Reflections on my journey...
Updated: Jun 21, 2019
When Christopher Columbus made his first journey to the Caribbean one of the entries in his journal, written in the form of a letter to King Ferdinand, gave a glowing and poetic account of the people he encountered there. He extols their many qualities: they live in peace with one another, they are handsome and strong, they are hard-working, generous, and hospitable. And then he delivers the devastating conclusion: “They will make excellent slaves for your Majesty.”
Though I’m not a historian or a cultural anthropologist, it seems to me that the idea of viewing the world’s resources (human and otherwise) as wholly ours to exploit to whatever degree suits us is a distinctly European one. Not that all the world’s cultures don’t exploit the earth’s resources in various ways – we wouldn’t survive as a species otherwise. But I’m talking about these two key phrases: wholly ours (nobody else’s) and exploit to whatever degree suits us (regardless to cost/impact to anybody else and to the earth itself). And while these notions were alive and well long before capitalism and the Industrial Revolution (they were, it seems to me, at the very heart of Colonialism and, before that, other forms of empire-building), the rise of capitalist economies on a nation-state scale boosted the rewards of resource exploitation into overdrive. The trend has been on an exponential rise ever since.
One of the interesting details I learned from Harley Rustad’s Big Lonely Doug book was that the first Westerners to arrive on Vancouver Island weren’t interested in the timber there. These were Spaniards looking for gold; finding none, they continued on their way without so much as an afterthought. It wasn’t long, however, before the building of ever-larger numbers of ever-larger sailing ships made the enormous trunks of the island’s trees ideal for ship masts and keels: the push to begin harvesting the great trees of Vancouver Island began.
I’ve often wondered what it must have been like for the first Europeans exploring North America, trying to grasp the vastness of the land and the seemingly unlimited riches it provided. Trees bigger than any had ever seen, rivers and coasts teaming with fish, oysters, and other delights. A supply of furs to clothe every aristocrat in Europe, enough prairie for endless farms, and grassland for enumerable livestock. And it just…kept going. It must have indeed seemed like there was literally no end to what this new land could provide (damned be the people who were already here, of course). And given that unlimited supply there was, in turn, no end to the wealth that could be generated from it: the more resources you used, the richer you got. And with wealth being the path to usurping the power of the ruling class, there were potent drivers behind the quest to get as much as one could from the land.
And on top of all that, the Christianity of the day taught that the earth was a gift to believers, a mechanism for being rewarded for one’s faith. Within this construct it was one’s divine right – some would even say a divine responsibility – to make use of the new world’s bounty: why would the Lord have put it there if not for our benefit? I suppose that explains the uniquely European flavor of this style of exploitation: it was rooted in Christianity. (This is not to in any way endorse this world-view; I’m simply trying to understand it.)
I’ve thought about all this because I need to make sense of the mindset that continues to exploit the earth’s resources without regard for the impact on people and the environment, and without consideration of its sustainability. 400 years ago, the seemingly inexhaustible supply of natural resources found around the world could almost excuse the lack of thought as to whether or not those resources would ever run out: it’s clear that the explorers and capitalists of the day did not conceive of these riches ever being exhausted. Perhaps given the scale of economies and technology in the 16th and 17th centuries they were right. But today we are not under any such illusion. Anyone who thinks there’s no end to the earth’s forests, no limit to the stock of fish in the world’s oceans, or an inexhaustible well of oil in the ground, is simply not paying attention. There is no denying the facts around resource depletion within virtually every segment of our biosphere (not to mention the increasingly efficient ways by which we extract what’s left), and yet nothing changes: we continue to consume unabated. Why? We have the benefit of history. We can see and measure how much we’ve spent, and we can project the impact of continuing our rate of consumption unabated. The first westerners who explored North America, and who had no mechanism to actually quantify the vastness of what they’d encountered, had no such perspective. They were blinded by limited knowledge and a divinely-appointed entitlement. What’s our excuse?
97% of the old growth forests on Vancouver Island have been logged – and as the remaining stock becomes further depleted, lumber companies are moving faster to log what’s left. Why? Because an old growth harvest pays more. It’s not that cutting old growth forest is necessary to meet the world demand, it’s simple economics: more wood per acre equals more profit. In light of the knowledge that these forests, once gone, will never return, you can’t argue any other motivation to keep cutting them except for greed. A little more money for the timber company; good while supplies last.
And remember, replanting these trees does not restore either the majesty of 1,000 year-old trees or the complex ecosystem that surrounds them. I didn’t fully realize this until I started this project, but replanting turns a diverse biome into a uniform tree farm, suitable only for future re-harvest. The richly-diverse groves of a mature forest are irrevocably converted into corn fields for trees. Far from making reparations for the harm they inflict on these ancient groves, lumber companies are simply banking their future profits. This is a responsible and necessary course of action when the harvesting is of forests that themselves are secondary or tertiary growth – it is, indeed, the only way to create a sustainable supply of lumber for the future. But that 3% of old growth that remains? Is it really necessary to convert them into tree farms, too? No. It’s nothing more than crass exploitation, to benefit of the few now and the detriment of many later.
But jobs, the argument goes. Regulating the cutting of forests will cost jobs – and in British Columbia that’s a big issue: timber is a major force in the economy. But what about when the old growth is gone? What then? And let’s be clear: if the overwhelming percentage of lumbering taking place in BC (and elsewhere) is the harvesting of previously replanted tree farms, then that’s where the employment lies as well. Stopping old growth logging today is hardly going to end the lumber industry, considering that there’s hardly any old growth left!
Meanwhile, the general public’s desire for unspoiled natural areas continues to grow. Protecting natural areas generates a new industry of eco-tourism: a great illustration of one of the bedrock concepts of capitalism, creative destruction. But by depleting these areas for the short-term gain of one sector of the economy, the health of another sector is hurt (and an arguably longer-term and more sustainable one at that). Not to mention the overall public good of having such places preserved for future generations.
In the tropics, where wholesale deforestation is having devastating effects on many aspects of the biosphere (as well as contributing to global warming), the economic forces driving denuding of the land are more complex. While I couldn’t afford to visit the Amazon this trip, I look forward to learning more about the various dynamics driving deforestation in South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia. But in the Pacific Northwest it’s really quite straightforward: it’s nothing more than the continuation of the same sort of divine entitlement that drove the early settlers to take whatever they could from the land without regard for others or for the future. It’s madness.
When a segment of the Redwood parks was designated a World Heritage Site in 1982, the proclamation stated that the forest was a legacy “whose deterioration or disappearance is a harmful impoverishment to the heritage of all nations of the world,” and that such resources reflected “universal value to human-kind.”
Impoverishment of heritage. Universal value to human-kind. These are values that transcend money, but to embrace these values we first have to recognize that money can’t always be the only thing driving our calculation of worth. It means balancing the current needs of our society with those of future generations. It also means looking at the long-term needs of the many instead of just the immediate gains for a few.
That brings me back to the economic argument to made for conservation. Tourism from preserved nature is big business, and is arguably more sustainable and less damaging to the environment (though this must be managed carefully, too, as we can see from the problems arising from hoards descending on our national parks). But arguing for conservation purely in economic terms feels a lot like arguing that we need the arts in our schools because it raises test scores in math and science. In both cases the arguments are valid, but they cede the premise of the opposition – that profit (or high test scores) is paramount. And if that’s the best case we can make, we’ve lost the larger argument. Preserving our natural wonders, just like experiencing the arts, has value in its own right. Just like the arts, nature ennobles us. It feeds the soul. It brings people together by providing shared experiences. It breaks down barriers, because when we’re all standing in awe at the base of a giant tree we’re all just humans, trying to grapple with our place in the world, trying to grasp the depths of time, marveling in the wonders of this incredible world we’re a part of, and perhaps gaining an appreciation for why they should be protected. These things take us outside of ourselves – something that is more important than ever as we live in a world that is increasingly encouraging us to stay within ourselves and our own carefully-curated bubbles. That’s the “universal value to human-kind.” That’s why these places matter. That’s why they must be preserved.
But how does one translate all of this into music? I’m not sure, to be honest. There is so much to unpack here: the timeless majesty of the trees; grief at their loss and anger at the reasons for it; the desire to motivate action in the face of helplessness. It’s partly why I intend to work with scientific experts to create a discussion guide that can accompany performances of the work in schools, nature museums, parks, or events. I hope that will help deliver understanding.
But it’s still up to me to find the right notes. May the stately power of Big Lonely Doug, the gloriously twisted cedars of Avatar Grove, and the cathedral grace of the Prairie Creek Redwoods, tell me their stories and sing me their songs.