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Community and Social Sustainability, and Forestry. DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR THE TOPIC: COMMUNITY/SOCIAL SUSTAINABILTY AND FORESTRY. What does sustainability mean? What does social sustainability mean?

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  • What does sustainability mean?
  • What does social sustainability mean?
  • What are some good indicators of social sustainability at the community level? (E.g., how could sustainability be measured.)
  • Is community sustainability strongly connected to the sustainability of surrounding forests?
  • Is community sustainability strongly associated with the sustainability of the timber industry?
  • Who should be responsible for social sustainability? Why?
  • What role should forest companies play regarding social/community sustainability?
  • Should we try to sustain small rural communities? Why?

• In the context of “forest sociology”, early interest in community sustainability focussed on community stability.

• Beckley et al. notes that:

In the United States, the Sustained-Yield Management Act of 1944 codified this principle and articulated the reasoning behind it – to sustain human forest-dependent communities. The Act stated that timber harvests from federal land should be regulated and managed so as to provide employment stability in the timber-dependent communities. (p. 626)


• Beckley et al. note that in Canada, because of its smaller population and larger resource base, concern about sustainability developed somewhat later.


• Beckley et al note the connection between measurement and management, and note that in order to manage a phenomena one must first be able to measure it.


• Beckley et al. note that early thinking about community sustainability made the assumption that sustainability was strongly related to timber supply.

It was also assumed that community sustainability was largely a function of employment.

Therefore employment became a central measure or indicator of community sustainability.

Employment was thought to be a function of timber supply.


Thus policy was focussed upon maintaining an even flow of timber from public lands in order to support stable employment, which in turn, it was assumed, would lead to community sustainability.

• However, this model failed because it did not take into consideration the widespread substitution of capital (or machine power) for labour (or human power) as the timber industry developed.

• Through the process of substitution the number of jobs in the timber sector decreased even as wood flow from public lands increased.

[Note: this is consistent with Schnaiberg’s “Treadmill of Production Model” in Political Economy.]


• Beckley et al. argue that regardless of the validity of the timber supply-employment-community sustainability relationships, the stability or sustainability of human communities is considered to be socially desirable.

• There are many costs to individuals and to society associated with continual construction and decommissioning of the physical infrastructure of human forest communities.


• There are also individual and society costs associated with highly fluctuating local populations in specific communities.

As Beckley et al note:

“Population instability may lead to unstable tax bases, over-capacity or under-capacity in infrastructure, as well as social pathologies such as higher rates of crime, divorce, suicide, and lower social cohesion.” (627)

[This insight was also made by classical thinkers in sociology like Emile Durkheim who wrote a book entitled Suicide. Ritzer describes Durkheim as the exemplar of the Social Facts Paradigm.]


• Therefore community sustainability is a desired goal where communities rely on forest land for their economic base, especially where the forest land is public land.

Where forest lands are public there is at least a greater potential to manage the resource with the goal of social sustainability in mind.


• One of the challenges (especially from a methodological perspective) is to identify meaningful and useful indicators for the purpose of tracking community sustainability.


• In the mid 1990s the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, along with the help of the Canadian Forest Service, compiled a list of Criteria and Indicators of Sustainable forest communities.

  • Element 6.3 involved Sustainability of Forest Communities:
  • 6.3.1 Number of communities with a significant forestry component in the
      • economic base.
  • 6.3.2 Diversity of the local industrial base.
  • 6.3.6 Diversity of forest use at the local level.

• One weakness in the reporting of these indicators was the fact that the desired direction of trend for these indicators was never defined.

As Beckley et al. put it:

“A weakness in the reporting of these indicators was the fact that the desired direction of trends for these indicators was never defined.

So, forest managers and policy makers were never given a directive to try to reduce the number of communities in the heavily dependent category (over 50% of economic base in the forest sector), or to increase the number in the moderate category (between 10% and 50% of the economic base in the forest sector).”


Other criticisms included:

• The process for selection of these indicators was somewhat ad hoc.

• Few of the individuals involved in developing the list were social scientists.

• There were several levels of oversights, and the final list itself was a pared down version of the list of the science panel’s suggestions.


• A further development in the Canadian context were social indicators developed for the model forest program.

  • As Beckley et al. note:
  • Social indicators in the context of the Foothills Model Forest can be defined as an integrated set of measures related to the social and economic well-being of human populations living with a forest ecosystem.
  • Social indicators are statistics that can be collected over time and used for policy and management (Force and Machlis, 1997).
  • The general goal is to establish baseline data that can be incorporated into decision support systems and to use the data as a basis for future comparison across time and between regions (Parkins and Beckley 2001).

Some secondary or already available data Parkins and Beckley used included data on:

• income

• poverty

• employment

• human capital

• real estate values

• population mobility.


However, they note that “subjective perspectives” on well-being are also important.

To this end Parkins and Beckley interview 145 local people in the Foothills Model Forest about these themes.

The collection of “subjective qualitative data” on well being can help to “triangulate” research that relies predominately on quantitative indicators.

Though, as Beckley et al. note, sometimes there can be a disjuncture between what the standard quantitative indicators tell people and people’s perception.


One example of this is provided by a study of the Western Newfoundland Model forest where people had high subjective assessments of well-being even though the community faired rather poorly in terms of standard quantitative measures.



The Canadian Model Forest Program has developed a website known as SIMFOR (for socio-economic indicators for the model forest).

The current URL for this site is:

The website provides community profiles for the communities that comprise the model forests.


For example some indicators associated with CCFM Criterion 6 (accepting society’s responsibility for sustainable development include:

• average income levels

• poverty rates

• educational attainment

• migration rates

• employment conditions

• real estate values


A common problem of indicators, is that there are often no criteria provided for assessing their relationship to sustainability concerns.


Hart (2000) has developed a framework for evaluating indicators.

According to Hart (2000) good sustainabilty indicators are:

• Understandable and useable by the community

• Take a long-term view of progress

• Address economic, social or biological diversity

• Address intra- and inter- generational equity

• Show linkages between social, economic, and environmental factors

• Monitor use of natural resources

• Address the state of ecological services

• Address beauty and life-affirming qualities of nature

• Address social, built, and financial capital

• Do not come at the expense of other communities


Local level indicators versus general indicators.

As Beckley et al. note, an advantage of a “bottom-up” approach to local level indicators is the increased relevance of indicators to community goals and aspirations.

A disadvantage of this approach is the loss of opportunity to compare indicator benchmarks or trends from one community to the next.


Process indicators versus profile indicators.

Beckley et al note that there is a distinction between “profile indicators” (such as income levels, employment conditions, etc.) and “process indicators”.

They state:

“Profile indicators are useful for illustrating how things are, but not all that useful for discovering how things came to be that way or what needs to happen for things to be different.” (p. 631)


Profile indicators: “involve variables that describe a situation at a given point in time.” (p. 631)

Process indicators: “examine social processes, relationships between groups or individuals, people’s perceptions of their own well-being, and individual and collective behaviour based on these perceptions.” (p. 631)


Some measures of process indicators include variables such as leadership, volunteerism, entrepreneurship, and sense of place.

According to Beckley et al., “the combination of process and profile indicators is increasingly used to create indexes or aggregate pictures of rural communities that focus on community capacity, community well-being, and community resilience.”

Beckley et al note that process indicators “for the most part are things that have not been measured in an Canadian forestry-related indicator programs or processes, but they are things that sociologists and other social scientists look at as important contributors to community sustainability.”



Leadership: has two important dimensions – quality and quantity.

Volunteerism: people who are willing to work toward common goals without direct compensation improve the quality of life for their communities.

Social Networks: researchers who study social networks and social capital focus on the number and strength of ties, the nature of mutual obligation inherent in those ties, as well as their geographical distribution.

Entrepreneurship: Do local people have the skills, experience, and the self-motivation to create new jobs and opportunities for themselves if their old jobs disappear.


Sense of Place: sense of place refers to the meanings and attachments held for a spatial setting by an individual or group.

    • Stedman has identified three components of sense of place.
    • • satisfaction (one’s attitude towards the condition of the setting);
    • • attachment (the importance of the setting to one’s sense of self)
    • • meanings (descriptive beliefs about the essence of a setting that form the
    • basis of evaluations such as satisfaction or attachment).


  • Community sustainability has been described by social scientists in a variety of ways, including through the constructs of:
    • • Community Capacity
    • • Community Resilience
    • • Community Cohesion

Community Capacity: is the collective ability to residents to respond to stresses (both externally applied and internal to the community); to create and take advantage of opportunities; and to meet the needs of a diverse set of residents.

    • Internally, Community Capacity is affected by:
    • • social capital
    • • human capital
    • • infrastructure that supports the economics and social activities of the community
    • • natural resources or natural capital (the goods and services delivered by natural worlds that affect community well-being).
    • Externally, community capacity is affected by:
    • • macro institutional decision making
    • • environmental change

Community Resilience

  • The construct of community resilience (somewhat similar to community capacity) emphasizes people’s ability to take charge of local institutions to work towards a positive outcome for the community.
  • According to Nadeau et al.:
    • Community resilience has been defined as the capacity of humans to change their behaviour, redefine economic relationships, and alter social institutions so that economic viability is maintained and social stresses are minimized.
  • Nadeau et al suggest that community resilience can be distinguished partly from community capacity in that the concept of resilience expresses a clear concern and about the development of this ability over a long period of time.
  • Nadeau et al, also suggest that the term resilience should be distinguished in the community context, from the way the term is used in ecology. It does not necessarily mean that human communities return to pre-existing conditions after having responded to change.

Community Cohesion.

Communities can be defined by the degree of social interaction that occurs within them.

The degree to which the interaction community functions smoothly is an indicator of community sustainability.

Cohesive communities are characterized by high rates of social capital, or the degree to which community residents are tied together by networks of reciprocity and exchange.

• Some social network measures that could possibly be used as indicators of social cohesion include network degree, and network density. There also some measures that are technically referred to as “cohesion” measures that deal with geodesics between individual nodes in a social network.


Some Final Notes on Measuring Sustainability:

Beckley et al. note that in trying to gauge social sustainability, processes such as the CCFM often focus on forest-related indicators that have a social dimension or the word “community” associated with them.

According to Beckley et al. this confuses ends and means.


“What really matters, and therefore what we need to measure is the degree to which our communities are healthy and sustainable, and whether they provide a high quality of life, and a nurturing environment in which to live and grow.

We need to start with communities and think about how forests contribute, as a means to sustaining them.

Forests contribute in many ways, but too often, we have difficulty seeing beyond the jobs and income they provide through the extraction and transformation of primary and secondary wood products.

It is entirely possible that a community could decouple from its traditional timber-dependent base, but retain its forest as a critical factor in its sustainability.”


Beckley et al stress that “sustainability is about adaptive capacity, in both human and biological systems.”

“For communities, sustainability hinges on the ability to deal with change, to reconfigure available resources, and to recombine financial capital, local skills, and natural resources in ways that crease sustainable livelihoods.”


Beckley et al also stress:

“We must measure the sustainability of communities by using community well-being indicators, not forest-related indicators.”

Indeed they note that community well-being may increase as forest dependence decreases.



Social Sustainability

Social sustainability is a seriously flawed term because “sustainable” denotes continuing existence.

If we apply this term to a community then as long as it doesn’t become a “ghost town” it has been sustained.


In principle forest management could wipe out 95% of existing species, and replace diverse forests with mono-cultures and adjacent communities could still be “sustained” as long as they didn’t disappear.

However, their “well-being” would likely be considerably diminished.

A better term is “social/community well-being”.


Problems associated with the term “social sustainability” are similar to some of those associated with the sociological theoretical perspective of “structural functionalism”.

Amongst other criticisms, the question arises, sustainable (functional) for whom?

In many instances timber harvesting might contribute to a “sustainable” community for non-Aboriginals, but be largely “unsustainable” for Aboriginals.

Issues of distributive justice need to be considered.


Another challenge with defining and measuring “social sustainability” and trying to connect it to forest management is that “social sustainability” should be based partly on cognitive evaluations (e.g., perceptions that values have been taken into consideration, satisfaction, etc.).

The same “objective” forest management scenario could hypothetically be evaluated quite differently by different populations

(The examples of the communities of Ucluelet versus Tofino on the Westcoast spring to mind).


If we use the term “social well-being” instead, we can think of well-being as multi-dimensional (or at least multivariate). Some of the dimensions might include: cognitive, physical, political, economic, structural, and cultural well-being.

If we are trying to connect “social well-being” to the nebulous term “sustainability” then we need to think about trends over time. “Well-being” is a relative condition (relative to time, and place).

We also need to think of “well-being” as existing at multiple levels: the individual, the community, the region, society, etc.

(Aggregate individual measures may differ from measures at higher levels.

E.g. meso-level networks can be used as indicators of cohesion, and their properties would be different from the aggregates measures of ego-centric networks.)


How does it relate to forestry?

In thinking about the relationship of “social sustainability” to forestry I much prefer to think about “impacts” (as in social impacts) and causal models.

Thinking of terms of “sustainability” risks making the enterprise much too value-laden.

In principle, aspects of communities/societies (e.g. incorporation of values, public participation) can contribute to forest management (whether or not this is “sustainable”), and forest management can have “impacts” on community/society.


It is not the case that forest management (at least that focussed on timber extraction) by definition contributes (positively) to community sustainability/well-being.

It may very well be the case that forest management has a net negative impact on community sustainability/well-being (this has generally been the case in many Aboriginal communities).

By contrast, some communities that are surrounded by forests might have relatively high levels of well-being/sustainability without any involvement with the timber industry.


It is also possible that by trying to address the concerns of communities (e.g. well-being, social sustainability concerns) forest management may become ecologically unsustainable (this seems to have largely been the case in the cod fishery on the East Coast).


I would argue that we need to think about sets of causal relationships to/from forest management to community/society well- being indicators, and try to focus on effects (whether these be positive or negative) than assume “sustainable forest management” is good for communities.

Also, in trying to take “social sustainability”/well-being seriously we need to set out to try to measure sustainability/well-being in its own right (not just in regards to its connection to forest management issues), and recognize that social sustainability/well-being is a partially independent thing from “sustainable forest management”.



Beckley, T.M. 1995. “Community Stability and the Relationship Between Economic and Social Well-Being in Forest-Dependent Communities.” Society and Natural Resources 8(3):261-266.

Beckley, Thomas M. 2003. “The Relative Importance of Sociocultural and Ecological Factors in Attachment to Place.” Pp. 105-126, in Linda E. Kruger (editor), Understanding Community-Forest Relations. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Beckley, Thomas, John Parkins, and Richard Stedman. 2002. “Indicators of Forest-Dependent Community Sustainability: The Evolution of Research.” The Forestry Chronicle 78(5):626-636.

Canadian Council of Forest Ministers (CCFM). 1997. Criteria and indicators of sustainable forest management. Technical Report. Ottawa, ON: Natural Resources Canada.


Finsterbusch, Kurt and William R. Freudenburg. 2002. “Social Impact Assessment and Technology Assessment.” Pp. 407-447 in, Riley E. Dunlap and William Michelson (Editors), Handbook of Environmental Sociology. Westport, CT : Greenwood Press.

Freudenberg, William.1986. “Social Impact Assessment.” Annual Review of Sociology 12:451-478.

Hart, Maureen. 1999. Guide to sustainable community indicators. Second Edition. North Andover, Mass. Hart Environmental Data.

Luckert, Martin K. 1999. “Are Community Forests the Key to Sustainable Forest Management/ Some Economic Considerations.” The Forestry Chronicle 75(5):789-792.

Marchak, Patricia. 1983. Green Gold: The Forest Industry in British Columbia.” Vancouver, B.C.: University of British Columbia Press.


Marchak, M. Patricia, Scott L. Aycock, and Deborah M. Herbert. 1999. Falldown: Forest Policy in British Columbia. Vancouver: David Suzuki Foundation and Ecotrust Canada.

Nadeau, Solange, Bruce Shindler, and Christina Kakoyannis. 1999. “Forest Communities: New Frameworks for Assessing Sustainability.” The Forestry Chronicle 75(5):747-754

Niezen, Ronald. 1993. "Power and dignity: The social consequences of hydro-electric development for the James Bay Cree." Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 30:510-529.

Prescott-Allen, Robert. 2001. “The wellbeing of nations : a country-by-country index of quality of life and the environment.” Washington, DC: Island Press