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Forestry of the Future

By Juha Haataja

(Note: based on a presentation I made in Geneva 12.10.1987, in a meeting of young people interested in forests and forestry.)

I have been writing about various things for a few years, and so I also seized here the opportunity to write about forestry. I come from the countryside, and woodland has always fascinated me - ever since as a little kid I got lost in the thicket near our house! Nevertheless, I am a physics student, and I realize this gives to me a rather different view of forestry, compared with the forestry expert in general.

I must admit I was a bit skeptical at first, because I didn't know much that was worth writing about the subject. But then I realized that forest means much more than timber or even a walk in the woods. I came to think that forest - as a whole - means life. For all of us. It means oxygen. It means clothes. It means shade and shelter and a web that keeps the soil in its place. I came to think of forest as a part of our planet, a life-giving part, and as such suffering from the technology we use, in forestry, and in industry everywhere, from the tiniest smith's cottage to the greatest corporation. I realized that forest is humankind's placenta - it gives us the air to breathe, it nourishes us, keeps us warm, and it shelters us from the storms that would tear the world apart, desolate it and extinguish the flame of human, animal and vegetative life. We are as yet not so strong as to be independent of our natural surroundings, and I wonder if we will ever be.

So, I write about forestry because I see we are having some big and difficult problems with our forests. And I think, that maybe I could present some new ideas, starting from a different point of view.

I am worried about the way our deeds are affecting nature. We all have noticed such often-quoted problems as the acid rain, the radioactive wastes, pollution of lakes, rivers and seas. And so on. It seems we meet every week one new, big and unexpected form of this pollution and corruption of nature in the world at large. As a expert of modern technology - or as a student as yet - I am worried. I am worried as I would be if I had invented the atomic energy, and read next day in the newspapers about Hiroshima. The pace of developments in technology is great. But what is the direction? And the weapons are not the biggest threat. There are minor Hiroshimas occurring in the nature every day, but we don't notice them. We are blind, because we are not observant enough in using our great technological breakthroughs and the usual practises. The time scale is not one of seconds as with the atomic bomb - it is a scale of weeks, years, decades - until then we may not be able to see what's going on now.

I am worried as a user of modern technology. I am worried, because the forest may be dying, and we don't know about it yet. Anything at all. We do not have even the data. We haven't searched for it. We only have searched for new directions of exploiting, and never mind the tracks. The pace is fast, development and research get big money, the biggest there is, but where are we actually going? And I am scared because it may be so that the next generation or their children don't have forest at all - it's all gone, eaten by the rain, torn by the wind, burnt by the fire, or sickened by some parasite that creeps up from the earth.

I keep thinking, is the forest as a life-form in peril? Are we humans the destructors as well the cultivators of earth? Have we turned astray somewhere?

- - -

What should then be done? I started asking myself this, again and again, but really I didn't find anything that would have solved all the problems of technology.

We are not in the stone-age any more, be we still fight against our surroundings. This is a powerful urge: always to change things, always to alter. And so we don't notice the other ways of progress: it could be possible to use natural resources more naturally. We do like to think that the technological way is the best possible solution to problems - but this is only a way of looking at things, and a very limited one. Even though we have reached great heights, we are still long way away from true understanding. The more you learn, the more you know about how little you comprehend. Is it always good to trust those who know better?

As a whole, the humankind has great tools at its command. We have computers that can process enormous amounts of data and programs. We have methods for sowing and reaping. We know about genes and laser and different types of steel. We have thousands of kinds of skills at our fingertips. We know a lot. We can do a lot. Nobody, absolutely nobody can chart all the possibilities of human mind. Maybe our steps haven't been small, but we have taken thousands of steps. But still - we all seem to be doing different things at different places, and we don't know about the whole very much. And we are not used to thinking about greater aspects, and maybe we really can't grasp very big things at one time. But we have the tools.

Still, one tool can't solve the problems, it can only help in the solving. I would like to stress this fact: in the complicated society and environment of the modern world we are not able to solve our problems using isolated tools and isolated organizations. The thinking must change. And I believe it has changed a bit already. At least new issues are being discussed now. And this seems to be a step, a small one, in the direction of realizing the ever-increasing networking of problems and difficulties of the modern world.

We may be ever so more bound to each other, although we have the illusion of being independent. The developing countries at least don't have any possibility to exist alone. And the wastes of one country may find their way into the soup of another.

- - -

And this is my strongest wish: to see experts in different fields of technology to be able to combine their knowledge and share their skills. We could use, for example, computer based intelligent systems for general use. These are nowadays used by the experts only. But it should be possible to take a wider aspect of things: put into a computer a system for getting data organized for general use. One could find information about the chemical wastes and their effects on different types of organisms. And the interested could pose questions for the computer: what would happen if... And so on. And if the system were unable to answer, the user could contact the professionals and ask them via the computer: Hey, I have this problem here, could you give me an estimate..?

In fact, this is already happening: we have realized the new possibilities of communication via a computer. Computers can communicate knowledge, not only data. This is something I know because of my expertise. I think it is extremely important to use expertise more widely, and it it also important to provide expert help in questions about nature.

If I as a expert make a plan, it may be so that I don't really care to contact the people who know about the consequences to our environment. Or I overlook the results they give me. It should be possible to ask, how did they reach the conclusions, and it should be possible for them to ask me, what my plans really consist of. I think that the barriers around information are too high, and we are like on a ship the captain of which doesn't want to speak to the pilot because of some unknown personal reasons!

The most important thing is to ask, what our plans, skills and knowledge mean to the whole. To everything. And we should be more ready to contact other kind of people with our special kind of views and problems.

For example, in my work in the field of physics: it would be the worst possible thing to overlook the dangers and stress the advantages thereby damaging the natural environment of all of us. But, who knows: some day I may be doing just that. I might design plans that help to destroy the precious forests. Because of lack of knowledge, or because of lack of caring.

- - -

And then, at last, I seem to be arriving to the matter of forestry. I write about forests not because I am interested in the technologies of modern forestry, but because I am concerned about forests. They are so big a part of my country, and my memories, that I feel sometimes a kinship to the ancient and changing forest.

I feel powerless in the face of the economical facts. We have little room to change our plans, even though we like to call the modern society an affluent one. We are chained to our plans and the present situation. We often think that we can't do a nature-saving thing because it would be an economical or sociological suicide. And perhaps it would be. But are we committing suicide anyway? With all our knowledge, we know so little!

Forest means economical power. It is a great sunlight-trapping factory, producing energy and raw materials in a cycle, ceaselessly and tirelessly. It is life-force incarnate.

Many countries live of forest. I believe the importance of forests is great in every country, the forest is an all-encapsulating web that has spread widely and ceaselessly. Forest is the ultimate in man's companions, willing or unwilling. It has been our habitat for millenniums, and still it protects our farming and our dwelling. But for the first time it is our task to take care of the forest, it is our task to help it to survive - for the sake of our own survival. We have exploited it often mindlessly, and then applied our strong technology there - maybe it is high time to think of forest as a web we are sleeping in, or as the groundings of the great systems we have greated.

When a disaster strikes, a disaster of such magnitude that it affects our living conditions directly, then we notice what is happening. But we should also observe the living conditions of our companion, the forest. Would we be ready to live in such a mess? At all times exploited and utilized, seldom cared for expect because of economical reasons, that is the life of the slave. But we are dependent on the slave, and we even take pride in the beauty of our possessions, in our forest-slaves, but we do not like to admit the true amount of dependence, and we forget the needs of the forest as a natural entity. Do we really understand the forest completely?

So, as an expert in computers and mathematics and physics, I would like to use my skills in the preserving and caring of the forests and forest nature. I would like to be able to do something to solve the waste problems, for example. But it is the realities of life again, that dictate our effect on great issues. We have not much power singly. But, if the thinking changes, then perhaps the way of things gradually changes also.

Alone we have no power, together we can move the world. The past has been created without thinking about one moment's pain. We may have a future, if we face the facts and realities of life together, and don't hide behind artificial walls. For the sake of all of us, let's not make the world impossible for the forest to live in. Now is the time to think, and act, but not alone.

For once, we should dig our toes into gravel and peat, and feel the way the forest feels; for once we have to think of our sister, the forest, the slave that ceaselessly has provided us with air, food, and clean water. At last, it is our turn to take care, to reach across into the mysteries of forests.