Estosystems

I recently finished listening to a fantastic podcast miniseries the other day called Timber Wars. It is about the battle between environmentalists and mill town/timber industry communities in the Pacific Northwest. It starts with a discussion on the evolving science and, by extension, the perceptions of forests. For some time, forests that included very old trees, fallen trees, and a good deal of things that are rotting, were perceived as largely dead forests; they were places ripe to be cut down and cleared so that “fresh” trees and forests could be planted in their place. Based on this perception, the forestry service of the United States treated these forests as prime locations for humans to come in and cut, both to help humans get lumber and also, it was thought, to help “heal” the forest by bringing in some “young blood” so to speak.

The first episode told the story about how a group of scientists started to ask a question: What if those ancient forests aren’t, in fact, dead zones but, instead, places of complex life that we just don’t yet understand? From that question, they started to do research and, lo and behold, as they studied they learned the incredible intricacies, interdependencies, and, indeed, vitality of these, “old growth” forests. They found out things like that the fallen trees were not, in fact, just places of death, but, instead, incredibly important habitats for other organisms, filled with life. They found that those dead trees also played an incredibly important role in regulating the water supply, by sucking up excessive water when available and releasing it during times of drought. They also found out, contrary to what was previously thought, that these forests seemed to do best when small fire happened fairly often to clear away some of the duff on the forest floor and make way for new beginnings while also creating the nutrient composition in the soil valuable for the old growth trees, such as the 500+ year old Douglas Firs.The first episode, thus, told a story about how science flipped perceptions, from dead forests ripe for cutting to old growth forests, essential for the health of the Pacific Northwest.

The subsequent episodes focused on the implications of that change of perception and the back and forth between those who saw forests as the source of their livelihood and those who wanted to protect these old growth forests. On one side, there was the celebration of the lumberjack, the taming of the west, and the story of humans holding dominion over the land, as promised in the Bible and manifest destiny. It discussed the value, strength, and vitality of the mill towns that formed in the Pacific Northwest and its close linkages to American stories of rugged individualism, living out the American Dream, and small town decency, including, for example, songs written by Johnny Cash about the virtues of being a logger. And, of course, there were good reasons to celebrate these pioneers, as they were living embodiments of the stories of the time. On the other hand, there was increased awareness and awakening from some in the community to the inherent, awesome, sublime[1] beauty of old growth forests, inspired by not only the science but also the conservation movements of people like John Muir. For these people, nature, particularly places such as old growth forests, were sacred sites, worthy of protection from the destructive nature of humans. Throughout the episodes, these two sides fought and continue to fight today.

A particularly important episode (episode 5) focused on the time in which a grand compromise was sought. It was right around the time when Bill Clinton first became president. In Oregon and Washington, he ran on a platform that emphasized trying to find a pathway forward that both honored the inherent value of old growth forests and also honored the inherent value of human life and milltown livelihoods. He stated that this is not about jobs or the environment, but about advancing both. Bill Clinton made a campaign promise, which he kept, to organize a Forest Summit, which brought together the factioning parties to talk. In the midst of the summit, during lunch, Bill Clinton purportedly came to the conclusion that this wasn’t an environmental problem. Instead, the problem was that change is happening, and some people were scared of the change. They saw the change as undermining their values, their culture, their identities and their livelihoods. To Clinton, If they didn’t find a way to honor those people while also recognizing that we must be good stewards of the forest (i.e., the needed change), then we will all fail. If Bill Clinton was the humanist in the room, Al Gore was the environmentalist. Al Gore was interested in advancing discussions on what science has learned about old growth forests and what we have learned about good stewardship of ecosystems. In the end, Bill Clinton asked for the advice from an environmentalist, Jack Ward Thomas, to offer a pathway forward of a forest management plan that would help keep people moving forward together. Thomas then suggested that we needed to move the science forward to enable humans to protect entire ecosystems. Thomas then stated, quoting one of his heroes that, “ecosystems are not merely more complex than we think, they are more complex than we are able to think.”

With this, Clinton decided that the right pathway forward was to convene a group of scientists who, together, could get a handle on the immense complexity of ecosystems, with the goal of creating a plan that advanced meaningful ecosystem management. The goal was to create a new way of thinking about forest management; from one that was largely judged by the amount of lumber that could be produced to, instead, one focused on ecosystem-wide management of the Pacific Northwest. The goal was to use the science of ecologies and ecosystems to enable lumber to still be produced while also protecting the old growth forests as a source of vitality for the broader regions and health of the flora and fauna there. Through much deliberation, computational modeling, careful analysis of the data, and what not, the group of scientists came up with a plan that balanced these two competing forces, which became the Northwest Forest Plan.

Unfortunately, when Bill Clinton received the compromise proposal, he had a sense that it might not fly with either group. Still though, to his credit, he offered it to the Pacific Northwest and used it as a guiding structure for how the US Forestry Service was to be run, including making Jack Ward Thomas the chief of the US Forest Service. In line with his earlier intuitions though, the compromise was rejected on both sides. Loggers perceived it as a plan that would destroy their livelihoods. Environmentalists perceived any further cutting or management within old growth forests, even if that cutting was done in a more methodical fashion to help maintain the old growth forests, as sacrilege. Thus, while the plan was helpful at protecting old growth forests,which made it possible for old growth forests to still exist today, among the people, the situation did not calm down but instead got worse. In particular, after the plan was offered, both sides lost the prospect of a trusted third party (i.e., the US government or scientists), who could be brought in to solve this problem. And, while there continues to be back and forth, this is the situation that largely exists to this day in the Pacific Northwest.

This story has so much to teach us about pathways forward for living on our planet in the 21st century.

First, I read this and started to think that both sides were being driven by apex predator logic, which, as a reminder, involves being guided by principles of greed is good, might makes right, and hoard. The timber industry was clearly driven to take resources from the forest, build up wealth and power and, from that, hoard the resources of the Pacific Northwest, in the name of taming the west and supporting the lives of children, families, and communities. On the flip side, the Environmentalists engaged in a sort of anti-apex predator logic that was also destructive. For them, humans can’t be trusted to be a part of nature and, thus, nature must be cordoned off and kept separate, sacred, and protected from the thieving hands of humans. To keep the “evil” timber industry at bay, they engaged in organizing people, fundraising, finding loopholes in the law to get what they wanted, and cultivating a political and economic action network that would enable them to advance their ideology. While advanced a sort of anti-apex predator logic to protect the sacred forest, their actions on how to do that protection grew out of apex predator logic, with the notion that the ends justify the means. Put more simply, these two sides were built around stories and perceptions on what “good” means that were diametrically opposed and then committed to practices that involved trying to become the bigger alpha. The only solution that is available in apex predator logic, is that there’s only one alpha group. In my view, this story highlights the dangers of apex predator logic, yet again, and why we need to grow beyond it.

Second, this story illustrates that environmental, climate, and related sciences are both essential to help guide the next stage of humanity and, simultaneously, insufficient. They are essential because, without them, we humans would not have the capacity to understand the incredible complexity of the Planet we exist on and the many layers of feedback systems and life cycles that exist to create the fragile zone of temperature, biodiversity, and ocean acidity that enables us to exist. If ecosystem management in a region like the Pacific Northwest is unfathomably complex, Planetary management of the many different types of ecosystems that exist on the planet is almost laughably complex. And yet, that is exactly what humanity is increasingly going to need to do, if we are to mitigate climate change, collapsing biodiversity, and increased ocean acidification.

These sciences are insufficient, however, because of pervasiveness of apex predator logic, as already discussed, and the profound impact of the recursive social feedback loop between ideology, politics, and economics. Ideologically speaking, the story illustrated the profound influence of faith in the underlying stories among each group. Among the loggers and mill town people, faith in the inherent truth of the divine right of humans to be good shepherds of the forest and to take what is needed to enable humans to grow, multiply, and hold dominion over the Earth was a powerful influence that invited loggers to look at environmentalists as nutters, hippies, and the like. In this worldview, environmentalists were the crazy people who would elevate the lives of spotted owls over people, thus choosing nature over their own race/species. Among environmentalists, faith in the inherent value and capacities for the old growth forests to self-sustain themselves in the patches that still existed invited these environmentalists to see loggers as greedy, selfish people who were defiling sacred spots. This faith in the sublime beauty of untouched nature kept these environmentalists from seeing the value and importance of true stewardship, even of old growth forests, such as regulated cutting, controlled burns, and the like, which could be valuable both for loggers and for the forest. These ideological divides were then perpetuated and reinforced in the politics and economics of the efforts, which were largely enacted via apex predator logic on both sides, as discussed above. For example, the environmentalists chose to use the Endangered Species Act as a pathway for protecting the old growth forests via the single species of the Spotted Owl, which eventually evolved, among the Environmentalists into peaceful protests meant to influence the court of public opinion and general sentiments on the morality of their actions and the immorality of loggers, which was then used to raise funds and resources to reinforce the ideological divides and increase their political influence. And, of course, mill town workers engaged in their own political and economic counter maneuvers, with both seeking to dominate and over-take the other (become the alpha). Ultimately, these ideological, political, and economic feedback loops, built more around defeating “the other” (i.e., apex predator logic) resulted in the groups increasingly defined by their mission to defeat the other rather than a mission to make the Pacific Northwest a better place for both humans and forests.

Moving forward, the fact that the grand compromise only partially worked points to the need for us to do something even more complex than ecosystem management, and at a planetary scale. We need to figure out how to get our ecosystems, social systems, and technical systems that we exist within (and for more details on what I mean by each of those systems, see this and this post) to work together. This, in my view, forces the need for a new term — estosystems — to provide a meaningful and succinct label for our task ahead of us.

We need to enact estosystem management across the planet, guided and led by each local stakeholders who have both the local understanding and capacity to become good stewards of the places they reside.

By estosystems, I mean eco-socio-technical systems. Of course, others have written notes like this, such as socio-technical systems, and even sometimes all three. I’m not inventing a new notion, instead, I think it is valuable to simplify its statement. Estosystems are ecosystems that include humans and, by extension, are influenced by our social norms and actions, and the technologies we create to enact our wills. As illustrated in Attenborough’s Witness statement (which I wrote about here), there are, for better or worse, few if any true ecosystems left on this planet. We humans have succeeded at holding dominion over the Planet, as acknowledged in the labeling of the geological epoch we currently exist in: the Anthropocene. It is essential to acknowledge estosystems, not ecosystems, as what we are working on managing, if we are going to have any chance at all of making progress. Ecosystem management keeps the pathway open for the line of thinking environmentalists espoused to and, thus, is the seed to resorting to apex predator logic. Thus, it is insufficient. And if ecosystems are more complex than we are able to think, estosystems might be more complex than we are able to even engage, yet that is the task before us.

And this leads me to the final lesson I drew from this story. Hope.

The story illustrates that we actually have the capacity to advance estosystem management but we haven’t quite put the pieces together yet to do it. Ecosystem management was perceived as beyond our comprehension, and yet, humanity is starting to get a grasp on how to do it, pulling from science, and wisdom from communities with greater history on doing it, particularly indigenous communities more interested in being a part of nature instead of colonizing or holding dominion over it. Thus, we are starting to get a grasp of our place in the world, not as the apex predator, but as a steward tasked with serving all of life.

Further, the lunch with Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and others gives me hope. Bill Clinton’s purported diagnosis of the problem — people fear change — is an essential part of the diagnosis. That said, Al Gore’s environmentalism perspective — that we need to learn how to do ecosystem management — was also part of the solution. Unfortunately, the group was not yet at a place to combine these two insights into a pathway forward of estosystem management. That said, the seeds of estosystem management was there, at that lunch table. We needed both deep empathy and coalition building to honor the people and their fears and, simultaneously, we needed all the insights that can be gleaned from the physical and social sciences and also applied sciences and engineering to enable us to meaningfully and effective be good stewards of estosystems.

And, not only that, but the last episode of the podcast provided further hope. The final episode focused on how the warring factions have been developing friendships and also how the communities have been learning how to live more in balance with nature, which includes timber but also other activities such as tourism.

[1] Awesome and sublime are both being used here in their classical way. Specifically, I’m using them in reference to the experience of being in the presence of and experiencing something of immeasurable power, complexity, power and beauty beyond full comprehension of a single human and, by extension, a divine and great mystery worthy of praise and awe for its own sake, regardless of humans and humanities interests in it.

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