Replanting the Lungs of the World

I hate to have to say this to some of my neighbours, but logging as we know it has to end. We are cutting out the lungs of the world. According to the National Resources Defense Council, forest clearcutting is responsible for an estimated 26 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually—an amount equivalent to the annual emissions of 5.5 million vehicles. When you consider the tons of carbon dioxide that a single tree takes out of the atmosphere in a year, it’s cutting our own throats to cut them down at the current rate. All these clearcut forests need to be our 21st century Kennedy moonshot. We need to monetize planting trees the way we monetized turning them into lumber. Pay treeplanters excellent wages, with bonuses. Stream former loggers and forestry workers straight into it. With the coming wave of AI and robotics eliminating millions of jobs, we’ll be desperate to find work for people. This would at least not be a total rupture with a logger’s outdoor mode of work and recreation. He or she would still be working in beautiful country, close to good fishing streams and lakes, clean water and huckleberry patches—an enviable lifestyle.

Evergreen fog lo-res copyAlthough it’s conceivable an AI/robotics hybrid could be built to navigate the treacherous mountain terrain of places like British Columbia, that could still be a long way off, if it’s achievable. Obviously treeplanting jobs would have to be primarily for the young or exceptionally fit. But who knows? With so many jobs, from manual labour to basic data processing soon to be taken over by AI, a sheen of glamour may well accrue to a wilderness job like treeplanting. Just as we once romanticized logging with the myth of Paul Bunyan and his sidekick Blue the Ox, we could do now with treeplanters. Call them the Green Rangers and give them official badges and uniforms. Make them our heroes, planting the foliage that rebuilds, an acre at a time, the lungs of the planet just when we need it most. These ‘Green Rangers’ could be designated as ‘essential services’ similar to our firefighters, paramedics, nurses and emergency services. And there’s no reason they can’t make a perfectly good living doing it.

The new IPCC report gives us a miniscule timeline for action: 12 years. The last time I blinked it was 12 years ago. Scientists say we have the technology to put on the brakes and start reducing our carbon load. We only lack the political and economic will. But by planting trees, cannabis and bamboo we can solve the world’s carbon needs at the same time as we fill the need for fibre, clothing, rope, personal care products, and almost anything else. We already have millions of hectares globally of cleared forests. At least a portion of these could be used for hemp, cannabis or bamboo cultivation. And unlike a forest, cannabis, hemp and bamboo give you a hearty new crop to harvest every year. Already hemp and bamboo are used for construction, clothing, soaps and oils, with new applications every year. Bamboo has a higher compressive strength than wood, brick or concrete and a tensile strength that rivals steel. In the construction industry, explains the Hemp Industries Association, “the parts of the hemp plant currently used for construction are woody inner core (for hempcrete), the outer fibrous skin (for hemp fiber batt insulation) and hemp seed oil (for hemp oil wood finish and deck stain).” And with cannabis now legalized in Canada, the stigma is off for those wanting to make a business out of growing the plant for various commercial and industrial applications. This should also encourage research and development of new products.

We could set new goals annually to replace a higher percentage of woodframe construction with these alternative materials. We could also promote building alternatives such as light clay construction, 3D-printed ‘tiny houses,’ and even a return to traditional brick and stone structures. With plastic clogging our oceans and even entering the food chain in micro-particles, we could be reclaiming that as raw material for construction. According to Green Building Solutions, “recycled plastics are used to make polymeric timbers for use in everything from picnic tables to fences, thus helping to save trees. Plastic from two-liter bottles is even being spun into fibre for the production of carpet—another recycled product solution for our homes.” Although the initial uptake of these materials into the construction market would be expensive, as the numbers go up the costs will come down. This could also solve a growing problem facing Western nations: the crisis in housing affordability. And if we can subsidize fossil fuel companies—some of the most profitable corporations on Earth—we can certainly subsidize the eco-materials market in its early stages. After all, this is a climate emergency, so emergency measures are needed.

Already national NGOs such as Tree Canada and the international NGO One Tree Planted have support structures in place—including grants or corporate funding partnerships—to further large-scale reforestation programs. One Tree Planted plants trees in North America, Latin America, Asia and Africa and has a campaign to plant a million trees in California alone to help the state recover from devastating wildfires and bark beetle infestations. After experiencing the worst wildfire season in BC history last year, our own province could benefit by such a campaign.

Some will argue that by creating cannabis, hemp and bamboo plantations we’ll still be altering the environment. True. But at virtually no time during humanity’s existence on this planet have we not done so. Read Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Or Yuval Noah Harrari’s Sapiens. It just so happens through an accident of blind biological and historical evolution we developed the capacity to alter the global environment drastically. And this just happens to be an emergency. If a percentage of clearcut forests and rainforests are used both to plant more native trees and provide some fibre cultivation, we can at least begin the healing process.

Then, as the carbon load comes down and ecosystems recover, we can allow more cultivated areas to return to their natural state. By that time our technology will have leapt forward again by orders of magnitude, making fibre production ever more efficient. As for example the recent exponential improvements in solar panel efficiency. In theory, that will gradually reduce our footprint for fibre production, allowing a greater percentage of wild forests to return. And with forests—with trees—comes life. Once trees are gone from a landscape, not even your water is safe anymore. Trees are as vital to life as water. As the National Geographic explains, trees “perpetuate the water cycle by returning water vapour to the atmosphere. Without trees to fill these roles, many former forest lands can quickly become barren deserts.”

Once the trees are gone, an eerie silence settles on the land: where are all the birds? Imagine instead great wheeling flocks of them flashing in late afternoon sun above the forest canopy, lush and teeming with life.

Because, after all, why would you cut out your own lungs just for a dollar?


One Tree Planted:

Tree Canada:

Hemp Industries Association:

Bamboo for use in construction:

Green Building Solutions:

National Resources Defense Council (NRDC):

National Geographic on deforestation and global warming:

Live Science: Deforestation Facts, Causes & Effects:

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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