Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Age of Super Fires

The new age of super fires in N. America, Europe, Australia, Asia. Silviculturalist John Betts explains strange unstoppable forest fires. Then Nicole Rycroft, Exec Dir of enviro group "Canopy". Why they quit talks with industry, as logging ravages the Canadian Boreal forest. Plus MD Donald B. Louria says loss of faith in the future can kill. Radio Ecoshock 130501 1 hour.

Listen to/download this Radio Ecoshock Show in CD Quality (56 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

Listen to/Dowload the John Betts interview on super fires (24 minutes) in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

Listen to/Dowload the Nicole Rycroft interview (Canopy/Boreal forests) 22 minutes in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

Listen to/Download Donald B. Louria on loss of faith in the future (11 minutes) in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


In this program.... welcome to the new age of super fires. We talk with silviculturalist John Betts who explains the strange unstoppable forest fires rising up in the United States, Canada, Australia and even Europe.

Then we visit one of the last great intact forests on Earth - the Canadian Boreal. Loggers are chewing it up for paper, clothes, even cellulose in your ice cream. Now talks between industry and environmentalists appear to be breaking down. Nicole Rycroft from Canopy explains.

Top that off with Donald B. Louria, the medical doctor who says loss of faith in the future can kill. So think happy thoughts- or else! I'm Alex Smith, and this is Radio Ecoshock.



Are we entering the age of super forest fires? Our guest is John Betts, Executive Director of the Western Silvicultural Contractors' Association in British Columbia, Canada. He's in the gorgeous lake-side town of Nelson British Columbia - right in the path of the dead pines forest fire threat.

As a leader in an industry devoted to "managing" our forests, often by removing excess undergrowth, John advocates removing "fuel" from the forests before a disaster strikes. In years past, environmentalists have insisted such decay is natural and the woods should be left to their own devices.

Now it's different. With global warming and warmer winters, the Rocky Mountain Pine Bark Beetle has killed off entire valleys of pine trees. They will eventually burn - and some surround communities in the interior of British Columbia, and soon in Alberta too.

The same problem exists in the United States west, due to other bugs and general drying with climate pressures. Just consider the big fires in Colorado in 2012. The fires in Australia also look climate-related.

Betts adds a further cause: namely our success in stopping forest firest, (he calls it "suppression"). Most of these forests, especially in Western North America, were adapted to cycles of fires. The coniferous seeds could withstand a fire and regrow.

We know from studying forest soils there have been periods of fire for many centuries. But now with water bombers and new techniques, we stop them from burning, in our parks, on private lands, and around cities. John Betts says this means an abnormal amount of dead brush builds up beneath the trees. That's a recipe for a "super fire" - one we can't put out, until it burns out, or gets rained out.

In British Columbia, the dead pines can build into a kind of pyramid structure, just like you might build in a fire pit. That burns so hot it kills off any seeds. In fact, it can sterilize the soil even of helpful fungii and bacteria. So the forest doesn't grow back, and the ecology has been damaged.

Australia may or may not be a special case, with the eucalyptus trees and their oil, which act like instant torches. Note the Eucalyptus has been planted in California, in the U.S. South East, and around the Mediterranean. That could be a big mistake.

But with long drought, and excessive heat, we've seen many parts of the world burn as we've never seen in recent centuries. Consider the 2010 great fires in Russia which claimed hundreds of lives. Just previous to that, Serbia had giant fires, as did Greece and Spain. It's an ominous trend, which John Betts says is no accident.

As global heating continues, and the weather systems are thrown out of whack, we can expect a new age of great fires. Now you know the news before it hits your TV screen or headline. Expect it.

Betts advises communities how to prepare. Things like removing brush, or even if necessary, creating fire breaks around towns. And we should stop our home-building invasion of the woods, particularly in fire-ready areas. Having people living there drives more efforts to put fires out, which leads to the danger cycle again. Or people stay and try to fight the impossible flames, and die as they did in Australia. The government there has changed its advice - now telling people to get out, rather than remaining home with garden hoses against the inferno.

We need a lot of discussion and preparation to make sure our communities are safe, and our forests can return to some kind of natural cycle again - if "natural" is still possible in a big climate shift! It's possible some forests will never return, changing over to grasslands. We don't know yet, as we gamble away the future of the biosphere on a small planet.


The non-profit green group "Canopy" doesn't aim for high-profile public attention. Instead, it's been working behind the scenes with over 700 major corporations and media outlets, offering strategies to depend less on paper from old-growth paper. You would recognize big names, like the greening of the Harry Potter series, and major newspaper which are part of their efforts.

Canopy was part of the Great Bear Rainforest deal, and also joined a big initiative trying to save large tracts of Canada's Boreal Forest. That's the giant belt of a Northern forest type stretching from the Yukon to Labrador, but also dipping down into the U.S. mid-west and even New England. The big provinces of Ontario and Quebec hold vast swathes of Boreal forest.

Map of World boreal forest

Map of Canadian Boreal Forest (courtesy

This region is the last stop of serious forest growth before reaching the treeless tundra in the Arctic circle. The same eco-type known as the Boreal in North America is called the "Taiga" in Europe and Russia. It's a green belt of climate control and one of the biggest carbon sinks on the planet.

The Canadian boreal is one of only three great intact forests left in the world - the others being in Siberia and the Amazon. But it's being chewed up by dozens of forest companies doing clear-cut logging.

I asked Nicole, Executive Director and Founder of Canopy: if logging companies cut wood, and that gets sequestered as carbon into things like buildings, or even buried in land fills, that might actually reduce carbon emissions. Plus, we're told new trees growing during reforestation captures carbon. Couldn't logging in the Boreal be a good thing for the climate?

Her answer surprised me. I knew trees in the Boreal take a long time to grow back - as much as two or three hundred years to reach maturity. So the idea that new growth will capture anything like the carbon lost by logging is B.S.

But I did not know that trees change chemically when they are cut down. Living trees hold much more carbon than the lumber made from them.

Canopy has just withdrawn from the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. That was a consortium of logging companies, environment groups, and foundations talking for the past three years, trying to protect significant amounts of this eco-system, home to the shy and iconic Woodland Caribou.

Industry suspended logging on almost 29 million hectares of Boreal Forest within their alloted areas, and most of that included caribou habitat.

But that "deferment" has expired, with no firm protection for any of it. The companies are talking (for three years!) while they log. Details of where they will log next are not forthcoming. Canopy decided it was time to go back to the paper market customers. Greenpeace made the same decision to withdraw several months ago. The process has lost a lot of claim to legitimacy, leaving Boreal forest protection stranded.

There's a lot more to all this, as covered in our interview. Your own climate could be at stake - give it a listen.

We did see a fairly successful agreement for the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, but will this Boreal failure cool the whole idea of negotiating directly with polluters and resource companies? Will we see a return to more public activism?


If we lose faith in the future, can that help bring about the catastrophe we fear?

One speaker at the March 2013 conference on Fukushima in New York caught my attention with his off-topic introduction. Donald B. Louria, a medical MD and member of Physicians for Social Responsibility asked "Are we losing our faith in the future? If we do, what are the likely consequences?".

Donald B. Louria MD

Louria was leading in to his studies of the impacts of pessimism, and his book titled “reThink: A Twenty-First Century Approach to Preventing Societal Catastrophes.”

First I play you four minutes from his comments at the "Symposium: The Medical and Ecological Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident". All the talks from that symposium are now online here.

I think Donald raises a deep problem for us all. To fill out his comments, I'm just going to read directly from Louria's explanation of his book "reThink", as published online in September 2010.


"In 2005 and in 2007, I and my colleagues carried out national studies to assess the perceptions of people about their own future, the future of their country, and the future of the world. The respondents were divided into four age groups – 18 to 24 years, 25 to 44 years, 45 to 64 years, and over age 65. In every age group, more than 80 percent were optimistic about their own futures, but, in every age group, the majority were pessimistic about the future of the United States and the world. Importantly, the majority in each of the four age groupings believed we are not able to solve or significantly mitigate the major problems facing us (such as terrorism, global warming, the potential for nuclear or biologic warfare).

These studies suggested strongly that Americans of all ages are well on their way to losing faith in the future. Since our last survey, more than two years ago, a number of events have occurred that almost certainly will accelerate that loss of confidence in the future, reduce optimism about one’s own future, and increase the pessimism about the future of the United States and the world.

There has been a severe recession and, with it, a terrible toll in lost jobs and diminished confidence.

There is increasing distrust of a Congress that seems unable to deal effectively with our most serious problems. The cynicism about our political system is likely to be profoundly magnified as a result of the Supreme Court decision to allow unlimited and uncontrolled direct political advertising by corporations and unions (and others) in congressional and presidential elections.

The countries of the world, including the United States, appear unwilling to take the necessary actions to avoid catastrophic consequences of global climate change.

We are told that unless health care costs are contained, our healthcare system will eventually bankrupt the country. Yet, despite an extended and acrimonious debate, there is nothing to suggest our government has figured out a way to cope with or prevent this looming disaster.

I fear we are now in great danger of a large percentage of the public having their hopes for the future battered, being overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness in regard to our ability to cope with the major problems facing the society. If that occurs, there are substantial societal and individual consequences.

* There will be a dramatic increase in the frequency and severity of anxiety and depression.

* There will be a much greater focus on hedonism with increased risk taking and pleasure seeking, including the use of mind-altering drugs, both legal and illegal (alcohol included).

* There will be little attention paid to preventing or mitigating future problems and threats; politicians, even more than now, will focus almost entirely on present issues, thereby making the future even more bleak.

* The depression epidemic will have physical and other consequences with increased incidence of suicide and heart attacks, marital discord, inability to function effectively, and overeating (a well known response to depression) that will exacerbate our obesity and diabetes epidemics.

Make no mistake about it. Loss of faith in the future is very serious business – if widespread enough, it is society threatening.

There is, in my judgement, only one preventive: people, especially young adults, must be convinced that we as a society are still meliorist, that is able to solve the major problems facing us by the dint of our own efforts. That, in turn, means our politicians and leaders must give the perception they are approaching major issues in potentially effective fashion. To do so, they must know when to use and how to use what I have called societally-connected systems thinking. That is why I wrote the book “reThink: A Twenty-First Century Approach to Preventing Societal Catastrophes.

========== end quote from Donald B. Louria

So stay positive - or else!

In my opinion, Louria's book is not aimed at the popular reader, but at experts and decision-makers. Someone needs to go through it a popularize his main thesis. Any volunteers to write a comprehensive review of this book?

Find Radio Ecoshock on Our Twitter feed is @ecoshock.

Please support Radio Ecoshock by visiting our web site, at My heart-felt thanks to the people who donated or signed up for a membership this week. You are enabling new outreach projects and covering the monthly bills.

I'm Alex Smith, saying please join us next week, as we thrash through the big questions and the small answers.

No comments: