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Challenge at Rio: facing hard facts.

In June, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) meets in Rio de Janeiro. It could be the largest U.N. meeting in history, attended by perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 delegates representing 170 or more countries. It could establish an environmental agenda that will affect national and international actions for decades. Forests will be a major part of that agenda.

The results, however, will almost certainly be limited by the widespread ignorance (or misapplication) of forest science and a universal unwillingness to face the tough political issues that drive forest damage and destruction today.

The scientific myths involved concern the "right" relationships between humans and forests. Today's battles seem to focus around two diametrically opposite sets of attitudes, both of which, interestingly, stem from similar worldviews that conflict with modern science.

At the one extreme are those who believe that nature exists simply for human utilization, and that people can--and should--"control" the natural world. Several generations of scientists and practitioners have built (and are still pursuing) careers based on the notion that skillful application of technology and power will result in a finely tuned environmental "engine" that produces the goods and services demanded by its human masters. When things go wrong, the cause is obvious-we need more research, more technology, more control.

The result has been highly specialized, tightly controlled systems that are often very productive for the range of products sought. If one's objective is to produce wood fiber at the fastest, most economic rate, this is the way it is done.

But while single-species monocultures may produce well they can become both expensive and unstable. Susceptibility to pests increases as a system is simplified, and resilience in the face of environmental stress goes down. So simple systems can be expensive to maintain, or to keep safe from catastrophic collapses. Simple systems do not host the variety of organisms and species common in complex systems. A plantation may have healthy trees and produce wood efficiently, but it is not a forest, in spite of outward appearances. Some argue that the species lost in reducing a complex forest to a plantation are of little or no value, and unworthy of concern. Most forest ecologists, however, are far less sanguine. Their science tells them that all of the pieces, even the small ones, can be important, and that throwing things away while "tinkering" with the system is very risky.

At the other extreme are those who believe that humans have no business trying to manage nature, and that the best approach to solving environmental problems is for people to leave things alone. Much of this viewpoint is based on a scientific perspective that sees nature as an orderly and fairly constant machine, humming along in a well' balanced rhythm unless it is disrupted by humans, That idea found eloquent expression in the 19th-century writings of George Perkins Marsh, as well as in most national and international laws on land preservation and wildfire management.

What scientists know today, however, discounts both the "control nature" and the "natural balance" theories. Instead of viewing the physical world and its phenomena as a well-ordered machine, scientists now speak of "chaos" as the norm. Large, often unpredictable, random-appearing changes are not nature's exception, they are its rule. Attempts to hold any natural system in a constant condition, via either human actions or natural forces, are conceptually flawed. Change--sometimes massive change--is the natural order of things. Adapting people and their needs to the environment becomes a challenge of learning how to live with that constant change. Given that we now number six billion or more, it seems dear that this must be an active, intentional, intelligent adaptation. Waiting passively to "see what happens naturally" is no longer an option. The "new world" will need more and better land management, of the type that "goes with" natural tendencies so as not to incur the huge costs or losses that can be imposed by change or system collapse.

The major challenge at the UNCED meeting is to unscramble scientific and political myths so that people can adopt attitudes based upon 21st century information. That won't be easy. To say that the destruction of tropical forests is not a problem of logging, or shifting-culture agriculture, or overpopulation is to attack widely repeated myths. To focus instead on the cruel inequality in wealth and access to land that drives desperate people to destroy ecosystems is to threaten powerful political and economic elites. To question the effectiveness of saving forests--or species-- by establishing "preserves" is to attack one of the basic tenets of modem environmental action. To suggest that private landowners have a responsibility to provide stewardship and management that protect biodiversity and the function of regional ecosystems is to raise howls of anguish from the "wise use" crowd that is gaining voice in the U.S. today.

Addressing environmental challenges politically is made immensely more difficult when the most strident controversies stem from outdated views of how the natural world works (or ought to work) in a scientific sense. And the United States, one of the world's richest and best-informed nations, must face the fact that its citizens are as steeped in environmental myth as any, and that most of its own debates today--internal or international--still fight the futile battle between the "controllers" and the "preservers," rather than focusing on the tremendous opportunities for both economic stability and environmental quality that could be achieved with a management and stewardship strategy based on modern science.
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Title Annotation:meeting of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro
Author:Sampson, Neil
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 1, 1992
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