In 1999, shortly after Lance Gunderson came to
Emory to chair its new Department of Environmental Studies, he met
a certain former president of the United States—a man who
once studied nuclear physics and has since won the Nobel Peace Prize.
This certain former president had requested some background on Gunderson
in preparation for the meeting.
“So I meet him, and he shakes my hand,” Gunderson recalled,
“and he leans into me and says, ‘Nice to meet you—I
have no idea what you do.”
Jimmy Carter is not the only person who has trouble grasping Gunderson’s
work. Educated at the University of Florida and a veteran botanist
with the National Park Service in the Florida Everglades, Gunderson
now devotes his time to studying complex regional-scale systems
and writing about them in ways that defy book-length explanations,
much less newspaper articles.
Two years ago Gunderson coedited Panarchy: Understanding Transformations
in Human and Natural Systems (Island Press, 2001), which presents
theories and examples of sustainability from a multidisciplinary
perspective. It proposes a number of paradigms or “myths”
through which humans view their relationship to nature and concludes
that only one paradigm—which the editors term “Nature
Evolving”—is ultimately helpful in sustainability planning.
To understand these theories, begin by accepting that “Man
vs. Nature” is a false dichotomy; humanity is part of nature
and always has been, and any environmental worldview resting on
the assumption that humans are something happening “to”
nature is destined to collapse.
Next, recognize that natural systems simply do not function in infallibly
predictable ways; Gunderson uses the example of Lake Mendota on
the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. The lake is “probably
one of the most studied ecosystems” in the world, Gunderson
said, with researchers recording scientific data for a century—yet
Wisconsin researchers still are unable to predict exactly when an
algae bloom will occur.
“The complication is that humans now are affecting the planet
and these ecosystems at scales that have not been seen before,”
Gunderson said. “People are a planetary force now; there’s
lots and lots of literature on that. The question is how we can
maintain these systems in such ways that the things we rely on them
for—water, food, fiber, other resources—don’t
disappear. Or for conservation purposes, like the $8 billion restoration
plan for Everglades National Park.”
To achieve truly sustainable development—meaning, sustainability
planning that actually has a chance of being implemented and succeeding
in a humanly muddy world—the groups chiefly responsible for
that planning (government, industry, scientists) must take into
account the economic, ecoogical and social sectors of human and
natural interaction, Gunderson said. To ignore any of the three
is to live outside reality and doom even the most fastidious planning
Panarchy arose through a project of the Swedish Royal Academy
of Sciences that sought to bring together ecologists and economists
to examine issues of resource use and depletion on a global scale.
Gunderson said the United Nations is conducting
a Millennium Assessment that seeks to gauge the planet’s environmental
health, and several of Panarchy’s multidisciplinary
theories of “resilience” and “adaptive management”
are figuring prominently in the UN study. International corporations
also are lending attention and funding to this kind of research.
Gunderson admitted that “environmentalists”—at
least those who conform to the mainstream culture’s stereotype
of what an environmentalist is—are not likely to be big fans
“Many times they’re working in an environment where
they want answers: ‘We want to know what’s going to
happen before we give approval and blessing.’ The bottom line
on all this is that you can’t tell any of that stuff before
it’s going to happen with any kind of assurance,” Gunderson
Not that the models for sustainability in Panarchy give
a free pass to exploitative interests like oil conglomerates or
the paper manufacturing industry; it requires some degree of sacrifice
from all groups—the exploiters, the protectors, the managers—to
come up with a sustainable view.
“I think that’s right,” Gunderson said. “We
don’t really deal with that kind of political tension very
well in this book, in terms of the ‘Use It or Lose It’
crowd versus the ‘Save Everything’ crowd. I think, if
you can understand it, it’s a pretty mainstream approach.”
And if you can’t understand it, well, you’re not alone.
In fact, you have presidential company.