Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Turning Trees Into Enemies. The New War on Forests

The San Marco Square in Florence in 2017. You can see the ancient trees of the square being cut as part of a plan that involved the removal of several hundred trees in the whole city. The action was accompanied by a propaganda campaign against trees that looked curiously similar to that used to justify the invasion of Iraq, in 2003. "Trees are a threat to citizens,", "There is no alternative," "Killer Trees," and the like.

The war on trees seems to be starting. I don't know about what's happening where you live, but here, in Italy, we see it clearly, accompanied by all the propaganda tricks normally used to start wars. So, we have seen a string of accusations in the media against "killer trees," supposed to be a danger for the citizens because they can fall on them or on their beloved shiny cars. The image on the right, here shows the first page of an Italian newspaper in 2014 informing us there are "50,000 killer trees" in Rome. Truly an invading army to be fought with the appropriate weaponry in the form of chainsaws.

One century ago, city administrations were proud of planting trees, today they are proud of cutting them. What happened that changed their attitude so much is hard to say. Maybe it is the general degradation of the ecosystem that has turned trees into monsters, but that doesn't explain how administrations are starting also a war on forests - surely not threatening citizens or their cars. In a previous post, I commented on a recent piece of legislation in Italy that forces land owners to cut their woods even if they don't want to. From the comments I received to that post and from what I can read on the Web, I think I can say that the war on trees is not just an Italian phenomenon, it is worldwide.

I interpreted this war as the result of the diminishing returns of our energy sources - mainly fossil fuels. The returns of an energy source, as you may know, can be expressed in terms of EROI (energy return on energy invested). It is the ratio of result to effort. Extracting oil, for instance, implies digging a well, using pumps, and many more things which have an energy cost. The energy obtained from oil need be much larger than the energy spent on oil, otherwise the whole effort would be useless. And, historically, it has been the case. At the height of the oil age, an oil well in the US provided perhaps 50 times the energy spent to extract the oil. But not anymore: it is the harsh law of the EROI: it declines with time. The consequence is a well-known law in economics: diminishing returns on investments.

What's happening worldwide is that the EROI of fossil fuels has been going down. It was expected: it is a result of the gradual depletion of the resources. Obviously people will look first for the best resources, then progressively move to less good ones. This has consequences: the worldwide search for oil and other fuels leads to conflicts for what's left - the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a good example. But even the Iraqi oil is subjected to the harsh law of EROI. The result is that some energy resources which, once, looked old and outfashioned, now start looking good again. Wood, for instance.

And here is the reason for the war on trees. As all wars, it is a war on resources. And, as it is normal in our times, before going to war, you demonize your enemies - hence the "killer trees." It is also traditional to state that wars are done in the name of lofty and noble principles, in this case in the name of ecology, since wood is said to be a "carbon neutral" energy resource and therefore cutting trees somehow fights global warming.

Alas, no. Wood burning is NOT carbon neutral. It is true that the CO2 generated by burning biomass will eventually become biomass again, but it takes time. A recent study estimates that it takes several decades, even a century, for the CO2 generated by burning trees to be reabsorbed from the atmosphere in the form of new trees. And that assumes that the forest reforms while, in practice, forest razing is often an irreversible phenomenon, at least on the century time scale. According to some recent studies, the Sahara may be a human-made desert.

So, the harsh law of the EROI holds also for wood. If the current rush to wood cutting continues, the best resources will soon be exhausted and cutters will move to more expensive ones. At some moment, the cycle that's leading from fossils to wood will repeat itself: after wood, what? How about burning furniture?


  1. Diminishing returns with regards to lumber was reached in Sweden in the 18th century. Since then We have moped further from the ”market” to find ever smaller and younger trees to turn into lumber. The trees that were felled 100 years ago were of superior quality in several ways compared to what We process in milles today. The energy used to produce the ”same” lumber today is many Times’ that of a century ago.

  2. So in a way, allergies can be considered an excuse to cut down more trees than necessary because people are more likely to surround themselves in concrete than forestry. The whole allergies phenomena just simply baffles me, people allergic to something like a tree.

  3. Here in the western United States our government "chains" hundred of thousands of acres of Pinion pine forest. They claim these trees are an invasive species even though they are native to the area. It might be that cattlemen prefer the grass lands. Chaining is where they attach a large chain that was an anchor chain for a battleship between two large tractors and rip out wide strips of trees.

  4. There is renewable wood burning. Millions of ha in France are non managed forest that are filled with dead wood. It is hard and not worth gathering wood with machines in these forest, but horses would do the job. This wood is usually turned naturally into CO2 and could be harvested without huge ecological impact. But there is a political decision there: europe gives monney for cattle raising and it is nearly impossible to buy a few acre for horses. The trend is to finance destruction, preferably massive and fast.

    I personnally cut wood to help chestnut tree to grow (dead part and white wood), but let it stay on the ground because a tractor is to expensive and i never could buy some land for horses. Instead i buy wood, which is often coming from badly managed forest to warm my house.

  5. Yes, same thing here in England in Sheffield -


  6. Yes, also in England DRAX power stations burn millions of tons of wood pellets coming from forests in Southern USA.
    " Since 2015, Drax has been burning more wood annually than the UK produced in total every year."
    I have come to trust this organisation

    And trees get in the way
    There is no attempt to 'demonise' in this case except to claim 'no alternative'. Britain has seriously degraded habitats suitable for natural ecology - loss of most ancient woodland for example and effectively sterilised much farmland. 'Managing' existing remnants along the margins of human activity further reduces available ecological value. There have been dramatic declines in many birds and butterflies etc.
    Insects for example are important for many food chains:


  7. Read Derrick Jensens Strangely Like War. "It was strangely like war. They attacked the forest as if it were an enemy to be pushed back from the beachheads, driven into the hills, broken into patches, and wiped out. Many operators thought they were not only making lumber but liberating the land from the trees. . ." from The Last Wilderness, by Murray Morgan, 1976

  8. Yes, here in the Netherlands too. Our government wants to cut down trees alongside roads. They say it will make the roads safer.

  9. As far as I know, many forests in Europe were smaller one hundred years ago than now. For example in Britain 12.9% of land surface is wooded, versus under 5% one hundred years ago.

    Mr. Bardi, do you ever considered than maybe many Italian problems come from Italian corruption and bureaucracy? Many other first-world nations experience the same energy constraints, and have their economies and budgets in much better shape.

    1. In Britain we have probably lost half of ancient (traditionally managed) broadleaf woodland since 1930s.

      In the 20th Century an expansion in conifer species was undertaken for reasons of national security. A lot of this was in Scotland and Wales. Thus currently Scotland has about 18% forest cover and Wales 15%. England retains 10%. Recent ‘increases’ in British forest cover are due to changes in mapping methodology 1998 – 2010/2011, quote, “rather than a genuine expansion of woodland”.$FILE/NFI_GB_REPORT_010813.pdf
      Personal anecdote: in the 1970s I had occasion to fly out of London several times at low level over the adjacent ‘chalk’ Chiltern Hills. Many of the traditional beech woods – we would say iconic these days – that crowned the hill tops had a chunky square centre removed and re-grown with conifer. Britain is not always what it seems.

      As far as I know the administration in Sheffield is not particularly corrupt. Both Florence and Sheffield (see Peter Baker above) take out trees where their civic ancestors planted and were proud of them: such is attitude. There are hazards, we know when the wind blows, but there is a wealth of information on the beneficial effects of trees on local ‘microclimate’, including pollution, to be felt in streets and buildings. Having worked in the southern Balkans in summer I can vouchsafe for such benefits where they are available. I am all for design of thermally passive environments and reduced fossil fuel burning in our towns and cities!


  10. I love italy and there is so much great about it. I have visited more places in italy than in germany where I actually come from, but the way italy is governed is just so depressing for me to watch as an outsider and its not a necessarily a problem of the elites IMO.

    I will also add that in other forms of corruption, germany is way worse than italy. Experts on organized crime call germany a paradise for money laundering and our parliament has one of the weakest anti corruption laws in the world. But there is a form of corruption that is very particular for italy and in this little story I want to explain how it works.

    There is this little tuscan town south of florence I know very well (my sister lives there), and several years ago there was this young and popular politician getting himself elected as the mayor of that little town even though most people thought he certainly was destined for a career in Rome.

    In this little town, as I imagine in most of italy, many of its people had some sort of "arrangement" with the city hall. For example they would have build some building, like a garage or a shed, without proper legal papers, or had been renting out an appartment for tourism without tax registration. The city hall knew about these things but turned a blind eye.

    A few weeks after the election it turned out that the mayor had secretly colluded with italcementi (at this time still a state enterprise), the largest employer of that region, to open a gigantic quarry next to the city, probably getting him a large chunk of the expected profits. It turned out that he only aspired to become the mayor because of this one deal.

    The charming little medieval town, that depended on tourism and was next to a huge wildlife sanctuary, would be totally changed by italcementis plans.

    One of the mountains the city was build at, would effectually be blown apart, two hundred gigantic trucks would be rolling through the medieval plastered curvy and narrow mountain streets every day, while all day explosions at the quarry would thunder through the valley covering the surrounding the landscape in dust.

    The region is world famous for its landscape and since the 70s that part of tuscany is where people from all around the world bought houses in the mountains, usually dropouts that sought to start a new life in nature. (Hippies from England or Germany, Hollywood Filmstars, Suiss ex-Bankers, ....)

    These people immediatly revolted against the mayors plan and hoped to get the support from the rest of the population, but it turned out, everybody else was afraid to say something against the new mayor. It seemed that almost all the "italian" citicens "owed a favor" to the city hall.

    This is how the "maffia" system has currupted all forms of democracy in italy.

    The cities inhabitants where afraid that city hall would suddenly show interest into the illicit buildings or unregistered businesses all of a sudden, so nobody said anything openly, but was secretely hoping someone else would stand up.

    In the end the plans of the quarry where buried, I am not sure why, maybe the corruption was just too blatant or the outsiders actually had powerfull friends too, but observing this as an outsider was very educating for me.

    At the last election, Berlusconi promised to legalise all illicit buildings, of which there are many in italy, if italians voted for him again. What he did there, was effectively "calling in a favor" from the italians, just like a maffia don in the godfather movie. Of all the crazy things in the last election, this for me made the top. This blatant acceptance and use of corruption by Berlusconi left me speechless.

    I think that the "war on forests" is only possible if italians keep silent, if they will not rise up against that maffia system, if the will not stop accepting "favors" of corrupt people in power.

    1. I know very well this. "They" know where you children go to school, this is one of the most effective Mafia techniques

    2. To add something personal on this point, my son was singled out for criticism and ostracism while he was in junior high school because I had criticized the mayor of my town (that wasn't said of course, but it seemed obvious to me).

      The curious thing is that - as far as I know - it was an initiative of the local teachers, outraged that I had dared to challenge the powers that be. The mayor himself played no role - I think - in this idea. I don't know if it works like this everywhere or if it is peculiar of Italy

  11. I want to add some isights into forestry in gerany. Most forsts in germany are either owned by the states or the former Aristocracy in germany. The largest private owner of forests is the Thurn und Taxis Family, a very rich aristocrate family in southern germany. (In austria former nobles own a even larger part of forests even if aristocracy legally does not exist there anymore, thurn und taxis would come out as number four in austria).

    The term sustainability (in german "Nachhaltigkeit") was actually created by a german noble (Hans Carl von Carlowitz 1713). Woods in germany have been growing for a long time, because sustainable forest management is a very lucrative and resilient long term endeavor for old money.

    Investing heavily into forestry was how german Aristocracy managed to secure their wealth in spite of all the wars and crisis of the last several hundred years. So I guess a war on forests would be a war on the oldest elite we have here and therefore it will probably not happen.


  12. How much do we hate our world then that we are determined to destroy without thinking the very organism that has made life possible for all things for some several billion years - trees. The only living organism capable of changing solar radiation into food and life. The harvester and creator of rains, temperate refuges and beautiful flowers and fruit. It seems we have completely lost touch with our natural world so completely that the mere presence of a living thing such as a tree is a cause of irrational irritation; after all they lose limbs, leaves take up space, dreadful creatures. And it seems nothing is more offensive than a living object that has no economic value or place in our modern constructed existence. Trees communicate, share information, one can hardly imagine the distress and despair (our emotional terms) that trees all over the planet must now be informing each other of, what about our children they must think? Is there no place for us the ancients of ancients. Some trees used to be able to live safe and long lives, thousands of years, such impertinence.

    Jared Diamond once posited this infamous question about the ecological destruction of Easter Island from a vibrant ecological mix of trees, animals and other plants, into a grassland wasteland, he asked this of the Easter Islanders; 'What were they thinking when they cut down the last tree?'. I guess they were not thinking at all, and the last trees perished, alone, malnourished and undressed, their relatives gone, their families destroyed, the rains gone, the nourishment gone. Just like we will. Take a good look at Easter Island thats what happens when you kill the trees.

  13. I wonder... having to deal every day with local administrators in Florence, I can't quite imagine them engaging in an idealistic war on trees to help humanity find new resources :-)

    Rather, where I do see the Seneca effect is this:

    1) when resources were scarce, human lives were cheap

    2) when resources became incredibly abundant, everybody began feeling entitled. And we have passed the point where people rightly say, "I won't let you whip me!" to where they say, "I won't let you dislike me on Facebook".

    3) This means people think anything natural is unacceptable: a branch falling off a tree becomes a "killer" and it's the fault of the mayor because he didn't cut it. Whereas the long term effects of cutting trees is easily forgotten.

    4) Ideas change slowly - people are just reaching Peak Entitlement, while we have passed Peak Resources.

    Re Liberty90, no, I don't see corruption - at least in Florence - as the main problem; I do see fear of being sued.

    And it is much easier, when in doubt, to cut down a tree than to spend months and years in court should the slightest accident happen.

    Everybody wants the kind of world the young Buddha escaped from.

    1. I agree with Miguel, in Florence we don't have a big problem of corruption. It exists, but on a very low level - the problem is entrenched with the way the administrations operate. The mayor of Florence cuts trees because he is expected to do that and he knows he'll get more votes if he cuts trees than if he doesn't.

    2. What I find fascinating is this: a public administrator who doesn't cut down a tree has one possibility out of, say, one million that a branch will fall on somebody's head.

      But when it falls, it does fall, and it really hurts one individual.

      By cutting a thousand trees, the same administrator may well contribute to shortening the lives of hundreds of people, who may even die suffering much more than one person who gets hit on the head by a branch.

      But this kind of diffuse, externalised damage is impossible to trace down to a source.

  14. here in austria Utilities have invested 100 Millions EUR in huge wood burning power plants. we import wood from all over europe. i live near the train where they used to offload the wood from the train - now we see trucks from all over europe full load with wood chips. Burning Trees is the new Coal..! Also they cut down the trees everywhere and pave the streets in deep black - and on sunday the old people complaint about the heat in this streets...malt die Strassen weiƟ

  15. There's a technique we have in the US for ensuring that branches - usually dead - don't fall on people or buildings. It's called "pruning", perhaps you might let your government know about this. On the other hand, they may have an ulterior motive - find out if rope is disappearing along with the trees - it may be self-preservation. There's more than one way - say, voting for Berlusconi - of shutting City Hall up, for good.

    I have a small piece of property in a small midwestern town in the US, and I successfully negotiated with the city to allow the local birds to plant a forest. Starting out with land mowed to two inches tall, like my neighbors on either side, I now have a forest of 30-foot tall trees, after about ten years of Sheer Total Utter Neglect - although I have cut trails and a clearing of sorts - under a canopy of trees... I did have three Siberian elms which were getting pretty long in the tooth cut down and sawed into lumber, now drying in a shed, the unusable parts made into woodchips which will go on the trails.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)