December 11, 2012

Sustainability, Resilience and the New Normal

Last term at Oregon State University, I took a course on Sustainable Forest Management. Throughout the term the, the question was repeatedly raised: “What is sustainable forest management?” The response was often that the term is vague and subjective and has something to do with trying to meet nebulous ecological, economic and societal goals. It’s elusive because the needs of landowners, communities and agencies are so much in conflict that a common goal for forest conditions becomes difficult or prohibitively expensive to meet.

Another issue with sustainability is the lack of a reasonable baseline or reference condition. Should an ecosystem be restored or maintained at a pre-European, pre-human or some other reference condition? Is that even possible or desirable? What about climate change or extreme events?

The consideration of climate change and extreme events leads to a new paradigm of “resilience,” wherein a system’s ability to adapt or “bounce back” from disturbance is used as a basis for resource management strategies. An ecosystem’s resilience can be compromised, however, if there is a threshold or “tipping point” beyond which the system permanently changes in some way. Drought, changes in temperature and weather conditions can lead to tipping points in forest ecosystems beyond which they can’t recover and may be replaced by new systems.

The increasing frequency of “extreme events” and “tipping points” has scientists looking toward a new paradigm: “The New Normal.” In this view, the irreversibility of climate change is accepted, and “extreme events” are no longer viewed as anomalies but the norm. Systems are then looked at not just in terms of adaptive management but “vulnerability.” Where are we likely to be hit the hardest, and where are we likely to have some refuges of consistency? Modelers take educated guesses at answering these questions, and the uncertainty is high, but maybe uncertainty is becoming the new normal.

About the author:
Wendy Peterman, Ph.D.
Soil Scientist, GIS Analyst
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