George Horace Latimer wrote: “It’s good to have money and the things that money can buy, but it is good [also] to check up once in a while and make sure you haven’t lost the things that money can’t buy.”
Despite Latimer’s admonition, we are today moving through an accelerated process of losing many things that , such as our spirituality, the quality and livability of our environment, and our dignity as human beings. We are also losing an ever-increasing number of fellow travelers—both plants and animals—on our planetary home in space. Such losses come about because we are progressively linear and materialistic in our view of the world and in our measures of success. We have accomplished all of this through the introduction into human culture and society of economically oriented, purposely created extinction.
The motive behind this introduction is something called “conversion potential,” which is oriented almost completely toward the control of Nature and the conversion of natural resources into economic commodities. Our forests—indeed those of the world—are example. Clyde Martin, of the Western Pine Association, epitomized today’s thinking are early as 1940, when he wrote in the Journal of Forestry: “Without more complete and profitable utilization we cannot have intensive forest management. . . . When thinnings can be sold at a profit and every limb and twig of the tree has value, forest management will come as a matter of course.”—and so it has. Thus, conversion potential dignifies with a name the erroneous notion that Nature has no intrinsic value and must be converted into money before any value can be assigned to any part of it. All of Nature is thus seen only in terms of its conversion potential. It is this distorted, fun-house-mirror view of Nature that gave birth to the trilogy of extinction: (1) intellectually created extinction, (2) the economics of extinction, and (3) manifested extinction.
INTELLECTUALLY CREATED EXTINCTION
The trilogy of extinction begins in the human mind as a tiny worm of blindness that distorts wholeness into salable parts and relegates the “leftovers” to the trash bin. Old-growth trees—and the natural forests in which they grow—are a case in point.
In Nature’s forest, old trees often develop root rot, which so weakens them that they are easily blown over by strong winds. This is how Nature both invests and reinvests biological capital in the soil, which in turn nurtures and grows the trees of tomorrow’s forest. In the mirror of our linear, materialistic, human-centered society, such wholesome reinvestment is seen only as economic waste.
Neither seeing nor understanding the life and processes of a fallen old-growth tree as Nature reinvests it in the soil of the forest floor, economists and people of the timber industry at large continue to seek ways of eliminating such wasteful loss of wood fiber. To them, trees blown over by the wind just lie on the ground rotting and are good to nobody.
This concept of economic waste drives the corporate/political planning system to liquidate all possible old-growth trees and the natural forests in which they grow because the corporate/political pundits think of them simply as free profit that will be wasted if not cut and used. And there is no plan to ever again allow Nature’s forests to grow or trees within them to reach old-growth status; when they are cut, they are mostly gone–not only the large live tree but also the large snag (a standing dead tree) and the large fallen tree. “Intellectually created extinction” is a person’s conscious thought coupled with their purposeful plan to eliminate something from a particular area. The effect of an intellectually created extinction too often makes a potentially renewable resource into one that is increasingly finite.
In addition, the capitalistic idea of getting the maximum profit out of all resources with a minimum investment—be they potentially renewable (such as forests) or nonrenewable (such as fossil fuels)—is used not only to dictate but also to justify the unmitigated exploitation of our home planet. In this vein, the purposely planned, permanent liquidation of every available old-growth tree, without regard for the intrinsic value of its biophysical function or that of natural forests in general, constitutes the “intellectually created extinction.” As the world’s forests go, so too go all the species of plants and animals—including humans—that depend on them in one way or another for their existence, to the everlasting impoverishment of all life on our home planet.
THE ECONOMICS OF EXTINCTION
Intellectually created extinction through the process of economic planning is the precursor of the economics of extinction. It leads to the completion of the trilogy in the concept of manifested extinction and is thus the epitome of the materialistic, utilitarian view of the world, a view that totally disregards the sanctity of life and its ecological/spiritual functions.
The motto of the economics of extinction is profit over all—even if it means the loss of most of the world’s species of plants and animals and the crucial biophysical functions they perform. In this sense, liquidation pays, even in the purposeful extinction of a species, but conservation costs, and cost is unacceptable to profiteers.
In North America, the profit over all motto is therefore the guiding force in most natural resource industries, both on land and at sea. The profiteers in timber industry, for example, justify the liquidation of as much of Nature’s remaining centuries-old forests as humanly possible. They then use this same motto to justify the conversion of the liquidated forests into economically designed crop-like plantations of young trees to be harvested—theoretically, at least—over and over and over into the distant future on a “sustained-yield basis,” like fields of corn. But trees are only one part of a forest, the only part to which our distorted vision assigns “conversion potential.” By converting a forest into a repetitive plantation, the rest of the forest is destroyed, its soil impoverished, and its myriad organisms and processes dismissed as useless junk and impediments to the sanctity of the profit margin.
In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt, concerned about the profit over all attitude in general and the timber industry in particular, convened the first-ever meeting of all the governors of the states to address the topic of the environment. His opening address to the conference is as pertinent today as it was 90 years ago. He began:
I welcome you to this Conference at the White House. You have come hither at my request, so that we may join together to consider the question of the conservation and use of the great fundamental sources of wealth of this Nation.
So vital is this question, that for the first time in our history the chief executive officers of the States separately, and of the States together forming the Nation, have met to consider it. . . .
This conference on the conservation of natural resources is in effect a meeting of the representatives of all the people of the United States called to consider the weightiest problem now before the Nation; and the occasion for the meeting lies in the fact that the natural resources of our country are in danger of exhaustion if we permit the old wasteful methods of exploiting them longer to continue.3
Roosevelt went on to say: “Just let me interject one word as to a particular type of folly of which it ought not to be necessary to speak. We should stop wasteful cutting of timber; that of course makes a slight shortage at the moment. To avoid that slight shortage at the moment, there are certain people so foolish that they will incur absolute shortage in the future, and they are willing to stop all attempts to conserve the forests, because of course by wastefully using them at the moment we can for a year or two provide against any lack of wood.”4
“So this Nation as a whole,” he said, “should earnestly desire and strive to leave the next generation the national honor unstained and the national resources unexhausted.”5 In essence, his argument was that any right-thinking parent strives to leave their child reasonably prepared to meet the struggle of life and a family name to be proud of.
Even in Roosevelt’s time, intellectually created extinction led to the economics of extinction, which claimed the hearts and minds of those individuals who sold their souls to the corporate/political machine. Thus are the thoughts of the human mind translated into action against Nature. Now, almost a century later, we see the trilogy of extinction nearing completion with the visible loss of not only species but also whole ecosystems.
How does intellectually created extinction, which leads to the economics of extinction, translate into manifested extinction? When, for example, the centuries-old forests are liquidated, no more old trees will stand as living monarchs, to die and stand as large dead trees, and to topple as large fallen trees and lie for centuries decomposing, providing a kaleidoscope of habitats and performing their myriad functions as they recycle and reinvest their biological capital into the soil from which they and their compatriots grew. As the trilogy of extinction is consummated in the forest, the large standing dead tree and the large fallen tree, which are only altered states of the live old tree, will go the way of the oldest living things on Earth, the ancient monarchs of the forest: down the economic hall of extinction.
And with the ancient forest will go such species as the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, which have evolved in concert with that particular habitat. In fact, the owl and the murrelet have adapted to particular features of that habitat.
The northern spotted owl nests in tall broken-topped old Douglas-fir trees. The marbled murrelet, a seabird, nests on carefully selected large, moss-covered branches at least a hundred feet up in ancient trees, with other branches close overhead to protect the nest site. The murrelet’s nest tree is located several miles inland from the coast, where the murrelet feeds. Being so specialized in the selection of its reproductive habitat, neither owl nor murrelet is capable of adapting to the rapid changes wrought by the liquidation of the old forest.
Now comes an interesting twist to the story. It is not only species of plants and animals that will become extinct with the liquidation of the old forests, but so will the “grandparent trees.” As young trees replace liquidated old trees in crop after crop, the ecological functions performed by the old trees, such as creation of the “pit-and-mound” topography on the floor of the forest with its mixing of mineral soil and organic topsoil, become extinct processes. Why? Because there are no more grandparent trees to blow over.
The “pit” in pit-and-mound topography refers to the hole left as a tree’s roots are pulled from the soil, and “mound” refers to the soil-laden mass of roots, called a “rootwad,” suddenly projected into the air above the floor of the forest. The young trees that replace the grandparent trees are much smaller than the old trees and different in structure. They cannot perform the same functions in the same ways.
Of all the factors that affect the soil of the forest, the roughness of the surface caused by falling grandparent trees, particularly the pit-and-mound topography, is the most striking. It creates and maintains the richness of species of plants in the herbaceous understory and affects the success of tree regeneration.
One way uprooted trees enrich the forest’s topography is in creating new habitats for vegetation. Falling trees create opportunities for new plants to become established in the bare mineral soil of the root pit and the mound. With time, the fallen tree itself presents habitats that can be readily colonized by tree seedlings and other plants. Falling trees also open the canopy, and the opening allows more light to reach the floor of the forest. In addition, pit-and-mound topography is a major factor in mixing the soil of the forest floor as the forest evolves.
The extinction of the grandparent trees changes the entire complexion of the forest through time, just as the function of a chair is changed when the seat is removed. The “roughness” of the floor of the forest, which over the centuries resulted from the cumulative addition of pits and mounds and of fallen grandparent trees, will become unprecedentedly “smooth”—without pits and mounds, without large fallen trees.
Water moves differently over and through the soil of a smooth forest floor, one that is devoid of large fallen trees acting as reservoirs, storing water throughout the heat of the summer, and holding soil in place on steep slopes. Gone are the huge snags and fallen trees that acted as habitats for creatures wild and free. Gone are the stumps of the grandparent trees with their belowground “plumbing systems,” which guided rain and melting snow deep into the soil.
This plumbing system of decomposing tree stumps and roots comes from the frequent formation of hollow, interconnected, surface-to-bedrock channels that drain water rapidly from heavy rains and melting snow. As roots rot completely away, the collapse and plugging of these channels force more water to drain through the soil matrix, reducing soil cohesion and increasing hydraulic pressure, which in turn causes mass soil movement. The young trees of plantations cannot replace these plumbing systems.
Suddenly, the artistry and the biophysical sustainability of Nature’s ancient forest has vanished, and with its banishment go the lifestyles of a special breed of logger, log-truck driver, and mill worker, perhaps never to be replaced. Where once stood Nature’s mighty forest in the parade of centuries now stands humanity’s pitiful, ecologically sterile economic plantations—the epitome of the non-sustainable specialization embodied in the corporate/political motto: profit over all. Now the trilogy of extinction is complete!
Every crisis in the world today—whether social or environmental—is a historical archive of human choices, decisions, and their subsequent actions, including those of yesterday. Despite all the evidence before us, we keep making the same types of decisions, ignoring volumes upon volumes of historical evidence depicting their dire consequences, each time expecting a new and different outcome. We humans face a growing cataclysm of suffering from myriad causes, not the least of which are ideological strife and its wonton destruction of irreplaceable resources and the growing threat of global warming. Yet those rare individuals who make decisions that would, in fact, further the social-environmental well-being of the Earth are too often thwarted by the self-centered, socially powerful minority who are afraid of loosing their economic advantage garnered from the status quo.
Nevertheless, whosoever makes a social decision is simultaneously making an environmental decision, and vice versa. This is an inescapable relationship because human society is an inseparable part of the environment, just as the environment is an indivisible part of human society. Therefore, every leader, regardless of their hierarchical level in government—local, national, or world—are all social-environmental decision-makers, whether they understand it on not, whether they accept it or not, whether the care or not. Thus terming someone a “social-environmental decision-maker,” a “social decision-maker,” an “environmental decision-maker,” solely a “decision-maker,” or a “leader” matters not because society and the environment that cradles it are enveloped in an inescapable, self-reinforcing feedback loop of reciprocity. Therefore, our human thoughts about the value of money versus Nature’s wealth determine the well-being or poverty of all generations.
1. George Horace Latimer. Money (accessed December 9, 2011).
2. Clyde S. Martin. 1940. Forest resources, cutting practices, and utilization problems in the pine region of the Pacific Northwest. Journal of Forestry 38(9):681-685.
3. The speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 was reprinted under the title “The First Environmental President” in the Forum section of July 22, 1990, edition of The Sunday Oregonian, Portland, OR.
Text © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.