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.

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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.

Dystopia, Utopia, or Drift?

Looking forward into the future is no easy task. It is hard to decide what to believe will happen next, and nearly impossible to predict a few years or decades down the line. So many variables, so many viewpoints, so many things are just not the same as we had expected them to turn out today. Now, the unexpected has become the rule, and a lot of us do not like the profound discomfort that causes. So, how can we look beyond today’s surprises and expect to see what is coming soon, much less later.

Of course, we live in a culture whose faith in “progress” is both deep and profoundly flawed. Maybe we just have an embedded optimism gene, but I think not. We do have a history of amazing good fortune, at least for some, and a trajectory of economic growth that seems unbounded. But it does seem to be reaching its limits. The die-hards still project their faith in technology and “free markets” to pull any rabbit out of the hat if the need arises. I used to see no end to the potential for new technology in every realm, but no more.

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Utopia may be more distant than we think.

Technology, after all, is a highly political matter. It is not just what’s possible, and that is not just anything we want. It is also about what someone pays for. Utopian dreams have become ever more expensive to realize, because there are limits.

For a while at the end of the twentieth century, the study of the future became quite popular. So called “Futurists” forecasted all manner of good things and a few possible trouble spots down the line and into the twenty first century – that would be now. We do not seem to hear so much from futurists these days. Or am I just not listening anymore?

As it turns out, although nobody knows for sure, everyone has an opinion about the future. Yet so many feel no need to base their opinions on facts or trends observed. In fact, most of the time opinions are not fact-based. Facts are what people selectively use to bolster their opinions, ignoring any facts that happen not to be consistent with closely held beliefs. Psychologists call that syndrome “confirmation bias.”

As things have developed in recent years, I have paid more and more attention to how confirmation bias interferes with rational thought and distorts public policy. Politicians face increasingly complex international, ecological, economic, climate, social, and just about every other kind of problem imaginable. Yet, they miserably fail to address these critical issues because they completely fail to “get it” and act in the public interest. But there is much more to it than confirmation bias, which is, for politicians at least, a convenient vehicle to carry them to the deepest levels of corruption.

If facts do not favor a political cynic’s position, well, they can just trot out “alternative facts,” conjured solely from the politics of the moment. Why? Because, they base their decisions not on rational analysis of the situation in context of the public interest, but on personal self interest in gaining wealth and power for themselves. (Now, that is a rather blanket statement about politicians and it is not true of many politicians, just the majority.)

Sarah Chayes has written a book called Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. It focuses mostly on what she discovered from many years of direct experience in working with citizens in nations such as Afghanistan, and as a defense official trying to get the higher ups to see the futility of both military and diplomatic efforts that produced both corruption and terrorism out of the impossible positions such policies put people in.

I think Chayes’ work is highly applicable to the situation within the United States of America as well. Her on-the-ground work shows clearly how shortsighted officials corrupt social and political systems. Such highfliers focus more on their political careers than on the realities their work ought to address.

The result is denial, corruption, and failure to achieve the progress that U.S. mainstream economics and politics always claims but increasingly rarely achieves. As the last vestiges of democracy fall to the Corporate State, drift becomes Dystopia.