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Excerpt from Strangely Like War

Bodyguard of Lies (p. 46)

From chapter "Bodyguard of Lies"

We are often told that trees are “a renewable resource.” Living most of my life in the West, much of it in areas under thrall to big timber corporations, I cannot tell you how many bumper stickers I’ve seen—often next to stickers saying, “Get in, sit down, shut up, and hang on,” or, incomprehensibly, “Save a tree, hug a logger,” or even, “My wife tells me I don’t listen, or something like that”—proclaiming that trees are America’s renewable resource. There’s little evidence that forest soils—and therefore trees—are renewable beyond three rotations of cutting and removing, but there’s a deeper point to be made here, having to do with the necessity of propaganda in order to perpetrate violence.

Winston Churchill famously wrote, “In war-time, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” I think Churchill, no stranger to lies both in war and peace, was on to something. But I would modify his statement to make it applicable to a war far more horrific and destructive even than World Wars I or II: our culture’s war on the natural world. In this war, I would say that the truth is so awfulthat it must be, as Churchill noted, “attended by a bodyguard of lies.” These lies can be callously and shrewdly manipulative, fabricated to pacify a public that might be raised to outrage were it not so easily and eagerly misled. Or sometimes the lies are believed by the perpetrators themselves. As Robert Jay Lifton made abundantly clear in his crucial book The Nazi Doctors, it is generally not possible to commit a mass atrocity without first convincing yourself—and not coincidentally others—that what you’re doing is not harmful but instead beneficial. We’re not killing forests, we’re making toilet paper. We’re not killing Jews, we’re purifying the Aryan Race. We’re not killing forests, we’re creating jobs. We’re not invading Russia, we’re gaining lebensraum. We’re not killing forests, we’re preventing wildfires. We’re not killing Indians and stealing their land, we’re fulfilling our manifest destiny to overspread the continent.We’re not killing forests, we’re saving them from disease. We not killing Vietnamese, we’re protecting them from turning Communist, protecting them from themselves. We’re not killing forests, we’re helping the local economy. We’re not killing indigenous peoples and stealing their land, we’re developing natural resources to fuel the global economy.

Deforestation has long been surrounded by a bodyguard of lies far more effective and widespread than beauty strips. Clearcuts become “temporary meadows” and “mimic natural disturbances.” Clearcutting is called “even age management,” or “mechanical fire suppression.” Leaving a few trees in the middle of a clearcut is described as “selective cutting.” Ancient trees are called “decadent,” in the hopes that there will be less outcry over the loss of something already decaying than over the loss of something that was born long before our civilization and its war against nature. Old growth forest is called a “biological desert” despite extensive scientific research showing that natural forests provide habitat for most of the world’s threatened species. Particular animal species are chosen as “indicator species” so that the entire forest ecosystem of interdependent species does not have to be considered as a synergistic whole.

Politicians, corporate journalists, and timber industry spokespeople often trot out lies and obfuscation to justify further deforestation. It is a measure of the insanity of our culture, the paucity of our discourse, and the corruption of corporate journalism that even the most absurdly transparent of these lies and obfuscations are rarely challenged, their inaccurate premises revealed. In order to inoculate readers against the most common of these lies, we’ve listed a few with their common sense rebuttals.

Industry statement: We have more trees today than we had in 1970, on the first Earth Day—even more than we had 70 years ago.

First, note the use of the possessive we have. But trees don’t belong to us anymore than do water or air. Rather they belong to themselves. Second, note that those in the industry begin their sample thirty or seventy years ago, after much of the forest had already been hammered by logging. That’s a classic statistical trick: to narrow the window sufficiently to seem to make your point, then present this window as though it applies universally. For example, we’ve seen timber industry apologists write that increases in pronghorn antelope populations since early in the twentieth century means, “Forest management helps wildlife.” This is just plain silly, not only because pronghorn antelope live nowhere near forests but instead in high plains, deserts, and grasslands, meaning we may as well attribute their recovery to the success of the New York Yankees, but, more to the point, because as soon as our culture arrived in the arid West, they commenced wiping out antelope, reducing their population from pre-conquest estimates of ten to fifteen million individuals in herds that rivaled those of the buffalo to a low of less than twenty-seven thousand in 1924. Since that time populations have recovered to about 700,000. If you begin your accounting in 1924, this seems a huge success: we’ve seen an increase of twenty-five times! If you broaden your analysis, however, you see the real effects of our extractive culture on these creatures: a reduction of population by 85 to 95 percent.

What’s more, the spokespeople pull an even more disingenuous—and classic—statistical trick here, too, which is to conflate incomparable items as though they’re identical. Wood fiber is not a natural tree, small trees are not big trees, and trees in plantations do not make a forest. It is not only absurd but obscene to conflate—as they’re doing here—ten-inch seedlings to massive trees a thousand years old. Only 20 percent of the world’s original forest survives as frontier forest, that is, relatively undisturbed forest in large enough tracts to be shaped by natural events and to support viable populations of native plants and wildlife. Seventy-six countries have already lost all of their frontier forest. Plantations don’t count.

In human terms, once a native forest is cut, it’s gone forever. Many years ago, I said to Dick Manning—who wrote The Last Stand, which is about how he was fired as a corporate journalist for telling the public what was happening to the forests of Montana—how wonderful I thought it would be if we were to set aside more and more forests, and in five hundred years these might once again be old growth. He pointed out to me that first, many of the species have been at the very least regionally extirpated, so they might not come back, and more importantly, because some trees live five hundred or a thousand years, in five hundred years a forest will not have been even once through the nutrient cycle, with no trees having grown to old age, died, rotted, and become new trees. It takes thousands of years for a forest to become a fully functioning climax forest, with all the parts working together.

To even imply that a tree farm on a forty- or fifty- or sixty-year rotation remotely resembles a living forest is either extraordinarily and willfully ignorant, or intentionally deceitful. Either way, those who make such statements aren’t fit to make forestry decisions.

Industry statement: There are millions of acres of old growth trees in the United States.

This is true, but misleading. There are 24.6 million acres of forest that are at least one hundred and fifty years old—less than 5 percent of the total forest in the U.S. There are 9.7 million acres of trees that are at least 200 years old—less than 2 percent of the total forest area in the U.S. For comparison, just one timber corporation, Weyerhaeuser, claims 5.7 million acres of timberland in the United States. Plum Creek Timber claims 7.7 million acres in nineteen U.S. states. International Paper controls 12 million acres in the U.S. Of course these timber company lands are no longer old-growth: they are tree plantations, stands of second- or third-growth trees in varying conditions of health.

Our culture kills forests. The 20 percent of the world’s original forest cover that survives as frontier forest generally does so because it is remote. Only 8 percent of the world’s forests are under even nominal protection.

Worse, many of the surviving stands of ancient trees are fragmented by roads, and too small to function as habitat for wildlife. The sad fact is that even if they’re spared from chainsaws they’re still not likely to remain in old-growth condition because of blow-downs and other sources of mortality to which small stands are susceptible.

Industry statement: The forests need to be cut down to provide jobs.

The wood and paper industry and its markets are now global, with only a handful of companies left to compete. Over the past generation, employment has gone down as production has gone up. As companies continue to merge in order to reduce industry overcapacity and boost market share, they shed jobs. In the 1970s and 1980s, the number of paper mills in the U.S. decreased by 21 percent, but the average output per paper mill increased by 90 percent. Paper production in that period increased by 42 percent, while employment in the industry decreased by 6 percent. The amount of timber cut in the U.S. increased 55 percent, while the number of logging and sawmilling jobs decreased by 10 percent, or 24,000 jobs. In just one decade (1987-1997), employment in U.S. pulp mills decreased by 2,900 jobs, and employment in paper mills decreased by 12,100 jobs. Output per employee in the U.S. paper industry has increased four-fold in the last 50 years. The wave of consolidation in the pulp and paper industry that began in the late 1990s is expected to cost another 50,000 jobs.

Any journalist with a shred of integrity would never have positioned the debates during the 1990s over forest protection in the Pacific Northwest as “jobs versus owls,” but instead perhaps “jobs versus automation, mergers, and downsizing.” To frame the debate this way, however, would not serve the interests of those in power, would it?

Industry statement: We need roads and logging to put out forest fires.

Fire is a natural phenomena, necessary for healthy ecosystem functioning. Most natural forest fires are caused by lightning, and they usually burn a very small area. Most large catastrophic fires are caused by industrial humans, often through the use of logging equipment or through slash burning following clearcutting. And catastrophic fires generally take place in areas that have been previously clearcut and replaced with unhealthy stands of crowded, small, even-aged trees. The Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project Final Report to Congress put it succinctly: “Timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate, and fuel accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent [sic] human activity.”

Industry statement: Forestry improves wildlife habitat, and in fact is good for forests.

As mentioned before, we need to ask what sorts of wildlife benefit from forestry, that is, from the conversion of forests to at best tree farms, and quite often moonscapes. Creatures requiring forest interiors or large unfragmented habitat are consistently harmed. Anyone who does not understand—or who otherwise ignores—this distinction is qualified neither to make nor influence decisions affecting the fate of forests.

Corporate journalists routinely parrot the industry line that industrial forestry is necessary for forest health. We’ve never seen any of them bother to ask the obvious next question: how then did forests possibly survive before the arrival of industrial foresters?

Industry statement: The industry is improving. Forestry operations are becoming more sensitive.

This is the classic line of exploiters everywhere, from perpetrators of domestic violence to dictators to heads of corporations. There may have been some problems in the past, but things have changed. We need to forget all that now, get on with our lives, and live for today.

There are some words in the domestic violence movement to describe those who believe these statements: they’re called codependents, sometimes enablers, often victims, sometimes dead.

There are some words in the environmental movement, too, to describe those who believe the forest versions of these statements: they’re called corporate journalists, timber industry hacks, and co-opted environmentalists.

Rates of deforestation continue to rise, populations of forest-dependent creatures continue to plummet, in many countries timber corporations often kill those who oppose their depradations, and we’re supposed to believe that the industry is improving? How stupid do those in power really believe we are? More to the point, if they themselves by some doubtful possibility actually believe these lies, how stupid must they be?

Further, and almost never remarked in the corporate press, almost half of the cutting worldwide is illegal, not even obeying the lax environmental laws and timber royalty standards in place.

Industry statement: We need wood and paper products, so we need industrial foresty.

This is nonsense. The world is awash in wood and paper products. Much of what is manufactured is wasted. Much of what is manufactured is unnecessary: disposable cups and chopsticks, tissue, and packaging. And paper does not need to be made out of wood fiber, and rarely was until the last century.