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'Peak Wood' Offers Parallels For Our Time 604

Harperdog sends in a piece from Miller McCune looking back at the history of mankind's relationship with virgin timber. Again and again, civilizations have faced a condition of "peak wood," and how they handled it (or failed to) illuminates the current situation with regard to oil. The piece ends with a quote from the 19th-century social scientist and communist theorist Friedrich Engels, who is not generally thought of as an environmental seer: "What did the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down the forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained sufficient fertilizer from the ashes for one generation of highly profitable coffee trees, care that the heavy tropical rains later washed away the now unprotected upper stratum of the soil and left only bare rock behind? ... Let us not flatter ourselves on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first."
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'Peak Wood' Offers Parallels For Our Time

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  • Interesting article (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @12:41AM (#32427846)

    Yes, I did read it.

    The parallels to the lust of wood with the lust of oil seem to be fairly well made in the whole ravaging thing.

    But what I found to be the most unfortunate part of oil vs. trees is that in the past we could always go out and explore because the world wasn't completely explored. Nowadays, we know where most? oil reserves are so the old idea of "Well we're running out, let's go find some more!" doesn't work at all.

    Looking at the way we've been treating oil so far, it really seems like people are still stuck in that mindset. Folks just recently seemed to realize that when we're out of oil we're out of oil. And that's probably what hurt us the most in the present day. The article speaks of unforeseen consequences, but we seem to be ignoring the simple, foreseeable consequence of having no oil.

    Well, hope solar, nuclear, and all of that turns out well. Wouldn't want to go back to pre-industrial times due to lack of energy.

  • by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @01:12AM (#32428038)

    It doesn't work quite like that. There's lots of oil reserves that haven't been discovered, and also some that have, but are not cost-effective to exploit. As the price of oil increases, those reserves will be exploited. Tar sands are one example of this: they require a lot of energy to process and refine (unlike light sweet crude), so it's not as profitable as better-quality oil.

    Of course, if the price of oil triples, making many of these reserves profitable enough to exploit, that price alone is going to cause other problems, probably causing people to seek out other sources of energy.

    And also, this doesn't take into account the environmental cost, as we're seeing with the BP disaster. And aside from the incalculable environmental cost, the cleanup has a giant cost too, which is going to figure into companies' plans as a giant risk.

  • by NeutronCowboy ( 896098 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @01:15AM (#32428068)

    Why is is it that every time there's a weird theory floating around, someone comes up and says "The Russians did it/are using it, so it must be true", without there ever being a shred of evidence for the Russians either having used or done it?

    Is it because it is so far away, or because some people can see it from their houses?

  • by gothzilla ( 676407 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @01:20AM (#32428090)

    That is set to reverse. The price of wood has dropped so low here in the south that many timber companies can't afford to stay in business and the huge plots of land they grew trees on are in danger of being sold. If that happens, they will most likely be cleared for development or cattle and will never again grow forests.

    I live in an area surrounded by forests that are planted and cleared for use by lumber companies and paper mills. We fear the closing of lumber companies because it will mean our forests will start shrinking.

    The really sad part about it, is the huge number of enviro-nutbags that want lumber companies out of business in a completely backwards effort to "save the forests."

    I really want to get a tshirt that says "Save the trees! Use more paper!"

  • Re:Easter Island (Score:2, Interesting)

    by chx1975 ( 625070 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @01:35AM (#32428168)
    As Jared Diamond says in Collapse that's not true! There were smaller and smaller trees re-growing and the island being covered by great trees were just a distant memory. It did not happen like 'dense forest -- all big trees felled - - barren' but rather gradually and slowly.
  • by watookal ( 1085275 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @01:41AM (#32428192)

    Sure, WOOD is renewable, but FORESTS are not.

    What I mean is that man cannot create the complex ecosystems that exists in a forest. And we are more dependent on these ecosystems than most people realise. Reference: "The Revenge Of Gaia" by James Lovelock. It's a really good book.

  • by Maxo-Texas ( 864189 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @01:58AM (#32428298)

    Any time these conversations come up, the only real solution (reducing the population to about 2 billion) is ignored by everyone.

    Which means, we really are not going to solve the problem before it blows up in our face.

    Reduce the population to 2 billion and the earth becomes verdant and rich within 50 years.

    It's possible to peacefully reduce the population to 3 billion in 50 years. Just stop saving people who have more than 1 child per 2 parents and stop providing tax incentives for second children.

    But it's not going to happen. We are going to 9 and probably 11 billion people with all the hell that results from that.
    By my current math, it happens a little while after I die.

  • This is where the expression, "even a broken clock is right twice a day" comes into play. Just because someone had some other ideas that were bad doesn't mean all their ideas are bad.

    You assume much, young Jedi. And you know what they say about "assume"...

    Everyone looks at Soviet Russia and says, "See? PROOF that Communism is bad!" when in fact the USSR was never a Marxist country. Lenin and crew used Marxist-sounding buzzwords to justify establishing a police state, which was certainly a dictatorship but by no stretch of the imagination could it be thought of as a dictatorship of the proletariat (which Marx himself said was only a temporary state). They also completely ignored Marx' teachings regarding the historical and economic processes by which Socialism and Communism might come about, attempting to force Russia to follow a model that it was (according to Marx) not yet ready for.

    Likewise Mao's China.

    Meanwhile, the socioeconomic evolution of the US is progressing in almost exactly the fashion predicted by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, which you should really take the time to read and understand (along with some history) before spouting any more nonsense.

    Meanwhile, in several European countries where the rights of the workers were actually taken seriously, and where pseudo-Marxist rhetoric was not merely employed as an excuse to make a grab for power for its own sake by some band of megalomaniacs, Socialism is actually alive and doing pretty well, thanks very much.

    Summary: Marx and Engels were very largely correct, and their characterisation of history as a history of class division and class struggle has largely been bourne out. And anyone who can't look at the world (and especially the USA) today and see that this class division between bourgeoisie and proletariat continues very much as they described is a fool.

    Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, on the other hand, were basically self-serving bastards using Marxist rhetoric to justify their lust for control and prediliction for mass murder. Not to mention the lasting disservice they did the world by polluting the namespace for any serious discussion of the issues raised by Marx and Engels.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @02:45AM (#32428542)

    If it's wrong to force them, it's wrong to force me.

    Except that as a citizen of the West you are currently burning far more fossil fuel than those in the developing world. Energy consumption per capita []. You can complain how China is now polluting more than the US, but per person a Chinese citizen uses 47.81 GJ per year, whilst an American uses 327.38 GJ per year. There is a strong link between the amount of energy used and quality of life, so bringing everyone in the world up to Western standards would mean doubling present consumption rates. Whether you think global warming is a problem or not, this is not sustainable. Consumption in the West has got to fall by a significant amount, whilst consumption in the Developing World should rise.

  • Re:In other words (Score:4, Interesting)

    by OeLeWaPpErKe ( 412765 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @05:05AM (#32429050) Homepage

    So what do we do then ? We all know our parents (or "babyboom generation") and their parents are responsible for the really excessive "borrowing" from nature. When they started, world population was less than 1.5 billion people. Worse : those 1.5 billion people lived a lot more efficiently than us (not that they knew, there just wasn't sufficient energy. Nothing makes a man quite so frugal as an empty wallet), so "efficiency" increases, barring getting nuclear fusion plants operational, aren't going to help us get above that 1.5 billion.

    If this is true :

    For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first.

    Then we're about to lose 3 out of 4 people worldwide to genocide, war or hunger. Including 1 out of 2 Americans. But the countries that would be truly fucked in this case would be Europe and Africa.

    What I don't get is how this can even get discussed ? Surely anything -anything- is preferable to losing the large majority of world population ? Add to that, the "sticky" question : who dies ? We all know how the question of "who dies" is going to be answered, since it's just the same as ever : with wars. If you lose, you get exterminated. If you don't fight, and are lucky enough not to get attacked, you starve to death. Anyone in favor of that ?

    And before anyone says birth control, please remember "birth control" will only have real results in 50 years, and 90 or-so if birth control is done in a sustainable manner (meaning there is both an upper and a lower limit to how many babies we get to have). And even if you do compulsory birth control, who gets to have babies, and what do you do about "over the limit" babies ? Or perhaps more directly : how do you kill "over the limit" babies ?

    Seems to me that unless you want every state world-wide to start it's own holocaust, you'd advocate the solution of funding every man with an idea about power generation. Funding it, not just through academia (who have a somewhat tarnished track record here), but more along the lines of : if a dog comes with a napkin with an idea, give him 1000$ for it and see where it goes.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @05:37AM (#32429162)

    Please do not confuse tree farms with forests. Tree farms are a monoculture with each individual planted pretty close to the same distance from the next, all at the same time, all the same size, typically on land that was clearcut, stripped of all the slash and preexisting vegetation, and left to regrow only until the trees are the right size for the process to be repeated. And each time the land loses some of its fertility and resources, so the farm takes a bit longer to grow back, with diversity slowly being eroded from the region, and leaving the unnatural stands of genetically closely related individuals vulnerable to disease and insects. The balance of life that exists in a healthy forest is thrown out of whack in a tree farm where the limited ecological niches cause a boom in one species at the expense of diversity in others.

    It sounds like you're surrounded by tree farms. They superficially resemble forests in that they have stands of trees, but that's about where the comparison ends. In the same sense, pastures aren't prairies, even though both have grass. Fish farms aren't wild salmon runs, even though both have fish. In each case there is serious damage to the ecology.

  • Re:In other words (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Random_Goblin ( 781985 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @05:37AM (#32429164)
    actually there has already been an experiment that demonstrated the converse rat park []

    which appeared to demonstrate that addiction in rats was as much related of their being held in tiny cages, as to the inherent "addictiveness" of opiates

    the funding was withdrawn, and doubt cast as to Alexander's integrity

    one could speculate that it is not popular opinion that the way to reduce drug dependance in humans is to improve their general quality of life, such that they don't feel the need to compulsively take drugs in the first place
  • by Impeesa ( 763920 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @05:39AM (#32429182)

    Odds are pretty good that a major pandemic will prove to be the solution. I'm convinced that the collective intelligence of the viral and bacterial comunnities exceeds that of our species.

    Actually, if that happened, they'd have proved themselves equal, at best. Shortly after, the viral and bacterial communities would be having discussions on "peak human."

  • Re:In other words (Score:3, Interesting)

    by somersault ( 912633 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @05:46AM (#32429206) Homepage Journal

    I certainly don't believe that there's no choice in addiction, though some people do have much weaker wills than others. That's an interesting study, and I identify heavily with your last sentence. I find it sad that so many people feel they need to resort to heavy drinking to actually "enjoy" a night out. I even find it even more sad that so many people are addicted to sugary junk food. A lot of society today is so dull that people need to entertain themselves with what they ingest rather than what they do.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @06:12AM (#32429298)

    You cannot switch from a petroleum based economy to something smarter and renewable overnight. The pain and expense of that transition, if not acted upon preemptively, will be immense as petroleum prices skyrocket and there's not a damned thing you can do about it for 10, 20, 30, or 50 years; the investment in the old sources of energy are just too staggeringly expensive to replace quickly. If you wait until you're feeling pain from the prices, it's too late.

    To be clear, no one expects oil to "run out," rather merely to become so expensive that it ruins the economies that depend on its consumption. In this sense it's much cheaper to tax petroleum consumption heavily to fund and promote alternatives than to try to keep the prices low, even if only developed countries are willing to impose those taxes on themselves, because this will leave the economies that do tax it heavily much better positioned when the inevitable strikes. Unfortunately our economic, political, and social structures don't reward strategies that maximize long-term benefit; we usually choose to operate with a greedy algorithm that optimizes benefits in the short term, even though it may lead to ruin in the long term. (Read about The Tragedy of the Commons for an understanding of just part of the problem.)

    Developing economies have a historic opportunity. Now before they're tightly wedded to petroleum, they could choose to pursue a path that grants them independence from it, but they won't. In the meantime many in the developed world complain that it's unfair to us for the developing nations to set themselves on the same path to long term economic ruin that we would take only half hearted steps to avoid.

    Frankly, I think it's hopeless. There will be lots of suffering and hardship, and then in the future when we find ourselves doing it afresh with some other resource, no one will remember or care how we walked to ruin down the same greedy path of short term profit the last time. And the story will repeat itself, yet again, like it has done so many times throughout history.

    Humanity is depressingly predictable.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @06:19AM (#32429314)

    The biggest difference is that there is complete class mobility. Nobody tells you that you are limited to the class in which you are born. Doesn't mean you can move up the economic ladder with ease, but it does mean you can. There are countless examples. This is far different from the system of nobility you saw in places like Czarist Russia where if you were born a noble, you were one and could more or less do nothing to lose it, and if you were born a peasant, you could never rise above that.

    The "countless" examples you speak of are very, very few, in actuality (if only even because the number of rich and super-rich people is so small to begin with). Your assertion that class mobility was inexistent in pre-revolutionary Russia is patently untrue. There are countless examples in Russian history of boyars being created from peasant families (mostly those that got rich or provided some valuable military service to a czar).

    Another difference is that there is not a "rich/poor" divide. For sure there are rich people, who can have a kind of life normal people cannot, and there are poor people, who lack basic necessities. However most people are neither, they are somewhere in the middle.

    The economic "ladder" you speak of is not a ladder. Wealth distribution follows a Pareto law in most places (certainly in the US []).

    I find it hilarious, by the way, that you acknowledge the existence of distinct groups of super-rich, rich and poor respectively, all while denying that the class divide is real.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @07:10AM (#32429484)

    Your comment is informative and insightful, but I cannot believe the extent to which an obviously educated person in denial about a very obvious class divide in the US.

    Taken a look at the names of graduates of Harvard, Yale and Princeton lately? Notice quite a few "III" or "IV" or "XXXXIV"s after many of the names? Throwing a bone to the odd bright, underprivileged kid from the ghetto does not constitute class mobility.

    After immigrating for a period to the US from a country where education was public and merit-based, and interacting with some of the privileged HYP classes, I began to realize that much of the "education" that takes place at such elite schools is in the realm of learning the ropes of cronyism. Your chances of later landing that job at a big {investment bank, hedge fund, consultancy} is much more closely related to how amusing your exploits at a particular fraternity were than any "talent" you may have. There will always be nerds from MIT or abroad to do the actual hard work while you collect your bonuses.

    True class mobility will not exist until elite education institutions in the US are as easily accessible to the lower and upper classes, based purely on merit.

    (Side note: I should throw out an an honorable mention for the various military academies, probably the only bastion of educational meritocracy that exists among top tier schools. Too bad you have to actually serve your country while your HYP counterparts 'summer' in the Hamptons)

  • by TheLink ( 130905 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @08:08AM (#32429736) Journal
    > just every single time someone tried to establish it it led to military dictatorship and starvation

    The reason why that happens is because the Communist Manifesto encourages violence (read it and you'll see it). This is the fatal flaw in their implementation plan.

    When you encourage violence as part of your "overthrowing", you'll have a violent revolution. In a violent revolution, the people capable and willing of exerting the most violence will normally get to the top. Most of the time the people that reach the top aren't benevolent and aren't going to give up their power. The American Revolution is probably a notable exception (perhaps someone who knows about it better can figure out why it ended up OK - but from what I see, the USA was lucky to have good leaders at that point).

    In summary: the popular Communism/Socialism Implementation Plan is easy for Dictators to hijack into starting their own Dictatorships.

    This "design flaw" does look rather obvious to me, but I'm "just an EE" working in an IT line so it's really out of my field of expertise. Thus I'll be happy to see good arguments on why I'm wrong :).
  • Re:In other words (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Hijacked Public ( 999535 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @08:09AM (#32429742)

    No doubt there are plenty of examples of leaping without looking, and leaping while knowing everyone else behind is going to get screwed.

    But there are also a lot of times when the full impact of an act can't be known in any practical way. Nature is extraordinarily complex and many very high order interactions can have serious long term consequences. For instance, farmers are finishing up planting here in the midwest. Once again the guy I lease my farm ground to cannot bring himself to understand why I make him leave 10 yard untilled perimeters around all my fields. To him that is just leaving money in the fields. When 'clean farming' first became popular no one thought that it would wreck the quail population, but it does, unless you purposely leave transitions.

    And if your fencerows are too clean you hurt the rabbit population.

    And with fewer quail and rabbits you have fewer hawks.

    Fewer hawks to prey on, say turkey chicks, means more turkey.

    More turkey attract more larger predators like coyote.

    So I have coyote everywhere because of clean farming. And I left out many dozens of other factors. That natural resources are anything other than inexhaustable is a relatively recent development. For the above, Game Management was published in 1933 and wasn't taken seriously until some time later. As far as widespread application of research based management methods the same time frame applies to forests and waterways and minerals and petroleum and wetlands and etc etc.

  • it's all relative (Score:3, Interesting)

    by je ne sais quoi ( 987177 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @08:46AM (#32430056)
    The issue is not the term "peak" I believe, the issue is the definition of renewable. We think of things like wood as renewable resources, but if you overuse a renewable resource, you can indeed collapse the population. We saw with whale oil in the 19th century, its production peaked in 1845 []. The reason for this was that whale populations had collapsed, and to this day they have not quite recovered for many (most?) of the species that were hunted. There was also that petroleum oil thing for which they started to drill.

    The point is that whether a resource is renewable or not is a relative term. It's relative to the rate at which you are consuming it and the rate at which it is replenished. Petroleum oil, on a geologic time scale, is renewable. On a human time scale it is not. Whales were being consumed much faster than they were reproducing, so the resource became non-renewable (each year there were fewer and fewer whales). Wood is the same way, you see it again and again in ancient societies, that the ability to sustain themselves is dependent on availability of wood. Once the population gets too big and consumes all the wood in easy transport distance, the civilization is finished.

    Do you see any hope that the U.S. can transition itself off of petroleum oil? I have my doubts, but I have no doubt that sometime in the first half of the next century oil production will stop increasing, if it hasn't already. Here's hoping for massive wind farms, solar arrays and good batteries (and nuclear).
  • by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @08:53AM (#32430110)
    Except, of course, the small scale farming communes that operate on a communist system at the local level. I guess if we just ignore that part of the real world, your post is spot on.

    Believe it or not, there are still people in the world who have not swallowed the "greed is good" mantra.
  • Re:Mod parent up (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @09:12AM (#32430320) Homepage Journal

    No, ultranova is right. Those in control do the exploiting. We, the powerless, don't exploit anybody and most of us are exploited ourselves, just not as badly as the poor sods in the overseas sweatshops. Just because I buy a product from an exploititive company, particularly when that's the only option, doesn't make me an exploiter.

    Stop making excuses for evil people.

  • by ErikZ ( 55491 ) * on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @09:53AM (#32430894)

    It would be great if it were that honest.

    Some dictators starve their populace on purpose to receive foreign aid.

  • by Pentagram ( 40862 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @10:15AM (#32431210) Homepage

    The only solution in a communist system is to force people to do what is needed. You tell them "You must work or the state punishes you." Then, to make them work hard you tell them "You must meet these quotas or the state punishes you." Net effect? Low personal liberty, low motivation, and the perfect environment for a police state to grow in.

    I think you have it backwards. People are compelled to work in capitalist societies, not communist ones: i.e., you have to work or you don't eat. Most civilised countries have a welfare safety net (i.e. they are a little bit communist) so it is more like you have to work or you don't get any toys.

    What you are saying is that many "communist" states have not really been communist but have taken aspects of capitalist societies.

    The USSR managed to take many of the worst features of communism and capitalism.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @11:47AM (#32432586)

    > just every single time someone tried to establish it it led to military dictatorship and starvation

    The reason why that happens is because the Communist Manifesto encourages violence (read it and you'll see it). This is the fatal flaw in their implementation plan.

    When you encourage violence as part of your "overthrowing", you'll have a violent revolution. In a violent revolution, the people capable and willing of exerting the most violence will normally get to the top. Most of the time the people that reach the top aren't benevolent and aren't going to give up their power. The American Revolution is probably a notable exception (perhaps someone who knows about it better can figure out why it ended up OK - but from what I see, the USA was lucky to have good leaders at that point).

    In summary: the popular Communism/Socialism Implementation Plan is easy for Dictators to hijack into starting their own Dictatorships.

    This "design flaw" does look rather obvious to me, but I'm "just an EE" working in an IT line so it's really out of my field of expertise. Thus I'll be happy to see good arguments on why I'm wrong :).

    That sounds more or less correct to me. I think many are romantically blinded by the idea of a "popular revolution", which they believe is somehow more likely to come up with a different result than a simple coup. Marx/Engels in particular may have been led to this belief by the relative success of the so-called Bourgeious Revolutions, of which the American Revolution was definitely one.

    The "success" of the American Revolution came over time. Right after the formation of the nation, the US was a minority rule state, with rampant slavery and unbridled ethnic cleansing. But it was slightly more democratic than before. Then slowly, incrementally, it became more successful. Slavery lasted until the 19th century, minority rule lasted until 1920, ethnic cleansing lasted until there were essentially no more Indians to wipe out.

    The American Revolution was "different" because it was incremental, and installed a governing framework that allowed for further incremental changes. Big changes leave big power vacuums for dictators to step in.

    As for the Manifesto in general, it's a common theme in politics that good critiques are followed up with crackpot solutions. This isn't because the people proposing the solutions are particularly deficient, but simply because solutions are frequently hard--if they exist at all. The problem is that people often use the accurateness of the critique as a gauge for the quality of the solution.

  • by phlinn ( 819946 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @12:32PM (#32433380)
    But the dictatorial power is an inherent flaw in any attempt to implement Marxism. Ignoring the flaws in the labor theory of value for the sake of argument, here is a simplified explanation why that is.

    In any large enough collection of people, there will be some who don't choose to co-operate. If you don't accept some form of property, than there is no such thing as theft, and them taking enough to live without producing it themselves is legitimate. So someone somewhere has to produce more. But again, with no property, why should anyone produce? If you instead posit collective property, and then say the non-producer can't claim, then they aren't part of that collective ownership, which means you have at best a large oligarchy, which has some level of force to back it up. This still leaves the issue of people producing excess. Who decides what excess is? How do you decide who 'isn't producing enough' and doesn't provide them with the food they need to live? The very concept of making that decision, and the decision to punish failure to produce is inherently coercive, and slowly converts Marxism into some form of authoritarian control.

    To alter your example, if someone says "All triangle have angles which sum to 180 degrees", you can't say "All triangles have a right angle, you fucking idiot" and have your complaint actually make sense. The flaws in communism are inherent, logical consequences of it's premises.
  • by ahodgson ( 74077 ) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @02:12PM (#32435032)

    Yeah, they may all starve to death or kill each other because of excess population, but let's not offend anyone to prevent it.

Thus spake the master programmer: "Time for you to leave." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"