Monday, March 2, 2009

The pulp and paper industry – a paradigm for Australia’s annihilation.

The economic strength of a society relies on their being adequate health care, a clean environment, broadly-based prosperity and the meeting of social needs in general. Yet the mode of operation of the now worldwide capitalist economy destroys all of these things because those in government (representatives of the most powerful economic players) seek to ensure monetary profit for a narrow elite. Such an objective is continually pitted against the public and planetary interests. The global pulp and paper industry represents an excellent study of how an industrial paradigm can bring economic and ecological collapse to an entire nation. The very idea of turning vast stands of pristine old-growth forests into woodchip for the superfluous consumption of paper and packaging - firstly by the global corporations [1] and, secondly, the consumer masses - was made possible by the dominance of a corporate media to promote a wasteful consumption lifestyle and over-development. The use of oil as a major energy source was also a major element in this unfolding. It allowed industry to enjoy virtually unfettered access to previously inaccessible wild forests and eased the way for greatly expanded unequal exchange of commodities around the world.

Here's a quick history of the pulp and paper industry in Australia.

In 1938 Australian Newsprint Mills Pty Ltd became incorporated. The Herald and Weekly Times and John Fairfax and Sons were major shareholders. The two major Australian newspaper companies funded research into paper making using Australian native trees. “….their chemists had eventually succeeded in matching the pulp of the long-fibred softwoods of the northern hemisphere with Eucalyptus regnans, the Tasmanian swamp gum, of which there were [then] vast stands in the Florentine and Styx tributaries of the Derwent River.” The Tasmanian government assisted the aspirations of these powerful interests by granting vast logging concessions as well as subscribing to 20% of the corporation’s initial capital. [2] [3]

In 1936 Associated Pulp and Paper Mills Ltd (APPM) was formed by Amalgamated Zinc, North Broken Hill, Broken Hill South and Consolidated Zinc. In 1938 APPM started the Burnie paper mill in North West Tasmania. Initially it used imported pulp. However by early 1939 the Burnie pulp mill was making bleached eucalypt soda as the major component of its printing and writing papers. The technology of kraft pulping of the eucalypts was attractive for the industry because this process gave a stronger pulp than either the soda or sulphite processes then widely in use. “Moreover a new method had just been developed in Canada -the Tomlinson recovery process -which greatly improved the economics of chemical recovery from spent kraft pulping liquor (black liquor).” [4]

The softwoods found in the northern hemisphere continued to be an important component of paper pulp around the world because the fibres improved ‘strength and runability’, an important quality for packaging. [4]

It wasn’t long before the spiraling environmental impacts of this more ‘efficient’ industry became apparent far and wide. In 1946, Pulitzer Prize winning author, Robert Penn Warren, wrote in his book, All The King’s Men:

There were pine trees here a long time ago but they are gone. The bastards got in here and set up the mills and laid the narrow-gauge tracks and knocked together the company commissaries and paid a dollar a day… Till, all of a sudden, there weren’t any more pine trees. They stripped the mills. The narrow-gauged tracks got covered with grass. Folks tore down the commissaries for kindling wood. There wasn’t any more dollar a day. The big boys were gone, with diamond rings on their fingers and broadcloth on their back. But a good many of the folks stayed right on, and watched the gullies cut deeper into the red clay.”

From the 1960s onward the forests of Tasmania were being gutted at an alarming rate. “The Japanese pulp and paper industry played a brilliant ….strategy when it looked to Australia in the 1960s to secure a stable wood supply” from somewhere else and in order to protect its own forests. “…Japanese leaders understood the risks of purchasing unprocessed raw materials from a nation that harboured fresh war memories - especially prisoner-of-war memories - and whose people were becoming more strident about their nation's development. To cocoon itself from the potentially fatal political expression of these emotions, the Japanese woodchip buyers (at least initially) let Australian or majority Australian-owned companies export the chips, a trade that began in the early '70s. The Japanese paper companies then saturated them in profits.” The destruction of native forests gained enormous momentum as a result….” “Today, 80 to 90 per cent of the log cut in Australia's main native-forest logging regions is woodchipped.” [5]

In 2005 Jared Diamond observed, from his book ‘Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive’ that “Ecologically the Australian environment is exceptionally fragile, the most fragile of any first world country except perhaps Iceland….“Australia is the most unproductive continent”, whose soils have on average the lowest nutrient levels, the lowest plant growth rates and the lowest productivity. As a consequence of low soil fertility, most of the nutrients in Australian forest are in the trees themselves. When we wood chip our forest we destroy the support system our life depends upon.” Diamond warned Australians that deforestation is the major cause of societal collapse of many civilisations such as Easter Island. If we continue to damage our forests, soils and climate then the same collapse will happen in Australia. [6]

Not surprisingly agroforestry tree plantations in Australia generally don’t do so well. With the low soil nutrient levels add low and unpredictable rainfall. The trees grow slowly and are far less profitable than 12 out of 13 countries that are among Australia’s principal competitors. The Tasmanian Blue Gum, grows much faster and more profitably in the plantations established in Brazil, Chile, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Vietnam than in Tasmania itself. On the other hand, given Australia’s extremely limited resource in the way of fertile soil in areas of adequate rainfall it would be a crime to devote those small areas to a low value crop such as plantations for woodchip, as has been pointed out many a time in government public ‘consultation’ forums.

This month is the first time I have ever believed (in fact, ever thought) that Australia may be facing imminent collapse. But a closer examination of Australia’s recent industrial, climatic and bushfire history reveals many frightening omens.

Ever since the automobile became the most popular means of transport in the 1960s Australia has experienced a general warming trend that is consistent with human-induced climate change. “The south-east of Australia is also experiencing a long period of unusually dry weather….They are two of the critical elements that are needed to create a fire. The other two are low humidity and high wind speeds”[7]. The south-east of Australia is precisely where deforestation and the spread of fuel intense industrial eucalyptus plantations is most concentrated. Above 30 degrees centigrade eucalypt oil becomes gaseous and ignites readily as a ‘fireball.’ “On the day the bushfires started claiming lives, Melbourne reached a record 46.4 degrees for the first time in 154 years of record-keeping.” [7]

The industrial tree plantations established across Victoria are concentrated in heavily populated regions close to major towns and cities. In August 2003 the Fire Chief in New South Wales told an interviewer on ABC TV’s ‘7:30 Report’ that “to have any hope of ‘managing’ such a fire, fuel build up would need to be as low as 4-5 tonnes per hectare or less. This degree of fuel loading is apparently reached in plantations by 3-7 years.” Sure enough, firefighters in Victoria are reporting that the intensity and scale of the fires meant there was little they could do beyond watching with despair as small grass fires reached into and exploded industrial tree plantations where the flames then jumped quickly into one tourist towns after another. “Marysville, Narbathong, Buxton, Taggerty, Camberville, Kinglake, Pheasant Creek, Flowerdale, Glenburn, Humevale, Strathewen, Whittlesea, Strath Creek, Upper Plenty, Clonbinane, Reedsdale, Reedy Creek, Mittons Bridge, Wallan, Wondong, Heathcote Junction, Healesville, ChumCreek, Toolangi, Yarra Glen, Dixons Creek, Steels Creek, Christmas Hills and St Andrews….” [8] And from there onto the outer suburbs of the city of Melbourne itself. Large intense fires continue to straddle many other electorates.

The forest industry in Australia is a powerful vested interest group that is not amenable to logic, reason or reform if it gets in the way of profits. In fact corporate documents have reassuring statements to investors about their company’s intent to focus on profits even in the context of widespread community anger at their practices. The activities of the corporation, investors are told, are “not subject to any particular or significant environmental regulations under a Commonwealth, State or Territory law.” [9] So it’s not surprising to read submissions to government that express dismay about a failure to learn from previous fire experience. [10]

Whilst the full extent of damage from this summer’s fires in south east Australia is not yet known – indeed the fires are still raging across Victoria at present, the destruction tallied so far is at astronomical levels. This is the worst bushfire month in Australia’s recorded history. Around 250 people have died and many more are injured. About 7,000 individuals are homeless with hundreds now relying on daily food aid to subsist.

It’s hard to think of a more damaging industrial paradigm than the global pulp and paper industry. The inherent irrationality of consumerism whereby individuals purchase superfluous and easily replaceable paper products at the cost of destroying all the elements of the natural world that keeps our children and our own selves alive. The air is polluted with huge industrial burn-offs of forest biomass. The water is sucked up from the streams and rivers by the thirstiest trees known to man. The soils are depleted by short rotations. Rural towns and communities are burnt to the ground by the inevitable and intense infernos that go hand-in-hand with high fuel loads in a warming and dryer environment. All in the name of getting rid of the wealth-destroying fetters of regulation. Hey! To Australia’s National Security Hotline: I see something suspicious. When all it takes to become an effective terrorist in Australia is to throw your cigarette out of the car on the next hot day.

[1] It could be argued that the transnational corporation, itself, it the world’s biggest consumer of paper and forest products. Packaging represents most of world paper consumption.

[2] ‘The Media’ by Keith Windschuttle. Penguin Books, 1988. ISBN 0 14 011689 3. pp 132-133.

[3] “…the allocation of forest resources on Crown land in Tasmania can be seen as a continuation of a process (now almost complete) which began with, and is typical of, the colonial era. The distribution of land which is ‘unsettled’ (at least by the white colonizing society) provides a path to economic development which is both economically and politically easy. Little need be said on the ease with which economic development can be fostered. *
*See, for example:
(a) TURNER FJ 1920; ‘The Frontier in American History’; Henry Holt & Co., New York; or
(b) POTTER DM, 1974; ‘People of Plenty; Economic Abundance and the American Character; University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
The exploitation of the previously untapped resources of a colony swelled the coffers of many a colonial power; the problem for most colonies and former colonies (including Tasmania) has been to achieve some long-term basis for economic development which is not dependent upon simple resource extraction and export…”
As quoted in ‘Perspectives on Forest Policy in Tasmania’ edited by Aynsley J Kellow. University of Tasmania. Environmental Studies Occasional Paper 18. 1984. ISBN: 0 85901 257 3. Page 4.

[4] Technology in Australia. 1788 – 1988. Eucalypt pulp production begins

[5] ALP up the wrong tree
Governments have bungled forest policy for decades, writes Judith Ajani, describing what can happen when myopic union leaders influence political decisions
The Australian
July 07, 2007 12:48am,25197,22029499-5001986,00.html

[6] Why our forests are so precious
Clive Blazey introduces Jared Diamond's latest book, 'Collapse', and its significance to our declining forests.

[7] ‘The end of climate certainty’ February 14, 2009
All signs point to the climate becoming more extreme, write Marian Wilkinson and Ben Cubby.
* My country, my tyrant. David Marr Stay or go? A question everyone still asks

[8 ]Fran reports to Parliament on the Victorian bushfires
Tuesday, 24 February 2009

[9] “The operations of the Trust are not subject to any particular or significant environmental regulations under a Commonwealth, State or Territory law.”

Source: Annual report to investors
Year end to 30 June 2008
Concord Australian Equity Fund (which is a major investor in Gunns Ltd, the woodchipping and tree plantation company that dominates the Tasmanian forest industry. The responsible entity for Concord Equity Fund is Macquarie Investment Management Limited (MIML) which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Macquarie Group. Macquarie Group, in turn, enjoys a huge stable of former Australian politicians… Bob Carr, Alan Stockdale, Warwick Smith, Ross Cameron, Rob Knowles etc)
ARSN 116 355 465

[10] See for example:
Submission on the Green Paper on a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme
Mick Harewood, August 2008-09-01
“…Section 5.3 : Fire Protection. This section seems to have been written without regard to lessons learned from the behaviour of the Canberra bushfires of January 2003. The description printed in the Canberra Times of the fire convection column by Wendy Catchpole, mathematician at the Australian defence Force Academy with
an interest in fire behaviour modelling, is informative. Wendy Catchpole said that the fuel loads in the pine plantations near Canberra were so high that, under conditions of high temperature, the fire created its own convection column and winds from all directions were drawn to the base of that column. The strength of these winds caused the trunks of fully grown Pine trees to snap well before the fire front had reached them.”


Shag from Brookline said...

And U.S. environmentalists picked on Brazil for forest destruction rather than on Anglo Australia? I wonder why.

Brenda Rosser said...

Is that a rhetorical question Shag?

The forestry disaster in Australia is such a broad topic. These tinderbox Eucalypt niten and radiata pine plantations have been established where-ever the rainfall is (or used to be) reasonably high. A minimum of 600 mm annual rainfall is needed for a Blue Gum plantations.
Relatively high rainfall, of course, coincides with where people live....

And sure enough the fires are following the plantations in other states as well. In the Australian Capital Territory, in South West of Western Australia, in South Australia and Eastern New South Wales.

The change in climate is contributing toward more frequent, more widespread and more intense fires and so is the dramatic rise in fuel load. One commentator said that the forest fuel load in Victoria is the highest it has been for 70,000 years.

Eleanor said...

Very disturbing post, Brenda.

A general question... Is capitalism ever profitable, when externalities (sp?) are included?

It can be argued that capitalism got its start from the riches of the New World, flooding into Europe via Spain. Other colonies in Asia and Africa contributed significantly to the continued growth of capitalism, as did the exploitation of resources that are non-renewable or not easily renewable. So how much wealth has capitalism actually created vs. the wealth stolen from nature or other people?

Just a thought...

Eleanor said...

"Stolen" is loaded. Let's say "taken" or "borrowed long-term."

Not counting natural resources fits with the labor theory of value. Natural products unchanged by humans have no intrinsic exchange value, though they may have use value.

Shag from Brookline said...

Brenda, it's a small world and we should take care of it, not just our own back yards at the expense of others. Eleanor gives a capsule of colonialism/capitalism. Nations that are "well oiled" may not actually succeed being well oiled. (Russia needs oil at $70/barrel for its economy to succeed and the current $40/barrel is not enough.) Our foreign policy and economy are based upon maintaining resources located in foreign lands. George W. Bush's October 2002 National Security Strategy states, in a nutshell, that the US is #1 in the world militarily, economically and politically and will do whatever it takes to maintain these positions. But what has happened since October of 2002? Can Globalization be successful without all nations realizing it's a small world?

Brenda Rosser said...

I can't see that 'capitalism' is an 'economic' system, in fact. It may be better described as a system of power relations or economic relations in society. but not a system that creates real wealth.

People tend to confuse mode of production (capital-intensive/industrialism) and access to readily available cheap energy as the equivalent to 'capitalism'. But these occurred in communist nations as well.

Capitalism existed long before the industrial revolution and was not associated with general economic wellbeing for hundreds of years....until cheap oil and modern industrial (so-called 'efficient') changes in production took form.

As you seem to be saying...Whilst the US and other nations rely on access to resources in other nations that position cannot be maintained - even in a world where energy is unlimited. A military campaign to sustain the status quo will only hasten the day when many natural resources simply will not be available in sufficient quantities anywhere.
War uses an incredible amount of oil and other resources. The environmental destruction from military action is horrendous.

Mark Gelazy said...

I do not understand one thing, why the history and politics of countries still threatens the ecology of the countries. I believe that in any case the country should protect its forests and the environment in general. I recently read the study of pulp consistency control and agree with them on the issue of proper use to get the result without harming the environment.