Monday, March 10, 2014

The Speed of Life

Sometime in the late 1980s I got interested in what I called "the speed of life."  Life was getting faster in many ways, as the economy and society were demanding that human life be governed by the maximum speeds allowed by new technologies. 

I began researching what turned out to be a potentially huge subject.  I worked on book proposals and article ideas, but perhaps the only evidence in actual print was an oped published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 1993.

Since then the challenge of technology and how it is used to human biology, psychology, relationships, families, peace of mind etc. has only grown.  The factors involved in accelerating the speed of life are more complex than faster machines.  Cell phones for example may not in themselves make for faster communication, but their portability means that people are more accessible--in fact, in the cliche that established itself in the mobile phone era--they are connected 24/7.  And because they can be accessible all the time, employers often expect that they must be accessible all the time.  There is no escape from work demands, and so everything else gets crowded into less time, which accelerates the speed of life.  

It's true of social life as well, thanks to texting and social media. Smart phone compete on the basis of how fast they can deliver information, so that people can instantly act on it.  

So aspects of this phenomenon I noted in the 90s have only gotten worse.  Particularly workplace pressures--I just saw a reference to post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of such pressures.

In the years since my researches began, a number of books have been published on the general subject of speed (including James Gleick's Faster) and "the speed of life" has been attached to television shows, sermons, etc.  

 When that 1993 oped was published I learned that it had been tacked up on bulletin boards at workplaces all over Pittsburgh.  An editor at the P-G called me her hero.  What follows is a re-ordering of that piece, plus more from a longer essay.



The Speed of Life

From the Pony Express to the expressway, America has always loved speed.  We invented a culture based on the efficiency of the assembly line and time-saving technology, on rapid promotion and upward mobility, the can-do and the quick fix, instant coffee and instantaneous communication; on fast cars on fast highways making fast deliveries of the newest products, promising quick results and fast, fast relief for those on the fast track.

But now we're not so sure.  America looks increasingly like the land of the frazzled and the home of the frayed.  It's crept up on us unconsciously but now in one way or another we're saying it out loud: we're worried about the speed of life.

According to the U.S. Labor Department, the productivity of American workers increased by 4% in the fourth quarter of 1992, the biggest gain since the early 1970s.  But the February report also showed that there was little new hiring.  "It's good for the improved efficiency of our companies and thus for competitiveness," said a senior economist at Morgan Stanley.  "But it is tough on workers, who are victims of the downsizing that has been required to boost productivity."

Business journalists confirm that with corporate downsizing, each white collar survivor is often doing the work previously done by three or more.  Some would point to the new productivity figures as proof that downsizing has worked but productivity is not the same as efficiency or effectiveness. Sooner or later the snap decisions, the sloppy work, the mail that gets lost or ignored and the phone calls never returned, are going to hurt the bottom line.  But the long-term health of people is at much at stake as the long-term viability of the economy.

Productivity gains are made possible by faster technology.  This results in longer work days, especially as communications and transportation become globalized. But it also means workers operate faster during those hours. The faster information flows and the more accessible everyone is to that flow, the more work there is processing and responding to that information, and the more time is taken up by that work.

Meanwhile, the bathroom breaks as well as the supposed productivity of laborers in electronic sweatshops are monitored by the machines they use.  They either deal with that kind of stress and long hours at their computers and telephones, or deal with the stress of no income.

But that technology also means that fewer workers are needed.  More people are working two and three jobs, spending more time commuting and away from their families--all of which accelerates the daily spin for everyone. The impact of so many frenzied hours scrapping for sustenance sends out devastating ripples through private life and society.  More and more must be done in less and less time. The health and social problems are already apparent: from stress-related chronic illnesses to alcoholism and drug abuse,family abuse and neglect, suicide, and accidents on the job and the highway caused by the sleepy and the wired.

According to Harvard economist Julie Schor, the combination means that Americans in every income category are working much longer hours than forty years ago, and more than in most other advanced societies.  At the same time, others deal with the stress of the job-search treadmill, as the world speeds by.  Schor's The Overworked American sits uneasily on the book shelf next to Jeremy Rifkin's The End of Work.


No institution has felt these impacts more than the family.  When half of American fathers and a third of mothers work more than 40 hours a week, poor parents must often leave children unattended, and even higher income parets rush around from job to child care, schools to swimming lessons, scheduling residual "quality time" when they can.  Meanwhile their hurried children are pressured to learn more faster, take more tests affecting their future sooner, while spending more time in the work world learning valuable lessons in fryer management and smileology.

It's the speed of life that has helped turn the suburban dream of peace and surcease into a blur of entrances and exits, and made the famous New York Minute about 45 seconds too long.  Today for both the fast track man (who sometimes takes more parenting and household responsibility) and superwoman (fighting traffic and running the rat race while still being mom) "having it all" seems to include having a nervous breakdown.

While time management consultants offer to start with six year olds, the tension of over-organized lives can reach the breaking point--we never know when one of us will snap like elastic, like an over-regimented postal worker with a grievance-loaded gun.  The Girl Scouts now give a merit badge in stress management.

Information floods us constantly but it blips and vanishes faster than we can take it in.  Every item masquerading as vital knowledge in the competing clutter is a perishable product clamoring for our attention so insistently that inflated claims and distortions routinely add to the constant rush of inescapable ballyhoo.

Our memories are overrun, and our battle to just keep up obliterates our appreciation of the present and our vision of the future, so today we are literally destroying the forest for the trees.  In what Joni Mitchell memorably called this "land of snap decisions, land of short attention spans," we are overbooked, overextended, overstimulated and overloaded, but we are also spiritually, intellectually and experientially underfed.


The general effect is that more and more of us are exceeding the human speed limit.  Our problem is that we are not made of silicon and plastic.  We are flesh and blood.  We are not tireless machines powered by electric current.  Time is part of our nourishment.  We do not operate at the speed of light.  We live at the speed of life.

As individuals and as a society, constantly breaking the speed barrier of life not only makes us crazy and sick, it leaves us with split focus, divided selves and cognitive dissonance that have become the norm.  Leisure is disappearing, and so is civility, craftsmanship and reflection.  We're outrunning our own senses--of sight, smell, taste and hearing as well as of perspective, decency, hope and humor.

Time seems abstract and ethereal until you realize you don't have enough of it.  Then it becomes clear that time is the very substance of life.  But the quandary is how to slow down without giving up; how to get control of the speed of life.

Even in tough economic times--in fact especially then--we need to think about this.  We will need the creativity, judgment and sense of values only time can allow.  And we need rest.  Despite our manic diversions, we have fewer traditions and rituals for real rest and relaxation than probably any culture in the world.  We act as if sleep is a shameful crime against efficiency rather than an integral and restorative part of life.

So we may have been more productive in the fourth quarter, whatever that really means.  But in addition to a sustainable economy and sustainable environment with sustainable energy sources, we must find a speed of life that we can sustain, and that can sustain us.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Penn's Hard Woods

This is my text before editing of an article published in the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine July 25, 1993. The biggest cut was most of the Gifford Pinchot section. This was my first sustained yield on forest issues, and I may have been too easy on foresters---but that might be subsequent years in California talking. I learned a lot on this piece, especially from my old friend, Michael D. Krempasky, who has worked on PA environmental issues as director of a nonprofit watchdog organization and then within state government for most of his career. Thanks again, Mike.

It turns out that this work of a neophyte is now cited in various official documents including at least one by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania itself.   

For more up to date statistics on Pennsylvania forests, particularly its state forests, try this site.  Obviously other elements in this story have changed in 20 years, such as the destination of logs (China would be my guess.)  There are also new concerns about widespread drilling for natural gas in state forests.  But at the very least, this piece provides historical perspective.  The key paragraph--that Pennsylvanians don't pay much attention to forest issues in this heavily forested state--I'm pretty sure still pertains.


PENN'S HARD WOODS

They're the most valuable hardwoods in America and maybe the world. Who cuts them and who profits? And will we lose our forests for the trees?

By WILLIAM SEVERINI KOWINSKI

 The snow is blowing across U.S. Route 80 in Clarion County. It coats the exit ramp and layers along the silent road to St. Petersburg, a town that on this cold Tolstoyan morning in January seems aptly named.

About halfway between the highway exit and the tiny town center, a gravel road cuts through the trees to George Freeman's land. In the field behind the picturesque red barn there are rows of seedling trees, each in its own plastic coat to protect it from nibbling deer, part of a tree farm experiment. But elsewhere on Freeman's 612 forested acres, the order of the day is harvest.

Winter is the preferred season for timber cutting. In Pennsylvania's past, logs were stacked on the river banks to await the spring thaw so they could be floated to sawmills and market. Today, it's partly because the trees are easier to skid on hard ground, which also pleases foresters trying to minimize damage to the forest floor caused by dragging big logs behind heavy machinery.

But mostly it's that cold temperatures preserve the wood better, especially the lucrative veneer. Some of the timber cut across the state this year will go to local sawmills and eventually to manufacturers of wood products, many of them in the Philadelphia area. But many of the best logs have long voyages ahead: they're loaded on trains carrying them to Baltimore and New York, and then onto boats bound for Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, and increasingly to Taiwan, Korea and Japan.

George Freeman's land is home to several species of hardwoods: oaks, poplar, beech and cherry. Deer roam here, sometimes by the dozen, along with other forest creatures. George watched a bear crash by him once; this morning he spotted coyote tracks. But at the moment wildlife is staying out of sight. The only sounds are the roar and whine of the chainsaw.

Down a steep road within a right-of-way already carved out of the landscape for the high tension power lines hissing overhead that carry current from Homer City to Erie, a two man crew from Georgia Pacific is completing a cut of mostly oak and black cherry. These trees are very valuable at the moment. Wood prices have been going up for several years, and so far this is the best year in the last five. 1993 may very well turn out to have the highest prices in the state's history. As prices increased, so did cutting: the rate has more than doubled in the past decade in the areas of the state that sell the most timber.

But this isn't just any wood. Pennsylvania grows the best black cherry in the world, highly prized for veneer. Here is the kind of red oak that Europe craves, and the white ash that is hewn into hockey sticks and Louisville Sluggers. The state's hardwoods are just now coming into commercial maturity in great numbers, at a time when high quality hardwoods from other forests are getting scarce. The result is that right now, Pennsylvania's hardwoods are the most valuable in America, and the most sought after in the world.

Timber is already a major industry in Pennsylvania--our sixth largest, generating 9% of the state's jobs, and 14% of the industrial employment. Pennsylvania leads the nation in the production of hardwood timber, and hosts the country's largest hardwood manufacturing industry.

Despite urbanization and agriculture, almost 60% of the state is covered with forest. According to the just released inventory figures, 93% of this 17 million acres of forest is classified as timberland--appropriate and available for timber harvest. More than 90% of that potential timber is hardwood--oaks, maples, birches, ashes and cherrys. (Softwoods are pines, spruces, cedars, hemlock: the evergreens.)

"It's All Woods!"

Steve Thorne, Goddard Professor of Forestry at Penn State, was Deputy Commission of Natural Resources in Minnesota for 13 years. He remembers what it was like arriving here a year and a half ago. "Your first impression of Pennsylvania from the air is 'its all woods!' When you get on the ground that impression is intensified. The eastern hardwoods are beautiful. These are magnificent trees, equal in many ways to anything you can find in the west. This still is Penn's Woods--it's still a big expanse of contiguous forest."

"But one thing that has perplexed me since I've been here," he adds. "Back where I come from, forests are a major public issue. Here in Pennsylvania, which is one of the most heavily forested states in the country, people don't pay attention to their forests."

But there are issues involving the Pennsylvania forest industry, and the future of the forests themselves.

"There's plenty of timber out there," says Kent Fox, government affairs lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Hardwood Lumber Manufacturing Association. "The problem is being able to access it." His group supports responsible forest practices, but Fox has no patience with environmental groups who try to stop timbering, threatening to recreate a "spotted owl type situation" in Pennsylvania forests. "This is the type of thing that's beginning to generate into a powerful force that threatens the industry," Fox maintains.

Does that mean there's a jobs versus environment problem here? "It's a false dichotomy," says Dr. Cynthia Walter, associate professor of biology at St. Vincent College, and forest ecology research associate with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. " Jobs and environmental degradation don't have to be linked. The real issue is long term versus short term thinking. Unless handled carefully, hardwoods won't be a long term industry." She urges more caution, and in some cases, less cutting.

There is one long term issue that troubles nearly everyone: as this generation of hardwoods is being cut, a new generation is not growing at anywhere near the same rate, especially the most profitable species. The future of Pennsylvania's present hardwood forests is in danger.

A week or so before this snowy morning, even while the cut on his land was progressing, George Freeman took time out to attend a workshop on Forest Stewardship in Monroeville, outside Pittsburgh. Under this program authorized in 1990 and administered nationally by the U.S. Forest Service, the state Bureau of Forestry gives advice and provides some money for small landowners to develop plans to manage their wooded properties. This was the first such meeting held near a large city, and the organizers seemed pleased with the turnout of about two hundred. Another workshop is planned for Philadelphia in late summer.

Some of Pennsylvania's forests are controlled by the federal and state governments, and timber is cut and sold by both. Timber and paper companies own some forested land, but most--some 75% of the total--is in the hands of half a million individual landowners like George Freeman. It's from them that the state's hardwood manufacturing businesses get 80% of their raw timber. What these small landowners do is the key to the forests' future.

Those gathered this Saturday in this windowless function room were mostly men, but about a third were women. Most wore sweaters and slacks, though there were a few tweed jackets scattered in the crowd, only one black and white checked lumberjack shirt, and no ties.

The basic idea of forest stewardship is to get landowners to think about more than their own land and what they can get out of it right now. So to get them thinking about the future, the morning started with James Nelson, Pennsylvania's State Forester, talking about the past.

The Extinction of a Forest
Eastern white pine

It was a cautionary tale. For example, there is no controversy in Pennsylvania as there is in the West over cutting old growth forests, for one simple reason: except for a few protected stands, there is no old growth left. And Pennsylvania has already had its spotted owl. It was called the passenger pigeon.

Back when the peoples of Europe and the Middle East were destroying their abundant forests to clear land for crops and for wood for shipbuilding and fuel--creating the deserts of Syria, the bare rocky slopes of Greece and the treeless fields of western Europe in the process--the people of what came to be called Penn's Woods lived in symbiotic harmony with their lush forests for twenty thousand years. But when Europeans arrived, displacing the Lenni Lenape, the Munsee, the Susquehannock and the Seneca, the trees began to fall.

In 1662, Swedish settlers set up the colony's first sawmill in what would someday be the city of Philadelphia, and the first papermill in America was built there in 1793. So many trees were cut by early colonists that the first conservation measure was instituted by William Penn himself, providing in his 1681 Charter of Rights that one acre of forest should be left for every five acres cleared. Even that was ignored.

Forests were cleared for farm land and towns, and to limit the animals living in them that threatened livestock, crops and people. As historian Robert P. Multhauf wrote, "Wood was thus seen as a menace and its disposal as an urgent 'necessity.'" But from the beginning the trees were also cut for profit, for wood and wood products such as potash sent back to Europe, and for new domestic industries.

In the early 1800s, the thick forests of titanic white pines (100 feet from the ground to the first branch) in north, west and central Pennsylvania were cut for the masts of sailing ships, including the Clippers of Baltimore and Philadelphia. Hemlocks fell to feed the iron industry's enormous hunger for charcoal, and tannin was extracted from the bark for tanneries. By mid century, lumber was the leading manufacturing industry in the United States, and Pennsylvania led the nation in timber production.

As he recites this history, Nelson projects images he's carefully restored from old glass slides and photographs: the huge river rafts for transporting logs and the river booms for storing them which created literal boom towns, such as Williamsport, which created more millionaires in the 1860s than any city before or since; the logging roads and railroads, the lumber camps, timber towns and tanneries that grew overnight and disappeared just as fast, as well as the burned and devastated hillsides. Nelson is himself a product of this history. His Swedish grandfather came to America to work as a logger in the feverish heyday of what's now known as forest mining. His father was born in a logging camp, and became a tanner.

Johnstown Flood
Timber production reached its peak in Pennsylvania in 1899, the same year that rain water roared down tree-denuded hills to end up killing more than 2,000 people and destroying a city in the Johnstown Flood.

The white pines were already gone, and because of the unchecked fires that destroyed their seeds, they never returned. The final blow came in the early 1900s, with the chemical process that could distill any wood species into alcohol for fuel, which resulted in the clearcutting of all remaining forests to feed the biggest wood chemical industry in the world. Together with the fires and a chestnut tree blight, more than 90% of Penn's Woods had been obliterated. "The result of this clearing, burning, lumbering and charcoal making," writes horticulturalist Ernesta Ballard, "was the destruction of our native forest on a scale comparable to the current destruction in the Amazon."

The wolf, cougar, lynx, wolverine, the native elk and even the deer disappeared from Pennsylvania. At least partly because the forests were gone, the once abundant passenger pigeon disappeared from the planet, except as a textbook example of extinction.

The timber companies, some of which had cut their way to Pennsylvania from New England, then left the state for the virgin forests south and west. They sold some of the devastated land dirt cheap (a 19th century American phrase) to the state government, which is why we have state forests. The first two million acres cost less than the 14 acres of Philadelphia's Independence Mall. The Allegheny Plateau of northern Pennsylvania had been so totally logged in just 35 years that it came to be known simply as "the Blackberry Patch," which was all that grew there. The federal government acquired some of it for the Allegheny National Forest.

The great conifer forests that covered most of the state never really came back, but the hardwoods--deciduous trees like oak, cherry and maple--that thrived in the sunlight from the Atlantic to the Appalachians, took over much of the abandoned range. Now at seventy to a hundred years old, the trees of this second generation forest are considered mature, and timber companies are very interested again.

Pennsylvania's second growth forests are valuable now for their quality and quantity. Because of their slower growth, plus the nearly ideal climate and soil, these hardwoods have better texture than those grown farther south. They make good saw wood for boards used to make panelling, doors and furniture. Lower grade wood is cut for railroad ties and pallets for steel mills, and pulped for paper. But the greatest prize is veneer: the sheets of rich-colored wood used for the surfaces of the finest furniture. Because it is sliced so thin (from 1/32 to 1/52 of an inch thick), a single log can yield a lot of very valuable veneer.

The best veneer comes from black cherry, and Pennsylvania has a lot of it. One-third of the world market in black cherry is supplied by the Allegheny National Forest alone.

But in addition to these intrinsic properties, on the world market Pennsylvania's hardwoods probably benefit from the exploitation of other forests. Nigeria, for example, was one of the world's major hardwood log exporters in the 1960s but now has little left to sell. It's the same story elsewhere in Africa, so high prices for the remaining mahogany make black cherry a better buy. Tropical hardwoods from endangered rainforests may also be in shorter supply because pressure from environmental groups has curtailed exports.

So with high prices and lots of trees coming into commercial maturity, there's considerable interest in cutting into Pennsylvania forests. But the situation now is different than it was the last time there was heavy logging. Today few defend or intend to repeat the devastation in Pennsylvania's past. There seems to be a modicum of agreement, cooperation and mutual respect among many in the timber industry, professional foresters and environmentalists, and a certain willingness to work together. But they can still be at loggerheads on some issues.

There are three main branches of the forest-management tree today, and two of them have roots in our state's history. Although Jim Nelson didn't mention him in his presentation to the landowners, one of his predecessors as Pennsylvania's chief forester is the individual most often credited with beginning the change in policies and attitudes about American forests. He's even been called the father of ecology.

"Drenched! You've been out with the President!"

Gifford Pinchot
Gifford Pinchot's family home was in Milford, Pennsylvania, where his grandfather settled after emigrating from France. His father, James Pinchot, made a fortune in dry goods in New York City (and served on the committee in charge of erecting the Statue of Liberty) but built a estate in Milford, where he became involved in the fledgling field of forestry.

Developed in Europe, forestry was so new to America that when at his father's suggestion young Gifford Pinchot went to France in 1889 to learn about it, no other American had yet chosen forestry as a career.

The study of forestry proposed that trees are a crop, like wheat, rather than a resource to be mined, like coal. (So later on, instead of letting it become part of the Department of Interior, Pinchot fought to place the federal Forest Service within the Agriculture Department, where it remains today.) With proper scientific management, trees could be cut, a new crop grown to maturity, and trees harvested again. It was (in the words of a Pinchot biographer) "the art of using a forest without destroying it." The forest had to be used wisely, so it would regenerate. But at the time, even this approach was opposed by powerful timber interests.

Pinchot was a skilled and relentless advocate, comfortable among the powerful who had been coming to his family homes since his childhood. He also loved hiking through the forests, had a reputation for skilled shooting and riding, and in an impromptu boxing match with his friend Teddy Roosevelt, knocked the future President flat.

It was that friendship with the like-minded President Theodore Roosevelt that enabled Pinchot in 1905 to consolidate all federal forest administration in the United States Forest Service, with dominion over 86 million acres of the newly acquired national forest, and with himself as its first chief. The American Forest Congress that Pinchot called in Washington warned that if the timber cutting continued at the then current rate, the nation's forests would be entirely depleted by 1965. Pinchot got new laws with enforcement powers to limit exploitation of the federal forests, and he created a system for administering these vast tracts, while loudly promoting the practice of forestry.

Pinchot and Roosevelt still hiked together in Washington; when Pinchot arrived home muddy and soaking wet one evening, his boyhood nurse exclaimed, "Drenched! You've been out with the President!" Together they effectively promoted the new doctrine of conservation, which held that the nation's "natural resources" were not the exclusive property of great monopolies, and should be managed for future generations as well as all the people.
Governor Pinchot

Pinchot later became Pennsylvania's Forester before twice being elected Governor; his populist first term is still counted among the most successful in Pennsylvania history. Today he is best remembered as a progenitor of environmentalism. After his death in 1946, the Sierra Club affixed a plaque to a Redwood in Muir Woods that calls him "Friend of the Forest/Conserver of the Common-wealth."

Today many government officials who have dominion over the trees as well as many managers in big timber companies hold degrees in forestry. Managing the forest as renewable resource has become the conventional wisdom, and Pinchot's principle of "wise use" is more or less the official doctrine.

But even during his lifetime Pinchot met opposition from a new direction--represented by John Muir himself, founder of the Sierra Club. They clashed over a power project that would flood substantial woodlands in Yosemite National Park. Muir was a proponent of preservation, of protecting the natural beauty and wildness of the forest. (Pinchot won that round.)

Today's forestry establishment has to some extent accommodated Muir's concerns: both the state forests and the Allegheny National Forest set aside wilderness and natural areas, and protect the last old growth stands (a few 400 year old beeches survive.) In their approach called "silvaculture," they manage for wildlife and wilderness as well as future timber.

Still, when the appreciation of "serene, majestic, snow-laden, sun-drenched, vast domes and ridges" or "rocky strength and permanence combined with beauty of plants frail and fine and evanescent" that Muir wrote about are categorized as managing for "aesthetics" and "recreational uses," it seems to lose something in the translation.

When A Tree Falls: Biodiversity
Cook State Forest

These two old streams of thought have been recently joined by a third, which foresters and timber interests are just beginning to understand and include--when they aren't feeling threatened by it. This latest buzz word in the forest (pun intended) is biodiversity.

Fostered by a new generation of ecologists and biologists, the basic idea is that diversity is good for the forest's health, for reasons known (animals that eat tree seeds in one spot and deposit them in another) and not yet fully understood ('cornerstone' species whose disappearance starts a chain of devastating changes). So besides the more familiar environmental concerns of water impurity and soil erosion, there are hot biodiversity issues such as forest fragmentation, or the breaking up of forest corridors more far-ranging species need, especially those that live only deep in the forest interior. The disappearance of once-familiar songbirds in Pennsylvania is thought to be due to fragmentation.

In addition to active and even large-scale management for biodiversity, its advocates urge caution in altering environments we don't understand. Conservation biology is a young science, and a certain humility is one of its current hallmarks.

"We Europeans and descendants of Europeans have only been on this continent for a few hundred years--one or two lifetimes of a tree," Cynthia Walter says. "We're not very experienced. We don't know how many harvests a particular site can handle. The forests of Pennsylvania were treated so brutally in the past, it's a miracle the hardwoods have come back as well as they have. Now these same sites are being disturbed less than a century later. We look back with horror at those who destroyed the forests the first time. How do we know that a hundred years from now, somebody isn't going to say of us, 'they had the ecology, they had the biology to know better what they were doing, but they went ahead and harvested at this rate and with these methods'? Will they look back at us and say we blew it?"

But to some in the forest industry, this talk implies unnecessary and harmful limitations on timber cutting. The Hardwood Lumber Manufacturers Association represents some 400 sawmills, paper and pulp companies, and is working with a number of other forest product groups in an industry notorious for its independence. They have their own forestry and biodiversity concerns, but they also worry about local ordinances that restrict timber harvesting on private lands, too little cutting permitted on state land, and the increasing number of environmental appeals that at least temporarily stop timbering in the national forest.

In fact, the appeal process at Pennsylvania's only national forest is the only way citizens can stop or alter timbering directly anywhere in the Commonwealth.

Allegheny National Forest



Spread across four northern counties (Elk, Forest, McKean and Warren), the Allegheny National Forest contains just 3% of Pennsylvania's total timber lands, but it has the greatest abundance of the most commercially valuable wood in the state. According to official Forest Service figures, it is the most profitable national forest in America outside the Pacific Northwest.

By law, the counties where the national forest is located divide 25% of its profits. (Even after costs, the Forest claims a 1992 profit of $10.9 million.) According to their figures, timbering in the national forest meant more than a thousand jobs in 1992, with an estimated value of $56.4 million. "They're a major employer up here," says Mike Bleech, an outdoor writer and photographer who lives in Warren, where the national forest is headquartered. "There's a lot of logging, but people aren't opposed to it."

But some local citizens have joined in the appeals, which began only in recent years. "People from the Allegheny Forest area who were concerned about what was happening there got in touch with us," says Lisa Mosca, one of twenty members of the Eastern Forest Mountain Conservation Project, a student group at Swarthmore that filed several appeals. "They wanted to do something but didn't have the technical expertise."

The Allegheny didn't retain mineral rights in the nation's first oil field area, so private companies keep some 6000 oil and gas wells going, the most extensive drilling on any national forest in the country. Critics such as Sam Hayes, advisor to the Sierra Club, say it has resulted in a steady stream of water and soil pollution. They also claim the 1100 miles of roads through the forest (most of them for oil, gas and timber companies) cause serious erosion as well as disrupting migratory wildlife patterns. New roads are built at the rate of 12 to 29 miles a year (nationally, the U.S Forest Service is the biggest road builder in the world).

"No data shows a seriously affected ecosystem," according to Dale Dungy, Information Management Staff Officer. Others say that there is a serious effort underway to incorporate environmental and biodiversity concerns in Allegheny National Forest management--and that joyriders in all-terrain vehicles are doing as much damage as timbering or drilling anyway.

While environmental appeals don't seem to have seriously disrupted the pace of timbering on the Allegheny National Forest in any case, there is no direct appeals process at all for timber sales on state forests. Some environmentalists question where and how some cuts are done, and how the state arrives at its overall "allowable cut." They call for more access to information about forest practices on state lands, as well as formal mechanisms for input and appeal. But timber harvesters complain that they get to harvest less than half of that allowable cut, basically because there aren't enough state foresters to decide exactly which areas and which trees are to be harvested. A recent report by the Citizens Advisory Council to the Department of Environmental Resources calls for an increase in cutting of 10% a year for the next five years, to help finance needed state forest conservation programs.

But all together, public lands make up only 21% of the state's timberlands. Private lands account for most of Pennsylvania's timber sales, but environmental laws and a scattering of township ordinances notwithstanding, there is little regulation on how much or how private forests are cut.

All this leads some to say that the real jobs issue has little to do with the environment and a lot to do with exports. Officially, about 40% of Pennsylvania's hardwood timber is shipped overseas, although other estimates go as high as 75%. " No one really knows," says Maurice Forrester, of the Citizen's Advisory Council. (He allows that a forebearer might have been a forester, but one who couldn't spell.). "But everyone agrees the volume of raw logs leaving the state is very high, and higher than it ought to be."

The problem is that a greater number of higher paying jobs come after the timber is cut: in kiln drying it, and fashioning it into dimension stock and furniture parts and finally into cabinets and cherry wood tables. These are the "value-added" process jobs, which are lost when logs are exported.

Pennsylvania has a substantial value-added industry, but it is still operating below capacity. According to the state Commerce Department, employment is increasing in these secondary processing jobs, while decreasing in timber cutting itself. Although this is better for overall wages, it has some regional impact: most value-added industries are in southeast Pennsylvania but the timber jobs are mostly in the northwest and central regions. In Philadelphia, for example, 1988 forest products employment exceeded 1300 jobs and average wages exceeded $21,000 a year. But in Warren County, host to the Allegheny National Forest, there were fewer jobs (though they accounted for a greater proportion of the county's employment) and an annual wage of under $14,000.

The Hardwoods Development Council operates out of the Commerce Department with members from other state departments, forest agencies, forest product companies, academia and the state legislature. It gets about $300,000 a year in state funds to help value-added companies expand and retool with new technology, find new ways to use hardwoods (a research and building program for timber bridges is underway) and to convince foreign countries that it's cheaper to buy Pennsylvania value-added wood products than it is to import Pennsylvania wood.

The Council was charged specifically with expanding the value-added industry beyond the southeast quadrant, so its largest single investment was in construction loans, infrastructure improvement and job training for Allegheny Particleboard in the northern county of McKean. Overall, there's been about $85 million in state assistance to over 100 companies in the hardwood industry, which state government claims has created 3500 jobs in 50 counties.

But exports of green lumber is probably still increasing, because foreign importers will pay top dollar, pricing some Pennsylvania value-added companies out of the market.

The economic future of the wood industry depends in the long run on another generation of these valuable hardwoods. But that future is in question. The problem is regeneration.

Regeneration
Allegheny National Forest in autumn

"Natural regeneration has been the standard practice in the management of eastern hardwoods--you don't plant them, they come back aggressively after harvesting if conditions are right," Steve Thorne explains. But a recent meeting of forestry experts from federal and state agencies, private groups and universities ranked regeneration as the number one problem facing Pennsylvania forests, according to Thorne. The same conclusion was reached in a survey of the state's district foresters, who called it a pressing problem in three-fourths of the districts.

The problem is greater than some statistics seem to indicate. "We're still growing twice what we're cutting" is how Forester Jim Nelson puts it, but he's not talking about new trees replacing those that are cut or die. "In Pennsylvania forests from one year to the next, a lot more is growing than is being cut," explains Maurice Forrester. "But basically that means the trees are just getting bigger. Regeneration--getting new trees to grow after the existing ones are harvested--that is a problem. In many situations where timber is cut, new trees do not begin to grow, for reasons known and suspected."

Among those reasons are disease, pests, low seed production, acid rain and even the greenhouse effect. But there is one that nearly everyone--foresters, environmentalists and loggers--agree on: Bambi.

After they disappeared along with the trees, deer were reintroduced from other states. But their natural predators, the big bad wolves, were not, and limits on hunting along with the deer's adaptability have swollen the herds. They nibble away at so many young trees that few live to grow beyond their reach.

They also eat away the undergrowth that harbors other animals and are crucial to forest biodiversity. Solutions are expensive (fencing) and controversial (more hunting). But solving the deer problem is seen as essential to increasing regeneration.

Because deer and gypsy moths favor them, oaks are especially threatened. But they are also numerous, so some oak decline could make way for more species diversity.
black cherry

A lack of diversity invites disaster, which is why some are also concerned about black cherry. "That's a big worry here," Mike Bleech maintains. "The National Forest seem to be managing for black cherry to the exclusion of everything else. We've had oak blight and beech blight. If some kind of black cherry disease came through, this would be a plain."

National Forest officials deny they are managing exclusively for black cherry, and others tend to agree. "Certainly they're concerned with maintaining black cherry, which is their most valuable species," says Steve Thorne. "but I don't think that's their only goal, or that it overshadows their other management goals." In any case, in her research at the Powermill Nature Reserve in southwestern Pennsylvania, Cynthia Walter has already seen evidence of a disease that attacks black cherry.

Because of regeneration problems and other factors, the tree species mix appears to be changing. Red maples, already the most numerous trees when the forests were surveyed in 1978, have increased dramatically since then. Some experts (including Jim Nelson) expect it to be the clearly dominant tree of the future. The only problem is that red maple doesn't make for very profitable timber, partly because it is more vulnerable than other species to diseases that spoil its wood. So unless forests are successfully managed to reverse this trend, Pennsylvania's third generation timberlands may be less commercially valuable.
red maple

Another cause of regeneration problems may be the timber cutting method called high-grading, which essentially means "take the best and leave the rest." Loggers cut down the biggest, strongest trees of the most valuable species in the stand, taking with them the source of viable seeds for the next generation. In Pennsylvania, high-grading occurs predominately on private land, where the forest's future will likely be decided.

"If we're going to look at whole ecosystems, then we come right up against a very serious difficulty here," Steve Thorne says. "Most of this forest is held in small parcels--about half of timberland is owned in parcels of less than 100 acres--for a whole bunch of different reasons, and not held very long--an average of something like 15 years. You're dealing with 500,000 people and they're turning over the land like crazy. When you look at the data including turnover, it seems clear that virtually all of this land is going to be harvested sooner or later. How do you get consistency, not only over large geographic areas but over the long run? "

Some favor a state forest practices law or model ordinances, but for now, the strategy is to educate the people who log and own that land. State government sponsors a logger training and certification program (which Thorne says is "probably one of the best in the country") that provides courses in silvaculture and ecology, through Penn State. At least as important is the Forest Stewardship program, which provides private landowners with forestry information and specific guidance.

They are especially urged to obtain the services of professional foresters. Only one out of five of timber harvests on private land are supervised by a professional forester, and just 10% of these cuts are done according to a written management plan. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of local sawmills and logging operations in the timber regions, some of them eager to cut whatever they can talk a landowner into selling. Some experts suggest that this is the closest analogy to the forest mining of the past.

So what are these forest owners supposed to do? What they heard in that sunless ballroom in Monroeville from Penn State forestry experts like Steve Jones and Ellen O'Donnell, wildlife biologist Jerry Hassinger, and Tom Schmidt from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, was a mix of still evolving approaches to what should happen in today's forests.

Conflicts still exist: biologists criticize foresters for pushing timber sales, and forestry-minded officials hint darkly that biologists are really Muir-like preservationists out to stop logging which benefits the forests. Some tension was in evidence at the Monroeville meeting. Biodiversity advocates asserted that private landowners attracted to stewardship are often more interested in wildlife and simply keeping a healthy forest than in timber sales. A show of hands seemed to confirm this.

"You might argue that foresters can do better," Thorne acknowledges. "We're learning a lot more. But having a forester involved is a lot better for the land than what happens when they aren't involved. At least they're worried about the health and future of that forest stand. People may argue that they ought to be worried more about things like non-game wildlife--those are valid arguments. Those kinds of issues are being debated in the profession, and programs like stewardship are an attempt to bring those into the process a lot more than they have in the past. It's not perfect but it's moving in that direction."

Towards the end of the day, Jim Nelson seemed to speak for many when he said, "We're still in a learning mode. We need to learn how to merge biodiversity, biology, forestry and fish and game concerns."

But while the professionals were learning to merge, George Freeman had to go back to St. Petersburg and finish his cut.


Whose Woods These Are

It wasn't the first Forest Stewardship event Freeman had attended. In fact he was one of the program's stars: an example of a forest landowner who was doing the right things.

When a tree falls in his forest on this January day, there are several people around to hear it. Besides George and the bearded young man wielding the chainsaw, there's John Chapman, the consulting forester who has been working for Freeman for years, and Ron Weisenstein, the logging superintendent from Georgia Pacific.

John and George walked these acres together for the first time in 1981. George talked about what he wanted to do with his forest, and John applied forestry principles to his objectives and came up with a management plan. Computer programs and even aerial photographs were part of the process of assessing, evaluating and choosing.

When it came time for this cut, John cruised the parcel and marked the trees to be offered. Bids went out to 40 mills, with maps and contract requirements. As procurement forester for Georgia Pacific at the time, Ron took a look, made his own estimates and his offer. John drew up the sales agreement, which specified what trees were to be cut, how the trails will be restored and any damages to the forest rectified, as well as the monetary terms.

Of the trees he knows are valuable to timber companies ("merchantable trees" in the forestry parlance) John slashed blue paint across those he selected for their individual characteristics but also for their relationship to nearby trees or the forest as a whole. For example, a mix of large and small trees of roughly the same age aids in regeneration. The crew is also supposed to leave underbrush low on the ground, to protect seedlings while the dead wood decays and nourishes the soil.

Now there are only a few days left in this cut and everyone seems pleased. While Ron goes ahead to meet his logger, John and George keep looking up and around as they tramp together through the woods. Even in the dead of winter when there is nothing but black branches and white snow, they know these trees, their histories and condition, sometimes even individually. All three took pains to show that they were not high-grading.
red oak logs

John stops and regards a tall red oak. "Look at those upper branches," he points. "They're dead. Gypsy moths got this tree. This time next year it's going to be dead."

George and Ron gather around it now. The tree isn't marked for cut, but clearly John is considering it. "If this tree is worth $100 this year, say, by next year it'll be worth $2. We're better off salvaging it now. I don't know how we missed it before."

Not all dying or dead trees are removed--a nearby red maple was left because wildlife could live in its cavities. Others are cut when they crowd out the growth of a younger or healthier tree. But in this case, the decision is to cut it for the timber value while it still exists.

John and Ron agree on a price. Then Ron talks to the man with the chainsaw--they decide how to cut it so the tree won't hit a nearby poplar when it falls. For all their care the tree falls in a slightly different direction anyway, though the poplar isn't damaged. It thumps to the ground, kicking up a shower of snow.

They all bend down to examine the stump. Small piles of snow lay on the visor of John's green cap, Ron's blue corduroy cap and George's turquoise hunting hat.

"It didn't fall right because it's nearly dead. It's already started to break down," Ron says.

"See how it's cracked?" John says. "That tree was damaged."

Ron brushes the sawdust from the base of the log to look for imperfections. "No problem," he says. "It'll go veneer."

Back at the landing site where the trucks are parked, they swap stories about other timber harvests--about how trained horses once pulled timber in Amish country, or how Huey helicopters lifted out logs in Alabama. Then the talk turns to local activity, especially in the area from McKean to Clarion counties, where there is a lot of private forest land, and a lot of timbering going on right now--not all of it as carefully and prudently done as this cut.

"Within an 80 mile radius of our mill I found 270 different saw mills," Ron says. "There may be more than that. Not everybody uses good forest practices. But it can be a big temptation for landowners who've never done anything with their timber. It's just out in the backwoods and they get $3000 an acre to clear cut it."

"But they haven't anything left either," George says. "People get greedy, or they need the money. They say instead of leaving some of the good stuff, take it all out. They don't think about the future. We could have come in here and cut all of this. But in another 10 or 15 years we can cut here again. "

"That's right," John agrees. "I've had landowners say to me I want to get all the money I can out of this timber so let's clear cut it. I say first of all you aren't going to get all the money you can out of it by clear cutting. Let's go in and we'll make a select cut of these individual saw timber trees and you're going to make more money going that route, and still have a stand of timber left--still have an investment in your property."

"That's right," Ron says. " With interest rates down to 2 or 3%., timber growing at 6% a year is an attractive investment. And that's just the 6% growth in volume in a good managed stand, plus a greater percentage of veneer and higher quality saw timber."

"I think records show that if you invest in timber land today and hold it for 10 years you can double your investment," John adds. "I've seen it. Probably even more now."

Clarion County

George Freeman is 62, and this forest is his nest egg, but now that he is retired from his sales job at Quaker State, it's also pretty much his life. He's spent untold hours tearing out the wild grape vine that was literally choking many of his trees.

He has his tree farm stands going, his experimental seedlings, and plans new plantings of the decorative pin oaks, his favorite tree. "It's never been about money for me. Maybe it should have been," he says. " We want to do this right, the way it ought to be done. I have three sons. I want to leave this in better shape than I found it."

"Pennsylvania's forests are the result of a tremendous disturbance," Steve Thorne says. "You can't find a forest that's been more abused that the forest here. It's a lot different than the forest our ancestors found when they first landed here in the 17th century. It's less diverse in a lot of ways in both age and species. Now if we're trying to achieve improvement in diversity in terms of age, species mix and their structure, how can we do that?

"Those kinds of problems make Pennsylvania forests ripe for some kind of innovative cooperative approaches amongst landowners and environmentalists, and the industry," Thorne continued. " I don't see any other options. What we really ought to be looking at is designing our harvests so they achieve biodiversity goals and other non-timber goals simultaneously. We have the opportunity, because we're now harvesting, to take this forest which is the result of a whole bunch of disturbances--this accidental forest--and help to design it to achieve some of the objectives that as a people we want to achieve now. Or we can go about it sort of willy-nilly like we did before. But it's going to get harvested either way around."

There's a lot that George and other landowners can't do alone. The average private forest is only 23 acres, and planning for biodiversity and healthy forests needs to be done on a larger scale. Cynthia Walter suggests financial incentives to encourage forest owners to work together with their neighbors, similar to programs that help keep farm land intact. But George Freeman does point the way in several respects. He takes the future into consideration. And it's likely that future will depend in large part on people who walk their land and know every tree on it.

Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22, 1963 was one of the defining days of my lifetime, and of my life.  It was the day that everything changed.

But my suspicion and even despair that the future--and my future-- had turned very bleak coexisted with the sense that I must find a way to carry on what I felt was the Kennedy legacy.  I was 17, a student at Greensburg Central Catholic High School and the following piece was published in the school newspaper, the Centralite.  I probably mentioned the bells of St. Matthew's church in Georgetown partly because it was there, on the Sunday of Inaugural weekend, that I shook hands with President Kennedy--one of the first non-dignitaries to shake his hand as President.  I saw him speak in Pittsburgh little more than a year before his assassination.

The slow cadence of the muffled drums reflected the mournful heartbeat of Washington.  The bells of St. Matthew's were echoed across the nation.  The world heard them, and knew for whom they tolled.  They tolled for the departed President, John F. Kennedy.

When a man and the Presidency meet, profound changes are worked upon both.  John Kennedy brought to his office an immense intellect, a dashing style, a will to serve, a ready wit, an enormous potential, and a courage based on trust in God.

He gave the Presidency heightened prestige, grace and dignity, a foundation of leadership, and a position of strength.

The man who had been described by his queenly wife as "an idealist without illusions" came to the White House with a view that did not permit him to stand and watch the world march by, but demanded that he take an active part in determining its route and its final goals.

He was, as a British commentator described him, "a man so utterly right for the job."  He molded the presidency as a citadel of power in the Cuban crisis.  He provided moral leadership in civil rights and the nuclear test ban treaty.  He set a new intellectual tone for the nation, and dedicated us to the adventure of conquering space.  He showed through action his conviction that "if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

His work was not done in the first one hundred days, nor in his lifetime.  But he began.

He will be more than a footnote in history.  His spirit will live on, especially in the Peace Corps that he founded.

In his last public speech, he pointed out that the new frontier of which he had so often spoken was not a political program but an existing reality.  For the first time in history, man has the material power to abolish many forms of human suffering and want.  The challenge is to apply our knowledge and resources to the problem.

John Kennedy's message was repeated over and over: "There is great unfinished business in this country."

His death brought an end to his efforts, but not to the problems themselves.  There are still forty-two million Americans--a fourth of the nation--with levels of income, health, housing, and food below standards tolerated by society at large.  There are still millions of unemployed, lacking the skills and education to support their families.  There is still a large segment of our population who are insidiously denied their basic rights because of color.  There are still the old people who suffer sickness three times as often, yet earn half as much, as younger Americans.  There is still one third of a world rocked with poverty, hunger and disease.

The death of John Kennedy does not discharge us from our obligations.  It rededicates us.

"Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Climate Crisis Generations

Publication of this study by the University of Hawaii has prompted me to add some more or less recent book reviews to the collection of pieces here on the climate crisis.  This study, using existing data and models, attempts to figure out when the permanent change in the world's climate will happen: that is, when the coldest years will begin being hotter than the hottest years of the past.

Their conclusion is that for most of the world it will be by the mid-21st century.  The first tropical countries to pass the tipping point may do so in 2020 to 2025--just seven years from the date of the study.  North American cities like New York and Washington will pass it in 2047.

These estimates (with a plus or minus 5 year range of error) are predicated on carbon pollution continuing as projected--the "business as usual" scenario.  But their second scenario, positing reduction in carbon pollution, doesn't offer an "out," or even much of a postponement for this tipping point.  The 2047 date becomes 2069.

This study just came out, and so far there's a remarkable lack of response, especially from climate activists.  They may be as shocked at the nearness of the change as anyone else.  It's very hard to take in, to admit into consciousness.  But there it is.

That the world now inevitably will shift into a hotter climate has been admitted for a few years now, and these books that I have reviewed in this period are really about this.  So I present them in order of their publication, to suggest how this story is evolving.  I begin with the first one I read that  acknowledged this new context, and in some ways it remains for me the most eloquent: David Orr's Down to the Wire.

These aren't the only books on the topic I've reviewed, either for the North Coast Journal or only on Books in Heat.  Here are links to some of those:

Forecast
Sixty Days and Counting
Books on the 35th anniversary of Earth Day in 2005
Conservation Refugees
Earth Day Classics (occasion of 40th anniversary of Earth Day in 2010)
Climate Refugees
Atlas of the Oceans
The Fate of Greenland
The Man Who Planted Trees
Small, Gritty & Green; Earthmasters; Birthright; The Incidental Steward

Down to the Wire

Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse
 By David W. Orr
Oxford University Press, 2009.

 Because environmental studies professor David Orr’s book is gracefully written, with a lucid and comprehensive vision, it is easy to read. But because of its subject and its messages, it is very difficult to read. For all of those reasons, it is important that everyone reads it, because it is about your future, which is likely to be very different from the present.

 Orr begins with a view of the future that close observers of climate change are increasingly coming to, and it’s a real difference from just a few years ago. Despite current denialist noise and other snowjobs, it’s not a question of “if” anymore. It’s how fast, how bad and how long.

 For those playing catch-up: Even Al Gore’s expositions of the massive evidence, for example, were accompanied by suggestions on how to “solve” the Climate Crisis. For awhile there was a popular impression that changing light bulbs would do it. Though it’s true that a shocking amount of of carbon could be kept out of the atmosphere with some simple efficiencies, that wasn’t going to change what had already been set in motion.

Some experts (like Mark Hertsgaard) cautioned that because of a 30 year or so time lag from cause (greenhouse gas pollution) to effects, the crisis was already underway, and we need to prepare for some consequences.

 After more climate data was collected and evaluated, books by respected figures like Martin Rees and James Lovelock in the UK that foresaw more cataclysmic consequences were taken seriously but still seemed extreme. Then came observations of Arctic sea melts in 2007 that were far sooner and far more advanced than climate scientists had predicted.

 “Instead of the long, slow problem many had imagined climate change to be, we seemed to be staring at a dynamic system bent on flipping into some new state,” writes Bill McKibben.

 More urgent warnings followed, by the chief U.S. climate scientist, NASA’s James Hansen, among others. So the dire situation that Orr outlines is becoming more generally accepted: Continued greenhouse gas pollution will result in an unrecognizably hot planet for hundreds of thousands of years, shorn of the life we know.

 “But a sober reading of the science of climate change indicates something else: we have already set in motion forces and trends that threaten the stability of the biosphere in a few decades and that will persist far longer.” This is the growing consensus: severe and long-lasting effects are already in the cards. They may well be so overwhelming and persistent that they will absorb most of our attention and resources.

Orr discusses some of the variables, and I’ve seen recent comments by climate scientists suggesting a time frame of from ten to thirty years before the cascade of multiple and interacting crises become painfully apparent.

Orr writes: “Climate change, like the threat of nuclear annihilation, puts all that humanity has struggled to achieve—our cultures, art, music, literatures, cities, institutions, customs, religions, and history, as well as our posterity—at risk.”

 “Climate change, in other words, is not so much a problem to be fixed but rather a steadily worsening condition with which we must contend for a long time.”

 Orr looks at issues of governance and attitude as well as more specific ideas for getting through the coming climate collapse, and what elements of human civilization and human beings will help that process, while suggesting that the survival of these qualities—from inventiveness to compassion and community--are reasons for the human adventure to continue.

 For instance, we will need to understand and put into practice the home truth that the global economy is a subset of the biosphere. In this period of fear, anger and stress, personally and nationally, we will need to learn and employ the skills of peace, or we will lose what chance we have to survive. “The long emergency ahead will be the ultimate challenge to our political creativity, acumen, skill, wisdom and foresight,” Orr writes.

Though he doesn’t dwell on the worst implications—like deaths in the millions or worse—he realizes that such crises in the past led to war, tyrannous gangs, barbarism and the haunting ignorance that characterizes a Dark Age. In a coda, he even suggests the added difficulty of keeping a cool head in a hot world, when the heat itself is bending and breaking the world we assume and depend on.

 He titles one late chapter "Hope at the End of Our Tether," which is a pretty direct reference to H.G. Well's last book, Mind At the End of Its Tether, in which he found humanity fated to fail because it was too late to save itself. (The expression, by the way, means to have exhausted one's options, like an animal tethered, unable to go farther than the rope will allow. It goes back to the 16th century, but became an expression with this meaning early in the 19th. Like a lot of cultural metaphors from agriculture, it's pretty much lost its referent, except of course for dog-walkers.)

Orr ends this chapter with this paragraph: "At the end of our tether we must imagine the unimaginable: a world rid of nuclear weapons and a world powered by sunlight, safe from the possibility of catastrophic climate change. Utopia? Hardly. But those are the only realistic options we have."

 That's a powerful, present-tense restatement of how far we've stretched our possibilities. In 1960 and especially in his 1961 Inaugural, President Kennedy noted that humanity now had the power to abolish poverty, and also to abolish human life. Humanity could choose utopia, or it could choose oblivion. But as Buckminster Fuller and others soon suggested, the power of nuclear weapons etc. really meant that either we choose Utopia or we get Oblivion. It's an either/or.

 Orr stretches the tether even tighter, by noting that resource problems and catastrophes from the Climate Crisis make nuclear war more likely and therefore more dangerous. So we don't have much of a choice--though as Orr notes, even if we save ourselves from our two principal scourges, without losing civilization in the process, we still won't wind up with Utopia, the perfect society. That at least forestalls the objection that he's asking for perfection, which is by definition impossible. He's just saying the just about impossible is just about essential.

 “There is no historical precedent, however, for what we must do if we are to endure,” he warns. And though he admits “I know of no purely rational reason for anyone to be optimistic about the human future,” he opts for hope—but of a particular kind: “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. Hopeful people are actively engaged in defying the odds or changing the odds.” He quotes Vaclav Havel’s definition of hope as “an orientation of the heart” and “ability to work for something because it is good.” Orr believes the only thing that will save us is “people behaving heroically.”

 Orr begins his book by noting that UK scientist Martin Ree’s 2003 book (Our Final Hour) which suggests that humankind has about a 1 in 2 chance of surviving the 21st century, was almost entirely ignored. Orr’s book has been out since last spring, I believe, and has also been pretty much ignored.

 In one sense it’s not surprising: even if the science is admitted, the message is so apocalyptic that it cries out for a grief response, starting with denial and anger, and maybe moving up to bargaining (i.e. technological fixes that few believe will change the immediate future, even if they work.) I had a tough time with this book myself, and only copious amounts of high-quality chocolate and some sleepless nights got me as far as this review.

 But while this is one of the first books about how to contend with the coming “long emergency,” (and this phrase devised by Jim Kunstler looks like it will stick) it won’t be the last. For instance, Bill McKibben’s new book to be published in April, bears the subtitle: “Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.” Maybe it's groupthink, but I don't think so: these sentiments are becoming pretty common among those closely observing climate and climate science. If we keep hearing this, and evidence piles up (and we have the wit to understand it--for instance, that the northeastern snows this month support global heating theories, they don't contradict them), sooner or later we’ll move through depression to acceptance, and then maybe we’ll get to work salvaging a civilization.

Meanwhile, we ought to be grateful for writers like Orr who are preparing us for this future, as well as the scientists and scholars who are bringing their skills to bear on these topics, regardless of the terrified barbarians at the gates.

 And this future doesn’t include continuing global failure to cut greenhouse gases, which makes the farther future even bleaker. “I also write with the assumption that we will succeed in reducing atmospheric CO2 below the level that would cause runaway climate change,” Orr adds, “otherwise, there is no point in writing anything other than an elegy or funeral dirge.”

 How hard it is to read and then write these words, because it’s real now: very probably, the world we’ve known is ending, and humanity faces its greatest challenge, including the dual tasks of living in this harsher world while still doing what is necessary not to make things worse. Ending greenhouse gas pollution is still necessary, but it alone is no longer enough. We enter the age of consequences.

Eaarth Day Books 2010 (Eaarth, Gaia in Turmoil)

Besides the deafening silence today versus the two million shouting voices forty years ago, this Earth Day has some significant differences from the first. For example, there is 40% less sea ice in the world, and much of what remains is melting. There are 8.5 million square miles more that must deal with a tropical climate; half of Australia and much of the American Southwest are in permanent drought. River water has shrunk by a volume equivalent to the Mississippi. Glaciers worldwide are shrinking, and some are virtually gone.

 There are tens of thousands--probably hundreds of thousands--fewer species of life. There are fewer edible fish in the sea, and life there is dying out fast. There is less water in many places on land, and partly as a consequence the world produces 40 million fewer tons of wheat, corn and barley per year. There are more storms, more heat waves, more diseases in more lifeforms, more forest fires and other destruction, not only in the U.S. but in the Amazon. "We're seeing the end of some forests as we know them," says a U.S. forester.

 At the foot of a melting glacier in northern Tibet, a young man from a small village there was asked to explain the reason for the change. His answer was neither ethereal or complicated. "Global warming," he said. "Too many factories." A simple and much more than an inconvenient truth.

 The Climate Crisis is not some vision of the future--it's been with us these forty years, it's gotten worse, and now it's having effects that only the self-blinded and deluded can deny. But still...we can stop it, right? We may be able to prevent the very worst--runaway climate change in the far future, although what governments around the world are so far willing to do won't be enough. In any case, for the foreseeable future, it's only going to get worse. And then at the very least it is going to stay that way, for thousands of years.

 That was the message of David Orr's book, Down to the Wire, last year. This year it is no longer a new message-- not among climate scientists and those who follow their work. It is the starting point for Bill McKibben's new book. We no longer live on the same planet as existed on the first Earth Day. He gives the planet we will be living on from now on a new name: Eaarth. So in a sense, this is the first Eaarth Day.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
by Bill McKibben
Times Books, 2010

 McKibben's book uses only about a quarter of its pages to describe the current situation and trend lines, and another quarter to explain the inadequacy of the proposed responses to the Climate Crisis, and the extreme unlikelihood that large-scale changes in policy, energy generation etc. can be made in time to head off very major changes in how human life on this planet is to be lived. "And if our societies start to tank, we'll be in worse shape than those who came before. For one thing, our crisis is global, so there's no place to flee. For another, most of us don't know how to do very much--in your standard collapse scenario, it's nice to know how to grow wheat."

 McKibben comes right up against the logical conclusions, the doomsday scenarios of nuclear wars over oil and water, mass migrations, a dieback of half or 3/4 or more of humanity, leading to the day-to-day life for the survivors imagined for us in a host of grim movies, from Mad Max to The Road.

Instead he backs off, partly because (I imagine) it's as David Orr wrote--if this is indeed the future, there's not much point in writing a book about it. Instead, McKibben writes: "The rest of this book will be devoted to another possibility--that we might choose instead to try to manage our descent. That we might aim for a relatively graceful decline." [Emphasis is his.]

 So the second half of the book is about how to do that. It emphasizes local and small-scale solutions--living "lightly, carefully, gracefully." Locally generated clean power, focus on maintenance instead of growth, no more consumer culture or the world it represents. Except for the Internet. Because local utopias are likely to get stifling without contact. "Which is why, if I had my finger on the switch, I'd keep the juice flowing to the Internet even if I had to turn off everything else."

 McKibben makes his case for all this being well within the possible, sometimes persuasively ( although I'm dubious about the Internet surviving.) He notes that part of the problem is that "We lack the vocabulary and the metaphors we need for life on a different scale." He offers his "candidates for words that may help us think usefully about the future." They are: durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, robust.

 Good words, and useful for the kind of society he foresees. McKibben made a choice in both the language and content of this book: not much philosophy or generalizing, a lot of practical specifics and common sense. But I doubt that this vocabulary is going to be enough. For one thing, there are some slightly higher-order words that will be very important, like courage, compassion, attention, dedication, fairness.

 But even beyond that, people need a larger vision, to guide and inspire them. And if it's going to really work, it has to be the right vision. There were good words and visions at the first Earth Day, that helped inspire the effort leading to most of the environmental progress that was institutionalized in the first decade of the environmental movement, and has continued on that momentum. But mostly, environmentalists have been terrible at vision, and especially at "good words."

With the switch from the soft-sounding and not even accurate "greenhouse effect" to the vaguely pleasant sounding "global warming" and "climate change," the response to global heating has especially suffered. As for the titanic struggle ahead between those who want to use resources to stop the cause of global heating to those who insist we can only afford to fix the effects, what environmentalists offer us is the mind-numbing choice of mitigation versus adaptation. Which more or less guarantees that a sensible discussion of these issues won't occur in enough time to have clear policies before the panic and politics combine to drive the situation out of control.

 But in the past thirty years there is one word, one concept and one vision that has the proven power to move human souls: Gaia. The sense of our planet as a living organism, prefigured in myth and science, proposed as a hypothesis by James Lovelock and refined by him and others into a real scientific theory, it has also proven to be an inspiration and a possible focus.

Gaia in Turmoil
edited by Eileen Crist & H. Bruce Rinker
MIT Press 2010

 The breadth and depth of what Gaia can mean for the future is brilliantly suggested in the new compendium of essays, (with an introduction, by the way, by Bill McKibben.) This volume includes various views of the science (including its relationship to systems theory and cybernetics),the historical resonance of the ideas, the applications to policy and how people relate to their planet in their moment-to-moment lives.

There are trenchant essays on Gaia and evolution, forest systems, water, biodiversity, and on its relationship to ethics, education and governance. Particularly striking are the essays by Martin Ogle on Gaia as model and metaphor, and David Abram on Gaia and the transformation of personal experience of the everyday world.

 I don't think I am exaggerating when I suggest that an entire curriculum could be built around this book, producing a very valuable education for the future. Together with McKibben and Orr--and one other book , A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit (Viking)--I place this at the top of my indispensable Eaarth Day books. Solnit's book explores responses to recent disasters to pose the key questions "Who are you? Who are we? In times of crisis, these are life-and-death questions." This is another component of how we realistically face this tougher future.

 Another useful anthology, with an emphasis on social questions regarding future environment, is Human Footprints on the Global Environment: Threats to Sustainability (MIT), edited by E. Rosa, A. Diekmann, T. Dietz and C.C. Jaeger. This volume may be of interest primarily to scholars, professionals and policymakers, but it does indicate the seriousness and sophistication of a growing multi-disciplinary approach to larger scale issues of the onrushing future.

 A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature by James William Gibson (Holt), on the other hand, is a marvelous synthesis for the general reader as well as specialists looking for a broader and deeper view. Not as squishy as the title might indicate, it narrates pertinent history and it's a good introduction to classic authors and important if more obscure books that combine the practical with the necessary spiritual dimensions of approaching our relationship to the natural world.

Though these relationships faded in our current built environment, a hotter climate and all that it brings will force humanity to once again confront the power of nature. When humans were closer to nature by necessity--when humanity developed by means of its relationship with the rest of nature--the spiritual dimension was very important. It likely will be again.

 Other useful approaches can be found in Living Through the End of Nature by Paul Wapner (MIT) and Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order by Thomas Princen (MIT.) Wapner looks at the attempts to master nature through the history of civilization, and proposes practical ways to redress some sort of necessary balance. Princen grapples with the persistent basic issues of economy and ecology, at best using direct language to untangle them. Though that effort isn't always successful, there's enough merit to add it to the Eaarth Day reading list.

Preparing for Climate Change

Preparing for Climate Change
by Michael Mastrandrea & Stephen H. Schneider
 Boston Review/MIT Press 2010

 As a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research for more than 20 years, and a lead author of one of the UN climate reports, Stephen Schneider was known for his ability to explain the intricacies and the meaning of important and complex issues, especially the Climate Crisis. As such, he was the go-to guy for a lot of journalists over the years, including me. His sudden death this past summer was a blow to both science and journalism, as well as his students at Stanford.

This book, written with another Stanford climate scientist, may be his last statement on the issue that he recognized as the most important of his time, and ours. It is a short book—just 100 pages-- but it is a substantial contribution. It moves from the most succinct explanation of “The Scientific Consensus” that I’ve read (covering the physics and chemistry, observations and modeling) to chapters on “Impacts,” “Understanding Risk,” and then to the new ground of “Preparing for Climate Change.”

 It is these last chapters that this book reflects realizations that are beginning to become the new scientific consensus: that climate change is not just likely in the future, it is happening now, and it will happen to some serious extent no matter what is done to stop it from becoming even worse in the farther future.

 The authors make a brief but sophisticated argument for acting on both fronts: to stop future heating by controlling emissions, but also (and equally) to prepare for inevitable consequences, including complex and multiple emergencies when the readiness will be all.

 This is a trenchant summary for policymakers and others that derives much of its power from being so concise. But to have wider impact, it may require less of the envirospeak abstractions that have unfortunately muddied the meaning of the Climate Crisis in public perception. For example, the authors adopt the terms current in scientific and environmental bureaucracies of “ mitigation” and “adaptation”—words so vague, bloodless and at times misleading that they inspire only mental numbness.

 What the authors mean is that we must deal with both the causes of the Climate Crisis (“mitigation”) and the effects (“adaptation.”) As simple as that seems, it may well become the center of a major political argument in decades to come. But if we’re to get a handle on it now, we need to be a lot clearer in what we say and how we say it.

 Still, this book both summarizes important facts and discussions (like risk assessment, which Greg Craven writes about so well in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?) as well as signaling the terms of future debates, like how to decide what to do to deal with climate change consequences. It is also a fitting memorial to the brave and persistent work of Stephen Schneider.