Some of you may be aware of my involvement with The Green Living Journal, a quarterly publication that has, in the last year, created a niche for itself here in middle Tennessee. I write articles for it (as I am a bit lazy, many of them have had their origins in stories I write for this show) and also edit stories that others have written. I am the son of an English teacher and a newspaper reporter/editor/journalism professor, and this Pear (my peculiar middle name, my mother’s surname) has not fallen far from the family tree.
I don’t see every article before publication, though, and so one story in the most recent issue of the Journal really took me by surprise. It was written by John Fenderson, who is “the Environmental Affairs/Public Outreach Coordinator for the Tennessee Division of Forestry,” according to the author blurb accompanying the article, which gave as his further bona fides that he has worked with GreenPeace, the Nature Conservancy, and the U.S. Forest Service. Now, there is no question in my mind that Mr. Fenderson sincerely believes in what he wrote, or that he sincerely desires a greener, less polluted planet, but to me his article was an example of the kind of well-intentioned but overly limited thinking that will not get us out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into.
The article advocated a “cap and trade” system of carbon dioxide abatement, and pointed to “managed forests” as having the greatest potential for carbon sequestration. The next page, which appeared to be a reprinted handout from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Division, made abundantly clear what the previous page had only hinted at: “managed forests” are pine plantations, “managed” to produce “wood products”–pine lumber, chips, and pulp. People, there is so much wrong with this picture that I hardly know where to begin.
Let’s start with a look at “cap and trade” as a system for limiting carbon emissions. Mr. Fenderson uses this example:
“The federal government determines that there are too many people who are overweight (a public health problem) and imposes a mandatory limit of …..let’s say 175 pounds. Therefore people who weigh 200 pounds are allowed to continue to weigh that much as long as they buy credits worth 25 lbs. which can be purchased from those who weigh less than 175 lbs. (e.g. if you weigh 150 lbs. you have 25 credits to sell). The increased demand for these credits on an exchange, due to a great number of people being overweight, increases the price of these credits. At some point the individuals who are over the weight limit figure out that they can save money by changing some of their behaviors and coming into or closer to compliance.”
There a number of places where this analogy goes off the rails. First of all, being overweight is a poor comparison because someone else’s weight problem does not directly affect my wellbeing, while an excess of carbon in the atmosphere does. Moreover, what if the price of being fat got so low, or the short-term wealth to be derived from it got so high, that people preferred to buy credits and stay fat?
That is what has happened in Europe, where the “price” of carbon has tanked, making it relatively cheap for polluters to heat up the planet at the expense of future generations. Fenders cites the Chicago Carbon Exchange as a good example in this country, but CCX‘s value has been questioned by a number of environmental groups. Many of the activities it accepts as payable carbon offsets are either things people would be doing anyway, such as landfills that burn off methane or big farmers who use herbicides and huge tractors to engage in no-till cultivation of genetically modified crops, or things of dubious utility in reducing CO2 output–such as paying landfills that burn off methane (when they could use it for cogeneration) or supporting big farmers who use herbicides and huge tractors…well, you get the picture.
Another weakness of carbon trading is that it is another market in which the wealthy trade money and become wealthier, unlike the solution preferred by many of the best minds who have studied the question, including Al Gore: a carbon tax on the big industries who produce it, balanced by tax reductions for individuals. This is politically impossible in this country for just that reason: it taxes the rich and benefits the rest of us. Socialism, I believe Mr. McCain would call it. Obama has not stuck his neck out that far, and I bet he won’t.
Thinking of forests as tree farms for producing lumber and paper is another faulty premise. This connects directly to the housing and consumer goods bubble that has just burst, which hooks back to the faulty meta-premise that infinite growth is the only acceptable economic paradigm. We are on a finite planet and there are limits, and we have surpassed them. We are now beginning to pay the price.
Natural hardwood forests, not pine plantations, are the best carbon sinks, and bring the added benefits of greater biodiversity and water retention. All the energy involved in big-scale commercial wood harvesting and processing, plus the years between harvest and the next generation of large trees, eat into the efficiency of pine plantations as carbon sinks. And, as the demand for lumber and cardboard decreases, even the short-term economic benefits of pine plantations melt away.
Much of middle Tennessee has already been denuded and impoverished by the pine plantation mentality. It’s time to recognize a broader reality than short-term gain and do what we can to recreate the lush, semitropical hardwood forest that was here when we got here, including reintroducing the American Chestnut. Such a forest, now existing only in scattered, deer-ravaged remnants, will provide a rich repository of food, water, air, and raw materials to our descendants for many generations to come. That’s the path to a steady-state planet.