The inventor of sustainability, says the legend, was Hans Carl von Carlowitz, a mining administrator, who called for a sustainable use of forests. In order to continuously bring in a harvest, foresters had to think far ahead. Not 5, not 10, not 15 years – they had to think ahead in a scale of several generations. It was in the 18th century, when Carlowitz formed the base of sustainability – thinking in generations of trees, as well as generations of humans.
Inventing Sustainability in 1713
So when foresters pride themselves with being the pioneers of sustainability, they have good reason to do so. Forestry was the first business sector to truly keep in mind the interests of future generations. However, since it was assumed that the interest of future generations consisted in harvesting a continuous amount of wood, not in accessing their forest in a well preserved ecological state, we talk about weak sustainability. Weak sustainability has the goal to not impede future generations of fulfilling their needs, including manufactured capital – whereas strong sustainability, on the other hand, has the goal to preserve the natural stock of resources as such.
How Can Landowners Be Encouraged to Preserve Forest Ecosystems?
This is where the interesting part of the article begins. How can you preserve the natural stock of resources? First of all, it might be a good idea to put our environment into a good or very good ecological state. The quest for an excellent ecological state, however, is not compatible with the quest for maximum profit. So what can governments do in order to encourage land owners and foresters to manage their forest in an ecologically sustainable way?
Ecological Measures for Forests
This week, a conference took place in Passau, Bavaria, called “Waldumweltmaßnahmen“. That is German and translates as “ecological measures for forests”. The conference, organized by Austrian Netzwerk Land (“network countryside”) and German Netzwerk Ländlicher Raum (“network for rural environment“) connected all kinds of official representatives of regional and federal environmental agencies, the EU commission, with speakers from environmental NGOs and Universities, as well as delegates from the practical forestry and regional development consultants.
One instrument with increasing importance is nature conservation by contracts, also known as environmental contracting. The land owner, in this case the forester, receives a certain amount of money, as compensation for profit loss related to environmental measures in his or her forest. These measures can either be a certain action, e.g. cutting of neophytes, or a certain non action, e.g. leaving of deadwood in the forest. One type of environmental contracting focuses traditional land use, e.g. collection of logs by horse, instead of big machines.
This contracting is far more effective than top-down measures, since foresters, similar to small farmers who cooperate very well, since the first contracting programs were introduced in the early 1990s, identify with the measures they take, and feel not only financially rewarded, but also taken seriously for the efforts they make to preserve the traditional cultural landscape. While the annual subsidies for environmental contracting in agriculture sum up to 720 million € in Germany, the same subsidies for forestry do not even exceed 4 million (see p. 141 in this PDF, 2005). So there is a lot of potential for future nature conservation by contracting activities in forestry!
The More Deadwood, the Closer to Nature
To give you a concrete example, how this kind of contracting looks like, let’s dive into the research of an environmental contracting expert in forestry. Harald Schaich from the University of Freiburg set up a scale of how close to nature a forest is (PDF), according to the amount of deadwood it contains. In some of Europe’s last primeval forests, in north-east Poland and in Slovakia, 140 solid m² of deadwood are naturally found in oak forests, and 113 solid m² in beech forests. If there is more than 50% of this “natural” deadwood amount in your forest, its state would be optimal. 40-49% correspond to a very good state, 30-39% good, 20-29% satisfactory and the last passing grade can be achieved by 10-19% of the natural deadwood.
Giving Biodiversity a Voice in the Markets
Economic instruments for nature conservation not only make sense, because top-down measures are outdated, but also because biodiversity lacks a clear voice in the markets. One incentive to give biodiversity an economic role is the memorandum for “Economics for Nature Conservation”, signed by numerous academia representatives from the fields of environmental economics, sustainability and ecology research, and nature conservation. Even though critics will call it weak sustainability, too, I consider it definitely an approach worth thinking about:
The powers of the globalized market need strong counter weights. Biodiversity cannot be maintained simply through law and order. We must use more economic instruments to ensure that conserving nature becomes an integral part of economic aims. Using more economic instruments means:
► There must be clear economic incentives for conserving nature;
► Managing conservation must be more results-oriented, and when implementing measures, we must depend more on local stakeholders’ experience and knowledge. This would help to improve the measures’ effectiveness and efficiency;
► Obligations, competencies and rules must be defined so as to create interest in and markets for conserving biodiversity. This would stimulate economic forces from both private and public actors which could be directed towards protecting nature.
► We must become more clearly aware of our global responsibility. The benefits and costs of conserving nature and the economic capacity to be able to do it are unevenly distributed. This means that economically strong states must take on a greater responsibility for what happens beyond their borders.
► The economic knowledge required for efficient and effective protection of biodiversity should be improved and used to a greater extent in policy advising.
- Memorandum “Economics for Nature Conservation” – Harmonising Economic Activities with Protecting and Conserving Biodiversity, English and German, PDF