The Global Citizen: Junk Mail

You know how sometimes bits of information come at you from unrelated directions and conk you on the head with an unexpected pattern? It happened to me last week.First came a letter from Mary Zabriskie of Putney, Vermont. A year ago she got fed up with the flood of junk mail coming at her. "I decided to keep all the catalogs that came from January 1 to December 31, 1997," she writes. "The enclosed photo shows what came of it."The picture shows a smiling Ms. Zabriskie, one arm resting on a stack of catalogs that reaches to her elbow. There are 371 of them, she writes. They weigh 104 pounds. The worst culprits are: Vermont Country Store (27 catalogs), L.L. Bean (26), Earth Care/Real Goods (20 -- those guys should know better!), Land's End (20), J. Crew (17), Eddie Bauer (16), Garnet Hill (15). If we assume Ms. Zabriskie's household is average, 100 pounds of catalogs times 100 million American families makes 10 billion pounds or 5 million tons of paper per year. The postal service admits to 4.6 million tons -- over a thousand pieces of "bulk business mail" for every man, woman, and child of us.I could complain about all that unbidden paper filling our dumps (less than half is recycled). I could remark on a startling statistic gleaned from the Web that each of us spends 8 months of life opening junk mail. (I don't believe that number, because I never open mine.) I could give Ms. Zabriskie the standard advice about contacting the Direct Marketing Association (1120 Avenue of the Americas, New York NY 10036-6700) and asking to get off junk mail lists. (Why do we have to request NOT to get this stuff? Why don't they have to get our permission to send it?)But the piece of the picture that jumped out at me was the trees. A hundred million trees a year are ground up to supply the paper for our junk mail.I wouldn't have been so sensitive about trees if we hadn't just had an ice storm that left the forests fifty miles north of me and/or a thousand feet higher than me bent and broken, the hillsides covered with jagged stubs where whole trunks snapped. The papers are predicting a flood of downed wood coming to the mills, followed by a long scarcity.And then the foresters came to my class.Scot Zens has his forestry degree from the University of Washington and is now working on a Ph.D. in ecology from Dartmouth. He's measuring long-term growth patterns in the forests where he grew up on Vancouver Island. Kathy Fallon Lambert is a graduate of Yale Forestry School and now directs the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation. Her job is to compile ecological research on the forests of New England and make that information available to the public and policymakers. I invited them because my students were trying to sort out the arguments they were hearing about whether forestry in the United States is or is not "sustainable."Kathy and Scot spoke of our many different kinds of forests, their various species and age structures and growth rates, and possible definitions of the word "sustainable." They were giving us numbers and graphs, being careful and scientific.Toward the end of the period I tried to pin them down. In their private but professional opinions, do they think we can keep on cutting indefinitely at the rate we're cutting now?A short silence.Then Scot got up and drew a graph on the board. "Here's something that scares me," he said. He showed the actual cut in Washington and Oregon over many decades, with ups and downs as the market turns, but an overall downward direction. Then he showed the official estimates, made every ten years, of the expected sustained yield from those forests. The studies that determine this theoretical yield are very thorough, involving forest censuses and computer models and land management plans.His graph showed that every ten years for decades now the calculated sustainable cut -- the rate at which the forests can go on yielding wood over the long term -- has gone down."Why?" we asked.Partly because of forest land being cleared for other uses, he said. But mainly because of cutting the standing stock faster than it is growing back.By this time Kathy was at the board, saying, "I've just seen a graph that scares ME." She drew a line that rose steadily and then leveled off. "This is the biomass of trees in the Hubbard Brook watershed (in New Hampshire) since the 1960s," she said. The trees had been growing happily for decades, and then something slowed the rate of biomass buildup way down, nearly to zero."What?" we asked.No one knows for sure, she said, but scientists think it's air pollution and acid rain.Clunk. The pieces fell together in my mind, and out popped a great big WHY? With the forest stock going down in one of our major forests and tree growth rates going down in another, with expected future cuts decreasing, WHY are we using a hundred million trees a year to pelt people with advertising they mostly don't ask for, don't want, and don't even look at?(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)

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