Peter Eisenberger

Director, Earth Institute, Columbia University

Contributions of Ecological and Cultural Conservancy to Sustainable Development and Resilience


September 1999, Yunnan Province, China

The past fifty years have witnessed an enormous increase in our knowledge of our species and our planet and in particular the impacts of one on the other. This knowledge has raised serious concerns about the global impact of human domination on our planet which is itself in many ways the result of the increased development that our knowledge has enabled. Some specific global concerns that have emerged so far include the ozone hole, global warming, bio-diversity reduction, water and air pollution, landscape fragmentation and soil depletion. There is concern that if left unchecked our pursuit of increased development and efficiency will make our whole planet unlivable or less resilient to future changes.

This very same knowledge and its products like the computer and the Internet are causing major social and cultural disruptions similar to those experienced in the Industrial Revolution. The role of culture and, more generally, social capital (institutions and political processes) in mediating large shifts in economic development is very clear. These social disruptions are well documented and appear to be culturally dependent yielding very different results in Asian and African countries than in the United States. One measure is illustrated by comparing the impact of change on Japan and the United States, or by comparing developing countries that have achieved economic advances similar to France and Britain with those countries. In particular, Japan--which maintained its underlying cultural norms--has shown much less social disruption than the United States (divorce rates, crime etc.). This suggests that developing countries need to exercise caution in making cultural changes and in developing social capital in their attempt to increase the standard of living of their people.

Similarly, if one looks at changes in ecological systems produced in our past through changing our environment--as during the glacial periods--it also clear that some systems are more resilient (e.g. survive change better) than others. In many cases very dominant and efficient ecological systems are less resilient to environmental change in the long run. In some cases, resilience depends upon species that played only an insignificant role prior to the change in the environment. Thus, while many species play a useful role by currently providing services to humans, or more generally stabilizing our planetís major systems (e.g. treesí absorption of carbon in the atmosphere), others can play an important role if the environment were to change.

In very general terms, there seems to be a trade-off between effectiveness in the present and resilience to change in the future, which supports the need for ecological and cultural diversity, and thus conservancy. In one classic example a grassland in its natural state supports both a drought resistant species of grass and a more lush grass species less resilient to drought. Ranchers interested in efficiency, converted the site to supporting only the more lush grass species, which proved more profitable over the short term. The inevitable onset of drought devastated the more lush grasses, and the eradication of the drought resilient species left the site barren. Safeguarding resilience as a reason for conservation is distinct from the reasons to support ecological and cultural diversity based on ethical and quality of life considerations or even important contributions to the current functioning of our planetary systems and economy (e.g. sustainable development).

This conceptual analysis suggests a need to decide what kind of societal system is most appropriate in a specific case. If a specific cultural or ecological component can contribute to current efficiency (sustainable development), then a properly designed economic and social system should support such activities. Contemporary research is exploring the implicit and explicit costs and benefits of functioning ecosystems and what changes are needed to internalize them into the economic and social system. However, if the dominant role of specific cultural practices or ecological components is viewed either as insurance against future changes or as a contribution to our quality of life, then more public or citizen-driven resources must be called upon to maintain them.

Of course, the history of our planet teaches us that some species vanish naturally because they cannot adapt to changes, and in so doing creates niches in many cases for new species that may be better adapted to the new environment--the disappearance of the dinosaurs is thought to have made our emergence possible. This has clearly also been the case for many past cultural practices.

Our long term goal should be to obtain the knowledge needed to make the right choices as to where to focus our conservancy efforts and resources, to ensure we preserve those useful today, important for the future, and/or important to our quality of life. Because of differing opinions on how to weigh each of these factors, and the current strong interconnections and impacts between ecological and human systems, this analysis is complex and there are many different views of how best to proceed. In simple terms, these appear to vary from a bottom line "survival of the fittest" view to the view that any loss of ecological or cultural diversity is either immoral or a tragedy. Finding the middle ground, in particular the balance between current effectiveness and long term resilience in our ecological and cultural systems, is the challenge we all face as we enter the 21st century.

I would like to end this conceptual summary with a personal perspective. I believe we have or will have all the knowledge and technological capabilities to address the material needs to achieve sustainability. The real challenge is for the people to have a value system and framework that will enable them to balance effectiveness in the present with the needs for long-term resilience. The tools available exceed the insights we have so far gained on how to proceed. The role of cultural roots generalized to even include our evolutionary roots and connection to other species will be very important for us to achieve the right balance. Thus ecological and cultural conservancy, in my opinion, has a very important role in our long-term resilience; it will help guide us to make wise choices.