CAN DEFINITELY SEE THE WOOD AND THE TREES
Researching a few scolytids recently, I was prompted to take a look at the European timber trade. And I wish I had not. The statistics are interesting and provide an insight into just how important the trade is for Europe; the EU accounts for about 5% of the world’s forests, and the forested area is slowly increasing; between 1990 and 2020 it increased by almost 10%, with the largest percentage (69%) increase seen in Ireland, and the largest absolute increase (about 4.7 million ha.) seen in Spain. In many terms this data is very encouraging because all the good things provided by woodland, such as soil stabilization, carbon sequestration and opportunities for therapeutic and other types of recreation are increased, not to mention the obvious benefits for wildlife. Just as impressive is that forestry and timber production accounted for 0.2% of total EU GDP in 2019 and employed about 517000 people. Finland has the largest percentage of forested land area with about 74%, Sweden comes next with about 69%, no surprises there, the UK is ranked at number 38 with about 13%, and for interest Iceland is second from last with 0.51%, ahead of Monaco. So it seems we have a lot of woodland! In context this is not so impressive, as forests cover about 31 % of the world’s total land area, which amounts to about 4 billion hectares. Of this about 1.2 billion hectares are managed for commercial timber production, but this figure has decreased by about 50 million hectares since 1990 as forests have been earmarked for other purposes. The taiga accounts for about 29% of the world’s forests and includes mostly conifer woodland, by far the largest portion of which is in Russia. Many very interesting statistics are readily available and many of these are really sobering; the global value of forest products in 2020 was 244 billion dollars, and commodities such as sawn wood, plywood and paper are measured in hundreds of millions of tonnes, while round wood is measured in thousands of millions of tonnes. This includes data that is available, but I’ve no doubt that plenty of other commercial activity goes on that is not so readily accessible. A striking aspect of this is just the sheer volume and detail of available data, the printing of which must account for a decent-sized woodland, and the pointless analysis of which would surely keep an average university in PhD students for as long as it would take to reforest the continent of Africa. As usual I am not going to provide loads of links and references because, pretty and sciency as they tend to make articles look, I think that any interested party should put in a little effort and begin researching stuff for themselves. (I also think that too many people take stuff on line at face value, which means that much of what they believe is crap, and that most of the opinions formed from such crap only goes to make them look stupid). Since much of this trade in timber includes lots of tropical rain forests and ancient temperate woodland, I shall leave the statistics there because it becomes too upsetting to discuss the topic.
So what has this got to do with beetles? Well, lots of beetles like to eat trees, and the industry would rather make money out of trees than see them eaten by beetles, so an absolute fortune is spent on researching and applying methods to kill these beetles without, at least ostensibly, fucking up the ecosystems involved. This is rather a stupid concept because the commercial production of timber by definition fuck’s up the local ecosystem. But that’s fair enough, we do not mind too much because most people will never go to Norway or Sweden anyway, and for the majority that do, the last thing they want to do is to trek through sub-arctic Taiga admiring the trees. On the other hand people really do want to be able to nip down to Ikea or wherever and buy small and suitably-processed packages of timber products with which to enhance their homes, and by extension their lives. All this has nothing whatever to do with why I am writing this, but I wanted to put a little context into the piece before I get to the real point and begin some serious bitching and moaning.
Firstly, a little more context. I like to eat meat, don’t most people? It’s really nice! I often get out for a cooked breakfast or a decent meal, and these usually involve a fair amount of meat. As do my twice-yearly or so roast dinners. But in general I avoid meat, and I cannot go near a butcher’s counter as it makes me feel a bit queasy to see arrays of sliced-up animals. I avoid it because I cannot help but imagine the desperate suffering and disgusting lifestyles of the animals involved. But again, people do not seem to mind because we must feed and we will accept whatever it takes in order to achieve this. And, basically, to hell with the consequences. But I must be too sensitive here because the consequences of modern animal production systems weigh too heavily on my mind. I cannot imagine a more abused species than the chicken, and for this reason I rarely partake of the end-product. But that’s my problem; it’s as simple as that. Colonel Sanders will always get more support than I will. And to be honest I’ve eaten the stuff myself, and it’s very nice.
It is easy to see why so many people are concerned about animal cruelty, and equally so why they sometimes decide to make a nuisance of themselves by protesting or by taking other equally public actions. I agree with them but I am pragmatic and stoic enough to see that such actions are pointless because there is too much at stake (or should that be steak?) for anything to change. But I do not see any concern about cruelty to plants. This takes many forms, all of which we find quite acceptable because we assume plants to be unfeeling and unthinking. And this for obvious reasons. Plants are, put simply, mechanisms that transform certain molecules into certain other molecules using energy from the sun in order to do so. As a by-product they maintain all the other life on earth, they also die and in doing so offer an opportunity for the planet to store lots of the unused energy and so maintain a climate congenial for their existence. Useful for us also because they feed us and allow us to make wardrobes and all the rest of it. Beyond trying to control the rate at which they grow, we have no need to consider their well-being at all. Somebody posted on Facebook recently that research has shown insects can feel pain. This stating of the bleeding obvious is among the reasons why I am becoming disillusioned with much of modern science, but it does demonstrate that such trivially obvious things can be taken seriously and that people are willing to publish articles about them without embarrassment and expect to be taken seriously. I am not suggesting for one moment that plants can think or feel pain; having studied neurophysiology I have some insight as to why this cannot be so. But plants have been around for some considerable time, and they have undergone a lot of evolution. For these reasons I cannot help but think that plants do have some sense of ‘being’, and that, just as they can react to environmental changes, they might also react in some way to mass slaughter, or to mass abuse. And if they do then we are causing lots of suffering. This should not bother us in any way, especially when viewed in relation to the suffering we cause to those animals that are essential to us. But it does bother me, not so that I would shout about it or sit and worry about it, but nonetheless it does. This maybe because I am very sensitive about such things, but that’s my problem.
There are documentaries on You Tube about the forestry industry which demonstrate how very powerful machines are used to harvest wood in northern conifer forests. These very impressive machines can grab hold of trees, insert a blade just below the ground and cut through the trunks, then rip off all the branches and cut the trunks into convenient sized logs and pile them neatly for other machines to come and collect them. In many cases the destruction of each tree takes less than a minute, and the process goes on all day long.
The most profitable way to sustain this process is to grow trees quickly and uniformly. This very obviously involves controlling any natural factors that might adversely affect the rate of growth or the condition of the trees, and this inevitably involves poisoning or trapping or controlling in some other way the animals that like to feed on trees. These include scolytids and many other beetles, all of which are part of the forest ecology. In some sense it is less destructive to maintain and harvest vast conifer plantations in northern latitudes than it is to maintain vast monocultures in cleared rain forests, because the conifers being cultured are not so different to the natural woodland. Clearing rain forests for palm oil production very seriously fucks the biodiversity. Culturing conifers not so much. But the associated control of natural pests and diseases causes untold damage to the general ecosystem. We should be careful about this, but we’re not because there is too much money involved. As any gardener knows, ripping a plant out of the ground or even cutting it to pieces will not necessarily kill it because with the appropriate skill and care a small part of the part-technically that which includes meristmatic tissue-can be cultured and encouraged to grow into a complete plant. In this sense these poor trees are not dead even after extensive abuse, rather they die very slowly over the months following harvesting, and this may cause suffering that we are not aware of. These things make me angry, but equally so does our complete disregard for something that, for the meantime at least, we do not understand; which is our complete ignorance of the potential suffering we are causing these magnificent trees.