The Forest and the Trees: Sustainability Education and the Anthropocene

wood pile 2

It’s a cold day in Hamilton and I am outside chopping wood. Until I moved to the farm, I had never lived in a place with a wood stove. Like many people, my heat came from the furnace, which most often, was powered by natural gas, brought to my home through an invisible network of pipelines and relying on an equally expansive and invisible network of workers, companies, and institutions. As with so many aspects of my life, heat was a commodity. Like all commodities, there is an inherent abstraction to the process. My labour, in this case as a university lecturer, author, and farmer, provided me with money, and that money, after a series of transactions, became the gas that entered my home and powered the furnace that ensured my family stayed warm through the winter. In many ways this is an incredibly elegant system, allowing me to do what I do best, optimizing economic efficiency through the rational calculations of someone trying to maximize utility. At least that is how an economist would put it.

But today, I am chopping wood, and homo economicus is wagging his invisible finger disapprovingly as I waste my comparative advantage. I have a PhD and “should” be applying my talents in ways that reflect my training. Indeed, since I have a furnace that runs on fuel oil, there is an element of truth to this. I could simply continue to pay for that fuel and rely on those invisible networks to keep me warm. Instead, I am writing a blog post about why chopping wood is important from the perspective of sustainability education.

I don’t actually want to debate the efficiency of wood stoves. Mine is a newer, EPA model, but it is still probably not the most environmentally friendly way to heat my home. However, since my current alternative is diesel fuel, the choice to heat by wood has a number of effects and affects, and that is what I want to discuss. The diesel is delivered to my house by a local fuel company, which imports the fuel from any number of companies. It would be impossible for me to trace where it came from or even who refined it. Was it BP or Exxon? Was it drilled in an environmentally sensitive landscape? What were the workers paid? Did they belong to a union? Like many industries, oil production is at once highly dispersed around the globe and highly concentrated. Oil moves around the world in tankers, pipelines, is refined at huge centralized facilities and then distributed once again via those same tankers and pipelines. Along its journey fuel is burned, workers are exploited, landscapes are degraded, and whole industries are born and die.

My property isn’t quite big enough to provide all the wood I need, although pruning and felling of a few trees has added to my wood pile. If I had a bit more time, it would be very easy to scavenge enough wood from neighbours after a windstorm or two lays waste to the aging giants that give this landscape so much of its charm. Instead, I called up a local bricklayer who owns a small woodlot he tends in the winter during the natural seasonal lull of his trade, and he drove less than 3 km to drop off 4 cords of seasoned hardwood for my chopping pleasure. It’s good wood, dry and cut to size, but much of it is twisted and sinewy, obviously unsuited for building furniture or other human uses.

Every once in a while, though, you find a perfectly straight and dense piece. The grain is tight and straight and the axe doesn’t just cut through, it pops with the most delicious sound. I found just such a piece yesterday and set out to make some kindling and soon found myself in a kind of trance. Most of the wood I have twists a bit, or a knot impedes a linear break. But this piece had an almost geometric perfection and I was unable to stop myself from grabbing a hatchet and splitting a whole bucket of kindling.


Afterwards two things became apparent. We can reduce all things to an economic value and try to calculate what is sustainable or worthy based on a cost benefit analysis. To be sure, this is an important method for weighing the pros and cons associated with any action, and as documents like the Stern Report have shown, once we begin to account for externalities like pollution, many environmental issues that once seemed expensive, begin to look like a bargain. But there is another dimension that is equally important: the everyday. There is a very real way in which the human mind is simply incapable of dealing with issues like climate change. Whether it's our inability to grasp risk and calculate uncertainty in the future, or our almost pathological preference for the familiar, the human mind struggles to bridge the scales associated with an issue like climate change. The uncertainty and long time lines associated with the risks portended by the IPCC, are easy to discount or devalue. Indeed, much of our lives are filled with similar absences and gaps.

Geologists are currently debating whether or not we should declare the end of the holocene and name the current era the anthropocene. First proposed by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, this new geological epoch speaks to humanity as a force of nature, and collapses the distinction between nature and culture in some unsettling ways. If humans are now geological agents, operating on the scale of eons and effecting whole systems and even the planet, then what do we do with this information? Is this trauma or triumph? Geological time and human history have never been connected in any meaningful scale, but if our impact on the climate continues, then that enchanting complexity of industrial activity that brings diesel fuel to my home, is one of trillions of tiny levers moving the world. Where Victorians once faced the existential horror of geologic time, with its dehumanizing sweep of indifferent eons, we post-moderns face the anthropocene, with its sublime catastrophe of unintended consequences. Humanity has perhaps finally achieved the age old dream of science to conquer nature, only to realize we are destroying ourselves in the process.

So what does chopping wood have to do with all of this? Like so many environmental problems, bridging the gap between the global and local, and the micro and macro is something that the human mind is not particularly good at doing. But this is precisely what we must do! As I am chopping wood, the commodity of heat becomes a direct relationship between me, the axe, wood, and the woodlot. For a moment, the global and the everyday manifest in a revealing simplicity. While I am still tied into those global networks of commodities and labour, nature and culture, something happens when that chain becomes shorter, more direct. Certainly this gives me more knowledge and more control: I can ask the owner of the woodlot how he harvests, or I can practice sustainable methods myself. But perhaps more importantly, I gain a direct knowledge of the tree and its life. This one log, snapping with such perfection into a pile of kindling must have been a magnificent tree— arrow straight, it has dense rings that suggest that it grew in perfect spot on the landscape where enough water flowed to ensure a steady growth. No lightening split and redirected its path, and no wind bent its grain. My knowledge of the tree is embodied in the hollow sound made as the axe fulfils its purpose, and my agency and desire for heat take the path of least resistance.

To understand the impacts of climate change or any other environmental problem that spans multiple scales, we must find ways to sustain that knowledge in our bodies. Sustainability isn’t simply a technique; it is a way of being in the world that recognizes our simultaneous power and vulnerability. It must become a way of life, sustained in the everyday banality of tasks like chopping wood, gardening, cycling, or DIY culture. It must weave into the very fabric of our lives, and then, and only then, will simplicity and complexity become entangled in the politics of everyday life. Only then will sustainability become the path of least resistance.

If you liked this, please consider buying The Politics of the Pantry.