Controlled Burns: Misallocation of technology and labor

Once the extractivist culture began plundering the forests of North America for construction materials and fiber for paper and other products was well underway, the threat of major forest fires grew. A number of factors were involved.


Trump orders FEMA to withhold funds for California Wildfires

The ideology and practice of forest-fire suppression to protect the property and sometimes lives of those who encroached on the forests caused a deep disturbance of the role fire played in the natural cycle of the life of forests. Because of fire suppression, increasingly dense undergrowth became more common in forests not decimated by clearcutting. That made them increasingly vulnerable to exceedingly hot, intense, and rapidly moving wildfires, such as the Camp Fire in Butte County, California, far more difficult to restrain or control than a century ago.

An Unnatural Relationship

Various forestry authorities deploy so-called “controlled burns” with the intent of eliminating the massive amounts of fuel (dry underbrush produced by alternating climates of heavy precipitation and drought) accumulated because of human fire suppression. In the past, the occasional forest fire did that job until the official forestry policy implemented the policy to “prevent forest fires.” Now it became a matter of “Man against Nature,” so typical of the industrial-consumer culture, which frames forests as just another source of materials to draw upon for industrial production.

In their natural state, forests are huge carbon sinks. That is not so when they are disturbed by massive intense wildfires and insect infestations and become net carbon emitters. Here is the problem. Never mind the risk of such “controlled burns” getting out of control due to rapid change in weather, such as high winds. What is the primary consequence of burning sections of a forest? Obviously, burning fuel of any kind adds carbon to the atmosphere – precisely the opposite of the most urgent need today. This counterproductive effect results from a misallocation of labor and technology as well as a misunderstanding of the Nature of the Earth System we inhabit.

Technology and Labor

We can accomplish many tasks more easily and efficiently by applying the power of fossil-fuel burning equipment than by the use of labor and hand-powered tools. Controlled burns use a mix of both. While the long-term effect may be to dampen the power of today’s super firestorms, the immediate effect is to increase the emission of carbon into the atmosphere. That, of course, is something that we simply cannot afford, especially when we see so little progress (as in NONE) by national and international authorities to reduce carbon emissions.

Given the situation and the growing probability of firestorms of unprecedented intensity and speed, it certainly makes sense to thin the forests of the excessive fuel (dried undergrowth) that poses a great risk of catastrophic forest fires. The fires themselves contribute much to the carbon in the atmosphere, forcing more global warming and consequentially more climate chaos. In either case, controlled burns or firestorms, the result is catastrophic in one way or the other. That is because both involve burning fuel. But wait, here’s another contradiction.

The global corporate free-market economy drives more people into low-wage jobs and/or poverty every day. The corporate economy cuts labor costs through automation and outsourcing. We live with the myth that American workers will not do the backbreaking work that we assign to illegal immigrants. Oh, what a difference a living wage would make.

Restoring the Forest Ecosystem

Like so many other ecosystem restoration necessities, we should restore the natural state of the forests in a way that allows sequestration of all that carbon contained in the underbrush that we need to remove. The process of pyrolysis can convert carbon from forest undergrowth into Biochar through thermal decomposition of biomass without oxygen (preventing combustion). Biochar can be used as a soil amendment, sequestering the carbon potentially for thousands of years.

However, the focus of controlled burns remains fixed on traditional ideas of protecting property from near term risk of conflagration. This ignores the bigger picture. In the context of our climate emergency, the first priority of any public policy must be the restriction of carbon emissions. Period.

When it comes to removing fuel from forest floors, the solution must be labor intensive, which has a very small carbon footprint. How can we accomplish that? Pay high wages for hard work and workers will come – they do so for the oil extractive companies. Remove the material and subject it to composting or biochar production and sequester it in agricultural soils. Win-win.

This is just one small example, well, not so small, of how proper climate action and economic justice can converge. Let’s get over that obsession with “labor-saving devices.” In many other ways, human labor can become a path to reducing climate chaos by increasing economic opportunity for all people.

Craftsmanship for Creative Productivity

~ ~ ~ Another in the Mad Jubilado series ~ ~ ~

It seems a lot of retired men take up woodworking. At Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) I have met quite a few. Some are immensely talented and/or just have a huge storehouse of knowledge and experience. As with many fields of endeavor, only time and talent limit the depth and breadth of understanding possible in woodworking.

Description d un menuisier en travailOne of the most skilled of those I’ve met at SFCC is a woman who retired from a career as an ethnographer. In the typical class of 12 in the woodshop, ‘elder’ know-how is balanced by some very creative younger talent. It is a great experience to work with these folks. The environment is remarkably cooperative and supportive. Ideas and knowledge are shared; polite critiques and useful suggestions organically emerge from conversations about how to approach a problem of joinery, finishing technique or aesthetic design as a project evolves. It brings to mind an ideal image of how apprenticeships might have worked in shops producing for local communities and regional trade in the pre-industrial pre-corporate world of clear-air and artistry.


Industrial Furniture Production

Craftsmanship is not quite a lost art, though it might seem so. Industrial production, with its outsourced cheap mostly unskilled labor and highly automated production processes, has resulted in an overabundance of unimportant transitory products. Have you ever really thought about why a cable-television program such as “Storage Wars” exists?  So many people in so many suburbs across America have accumulated so much stuff, that a whole industry has developed just to store the overflow.

The glut of unused abandoned yet “valuable” consumer products that people are not yet willing to call waste, produces the ‘demand’ for all those commercial storage lockers. Without such ‘pre-waste’ there would be no need to find space for the overflow from garages where no cars can be parked because of the clutter.

Excessive extraction of materials needed to produce all that stuff, using gigantic mining and earth-moving equipment is seriously straining many living Earth systems, disrupting otherwise stable ecologies. The quantities of energy used, from mining to shipping to manufacturing to shipping again to warehousing to super-store display, are hard to grasp. It is all mechanized and automated to reduce labor costs in order to supply cheap stuff to feed the consumer culture. And they call it “progress.”

The whole global process is, of course, disrupting climate to a point fast approaching catastrophic collapse and global chaos. Too many “environmentalists” think we can fix the problem with new technology and substituting depleting resources with new materials. Instead of cutting back on their profligate consumerism, they want to “fix” the environment by recycling over-used materials and using just as much energy from more “sustainable” sources.

Instead, they could choose to live a less carbon-intensive “low-tech” life, buying only what they really need, goods the production of which is labor intensive rather than capital intensive. That would, of course, entail more work and more jobs. It would also entail a new great transformation in the way we live in relation to the planet and each other.

What if we all re-focused on smaller scale production of higher quality useful goods that last and require us to apply craftsmanship in their making? Many human-scale tools are available that require no energy inputs except those of the human head and hand to get the same work done.


Nutrient Rich Organic Produce

Oh, but that would take more time to produce. Yes, and that would mean jobs, jobs, jobs! Everyone could have one. More people are turning to human-scale production. As it turns out, small organic farms are significantly more productive than giant factory farms are. They also restore soils to a natural state in which they provide the nutrients missing in industrial agriculture. Given the power of the neo-liberal corporate industrial economy, making the transition to a viable low carbon emissions future is the hard part. We have the tools. We just need to figure out how to transform extractive economies into ecological communities.

The experience of making meaningful things (or performing meaningful services) is exactly what is missing in our declining perpetual-growth industrial economy and is exactly the economic model needed for mitigation of climate chaos and for ecological restoration. Look for hand-crafted products, locally made. Become a “locavore.”  It’s our choice: Creativity or Catastrophe.

The Apple Core: Machine Meets Fruit

I just bought an apple corer- peeler-slicer, a mechanical devise you attach to a counter top to core and peel apples or pears in preparation for canning or cooking. It is an interesting technology. It has multiple moving parts, and it is all hand-powered. It has no digital controls and it is constructed it entirely from metals. Only the pad at the end of the screw that holds it to the kitchen counter top and the crank handle are plastic.


It cores! It peals! It slices!   Photo: R. Christie

I suspect someone designed and patented it in the late nineteenth century and that the patent has long run out. I found no patent notice in the paperwork, or on the box, or machine itself. Oh, there is the “Made in China” label! Could I be less surprised? All that international shipping and it is still only twenty-eight bucks. I bought it at a local upscale cookery store.

You will probably not find such devises at big-box stores, which are only interested in mass-appeal items. Who now processes their own fruit? Besides, mass consumer culture demands that all appliances by digitally controlled and electrically powered. Some might consider my new gadget an archaic throwback. Surely, one could have designed an automated electricity-driven device to perform the same function without my hand cranking it.

But why?


Our apple Harvest, 2017.   Photo: R. Christie

We have only a couple of fruit trees, one apple and one pear. Several years after planting them, they finally have begun to bear fruit, beyond the one or two seen in recent years until last year and this. Suddenly, in mid-summer we now face baskets full of ripe apples and pears. We have a wine and root cellar, so we can store the fruit for a while as we prepare to can and cook with what we didn’t give away to our friends. Last year, we peeled and cored by hand all the fruit we canned, using kitchen knives for the work. That proved immensely “labor-intensive” and time consuming, so we decided to mechanize the process this year, mostly to save time.

Innovation in technology has played a central role in driving industrial development and economic growth for the past two centuries. The invention of complex mechanical tools and devices allowed craftsmen to make many products efficiently by hand, without steam or fossil-fuel power in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Then came the steady onslaught of increasingly automated machinery driven by fossil-fueled engines or fossil-fuel driven electrical motors.

The latest innovations have achieved remarkable success in microelectronics and the miniaturization and acceleration of the speed of electronic technology in processing information. Computer Aided Design (CAD) feeds Computer Aided Manufacture (CAM), now implemented abroad, where the remaining needed human labor is cheapest. We see it everywhere. Automated information processing drives much of industrial production. Industry needs less labor and more intellect to produce more and more consumer products. Those products, in turn, involve more and more abstract engagement of the user with images and symbols built into the product. Products themselves are increasingly detached from the material world, although some involve more and more control at a distance, as in the case of drones.

We know deep down that this cannot last. We are rapidly reaching the material, ecological, and climate limits of fossil-fueled economic growth. Economic growth itself is near terminal. The road ahead requires massive downsizing of energy production, use, and waste. Those who adapt to the use of new as well as clever old technologies driven by human power for human use are far more likely to survive in relatively comfortable and interesting engagement with the real world than those who insist on living in an automated bubble of shrinking life expectancy.