Environmentalism for the 21st Century

By considering forests in isolation from the other major issues, it may seem logical that we can save them by reducing wood consumption, that is, by cutting fewer trees. Greenpeace has appealed to the members of the United Nations to reduce wood consumption and use “environmentally appropriate alternatives” instead. The Rainforest Action Network is campaigning for a 75% reduction in wood use in the United States through its “wood use reduction program.” The Sierra Club has adopted a formal policy called “zero cut” that would put an end to commercial forestry on federal public land. All these campaigns can be summed up as “cut fewer trees – use less wood.”

There are two problems with this approach. First, just because people stop using wood for fuel or building houses doesn’t mean they will not need warmth or shelter. The fact that 6 billion humans wake up every morning with real needs for energy, food and materials must be taken into account. All the likely substitutes for wood: steel, concrete, plastic and fossil fuels, have far higher emissions of CO2 associated with their production and use. Using less wood will automatically result in the use of more of these non-renewable resources, and an inevitable increase in CO2 emissions. Second, much of the land that is used to grow trees could just as well be cleared and used for grazing, farming, and housing. If there is less demand for wood there will be less economic incentive to grow trees and retain forests. It is unrealistic to expect people to retain vast areas of the landscape in forests if they cannot use them. The best way to encourage people to retain and expand forests is to make the resources they provide, including wood, more valuable.

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