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No environmentally acceptable alternative to wood

Wink Sutton's Blog
Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dovetail, the USA based non-profit environmental wood advocacy organisation, has suggested wood may be getting a raw deal. If wood must come from environmentally certified sources should not the same requirement be required for all wood substitutes – materials such as metals, concrete and plastic. I do not know why the global forest growing and wood using industries have not taken this line of reasoning. Unlike all its substitutes, wood is the world’s most environmentally acceptable raw material and, if it comes from responsibly managed forests, wood is endlessly renewable.

I recall a discussion I had with one of New Zealand’s environmental leaders. It was in the mid 1990s and I was employed by Fletcher Challenge on secondment to the Canadian Federal Forest Service. After our discussion had gone about 10 minutes the environmental leader made the comment that she did not like what Fletcher Challenge was doing, especially in British Columbia. She anticipated I would attempt to justify British Columbian forest practices which I was prepared to do, but instead I used the opportunity.

One of my responsibilities in Fletcher Challenge was to investigate environmentally acceptable non-wood alternatives as possible industries that the company might invest in. I asked what environmentally acceptable wood substitute she would recommend.

At first, she said that I must know what the alternative wood substitutes were. I knew them but I wanted the recommendations. After some time she finally said ‘hemp’. I replied that I could not believe an environmental leader could be so irresponsible. Hemp requires monoculture planting and also requires farmland – almost all of which is the result of permanently trashed indigenous forest. Hemp is only a fibre substitute and what we need is a solid wood substitute. What would be her substitute recommendation? After some delay she finally said ‘concrete’.

Wood is the world’s most environmentally acceptable raw material. If environmentalists are against managing indigenous forests for a wood supply as well as the establishment of plantations, where do they recommend the world gets its wood from?

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A lesson from Harry Bunn

Wink Sutton's Blog
Friday, February 27, 2009

As a young FRI scientist on my first field trip with Harry Bunn, then director of Production Forestry Research and also my greatest mentor, we visited a three-year-old radiata pine stand. It was depressing. Inadequate site preparation, poor tree stock and poor planting had resulted in half the trees dying. Those that had survived had not been released. Understandably, I was critical.

As we returned to our hotel Harry commented that I might have handled the situation differently. What I said had left the young forester feeling helpless. I would have been more effective if, instead of being critical, I had given advice on how to rectify the problem and how to prevent a repeat. Since then I have always tried to live up to this Bunn philosophy ‘don’t be critical unless you can offer a better solution.’

Wise advice

A recent experience reminded me of Harry’s wise and fatherly advice. Of all my presentation material the most dramatic, and the most frightening, is the graph showing the growth in human population since the birth of Christ. In AD 1 the global population is estimated to have been about 250 million, and it grew nearly a billion by 1800 and 1.6 billion by 1900. Since then the population growth has been explosive. Currently there are nearly seven billion of us.

While the population growth in some countries has been static, or even declining, the total global population is still increasing. This population explosion has very serious implications.

Sustainable consumption

Some, especially from the environmental movement, claim we must reduce our level of consumption. But is this realistic or too simplistic? If we lower consumption not only are there both fewer lower paid jobs and less government taxation incomes but also greater social demands. In democratic societies it would be political suicide for any party to advocate consumption-reducing policies if the result was increased unemployment and less social spending.

In a keynote address to the UNFF intersessional expert meeting on ‘The Role of Planted Forests in Sustainable Forest Management’ in Wellington in 2003, I attempted to argue that consumption was not the problem, it was unsustainable consumption.

If we had sustainable consumption, such as a more wood based economy using responsible forest management, we could increase consumption without reducing the planet’s resources. I could have strengthened my case by demonstrating that although wealthy societies or the wealthy in poorer countries have the greatest level of consumption they also have the lowest increase in population. I could also have demonstrated that as wealth increases so does the consumption of wood.

At that Wellington meeting was the New Zealand environmentalist, Sandy Gauntlett of the Global Forest Coalition. Sandy Gauntlett is anti-plantation claiming that they are not forests and have destructive effects. He dismissed my solution with the comment −

‘Wink Sutton’s paper ... was little more than an argument for increased consumption, and planning for consumption, of wood, and hence for more plantations.’

Gauntlett is at liberty to disagree with me but by casually dismissing my well reasoned argument he missed the opportunity to advance his realistic and socially acceptable solution to this major global problem. The environmental movement would be far more effective if, instead of being critical, it followed the Harry Bunn principle of offering politically acceptable solutions.

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Disclaimer: Personal views expressed in this blog are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the NZ Farm Forestry Association.

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