College of Forest Resources

Defining the Scientific Basis of Sustainability

Prepared by: Dean B. Bruce Bare, May 14, 2002


The College of Forest Resources is committed to world-class, international leadership in providing knowledge and solutions for environmental and natural resources issues. This vision is supported by two themes: 1) sustainable forest enterprises and 2) land and ecosystem management in an urbanizing world. Sustainability is the key integrating cornerstone that guides our educational, research, outreach and development programs.

Sustainability may be defined as a set of activities or processes that produce desired products and services over long periods of time. It requires an interdisciplinary systems approach that integrates the social, ecological and economic sciences to understand, actively and passively manage, and use the products and services of managed forests, natural wild lands and urban and suburban ecosystems so that they remain productive over the long term. Designing, understanding and managing these systems on a sustainable basis over an entire life cycle is a major challenge facing society. We believe that sustainability captures the essence of contemporary thinking and is the proper focus for the College's programs.

The Role of the College

The challenges to sustainably manage our renewable natural resources and environmental systems are formidable. The College of Forest Resources aspires to be a leader in providing knowledge and solutions for environmental and natural resources issues by integrating concepts of sustainability into all of its programs. To achieve this vision, the College will continue to enhance its traditional mono-disciplinary research and educational programs that rely on the ecological, economic and social sciences. This will involve all of the basic and applied scientific fields related to urban and forest ecosystems as well as sustainable forest enterprises. The College's historic strengths in the three scientific areas supporting sustainability will be enhanced as we develop better ways to integrate them towards a sustainable society.

Educating and training a new generation of professional natural resource managers and environmental scientists is an intellectual challenge the College is pursuing at this time. We must resolve how to best educate our students so that they can effectively understand, examine and manage natural resource issues within a framework of sustainability. New pedagogies will be needed for this to successfully occur. Integration of instruction across the ecological, economic and social sciences is key to developing this new pedagogy.

As an example of the challenges we face in integrating the concept of sustainability into our programs, consider the case of sustainable forestry. This example serves to illustrate one of three College focal points which emphasize urban and forest ecosystems as well as sustainable forest enterprises.

    An Illustration

    Sustainable forestry concepts must develop a knowledge base by mobilizing studies that discover which ecosystem processes are manageable and which are not. Sustainable forestry ultimately implies that silviculturists, economists, sociologists, engineers and others with applied forest disciplines will work with ecologists to satisfy desired goals such as: biodiversity and forest structures needed to protect endangered species; timber extraction compatible with habitat objectives and recreational opportunities associated with diverse user groups; riparian enhancement policies; wildlife conservation, etc. These ecological and economic metrics must then be considered in the context of socially acceptable norms in order to produce sustainable forestry practices.

    Focusing on the utilitarian side of sustainable forestry -- industrial strategies emphasize breakthroughs in genetic engineering; tree improvement; nursery production and quality control; management based on growth and yield studies and economic predictions; intermediate operations and harvesting technologies. Concomitantly, major achievements in wood product development, marketing, pulp and paper technology and milling practices are programmed to keep abreast with new approaches in wood and fiber production, and visa versa. Management policies already are aimed at ensuring maximum fiber production and dollar value from their lands while protecting the viability of these productive ecosystems. Again, to be sustainable, social metrics must be considered and brought into balance to ensure that a truly sustainable solution is found.

    The College desires to support a teaching and research program that addresses the developing mandates of sustainable forestry on public and private lands. In the near future, innovative research programs are needed to study how key ecosystem links behave and how these relationships react to perturbation and manipulation. Similarly, studies on optimizing investment returns from industrial lands, while maintaining ecosystem integrity in a socially acceptable manner, could engage the research efforts of the entire College. These kinds of coordinated research and, ultimately teaching activities, would define the College's commitment to sustainable forestry. Similar illustrations exist for the other two focal points within the College -- the sustainability of urban ecosystems and the sustainability of forest enterprises.

College Plan

The College will expand its work on finding new ways to measure system performance and acceptability. This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face in operationalizing sustainability. At the outset we recognize that issues of scale are of immense importance. The system can be a region, state, nation or the entire earth. Second, the variables needed to measure sustainability involve metrics that are in different states of development. There are many economic metrics in use such as discounted cash flow or profitability. However, these metrics are not sufficient to model sustainability as they do not account for long term costs associated with the use of external resources such as the cost of using the atmosphere as a repository for excess carbon. Ecological metrics are less well developed than economic ones and many tend to be regulatory based. Additional quantitative indicators of ecological impact or eco-efficiency are needed to measure sustainability. Social metrics are the least developed. They are usually community case studies whose results are hard to use in assessing sustainability. The development of social performance metrics is a field in need of extensive research.

Measurement of the economic, ecological and social states of systems is a difficult and complex undertaking that will require creative researchers that reach across many fields. Fortunately, methods to measure and represent the state of complex systems such as weather patterns and DNA sequences have already been developed. We can build on these methods to develop ways to measure and present our sustainability metrics.

Once we have developed methods to measure economic, ecological and social states of systems we can look for correlation between these metrics. Further, it may be possible to combine some of the metrics to provide an overall indicator of sustainability. Models relating inputs and disturbances (natural or manmade) to our sustainability metrics may be developed. We may use these models to develop systems that are resilient to disturbances; that maintain an economic, social and ecological balance even in the face of perturbations such as wars or natural disasters.

Finally, once we can measure the metrics and understand their interactions we can investigate and quantify when a system is in a sustainable condition. It is intuitive that if any of these three indicators are too far out of balance, the system is unsustainable. What is difficult is the balancing of the three metrics. With good metrics and an understanding of the interrelationships between them, we can accurately present the state of system and define where it needs to go to be sustainable.

The need for measures of economic, ecological and social metrics to assess sustainability is emerging in the national consciousness. A recent National Academy report on industrial environmental performance, challenges industry to develop and apply metrics of sustainability in the running of their businesses. Industrial ecology, sometimes referred to as the "science of sustainability" is an emerging field that has many scholars and faculty identified with it and has its own journal. The University of Washington, College of Forest Resources is in a unique position to contribute to this emerging field. We already are a collection of scientists and engineers working together to measure and interrelate the economic, ecological and social state of large systems. In our case, these systems are urban and forest ecosystems and the communities that depend and reside within these lands. It is anticipated that the methods we develop to measure and study sustainability on these ecosystems will be applicable to other more extensive systems. The College is in an excellent position to provide the intellectual leadership for this field that will have profound consequences on how societies decide to use their natural and human resources.

The College will embark on an increased effort to support inter- and trans-disciplinary teaching and research with other campus units. We will collaborate with our many stakeholders throughout the State and region to identify, solve and implement solutions to natural resource and environmental problems. Programs to enhance our capabilities to synthesize knowledge by modeling the ecological, economic and social behavior of our renewable natural resource and environmental systems will be re-energized. This integrated systems approach will draw on the information and the decision sciences to better understand the trade-offs inherent in achieving sustainable use of our renewable natural resources.

We expect that as we move forward with our teaching and research programs, several new and presently unforeseen interactions will likely occur among our traditional disciplinary-based sciences. Just such an intersection led to the birth of the new field of ecological-economics in the late 1980's. The College believes that new undergraduate and graduate curricula can be crafted in support of this vision. If successful, these new programs will position the College as the leader that other forest and natural resource schools around the world will emulate.

The UW Seattle campus will greatly benefit by having a strong College of Forest Resources. As a leader in natural resource sustainability, the College will continue its outstanding tradition of providing national leadership in the dynamic fields of natural resource management and environmental science. This will help ensure that our faculty continue to successfully compete for national research grants and that colleagues from other campuses will seek to join our faculty in collaborative efforts. Our students will benefit from being part of a leading College and will receive a first-rate education that will prepare them for a successful career in renewable resources science and environmental management. Students from other campus units will benefit by taking our courses, interacting with our faculty and becoming more knowledgeable about the natural world within which they live. Our goal is to be the recognized leader in education, research and outreach activities related to the sustainable management of all urban and forest lands and associated natural resources in Washington State. We intend to achieve this goal by focusing our energy on providing a quality educational experience for our students, a quality work environment for our staff and a quality intellectual environment for our faculty.

Foundations of Sustainability

Societal expectations for both commodities and services from managed forests, natural wild lands, and urban and suburban landscapes have dramatically shifted in recent years. Rapidly increasing human populations, the growth of economic prosperity, mobility, and technology, as well as a continuing evolution from an industrial to an information-based society, have accelerated the shift. Humans continue to need and consume products and amenities of forests and other wild land ecosystems. However, society's perception and understanding of these consumption patterns continually evolve. People now demand that both producers and consumers eliminate negative effects generated by their respective activities. This has led to an increasing demand for the use of environmentally friendly technologies, sustainable production processes and the protection and restoration of ecological functions and services so that future generations may enjoy the same products and services that now exist.

The College's vision and priorities are consistent with the shift towards a sustainable society. We must anticipate the future so that we can provide teaching and learning opportunities that enable resource professionals, scientists, decision-makers and informed citizens to take leadership roles and use the best, most appropriate science, to solve future problems. We must partner with society to define and initiate new academic, research and outreach programs, modify existing programs and discontinue programs that do not effectively respond to the new challenges facing us.

Forestry, fisheries, wildlife and other renewable natural resource sciences have a long tradition based on the concept of sustainable resource use and conservation. Yet, the traditional concepts are too narrow and simplistic to serve as valid models for the future sustainable management of our renewable natural resources. First, in forestry, fisheries and wildlife, the concept of sustainable resource use has been synonymous with maximum biological sustained yield. However, even this limited interpretation of the concept breaks down when we consider multiple species, outputs, or age (size) classes; large unpredictable variations due to natural and man-caused disturbances; shifts in technology and the consideration of various geographical scales. Second, a century of economic research has failed to convince most renewable resource managers to consider sustained economic efficiency on par with maximum physical productivity. Thus, even today, the concept of sustainability is largely understood to be one of maximum biological yield. Third, the traditional model of maximum sustained yield possesses no inherent measures of equity - economically or socially. Ill-fated attempts to socially engineer communities through a federal policy of community stability are legion throughout the western United States and concerns of intergenerational equity are largely absent from the traditional model. Fourth, the model provides no guidance during the transition stage as renewable resource stocks are replenished or drawn down to perceived sustainable levels. Further, owing to the dismissal of economic efficiency as a guiding principle, these sustainable levels are largely determined by the inherent physical carrying capacity of the land. Again, when multiple forest outputs and services are considered this simplistic concept breaks down. Thus, it is clear that even though we have a long tradition of thinking about sustained yield, it is not sufficient to rely on this interpretation when addressing the new challenges we face.

Closely paralleling the historic use of sustained yield is the concept of multiple use. While not directly linked to the concept of sustainability, similarities exist in that resource sustainability and multiple use share the common theme that multiple forest outputs and services are the norm rather than the exception. Although historically used as a policy instrument for rationalizing uses across a landscape, the multiple use concept is largely normative and not prescriptive. And, since it is closely tied to forest outputs instead of the achievement of desired future states, its use must be modified to meet the changing demands of society. As we manage our forests to achieve and maintain certain forest functions, environmental services or other ecological processes, a new paradigm that extends our traditional reliance on multiple outputs is needed. Multiple use may continue to play an important role, but only if we extend its meaning within this broader context.

The current use of the concept of sustainability is much broader than the twin concepts of sustained yield and multiple use. Today, it requires an explicit consideration of ecological, economic and social factors. While it incorporates components related to economic efficiency, ecological carrying capacity and social justice and acceptability, it also conveys a measure of intergenerational equity as well as the distribution of rights to use environmental services contained within the global ecosystem. Exactly how forests, fisheries, wildlife and water resources (as well as other renewable natural resources) in our urban and rural areas are to managed in a sustainable manner is a tremendous challenge the College of Forest Resources is eager to meet.

Economic Sustainability

Whether it is to maintain or to improve existing lifestyles, society must ultimately make investments and associated technological improvements to foster sustainable resource use. Thus, economic sustainability is a key component of the three-legged stool of sustainability. Economists use prices (not the condition of the physical ecosystem) to allocate scare resources over time. The basic idea is to determine the maximum level of consumption by current generations such that capital (natural or man-made) accumulates to permit future generations to enjoy the same opportunities. Implied is the notion that some capital stock is maintained indefinitely in order to perpetuate future levels of consumption. Further, economic sustainability is blind to the physical state of the ecosystem and does not directly consider equity considerations. In addition, the treatment of common property resources, externalities and resources without market prices is a vexing problem for economists. Thus, by itself, economic sustainability is not sufficient to ensure sustainability.

Ecological Sustainability

Ecological sustainability implies that society must preserve its life-support systems in order to sustain life on Earth. This concept is based on the premise of an inherent carrying capacity that can not be exceeded without catastrophic or irreversible results to the biophysical world. The twin concepts of ecosystem stability and resilience to perturbation are key to this interpretation. Some ecologists argue that man's use of the Earth's biophysical resources must be limited in order to guarantee stability and resiliency. Closely aligned with ecological sustainability is the idea that society wishes to enhance the biodiversity of the species that inhabit the Earth. Lastly, some argue that the current generation must leave the Earth's biophysical systems in better condition than they inherited in order for future generations to enjoy a better life. By itself,ecological sustainability is not sufficient to ensure sustainability because it does not directly incorporate human needs, equity considerations or preferences for the various goods and services provided by an ecosystem.

Social Sustainability

The third set of factors inherent in resource and environmental sustainability are those related to social sustainability. These factors relate to the distribution of wealth and services within and between generations (i.e., intra- and intergenerational equity) as well as the distribution of rights to use environmental services contained within a given ecosystem. In addition, are legal issues pertaining to property rights and the treatment of common law resources. To be sustainable, resource or environmental practices must be ecologically and economically feasible and is only as durable as the society from which it emerges. Societal views related to the distribution of wealth across various economic classes, whether regional or global in scale, also exert a great influence on efforts to achieve sustainable resource use. Achieving social sustainability by itself is not sufficient to ensure sustainability as neither the biophysical or economic dimensions are directed considered.

It is clear that sustainability requires the integration of ecological, economic and social science metrics and all three must be considered simultaneously. By focusing on these three factors of sustainability , the College intends to provide the leadership and knowledge required to identify and solve environmental and natural resource issues in the coming years.


The following books and articles were consulted in preparing the above statement. Most of the ideas expressed above are contained in one or more of these references - implying that none of the ideas are original with the author.

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WCED. 1987. Our Common Future. The World Commission on Environment and Development. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

March 31, 2002 (Revised: April 14, 2002; May 7, 2002; May 12, 2002; May 14, 2002)

To Return to:Prof Bare's Page, Dean's Office, College of Forest Resources