Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

Ecologically Sustainable Economic Development: Not Just Another Pretty Face

There is little doubt left in anyone’s mind that we live in a brand new age, an age of incredible hope and opportunity. In the past five years alone we have witnessed the fall of the Berlin wall, the rise of democracy in most of the former Soviet Union, an increasing worldwide awareness of our environmental problems and our planet’s fragility, recognition of a nation’s human rights record as a legitimate consideration in political and economic decision-making—and what could ever make the new age more evident?—that historic photo of Yasir Arafat and Yitzak Rabin shaking hands on the White House lawn.

Yes, a new age of hope, but also an age in which we already see signs of our potential to continue, or even accelerate, many of our past follies—such as ethnic strife and genocide or land and water degradation.

Much of the time I think and speak of what is wrong with our world; of our greed, our materialism, our shortsightedness, our selfishness. Today, however, I want to focus on the brighter side: the possibilities, the opportunities, the hopes I have for a new and gentler view of our land stewardship responsibilities. I will use a few concrete examples to prove that these hopes are real. Although I will undoubtedly also slip back occasionally into my old pessimistic ways and stress warnings, I promise to try and limit this aspect.

Contemporary Environmental Concerns

Although our collective awareness of, and concern for, the environment is probably higher today than at any other time in my life, it is not all-encompassing nor is it indicative of an understanding of the environment’s oneness, its interconnectedness. We concern ourselves with air pollution, water pollution, hazardous waste disposal, toxic metals, and endangered species. But how often do we step back for a holistic view of our environment and its ailments? The fathers of the modern environmental movement, Aldo Leopold and David Brower, did understand that the word “environment” is singular and all-encompassing. They viewed the land and its communities of life as the barometer of environmental health. They understood the importance of naturally functioning ecosystems and biological diversity. They fought to preserve natural communities wherever threatened.

Today in the United States, the preservation of land and its associated resources is not a particularly popular environmental cause as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. It is largely the domain of the wilderness preservationists fighting for a noble but narrow cause. And even those organizations focusing on a specific land issue, such as wilderness, have trouble rallying political support for as appealing an issue as preserving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, especially when the opposition is fed by an exploitative greed that would allow us to drive our sacred cars at ridiculously low prices for a few more days.

Sustainable Development

Sustainable development—or, more accurately, ecologically sustainable economic development—has become a popular buzzword since its use in the 1987 report of the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development, the Brundtland Commission. Although specifically defined by the Commission, the term is often said to be vague and is frequently used to mask the true nature of both environmental and economic impacts of ill-advised development. This must change. We all must understand and use the concept of sustainable development to better our lives and preserve the wealth of our world for future generations.

I vividly recall Norwegian Prime Minister Brundtland explaining the UN Commission’s work and report to a rapt audience of representatives from over 80 nations at the Fourth World Wilderness Conference in 1988. With then Undersecretary General of the UN Maurice Strong at her side, she did not tell us any new truths, discoveries, or panaceas, but she infused us with a focus we had lacked in our narrow worlds and disciplines. She gave us hope that humans and nature could not only coexist but coexist in harmony, with an improved standard of living for today’s impoverished. She dispelled the nonsense coming from the American administration, and elsewhere, that we must make choices between environmental protection and economic prosperity. Not only did she debunk that philosophy, she convinced me that if we do not soon learn how to seek both goals simultaneously, our future as a species is bleak indeed.

I am convinced that if E. F. Schumacher were alive today, he would be in the forefront of sustainable development promoters. He would also understand that appropriate scale and community orientation must underlie successful sustainable development. It is time we demonstrate that ecologically sustainable economic development can work in what we refer to, perhaps arrogantly, as “developed” societies. I am aware of five such efforts now underway.

Recent Efforts to Achieve Sustainable Development

Pioneering work by Nelson A. Rockefeller and the Adirondack Park Agency attempted to create a sustainable development program for the six-million-acre Adirondack region of northern New York before the phrase sustainable development was even coined. This region, renowned for its natural beauty combining mountains, innumerable lakes and ponds, and wild rivers within a rich fabric of deciduous and boreal forests, is also a region of considerable human poverty. Rockefeller and the Park Agency began work in the 1960s to preserve the Park’s beauty as a basis for a future economy centered around wilderness preservation, ecotourism, and forest products from forests managed for ecological integrity and open-space preservation. Some success resulted from the resource protection and management efforts but far too little in the social and economic sectors. And it is now apparent that the perceived success in preservation of open space and ecological integrity was illusory, a respite from immediate threats but not sustainable in the long-term.

In 1989 Governor Mario Cuomo established a commission to take the Adirondack program one step further, addressing its failures while building on its successes. But by the conclusion of the commission’s comprehensive effort, the misnomered “wise use” movement and a number of right-wing organizations, sponsored in part by the John Birch Society, had focused on the Adirondacks and what they perceived as a threat to private-property rights. On the basis of fear and outright lies, they encouraged a number of demagogues to organize generally temperate, well intentioned Adirondackers to rebel and even resort to violence in opposition to any new Adirondack programs, while insisting on repeal of the existing programs. Surprisingly, the verbally aggressive Governor Cuomo showed no stomach for challenging these demagogues and walked away from any effort to revise the status quo in the Adirondacks. As a result, the Adirondacks have gone from America’s best hope for sustainable development to a monument for those who represent greed and selfishness. Its natural beauty and ecological integrity will gradually be lost and none of the serious economic, health, education, low-income housing, or other social problems of the region will be addressed. In other words, everyone loses.

Fortunately, there is still hope for the Adirondacks. After more erosion of its qualities, New Yorkers will again stand up and demand action to protect what is left of their fabled open-space reserve, though the needs of the Park residents may become secondary. And the million-acre New Jersey Pinelands Reserve will remain as a monument to the initial Adirondack efforts, for the Pinelands program was built on the Adirondack concept but took it a step or two further. Although not without problems, it is enjoying moderate success as a potential American model of sustainable development.

But the hope that we as a people can implement ecologically sustainable economic development has taken a strange geographic turn recently. At the request of a coalition of government officials, scientists, and nongovernmental organizations in Russia’s Buryat Republic and Chita and Irkutsk Oblasts, a team of Russian and American scientists and public policy specialists has developed an ecologically sustainable economic development program for the thirty-million-hectare Russian portion of the Lake Baikal watershed. The report and proposed land use map constituting this program were released in March of this year. It has subsequently been heralded as the world’s first truly sustainable land use program. Only time will tell if this is true, for the program is just beginning to be implemented, with the Buryat Republic and Chita Oblast taking the lead in its implementation. The United States Department of State and the Agency for International Development have agreed to help finance the first three years of the implementation program. American involvement in this program has been coordinated by the San Francisco based Center for Citizen Initiatives, a not-for-profit organization with Davis Associates carrying out the project.

Learning of the work taking place in the Russian portion of the Lake Baikal watershed, the Republic of Mongolia requested that a similar program be undertaken for its Lake Hovsgol-Selenge River watershed, an area also of approximately thirty million hectare. Our work in Mongolia began in 1991 and is being completed this year.

In the spring of 1993 Russia’s Khabarovsk and Primorsky Krais and China’s Heilongjiang Province and central government asked us to undertake a similar project in the twenty-five-million-hectare Ussuri River watershed of the Russian Far East and Northeastern China. Working with the National Committee for U.S.-China Relations, I led an interdisciplinary team of natural resource scientists and land use policy specialists to the region early in the summer to begin this program with our Chinese and Russian colleagues.

To date there are at least three programs underway that hold promise for making Northern Asia a region the rest of the world may view as the leader in sustainable development programs. These programs set forth a vision of an improved quality of life for the residents of each region, a vision based on dreams but firmly anchored in reality.

How are these programs developed?

Listen to the Land, Listen to the People

Davis Associates has been practicing a very simple process in helping nations and regions develop ecologically sustainable land use polities and development plans. The theme of our process is “listen to the land and listen to the people.” It is an approach that borrows heavily from regional planner Ian McHarg’s “design with nature” approach and E. F. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” economic philosophy.

Each program must be tailored to the particular country involved in order to reflect the culture of that country. However, we have found that the best process for creating sustainable development programs is amazingly similar for each country in which we have worked, regardless of political process, economic system, or bioregion.

The first requirement is to develop support for the project among scientists, non-governmental organizations, and various levels and branches of government. Without such broad-based support from the beginning, there is far less likelihood of successful implementation of any program developed. In addition to initial support, these three sectors must also remain involved throughout the development of a program. This insures that the final program will reflect the desires, needs, and political reality of the country rather than those of the outside consultants providing the technical assistance.

The second step is to assemble an interdisciplinary team of both scientists and public policy specialists, including government representatives; they are all equally important to the process because the final report must be a socio-economic-political document based on sound science. We learned in our Lake Baikal work that we could not simply take a scientific work to policy shapers and convince them it was the course to follow. Policy people must be involved at the inception of a sustainable development project and throughout its evolution. Communications between the scientists and the policy people must be frequent and in a spirit of true collaboration. Citizens of the country in which the program is being developed should predominate on such a team, but foreign specialists can add new perspectives as well as valuable experience.

The scientists usually include experts from disciplines such as agronomy, resource economics, forestry, terrestrial ecology, environmental engineering, anthropology, limnology, protected areas management, land use planning, and remote sensing. But equally important as depth of knowledge in such fields is a commitment to working together cooperatively, a commitment to sustainability, a commitment to bettering people’s lives, a commitment to working within existing cultural norms, and a commitment to future generations.

Our public policy specialists usually include professionals from academia, government officials from economic and environmental positions in both the executive and legislative branches, land use lawyers, and leaders of influential non-governmental organizations.

The assembling of a broad but compatible team is critical, but a partnership, a close working relationship, is far from automatic. Scientists and bureaucrats are too often not used to working together, and they are not necessarily comfortable working with public-interest-group representatives. Nor are American specialists automatically accepted as experts until they prove themselves in the new situation, but this is as it should be. In addition, cultural differences abound and continually surprise us, even when we have diligently tried to identify potential cultural obstacles. At Lake Baikal there was great pride in our final document and map among the entire team. Unfortunately, we soon encountered a near total lack of understanding about what it really meant in terms of implementation on the part of scientists brought up under the Soviet system, scientists who had never had the opportunity or reason to think about implementing their recommendations.

The first work of the multi-national scientific and public policy team, once all members understand the process to be used, is to prepare specific objectives for an ecologically sustainable economic development program for the region. These vary with the region, the culture, and political as well as economic realities, of course, but commonly include such objectives as:

  1. to inextricably link sustainable economic development and environmental protection;
  2. to preserve natural ecological processes and biological diversity;
  3. to preserve cultural traditions and diversity;
  4. to insure that present and future generations can live in dignity and will enjoy an improved quality of life;
  5. to involve the public in land use policy decisions;
  6. to expand intergovernmental collaboration.

As previously stated, the process we have used to create sustainable development programs can be summarized as “listening to the land and listening to the people.” Listening to the land simply means evaluating, based on existing data and knowledge, the inherent capabilities and limitations of the land and water resources for various potential uses.

All lands have inherent capabilities and limitations reflected by their soils, slopes, biologic communities, visual amenities, and similar characteristics. These characteristics can be individually evaluated and rated for various potential land uses, and then an aggregate rating can be applied to each. This aggregated rating may reflect a situation where, although the soils and slopes may indicate suitability for development, an area should remain undeveloped because of other factors: an endangered species or visual sensitivity, for example.

Of course, many parcels of land are suitable for several uses, while others are clearly inappropriate for all but one or a few uses. The latter speak for themselves, but the former require a priority hierarchy, one in which the program’s objectives must be accurately reflected. Although priorities vary with each country, and often within each region of the country, we usually give priority to the creation of a comprehensive protected-areas system (designed to preserve biological diversity) and to the preservation of productive agricultural soils.

A comprehensive protected-areas system helps insure that maximum biological diversity and examples of all functioning natural ecosystems are preserved for future generations. By a comprehensive system, I mean one based on serious efforts to include all of the ten World Conservation Union (IUCN) protected-area classifications such as national parks, wildlife refuges, natural anthropological reserves, scenic rivers, and so on as appropriate. But no matter how comprehensive, we must never fool ourselves into believing that any protected-areas system relieves us of our responsibilities to practice state-of-the-art environmental stewardship on all lands we impact.

The Earth’s productive agricultural soils are perhaps the most important natural resource from an anthropogenic viewpoint. To foreclose their use for either present or future crop production is short-sighted and generationally selfish to the extreme. In the long run it is usually economic folly as well. Of course, productive agricultural soils are not necessarily synonymous with tillable land. We discovered this in our Dust Bowl. The Russians discovered it when Khrushchev adopted his now infamous “virgin lands” policy whereby orders were given to plow productive grazing lands and grow grain. The Buryat people of Zabaikalsk, who—as nomadic grazers—had been excellent stewards of their lands for over two thousand years, knew these orders would result in disaster, but no weight was given their concerns. The result, there and elsewhere, was the loss of immeasurable quantities of rich soil unsuited to tillage.

In evaluating the land’s capabilities and limitations our project methodology requires that we use existing data. Frequently scientists on the team will, justifiably, wish for additional data or more recent data. We have found that it is invariably a mistake to wait for more data before developing regional comprehensive land use policies for at least two reasons. First, if we have been asked to develop such policies and have broad support at the time, it is important to follow through quickly before the enthusiasm wanes and implementation becomes more difficult or impossible. And secondly, our land resources have been abused or ignored for far too long—it is time to act. Additional research and the resultant data will always remain desirable and in any logical program will be encouraged as the basis for providing refinement and amendment, but in the meantime we must stop wringing our hands about how terrible our stewardship of the Earth is and start doing something about it. I believe we can make substantial improvements in the way we view and use land, even in areas where little hard data exists.

Listening to the people means public involvement early in the process to learn the cultural traditions of the people in the region and to learn their needs and desires, both for themselves and for future generations. This is done by meeting with individuals, local officials, and organizational leaders. Public meetings are held throughout the region to review the project objectives and the first draft of a proposed sustainable use program. As part of these meetings we explain to the people our first attempt at mapping future land use zones such as proposed arable areas, commercial forest areas, and protected areas; then we ask for their comment. During this process, preliminary objectives are often revised to better reflect the desires of the residents for their future.

Before being completed, draft programs and policies should be reviewed by as broad a group of international natural-resource, development, and public policy experts as possible, not only for the sake of peer review but also to encourage the incorporation of appropriate lessons learned elsewhere.

As sustainable development policies emerge and are applied to land use and economic development, it is imperative for us to recognize that while each region of our planet is distinctive, it is also part of a larger whole. Think Globally, Act Locally; a sound concept, but like all concepts—and most bumper stickers—it must trigger a larger thought process as we consider it. The community, the region, the state, the nation, the continent, the Earth; somehow we must intuitively realize that all levels are important, all are interconnected, all are dependent on one another, and none is superior to the others. This may seem self-evident, but many of us believe in community efforts and solutions so strongly that we forget John Muir’s observation that everything is hitched to everything else in the Universe. I submit that we must soon realize that this applies to economics as well as ecology, words which come from the same Greek root, appropriately meaning house.

Russia: Potentially the Perfect Laboratory

Much of Davis Associates’ work lately has been in Russia, although our first project began when Russia was part of the Soviet Union. Despite the instability—some would say chaos—in this great country, the same characteristics that create uncertainty also create incredible opportunity.

First, the country is massive, 14% of the Earth’s land surface. Successful regional land policies will be replicated, offering the potential to greatly multiply the impact of a single model of sustainable development.

Second, in Russia the slate has just been wiped clean. The Soviet Union is gone, communism is in its last death throes. Nearly all institutions have been erased. Citizens and their leaders are looking for new ways to do just about everything. Certainly this is a potentially dangerous time, but it is a time of infinite opportunity, for Russia is once again whole cloth, albeit woven of nonvirgin, recycled fibers.

It is truly a country being born, with all the agony and ecstasy that entails. And it is a country searching for a new economic order, a country not yet encumbered by perceived “inalienable land ownership rights,” a country rich in natural and human resources; in short, a country searching for a path to take. What a grand opportunity at the close of the twentieth century to learn from the mistakes of others and chart a harmonious, sustainable course that could define a relationship with the land, a relationship from which the rest of the world could learn so much. It holds the potential to become a large-scale proving ground for the Schumacher Center’s community land trust concept.

Many people, Russians and foreigners alike, fear for the future in Russia. Russians, of course, fear the unknown, where there are no guarantees for those accustomed to all manner of employment, housing, education, and health guarantees from the cradle to the grave. Potential foreign investors shy away from Russia despite her natural wealth. Why? Primarily because of the lack of stability and rule of law. We must understand and address these concerns, both of the citizens and the potential investors, if we truly desire to help Russia in her time of need. We must look at the opportunities—not the potential disasters—else we leave Russia ripe for the dictator and the short-term profiteer.

Ecological Sustainability: Who Picks Up the Tab?

Our efforts to demonstrate that sustainable development is more than just a catchy phrase, more than just another pretty face, have been financed entirely by private foundations and volunteered professional time. This must not continue.

The irony is that countries most in need of new land use policies and most desirous of economic change are the very countries that cannot afford to invest in the development of ecologically sustainable futures. They are ready prey for opportunists who are always ready to take advantage of another’s tough economic times. These opportunists pounce on countries in need with ready cash for raw materials whose extraction will be neither sustainable nor economically valuable for the country in need over the long term.

Conversely, the countries that can best afford sustainable development investment see no reason to change the status quo; the successful politician knows better than to tinker with a deceptively healthy-appearing economy or with people’s perception of their private land ownership rights. Think of the difference that could have been made if we had faced the troubled future in store for the timber economy of the Pacific Northwest when it became so obvious twenty-five years ago, instead of waiting until almost all the options were gone and neighbor was pitted against neighbor. Is it too late for South Florida? It is certainly not too late for the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. No matter; in either case the development, timber, and ranching interests are doing too well to passively accept any approach that might challenge their golden calves.

At the moment we have requests for assistance in developing ecologically sustainable economic development programs in Russia’s Kamchatka and Altai regions. Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America have enormous need for such programs. And whether or not these areas receive assistance will affect the grandchildren of everyone in this room. So we are talking of self-interest, not of welfare.

We all share the same planet, the same biosphere, the same future. It is up to our generation to insure that ecologically sustainable land use policies and economic development become the norm not the exception. If we fail, our greed will have outstripped our conscience.


Publication By

George D. Davis

George D. Davis, a wilderness preservationist who served as Executive Director of the Wilderness Society (1974-75), was the principal partner in Davis Associates, an international land-use-policy consulting firm, and president of Ecologically Sustainable Development, the nonprofit successor to Davis Associates. He worked for thirty years in natural resource management, land-use planning, and environmental policy at … Continued

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