No country on earth consumes more wood fiber on a per capita basis than United States: 2.27 cubic meters per person per year—4.1 times the world average.

Indeed, prosperity driven consumption of raw materials [wood fiber, minerals, petrochemicals, cement and fossil fuels] is at an all time high in the U.S. By these measures at least, Americans enjoy a standard of living unmatched in world history. Public interest in protecting the environment is also at an all time high. New groups interested in saving new things pop up almost daily. One of the most interesting observations about this trend was made a few years back by conservationist and author, Alston Chase. [“Playing God in Yellowstone and In A Dark Wood”]

“Environmentalism increasingly reflects urban perspectives,” he wrote. “As people move to cities, they become infatuated with fantasies of land untouched by humans. This demographic shift is revealed through ongoing debates over endangered species, grazing, water rights, private property, mining and logging. And it is partly a healthy trend. But this urbanization of environmental values also signals the loss of a rural way of life and the disappearance of hands-on experience with nature. So the irony: as popular concern for preservation increases, public understanding about how to achieve it declines.”

One of the most broadly based and certainly most vexing environmental discussions to surface in recent years concerns the quest for sustainable development. Even the United Nations hastaken it on, much to the consternation of critics who see the discussion as little more than a scheme for forcefully transferring wealth from rich to poor nations.

Still, it is hard to argue against the idea that development of the earth’s land base, and its natural resources, ought to proceed in an orderly manner. But according to Dr. James Bowyer, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Forest Products Management Development Institute, there is an even more fundamental problem that champions of sustainability seem unwilling to address. “If we are really serious about protecting the planet from unsustainable development—which is the basis for the whole sustainability discussion—shouldn’t America produce much
more of what it consumes than it is?”

Dr. Bowyer has been asking this question for years because, as he points out, the U.S. is a net importer of every category of basic raw material consumed in its factories. These raw materials often come from countries where none of the environmental constraints imposed on domestic producers exist. Moreover, the U.S. is importing an increasing amount of the wood fiber it consumes—while systematically restricting or eliminating logging in U.S. forests.

The hypocrisy of America’s increasingly consumptive lifestyle has not gone unnoticed. Doug MacCleery, Assistant Director of Forest Management for the U.S. Forest Service, struck a nerve in a thought-provoking piece he wrote last year for Forest History Today. In it, he suggested that it is time for the nation’s conservation ethic to be paired with a consumption ethic.

“Since the first Earth Day in 1970 the average family size in the U.S. has dropped by 16 percent, while the average single family house being built has increased by 48 percent. The U.S. conservation community and the media have given scant attention to the ‘ecological transfer effects’ of the mission shift on U.S. public lands. Any ethical or moral foundation for ecological sustainability is weak indeed unless there is a corresponding focus on the consumption side of the natural resource equation.”

Between 1987 and 1997, timberharvesting on U.S. federal timberlands dropped 70% from about 13 to 4 billion board feet annually. The decline, driven by public disfavor with harvesting in National Forests, removed one-third of annual U.S. softwood lumber production from the marketplace, transferring demand to private timberlands and to forests in other countries, a move that Dr. Bowyer criticizes.

“Look at the amount of ozonepolluting fossil fuel that is being consumed to bring logs and lumber to the U.S. from distant lands,” he declares. “And look at what is happening to native forests in countries that are making up the shortfall created by our unwillingness to harvest timber from our own forests. Rather than impose such a horrific environmental burden on other countries, we ought to be increasing production in our own country where harvesting is regulated, where we know how to grow and harvest trees with minimal and temporary environmental degradation.”

There is no accurate count of the number of federal, state, county and municipal laws private forest landowners must now abide by, but it surely runs into the thousands. In the most restrictive states—Oregon, Washington and California—harvesting occurs under the watchful eye of state regulators who frequently make surprise visits to active logging operations. California requires written harvest plans which must be approved by the state before harvesting can begin, typically a two-year process. Mr. MacCleery believes most Americans are unaware of these regulatory processes and are additionally oblivious to the overseas environmental impacts of their consumptive lifestyles because, unlike timberland owners, loggers, farmers and ranchers, they lack a cultural connections to land. In fact, less than two percent of the nation’s population is now engaged in farming. Fewer still grow trees as a crop. “Adopting a land ethic is easy and painless for most of us today because it imposes the primary burden to act on someone else,” he wrote in his Forest History Today article. “While few of us are resource producers any more, we all remain resource consumers. This is the one area we all can act upon that could have a positive effect on resource use, demand and management. Yet few of us connect our resource consumption to what must be done to the land to make it possible. At the same time many of us espouse the land ethic, our operating motto in the marketplace seems to be ‘shop ‘til you drop’ or ‘whoever dies with the most toys wins’.”

No less a conservationist than Aldo Leopold long ago warned of the environmental risks that confront a society in which conservation and consumption have been de-coupled. “A public which lives in wooden houses should be careful about throwing stones at lumbermen, even wasteful ones, until it has learned how its own arbitrary demands as to kinds and qualities of lumber, help cause the waste which it decries,” he wrote in 1928. “The long and the short of the matter is that forest conservation depends in part on intelligent consumption, as well as intelligent production of lumber.”

But modern environmentalism seems to have strayed down a much less productive pathway than the one Mr. Leopold pointed out. Since the early 1970s many in the movement, including Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich and the Worldwatch Institute’s Lester Brown, have been forecasting global famine, species extinction, exhaustion of natural resources and catastrophic pollution of air and water. Their solution: economic austerity, global population control and U.N. oversight of resource development and regulation.

Fortunately, none of their dire predictions have materialized, nor is there any agreed upon scientific evidence that they will. This point is made in countless books and scientific studies, most recently “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” by former Greenpeace activist Bjorn Lomborg, a statistician at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

“The trouble is, the evidence does not back up this [environmentalist] litany,” Dr. Lomborg wrote in the Aug. 4 edition of The Economist, a British business journal. “First, energy and other natural resources have become more abundant, not less since the Club of Rome published ‘The Limits of Growth’ in 1972. Second, more food is now produced per head of the world’s population than at any time in history. Fewer people are starving. Third, although species are indeed becoming extinct, only about 0.7% of them are expected to disappear in the next 50 years, not 25-50%, as has so often been predicted. And finally, most forms of environmental pollution either appear to have been exaggerated, or are transient—associated with the early phases of industrialization and therefore best cured not by restricting economic growth, but by accelerating it. One form of pollution—the release of greenhouse gases that causes global warming—does appear to be a long-term phenomenon, but its total impact is unlikely to pose a devastating problem for the future of humanity. A bigger problem may turn out to be an inappropriate response to it.”

Evergreen Foundation economist, Dr. Con Schallau agrees that economic expansion holds more promise for reducing global pollution that does restricting growth.

“Thanks to impressive advancements in exploration and utilization technologies—adjusted-for-inflation—raw material costs have been declining steadily for more than a century,” he observes. “Economic expansion—not restrictions on growth—is indeed the best strategy for averting future environmental calamity. Unlike impoverished developing nations, affluent societies can afford to make capital investments in technologies that increase land productivity and manufacturing efficiency while also minimizing related environmental impacts. Once developed, these technologies can and are—being shared with emerging nations.”

What does it all mean? Well, just as Caterpillar observed years ago in its thoughtful and long running National Geographic advertising campaign, “There are no easy answers, only intelligent choices.”