Monday, August 31, 2009

The teetering boreal forests

Well, I guess it's good that Penn State's Eco-Action, MBA programs, along with Greenpeace's Kleerkut campaign worked together to get Kimberly-Clark out of the business of cutting from pristine boreal forests (see here as well). Problem is, homo economicus has encroached on these forests so much that it might be too late.

Science Daily reports,
The world's last remaining "pristine" forest -- the boreal forest across large stretches of Russia, Canada and other northern countries -- is under increasing threat, a team of international researchers has found.

The researchers from the University of Adelaide in Australia, Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada and the National University of Singapore have called for the urgent preservation of existing boreal forests in order to secure biodiversity and prevent the loss of this major global carbon sink.

The boreal forest comprises about one-third of the world's forested area and one-third of the world's stored carbon, covering a large proportion of Russia, Canada, Alaska and Scandinavia.

If you've seen Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth or have been following conservation reports for the last few years, you've heard about the "drunken forests." These are the boreal forests where the permafrost has melted and turned to mud. The large conifers tilt, sink, and fall from their own weight and lack of soil integrity to hold them up. So the problem, like so many others with climate change issues, is complex and difficult.

When I read things like this I can't help but wonder about the incredible nearsightedness of our economic systems and be baffled at the way that the simple language of the profit system we have in place simply places some questions out of bounds. The question, "Should humans cut down boreal forests to make tissues?" never crossed their minds. The "should" of that question comes from a moral concern not just for the forest as a thing that might have intrinsic value (something a lot of environmentalists might believe) but also as a thing that has instrumental value to other organisms - from the moose that wander these forests to the lichens at the trees' bases - and to humans as producers of oxygen.

The problem is that the ethical concern is simply excised from our talk about tissues. "How can tissues be an ethical matter?" As soon as an ecologically sensitive person sees a tissue - or any mass-produced commodity - they ought (uh-oh! another ought!) to wonder about the ecological and social impact of that commodity and evaluate its potential impacts on the natural environment(s), the human social or cultural environment(s), and the economic environment(s). What this means, ethically speaking anyway, is that our economy's speed and growth might actually need to slow and retract.

I have a bit of trouble now wondering how a nation that is "the most educated in the world" simply does not ask questions like this about its own practices. How can "educated" people believe that it is in their own "enlightened self-interest" to have an endless growth economy when it's very clear natural consequence is the contraction or death of the very systems that sustain them? That might be a begged question. I've assumed that the answer is that we can't be "educated" and "enlightened" if as a people we are willfully committing ecocide.

Be that as it may (because I am prone to doom and gloom), I think it's worthwhile applauding Kimberly-Clark for responding appropriately. But note that they only did this because of an enormous amount of public and business pressure. They did not do this because of their own ethical concerns; they did it to prevent more profits from bleeding. Now, if we can just "educate" people in primary, secondary, and higher education to understand that economic actions ought to really be ecological, social, and economic. Perhaps, as future teachers with sustainability in mind, this can be part of what we do.

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