I spent much of my environmental life considering cutting down a tree about two steps down from clubbing baby seals. Trees were for planting, growing and hiking under; for habitat restoration, for erosion control, and most importantly for air quality preservation. They certainly weren’t for manufacturing, heating, or any other industrial use. That, along with some of my some of my other old environmental mainstays (notably Eco-vegetarianism, and being anti nuclear energy) has gone by the way side. Over the past year I have become more and more pro biomass, fuelled in part by my studies of the Swedish Natural Step sustainability models. Biomass is playing a significant part in Sweden becoming Oil Independent by 2020-in fact they are calling it their Wood Fueled Future.

First let’s look at the CO2 benefits. If you can keep the energy plants relatively close to the forest, some Scandinavian studies are showing net reductions in CO2 to be in the ballpark of 30 to 40 times less than petroleum sources. That is a flipping huge! The new scrubbers and advances in forestry management have made this a workable solution. For the remaining ecological advantages let’s look at the age old Christmas Tree issue. 32,000,000 trees are cut each Christmas in America alone. That number sounds staggering and is enough to get many people out to buy the new plastic fantastic. But in reality, it is only 30,000 acres (corn had 24,600,000 in 2006) as about 1750 trees are planted per acre. In contrast to traditional agriculture, those acres were not cultivated, rarely sprayed or fertilized, provided habitat for fauna, and sucked a whole lot of C02 from the atmosphere. Compare that with the PVC fake trees that we purchase that out gas for years and create dioxin in their production. For me this is a no brainer-real trees do real good, even the ones in a strict agricultural monoculture. They combat erosion, produce oxygen, provide habitat and keep farmers in business while growing perennial crops that fix CO2 for a decade or more. Fake trees put real toxins into the environment that last forever while adding to, not subtracting from, our CO2 emissions. These arguments are true to varying degrees for virtually any other industry that is using a synthetic industrial model to replace a natural fiber. For example, Wood Burners are popping up across rural America. These compact units heat both air and water, include emission control devices, and drastically cut down on the ecological footprint of our homes by removing the petroleum needed to heat the household for the winter. The kicker, of course, is where all the wood comes from. On one end is a friend of mine at work who takes nothing but dead fall from his 4 acre woodlot, and plants a dozen or so trees a year to backfill. Unfortunately many people will end up sourcing their wood fuel from less sustainable sources. Here is where I will irate some people. I would rather that America fuel its homes with clear cut trees than natural gas and heating oil. At least here in WI most of the harvestable lumber is from managed forests including DNR land and education and some minimal legislation can get the rest of the country up to speed. While it is very traumatic to see a recently harvested wood, from an ecological point of view it is not much different than having those acres burned down in a lightning strike fire which would happen in a non managed forest. Within months of the harvest, Gaia is rebuilding with a lush growth of brambles and seedlings that’s a boon for biodiversity. For me it comes down to the fact that the problems from biomass are more easily handled-erosion control, selective wood harvesting, and pollution scrubbers. Whereas the problems with petroleum fuels are a herd of night mares-once the pollution is up in the troposphere we can’t really get it back into the bedrock and I’ll take a clear cut forest over a strip mine any day. Are there better ways? You bet, for one, passive solar heating uses almost no energy to heat homes, but rebuilding 20 million homes takes more resources than retro fitting them with wood burners. Like many of the Big Name environmentalists I guess I am getting realistic in the face of Global Warming which is looming very large indeed. My next home will be heated by a Tulikivi stove or a separate wood burner if it is pre existing-or built passive solar if it isn’t. I might still retro fit this one if I can figure out how to reinforce the floor to support the stove. Our family is blessed with 20 acres of woodland that could sustainably heat my home for eternity. Those woods have been selectively cut for 3 generations-both for dimensional lumber and heating. They are also a dense mixed stand that provides habitat for large populations of turkey and deer which could also feed us if we were inclined, and there are enough small fruit and herbs growing in the under story to keep us in jam for a life. Can you say that about a natural gas mine or a coal plant? That is why I find myself opting for natural materials more and more. Virtually everything in our consumer culture has a Dark Side-but those from natural materials are more easily remedied.

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