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The Big Picture

The Political Economy of Forestry...and Everything Else

We tend to want to consume more stuff on our own, but corporations feed and push our wants.  The result is patterns of consumption and pollution that threaten to drastically impair or even destroy our natural environments.  While we as individuals certainly can play a role in minimizing our negative impacts on the environment, there's only so much we can do.  We are caught up in patterns determined by forces way beyond our personal control. 

In the realm of forestry, specific examples of corporate control would include 1) the complete lack of silvicultural requirements for timber harvests in 49 of our 50 states, including Massachusetts; 2) lax federal air pollution regulations that permit the poisoning of our forests; 3) lax federal standards for CO2 emissions that drive climate change which will increasingly impact our forests in the future; 4) lax federal trade agreements which encourage the importation of exotic pests and diseases which will also negatively impact our forests.

We need to understand the role of corporations in our society.  This is essential if we're ever going to stop our consumptive economy from destroying our natural environment.  The rest of this section addresses the context of our corporate dominated world in order to throw some light on how these huge corporate forces impact forestry and all aspects of our environment and society.

We tend to think that certain things, like corporate power, are inevitable in our world.  However, we forget that 250 years ago, people thought British rule over the American colonies was inevitable (Corporate Royalty).  We forget that 150 years ago, people still thought slavery was inevitable.  Thomas Paine put it this way: "...a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first formidable outcry in defence of custom.  But tumult soon subsides.  Time makes more converts than reason." --Common Sense 1776

Regulatory Smoke and Mirrors

Government regulatory agencies were ostensibly set up to protect the public from the depradations of corporate and other narrow private interests.  But the truth is that their real mission was and is to protect corporations from the public.  Regulatory agencies first came into existence in the late 1800s when the public was growing increasingly angry at railroad, oil, steel and other big corporations.  Many legislators wanted to revoke the charters of these corporations.  So government and corporate leaders got together and formed regulatory agencies to head them off (Wolf in Sheep's Clothing).  (One of these agencies was the US Forest Service.) 

Now, at the end of the 1900s, the power of corporations is much greater than it was 100 years ago.  Government agencies and international trade bodies are increasingly in the service of these huge corporations, and against the interests of workers, local communities (especially those of indigenous peoples), the environment, and some would say life itself (MAI: Nafta on Steroids).  State regulatory agencies tend to follow the leads of their federal and international counterparts.  

While some regulatory agencies do a better job that others, the pattern is still dismal.  Corporations get to do what they want, and regulatory agencies buffer them from the public with occasional small fines, marginal tightening of regulations, and the constant possibility of "regulatory reform," an ever-present chimera that diverts public attention from the real causes of the problems (Letter to Ralph Nader).      

The Corporate Imperative

Huge lumber and paper corporations are like all other huge corporations.  The executives who run these corporations are constantly scouring the globe for investment opportunities that will yield 20%, 30% and 40% annual rates of return.  Of course forests can't perform at these rates.  There's no way trees can meet the exhorbitant demands of corporate executives, investment bankers, mutual fund managers and other financial scorekeepers (Forest Workers Local #1).

So the tendency is to seek out and acquire forest assets at less than market value and then to "liquidate" them.  Another tendency is to liquidate forests and then replant with clonal selections that can perform at higher rates of return than natural forests.  Foresters are typically in charge of all these operations.

This kind of industrial forestry creates enormous environmental problems (OLIFE) .  Clearcutting leads to siltation of rivers from soil erosion where cutting takes place on steep slopes and there is skimping on harvesting expenses.  After clearcutting there is often poisoning of streams and groundwater from heavy use of herbicides to control the natural vegetation that competes with planted seedlings.  There are also dramatic reductions in biodiversity and wildlife habitats.

Technically, however, the problem isn't with forestry and foresters per se, but with the nonhuman legal fictions called corporations that they work for.  Like all corporate employees, corporate foresters are not free to act on their own initiatives or follow their own values.  They have to toe the corporate party line or else.

Our forests also suffer from the exhorbitant demands of energy, utility and authomobile corporations.  They force our forests to absorb ever increasing amounts of pollutants: sufuric acid, nitric acid, mercury, lead,  cadmium.  High-elevation forests are more polluted due to high levels of cloud moisture.  Many high elevation areas  in the Appalachian Mountains are dead and dying (Appalachian Voices) .  Some observers believe these forests are the proverbial canaries in the coal mines. 

A Systemic Problem

What we're dealing with here is a system that is totally mad.  It's mad because no one is really in charge, and no one is really accountable.  A huge corporation can destroy an ecosystem and its executives can say they had to do it because stockholders were demanding higher rates of return.  The stockholders can say it wasn't their fault because management made all the decisions and didn't tell them anything about their operations.  Government regulators can say they didn't have the resources or it wasn't within their mandate to stop the corporation.  And they'd all be right!

If a management forester plans for long-term, sustainable management, he will probably get fired because he failed to "maximize stockholder value" (Oxymoron, Limits to the Social Responsibility of Business).  If a field forester tries to minimize erosion and conserve residual stands, he may get fired because his costs were too high.  These environmental values fail to get accounted for in the bottom line calculations.

The fundamental problem is the concept of the limited liability corporation.  Devised in 17th century Holland, this legal vehicle enabled Dutch, English and other colonial powers to minimize the risk to investors interested in exploiting the vast resources of the New World.  Under this concept, investors were only liable for the value of their investments, not any liabilities of the company due to mismanagement or catastrophic losses.

Since resources seemed inexhaustible at that time, and since technologies were simple, there was little risk of ecological collapse due to excessive extraction or pollution.  Now of course, times have changed.  There are 6 billion people inhabiting the planet instead of 500 million (Foresters' Chapter of ZPG), and some of us consume infinitely more resources than 400 years ago.  There is simply no room anymore for the 17th century concept of the limited liability corporation.

Investors and managers must be held liable for all social and environmental damages resulting from the activities of corporations for which they work or in which they invest.  The liability could be direct as in being subject to civil and criminal charges, plus loss of all personal wealth and social status.  Or it could be indirect as in revocation of corporate charters and sale of assets.  Or it could be indirect as in requirements that all activities of corporations be fully insured for all possible adverse consequences.      

Some Activist Groups 

Various groups have taken on the task of trying to educate people about the alien corporate entities that are rapidly taking control of all forms of life on the planet.  Here are the names and urls for some of the most prominent.  For more names and urls, go to the Corporate Watch links page.

Ruckus Society (organizing against the World Trade Organiztion ministerial meeting in Seattle)

International Forum on Globalization (source of terrific publications on all aspects of globalization)

Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (history of corporations and corporate charter revocation)

Multinational Monitor (bimonthly magazine on all aspects of the abuse of corporate power) 

Ending Corporate Governance: Revoking Our Plutocracy (says it all)

Corporation Watch (reports and many links)

Baobab's Corporate Power Information Center (well organized, lots of information)

Corporate Machines (an essay by Jay Hanson)

People-Centered Development Forum (David Korten's organization)

Corporate Welfare Information Center (self-explanatory)

Subsidies Anonymous (Randal O'Toole's publication, several issues on the USFS)

MAI-Not! Project (against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment)

Third World Network (much information on impacts of global corporations on third world countries)