By Todd Myers
“From outside in the fields came a sickening smack of an axe on a tree.
Then we heard the tree fall. The very last Truffula tree of them all.”
–From The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss
This spring, a motion picture version of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax hit the big screen with a not-so-subtle environmental message about the threat timber harvesting poses to the environment. Published in 1971, the book tells the story of a business, led by the “Once-ler,” that cuts down all the trees in the Truffula forest, destroying wildlife habitat, the air, and water in the process.
The Lorax, a friendly, furry creature that “speaks for the trees,” announces what he thinks has caused this catastrophe, scolding the businessman, “Sir, you are crazy with greed.”
Forty years after the book was published, however, a different story has been written in forests across the globe. Rather than being at odds, the Once-ler and the Lorax have found a common interest in making sure forests grow and expand―and many of the world’s forests have benefitted.
In the industrialized world, instead of the scarcity Seuss predicted, forests are plentiful. Last year was the International Year of the Forest, and the United Nations offered some good news. For the last two decades, total land area covered by forest in the Northern Hemisphere―where forestry is particularly active―has increased.
Despite the implication that economic growth, or as Seuss has the Once-ler say, “biggering, and biggering, and biggering,” would lead to environmental destruction, the nations where growth has been most steady are the ones enjoying the best environmental outcomes.
Not only are nations in the Northern Hemisphere seeing forestland expand, but wood is increasingly recognized as one of the most environmentally friendly building materials.
At the University of Washington, researchers compared the environmental impact of building with either wood, concrete, or steel. The hands-down winner for lower energy use, less waste and less water use was wood. While concrete and steel can be mined only once, trees are constantly replacing themselves.
One thing Seuss got right was that once the Once-ler cut all the trees down, his business went down with them. Foresters understand this. Destroying a forest by cutting down every last tree makes no sense, and so there are more trees in American forests today than there were just a few decades ago.
Indeed, the economic value of the trees ensures forests are replanted and available for wildlife and future generations. Even companies not planning on harvesting in 60 years recognize that land with 20-year-old trees is more valuable than land with no trees at all. Replanting isn’t just good for the environment, it’s good for business.
This is not to say the world’s forests are forever safe, or to dismiss the impact deforestation has on the environment. The enemy in these areas, however, is more likely to be poverty than industry. Few people realize the most common use for trees across the globe is as firewood to heat a home and cook a meal. These trees are not cut down by machines, but by people struggling to meet the needs of daily living.
It is true that government regulation of forestry is stricter today than it was forty years ago. It is also true, however, that we are still harvesting a significant amount of wood in the Northern Hemisphere, while preserving vast areas for future generations. Sawmills are making the most of every part of the tree, literally using lasers to measure the best way to saw the log. Technology has made effective regulation possible by using every tree wisely and limiting short-term pressures to overharvest.
Forty years after he sprang from the imagination of Dr. Seuss, the Lorax would be happy to see that, far from disappearing, many forests today are thriving. They are there because the real story of the forests has not been about an unending battle between the fictional Lorax and the hard-hearted Once-ler, but a friendship that understands that both benefit from healthy forests that future generations can enjoy.
Todd Myers is the environmental director at Washington Policy Center. He has more than a decade of experience in environmental policy and is the author of the book Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism Is Harming the Environment. He is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.