In 2007, I spent a month in the Northwest, and three weeks of that was spent living in a log cabin structure in a state park in Idaho, working on another log cabin structure. I was surrounded by gigantic, crazy tall and wide trees (I had honestly never seen trees like this), and apparently I was the only city rat on the trip, completely unable to identify these giants based on their sprigs and bark and all that. I did not learn these things in Chicago and could only try and dazzle others by pretending I was completely unafraid of heights on the work site, or by telling what I believe were clearly the best jokes.
So to be honest, I still can’t tell you what the difference is between a Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir, but I do still try to understand how and why trees are so amazing, and what they really mean to our ecosystem. I was reading a rather horrifying and enlightening NY Times article the other day, and found some striking similarities between the way we value (or rather, devalue) old growth trees and old building stock. Honestly, I occasionally find myself ethically confused when I get up on my soap box and tout the superiority of materials used in historic buildings—materials that have clearly taken the lives of the very things that I would chain myself to save in their living state. On the other hand, I like to think it is a way to honor their sacrifice. I’ll just go with that.
Okay, so back to my point.: the similarities between old growth trees and old buildings.
1: We do more damage removing and replacing existing things.
We often talk about trees being particularly valuable in the sense that they are a carbon sink—that they will pull the carbon out of the atmosphere and help undo some of the damage that we cause. The problem is that once a tree dies—either of natural causes or because we mow it down—it releases that carbon back into the air. What this really means is that if we leave trees alone and let them be for the duration of their natural life, they will store carbon considerably longer (possibly thousands of years) than if we keep planting them and chopping them down. And, of course, if we chop down a bunch of old trees to plant new ones, this releases even more carbon.
This struck me an argument we use all the time in preservation as well: if we keep building and replacing buildings all the time—even if they are replaced with “green” buildings—we are taking all of the value away from the existing structure made with heartier materials and using more energy to demolish it. Then we are replacing it with something that will ultimately be doing even more damage due to having to chop, grow, regrow, mine (etc.) new materials that will require more carbon being released into the atmosphere. On top of that, it takes more energy to ship and build with these materials. I found a handy little calculator online recently that tries to make builders feel better about this. Don’t buy it. Carbon offsets are bunk for many reasons—for more on this, click the NY Times article link in the first paragraph as the author is considerably more articulate than I am on this topic.
2. How do we measure and reward for environmentally-friendly measures?
From the NY Times article:
Most of the problems with the system can be traced back to the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997. After much political wrangling, the Kyoto delegates decided that there would be no carbon-reduction credits for saving existing forests. Since planting new trees does get one credits, Kyoto actually created a rationale for clear-cutting old growth.
Yeah, sure sounds like the green rating system dilemma preservationists keep slamming up against. How do we reward and appreciate No Action? Sadly, we don’t.
3: How do we value things
From the article:
To preserve something it first has to be valued, and the most effective means of valuing it is to have a practical use for it. If the discussions in Copenhagen were any indication, mankind sees little value in forests, but much in tree plantations.
Obviously, there is considerably less money to be made for building professionals if we slow down the rate of building new structures—or, quite frankly—if they build truly sustainable structures that won’t need to be replaced after 30 years.
4. What about all those things that currently live within all those existing things?
Perhaps the most poignant statement in the NY Times article is, “A forest is an ecosystem. It is not something planted.” I have blogged in the past about community. How, at least in this country, it has come to a screeching halt in so many cities. While deep down I fear a lack of biodiversity more than a lack of neighborliness, certainly the two go hand in hand in the sense that if we have a community, a sense of place, we are more connected to our physical surroundings and tend to respect them more. We need to nurture both our communities and the communities in the nature around us.