The response by our society to mining on one hand and logging on the other in the jarrah forests of Western Australia could not be more in contrast. Alcoa’s bauxite mining is met with silence, but to oppose logging of virtually any sort (even of plantations in some cases) has become a normal part of the moral foundation for all well-informed citizens. Yet if we look at other forms of economic activity that covers large tracts of land, only well-managed tourism could be said to have a similar or less environmental impact than well-managed commercial native forestry.
As Roger Underwood recently explained, bauxite mining causes total removal of all organisms from large tracts of the forest and removal of several metres of soil (bauxite ore), material that is the foundation upon which a forest exists. This is followed by re-establishment of the forest back onto the irreversibly altered soil profile. The changes that are imposed by mining are permanent in terms of geological time scales – these soils/ores were formed on-site by many millions of years of weathering of the underlying granite basement rock. Roger’s post gives additional important information.
Logging on the other hand is a short period of harvesting that occurs within a process that takes many decades: the forest is regenerated, managed by thinning, controlled burning and other practices, leading to the maturing of the overstorey trees over a period of between one and several human generations. Harvesting occurs again, followed by the same regeneration and management process. Many Australian native forests have been through two or three such cycles, yet they are now considered “high conservation value” forests by the greens and the public.
Harvesting may be either clear felling at one extreme to selective (individual tree) logging at the other, and there is a continuous spectrum of logging practices between the extremes. But most importantly, the soil is left almost undisturbed compared to mining, and the understory is not stripped away. No species has been recorded as having been driven to extinction by logging in Australia, though this is not a reason to be complacent. It does indicate that the commercial use of native Australian forests since European settlement has had less impact upon biodiversity than urban expansion or farming, or indeed the first arrival of humans tens of thousands of years ago.
Possibly the paradox arises because of three factors and our normal emotional responses to these factors. They are our perception of order versus chaos, a sense of time, and a sense of space.
Order versus chaos
Order and chaos are easy to recognise. In this context, logging is chaotic. The jumble of smashed limbs and small trees presents a confronting image. Furthermore, as timber has a relatively low economic value and the yields per hectare are relatively low, the logging debris is left in place for a year or so and then burnt (more chaos), which means that chaos interacts with time to create the impression of lasting destruction. There is plenty of time for Bob Brown to get up on top of the biggest stump (“big” being related to our sense of space) for photo opportunities.
In contrast mining demonstrates a good deal of order. After logging, the debris, stumps, and all the understorey is heaped and mulched and removed promptly. Access to the entire mining “envelope” is prohibited for safety reasons. Some of this biomass debris is sold for renewable energy and charcoal, whereas native forest logging residues from normal logging are ruled to be non-renewable. This is known as “painting with the Alcoa brush”, because this is all it takes to change a commodity from dirty and undesirable to green and renewable. This simple self-deception occurs at senior corporate and political levels, as well as at the general public level. I maintain that it makes more sense to consider all the biomass residues from logging and mining to be renewable, as occurs across Europe and North America.
The sense of order in mining continues because after the removal of the biomass residues the open mine area looks like a ploughed paddock. The boundary of the surrounding forest is clearly and cleanly defined and looking into a tall forest from the side is an emotionally pleasant experience. As the site is stripped, drilled, blasted and the ore removed, there is little confronting imagery of chaos, though many people find the instant of blasting very confronting if they can see it. By the time the public are allowed back (after the mining envelope moves away through the bush) the pit has been rehabilitated and order continues to reign – smoothed contours, curved parallel rip lines, young plants germinating under-foot. It’s a positively pastoral image.
The importance of time comes up in several ways. During the time of public exclusion from a mining envelope, the public is unaware of the time passing for this particular point in the forest. A tour of Alcoa’s operations takes you from one point in the process to the next by bus: this step is followed by this step, by this step etc, and then … here is the rehabilitated pit. The emotional response of the viewer is influenced by the rapidity of the tour. You’re back home in time for tea. The same occurs if foresters take you on a tour of forest operations, but the demand for such tours is non-existent. The public do not wish to be further informed about commercial forestry and the political arm of government would be reluctant to fund such public relations exercises for an industry that the public tells them should be closed down.
In contrast, the campaigns against forestry always leave the observer with the impression that this smashed up post-logging condition is the end result, rather than the end of one week’s work in a cycle that spans many decades. You are never shown photos of the stump Bob Brown stood on ten years after the logging, because the regrowth at that stage is so thick, it would tend to detract from the message of “devastation, forever”. Bob wouldn’t even be able to find the same stump.
A sense of time
Time can also be influential in other ways; telling people that the devastation in this photo will look like the young forest in that tourist brochure in three decades has little emotional impact. A trivial immediate benefit is of much greater emotional consequence than a major benefit in the next decade. So long periods of time can make it harder to portray the concept of an environmental impact now (logging) being followed by a positive response a human generation in the future.
It is interesting how green activism often involves the use of photos taken in regrowth forest. In this case, the beauty of the tall evenly-spaced trees (the sense of order again, but did you realise they are spaced that way because of thinning?) is used to convey the impression of permanence, and the permanence of a good thing being desirable. Senescing forest, with it’s dead tops and crooked old trees, is rarely used for this type of publicity, because to do so would disrupt the sense of order and implies decay, and so undermines the association between the attractive forest and permanence. However if you take people to that same patch of regrowth forest and show them a photo of what the exact same spot looked like immediately after it was last logged, or killed by wildfire, they are astounded and often excited. In this case it is possible to use a long period of time from the past devastation to convey the understanding that the forest is a vibrant dynamic system. I find young forests uplifting.
A sense of space
Space is critical. Big is always better in emotional terms if you are contemplating an object of which you approve, but the reverse applies if you are contemplating something of which you disapprove. (If you want to minimise the effect of a traumatic memory, you repeatedly visualise it and then make the image smaller in your mind.) A tall dominant tree species is generally much more emotionally influential than a dumpy sub-dominant species. A tall straight tree is more valuable than a crooked or heavily forked tree, which comes back to the sense of order and possibly the perception of beauty being related to symmetry.
Selective, or single-tree logging is widely perceived to be more benign than clear-felling, because the area of chaos is smaller. The small clearing created by the tree’s falling crown is surrounded by undisturbed forest. The big stump used for the anti-logging photo opportunity is always taken against a background of an open space caused by clear felling, and that space always continues to the local horizon, which creates the impression that this chaos extends, if not to the nearest coastline, certainly as far as the eye can see. A short camera lens is used and the image cropped to convey the impression of perhaps a thousand metres to the cleared horizon. It is never taken with the 50 year old regrowth just behind the photographer in the shot.
But this use of space to engender a feeling of anxiety about total destruction over vast tracts of land may be at odds with the evidence of forest science. In some forests (typically the tall wet forest types in Australia) it is better to regenerate blocks of forest as even aged self-sown seedlings over areas of perhaps 10 to 30 hectares to reduce competition between established trees and seedlings. And 10 hectares, photographed from the right angle with a short lens, carries a strong emotional impact. The data that demonstrates the degrading influence of selective logging in some forests has no appeal at the emotional level.
It is a curious contrast between public and activist reactions to logging and mining. Examining the basic differences in perceptions of logging and mining, for example, the perceptions of space, time and order/chaos, demonstrate that the emotional responses to logging are not related to the fundamentals of conservation.
In the context of this discussion, none of these factors directly relate to the fundamental principle of conservation of protecting biodiversity. To prevent the extinction of any species seems to me to be the inviolable principle of conservation. If we were really honest with ourselves, then our emotional responses to these three factors would have little relevance to the preservation of biodiversity.
Boxer is a regular reader and sometimes contributor to this blog.