Unintended side effects of economic and political decisions have landed the world in hot water. Here’s how New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) is implementing lessons learned.
Writing by NEFF Chief Operating Officer Frank Lowenstein
Daily news now resembles post-apocalyptic fiction. A bat virus—known as COVID-19—that may have traveled through captive pangolins to reach its first human victims has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Invasive Asian Giant Hornets 10 times as large as a honeybee are making themselves at home in the Pacific Northwest, and the invasive Asian Longhorned Beetle has established itself in South Carolina—the sixth state infested by this maple-killer, an existential threat to Northeastern forests. And many scientists believe these threats pale in comparison with the climate crisis, which will bring deadly heat to the southern United States and other parts of the planet later this century, and massive coastal flooding through the next, rendering homes and towns across many parts of the planet uninhabitable and leading to hundreds of millions of climate refugees, destruction of ancient cultures and their artifacts, and inevitable loss of life.
There is a commonality to these threats—they all exemplify unintended side effects of economic and political decisions that have prioritized growth over other values, such as safety, stability, resiliency, community, sustainability, and the maintenance of a healthy environment. Much of New England Forestry Foundation’s work today is focused on bringing these other values to the front: How do we utilize New England’s 33 million acres of forests to sustain a livable climate, protect air and water quality, create rural jobs, and build high-quality housing at affordable prices? NEFF’s vision ties to New England bedrock values—self-reliance, conservation of resources (both natural and financial), and community—and places those values in service of today’s challenges of ensuring social equity and climate stability.
Pursuit of economic growth has taken the opposite course, promoting globalization and economic efficiency as seminal values. Products are manufactured where they are most cheaply created, and shipped to where they are needed. Computerization and instant communications allow these products to move around the world via just-in-time supply chains, to be assembled into needed goods and services without the cost of maintaining large inventories. But the turmoil of the coronavirus epidemic has clarified the risks of this model. Coronavirus control was delayed by disruptions in world-spanning supply chains that were supposed to bring surgical masks from China and nasal swabs from northern Italy to Boston and the rest of the United States. But the epidemic hit both China and Italy early, shutting down production.
Globalization ignores these risks associated with longer and longer supply chains, which work fine as long as things proceed as expected. But disruptions are growing more common. The Insurance Information Institute reports that the number of catastrophic losses in the United States increased from 34 in 2010 to 61 in 2019. On a global basis, the leading reinsurance firm Munich Re reports that the number of “natural” disasters has more than tripled since 1980, causing $5.2 trillion of economic losses, which sometimes resonate through global supply chains. For example, in 2011, floods in Thailand caused parts shortages in auto production plants in Japan, temporarily reducing availability of some cars in the United States.
For many consumer goods, globalization has meant reduced costs for products sold at big box stores—the same in Maine and Milwaukee. This economic paradigm has put a flat screen TV with fantastic resolution and the ability to be controlled by a smart speaker in the living rooms of most Americans. It has also brought economic devastation to manufacturing towns across America—most famously in the Rust Belt, but also here in New England in towns like Millinocket, Maine and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. And with the growth in trade, we’ve also brought a host of unintended consequences in the form of insects and diseases that threaten crops, forests, and now people.
“It’s a numbers game,” explains Leigh Greenwood, Director of Forest Health for The Nature Conservancy’s North American Region, “Some level of harm is inevitable.” Greenwood was speaking about forest insects, but the trends that bring pests like Asian Longhorned Beetles to North America can as easily facilitate the movement of hornets and deadly viruses. In this century, the number of air passengers per year has tripled to 4.5 billion in 2019. The value of global exports also tripled in the same time period, from $6.4 trillion to $19.4 trillion. Those dollars travel as goods on ships, trucks and airplanes, and unintended hitchhikers often come along. Related trends, like the expansion of human settlement into previously wild landscapes, and the rapid transport of sealed shipping containers to areas far from the coast, add to the risk.
The wood market likewise has become global. Forest producers in New England compete against plantation-grown pine from South America, and Siberian spruce and fir. Lower land and labor costs overseas have meant that forest products companies in New England operate on thin margins, and during economic downturns many of the mills close, never to reopen. Forest landowners who might like to practice better-quality forest management must sell their wood into a landscape of fewer opportunities and more competition, and so face financial constraints that inhibit their efforts to improve management.
So, how does NEFF—a medium-sized nonprofit operating in one small region of the nation—plan to change this narrative? First, our Forest-to-Cities Climate Challenge aims to identify the opportunity provided by New England forests. Signatories—now at 100—are pledging their support for using sustainably produced New England wood to construct buildings in the region’s urban areas. This initiative aims to reunite the urban and rural constituencies of the region in support of sustainable local supply chains—and to reduce carbon pollution that drives global warming in the process. Second, our Exemplary Forestry initiative aims to define truly sustainable forest management for the region, practices that will maintain or increase carbon storage in the forest and preserve wildlife habitat at a landscape scale. We are working to spread these practices onto more land, and to stop the loss of forest land to poorly planned development, through tools like the Pooled Timber Income Fund and the Western Maine Habitat Restoration project, and through effective and creative landowner outreach. Through our Build It With Wood program, we are aiming to open new, climate-supportive uses for wood, specifically manufacturing New England wood into engineered products that can enable tall wood construction. And finally, we are increasingly bringing our 76 years of forest and forestry expertise to policy-makers—in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont—to show what New England’s forests can do for all of us.
A tree seedling in the forest today will mature half a century from now. We’re working with a vibrant group of partners to set in place the social and economic systems to be ready for it. Thanks for helping NEFF to do this work.