Different Emotional Responses to Mining and Logging in Jarrah Forests: A Note from Boxer

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.


14 Responses to Different Emotional Responses to Mining and Logging in Jarrah Forests: A Note from Boxer

  1. Dylan August 16, 2007 at 2:24 pm #

    “To prevent the extinction of any species seems to me to be the inviolable principle of conservation”

    Why? Would you say the same of the smallpox virus? Staphylococcus aureus?

    Species will always go extinct, even without human presence. Humans are part of the natural ecosystem, so of course will compete with other species, and drive a percentage of them to extinction. The danger comes when we able to do it at such alarming rates and scales that the consequences come back to bite us.

    The only “inviolable principle” I can see is that we strive to withhold our destructive capacity to within the limits that the planet’s ecology can sustainably tolerate.

    As far as logging old-growth forests goes, has anyone worked out, were we to continue to log at the current rate for the next 100 years, how much of the forest would remain?

  2. Davey Gam Esq. August 16, 2007 at 8:02 pm #

    You raise a point we have discussed before on this blog, without resolution. Why is the abolition of the smallpox virus acceptable? Is it because it is nasty to us? So are tigers and poisonous snakes. Is it because it is so small as to seem ecologically insignificant? Boxer’s point about size and space. Or is it because it is common sense to defend ourselves against disease? But then, isn’t disease one of nature’s ways of keeping populations in check? Would you see chopping down a karri tree as worse than killing virus? Why?

  3. Anon August 16, 2007 at 8:04 pm #

    I wonder what Dylan defines as ‘old growth’? I get the impression from his comment that he didn’t ‘listened’ to what Boxer wrote. Just repeating the popular.

    In my opinion – Boxer has written a great piece with much food for thought.

  4. Boxer August 16, 2007 at 9:41 pm #

    ” were we to continue to log at the current rate for the next 100 years, how much of the forest would remain?”

    The same area of forest that we have now, if we log at the current rate. If we log 1% of the forest each year on a 100 year rotation, the area of forest doesn’t change but it is divided into 100 age groups. Each 1% would be broken up into a mixture of 10-30 hectare clear felled areas and other larger areas of selectively cut forest.

    If we cut 5% of the forest estate each year, then after 20 years we have the same area of forest, but none of it would be more than 20 years old. This isn’t happening and it would be unacceptable to the public, and foresters. Foresters are trained to plan over centuries.

  5. gavin August 16, 2007 at 10:51 pm #

    Boxer said in sense of space “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”

    So I opened my book “Han Heysen Masterpieces” to check and found a rural scene featuring a willow instead of his more typical candle bark specimens.


    Next I opened the “world of Olegas Truchanas” and immediately stopped on plate 25. Those who knew the old Lake Pedder will recall dwarf Melaleuca squamea growing naturally on the pebble beach and in the water like some weird bonsai creation.

    I say its individuals that count. Trees are casualties in many major operations. If planners can’t respect the variety of forms individuals develop then there is no hope for the rich diversity in our natural forests.

    It was road building in virgin rainforest years ago that grabbed my attention. Some of that road building was for hydro schemes, some was for mining after exciting surveys and prospecting on crown lands by private contractors we knew. Finds always created a buzz.

    In case anyone is thinking I wont know the ancient from the recent, this week ABC 7.30 had the mining revival story round the once famous silver city. “Zeehan is believing did not quite show what a scrubby world it was in between however I did see the falls on the Pieman before they were submerged and the last of that remote timber being sawn up.


    King Billy pine was hardly ever straight. Believe me also with another point; mining and damming can sometimes create a storm.

    “Order” is not quite the same as it once was either.

  6. Dylan August 17, 2007 at 6:58 am #

    So is percentage of the forest cut down each year always intentionally based on the average age of the trees? Even forests with 400-yo years?
    If so, then there really isn’t any logical argument against such logging. Not that most people respond to logic, of course.

  7. Boxer August 17, 2007 at 8:17 am #


    The answer starts with “it depends”. For brevity, much of this is heavily simplified because there are so many types of forest and the practices very widely. If you have a specific forest in mind, then you have to go to the people who manage that forest.

    The age of trees is often over-stated. Average growth rate of say 10mm diameter increase per year, divided into the diameter of the biggest tree of say 2000mm does not make the big trees 200 years old. The biggest trees are biggest because they grow many times faster than the smaller trees. All the trees in the forest may actually only be 100 years old.

    But if the forest actually has trees that take 400 years to reach a mature size, then the harvesting should only take 0.25% each year, or if you take 1% a year, you know that in 100 years, harvesting will stop and you’ll have to wait 300 years to start cutting again.

    Before the States formed their forest departments early in the 20th century and slowly gained control over the industry, this happened with prized species. It’s happening now with the Asian rainforests, which is why that wood is cheap and plentiful in your local hardware store now. This is why we are exporting our environmental impact by closing up more and more of our forests in reserves.

    Policy people may also plan to log specific forests at higher than replacement rates for say 50 years and meantime build up a plantation resource that will be harvestable as the cut from that specific forest declines, than when the plantation is cut and into its regrowth phase, the forest has matured, so the process may roll through more than one forest type in succession.

    Also worth bearing in mind that the reserve system in a modern forest estate maintains a high proportion of the forest as uncut. As these reserves are distributed along creeks and roads, then there is a reservoir of animal life that moves back into the patches of regrowth forest. World-wide, only Antarctica has a greater proportion of its land area in conservation reserves than Tasmania. The calculations of proportion cut each year does not include these conservation reserves in modern native forestry.

  8. Davey Gam Esq. August 17, 2007 at 11:21 am #

    How about a bit of logic on why it is worse to kill a whale than a krill, worse to kill a karri tree than a virus? Boxer has presented a careful and logical case for sustainable harvesting of forests in Australia. This will save importing timber from Asia, where forests are, I gather, being removed wholesale. The exception is Japan, where a long term ban on logging has resulted in a number of forest problems (there are websites on this), and large imports of timber. The sooner we return to sanity on logging in Australia the better for us, and other people’s forests. Can you find fault with his logic?

  9. Yorkie August 17, 2007 at 12:48 pm #

    I found Boxer’s essay thoughful and intelligent, one of the best posts I have ever read on this site. It would be a mistake, however, to think that this sort of well-considered logic and informed position will have an iota of impact on forest management policies in Australia. The very fact that the government, the media, the environmental groups, and 95% of the general public oppose sustainable logging operations while approving of bauxite mining in the jarrah forest, reveals how hopeless it is to expect sensible policy-making and intelligent forest management strategies.

    The response to Boxer’s essay from Dylan provides living proof of the problem. No-one is arguing for the clear felling of the last old growth tree. This is a typical straw man argument put up to justify their opposition to logging by environmental activisits. Even well before the RFAs and other political decisions, there were extensive areas of old growth forest placed in reserves. These areas will never be logged, although it is likely that many of them will be converted into dead trees and even-aged regrowth by wildfire. The real issue is that logging does not destroy the forest, but is hated, while bauxite mining does destroy the forest, but is welcomed. What Boxer has tried to do is to explain this curious anomaly, and I think he has done so very well.

    Moreover, Boxer’s input was a breath of fresh air compared to the crude and juvenile mudslinging which always accompanies debates about global warming on this site.


  10. Dylan August 17, 2007 at 3:57 pm #

    Davey Gam,

    I don’t know how you can argue “logically” why it worse to kill a whale than a krill. It’s just something that seems instinctively to be the case, perhaps because of our closer genetic link to whales, perhaps because we know of their intelligence. But ultimately it’s very much a human perspective – a krill (were it capable of such thought) would quite possibly think quite differently.

    As far as sustainable harvesting of forests in Australia goes, I couldn’t agree more. Not sure why you thought I was against it.

  11. Dylan August 17, 2007 at 3:59 pm #

    Davey Gam,

    I don’t know how you can argue “logically” why it worse to kill a whale than a krill. It’s just something that seems instinctively to be the case, perhaps because of our closer genetic link to whales, perhaps because we know of their intelligence. But ultimately it’s very much a human perspective – a krill (were it capable of such thought) would quite possibly think quite differently.

    As far as sustainable harvesting of forests in Australia goes, I couldn’t agree more. Not sure why you thought I was against it.

  12. Dylan August 17, 2007 at 4:02 pm #

    Sorry for the double post…not sure what happened there.

    BTW, a few posters seem to think that I was arguing against current logging practises in Australia. I’m a bit baffled at this…having re-read my own posts there’s nothing there indicating that I hold such a position, in fact quite the opposite.

  13. Davey Gam Esq. August 17, 2007 at 5:35 pm #

    My apologies for misreading your position on logging. I also agree that there is no logical reason why killing a virus is okay, but killing a whale is not. It is a matter of human perspective, in which emotion, and self interest, often overrule logic. Much of the opposition to logging is also illogical, although boosted by pseudo-scientific arguments, such as ‘conserving biodiversity’.

  14. ivanna October 16, 2007 at 8:25 pm #

    wat are use talkin about? killin a krill is beta than killin a whale because krill arent endangered…think about it. there arent a hundred million billion whales on the earth. but there probobly are krill. i have a question >>>> WILL TREE LOGGING GET BETTER OR WORSE IN THE FUTURE?
    what du u think?

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