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The consumption dilemma

Wink Sutton, New Zealand Tree Grower February 2010.

The environmentally minded are extremely disappointed that so little was achieved at Copenhagen. Given that all the major players were politicians it was naïve to expect an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Government leaders, especially of democratic developed economies, were unable to make commitments that could reduce their nation’s living standards and increased costs. Even less acceptable was the proposal to transfer money to developing economies whose government may be corrupt, incompetent or not democratic.

Governments universally strive for growth. Economic growth increases both employment and taxation. In contrast, contraction of the economy increases unemployment and decreases taxation income but also increases the pressure for greater social spending especially for unemployment benefits.

As the principle reason for growth is consumption we should not be surprised at the failure of Copenhagen. No responsible government is prepared to commit political suicide by agreeing to anything that reduces consumption.

Another complication is the sensitive issue of population. The global population is nearing seven billion and is increasing by about 85 million every year.The world cannot support the world’s current population, especially its expectation of increasing standards of living. Where there is little or no social security, having many children is a guarantee of a work force as well as support in old age. Increasing living standards helps reduce population growth as wealthy countries or the wealthy in poorer countries have low birth rates. The population issue is a Catch 22 aspect of the consumption dilemma.

Use more wood

I may be one of many who are not convinced that climate change is the result of our continual atmospheric release of greenhouse gases, but I am certain that the greatest threat to human survival is our overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels, especially oil. We may have already used half of the world’s readily available oil reserves. The world will also face increasing shortages of other minerals and materials.

The world must move to renewable resources. Wood is our most renewable and our most versatile material. The importance of forests is not that they sequester carbon but, if responsibly managed, forests are the source of wood. Forests and wood use should be promoted both as a substitute for energy requiring materials and as an energy source. If the world is really serious about reducing carbon dioxide, we should at least be encouraging wood use as well as taxing, and certainly not subsidising, high energy requiring and net carbon emitting materials such as concrete and steel.

Change needed

An increased wood use may be desirable but unless there is an immediate and radical change in attitude by both government and environmental organisations a greater wood use is most unlikely. As the global price of wood has fallen dramatically, wood processors round the world have increasingly gone out of business. In New Zealand the first decade of this century has seen plantation establishment spectacularly decline. New planting has almost ceased and as existing plantations are being cleared for conversion to dairy farms.

Was anyone at Copenhagen advancing an increased wood use and better forest management as a solution to the world’s major problems? I very much doubt it − they got very little media coverage if they did.

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