Wednesday, 17 Sep 2003

ASHEVILLE, N.C.

Today, a dozen of us — PhDs, biologists, MBAs, industrial ecologists, and media experts — sat around a large Dogwood Alliance conference table (a converted ping-pong table to be precise) from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., working through mealtimes and deferring all calls.

This unique meeting was the culmination of a year of work, during which NRDC and our southeastern grassroots partners who run the Dogwood Alliance and Tennessee ForestWatch have been working with the Conservation Biology Institute to assemble detailed, county-by-county information about which areas of the southeastern forests are most biologically outstanding, which areas remain intact and might possibly be saved from the ravages of the paper industry, and which paper companies — and which specific paper mills in particular — are causing the enormously widespread destruction of the area that one informed, high-profile journalist today referred to as “ecocide … nothing less than an ecological Bosnia.”

At today’s meeting, we zeroed in, more precisely as each hour passed, on the target regions worth saving, on the target regions still able to be saved, and on the target companies that the world will soon learn are destroying what might arguably be described as one of our nation’s greatest treasures: the southeastern forests.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that there is no such thing as history, only biography. And if ever there was verification of my favorite philosopher’s wise insights, it is revealed in the way efforts to protect this majestic temperate forest are being mobilized. Hardscrabble local activists, trudging through mountain hills, coves, and forested waterways; brilliant biogeographers, flying in from around North America, poring over obscure data and maps; volunteer aviators, borrowing planes to fly scientists over affected regions; and industrial ecologists, trudging through almost-impossible-to-decode corporate supply-chain euphemisms (an effort that feels to me like industrial espionage). All of us coming together at great personal sacrifice, patiently considering the details of each and every analytical effort, producing unprecedented maps, and, ultimately, designing strategic plans to reveal to the world what the North American paper industry wants to keep hidden: that a mythic region of unparalleled beauty, of unique biological richness and historic cultural importance, is being liquidated and grossly polluted to produce tissues and newsprint, toilet paper and advertising inserts, glossy paper for mail-order catalogues and chic fashion magazines — all single-use, throw-away paper products that can be made — should be made — from alternative, recycled wastes.

What is the alternative? you might ask. If we don’t make paper from trees, what can we make it from? NRDC’s answer: Recycled wastes. Recycled household and commercial wastepaper. Recycled agricultural residues produced by farms or sugaring processing. On a per ton basis, these wastes tend to contain more cellulose — the superabundant macromolecule in plant material from which paper is made — than a tree. And besides saving our endangered southeastern forests, there is an urgent need to focus on recycling.

Our society generates almost incomprehensible volumes of wastes. In the United States alone, about 14 billion to 16 billion tons of solid wastes are generated every year. Globally, humanity is generating between 35 and 40 billion tons of wastes annually, which means that in the next 10 years Earth’s inhabitants will have to figure our how to manage 350 billion to 400 billion tons of wastes. An EPA Technical Advisory Board recently described this enormous waste generation burden as “environmentally disastrous.”

Two billion tons of agricultural wastes alone are generated each year. Investing to turn these wastes — which are so often openly burned on the field at great ecological cost — into useful paper products can relieve pressure on the forests as well as recover a material that now costs farmers precious dollars to dispose of.

An added benefit of building new factories to recycle wastes into paper products is that it also offers us the opportunity to help alleviate economic as well as ecological problems. After all, every vision of a sustainable society includes livable-wage employment as a fundamental attribute. Thus, it is doubly imperative — for economic and ecological reasons — to start developing the type of factories needed to save our planet. Investments into new, ecologically modern factories are much more likely to have a meaningful effect on stimulating the economy than the Bush administration’s recent tax reduction on the dividends a very few people get from their investments into ecologically destructive industries. Eighty-eight percent of all Americans will receive less than $100 from the recent federal tax cuts.

So, to me, one obvious place to begin stimulating our economy on behalf of ecological progress is the development of waste recycling mills. Unfortunately, based on my eight-year effort to develop a world-scale paper-recycling mill in New York City (chronicled in my book Bronx Ecology), I learned that as environmentalists go forth to try and stimulate the development of new industrial-ecology mills, we will discover that the most substantial investment barriers plague those projects that will do the most ecological and economic good. These barriers to new, ecologically sound recycled paper mill investments — which include lengthy site-contamination assessments, contentious cleanup plans, long permitting timeframes, and high water, energy, and construction-labor rates — drive consideration of new recycling investments off the table, causing us to suffer through paper production that relies on trees from endangered southeastern forests.

But future generations demand that we crack that nut and figure out how to overcome those barriers, because until that unlikely time arrives when humans learn to be happier by renouncing consumption, the most practical way to husband resources and protect ecosystems and wildlife is to find ecologically better ways to produce the goods and services we demand. To save the southeastern forests, and indeed to save forests from the paper industry’s ravages throughout the world, environmentally superior manufacturing plants must be built that are cost-competitive with the virgin timber-based production processes that now engender irreparable ecological damage.