Can’t See the Wood for the Trees

Are trees worth more standing or chopped down as wood? From Marx’s analysis of wood theft to carbon credit programs, the value of forests as assets continues to shift.

Background painting: Paul Cézanne, The Bare Trees at Jas de Bouffan, 1885–1886

Forests are foundational resources for humans. Fallen and felled wood is burned for heat and energy; trees are logged for construction material; sap or pitch is harvested for waterproofing boats; bark is stripped for use in clothing production; softwood is pulped to make paper--the list goes on. In games like Age of Empires, which recapitulate the history of humanity, the first thing the player does is turn forests of trees into wood. Before gold, before oil, there’s the accumulation of wood. It takes a bit more effort, and the consequences are greater outside, on the real planet earth. But, in the face of climate change, carbon sequestration and storage acquires new market value, and wood finds itself in competition with trees. Whether a given tree is worth more standing or chopped down, as a tree or as wood, depends on who’s doing the measuring, and how. What, then, is a tree worth?

Each of the approximately 277,346 trees I have planted across Canada was worth approximately 12 cents to me. Planting around 2,500 a day, I was able to make enough money in three springs to have nothing left by the following winters, like a poorly planning squirrel. Joe Biden’s new federal infrastructure bill reserves $3 billion for “tree justice,” which involves planting trees in traditionally under-forested areas of the US. Carbon pricing efforts attempt to evaluate pollution and punish emitters by forcing them to compensate, perhaps by contributing to reforestation or anti-deforestation campaigns. There are contradictions in value all over the place: a tree is worth something standing and something else cut down; you are paid a few cents to plant a tree for a company that will cut it down eighty years later. Carbon credits that plant or protect trees to allow polluters to keep polluting and accruing capital are just the latest contradiction in the history of the valuation of trees. But that history that goes back to the beginning of the value system, to the beginning of capitalism.

In 1842, in the Rhineland of western Germany, the Prussian provincial assembly attempted to address the problem of wood theft. They proposed a law that expanded the definition of the theft to “simple offences against forest regulations.” Gathering any kind of wood (hewn, fallen, dead, etc.) was now defined as “theft,” and any gathering from forests owned by the state or by private landowners was punishable by a fine relative to the value of wood stolen, paid to the forest owner and calculated by the forest warden (employed by the forest owner). If the fine could not be paid, then the thief was required to perform forest labor for the forest owner. A young journalist named Karl Marx wrote five articles in response, publishing them in the Rheinsche . Across the pieces, he attacked the law for its “dispossession” of the local peasant population and claimed that such enclosure of formerly public land into private property was a form of theft in itself. Marx’s “Debates on the Law of the Theft of Wood” are newly collected and translated in Daniel Bensaïd’s The Dispossessed: Karl Marx's Debates on Wood Theft and the Right of the Poor, and might, once again, be used to think about relations between capital and forests.

In Northern Europe up until the mid-nineteenth century, wood was used for warmth, to heat homes. Then, industries like salt and iron works, ship building, and construction arrived. Suddenly, the demand for timber required a science of forestry. The new forest wardens hurried to exclude the peasants, who, they claimed, preyed on the poor, defenceless forest like “vultures.” An exaggerated “wood shortage crisis” started a conservation movement that planted and maintained high conifer forests for timber-as-commodity, leaving nothing for those who had traditionally lived with and sustainably used the surrounding forests. Such a move shifted responsibility to these individuals by asking them to build smaller houses and use slower-burning, more efficient wood stoves. To produce as much timber as possible, authorities barred peasants from forest lands (foris originally means an area off-limits for gathering firewood from), but local populations often rose up in anger or blatantly disobeyed such directives. When the law tried to retaliate, it often went even further. As Marx writes, “We are only surprised that the forest owner is not allowed to heat his stove with the wood thieves.” Their way of life criminalized, the peasantry now lived at the law’s mercy.

As wood became valuable, systems for determining its value ran into problems; one of these problems was crooked trees. French botanist Duhamel de Monceau’s eighteenth-century book on forest labour included diagrams and mathematical models for calculating the yield of wood from a bent or crooked tree. The Venetians took advantage of crooked trees by using them for the curved sides of ships in the early nineteenth century, and there were attempts “made to classify and standardize them in accordance with their various potential uses,” writes Joachim Radkau in his 2013 history, Wood. More recently, the exporting of Canadian trees to the US has presented a problem for the various ways of calculating how much wood a tree, or log produces. Canada measures logs by cubic metres, while Americans usually use board-feet, or the usable wood, after cutting and losing sawdust. A government report on the issue reminds us that “a tree is a living organism.” Each one is “unique,” “rarely perfectly straight, rarely perfectly round, and rarely of constant taper…this variability is what makes scaling, the practice of measuring log volume, such a challenge.” In a warming world, wood stoves that keep the peasants warm but out of forests are no longer the concern. The latest creative solution for keeping capital coming involves making money from standing trees.

Carbon credit programs transfer the valued commodity backwards in the production process, shifting it from wood to trees. There are countless versions of the carbon credit model, but the general principle is for emitters to offset their pollution by purchasing stakes in forests and trees, either to stop deforestation or to contribute to reforestation. This increases carbon capture, with the aim of slowing climate change. The valued commodity appears to be the tree, but is in fact the tree’s ability to sequester carbon, which is disputed and complicated by a number of factors. Finally, doing this opposite-of-pollution is cheaper and harder to keep track of if it’s located in South America or Southeast Asia. This displacement, abstraction, and financialization of the forest brings the ancient commodity into line with 21st century capitalism in a new way.

The programs work like this: a single carbon credit represents the global warming caused by a metric ton of CO₂, and credits sell by the ton. Price per ton ranges based on the project, from as low as $1 to as high as $50. This range reflects the well-documented difficulties in accounting for and calculating carbon credits. For example, it is difficult to know if, when you purchase carbon credits through a program aimed at stopping deforestation, those trees would actually have been cut without your intervention. Some carbon credit schemes have sold forests and land that already belongs to national parks and was unlikely to be cut, or have sold the same land as offsets more than once. Second, it is unclear how long a carbon credit counts for. Trees, when cut, release stored carbon, and forest management practices can also have adverse effects on the trees’ abilities to sequester and store carbon. Finally, it is likely, in some cases, that purchasing carbon credits just relocates deforestation elsewhere. These issues--termed additionality, permanence, and leakage, respectively--suggest that commoditizing the forest as a standing forest is much simpler in concept than practice; they also suggest that inaction––letting trees do their thing, even in the extreme––is a viable course of action. All climate reports suggest otherwise.

Far from an alternative to capitalist valuations of forests and trees, carbon credit programs continue the project of private capital accumulation. Lisa Song, writing for ProPublica about carbon credit programs, describes how rural communities in Brazil are pressured into planting trees and not logging, but are not provided with the resources to enact such a transition. Song describes visiting a rubber-tapper-turned-teacher whom the “state sent…hundreds of saplings to plant fruit trees, but didn’t provide machinery to prepare the land...The saplings sat untouched in his yard, still wrapped in plastic.” Instead, rural communitiesare threatened with fines if they cut wood for fuel or to heat their homes. It’s reminiscent of the nineteenth-century Rhineland, where the blame for and costs of deforestation were passed onto poor peasants while timber companies continued cutting wood elsewhere.

Efforts to standardize methods of measuring carbon for carbon credits programs have been wide-ranging but, so far, unsuccessful. The UN’s 2007 Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD, initiative has suffered from a lack of funding and associated pilot programs have not proven as effective as they might claim. Norway’s $3 billion investments in REDD programs--half of all the funding--yielded results that were “delayed and uncertain,” at risk of “leakage,” prompting “considerable uncertainty over the climactic impact,” and suffering from the lack of a scientific method for measuring carbon, according to a Norwegian government report. Robert Mendelsohn, a professor of forest policy and economics at Yale, told Bloomberg, “There’s a distinct possibility that a great deal of existing carbon offsets are effectively fake.”

Despite a central inability to accurately account for the carbon that is sequestered or stored by forests and trees, these programs persist. One such program, Forest Carbon Works, targets small landowners with the a pitch to help them earn money from their land by doing nothing to it:

…sustainability isn’t easy. Taxes don’t pay themselves, and the offers from developers or loggers can be enticing when they’re the only options. Now there’s a better one, a way to get the most out of your trees by taking advantage of what Mother Nature puts into them: carbon.

Forest Carbon Works promises to “reduce complexity” by dealing with all of the “rules and requirements for forest carbon projects.” Here, carbon credit programs offer a direct replacement for timber production. But the trees remain commodities, their life conditional on the going market rate. If that market flips--the measurements of carbon turn out to be wrong, a carbon credit bubble pops--then they become wood again and get cut down. But whether trees are valued to be cut down or to stay standing makes no difference to the people dispossessed by the value system. Capital may, against the odds, remake itself as a friend to standing, living, breathing trees, but even then it will not be a friend to the peoples and communities who make their lives next to and near forests. They will continue to be dispossessed, whether the trees are worth more alive or dead. Dispossession, as Glen Coulthard writes, is “an ongoing feature of the reproduction of colonial and capitalist social relations in our present.”

In North America, there is an alternative. Calls for “Land Back” by Indigenous peoples—many of whom traditionally live in and around forests--offer a concrete way forward. Settler-owners and settler states can counter some of the thefts of colonialism and capitalism by ceding lands to Indigenous communities. In this, trees may sequester carbon and support living communities, human and otherwise, at the same time.

Getting out of the cycle of dispossession is, admittedly, difficult. Back in the nineteenth century, the English poet William Wordsworth’s “Goody Blake and Harry Gill: A True Story” tells the tale of a young, rich landowner who stalks an old, poor woman who is stealing firewood from his property. The greedy Harry grabs Goody by the arm, scattering her wood everywhere. In response, she prays, “May he [Harry] never more be warm.” And her wish somehow comes true. No matter how many blankets he piles under, how much wood he stacks in his fireplace, “’Twas all in vain.” Harry is never warm again. This divine, supernatural justice is unfortunately not a reliable option for us, and it is the heat not cold we’re concerned about. Harry Gill’s dispossess locally, as they did in the nineteenth century; and now, through carbon credits, they can cause dispossess on the other side of the world for not-even-close-to-certain benefit for the planet. Now who’s the thief? Wordsworth’s story provides a warning. The stakes are higher than we can measure.