April, 2011

Value Based Learning

The following account of the production and consumption of paper  is based on articles by Redclift 1984; Abramowitz 1998; Abramovitz & Mattoon 2000; Gardner 2002, which appeared in State of the World,  World Watch Institute publications (Washington, DC).

Scroll down to the end of the article for questions based on the Earth Charter’s ethical principles to evaluate the impact of the excessive production and consumption of paper on forested areas and on the life of people in industrialized and developing countries.

 In 1997, the world produced 299 million tons of paper, enough to fill the Empire State Building 383 times. In fact, during the first decade of the century, paper production accounted for 42 % of wood harvested for industrial uses (everything but fuel). The consumption of paper is related to income levels with more than 70% of the world’s paper being used by 20% of people living in North America, Western Europe, and Japan.

    While global per capita use of paper stands at about 46 kilograms a year, the average use in the United States is about 320 kg a year, in Japan and Germany, about 232 and 200 respectively. In the case of American usage, this means that on average, an individual American uses 10 times more than a Brazilian, about 14 times more than a Chinese and 120 times more than an Indian. The following is a list of the variety of paper products that have become essential to the life style of an American homeowner.

Items for home use -Toilet paper, Kleenex, paper towels (for wiping up spills and dishes when the dishwasher is not being used, and for general housecleaning) paper napkins, paper plates (2 sizes), with multiple brands of each of these items available on a supermarket shelf.

Shopping bags -  Specialty stores all contribute a fancy shopping bag in which the shopper can take her purchase home; if she visits 3, she will have 3. While super markets generally bag groceries in plastic bags, some will offer a double whammy – a brown paper bag inside the plastic.

Newspaper(s) - New Yorkers may have the New York Times delivered on a daily basis. Other than the Times, there are the numerous free copies of neighborhood newspapers deposited for distribution at local banks or shops to keep consumers updated on local news and products.

The mail - Other than the real mail, there is the usual stack of junk mail-many nice glossy flyers trying to convince the homeowner to buy the products they advertise.

The computer - At least one computer is found in almost every household, the actual number depending on the size of  a family and most have a printer all requiring the use of printing paper.

 Of course, this is far from being comprehensive as absent here is the use of paper in offices, schools, hospitals, restaurants….However, it does illustrate how industrialized countries contribute to the explosive growth in the global consumption and trade in forest products, and how this demand, coupled with government policies and subsidies that encourage logging for timber harvest as well as forest clearance for agriculture (e.g. creation of farm land and cattle ranching) and settlements has led to the conversion of many of the world’s forests to other uses. As a result, currently, on an annual basis, forested areas larger than Greece, i.e. about 14 million hectares or more, are lost. The insatiable appetite for paper—some of which becomes trash as in the case of the United States where less than half of the paper used is recycled – is one example of how wasteful and/or excessive mass consumption contributes to deforestation.  

 Deforestation, which is partly the outcome of the excessive production and consumption of paper, is a threat to the viability of populations dependent upon agriculture. Trees retain carbon dioxide; they regulate the flow of water between soil and atmosphere, maintaining cloud cover and, thus, preventing overwarming and ensuring adequate rainfall. Their roots hold soils in place, preventing erosion. Reducing trees, therefore, contributes to global warming. It prevents the evaporation of the water into the atmosphere, decreasing the amount of rainfall, and the area experiences a drought. Parched land further aggravated by soil erosion becomes unproductive and no longer able to support large scale subsistence agriculture. As a result, local populations suffer from lack of food and income and must move to forested areas in search of shrubs and trees they can cut as a source of energy and income, further contributing to forest degradation.

A decrease in timber resources also impacts on the source of energy used by these populations for agricultural and domestic purposes. Large amounts of time must now be spent finding fuel and transporting it. In the Gambia, where fuel wood is very scarce, it takes 360 days a year per family to do so. In Nepal, parts of the Andes and the African Sahel, labor time devoted to fuel wood collection seriously disrupts household production. Women must walk great distances to find it or use dirtier fuels, such as animal dung. The time and effort of mothers are distracted from their household and homemaking tasks.

              Of the 500 million people living in and around tropical forests, 30% are members of indigenous groups whose way of life is also threatened by deforestation. Trees are their source of food and income, and the source of their cultural and spiritual wealth. If the forests disappear, they are not only deprived of a means for meeting their basic human needs. Their cultures face displacement; they can lose an entire way of life. Finally, deforestation can also lead to the loss of human lives. That is, with the decrease in forest area and the consequent erosion of the soil, the run off from heavy rains or extreme weather events, such as a hurricane, cannot be regulated. This can result in landslides, which have killed 248 people in India, and floods which have killed 3000 people in China. Deforestation was also acknowledged to be a contributing factor to the huge mudslides, which obliterated whole villages in the Honduras in 1998 when Hurricane Mitch hit the Gulf coast of Central America. Thus the violation of Earth rights, as in the case of deforestation,  can lead to loss of life, the most basic of human rights.

A value-based ethical framework for evaluating social and ecological events, conditions and actions   Anita L. Wenden

Ecological  sustainability

  • How is the production and excessive consumption of paper contributing to degradation of the Earth’s resources?   Do humans have a right to this use of the forest’s resources?
  • Do a web search on  ‘ reducing carbon footprints’ to determine whether & how community groups or  governments in industrialized and developing  countries are  making any efforts to control this excessive use of forest resources ?

 Social Justice

  • What rights do citizens have to the forests’ resources? As regards the consumption of paper, are these resources being equitably shared? If not, why not?
  • How does the threat to Earth’s forests by the excessive use of paper in industrialized countries affect the lives of their fellow citizens? of people living in developing countries?  In forested areas?
  • How should people whose rights are violated by deforestation be compensated? Should industrialized countries compensate the developing countries for their inordinate use of these resources?  If so, how?

Intergenerational equity

  • What rights do citizens in future generations have to the forests’ resources?
  • How will the threat to Earth’s forests by the excessive use of paper in industrialized countries affect their lives?
  • What should governments do to ensure that the rights of future generations are not violated in this regard?

 Participatory decision-making

  • Visit the website of the International Year of Forests 2011 below. What action(s) have member states at the UN taken to deal with deforestation and excessive use of paper? individual nation states? local leaders ? In dealing with these problems, have the concerns of individuals and groups been solicited?
  • What can citizens do to control and reduce the excessive use of paper products in their communities?