Environmental scientist Robert Cabin pointed out recently in a story that ran in Earth Island Journal that political liberals in general, and environmentalists in particular, can put an inordinate amount of faith in science, to the point where it begins to resemble religious fundamentalism. “When it comes to public policy making, we often hear that we should base our decisions on ‘the best available science’,” Cabin writes. “Want to know how to reform our education system? Look at what the studies say. Want to improve our health care system? Examine all the research on the subject. We are happy to place ourselves at the mercy of the “experts.””
I was thinking about this the other night when I went to see Dartmouth Professor Andrew Friedland give a talk entitled: Should I Burn Wood?
Friedland has gotten some buzz recently for calling into question current carbon accounting practices where it comes to fuel wood. His research shows that deep, mineral soil carbon reserves can be affected by logging, and he theorizes that disturbing the surface of the soil might stimulate microbial activity, which in turn might cause deep soil carbon reserves to be released into the environment. He’s spreading the word that wood as fuel may have a greater effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels than previously thought.
Friedland is not anti-wood; he made it clear in the presentation that all energy comes with a cost. (He exempted passive solar, though some of the Dartmouth Medical School alums in the audience could have brought up the specter of melanoma.) He says he burns wood himself. He’s not an activist, he’s an academic – a likable guy who worked the room like an Environmental Science professor, trying to stimulate and challenge his students.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure a lot of the people there were challenged. I think they were just confused. Friedland opened the talk by saying (and I’m paraphrasing) that wood may be the lesser of two evils in some cases, but here are a bunch of reasons to fear it. Some of what he went on to report was old news, echoes of the Manomet study of a few years back that left some with the idea that burning wood is worse for the environment than coal. (Because if you measure CO2 emissions at a smokestack, and turn the fact that wood is renewable and part of the terrestrial carbon cycle, and fossil fuels are not, into a footnote, then yes, you can lump ‘em all in together, though it’s sort of like comparing the grams of fat in a donut and a handful of almonds and then deciding the donut is better for you because there’s less total fat.)
Friedland never went into detail on his original work – the soil stuff. We were told that logging disrupts deep soil carbon, but we weren’t told what kind of logging. Firewood procurement seemed to be associated with clearcutting and intense soil disturbance, when in practice the vast majority of the firewood being burned by the people in that room probably came from a selective harvest, marked by a forester, that was conducted either in winter when snow protected the soil or with modern tracked equipment that minimizes soil damage or both. He kept using the phrase habitat fragmentation or forest fragmentation to mean logging, which was misleading at best.
It’s not at all fair to expect someone to cover everything in a 40-minute talk. We’ll follow up on his research, try to learn more, and if there’s something there, report on it objectively. The bad taste the talk left in my mouth had nothing to do with Friedland, or his work, but with the way science obscured the simple answer to the original question. That YES, considering the alternatives, if you’re able bodied and live in the Northeast you should absolutely burn wood.
He did mention some of the peripheral benefits of wood -- that it’s affordable, that it provides local jobs, that a working forest tends to stay a forest and is thus a great means of conserving land – but judging by the vibe in the room, none of these points were scientific enough and were quickly overwhelmed by the scary numbers coming out of the fancy monitors at the end of a smokestack. “Does a woodstove affect air quality in a room?” one person asked. “I don’t have a study at hand but it seems like it must.” The global specter of deforestation was raised, though it’s a safe bet that no one there was importing and burning rosewood. One person in the audience reported that a study he’d read said that only a small percentage of people in Vermont could burn wood, after which it would become unsustainable – a fear with entirely theoretical grounds that’s not at all reflected in any woods or community I’ve ever seen here, including the intensively harvested places.
At the end of the presentation one guy raised his hand and said: “I wasn’t feeling good about burning wood when I came here, and now I feel even worse.”
My guess is that Friedland saw this as a healthy statement. He’d succeeded in challenging his students and the whole notion that wood is carbon neutral. But to someone outside of academia who cares about the planet and the rural economy, the disheartened guy’s sentiment was horribly depressing. That one scientist’s power point presentation could so obscure the big picture seemed the opposite of enlightened.
Cabin wrote, in the Earth Island Journal piece, that rather than providing clarity, “scientizing” an issue often leads to greater intellectual uncertainty. More research reveals previously unknown complexity and more questions. That’s exactly what Friedland’s work is doing, that’s exactly what Manomet did with their controversial report. It’s healthy in a scientific sense – bless science for being restless and poking things from every angle. But when a study becomes a cherry-picked bullet point in the hands of an activist with an axe to grind, or cover for a politician looking for easy answers, or a merry-go-round for a concerned citizen who’s trying to do the right thing and is just being spun around in circles and left to drop by the lack of context, well then it can be unhealthy, too.