Eco-Fads: Feel-Good Policies Replace Science

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Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the new book Eco-Fads by Todd Myers.

The photo takes more than a full page of the magazine and it is stark. It shows acre upon acre of decaying tree stumps, a barren area where a mighty forest once stood. Only a small patch of trees remains, sitting on a mound of dirt. The caption underneath the photo reads “Clear-cut land in Washington.”

Published in 2002 by the magazine Business 2.0, it is the kind of photo designed to imply scientific meaning by evoking emotion. The photo is intended to demonstrate the real environmental damage humans are doing to the planet without having to scientifically support the claim. That the view is undeniably ugly implies that the environmental impact must be undeniably negative.

The photo complemented an article which discussed a new forestry technology that would make clear cuts a thing of the past. Hybrid poplars, could, according to the photo caption, “greatly reduce the need for such heavy logging.” The new trees, the article promised, are fast growing and obviate the need to harvest large, old trees. Growing in less than half the time of conifers, hybrid poplars could be grown as a crop without reducing wildlife habitat.

No more clear cuts. Forests would be saved. The article presented the kind of technological solution that makes the world a better place; creating new jobs and prosperity. It seemed to offer the best of all worlds.

At the time this article appeared, I was the Communications Director for the Department of Natural Resources, the chief forestry agency in Washington State. It intrigued me for a variety of reasons.

Forestry in Washington is controversial.  Nationwide the Spotted Owl is a symbol of the battle between timber communities and environmentalists, and Washington State was ground zero in that fight. Much of western Washington was engaged in forestry at some point in the last 100 years and there are still communities appropriately known as “timber towns.”

Choosing between jobs and the environment is not an academic exercise at the Department of Natural Resources. The agency is involved in literally every timber harvest conducted in the state, either by issuing permits to private loggers or planning harvests on state land. With every harvest the impact on wildlife, the economy, salmon, jobs or simply on the beautiful forest views, was subject to heated debate and discussion.  The protracted process involved public meetings, letters to the editor and ultimately, since the head of the agency was elected, a vote. Agency officials were always seeking ways to reduce the friction between these passionate and competing forces.

Hybrid poplars, the Business 2.0 article claimed, promised to do all of those things. The high-tech poplars, however, became my introduction to phenomenon of eco-fads – the quick-fix environmental solution that relies more on its initial gut-level appeal as a simple, feel-good solution than proven scientific merit.

Despite the promises, hybrid poplars suffer from many limitations.

For instance, the very speed at which the tree grows is one of its main drawbacks. The strength of lumber is related to the distance between the growth rings of the tree. This is why baseball players are told to hold wood bats with the label up.  Famed catcher Yogi Berra supposedly told home run champion Hank Aaron to hold the bat so he could read the label, otherwise he would break his bat.  Aaron replied, “I came up here to hit, not to read.”

The reason Berra gave the advice is bat makers place the label across the grain, ensuring that the ball will strike where the growth rings are closest.  The tight grain there is the strongest part of the bat and prevents it from splintering.

The same is true of lumber. A tight grain provides more structural integrity useful in building houses. The problem with hybrid poplar is the growth rings are farther apart, significantly reducing the strength of the lumber.

This is not to say that there isn’t a market for these trees. They are used in furniture and other light uses that don’t require the ability to support large amounts of weight.

The basic problem, however, is that they are not a substitute for slower-growing, but strong, softwood trees like Douglas fir, hemlock and pine. The very fact that these grow slowly makes them desirable. It also means that cutting them seems like more of an environmental loss because it takes so long to replace the trees, the habitat and the scenic beauty they provide.

Put simply the demand for slow-growing timber creates that conflict that we at the Department of Natural Resources faced every day.

There are other problems as well. Poplars consume a tremendous amount of water. In the few places in Washington State    where poplars grow naturally, they are located near swampy land, in river bottoms or next to dams that supply significant amounts of irrigation water. If there is an environmental conflict that is more controversial than forestry, it is the public debate over how to use water.

Such tradeoffs are common in environmental debates. Sometimes reducing the use of one resource means increasing the use of others. As a result of the high demand for water, only a small percentage of the available land is suitable for the tree.

The search for easy environmental solutions is understandable. When faced with pictures of ugly clear cuts, oil spills or similarly stark images that portray the impact human activity has on the environment, it is natural that we work to reduce that impact. There is a strong feeling that in a country as rich as ours we can afford to spend some of our disposable income to improve environmental sustainability. Working to reduce our impact on the environment is the right thing to do and has the side benefit of making us feel good about ourselves.

Taking the right steps to protect the environment, therefore, seems fairly straightforward. Some actions are obviously destructive to the environment and avoiding those actions should be clear enough. There may be some personal or social sacrifice, but the choice, at least, between what will help or harm the environment, is clear.

As we have seen in the case of hybrid poplars, however, that desire for simplicity can open the door to approaches that do little environmental good, or which actually damage the environment, because they ignore the complexity involved in environmental sustainability. Easy eco-fads are often substituted for real solutions, and once they become the current fashion, they can be very hard to dislodge.

The picture of the clear cut caught my eye for a couple reasons. Working at Washington’s forestry agency, I was attuned to any discussion of forestry in the state.

More importantly, however, I had driven past the location where the photo was taken. The photo was taken along Interstate 90 in the Cascade Mountains. The photographer, looking for a dramatic example of clearcut forest, had been seduced by such a stark image and pulled off the road to shoot the photo.

There is only one problem – it isn’t a clear cut. The Business 2.0 image actually shows the bottom of Kechelus Lake, a mountain reservoir that stores water over the winter. The photo, taken in summer when the lake is low, depicts the decaying stumps left over from decades before when the lake was created. The small clump of trees standing in the middle of the image actually sits on a small island during most of the year. Calling this image a clear cut is no different than calling a city building a clear cut, because once upon a time trees stood on the site.

What’s more, the area depicted in the photo is much larger area than would ever be allowed by modern forest regulations. Despite being portrayed as typical of forestry in Washington, the photo was neither a clear cut nor representative of any logging that could have been done anywhere else in Washington.

Knowing that the photo was falsely labeled, I e-mailed the editors, believing they would want to issue a correction. The reaction I received demonstrates how difficult it is to dislodge established eco-fads.

The editors asked me to write a short letter, highlighting the error in the photo, noting that such a clear cut would never be allowed and explaining some of the limits of hybrid poplars. I submitted the requested letter and they thanked me.

When I received the next issue of Business 2.0 I was surprised to see the note they included. Rather than publish my letter, the editors wrote, at the very end of all the letters, the following correction:

“In a photo caption within our feature on bioengineered trees, we identified the shot as ‘clear-cut land in Washington,’ implying that it was indicative of current forestry practices in the state. In fact, the land had been cleared to build a reservoir. Although there are examples of land in Washington that has been similarly devastated by clear-cutting, current state regulations require that loggers leave at least eight trees per acre.”

This is tepid, to say the least. They didn’t mention that rules going back decades prevented harvests anywhere near the size implied by the photo. In fact, there are no similar examples of present day clear cutting.

While the editors were obliged to admit the photo was incorrect, they continued to claim that the substance of the photo was right, albeit without any proof. The photo fit the image of forestry they held in their minds and they continued to embrace the message of the photo, even when the photo itself proved to be inaccurate.

To admit the truth would mean questioning the justification of the entire article and admitting, not merely that the photo was a mistake, but that their position on the issue was not on firm footing. That is a key element of understanding the strength of eco-fads. The commitment to the policies or actions are, too frequently, based not on whether or not they help the environment, but on the personal, emotional feeling that taking these steps or supporting particular policies makes one a good person. Eco-fads help people to believe they are part of a large, important movement.

The challenge for those of us who care about the environment face is how to promote true environmental sustainability while rejecting emotionally satisfying but counterproductive eco-fads.

Difficult as it is, shedding these pretenses is more honest. It offers more promise of real environmental sustainability, and it is more likely to leave an environmental legacy that we can all be proud of.

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