As an artist, I love the texture of paper and its many creative potentials and properties – the way it is transformed when colour is applied, or the way its fibres can be lifted and eased into interesting shapes when embossed. Paper is the primary vehicle used in the transmission of ideas within society. Paper is a part of modern life. Trees provide the raw materials to create the paper products we use every day, but trees and forests don’t exist solely for our use. They regulate climate, store carbon, produce breathable oxygen, provide habitat for wildlife and prevent soil erosion.
I originally wanted to talk about the process by which paper is created, from raw material to final product. But the most important issues for me where not to be found mid-process, but at the beginning and end. Besides providing us with paper, trees have other functions. They play a vital role in a healthy planet, and humans are not the only species to utilize them as a resource. When we recognize that other life on Earth needs trees, we understand how important their sustainable management becomes. We can then reduce our consumption of paper, and reduce our environmental impact.
Trees have to be cut down to make paper
I know I’m stating the obvious, but do we think about this fact when we buy paper products? I don’t always do this myself. It’s a challenge to go through life with a heightened sense of awareness. Sometimes it’s easier to not think about it, and to live in ignorant bliss that our actions have consequences. But with both awareness and strategies for actively reducing our consumption in place, making the right choices is automatic.
One of the most devastating images I’ve ever seen is the site (and sight) of a clear-felled forest. The destruction is heart rending. Clear felling is the removal of all trees from a particular area. Trees are a renewable resource, but not at the rate we are currently cutting them down. I don’t understand why we can’t harvest trees in a more sustainable way, that allows them to regenerate naturally, providing a continuous, constant supply. Instead of taking every tree, why not take a few? Selective felling is more ecologically sustainable than clear felling.
Trees are vital for a healthy planet
Trees and forests regulate the temperature and weather patterns of the Earth through the role they play in water and carbon cycles. Forests and trees act as global climate regulators. Trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via the process of photosynthesis and produce the oxygen we breathe. Trees lower the temperature through evapotranspiration, where moisture (water) is released into the air. Leaves filter particles (dust, ozone, carbon monoxide and other pollutants) from the air.
Trees store carbon dioxide in a process known as carbon sequestration, and forests serve as carbon sinks for the planet. The larger the forest, the more carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere, decreasing the impact of climate change. A 2011 study quantified the role of forests in the regulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Every year, the world’s forests remove 8.8 billion tons (one third of all annual anthropocentric fossil fuel emissions) of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Some scientists believe old growth forests are valuable assets as vehicles for carbon sequestration. I came across this article which warrants further investigation. I agree with the authors that forests need to be managed sustainably as a resource, although I don’t agree we should be cutting down old growth forest.
Trees help prevent soil erosion
Tree roots, other vegetation and decaying matter on the ground hold soil particles together, stabilizing the soil and improving its quality. Trees provide shade and lower temperatures, preventing soil from drying out. Trees protect soil from the impact of rain and wind speed that may increase rates of erosion, and subsequently sedimentation rates downstream in an ecosystem. A major cause of soil erosion is deforestation. Landscape degradation resulting from tree removal in one area may have far-reaching consequences that may not be locally or immediately apparent, because of spatial and temporal scales.
Trees are habitat for wildlife
Trees provide food and habitat for many species. Birds and animals use tree hollows as nesting sites. Flowers, fruits, leaves and buds provide food. Bacteria and fungi cause decay in woody tissue that increases soil structure and fertility, making burrowing easier for animals. Even decaying and dead trees (logs) are used by animals, insects and reptiles. When trees are cut down to make paper, the species relying on those trees lose their habitat, and may die or become displaced. Loss of ecological biodiversity (trees, vegetation and wildlife) is catastrophic on any scale.
Trees have instrumental and intrinsic value
Trees have instrumental value to humans, but they may also have an intangible, intrinsic value to us, although this depends on whether we hold an anthropocentric or eco-centric view of the world. Leena Vilkka, in The Intrinsic Value of Nature, challenges the commonly held assumption that only humans have rights and therefore, intrinsic value.
An anthropocentric world view sees other forms of life as merely instruments for human purpose, with no value in and of themselves. Those who subscribe to an anthropocentric world view do not extend rights to non-human forms of life. But life is not an economic commodity to be traded.
As an Environmental Warrior, I subscribe to an eco-centric world view because I believe non-human forms of life have a right to exist and are not here solely for human use and exploitation. I also understand that, ecologically, every form of life on Earth (including human beings) relies on other species for their survival. But I also believe that, as human beings, with our enormous capacity for reason and empathy, it is our responsibility to live sustainably and to learn to co-exist with other species on this Earth with compassion, grace, awareness, reverence and gratitude.
But what can I do?
Here are my tips to reduce paper consumption:
Use recycled paper (this is explored in ‘Sustainable Stationery’).
Avoid paper products sourced from trees in virgin, old-growth forests. If you don’t know where it comes from, don’t use it (certification systems are discussed in the next post).
Don’t buy as many books (this is a difficult one for me, but I’m working on it – this will be explored in a future post).
Avoid printing emails unless necessary (get in the habit of storing records electronically). Print double-sided if you must.
Say no to junk mail and advertising material.
Ask charities and other companies to correspond with you via email. Make donations online instead of via mail.
Reduce or eliminate consumption of food and other products packaged in paper and cardboard. If you can’t avoid it, recycle it.
Use toilet paper made from recycled paper.
Explore and embrace new technologies, such as paper made from agricultural waste (wheat straw).
As Environmental Warriors, we must think of others, and have consideration for the other forms of life who share this Earth. We need to understand that our actions have consequences, and not just act in our own interests, but navigate through our lives and our world with respect and gratitude.