On the Imbalance of Economy and Environment

In the wake of his grandson’s arrest on Burnaby Mountain protesting Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion, David Suzuki published an open letter in support of his grandson Tamo Campos, which can be read here, and made a surprise visit to Burnaby Mountain where he gave a speech that focused on society’s continued exaltation of economics over environmental concerns.

The following excerpt from The David Suzuki Reader, 2nd Edition‘The True Price of a Tree’, elaborates on David Suzuki’s idea of economic and environmental imbalance. An adapted version of David Suzuki’s letter to his grandson will appear as part of a larger collection of letters in his forthcoming book, Letters to My Grandchildren.

“If we continue to look at the land and the world around us just in terms of dollars and cents, we are going to destroy the very things that make that land so precious to us — the very things that keep us alive and healthy.”

‘The True Price of a Tree’

excerpted from The David Suzuki Reader, 2nd Edition

We were standing in an ancient forest that was threatened with clear-cut logging. He was the CEO of the company that had been allotted the tree farm license that enabled him to drive a road into the valley and begin the industrial extraction of the trees that would destroy what took millennia to evolve. We had engaged in an animated argument about the fate of that forest while standing face to face less than half a meter apart.

“You see that tree over there?” he shouted, pointing to a giant that was probably many centuries old. Without waiting for my response, he continued, “It doesn’t have any value until it’s cut down.” I was dumbstruck by the statement, giving him the opening to carry on. “Unless, of course, you tree huggers decide you’ll pay money to save it so you can enjoy it. Think your cronies can raise enough money to save the entire forest? Logging is what keeps the economy of this province growing and makes it possible for you preservationists to wear clothes, drive cars, and watch TV.”

What had made me speechless was the realization that he was right. In the value system inherent in the form of economics our society has embraced, only when money is exchanged for goods and services is the transaction recognized as having economic worth. But the perspective through which I viewed the forest of which that tree was a part was radically different. That one tree was a tiny part of a community of organisms thousands of years in the making. That community is made up of trees (“merchantable timber,” or “fiber,” in the jargon of the industry) that are a tiny minority of the life-forms that comprise the forest. The soil is a living organism made up of tens of thousands of species of microorganisms— viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa—and larger nematodes, worms, insects, and mites. Plants and animals blanket the forest floor, lichens and mosses coat rocks and decaying wood, snags and fallen logs provide nutrition and protection for countless organisms. This is the community that we recognize as a forest, complex and interlinked beyond comprehension and all held together by the air, water, and sunlight that suffuse them.

What foresters refer to as “second-growth forest” is not a forest at all but a tree plantation, an attempt to grow trees like a crop of tomato or corn plants. But of course, such a “managed forest,” or “fiber farm,” no longer has the resilience, regenerative capacity, or self-protective devices of a natural forest, and so companies require geneticists to breed fast-growing strains of commercially valuable trees, tree planters, herbicides to clear out “weed” (i.e., commercially worthless) species, insecticides to eliminate pests, fertilizers to restore nutrition to soil, and firefighters. Large clear-cuts and use of heavy machinery expose soil flora and fauna to sunlight, wind, and air, alter water retention and streams and rivers that are the lifeblood of the forest, and radically transform the species mix left.

Foresters rationalize these practices as “proper silvicultural management,” as if they know what it is that creates the original forest that was cut down. Of course, they have no idea. They lack both a proper inventory of all the constituent species that make up the forest and a blueprint that explains how all of the components are interconnected. The entire forest is like the goose that laid golden eggs in the children’s fable; as long as the goose is fat and healthy, it will yield golden eggs indefinitely. In the short term perspective of global economics, as in the children’s story, forestry companies attempt to gather all of the eggs at once by killing the goose. As I pointed out in the book Good News for a Change: Hope for a Troubled Planet, by selective logging at or below the growth rate of the trees in a forest, trees can be profitably “harvested” indefinitely instead of once every hundred years or more. Nor is the diversity that is the key to resilience and regeneration sacrificed when trees are selectively removed.

Returning to the CEO’s statement that the tree only acquires value when it enters our economy by generating revenue, consider what the tree does before humans define its value. Hundreds of years old, that tree has absorbed carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) from the air, thereby playing a part in life’s climate engine, and releases oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis (not a bad byproduct for all animals likez us dependent on that oxygen for survival). The energy of photons absorbed by the tree’s leaves is transformed into sugar molecules, which, like fossil fuels, store that energy to be liberated in the controlled reactions of metabolism. The roots of the tree cling to soil even under the hardest of rains, thereby inhibiting erosion while siphoning vast quantities of water up into the canopy, where it is released through transpiration, and hence ameliorating weather. From roots to tips of branches, the tree offers a habitat for countless forms of life, from lichens and fungi to insects, birds, and mammals. All of these “natural services” performed by that standing tree affect human health and survival but are ignored by our economy. It’s long past time when we started lifting our horizons and values beyond the extremely limited perspective of conventional economics.


What if our natural resources were measured and given an economic value for what they provide us – making our environment liveable with clean air and water? What and how can we measure so as to best protect and use our resources? Learn more about natural capital here and environmental accounting here

David Suzuki featured in NUVO Magazine

David Suzuki featured in NUVO Magazine

12 Principles for Living Sustainably

David Suzuki’s Green Guide cuts away the stress and confusion of living sustainably by breaking down the complex impact that our modern lifestyle has on the environment.

Valuing Natural Resources: Gibsons Eco-Asset Strategy

Last summer, Gibsons, B.C., became the first municipality in North America to consider nature as an asset, and realize a huge idea central to David’s writings.

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