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Changing Paradigms

“Through science we will render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.” — René Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part VI (1596-1650)

“When nature is eventually seen as refusing to express itself in the accepted language, the crisis explodes with the kind of violence that results for a breach of confidence. At this state, all intellectual resources are concentrated on the search for a new language.” — Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogues with Nature, 1985

Scientific management of Southwestern forests was predicated for most of the last hundred years on the belief that human beings control the planet. Our ability to manipulate fire, and especially to eradicate fire, has been celebrated as evidence of a high degree of civilization through the presumed “control of nature” (Pyne 1989). The basic paradigmatic assumption (framework) is that humans act on nature, and not vice versa. That narrative goes hand in hand with the notion that nature is nothing more than raw material for the economy, and thus devoid of value until commodified.

The dominant ideology began to weaken in the 1950s and early 1960s, with publications like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Today it is in tatters. Pre-eminent scientists, such as Simon Levin, offer compelling arguments that human dominion over the natural world, including forested ecosystems, is fragile—at best. Others, such as the Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine, make clear that forest ecosystems are more chaotic than linear, more full of surprises than predictable. And, as it turns out, some of the most valuable “forest products,” such as watershed, wildlife, and aesthetic values, are not commodifiable. The ecosystem services provided by forests are increasingly viewed as more valuable than commodity values. (Costanza 1997).

Catastrophic wildfire in frequent-fire adapted dry forests is effectively nature talking back to us—“refusing to express itself in the accepted language" (Prigogine and Stengers, pg. __). Thus ends the era of forest management predicated on the dominant paradigm. A chastened forest science has slowly emerged over the last two decades, marked by assumptions that forests are far from equilibrium, evolved complexities (dissipative structures) and by maxims to avoid surprise and optimize natural subsidy.

A new kind of managerial strategy, known as adaptive management, has come into play. And there have been changes in ethical attitudes as well. Fewer and fewer people believe that forests are nothing but economic resources over which we have dominion. More and more people believe that forests are living expressions of the community of life with intrinsic values beyond merely economic ones.

The message is unmistakable. While former notions of forest management are unworkable, the option of doing nothing (i.e., no management) is self-defeating. The new paradigm is predicated on fallible learning and leavened by the precautionary principle.



Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston, Houghton Mifflin. 1962.

Costanza, R., et al. 1997. The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387(May 15):253.

Descartes, René. Discourse on Method. Vol. XXXIV, Part 1. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; 4/21/03.

Oelschlaeger, Max. 2003. Ecological restoration as thinking like a forest. Pages 81-91 in Friederici, Peter, ed. Ecological Restoration of Southwestern Ponderosa Pine Forests: A Sourcebook for Research and Application. Washington, D.C. Island Press, 544 p.

Prigogine, Ilya and I. Stengers. 1985. Order Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue With Nature London: Fontana.

The Science and Environmental Health Network. "Icicle Creek Statement On The Precautionary Principle And Ecosystems." 4/21/03.

Stephen J. Pyne, "A War Against the World." New York Times Book Review, August 6 1989.

Last edited June 25, 2003

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