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I ran into a couple Greenpeace activists near the Balston Metro.   They wanted me to sign up for their organization to fight global warming and specifically save the boreal forests, evidently threatened by the likes of Kimberly-Clark.   I think I may have confused them. 

I told them that I respected their passion but I didn’t like their organization because I thought they were usually more of a PR organization than an environmental one.     I didn’t disagree that global warming and forest destruction were serious problems.  If fact, before they stopped me I was listening to the new Thomas Freidman book Hot, Flat & Crowded re the green revolution on my I-Pod.   The woman told me that the boreal forests produced 30% of the world’s oxygen.    Of course this is inaccurate.  A mature forest is essentially carbon neutral, as CO2 from respiration and decay more or less balances oxygen fixed by photosynthesis.  It has to be that way.  Think about wht would happen if natural system just kept sucking up CO2 before humans burned fossile fuels.  All the carbon would come to be tied up in wood and leaves and nothing would grow.    However, I told them, I would be happy to put the boreal forests generally off limits because they are nice to look at and the fiber from them is competes with Southern forestry.  There are lots of reasons to protect boreal forests, but that 30% oxygen arguement is just bogus.   

I asked them if they wanted to maintain forests and healthy wildlife communities on American land.   Of course they did.  So I discussed the economics of forestry and open land and how organizations such as Greenpeace often worked against their own stated interests by advocating regulations that make it so difficult for landowners to make a living from the land so they sell off to developers.    I also explained that good forestry practices protect soils near watercourses, which also provide wildlife corridors through plantation forests.  

The woman was interested and wanted to hear more, but her partner said, “We shouldn’t talk to this guy anymore.”  He evidently feared the contagion; they both wandered off. 

These young people exhibit admirable passion and Greenpeace is a first class marketing organization.   The scary part is that environmentalism has been subverted to public relations and sincere people are often taken in by it.    I have been interested in the environment as long as I can remember and I worry that the politics of environmentalism too often trumps its nature protection.  I am not alone in this.  Greenpeace founder, Patrick Moore, has come around to supporting nuclear power and good forestry practices because they the best alternatives for protecting the environment.    James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis and as crunchy an environmentalist you can find thinks that nuclear energy is necessary to “save the earth”.   Many of their erstwhile colleagues are not amused.    

We have to move into a more environmentally friendly equilibrium.   This certainly requires some regulation and rule making.  Rules and regulations work well when you are attacking a big, easily identified source.  I use the work attacking purposefully.   That has the feel of a struggle, us v them, good guys v bad guys.   This is the battlefield activists like.   But we have done the rough work.   We now are addressing the more complex finer points, ones that are harder to find and maybe ones that are not even recognized.  Doing this requires the unleashing of human innovation, initiatives and inventiveness.  For this you need to give people and firms incentives and information.   Command and control will not produce the result you want.    

Those cute Greenpeace activists in their quasi-environmental clothes with their quasi-environmental ideas will have to look for other solutions.   It is satisfying to kick the asses of the villains, but our task is to get entrepreneurs involved in finding environmental solutions with government helping create infrastructure to facilitate the work.    It will mean some conservation and higher energy prices, but we cannot conserve our way out of the problem.  We also cannot legislate solutions; we have to invent them.   The government cannot pick winners because the information needed to make those decisions is not yet available.   The futurists and planners always get it wrong.   Nobody foresaw the details of the information technologies we have today.   Society and the people making choices informed by their own specific knowledge and preferences makes decisions that surprise and are better than those of a small group of planners, no matter how smart.  We should unleash those same processes that gave us the wonderful and very inexpensive computer I am using to write and you are using to read as well as the Internet that connects them. 

Sorry, but Greenpeace is so 1970.  They did some good things back then, but we have moved beyond that sort of thing in most ways.   BTW - Greenpeace founder has moved to the next step.   See his site at Greensprit.com

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I don't think your point about the CO2 is quite logical. Animals, fungi, roots and internal combustion engines take in Oxygen and give out CO2. Green plants take in CO2 and give out Oxygen.

I doubt if the boreal forests account for as much as 30%, but let's suppose you remove 100% of the green plants from this cycle (and they were not always there). Then the CO2 builds up and the O2 goes steadily down to zero. If you remove, say, 30% of the green plants, then again CO2 builds up and O2 goes down. Not to zero, but to a lower level than we have now.

If you increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, then in principle the plants have more carbon available to them and can grow faster until this extra CO2 is used up. It isn't clear whether this happens in practice.

From John Matel

The forest system is not only the trees. A mature forest system is essentiallly carbon neutral.

You are right that if you were to remove all the green plants, you would increase CO2. But that assumes that no other plant community will take its place. A rapidly growing young forest takes a lot of CO2 out of the air.

I am not advocating forest destruction. I love trees. There are lots of reasons to conserve forests. But conservation is not the same as preservation. Forests are important to the world's CO2 balance, but it is more complex than our Greenpeace activists think. I wrote a post re carbon credits below that talks re some of this. I think the activists were trying to use scare tactics about something they understood very little.

Very interesting post. And to think that I believed this blog would be boring now that you have left Iraq!

Funnily enough, I have been thinking a lot about this issue after I read this essay in Chicago Magazine a week ago. As the article points out, the idea that the best way to conserve our forests is to prohibit human interaction with them often seems harm more than it helps.

~T. Greer, quite interested in hearing what your thoughts are on "humans improving nature."

Ooops. It seems that I forgot to include the link to the article! Here ya go: http://magazine.uchicago.edu/0810/features/the_forest.shtml

~T. Greer

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