Wood in the Course of Human Events

Gathering by flickr user magnusfranklin

Wood has got to be one of nature’s most miraculous gifts to the human race. We have depended on wood for fuel, tools, weapons, and shelter since before the dawn of history. Even in this high tech world of the twenty first century there is wood everywhere, in one form or another, no matter if we are flying across the country at 30,000 feet, riding in a subway beneath the streets of Manhattan, or sitting on the sofa in front of the TV set.

The sad fact is that wood has been with us for so long and is present in so many different forms that we no longer notice it or give it a second thought. Wood is much like Roger Dangerfield in that “it gets no respect” and therein is the problem: abundant, cheap, invisible wood is an overly disposable commodity in our society. Our landscapes are littered with and our landfills are full of old newspapers, magazines, furniture, lumber (used and unused), fast food wrappers, cardboard boxes, disposable diapers and on and on and on. Is this any way to treat a product that comes from trees that have taken anywhere from 40 to 400 years to grow? And while they are growing they are also giving us oxygen, clean water, wildlife, a place to play and refuge from our hectic lives? Surely we can do better than to turn them into roadside litter and landfill garbage.

While wood may not be getting the respect it deserves, the trees and forests from which we harvest our wood are, but only after four hundred years of reckless exploitation. Over the years we have passed many laws and regulations that require sustainable management practices that insure our forests will remain productive, healthy, sources of wood. On a national level we now grow more wood than we harvest even as we set aside more and more areas of our public forests for recreational use, species habitat, and scenic values. All of which should be reason enough for us to feel good about wood.

In an effort to encourage more respect for wood and forests the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has developed a certification program that assures the purchaser that the wood that bears their logo is from responsibly harvested and verified sources. This is a great program for the concerned consumer and should make a difference in how people think about the wood products they are buying. Please support this voluntary program by purchasing wood products bearing the FSC certification logo. You will be adding another good reason for feeling good about wood.

The FSC certification program covers just a very small segment of the wide range of wood products that we consume daily. So, while we are doing a reasonably good job of managing our forests, we cannot say that we are acting responsibly in how we put our wood products to use. One reason for this is that some products such as paper no longer bare any resemblance to wood or trees, and so there is a definite disconnect in the consumer’s mind. It’s not wood, it’s paper, and nothing points out our attitude towards paper more clearly than our love affair with fast food. It’s the poster child of our “no respect” for wood attitude.

The fast food companies are some of the largest consumers of paper products in America. There are close to 100 paper packaging mills in the southeast that produce the paper needed by the giant fast food companies. They chew up a lot of trees. Millions of pounds of paper are used to wrap and bag the billions of burgers, tacos or chicken nuggets that are consumed each year. To say nothing of the 15 billion disposable hot beverage cups that are also used annually. We all know what happens to all of this paper, because we see it everywhere we go. Americans have, in their quest for personal comfort and convenience declared that the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra has no place here. Would that we could achieve the 100%+ recycling rate that steel enjoys (according to the Steel Recycling Institute). A major shift in attitude is needed here before we can feel good about the wood used here.

We have an ever growing and seemingly insatiable demand for wood. Riding shotgun along with our voracious appetite for wood is our urban-centric driven need to set aside more areas of our forests as places of refuge and sanctuary from our own self -indulgent, fast-paced lifestyle. These set aside forests, in most cases, are no longer available for harvesting. These two diverging trends produce a gap between the amount of wood that we consume and the amount of wood that we can harvest on a sustainable basis. A gap that we now fill with imports. But for how long? The worldwide demand for wood is also growing every year. As the world’s population grows and their standard of living rises, their need for more wood will eventually exceed the growth rates of the world’s forests.

What does the future hold for our beloved wood? Here is what comes to my mind:

The law of supply and demand drives prices up; demand goes down and once again comes into a balance with harvest in those countries that have strong regulations and the will to enforce them. Elsewhere, forests will be cut at an increased rate for the quick buck.

Consumers get serious about “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” as the law of supply and demand gives us the price points that allow for a profit incentive to do so.

Or, we could institute a Sustainable Consumer Certification (SCC) program in which consumers would have to demonstrate that they “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” according to predetermined levels of acceptability. They would then be issued a card showing their sustainability rating. This rating would then allow them to purchase only those wood products that are suitable for use by that class of consumer. Hmmm. Maybe we aren’t quite ready for this as yet.

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