“Sustainability is the key principle”—that’s how Bernhard Mittermüller describes the great Austrian Forest Act of 1975 in my latest video, “Preservation Waltz.” Mittermüller teaches at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, fondly known as BOKU, and he was kind enough to speak with me for this latest addition to my series about Austrian conceptions of law and the Austrian experience of landscape (discussed previously on ELH here and here).
One of the things that intrigued me during my Fulbright stay in Austria was the way that many of its modern, progressive legal concepts grew out its monarchical past, and they bear traces of that royal origin. In Austria, the echo of monarchy is everywhere, including in jurisprudence.
That’s certainly true of the legal concept of environmental sustainability, which now is enshrined in Austrian constitutional law as a national aspiration. Ironically, the regulation of Austrian forests today grew from the efforts of early modern archdukes and prince bishops to protect the woods because of the critical role wood played in the mining industry. This form of environmental protection involved a forceful assertion of power over the local population.
Even more deeply, the regulation of forests in Austria is inextricable from the development of the modern state as a whole. Whereas in England, the first use of the term “common law” was as a contrast to the law of the forest, in Austria the growth of the national approach to law and governance was based in a meaningful degree on the regulation of the woods, as the spirited legal historian Martin Schennach of the University of Innsbruck explains.
And so the beauty of the well-tended Austrian landscape, which today forms the life-blood of the tourist economy on which the nation depends; the restriction of private autonomy in relation not only to environmental resources but as a general matter of Austrian social life; the progressive vindication of an ideal of the public good; and the social hierarchy of the Mandarin administrative apparatus which took the place of royal authority—all were of a piece in the formation of Austrian identity. And these links can be perceived, and caught on film, shimmering and hovering about everyday Austrian life.
The video isn’t only about the protection of the forests. It’s called “Preservation Waltz,” and it also meditates on the principles of sustainability, community, and order in two other fields involving law and wood. The first area is Austrian domestic architecture, discussed by Karim Giese of the University of Salzburg, which prizes harmony and uniformity as a form of cultural sustainability. Construction law in Austria is guided by the same resistance to market liberalization present in Austrian forest law.
The second area is the preservation of books (made from paper, derived from wood). The video indeed is structured around a conversation with Renate Schönmayr, director of the University of Salzburg’s law library, which I hope playfully links its look at forest and construction law with larger cultural themes about what it means to conserve, safeguard, and study the past.
Want to learn more about Austrian forests and forest law? Here a link to an English-language section of the Austrian forest ministry. Here is the English translation of the Austrian forest report of 2015. And here is the contemporary, amended forest legislation in German. And here is the video: