'Peak Timber' Is The New Normal State of Human Resource Usage

Paul Maingot/CC BY 2.0

Avid or even semi-avid TreeHugger readers no doubt have heard about peak oil; and many will be able to recollect reading about peak coal, peak natural gas. A few will even be able to nod along to the notion of peak fertilizer. But peak timber?

A new article in BBC News highlights research from the journal Biological Conservation, discussing the concept of peak timber. That is, unsustainable forestry practices taking more timber from forests, in this research from tropical forests in the Solomon Islands, than can be natural regenerated, and how this contributes to deforestation.

Remember: Deforestation one of the major human sources of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for anywhere from 5-20%, depending on who's doing the calculations.

Solomon's Warned For Decade About Unsustainable Forestry
Choosing the Solomon Islands because they are essentially "a microcosm of the challenges facing sustainable forestry management in the tropics," the researchers say, "For nearly a decade the nation had been warned that the volume of timber annually harvested from native forests was too high and, if unchecked, that timber stocks would be seriously depleted by 2012. In 2009, the Central Bank of the Solomon Islands asserted that the exhaustion of timber stocks had arrived even earlier than predicted and its economic consequences were likely to be severe."

The report goes on to note that the role of illegal logging in forestry more broadly, saying that 20-50% of all marketed timber worldwide comes from illegal sources.

Sound Familiar? About Other Natural Resources?
That sort of warning really could apply to a whole host of natural resources in an array of nations. If the Solomons are a microcosm of the state of tropical forest management, or lack thereof, then peak timber itself is a window into humanity's relationship with the natural world, into the intersection of population growth with increasing natural resource consumption leading to unsustainable resource consumption, biodiversity loss, and climate change.

How many years have we been warned about the environmental, economic and social perils of climate change, reliance on fossil fuels, overfishing, water over-use in arid regions, chemical contamination of waterways, pollution from factory farm, et cetera, et cetera, all while doing if not nothing to change course, certainly not enough?

The part about exhaustion of timber stocks arriving "even earlier than predicted and its economic consequences were likely to be severe" could also follow a discussion of nearly every environmental issue out there.

It's certainly possible to find examples of dire environmental predictions that were either averted through good policy (the ozone hole, probably) or predicted a different timetable (Atlantic bluefin tuna, though still critically endangered and overfished, are not extinct yet, though predictions from a few years back asserted that). But by and large, more environmental problems end up being worse than predicted or happen on a quicker timescale than expected. And we've been warned about this too.

Which is all to say, we should probably be surprised when a resource is being successfully and sustainably managed, not overexploited. No one should be surprised anymore about peak timber or peak anything. In all cases the economic, environmental and social costs will be severe.

Tags: Deforestation | Ecological Economics | Economics | Forestry