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Save an Email, Save the Forests?

Tom Pollock

A recent Wall Street Journal opinion article, “Save a Forest: Print Your Emails,” has received a lot of attention lately. Its writer makes the point that in spite of the familiar “do not print this email” request, it is perfectly fine to print your emails given the fact that paper is “renewable, recyclable, and sustainable.” Those with differing opinions are, of course, flabbergasted at what they claim is a gross oversimplification and point to the amount of paper sent to landfills, our ongoing need to reduce carbon emissions by keeping trees standing, and the critical need to protect the biodiversity that exists in the world’s forests. Both sides make valid points. But who’s right?

Separate from any technical analysis, the first question that comes to my mind is, “who the heck prints their email?” My guess is that the motivation behind the “don’t print this email” campaign likely stems from the early days of email and the internet, and the attention given to it today has probably eclipsed its initial suspected cause.

I think most of us can grasp the intentions behind “don’t print this email.” If I were to print my email, it would be wasteful because I should be able to read it on my computer. And if I don’t print my email, I’m being mindful of a precious natural resource. There are likely people out there who still do print their email, but are these print-happy maniacs major contributors to worldwide forest loss?

In fact, the main causes of forest loss worldwide are, by a majority, agriculture and urban sprawl. For example, 70% of formerly forested land in the Amazon, and 91% of land deforested since 1970, is used for livestock pasture.

Many are surprised to learn that it’s not just the rainforests of South America and Southeast Asia that are under threat. The United States’ demand for meat, more living space, and energy means that forest owners are selling their land to the highest bidders, namely the developers in these industries. Previously managed or protected forestland is being permanently converted to other uses, leading to deforestation and forest fragmentation. The result in the United States is harsh consequences on the environment including poorer water and air quality, biodiversity and species loss, and degradation of natural landscapes.

If there’s a lesson in the “don’t print this email” debate, it’s that we should be suspicious of any dialogue that suggests complicated environmental problems can be reduced to simple actions. Environmental challenges are real, they’re complex, and we need to be diligent about using facts to lead us to solutions even when there is a strong emotional component.

No matter how you look at it – emails, sloppy joes, or golf courses – the cause of deforestation is us. Let’s get better at recycling paper and not be wasteful when we use it. But let’s also broaden the discussion and accept that while recycling is important, it is only one part of the solution to protecting forests in the U.S. and around the world. We need to move the discussion forward and talk about how our impacts on the forest go beyond merely what we print or don’t print. Forests are severely impacted by our diet, living preferences, energy sources, and what we choose to buy and sell. You might choose to not print out this blog entry, but you might think about skipping that T-Bone every now and again as well.

5 Responses to Save an Email, Save the Forests?

  1. Patrick says:

    I appreciate your article. One more way to look at the issue includes the idea of supporting plantation forest demand. Paper use (forest product use) creates a demand for forests and enables forest land-use to compete with agriculture and urban sprawl. Regulated forests also create a faster carbon storage cycle and does in fact offer biodiversity that old growth managed forests do not (read stagnant government land). So I say; if you want more forests, use more forest products. Consider my email signature for your own personal use:

    Working forests serve the environment; providing clean air & water, carbon storage, diverse wildlife habitat, and products from a renewable resource.

    Best,

    PN

  2. David Podmayersky says:

    I just can’t understand why people waste their time debating these totally unproductive issues when there is so much real progressive work to be done to get our forests under protected long term sustainable programs that support human economies and preserve the Earth’s eco-systems at the same time(geo-bio-integrity).
    Let’s all get focused on Preservation, Conservation and strong support for jobs and human economics!

    David Podmayersky – Sustainability Director

  3. This is a more nuanced conversation about this question, and I appreciate that Tom.

    I fear that some might read your post as stating this was the opinion of the Wall Street Journal. But its not, its a guest column by people who work in forestry, Chuck Leavell and Carlton Owen. Good, fine people, but I think its important that the source is clear. “Mr. Leavell is a musician, tree farmer, environmentalist and author. Mr. Owen is a forester, wildlife biologist and CEO of U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities.”

    You mention your view that the main drivers of deforestation are urban sprawl and agriculture. How much of that agricultural is forestry? Though sometimes mistakenly categorized, plantation timberlands do not provide the ecosystem services that natural (even managed) forests provide, and should be included in deforestation numbers.

    Contrary to the previous commenters assertions, plantation management does not increase carbon storage or provide better habitat than forests managed under conservation regimes. That’s simply not true.

    Like you said, nothing is as simple as many in this debate would like to make it seem. Paper is neither always good, or always bad. We should all be focused on valuing it more, to use it more efficiently, and expect it to be produced to the highest environmental standards, with an overall mix of recycled content and FSC-certified fresh fiber, and increasing recycling of paper. I guess I agree with David.

  4. Robert says:

    I believe the point is that managed and utilized forests are more productive than naturalized, unmanaged forests (UBC and the UN web site have graphs showing about 40% better) – however cutting fown forests for plantations sounds like a very bad idea.
    Note that converting farms to plantations is a good one (from a carbon point of view).
    The bottom line is this is not a simple debate – but in general paper is sustainable, renewable and recycling it is highly desirable – albeit into lower requirement uses (deinking is IMHO not environmentally friendly compared to virgin fiber)

  5. Teri Shanahan says:

    You should read the UN FAO 2012 State of the Forests report. Here is a quick quote:
    “Agriculture and forestry can be building blocks for an economically and environmentally sustainable future because both are natural production systems based on photosynthesis and, when sustainably managed, both can provide a steady flow of readily adaptable products and services.”
    Also, “A significant challenge for the forestry profession is to communicate and demonstrate the simple idea that one of the best ways of saving a forest is to use it. When sustainable forest management is practised, the values of the natural forest can largely be maintained.”
    Read the full report at http://www.fao.org/forestry/sofo/en/

    The discussion above is way too narrow and superficial.

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