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The Purpose of Wood

Sarah Sands spun an amusing (at least, amusing for those of us with a generous predisposition to wood-related anecdotes) vignette in last weekend’s FT about a conversation between a woodsman and a celebrated sculptor which she had witnessed over the winter in Norfolk. Surveying a pile of logs, the sculptor pointed out one that looked an ideal candidate for sculpting. The woodsman frowned at this observation, “explaining that it would burn so well that it would be a waste to use it for any other purpose.”

The story can prompt a more serious consideration of the purpose of wood and wood products. Firewood, by and large, is the waste product of forest management, a convenient, carbon-neutral, natural fuel, requiring only chopping and the natural processes of drying to bring it to a useable state. Of the other parts of felled trees, the ‘nutritious’ portion – the twigs, leaves and small branches - are typically left on the forest floor, while the trunks are sawn up and used for various applications, for instance furniture, flooring or cricket bats, which can, in the eco-vernacular, be said to ‘lock in’ the carbon.

The distinction was thrown into comic juxtaposition (again, with the above proviso) when I was out in a company van (New Forest Wood Burning Centre) and found myself in a traffic jam in Lyndhurst behind a truck emblazoned with ‘Stop Burning Our Trees’ in enormous letters. The backdrop to the script was a forest scene; in the foreground stood a solitary infant tree – some variety of pine, I think – with a sign hung around its neck moping, ‘I want to be a table’. I thought the two liveried vehicles would have made a great photo, but the changing lights saved me from the temptation to jump out and take a picture (which, being a law-abiding citizen, I obviously wouldn’t have given in to anyway).

There was something slightly unsettling about the image on the truck. Apart from the weird anthropomorphising of a tree, there was the demented aspiration that the campaign creator had imagined for it. It would be like a poster of a calf wishing that it might be processed into a Kobe steak rather than a fast-food hamburger. Surely in a righteous universe the baby pine would have preferred to grow up to be a majestic adult tree.

Anyway, dilatory digressions aside, I looked up Stop Burning Our Trees (SBOT in acronym) later that evening and found that it was a charity whose main focus seemed to be opposing the construction of biomass-burning power stations. They had a slick website, and looked to have spent a fortune on advertising and to have a very engaging pressure group forcing petitions on Westminster politicians and lobbying in the highest corridors of power. Who they were exactly was less clear.

Comments posted online about them hinted at underhand attempts at policy influence and various shadowy motives by powerful industrial concerns with a background in furniture making.  As a conspiracy theory, it wasn’t very impressive; it would be hard to imagine James Bond squaring off against a coterie of plotting sofa retailers.

However, it did highlight the competing demand for wood products by different parties and an argument that is raging variously at local level and in the national and international press. The supposed underlying beef of SBOT was that, just as the questionable need for ethanol-based biofuels has pushed up the price of food to unaffordable levels for billions of people in the developing world, so the demand for wood to burn in power stations is pricing manufacturers of timber-derived furniture out of business. It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to extrapolate to how this could affect the fuel supply for wood burning stove-users and thus the stove industry at large.

There is huge controversy in the UK over the decision by power-titan Drax to re-tool its mammoth power stations to run not on coal but on wood. More locally to us in the New Forest, there is the proposed wood-burning power station on the Southampton waterfront to be developed by AIM-listed Helius Energy. It is hard to find anybody enthusiastic about this latter proposal; indeed, the wall of antipathy seems pretty much universal from everyone actually concerned – the local council and residents of Southampton appear to be totally opposed.

Helius Energy claim their ‘Sustainability Policy is designed to ensure ecological, social and climate change impacts are minimised, particularly in its feedstock procurement,’ which all sounds quite positive, until you get to the end of this statement, which reads, ‘to ensure the business exceeds UK and EU targets associated with these areas.’

They are currently re-considering their planning application while they wait for developments in the UK government's ‘energy legislative framework’. In this lies the rub, for whether or not they succeed depends on top-down rubber-stamping by central government, not on the needs or desires of local people, or on a rational assessment of whether mass power generation from burning wood is even a good idea.

Even flensed of this anti-democratic, dirigiste carapace, the economic case for electricity generation from biomass is that it is best undertaken where there is an abundant supply of feedstock, which is clearly not the case in the UK: we have pitifully little forest cover, and the waste wood supply is already stretched thin by the popularity of domestic wood burning appliances.

The only reason these plants are remotely feasible is that the companies building or running them are to be paid massive subsidies by central government to acquire what is talked of as a ‘green’ fuel. The irony is that by the time whole forests across North America have been hacked down, hacked up, repackaged into a uniform feedstock, soaked down to stop it spontaneously combusting in transport, and then shipped across the Atlantic, the carbon footprint no longer looks anything like it did on the drawing board of a faceless Brussels bureaucrat back when this plan was conceived, and the actual cost to the environment and, indirectly, to the taxpayer, is huge. The scheme looks, in a word, insane.

Any putative future removal of the subsidy would compel the companies to compete at a local level for cheaper feedstock.  Even when there are undertakings to minimise impact on local supply chains, it is easy to see how over time lines will become blurred and earnest sustainability policy statements might unravel and disappear down the proverbial toilet.

Regulation so often turns out to be an ineffective long-term bulwark against rapacious capitalism, as shown by the tortuous route to, and since, the peak of the banking crisis, especially when energy policies themselves are so skewed and ill-conceived. Better not to embark at all on idiotic enterprises, as otherwise they are likely to play out to their logical, though usually unanticipated, denouements.

Scotland, has, in fact, already removed its subsidy for biomass power plants that generate more than 15 megawatts because of concerns they will use up too much wood. Energy Minister Fergus Ewing (no relation of J.R., hopefully – now that really would be a good conspiracy) explained, ‘We have made clear our concerns over competition for a finite supply of wood, and our belief that there should be a greater focus on biomass in smaller scale energy projects wherever possible.’

Meanwhile, the continuing debacle unfolds in England. The best way to view it is as the Frankenstein love-child of supranational eco-policies, a command economy at national level to provide perverse incentives to implement those policies, a wall of City money channelled into ‘green’ funds looking for sure-fire investments (fully subsidised by the taxpayer), and energy companies both sprawling and nimble to spend  the resulting tsunami of wonga. 

At the base of the commercial aspect of this grand project is a desire to commoditise wood as a fuel.

Mass power generation is not the only angle from which this end is approached. There are many parties who would like to see the wood market reformed. Even a significant body within the wood burning stove industry would also like to regularise the wood fuel market, for numerous reasons. In a tail-wagging-dog pattern, this is already happening as a result of misguided regulation pertaining to wood burning stoves.

Trichotillomania is the term for obsessive hair-pulling, and it is a condition that afflicts many in the industry when their novice customers insist on burning damp wood in their stoves and then complain about the consequences. However, the condition is exacerbated by the performance characteristics of many recently produced wood burning stoves which have been built to such a pitch of efficiency, at the expense of usability, that they are incapable of burning any kind of wood other than kiln-dried. Thus, for some, the ideal solution is not to spend more time and effort on educating customers, or to build and sell better stoves, but to, over time, rig the wood fuel market, to ‘modernise’ it, so that most of the wood sold to stove-users will be cut to a regulation size and kiln-dried in advance, rendering wood-fuel abuse a thing of the past. This also makes it easier for them to sell cheap, nasty stoves.

The sting will be in the tail: much higher fuel prices. Not least because government at this point gets its finger in the pie by taking a nice slice of tax out of what is now a quantified fuel as opposed to being an arboricultural waste product, but mostly for the obvious reason that when a third party takes a fuel-in-waiting, repackages and processes it and sells it back to you ready-to-use, he is justifiably going to want a lot more money for it.

The standardisation of wood as a fuel will also remove yet another layer of knowledge and expertise from the stove user, adding to the creeping infantilisation of society. The writer Wallace Stegner worried that our erosion of, and displacement from, nature would diminish our status as, ‘‘…part of the natural world and competent to belong in it,” and that we would be, “…committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite life, the brave new world of a completely man-made environment.”

It is from this shrinking well of competence that we would stand to lose, rarefying and compressing those skills and traditions, up to now enjoyed in small ways by many, into the punctilious pressure cooker of economically-rationalised professionalism.

Henry David Thoreau reflected in ‘Walden’ over 150 years ago that, ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’ (as well as the sublime instruction, ‘Beware of all new enterprises that require new clothes’), steered wittingly or not by coercive forces into routine rat-runs, a situation which has become only more extreme in the intervening period as ever more of daily human experience is appropriated and mediated through the prisms of commerce or state bureaucracy. The wood market has so far largely resisted the plunge into pure mercantilism, rewarding knowledge and experience, favouring long-term human relationships and personal responsibility, and allowing flexibility for every type of merchant and customer. Dipping into it is an opportunity to step off the relentless treadmill of consumerism into something more real and primal and unmediated.

There is nothing inevitable about these kinds of traditions dying out. In Sweden, where a strong ethos of self-sufficiency somehow survives a highly paternalistic state, land ownership is widely shared and the vast majority of its massive, and growing, forests are actively managed, primarily for firewood.

There is widespread evidence in the UK, from the strong opposition to government plans to sell off the national forests, to the popularity of charities such as the Woodland Trust, that we have a real passion for our woodlands, and there is no reason to suppose that, especially with increasing demand for wood fuel and the modern enablers of grassroots e-commerce and social connectivity, there should not be an increase in both our forest coverage and in the number of individuals who might be able to make a satisfying living out of managing it in a time-honoured way, without any ‘assistance’ from government.

It would be a shame to see that slip away, sacrificed to satisfy a corrupted ideal of eco-infatuated ideology and its attendant opportunists.