Coping with the long term : an empirical analysis of time perspectives, time orientations, and temporal uncertainty in forestry

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Uncertainty is an unavoidable fact of every decision. In forestry, the problem of uncertainty is, however, exacerbated by the long time horizons involved. Rotation periods for oak and beech, for example, are up to 150-200 years. And even spruce, which is considered to be a fast-growing tree species, has rotation periods of 40-80 years before it is sufficiently mature for harvesting. No other industrial or land-based process encounters horizons spanning these time frames. Such far-off horizons make it, however, extremely difficult to rely on estimates about future values as a guide to current actions, because the further one projects into the future, the more variables interact and the more uncertainties arise.
The literature presents a peculiar contradiction when discussing the way foresters cope with the uncertain future. One the one hand, the forester is portrayed as a “visionary futurist”: someone who can overcome the barriers of the uncertain future, who looks ahead and plans for long-range goals. This is the so-called “doctrine of the long run”. On the other hand, foresters are seen as “stuck in the present”, with the far-off future considered too far away to guide meaningful action. Surprisingly however, this debate has only scarcely been touched upon in the forestry community. That is not to say that time is not talked about: however, mostly the discussion has been limited to a description of the subject either as a problem or as a peculiarity. Empirical evidence of how foresters cope with the far-off future has been missing. The research described in this thesis fills this gap by exploring the legitimacy of the doctrine of the long run, which is a long-standing hypothesis in forestry, and one of the premises on which the strong professional ethos in forestry culture still relies.
The study takes a different approach than previous research: it takes an actor-oriented perspective and focuses on the question of how foresters actually cope with the uncertain future in their actions. This requires not only a shift in the understanding of time from a physical entity to that of a social realm but – even more importantly – a shift from interpreting uncertainty from some form of independent variable to viewing uncertainty as a cognitive and psychological state – a social construct about the availability and “makeability” of the future.
Although an actor-focused perspective is taken, it is not the individual manager but rather the group of foresters as a whole that is at the very heart of this research. Every collective creates its own culture with its own view of time and uncertainty, which is expressed in the culture’s signs, communication, rituals and behaviour. This means that looking at foresters’ attitudes to time and uncertainty yields insight not only into the way individual foresters per se cope with time and uncertainty, but also of the forestry profession as a whole.
The exploration started by examining the influence of time on action. In general, actions seem to be understood to form within, and operate under, two general structural spheres: time perspective and time orientation. Time perspective refers to the composite cognitive structures that characterize the way an individual projects, collects, accesses, values, and organizes events that reside in the past, present and future. The relevance of the concept is that it is linked to goal setting and to other aspects of motivation. For this research it is important that the further away in time a perceived goal lies, the less it motivates action. Studies have shown that for most people, 20 or 30 years from now is too far away to evoke meaningful concern leading to concrete behaviour. This is in sharp contrast with the much longer-term perspectives that have generally been stated to underlie traditional forest management. The first case study, carried out on Dutch and German foresters, therefore explored the time perspectives of foresters and the limits (if any) to these perspectives. The findings underscore the “short-range” nature of the actual practice of forestry decision-making: the most distant horizon to evoke meaningful action seems to be 15 years.
The second structural sphere relates to time orientations. Time orientation describes the way how individuals focus attention on and react to the psychological concepts of past, present and future. Each individual has their own stable tendency (“bias”) of relating to these three time zones. The relevance and utility of the concept of time orientation for this research lies in the fact that although all time zones are important for action, only a clear future-orientation brings an added value to future thinking. Given the view that the forester is a “visionary futurist”, one would expect that foresters in general would have a strong bias towards the future. The opposite view, the forester as a “normal human being” who is engaged more in the present, would on the other hand point to a time orientation where the future is not that dominant. In the second case study, which was on Dutch foresters’ time orientations – specifically their orientation towards the future – are therefore explored. The findings show that foresters have a strong future orientation, which means that in principle, actions in forestry are not merely a continuation of the past and present, but are also based on the foresters’ future expectations (which are, however, as the first case study shows not that far in the future as always expected).
Also researched in addition to the two structural spheres of time that determine action was the importance of the future time as source of uncertainty (which can block action). Although the future is objectively seen as uncertain, this does not mean that foresters also experience the future as very uncertain. As perceptions determine actions, the third case study therefore explored how foresters from the USA and Germanic Central Europe (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) experience uncertainty. The findings show that the most certain time period in forestry is the future. In order to create a feeling of greater control, foresters try to seek certainty and enact a stable world, even when they know that it is not.
These findings show that the vision of the (Western) forester as a “visionary futurist” is an illusion. The futurity of actions taken is only limited, and foresters do not seem to differ substantially from other social groups. These findings also imply that the traditional rational approaches to action that forestry research in general has followed are unable to explain how foresters cope with uncertainty. Instead, the findings show that the essential processes used when foresters cope with uncertainty can be meaningfully described in terms of sensemaking. Sensemaking comprises all activities and processes with which actors construct meaning and reality of situations. The basic occasion for sensemaking consists of uncertain events; when people are unable to assign definite values to objects or events and/or are unable to extrapolate current actions and foresee their consequences, they resort to sensemaking in which this ignorance is reduced. In the case of the uncertain future in forestry, foresters create a picture of the future that is relatively short-term and certain, and which – though not an accurate picture of reality – is sufficiently plausible and stable for them to base their actions on it.
This does not say anything about the quality of long-range planning in forestry, however. Previous research has been inconclusive on how long-range planning influences the quality of management. If one wished to encourage more future-oriented thinking, one could focus on developing individual sensemaking traits. Often, four principles are distinguished that allow for effective response in rapidly changing, uncertain conditions: (1) improvisation, (2) virtual role systems, (3) wisdom and (4) respectful interaction. Another option is to develop and/or enhance scenario thinking. The latter concept recognizes that the future cannot be known, but it might be understood. Using scenarios, foresters can imagine alternative futures and examine the consequences of possible future changes. They can then consider how to cope with such alternatives.
Though scenario analysis is already being used in forestry, the applications mostly use a quantitative method of constructing and analysing scenarios. What makes scenario analysis such an interesting tool for training foresters to orientate on the future is, however, the more qualitative, “soft” approach of scenario thinking, in which intuition and creative thinking are core elements. To date, this variant has not been deployed much in forestry. Applying it in forestry may require substantial shifts in the cognitive-cultural institutions in forestry, as it requires foresters to understand and internalize scenarios; this can only be achieved when true learning occurs, and that requires the existence of a culture in which learning is institutionalized.
But even if foresters are successful in embracing all skills and techniques to improve their capacity to understand and act on the future, the practice of forestry must still be regarded as one full of surprise. Traditionally, foresters have viewed surprises as unwelcome and dysfunctional. Little consideration has been given to the possibility of surprise being something that provides an opportunity. From a sociological perspective, the challenge of the future is to reduce uncertainty, but from an economic-entrepreneurial perspective the challenge of the future is to increase the degrees of freedom by creating an open future. The ability and willingness of foresters to recognize changes, and make use of arising opportunities might even prove to be a necessity for the future survival of forestry.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Schanz, H., Promotor
  • Arts, Bas, Promotor
Award date16 Dec 2008
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789085852421
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • forestry
  • decision making
  • uncertainty
  • time
  • planning
  • forest management


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