Thursday, February 22, 2007

Not Seeing Forests for Trees

The news from Pine Falls, Manitoba confirms that the world’s forests—those presumed saviors of the environment, are poised to bite us in the collective ankle.

The news from Pine Falls, Manitoba confirms that the world’s forests—those presumed saviors of the environment, are poised to bite us in the collective ankle.
(A Doug Struck Washington Post piece)--Nearly half of the carbon that exists on land is contained in the sweeping boreal forests, which gird the Earth in the northern reaches of Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia and Russia. Scientists now fear that the steady rise in the temperature of the atmosphere and the increasing human activity in those lands are releasing that carbon, a process that could trigger a vicious cycle of even more warming.
Borealforests Maybe you don’t know what a ‘boreal’ forest is. I didn’t. Boreal is nothing more than ‘northern.’ But Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia and Russia account for a huge hunk of the green part of the earth and the thrust of the article is that these extensive timberlands, as permafrost disappears from under them, will turn from carbon dioxide absorbers to carbon dioxide producers.
Not good news. It’s not entirely the trees fault, but more the release of what’s under the trees.
Those forces, which scientists are only starting to understand, could free vast stores of carbon and methane that have been collecting since the last ice age in the frozen tundra and northern forests. Their release would push the world's climate toward a heat spiral that would raise ocean levels, spawn fierce storms and scorch farmlands, scientists believe.
Sigh. Sometimes there just appears to be no good news.
It seems all I have read in the past decade about global warming has been concentrated on the shortcomings of the human species.
  • Too many SUVs and not enough electric cars
  • Slash and burn policies in (other people's) rainforests
  • Big, overcrowded China getting bigger and (worse yet), driving
  • Coal electric generation instead of non-polluting cricket-power
  • Acid rain
  • Five-car garages, McMansions and farting cows
Fartingcows Not to worry—policymakers are “experimenting with techniques to bury man-made carbon dioxide in underground vaults and porous seams.” Out of sight, out of mind. These selfsame ‘policymakers’ have been unable during the past two decades to get permission to ‘bury’ radioactive waste under our western mountains.
‘Policy’ is defined as “a line of argument rationalizing the course of action of a government” and ‘rationalize’ is further defined as “defend, explain, clear away, or make excuses for by reasoning.” Wonderful.
What we are confronted with, policy-wise, amounts to
“a line of argument defending (explaining, clearing away, or making excuses for by reasoning) the course of action of a government.”
Wow! These policy-wonks are going to capture a gas we have thus far been unable to capture; isolate it, as we have been unable to do; and somehow compact it sufficiently to actually lock it away in underground vaults, as if it were the gold at Fort Knox.
Sleep easy—your policymakers are at work.
I have a modest proposal of my own to offer. I know it’s not ‘policy,’ because I am not in the position of being a ‘policymaker’ and I readily admit that this is no panacea, but it is at least doable while underground vaults are searched-out and permits issued.
BarrenhighwayHow about actually planting some trees? Amazingly,
  • Unlike policymakers, trees are quick, cheap and easy to propagate
  • They hold soil from erosion, protect groundwater and lower temperatures
  • They actually grow, which means that every year they take in more CO2 and produce more oxygen (no vaults or porous seams required)
  • We Americans have unending spaces within which to plant. 47,000 miles of Interstate Highways alone would accommodate fifty million trees.
Treelinedhighway That’s the Interstate System, but state routes, county roads and the like actually dwarf the national roads and then, when you get right down to city streets across the nation, the possibilities are endless. So why not? And, a better question, why not right now? The absolute worst that could happen is we would enjoy a prettier, shadier, more enjoyable country.
A second modest proposal (and I promise to stop at two) has to do with genetic engineering.
In addition to all that questionable corn, mightn’t the scientists take a month or so to till in the fields of national need? We need slow-growing grasses or (possibly) grasses that do not grow at all, but just lie there, covering the ground with green and requiring no firing up of the old rotary lawnmower. Damned thing seldom starts on the first pull anyway.
Bspoweredmower_1 I realize that might not serve the best purposes of Briggs and Stratton, nor the economic interest of the nation’s exploding lawn-chemical industries, but what-the-hell. We are in an age of unequal sacrifice and the inequities are headed in the direction of more rather than less. Someone has to bite the bullet and why not industry for a change.
According to the EPA, one old gas powered lawn mower running for an hour emits as much pollution as driving 650 miles in a 1992 model automobile. Each weekend, during the mowing season, 54 million Americans mow their lawns. Over 35 billion driving miles equaled each mowing weekend.
That’s you and me, pushing or riding and doesn’t begin to include highway roadside mowing and its cost in labor, equipment and pollution.
C’mon Michigan State University—give us some engineered grasses, capable of gracing our lawns and road edges without constant mowing. These couple of ideas aren’t going to stop global warming, but they will mediate it a bit, increase awareness and provide a (small) positive rather than negative step. As we criticize Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela for their slash-and-burn Amazon policies, it won’t hurt to point to a couple of American successes in forestation and sustainable grasses.
Time in a hammock instead of mowing the lawn? Just an added benefit.
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