An article in last Sunday’s Seattle Times gives us some bleak news. The Amazon is being illegally cleared at unprecedented rates. Why? There is a demand for the wood. Where?

Brazil’s main markets are the United States, which accounts for one-third of all timber shipments abroad, followed by China, at 14 percent and growing rapidly, and European countries, which collectively account for 40 percent.

The price of lumber here in the U.S. has never been higher. The construction boom fueled by the combination of low interest rates and “affordable” immigrant labor has been outstripping supply for the past several years. People used to build decks out of cedar. Now, with the cost of cedar being so high, many decks are being built out of tropical hardwoods. Attractive, isn’t it? Many decks are unnecessary baubles used primarily to entertain and impress visitors. They are also ablative. Because they are exposed to the weather, they will decay into oblivion in a dozen or so years.

Like everything else, it’s all about status. As with other, primarily subliminal instinctive urges, you cannot stop people from seeking status. You can, however, give them alternatives to tropical hardwoods and cedar. Odd, isn’t it? How only other people seek status? Decking made from recycled plastic and sawdust (composite decking) has come a long way in the past few years. You don’t paint it, and it doesn’t rot. The earlier products were pretty sad looking, but not anymore. Today, if you build a deck out of cedar or tropical hardwoods, you are advertising your shallowness or ignorance or possibly both. Thinking people use the new synthetic decking materials.

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The Amazon would probably have been clear-cut in my lifetime (… instead of my children’s) if it were not for modern innovations that have stretched our wood supplies. Take a walk through a house under construction. Note that the only solid pieces of wood you will find are the roof trusses and studs in the walls. Oriented strand board or plywood is used for all flooring, roofing, and sheathing. The ceiling and floor joists will be engineered I-beams. Large beams will be glue laminated or parallel strand. These products are an example of how innovation and technology can get more from less. If we built today’s monster houses with the same wood my house was built out of in the 1920’s, we quite simply couldn’t afford them. Although I cringe at the thought of it now, when I was a teenager, we made a basketball court in our backyard out of clear grain 2 x12 redwood planks — no big deal at the time. Walk into any lumberyard today and ask for a piece of wood like that. They’ll laugh at you.

So, why would a free market come up with so many alternative lumber products if we were not outstripping our supply of mature trees? It wouldn’t.

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