“My carbon sequestring technique is a bookshelf”
June 9, 2009
In the rush to declare the waning days of the printed media (be it newspapers, books, or paperwork), many commentators or advertisers exclaim that a switch to digital media will help save innocent trees from the slaughter. That argument is logically equivalent in many ways to saying that one can save a cow by eating fewer hamburgers, save sugarfields by eating less sugar, save cornfields and wheatfields by eating less corn and wheat, and save pitiful carrots from being torn up by the roots by avoiding vegetable medleys. Namely, the trees are in many cases actually agricultural (technically, forestry or silvicultural) products – and further that without the demand for such wood products, those forests might not exist as such in the first place.
Many of the arguments seem to hinge on the mistaken assumption that trees – particularly pulpwood trees – are a limited resource. I will gladly admit that pristine virgin forests and old-growth hardwoods are indeed that, and are worthy of keeping for their aesthetic, ecological, ancient and mystical merits, yet those in managed or planted forests (including true “tree farms“) are not so (in the long run). In my travels around my state of Virginia, along most rural highways one can see vast acres of quickly-growing pines that are equally quick to become pulpwood, in varied stages of growth. The argument and subsequent connotations of “tree-killing -> deforestation” also relies on the outdated assumption that the land which wood comes from is then left open or turned into suburbia – whereas many of those lands I have seen freshly cleared in rural parts are let fill in with pine saplings (even manually planted as such), who will quickly grow big and strong (or at least to the extent that a pine can) to become more timber and pulpwood. Indeed, this process can be seen as the more naturalistic cousin of the familiar nurseries where fir trees are grown in neat little rows and sold as Christmas trees. This is all in contrast to the infamous (and hot-cultural topic of the 1990s) deforestation of the culturally-hallowed Brazilian rainforests which is not primarily for wood, but for farmland & plantationland. [Before a seasoned "man of the forest" contacts me, I will admit that the specific merits of the pine plantation versus other methods of sustainable forestry are still being debated and researched, yet that is of a technical level beyond the scope of the work and not directly related to the argument here]
For those who spend their time thinking about such things, assuming that the wood is relatively locally grown, processed and printed (due to the associated energy cost of transportation) it is theoretically possible if not true that forest-products can be a carbon negative industry. As trees essentially feed on carbon dioxide and water with the help of sunlight, large amounts of carbon dioxide are transformed into biomass (including cellulose, which becomes paper), the end consumer forestry products are actually means of storing the problematic component of the once-atmospheric gas (C). And because not decent person would let their books rot, the carbon isn’t readily returned to the atmosphere.
Further, by creating a resource-sustainable economically-valuable product, it adds all the more economic incentive to actually reforest lands or keep them as forestland (to the possible extent of putting agricultural easements on them, essentially investing off the development rights in perpetuity), rather that finding greater financial incentive in clearing them for fields, houses or shopping centers.
I will admit to the keen environmentalist that there can be environmental issues with the production and processing of paper (including the inherent energy equirements of any industry), yet these can be challenges for engineers to face and tackle, with new or innovative means of producing an old product. (And for those with a truly recycling spirit, imagine if all our used waste cotton could be turned into the revered and long-lived rag-paper via cotton recycling)
Thus I ask, why shouldn’t paper volumes continue to be printed? And what’s not the love about a wood-paneled personal library with hundreds or thousands of printed volumes?
[As in virtually all my posts, I claim not to be an expert or particularly knowleadgeable or researched on a topic, simply to be part of the greater popular discussion. I welcome any comments, particularly in this case from foresters, silviculturalists, tree-farmers, ecologists, and the likes who are more knowledgeable than I]