Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sustainability: of forests, ships, and law

[Another guest post, with lots of useful references, by Peter Sand of the Institute of International Law, University of Munich (see here for his earlier post on Karl Neumeyer). Revised from Environmental Policy and Law 37:2-3 (2007) 201-203. Notes are after the break.]

“Sustainable development” has become a household word – if a heavily loaded one – to international lawyers, economists and green politicians alike. Yet, the etymology of the term spans a number of other disciplines, and more than three centuries of environmental history.

The Report of the ‘Brundtland Commission’, published in 1987,[1] had borrowed the term from the 1980 IUCN/UNEP/WWF World Conservation Strategy, drafted under the guidance of the then Director-General of IUCN, Dr. David A. Munro (left) – distinguished Canadian forester and wildlife biologist (1923-2004).[2]

Canada’s oldest forest school is the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto. Its founder (in 1907), and first dean until 1919, was a German forester, Bernhard Eduard Fernow (1851-1923) – who from 1886 to 1898 had served as the first chief of the US Division of Forestry (which later became the Forest Service within the Department of Agriculture).[3] Fernow was the architect of the 1891 Forest Reserve Act (part of the General Public Lands Reform Act of 3 March 1891), which laid the ground for ‘creative’ conservation measures on the federal public domain – and it comes as no surprise that he had originally studied law (at the University of Königsberg).[4] His successor as US chief forester was Gifford Pinchot (PhD in forestry, University of Munich 1898; founder of the Yale School of Forestry in 1900, now School of Forestry and Environmental Studies),[5] whose mentor and role-model had been another German forester, Sir Dietrich Brandis.[6] Brandis, after obtaining his PhD in botany at the University of Bonn, had joined the British colonial service in 1856 as ‘superintendent of forests’ in Burma, and from 1864 to 1883 served as first Inspector-General of Forests in India and Pakistan.[7] He was Rudyard Kipling’s legendary “gigantic German, head of the woods and forests of all India, head ranger from Burma to Bombay”.[8] His practices and principles of ‘sustained yield’ forest management – and those of his successors, Sir William [Wilhelm] Schlich (1840-1925, founder of the Royal Indian Forestry College at Cooper’s Hill, since 1905 at Oxford)[9] and Berthold Ribbentrop (1843-1917, Inspector-General of Indian Forests from 1885 to 1900)[10] – had a lasting influence on generations of foresters in North America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.[11]

The theoretical basis for forest management, including the concept of ‘sustained yield’, had been developed in the 18th and 19th century at specialized forestry academies in Germany, such as Tharandt in Saxony and Münden in Hanover (where both Fernow and Ribbentrop graduated).[12] The pioneering scientific treatise on the subject was the Sylvicultura Oeconomica (at top) published in 1713 by Johann [Hannss] Carl von Carlowitz (right, 1645-1714),[13] lawyer and manager of the Duke of Saxony’s silver mines (hence vitally dependent on long-term timber supplies!). It comprised the first formulations of such ‘post-modern’ terms as precaution [Praecaution, Vorsorge] for intergenerational benefits [den Nachkommen zum Besten], by sustained use [nachhaltende Nutzung]; and it was followed by other works now postulating a general policy of sustainable forest economics [nachhaltige Wirtschaft mit unseren Wäldern].[14]

Carlowitz in turn had drawn the inspiration for his innovative policies from multiple sources. After completing his legal studies at the University of Jena, he had taken the customary ‘grand tour’ of Europe in 1665-69, travelling to Italy, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, England and France. A focus of his attention at the time were the administrative reforms undertaken by Louis XIV’s powerful minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683, right); in particular, the great reorganization of French forestry governance which culminated in the ‘Ordonnance des eaux et forêts’ of 1669.[15] 

It must be kept in mind, though, that Colbert’s own concern for the conservation and sustainable use of France’s forest resources had very precise strategic motivations; i.e., the long-term security of timber supplies for the ship-building industry, which was the basis of French naval power.[16] Sure enough, there had been ominous historical warning signals before: The decline of Venetian maritime dominance in the Mediterranean during the 16th and early 17th century was widely attributed to timber shortages in naval construction, caused by deforestation.[17] It was no coincidence, therefore, that another contemporary pilot text which Carlowitz acknowledges among his source references – Sylva: A Discourse of Forest-Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions (1664), by John Evelyn (English lawyer and writer, 1620-1706, educated at Oxford’s Balliol College and the Middle Temple, right)[18] – had been compiled and published at the request of the Commissioners of the British Navy.  After the Napoleonic Wars, Isaac D’Israeli noted that the fleets of Admiral Nelson had been constructed “with the oaks which the genius of Evelyn planted.”[19] For the same strategic reasons, Russian Tsar Peter I in 1703 had designated the oak forests of Kharkov and Simbirsk as permanent state reserves for ship timber;[20] and in 1817, the US Secretary of the Navy obtained statutory authorization to reserve public oak forest lands for ship-building.[21]

In retrospect, then, the concept of ‘sustainable development’ may indeed be said to have its historical roots in subtle power politics as much as in bona fide intergenerational equity.


[1] See the recollections of the WCED’s Secretary General, J.W. MacNeill, ‘The Forgotten Imperative of Sustainable Development’, Environmental Policy and Law 36 (2006) 167-170 .

[2] See D.A. Munro, ‘Towards a World Strategy of Conservation’, Environmental Conservation 6:3 (1979): 169-170; R. Allen, How to Save the World: Strategy for World Conservation, Totowa/NJ: Barnes & Noble 1980; and M. Holdgate, The Green Web: A Union for World Conservation, London: Earthscan 1999, at 138, 153-155.

[3] See B.E. Fernow, A Brief History of Forestry in Europe, the United States and Other Countries, Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press 1907; Ch. Miller, ‘The Prussians Are Coming! The Prussians Are Coming! Bernhard Fernow and the Origins of the USDA Forest Service’, Journal of Forestry 89:3 (March 1991) 23-27, 42.

[4] See the biography by A.D. Rodgers III, Bernhard Eduard Fernow: A Story of North American Forestry, Princeton/NJ: Princeton Univ. Press 1951, at 15; and Dictionary of American Biography 6 (1931) 336.

[5] Subsequently Governor of Pennsylvania, and author of The Fight for Conservation, New York: Doubleday 1910; see Ch. Miller, Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism, Washington/DC: Island Press 2001; B. Balogh, ‘Scientific Forestry and the Roots of the Modern American State: Gifford Pinchot’s Path to Progressive Reform’, Environmental History 7 (2002) 198-225.

[6] See Pinchot’s autobiography, Breaking New Ground, New York: Harcourt Brace 1947 [reprinted 1974], at 56.

[7] H. Hesmer, Leben und Werk von Dietrich Brandis, Opland: Westdeutscher Verlag 1975; S.S. Negi, Sir Dietrich Brandis: Father of Tropical Forestry, New Delhi: Vedams Books 1991; I.M. Saldanha, ‘Colonialism and Professionalism: A German Forester in India’, Environment and History 2 (1996) 195-219.

[8] ‘In the Rukh, in: R. Kipling, Many Inventions, 1893 [reprint London: MacMillan 1982], 200-238, at 222. Kipling had personally met Brandis and Ribbentrop; and in his famous account of the head forester’s encounter with Mowgli of the Jungle Book, he pokes fun at the thick German accent of ‘der Insbecdor-General’.

[9] W. Schlich, A Manual of Forestry, 5 vols., 5th edn. London: Bradbury, Agnew & Co. 1925; see R.S. Troup, ‘Sir William Schlich’s Work in India’, Quarterly Journal of Forestry 20 (1926) 9-11.

[10] B. Ribbentrop, Forestry in British India, Calcutta: Government Printers 1899 [reprint New Delhi: Indus 1989].

[11] See H.K. Steen (ed.), History of Sustained Yield Forestry: A Symposium, Santa Cruz/CA: Forest History Society 1984; Ph. McManus, ‘Histories of Forestry: Ideas, Networks and Silences’, Environment and History 5 (1999) 185-208; G.A. Barton, Empire Forestry and the Origins of Environmentalism, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press 2002. At least 18 other German foresters worked in the colonial service of the Dutch East Indies/Indonesia (since 1849) and in British Malaysia (Cornelius Hummel, Conservator of Forests from 1906 to 1914); see E. Mammen, ‘Wirken deutscher Forstwirte in Übersee vor 1914: Ein geschichtlicher Beitrag zur forstlichen Entwicklungshilfe’, Forst-Archiv 35 (1964) 117-123, 144-153; and P. Vandergeest & N.L. Peluso, ‘Empires of Forestry: Professional Forestry and State Power in Southeast Asia – Parts 1/2’, Environment and History 12:1 (2006) 31-64, and 12:4 (2006) 359-394, at 361-364 and 384.

[12] See F. Heske, German Forestry, New Haven/CT: Yale Univ. Press 1938, at 18-43; and J. Radkau, ‘Wood and Forestry in German History: In Quest of an Environmental Approach’, Environment and History 2 (1996) 63-76. The former Prussian Forest Academy of Hannoversch-Münden is now a faculty of the University of Göttingen.

[13] See the biography by D. Füsslein, Die Erfindung der Nachhaltigkeit: Leben, Werk und Wirkung des Hans Carl von Carlowitz, Munich: Oekom 2013.

[14] E.g., W.G. von Moser, Grundsätze der Forst-Oeconomie, Frankfurt: Brönner 1757; and the goal of ‘sustainable forest management’ since postulated in the International Tropical Timber Agreements (Geneva, 1983/1994/2006), UN Treaty Series 2797, Doc. TD/TIMBER.3/12.

[15] A. Trout, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Boston/MA: Twayne 1978, at 149; for Colbert’s impact on Carlowitz see also U. Grober, ‘Tiefe Wurzeln: Eine kleine Begriffsgeschichte von “Sustainable Development” – Nachhaltigkeit’, Natur und Kultur 3 (2002) 116-128; and K. Bartenstein, ‘Les origines du concept de développement durable’, Revue juridique de l’environnement 29 (2005) 289-297, at 294. Colbert was, of course, trained as a lawyer (in a Paris notary’s chambers).

[16] P.W. Bamford, Forests and French Sea Power, 1660-1789, Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press 1956, at 21; see also M. Vergé-Franceschi, Colbert: la politique du bon sens, Paris: Payot 2003, at 346.

[17] J. Perlin, A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization, New York: Norton 1989, at 145-161; K. Appuhn, ‘Inventing Nature: Forests, Forestry and State Power in Renaissance Venice’, Journal of Modern History 72 (2000) 861-889; and C. Mauch, The Growth of Trees: A Historical Perspective on Sustainability, Munich: Oekom 2014, at 16-18.

[18] See J. Bowle, John Evelyn and his World: A Biography, London: Routledge 1981.

[19] B. Saunders, John Evelyn and his Times, Oxford: Pergamon 1970, at 2. Isaac D’Israeli (whose family came from Venice) was the father of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

[20] V.K. Teplyakov et al. (eds.), A History of Russian Forestry and Its Leaders (Collingdale/PA: Diane 1998), at 3.

[21] Confirmed by the Supreme Court in US vs. Briggs (1850); see J.E. Defebaugh, History of the Lumber Industry of America 2, Chicago: American Lumberman 1907, at 138.

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