June 3, 2012

Seeing Green

My wife and I just got back from visiting her relations in Florida. Once again, I was struck by the lush, green forests and tree-covered mountains that paralled the road for the entire length of the trip. The band of deciduous trees that runs from Maine to Florida is a unique global resource, a vast factory without smokestacks, a point I made in this earlier essay, which appears in Fifty Years of Global Warming.

September 2009 – I’ve just finished touring a part of the world’s oldest and largest factory. It is an immense structure that runs 24/7, and yet, there is not a smokestack in sight. This factory uses no electricity, runs completely on solar power, and requires no workforce. This factory invented the idea of recycling. You could say it is the ultimate green operation.
It is not in America’s Rust Belt or in one of China’s burgeoning industrial zones. This factory stretches for over 2,000 miles, beginning in the great northern pine forests of Maine and ending in the scrub pines of northern Florida. It is the great  woodlands of America’s East Coast.
The analogy of woodlands to industry is important, I think, because it reminds us that trees are more than just scenery. A tree is a working factory that processes water and minerals and releases oxygen and takes up carbon dioxide, a process that helps to maintain the only known atmosphere in the galaxy capable of sustaining life. As such, trees are worthy of as much protection as any other vital industry would receive.
We have this, thanks to the foresight of such great conservationists as Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt. They understood the importance of the natural world and worked hard to pass laws protecting our great natural treasures and resources, in effect saving us from ourselves.
We Americans haven’t been perfect in this regard, but we did get the message on the environment pretty early on and have worked as hard as any other nation to promote clean air and water and to preserve what we could of our woodlands. This remains an important example we can provide to the developing world, as an example of where our deeds have for once matched our words.
Could we have done more? Sure. Will we need to do more? Absolutely, but at least we have a solid foundation on which to base even greater efforts at saving and expanding our woodlands. We just need to think of it as expanding our industrial base.

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