Our limited forests of infinite value

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It is a pretty well accepted truth that "He who ignores history is doomed to repeat it."

Commenting on the economic trends in Italy, where he was American ambassador, George Perkins Marsh wrote something in 1864 that would be current and accurate if it was printed in a major newspaper today:

"Even now we are breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling for fuel to seethe our pottage."

Everywhere he saw humans undermining the foundations of a balanced natural world and teetering in its new imbalance, to their own greater peril. He foresaw accurately that continuous ravaging of the Earth for profit would reduce its fertility through destruction of the harmonious relationship of its parts. As a single example, he explained that due to the demand for charcoal, there was widespread destruction of the forests around Piazzatorre, Italy. This was followed by increased severity of climate which prevented maize from ripening. Dismay at this fact resulted in formation of an association to restore the forests. Following their renewal, maize once again flourished. This convinced Marsh that, within limits, man might restore his undoing of nature.

The collapsing economies of our time should remind us afresh of what Marsh noted at a time when there were far fewer people on Earth, but a higher percent of individuals who lived closer to nature than we do today. We have become heavily laden with sophistication (a word once meaning "falsely wise") which now refers to one who is fully up to date on styles, social issues, and other superficial matters.

We have a problem. If we persist in our enthusiastic euphoria of "development", which basically refers to unceasing exploitation of Earth, it is unlikely that we shall retain our tenure on the planet for more than a brief while. Reflection upon the gross magnitude of our pollution, and ever-increasing production of anything that will make money, should awaken us to our plight. Our economy has collapsed because it has been orgiastic at heart, and suffused with greed and corruption at its roots.

The degraded economy of many nations could be underwritten by a restoration economy focused on the four primary resources -- forests, agriculture, fisheries, and mining.

Living in a once heavily forested nation, it seems appropriate to move forestry to the centre of attention.

Worldwide, forests cover about 30 per cent of land area and cover nearly four billion hectares. Supporting biodiversity, storing water and conserving biodiversity they also act as carbon sinks storing 4,500 gigatons of carbon. This amount is greater than all the carbon in the atmosphere. However, between 2000 and 2005 "an average of 12.9 million hectares of forest was destroyed each year."(Worldwatch Institute figure -- 2008).

Key land use changes that would mitigate carbon emissions from the forest industry and provide many "green jobs" have been cited by the International Panel on Climate Change. These would include reduced deforestation and degradation, conservation of forests, reforestation and afforestation (providing forest cover on land not previously forested), and sustainable forest management. Indeed difficulties will occur in REDD implementations (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) because mankind, intent on unregulated development, will be difficult to bring to its senses, and to convince that we have no viable alternative other than to work mightily to repair what we have degraded.

It is pertinent that a Sept. 2008 excerpt from the International Report on Climate Change states that "Even after taking new forest growth and replanting efforts into account, Earth's forest loss is estimated at 7.3 million hectares per year."

We would not be alive if Earth didn't have something left in its assets column. It is up to us to realize this and to do everything in our power to increase these assets, augmenting and utilizing them judiciously and frugally. I touch upon this matter in Chapter 7 of Testimony for Earth, "Defend and Preserve Earth's Creative Potential."

We are Earthlings and Earth integrity provides our life support system. Erroneously, humans consider themselves the center of the universe while Earth has been ravaged as a mere cornucopia of "resources." This fantasy has been dubbed a "pre-extinction concept". The following data will reveal the immense importance of standing forests.

Several decades ago, scientists and economists calculated that a single tree which lives for 50 years, produces (free) ecological benefits worth $196,250 (plus inflation). "For example, an average 50-year-old tree has produced $31,250 worth of oxygen, $62,500 in air pollution control, $31,250 in soil fertility and erosion control, $37,500 in recycling water and controlling humidity, $31,250 in shelter for wildlife, and $2,500 worth of protein." Such benefits continue and increase as trees grow older and larger. Ancient sequoia and bristlecone pine trees, thousands of years old, continue to carry on these labours.

Providing us with such free benefits, each tree in the 50-year example above, produces an average of roughly 4,000 dollars in benefits for each year of its life. This certainly indicates the economically counter-productive folly of clear-cutting trees or "chop-downs" as an approved logging technique.

Like people, trees must start off as infants before attaining maturity. Naturally, in their youth, they produce fewer free services, but as natural, genetically diverse entities, young trees retain dominant and recessive genetic characteristics of possibly great value in a world where climate change may threaten species survival.

The use of "free tree services" as a physically realistic base for a nation's economy would make sense. An annual, measurable, income base for the economy would be equal to the number of living, standing trees multiplied by $4,000.

Of course, just as the Swiss Forest Act commands that 27 per cent of each canton must be left forested, every nation must recognize minimum levels that must be left unscathed and free from exploitation. Such areas could once again be recognized as "Sacred Places" providing survival value for micro-organisms and other species which rely on old growth settings. Forests and oceans have for centuries been recognized as climate control agents and were effective for millennia before people arrived. Historically, Europe was 80 per cent forested and North American forests created awe among early beholders. Marsh (quoted above) and many other knowledgeable individuals recognized forests as life support systems, rather than as mere resources.

In such manner, free forest assets could underwrite ecologically respectable enterprises that would be computable and enable Earth health to be improved. For our species to survive, we must recognize, as Earthlings, that Earth deserves to be cherished and respected, but has arrogantly been tortured nigh unto death by unfeeling worship of wealth and historically blind expectations.

Since everything in nature is connected, our falling water supplies are also related to deforestation. "During rainfalls, bare soil may take in some 5,500 gallons of water, per acre per hour. Ground covered with growth such as bushes or grasses can absorb some 25,000 gallons per acre per hour. Forests however act like sponges and can absorb more than 100,000 gallons per acre. If rainfall does not exceed 0.4 inches per hour, good forest land will continue to absorb and store up to up to 17 inches of rain -- more then 400,000 gallons per acre."

Munich Re is one of the world's largest reinsurance companies. Using Munich Re's estimates would place the value of the current total carbon stored in Canada's boreal "carbon bank account" at $3.7 trillion. The Pembina Institute states that Canada's boreal region "covers 58.5 per cent of Canada's land mass" and notes that "an estimated 67 billion tonnes of carbon are stored in the boreal region -- the equivalent of 303 years of Canada's total 2002 carbon emissions, or 7.8 years of the world's total carbon emissions in the year 2000." Referring to the carbon stores as a bank account, Pembina reflects upon the possibility that world carbon problems being life-threatening, other nations might be willing to pay Canada for preserving the boreal region's ecological goods and services.

If our government would get down to Earth literally and fight this depression by rectifying abuses and fostering greater concern for Earth, massive beneficial employment could be achieved and further assets added to an Earth-supportive economy. Certainly the carbon storage of the boreal region is of worldwide importance and could be maintained as a World Heritage Site. Intelligent leaders should become salesmen for, and protectors of irreplaceable natural benefits. The affliction that politicians and industrialists must over come is their autistic worship of development. What fits here is the old idea that, "When a man destroys the works of man he is called a Vandal. When he destroys the work of God, he is called a Developer."

A restoration economy would also find obvious ways to rehabilitate degraded and eroded farm land, and clean polluted waterways. Governments all over the world could take a first step toward peace by recognizing wars as blasphemy unfit for a society threatened with what is rapidly becoming the likelihood of extinction.

Renewing the integrity of Planet Earth is a prime requisite for development of a lasting civilization.

Bob Harrington lives at Galena Bay, B.C. His latest book: Testimony for Earth and a new edition of The Soul Solution with a foreword by Dr. David Suzuki are now available at www.hancockhouse.com or telephone 250 369-2281 for autographed copies $23.

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