We all know palm oil makes things taste good. It’s the foundation of Nutella. We also know that rainforest clearing to start palm plantations has caused environmental and social catastrophe.(I don’t eat Nutella anymore.) As a result, we have lost a significant percentage of our world's forest cover. This has had consequential effects and is one of the leading causes of climate change.
This is simply due to the process of photosynthesis. When you reduce the amount of tree cover, you reduce the amount of plants actively making biomass. Trees are particularly good at sucking in a lot of carbon gas and making carbon solid. These solids are doing us a solid by helping mitigate anthropogenic emissions. We need forests, so much so, that the US government has urged us that, “keeping forest land in forest cover will be a key challenge for society.”
This leads us to the second point about palm plantations. They were not really planted as Nutella crops. Palm oil was supposed to save the environment and replace fossil fuels as a renewable biofuel resource. Our clearing of forests were done on the premises of environmentalism. The result produced unintended consequences, and we might wish to learn from this experiment as we engage with policies in our world today.
I’m particularly worried about the frenzied craze of mass timber. At the moment, many people who sell wood products are calling it, “The Mass Timber Revolution.” They ask us to join the revolution. That’s big talk. People have died for revolution. Ever heard of the French Revolution? Are we up in arms? Are they up in arms? I’m confused.
What I’m particularly confused about is that mass timber uses a massive amount of trees. When not used smartly, we use too many trees for a job that could be done with less. However, there are also some real positives in mass timber. Specifically the substitution of mass timber for concrete looks to be advantageous from an environmental standpoint. All I’m saying is that we need to be cognizant of our addiction to wood, as British architectural critic Reyner Banham characterized it on a visit to Port Townsend in the 1970s. He noted that the North American, ”created a culture which is unknowingly, ‘hooked’ on wood.” We are hooked on wood, for better or worse.
I think it’s also worth noting the cultural dynamics behind the people who purport mass timber. Most are those with European heritage; a people who have had a strong history with the woods. Before Europeans set foot on the American continent, the woods formed a mythical space, full of evil spirits and evil people. These spirits (i.e. pagans) and people (i.e. Bavarian horde) were meant to be cleared. The woods would need clearing as well.
When these Europeans voyaged to the American continent, they brought these same values. The woods would need clearing of spirits (i.e. Native Americans) and people (i.e. Native Americans). To do that, colonists would clear an average, “13 square miles every day for 50 years; the most prolific period of forest clearing in U.S. history. This coincides with one of the most prolific periods of U.S. immigration.”
This manifest destiny mentality permeates our capital and extraction culture today. Only 10% of global working forests are FSC certified. That is, only 10% of forests can provide documentation that they manage their forests in a sustainable fashion. To effectively sell mass timber on the basis of sustainability, we need to responsibly source timber.
This is something that people around the world are growing weary of. The village of Port Clement, BC “told the [Canadian Supreme] court that they had more trust in a future with the Haida [Nation] than they did with the province looking after their rights.” Their “position is that [Port Clement’s] continued existence depends on a sustainable forest industry, and that the best way to achieve this goal is through agreements with the Haida Nation, according to the statement it sent to the court.” Another case in New Zealand made the news last year: 7.5 million tonnes of sediment with forestry wastage dubbed a “tsunami of slash” was washed down steep slopes and into estuaries in Tolaga Bay. Clean up of the incident will cost upwards of $10,000,000. Rural farmers livelihoods were destroyed and their land was transformed into an industrial waste-scape.
In our own state, geologists have begun to find correlations between clear cut timber harvesting and landslide activity. After the 2006 Hazel Landslide that killed 8 people in rural Washington State, a report to the Washington DNR concluded that “clearcut logging in the groundwater recharge area of the landslide will accelerate landslide activity.” To have sustainable buildings, we need to have sustainable industry. Without it, mass timber will be a massive problem.
Banham, Reyner. “Is There a Substitute for Wood Grain Plastic?” Design and Aesthetics of Wood. Ed. Anderson, Eric. SUNY Albany. 1972.
Bratishenko, Lev. Interview with Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson. Its All Happening So Fast. Ed. Lev Bratishenko and Mirko Zardini. Jap Sam Books; Heijningen, NL, 2016.