The illusion of preservation

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This semester I took a fantastic class about land trusts and land conservation in the United States. One of the final readings was especially unsettling. It’s called “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources” (1). The author, Mary Berlik, argues that the United States indirectly causes significant deforestation around the globe. The reason? Many forests in the U.S. are protected, but Americans still consume huge amounts of lumber and wood products.

Berlik takes Massachusetts as a case study. Massachusetts is one of the most densely populated states, yet it also has a large amount of forest cover (2). This forest is the product of new growth, coming after a period in the 1800s when Massachusetts was clear-cut for agriculture. Although logging continued into the 20th century, the volume of timber harvested has steadily decreased.

Twenty-first century Massachusetts residents hold strong environmental values. Anti-logging attitudes are among their cherished beliefs. Meanwhile, U.S. imports of lumber have tripled over the last several decades. Between 1965 and 1997, the average American home size increased by 44%. Approximately 15% of wood consumption in the country is used for home construction. The result is this: Massachusetts harvests much less wood per capita that Japan, Switzerland, France or Germany, yet it consumes more than all of them—not just a little more, but more than twice the per capita consumption of its closest comparison, France.

Massachusetts residents resist timber harvest in their own state, but their demand for wood means the products have to come “from somewhere.” These “somewheres” are countries around the globe. The United States imports hardwoods from tropical countries, which are often home to fragile ecosystems and great biodiversity (3). Exacerbating the problem is the fact that these countries often have fewer environmental protections. They may also have less advanced equipment, which cannot process lumber as efficiently and leads to wasted product. In short, the “not in my backyard” attitude leads to greater environmental devastation elsewhere. Berlik has some strong words on this subject:

Notably and hypocritically, the protectionist attitude often fails to address the link between high levels of domestic consumption and the unavoidable impacts this imposes on the global environment, especially beyond US borders. In addition to the tangible issue of whether humankind can live sustainably within the earth’s ecological limits, there is an environmental question of whether the burden of natural resource production should be placed on remote and oftentimes fragile landscapes, and the intriguing sociological question of whether affluent citizens might alter their patterns of resource consumption if the environmental consequences of this behaviour was apparent in their own backyards.

It’s not quite as simple as allowing sustainable harvest on Massachusetts public land. Much of the forested land is privately owned. Local regulations complicate the issue, with different towns having varied logging regulations. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, anti-logging sentiments run high.

Reading this, I wondered how many people equate “logging” with “clear-cutting.” It is possible for a forest to be sustainably managed, such that most growth is left standing and only certain trees are harvested. Education about global wood production and sustainable forestry could change this situation, since Massachusetts residents are already inclined to care about the environment.

Even if the state increases its wood production, it will not make much progress unless consumption drops. This is the fundamental problem. Getting people to consume less is very, very hard. Consumerism and overpopulation are the root causes of most environmental problems. Overpopulation can be addressed through poverty alleviation, education of women, and availability of birth control—not easy tasks by any means, but concrete objectives that have been studied and observed to work. Consumerism is trickier. How to you get people to stop buying things—without forcibly reducing wealth or abridging freedom? That will have to be a topic for a future post.

1. Berlik, Mary M., David B. Kittredge, and David R. Foster. “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources.” Journal of Biogeography, vol. 29, 1557-1568. Blackwell Science, 2002.

2. At the time of the paper, 62% of Massachusetts land was forested. I assume the percentage has gone down since then. Massachusetts is undergoing rapid development. In my once-quiet hometown, new developments are springing up all over the place. Which leads to another question. Could sustainable lumber harvesting add value to the otherwise “valueless” tracts of land that are marked for development? It would provide revenue without leading to the strain of population growth.

3. The United States imports softwoods from Canada, which presumably does not have as much environmental impact as imports from tropical countries. However, Berlik does not offer a breakdown of hardwood/softwood percentage in U.S. wood consumption, nor an analysis of how increasing sustainable timber production in various states would address this. It seems the most important question is whether the U.S. could supply its own hardwoods. Supplying its own softwoods—assuming the logging operations are well-managed—could increase sustainability, since it would decrease shipping distance.

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