As many of us move through what the Christian world regards as Advent, the time before Christmas, it’s worth reflecting on the season’s origins. The discomfort that the Christian world feels, each time it is mentioned that holding this festival on 25th December is merely a way of distracting from the Pagan Yule (or Midwinter) celebrations, is probably nothing to the discomfort that Pagans feel every year that the natural Solstice period is ignored in the rush to assemble a car trunk full of unnecessary gifts in celebration of an event that — if it did take place — certainly wasn’t any time around December.
The particular significance of this time of year for the contents of Chapter 6 in “Time’s Up!” is the use of trees. In the Pagan celebrations, the Yule Log is usually a chunk of temperate hardwood; oak, elm or ash are all eminently suitable. The origins of the Christmas Tree are, like the Yule Log, probably Germanic and certainly not integral to Christian celebrations; however, their omnipresence in the front rooms of Western homes at Christmas time means that between 80 and 100 million conifers are felled to provide for this habit. Not a huge amount, but it does start to make you think about large numbers…
The Taiga [Boreal Forest] stretches across the northern hemisphere in a vast swathe of spruce, pine, larch and fir, enveloping much of northern Canada, Lapland and the entire length of the Russian nation, often taking great excursions southwards where the dry continental heart is a savage environment for lush grasslands. The Eastern Siberian Taiga alone is a continuous forest 3.9 million square kilometres (1.5 million square miles) in area that is as large as India and Pakistan combined. This is worth repeating: the Eastern Siberian Taiga alone is as large as India and Pakistan combined.
And where such a vast expanse of natural plenty exists, you can be sure that civilization is not far behind, eager to exploit this thing that has magically become a “resource”:
Armed with mechanical harvesters, feller-bunchers and bulldozers for that tricky undergrowth, and backed by friendly governments, he spends his time punching great holes in the forest and stripping down habitat leaving piles of broken scrub and huge geometric areas of infertile, acid soil in his wake. You can find him all over the globe, wherever money can be made from wood. Because of Europe’s centuries- old appetite for vast amounts of timber and paper – an appetite unfortunately not matched by any desire to preserve nature – only 5% of Scandinavia’s forest remains in its native state, the rest being little more than plantation. The ‘timber frontier’ is now encroaching on the Siberian Taiga: in the ten years up to 2006, the timber production of the Russian Federation rose by 41%.
Where such lucrative “resources” are commandeered, and hence such large amounts of money are involved, shady tactics are the norm: from the formal pseudo-certification schemes invented by multinationals to the subtle, but so effective practice of claiming something is sustainable just because it is claimed the forest is “carefully managed”, nothing is too underhand for the corporate world; so it might come as a bit of a surprise to find that an entire nation is openly lying about it’s deforestation figures in order to prevent any attempts to stop one of its largest industries:
The natural Canadian Boreal forest may not have the deeply rich ecological diversity of the rainforest, but nor is it a monoculture plantation of identical trees marching across the landscape in some grotesque military spectacle. The ‘owners’ of plantations in these forests proudly claim the planting of two trees for every one removed – look at the back of a birthday card, or a pad of paper – and they are not lying; yet they fail to explain that those two trees are part of a cash crop, substituting a complex interweaving of dependent species for a desert of quickgrowing sawmill fodder.
The Canadian Government reports to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization every five years on the state of its forests, yet miraculously has stated identical figures in each of the previous three reports: an outstandingly precise 310,134,000 hectares. This has been eagerly seized upon by the Forest Products Association of Canada who state: “If all countries of the world could eliminate or virtually eliminate deforestation as Canada has done, this would have an impact comparable to eliminating fossil fuel emissions in the United States in terms of advancing GHG mitigation efforts”, which would be wonderful if it were true. The FAO, in fact, refers to “the absence of information about forest plantations in Canada” and goes on to state:
“Wood removals are declining in Mexico and the United States of America, while they continue to increase in Canada. This trend is reflected in economic data, with modest growth in several economic indicators in Canada and a slight decline in the other two.”
Something else in the FAO report caught my eye, too. It is in a section called ‘Forest Health and Vitality’. British Columbia, it seems, is undergoing its own logging frenzy, not for economic gain, but to protect against potential economic loss. “The Government of British Columbia has dramatically increased logging in an attempt to slow the spread of the beetle by removing recently infested trees and to recover value from trees already killed.” If BC is indeed logging to protect its future, then somewhere else trees are having to be planted at a rate sufficient to keep up with this; which means that the age and diversity of the Boreal is taking a direct hit, and the Canadian Government are making bare-faced lies about the state of this mighty ecosystem.
In the same chapter, based on my work for The Unsuitablog, I also showed how the Province of Alberta had been using similar statistical tricks (and these are proper underhand tricks, unlike those mentioned in the hacked CRU emails) to make a case for its continued production of oil from tar sands, which are already contributing a significant amount of carbon dioxide to the already overloaded atmosphere. The juxtoposition of these two sets of lies is important because in both cases — the tar sands and the deforestation of temperate areas — this is feeding back into a rapid Arctic warming, that is beginning to blanket the icy north with vegetation, reducing the reflectivity of the land surface and further intensifying global warming.
To add to that, as if it were not bad enough already, the ubiquitous presence of bark beetles is taking advantage of high-stress conditions caused by climate change:
Bark beetles are very picky about what they eat, but in large areas of forest that contain a limited number of tree species that is not a problem for them. The 2006 outbreak of Mountain Pine Beetle – another type of bark beetle – in Colorado, USA, only affected lodgepole pines of a particular age, and no other trees; nevertheless 4.8 million of these trees were killed in that year, and expectations were that the entire 1,000 square mile (2,590 square kilometre) area of lodgepole pines in Colorado would be destroyed, with another 36,000 square miles further north and west in similar peril.
There are a number of factors that affect the likelihood of bark beetle attack. The age of the tree is quite important: the thick bark of older trees provides some resistance, but thick bark also tends to be more fractured, allowing the beetles easier access; older trees also provide much more scope for mass breeding, given the volume of wood available. Another effect of age appears to be the amount of resin a tree is capable of producing: younger trees tend to be more adept at producing resin. Copious production of resin upon attack has been shown to be a tree’s best defence against bark beetles. Overall, old, large trees are more vulnerable to attack than young ones, which makes the impact of the bark beetle particularly significant in terms of scale. Resin production is something also affected by the health of a tree: the Colorado attack followed a long-term drought, leaving the trees unable to produce sufficient sap. There is also a situation where we can once again use the concept of Degree Days.
Remember that in Chapter 3 [of "Time's Up!"] we found that the amount of time the temperature stayed above a certain threshold allowed the calculation of the speed at which a nematode could grow and reproduce. The same applies to bark beetles. According to a report from 2004: “The spruce bark beetle is strongly affected by the ambient temperature. A higher frequency of storm damage events and a higher temperature can increase the risk for a build-up of a large population.” High temperatures can bring out the worst in bark beetles. Storm damage is an important factor too, for a dead tree is not able to produce sap, making itself a perfect habitat for bark beetles.
It all sounds pretty bleak, which is one reason why climate change denial is such a tempting option — it’s much easier to pretend something isn’t happening than to fully account for the potential impact of change that is, at least partly, your fault. Inevitably, the effects of climate change will continue to be felt for many years, even if emissions can be brought down to well below 350 parts per million: but unsustainable deforestation can be stopped by refusing to buy the products of the companies and governments involved; tar sands extraction can be stopped by massively reducing oil consumption; and even anthropogenic global warming can be eventually stopped, if we are prepared to stop being party to a global system that sees trees, fish, soil, water and air as nothing more than “resources”.
Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, which is published by Chelsea Green in the USA, and Green Books in the UK. He is also the founder of The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog. He lives in Essex, UK, with his wife, two children and a much-loved garden.