The next time you’re out and about in nature, sidle up to the nearest tree that you can’t quite get your arms around.
This mighty organism will tower above your head and its trunk will feel rock solid even as the branches sway gently in the wind.
Now take yourself back to the time just before humans invented metal tools.
This is about 6,000 years ago around 4,200 BC.
Imagine you were there with a few fellow hunter-gatherers or perhaps your clan was amongst the earliest primitive farmers and look again at the tree.
Ask yourself “I wonder if we can cut this thing down, with my stone axe?”
The answer, of course, is not really. Unless you have an enormous amount of time on your hands or there’s an extended family around willing to help with the herculean task.
Obviously, if the tree fell down of its own devices, in a storm or because it had reached the end of its natural life, this would help a lot. Not least reducing the dangers of several tons of timber falling on one of the helpers.
The problem would then become shaping it into useful material, for example, a canoe to take you out onto the swamp to gather food or beams for a shelter. This processing still requires an enormous amount of effort with stone tools.
The fact that our ancestors tried it anyway even with simple technology is a testament to human ingenuity, tenacity, and our skill with tools.
Hard yards even with steel tools
Run forward a few thousand years and imagine what it would have been like for some of the early European settlers in Australia in the late 1700s. When they arrived on the east coast they were presented with vast forests of massive trees that they recognized as a resource, but only had limited tools and not much machinery.
Until around 1850, red cedar, native softwoods, and eucalypt trees were felled by axe or crosscut saw and sawn into lengths using pit saws. Timber was also hewn or split with broad axes and wedges. Transport of the timber to mills and markets was by animal power and so forests closest to market areas were logged first.
Cutting down 30 m trees with handheld saws and axes is hard work when it’s 35 degrees in the shade. You need to be one tough cookie to be able to do that on a regular basis.
But they did it.
After 1850 the use of steam power including powered sawmills and road transport enabled higher productivity and access to areas previously uneconomic to harvest such as some of the coastal rainforests.
It was not until electrification and diesel power, which first appeared in the 1940s, did wood-chipping plants, pulp and paper from plantation softwoods, eucalypts, cypress pine, and rainforest timbers make the whole process of access to timber products easier.
By this time most of the forests in Australia had lost their biggest trees that were taken out first, particularly the hardwoods, and many of those huge trees that they began with no longer exist except for in a few isolated parcels of the inaccessible country that the tractors cannot reach.
There’s a video going around on the social feeds at the moment showing what happens in a sawmill. Not a particularly large one but a modern one with all the efficient high-tech tools.
The trunks of the trees, about the size of the one you tried to get your arms around, arrive at the yard neatly trimmed of all their branches and squared at both ends. This of course is done by a machine in the forest, no longer is it required for a tree to be cut down by hand. A tree lopper and strimmer and cutter will do that job in a fraction of a second.
The cleaned logs are piled on the back of a B double and deposited at the sawmill outside in a hopper. That hopper moves the logs in such a way that they end up on a conveyor belt, separated and aligned ready to go into the mill.
The conveyor belt takes each log one at a time through into the mill. As it arrives it is scanned to accurately record width and length and shape. This information is fed into the next machine, essentially a huge and very fancy band-saw, that begins to cut the planks from the round trunk, taking slices in both directions thanks to a double-sided saw blade. The slices are measured precisely, cut and fall onto another conveyor belt as neat planks.
The machine then flips the log four times until the square pole in the middle is left and goes down the belt that takes the timber into the stacking yard. In a matter of minutes, each log is measured, cut, and stored.
What would have taken our ancestors weeks or months of very hard labour just to get a canoe. Our modern technologies can produce timber of any size and shape in a matter of minutes.
Here is another example on an even bigger scale.
Imagine what this capability does to resource use and to the supply of resources.
It is much much easier to exhaust supply when processing efficiency is so high. And if the objective is to convert a resource into cash — the name of the game for every business — then that is what happens so long as the process is profitable.
The conversion of capital into cash is a powerful force. Modern technology advances make the conversion process for natural capital super-efficient.
That tree you hugged is no match for a chain saw let alone a forestry tree lopper.
Using up natural capital
Commerce plus technology is why natural capital is used up.
And we generally call it development. And even if the rhetoric is for sustainable development the power of commerce and technology makes that ideal a challenge.
The reality is that these systems of production are so efficient and so hungry for resources to maintain their profitability and deliver return on investment in the lumber yard machinery that it is not just the trees that need to worry.
Please share on your socials. It might be a bit depressing to read but these realities need a spotlight.