Last week I read Thai Forestry: A Critical History by Ann Danaiya Usher. In addition to being a really interesting history of Thailand’s forestry department, it brought up a number of ideas that deserve exploration.
The story of forestry is the story of an idea that spread too fast. That idea was the German ideal of a normalwald, or “normalized forest,” the ideal forest populated with a few economically valuable species, evenly spaced, with nature’s chaos tamed in the service of the timber trade. This is conception of the forest spread from the University of Freiburg in Germany to the rest of Europe, and by way of British Colonialism, to Southeast Asia.
The tragic thing is, the German’s weren’t able to realize just what a bad idea this lack of diversity was until the trees had gone through at least two generations of full growth. That took more than a hundred years. In the later rotations, timber production fell by 20-30%, then in 1990 a catastrophic windstorm swept through the forests of northern Germany, toppling the uniform, neatly spaced, unprotected trees by the millions. But by that time Thailand had already built up a forestry bureaucracy dedicated to teak, pine and eucalyptus, to the exclusion of all else. The result was deforestation on a massive scale.
Only recently has Thailand taken steps to granting community forest rights to people living in the forest, whose long tradition of survival includes using all sorts of non-timber forest products for food and fiber. Perhaps these community forests can be the basis for a broader regeneration. Unfortunately, wherever you go in Thailand you see monoculture plantations of teak, and even worse, (because it is non-native and extremely resource-demanding) eucalyptus. The quest for the normalwald continues, though its originators have tried to disown the idea entirely.
Jared Diamond managed to make himself the most broadly read historian in recent memory with the book Guns, Germs and Steel, wherein he convinced us that the success of peoples boils down, fundamentally, to their natural resource base. He made materialists out of all of us, banishing the airy world of ideas and national spirit we might have thought mattered in a civilization’s success. But with his more recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, he worked ideas back into the picture. His case studies of different civilizations and how they survived or didn’t demonstrates that while ideas have little to do with success in conquest, they do matter when it comes to conservation. Good institutions and wise policy can prevent collapse in the face of a deteriorating resource base.
So we do have a choice. The debate within the science of forestry is just one example where bad ideas (monoculture, the normalwald) were implemented too fast, while good ideas (ecological diversity, indigenous knowledge) were marginalized. This should not happen again. It probably will, but it shouldn’t.