Claims to Virtue

There’s a place I know near Spokane where the clearcuts wrap around a mountain, drop into a valley, climb the nearby ridge, and cut a swath deep into the next watershed. Last fall I walked those clearcuts, past whitened slash piles of wood dead a dozen years and past the dead green limbs of this year’s cut, and in ten consecutive miles I never once came within twenty yards of a live tree.


The forests of the Inland Northwest have been hammered by logging. Seventy percent of the streams in North Idaho are clogged by logging-induced sediment. Habitat damage from logging has caused Idaho to reduce the elk season in many prime hunting areas from two months to as little as two weeks. Fisheries and wildlife are in universal decline. In an attempt to pacify an increasingly outraged public while still cutting the forests, the Forest Service has long since taken to calling old-growth trees “overmature” or “decadent,” and has recently begun to call clearcuts “temporary meadows.” In Idaho and possibly elsewhere, the Forest Service has been known to keep two sets of computer inventories, one containing the number of trees actually standing, the other containing grossly inflated numbers and claiming there are thick forests where in actuality there are clearcuts or meadows. The Forest Service has used this second inventory, known as a phantom forest, for public consumption and to feed the computer programs that tell forest sale planners how many trees to sell.

Computer models notwithstanding, it has become impossible to hide the logging-induced damage from anyone who walks in the forest. Now, in a campaign as disingenuous, blatant, and nonsensical as anything in Orwell’s 1984, transnational timber companies, the Forest Service are attempting to use the damaged state of the forests to justify further cutting. Timber industry organizations are flooding the media in Appalachia, the Southwest, and here in the Inland Northwest with advertisements and press releases saying that the only way to keep the forests from dying is through a massive and immediate program of cutting. Significantly, the advertisements fail to mention that industrial forestry is the cause of the forest’s problems in the first place.

Recently, Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas has assisted the timber industry by redefining “forest health.” According to the Forest Service’s new definition, forest health has nothing to do with the presence or absence of fish or wildlife, and in fact has nothing to do with a forest at all. Instead, the new definition has only to do with timber extraction: “A desired state of forest health is a condition where biotic and abiotic influences do not threaten resource management objectives now or in the future.”

Western politicians such as Larry Craig are currently helping the timber industry in this plan by attempting to legislatively provide “exemptions from environmental laws for logging needed to improve forest health.”

It doesn’t take a cognitive giant to see that if this logging were truly “needed to improve forest health” there would be no need to exempt it from environmental laws. In fact the only difficult cognitive task in this whole business is understanding how so many people could involve themselves in a plan so blatantly and absurdly destructive as attempting to use massive logging to fix logging-induced damage. Fortunately, though, the work of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, the world’s foremost authority on the psychology of genocide and mass destruction, provides a clue toward understanding this otherwise incomprehensible plan.

Before you can commit any act of mass destruction you must convince yourself and others that your activity is not in fact destructive but instead beneficial. You must, as Lifton has made clear, have a “claim to virtue.” This was true of the Crusaders, who killed, looted, and raped their way across southern Europe and the Near East under the banner of purifying the holy lands, and it was true as well of the nazis, who murdered six million Jews and millions of others in an effort to revitalize the”Nordic race.” It is true today of the big timber corporations, the Forest Service, and many western politicians.

The forests of this continent have long suffered under “claims to virtue.” The early European colonists, on their arrival in North America, saw it as their task to Christianize the natives and to make a profit on the side. Captain John Chester put it succinctly: the natives were to gain “the knowledge of our faith,” while the Europeans would acquire “such ritches as the country hath.” These “ritches” included the dense forests of New England. Under the claim to virtue of spreading the Christian faith, the colonists committed genocide, and at the same time cut down these native forests.

Soon the claim to Christianization was dropped, and the rationalization for the destructiveness became “Manifest Destiny,” the tenet that the territorial expansion of the United States was not only inevitable but divinely ordained. Before the United States could expand, however, the land’s original inhabitants had to be removed. This necessitated destroying hundreds of human cultures and killing or placing on reservations millions of human beings. It also necessitated killing between 45 and 70 million buffalo and more than 20 million pronghorn antelope. At this time the native forests of the Midwest fell to the axe.

Manifest Destiny as a claim to virtue soon evolved into the ideal of making money. An enterprise was deemed to be good it is was profitable, no matter the destruction it caused. Under the new motivation the native forests once again suffered: A publicist for Northern Pacific, the company that eventually spawned Weyerhaeuser, Potlatch, Boise Cascade, and Plum Creek, described the forests as “a rich heiress waiting to be appropriated and enjoyed.” For more than a century these timber companies have appropriated and enjoyed this region’s forests, until today the combined worth of these corporations is well over $20 billion.

As the effects of industrial forestry have become increasingly clear–as the fisheries have collapsed, the biodiversity been decimated, the communities fragmented, and the once-rich forests converted to tree-farms–corporate profitability has lost its effectiveness as a claim to virtue. The big timber corporations have had to take to heart the words of the psychologist R.D. Laing: “Exploitation must not be seen as such. It must be seen as benevolence.”

This is where “forest health,” as prescribed by timber companies and the Forest Service, comes into play. One of a spate of recent timber industry advertisements, for example, shows two pictures, one containing a few standing trees and the other showing the aftermath of a forest fire. The caption states, “One of these Idaho forests was selectively logged in 1994. . . . One of them wasn’t”, implying that logging creates a healthy forest and the lack of logging creates destructive forest fires. This implication is misleading on two counts; the multibillion dollar corporate sponsors are ignoring both the natural role of fire in these forests and the fact that many of the biggest fires of 1994 burned through areas that had already been roaded and logged. The advertisement continues by making the even more misleading claim that “appropriate harvesting is essential to the survival of forests, wildlife, and our way of life.” This statement ignores, of course, the millennia these forests (including the wildlife that make them up) have survived without the assistance of a single chainsaw.

The advertisements contain even more significant problems, however. The first is that the fires that occurred in north-central Washington, central Idaho, and other areas during 1994 were not the catastrophic events that corporations and the Forest Service have portrayed them to be and that have been exploited by the media as such. In most places the fires burned slowly, creating small openings and snags, diversifying habitat and providing nutrients to the soil. When viewed from a landscape perspective, these fires were exactly what the forest needed, and were well within intensity levels to be expected after extended drought, industrial logging, sloppy disposal of slash piles, and fifty years of fire suppression. The fires were painful in terms of loss of human life, as well as economically expensive, but to continue to depict forest fires as bad or purely destructive, as the timber corporations are doing, is to perpetuate a falsehood that leads to shortsighted “solutions” that have proved time and again to be mistakes. Fires, a natural occurrence, must not be used as a justification to log off, thin out, or otherwise diminish the biological potential of the forest to bring itself back to a balanced state.

In using the “forest health” ploy, the timber industry is merely following a trend the Forest Service began in the 1980s. Forest Service timber sale planners have for years regularly proposed huge timber sales under the pretext of improving forest health. One not-atypical example should suffice: the reasoning for the recent Upper Sunday Timber Sale (which targets mainly mature and old growth trees, and includes over a square mile of glorified clearcuts) is that “while insect and disease populations are currently at endemic levels, there is a potential for spruce bark beetle populations to reach epidemic proportions.” In other words, the Forest Service justifies cutting these admittedly healthy trees on the grounds that if left standing they may someday get sick.

The aforementioned Larry Craig is not the only Senator helping the transnational timber corporations to access the National Forests. Western Senators such as Bob Packwood ($101,000 in timber PAC money between 1987-1994), Mark Hatfield ($90,786), and Slade Gorton ($83, 679) seek to improve forest health, so they say, by exempting many Forest Service sales not only from environmental regulations but also from citizen oversight.

It’s all insane. Whether it was medieval crusaders looting for the greater glory of god, nazis murdering Jews for the sake of the master race, or transnational corporations cutting trees for the sake of forest health, the result is the same: massive and inexcusable destruction. And it is the inexcusable nature of the destructive activity itself that necessitates the perpetrator make a claim to a higher good. This claim, then, is a mask to conceal one’s real intent from one’s victims and especially from oneself. As has been made clear by Lifton, none of the physicians selecting prisoners to be gassed at Auschwitz would have been able to live with themselves or would have been able to perform as cogs in the nazi machine of destruction had they not been able to convince themselves they were acting in the best interests of the world, and even in some cases in the best interests of the Jews themselves.

Take, for example, the nazi physicians’ use of phenol to control tuberculosis, typhus, and other contagious diseases. Children, adults who had long been on the medical block, and other inmates who were ill or had the potential to become ill were selected for injection. The physician or technician filled the syringe from the phenol bottle and thrust the needle into the heart of the patient, emptying the contents of the syringe. Most patients fell dead almost immediately, although some lived for seconds or even minutes. The physicians–“healers”–killed their patients ostensibly to prevent the outbreak of disease.

So it was in Germany, so it is in the forests today. It is easy to marvel at the way individual nazis, and indeed an entire nation, provided themselves with moral justification for murder; the nazi credo stands as a testament to the human capacity for self-deception. It is more difficult, however, to see this same process of justification at work in our own culture. None of this is to say that the destruction of the forests is identical to the Holocaust; it is to say that both activities involve mass destruction taking place under the guise of benevolence.

The “forest health” advertising campaign, absurd as it may be, has so far been successful at confusing the public. How has this happened?

The first answer is that these companies are very wealthy and are effective at using that wealth to subvert public process. This was recognized at least as long ago as 1940, when Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace wrote, “In a democracy, individual understanding of problems and an aroused public opinion are essential to constructive action. It is my considered judgment that in the Northwest true understanding of the forest problems and the development of an aroused public opinion have been delayed mainly by the hired men of the forest industries who have been adroit in issuing misleading propaganda.” He continued, “Actually the purpose is to justify with some kind of rationalization cutting practices dictated by conventional and short-term investment and divident considerations. These, and not good forestry practice based on public interest, are the determining considerations.”

The same subversion of democracy happens today, whether in the form of the “jobs versus owls” debate, in which the public was bombarded with the number of jobs lost to habitat preservation but never exposed to the far greater number of jobs lost because of raw log exportation or mill automation, or whether it is the current debate over forest health, in which everyone encounters paid timber industry advertisements but few hear the voices of conservation biologists.

There is another reason that few question the claims of the timber corporations: to do so would inevitably lead to increasingly difficult questions about the role of our governmental representatives in the destruction of the forests, and to questions about the sustainability of our industrial way of life. I recently asked Grey Reynolds, deputy to Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, “If we discover that industrial forestry is indeed incompatible with biodiversity, what then?” His one sentence response–“What do you want us to do, live in mud huts?”–was revealing in its dismissiveness. Ask yourself the question Grey Reynolds refused to answer: If we discover that industrial forestry is incompatible with biodiversity, what then?

And then ask yourself another: How do we stop the destruction of the forests? As a partial answer, I would like to return once more to Robert Jay Lifton and his study of nazi doctors. Lifton found that most of the nazi doctors he studied were ordinary people: “Neither brilliant nor stupid, neither inherently evil nor particularly ethically sensitive, they were by no means the demonic figures–sadistic, fanatic, lusting to kill–people have often thought them to be.” These ordinary human beings became killers precisely because they never asked themselves how to stop the destructiveness that was Auschwitz’s raison d’etre, and instead adapted themselves to Auschwitz and to the committing of atrocities. They adapted themselves–and this is as true today for all of us who participate in a culture that is destroying the forests as it was centuries ago for those who participated in the Crusades–by claiming to themselves and to others that their own actions were virtuous. So the first step toward stopping the destruction is to recognize that it is in fact destruction. Industrial forestry destroys forests. Ask any conservation biologist, or anyone who hunts or fishes. Better yet, walk the clearcuts yourself.

As you’re walking, ask: What is the appropriate response to a government willing to lie and to destroy our natural heritage to further enrich transnational corporations? What is the appropriate response to Larry Craig’s so-called Forest Health Bill, an act which simultaneously destroys forests, democracy, and integrity? If our governmental system, and the transnational corporations it represents, are destructive of life, liberty, and truth, what options are left to concerned and responsible citizens? We must recognize that we have the power to stop the destructiveness. The question is–when are we going to exercise it?

Published in “The Pacific Northwest Inlander” in March 1995.
Republished in “Native Voice” and in “Wild Forest Review” in June 1995.
Republished in the August 1999 (Volume 13, Number 2) issue of Transitions.

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