described as C, the rate of change is zero, thus stable, but the instantaneous break at about the halfway mark is probably unacceptable to many people (or resources) for several reasons. This line on the graph just points to the need for expressing the positive or negative character of the desired rate and it suggests the need to state a time horizon such as "into perpetuity." A system performing as suggested by line D might be is a sustained system, on average, about average, and is sustained predictably and handsomely...but that may not be the desired pattern, or greater constancy about a limited central value is needed. The slight decline at the end cannot be detected with confidence by statistical means because of the few, but variable years. The system suggested in E is variable, but it has been sustained, and fairly stable, for the period shown, but the "highs" and especially lows may not be acceptable to some resource agencies or users. The fluctuating line in E may be what is desired...some system starting at a point in time, staying within set bounds with minimum excesses and minimum failures, and continuing far into the future. The system shown as E may be desired because it has constancy, low variability, predictability, continuance, and it seems to be "sustained," but, on reflection about boredom or desirable genetic variation, may not be responsive to all future challenges. It may not be "resilient," (another word with debated meaning). Even E is probably not the picture of the system that is desired.

In the face of so many options and possible questions, it seems odd that so many people seem so confident in stating the need for sustainability. They demand and pass resolutions about sustainable communities, and sustainable development. What are they thinking? What do they really want? What are their objectives?

Work within Rural System over a broad area for the future will probably address arresting and reversing natural resource degradation. It will also address issues of declining crop productivity and how to double food production over 25-40 years. All of this needs to be done in the face of limited growth (or failures) in irrigation, population pressures and poverty, low inputs, cultivation of marginal areas, cutting rain forests, filling wetlands, depleting soil by cultivation, over-use of farm and forest chemicals that result in pollution, and reducing biodiversity.

Solutions are unclear but they probably include centering, coordinating, reducing duplications, using complementary practices, reducing competition, balancing endowments (money and resources), developing synergistic groups, expanding the scale of select operations, changing the nature (maybe even the name) of the system itself and joining in setting priorities for projects.

We continue to study the topic of sustainability and believe that it is beginning to become firm in a clear statement of an objective, a mathematical expression called Q* (called Q-star) with a system performance measure called Q (somewhat like the above graph), and studying efforts that can be devoted to achieving Q* within stated bounds with minimum deviations and rapid recovery of excesses (such as shown in the dashed graph-lines, "the bounds" or boundaries above and below line E) for the lowest possible costs.

We propose to find ways cooperatively and then for the Forest and Rural System to act to sustain the measure of the more general system itself, Q, about the value Q*. We think Q is sustainable, but not at present levels of people, activity, or gross domestic profit. Many people express a desire to sustain the rural conditions and see that as opposite to "development," an equally difficult word. In some circles, sustainable is usually used as an adjective for development, and it means that, when used together, the activity of developing (even improvements in agricultural communities) will be sustained…not hardly! It might be, but assurance is in the other direction. It might be an implicit objective. It needs to be made explicit if that is the intention. "Sustainable development" is a politically useful phrase, meaning whatever the user thinks will be advantageous at the time.

It is difficult but possible to list the conditions of sustainability of a system. Sustaining any system is unlikely. Everything is running down, moving toward cosmic otherness, nothingness… all according to the laws of physics. Everything on earth is "entrophic" heading to randomness, increasing dispersion. Everything rusts, wears out, disintegrates. Sustainability policy tends to resist natural entropy; failure is guaranteed, systems tend to "weather," to change, and not be the same as they once were … surely not as they started. Biological systems have developed some energy saving or conservation techniques. People can follow their lead; such biological systems (with major remaining doubts about "ecological systems") are one of the few instructive sources. There are, nevertheless, very few solutions elsewhere.

In Rural System and perhaps some day within the system of the Forest region, we attempt to sustain profits. We always say, at least intend to do so and imply … "over about 150 years and within reasonable bounds." Sustaining profits means attempting to gain sufficient profits (probably not constant profits, maybe even interrupted briefly) over a long planning period, probably well over 50 years, most likely at least 150 years for the lives of big trees, and maybe "forever." The picture looks like

The implication is that over a stated long period, we know that profits will vary. We can control the changes a little; the costs of great control detract from net gains. Excesses as well as extreme lows can be dangerous (as in the case of endangered faunal species). We know the fallacy of trying to maximize gains. Even over time, we cannot compare the risks and quality of life resulting from several simple strategies, (1) getting an immediate maximum (and living on that) vs. (2) summing irregular high gains, or (3) summing regular small gains for a maximum. We know that we do not want an average over time, for we may be on average, like the person with a foot in boiling water and the other in ice water --- on average, ok. The picture above represents a policy of acquisition and restoration to a starting point, then controlling or managing the rural system as tightly as possible to achieve a median value (an approximate straight line near but not at the center of the above graph. Fluctuations, even brief interruptions are caused by many factors, ranging from poor decisions to the influence of competitors and weather. The system is sustained. It is alive and defined to be "well" if it exists at some noted time within the sketched bounds. To the extent that it is within the bounds for an extended period, it may be discussed in terms of vitality, health, or being sustained. There are two graphs involved in Rural System analyses, that of Q relative to Q* and that of actual present net discounted returns, P, relative to the desired level, P*. Later available energy analyses may yield additional important graphs that, along with others point decision makers to clear optima, many of which will be equivalent.

Maybe a sustainable ecosystem is one that people think is very well protected and that it will remain in some natural dynamic state of ecological succession. It is more likely that a federally-protected wilderness is "sustained" to the greatest extent under the law, but that it may only be sustainable with adequate protection, funding, and protection from air pollution, wildfires, excessive visitor impacts, off-road vehicle use, and invading plant and animal species. Citizen interest and involvement, itself sustained, in wilderness protection may be an essential component of a sustainability effort for already-legally-protected wilderness areas.

A leading expert on the beautiful wood duck developed a superior trapping and banding (ringing) program. Data were needed for monitoring the status of the birds, their migration, and effects of hunting seasons and other factors on the regional population. The program was very efficient. It was also very expensive, over-equipped for all conditions, and it literally pumped data on birds into a large database, flooding it, far exceeding computed needs for optimum sample size. The expert and his system were very efficient, not effective. The resource manager continually needs to address effectiveness, that of efficiently achieving stated objectives. At issue is an expression of total costs (money, energy, time, etc.) per desired unit of change. Usually over-achievement is as undesirable as under-achievement. Perhaps a dollar spent in over-achievement could just as readily and more effectively have been spent in reducing under-achievement. Increasingly, there is a need to praise efficiency and then to discuss effectiveness and how to sustain that. Sustaining an effective system is very difficult because objectives as well as factors within the environment and other parts of the system may be unclear or changing. We have to dodge the drum-beat compulsion to sustain systems. We can simplify: we just need work that achieves pre-stated objectives...exactly. It is likely that being efficient will be one of those objectives. We can optimize systems. To optimize means to achieve a maximum or minimum amount or rate (of any measure), subject to constraints.

For a rural environment, a sustainable community is a community (with only a temporary decision about a definition for that) that with great restoration, care, planning, and intensive management can thwart all challenges, plant closures and wars, pestilence, and political instability and still be recognizable as that same community and distinct from others over a very long period. The historical period needed has to be greater than 30 years. The asserted period for the future needs to be at least as long. If the period is shorter, the observation period for proof of success will remain open. A few local churches and fewer businesses may be the only examples of sustainable communities. Some church denominations will make the claim.

We just want the things that we have perceived to be good for us and our parents to last forever. Seems reasonable. We want new things and, of the good ones, we also want them to last…until something better comes along. Maybe our wish is not for the indefinitely sustained!? Maybe not even indefinitely sustainable, for then there may arise a condition when it can be replaced or is seen to be disadvantageous?

We know we do not want sustained production of logs at the lumber mill when the price of wood is low and the mill has declared bankruptcy. "Sustained yield" is not the objective even though the evidence is that the forest has been sustained and seems sustainable. Brown and Carder (1977) recommended "…policy focus be shifted from individual outputs toward a maximum sustained yield of the total value [my emphasis] of forest output." We want sustained total system profits!

We contend that we need a high quality of life, to move toward a high Q score and to keep it there with reasonable costs that are shaping the changes we are likely to encounter. We define a good condition, and by that definition of good, do not want that to change very much and probably not very fast. "Very good" for a few will probably not be very good for another small group and the costs and risks of something new tend to be high. We prefer the social advantages of group-goodness over the special gains of very-good-for-the-few. Thus, we'll not change fast. The costs of not changing can also be very great, and thus we continually clarify objectives and do the best analyses possible and act to move the performance values of the rural environment to the next nearby spot, close to the objective and at least within the stated desirable bounds.

Next, I'll describe how to do that. It's called the Q Works.

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May 6, 2005