Consumption: Global Stresses on Forests

The world's consumers make use of wood in over 5,000 products ranging from timber to cosmetics and medicine. Our appetites may be endless, but the globe now holds just half of the forestland that was here four centuries ago.


In the meantime, populations and living standards continue to escalate in many nations. America is growing at the rate of about one new Los Angeles every three years. With 5% of the world's population, the US consumes roughly a third of the world's commercial timber and is a net importer of wood.

In 1970, an average American used about 61 cubic feet of wood; ten years later that number had grown to 71. By 2000, each of us was responsible for 74 cubic feet, more than half a cord of wood per person. Every American now uses almost 3x as much wood as someone from Western Europe.

Our collective decisions have the potential to moderate wood consumption – for example, about half of all the paper we consume is recycled. Nevertheless, current projections show a 50% increase in consumption by 2050, in part to meet the changing expectations of shoppers. Researchers note that the average size of a new home in the US is growing, even though families are becoming smaller.

“Oregon is the Persian Gulf for timber. There is no place on the planet that can grow Douglas fir timber, which is the premier soft-wood timber... as big, as fast, as high quality as we can here in Oregon.”

“If we were to cut back on the harvest level by 4 billion board feet a year – and that's the amount, roughly, that harvest was decreased by the spotted owl decision – the question becomes, where then would that wood come from? What would the impacts be in the new producing region...? Is there likely to be substitution of other materials for wood? And what will the environmental impacts of that be?”

As defined by a landmark 1987 study called the Brundtland Report, sustainable development – or resource use – is that which "... meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Research at Oregon State University identifies a "sustainable baseline" that includes not only tree growth rates but also "socially established goals for protection of water, wildlife and other resources." Historically, there were years when harvest exceeded this baseline. Today, due mostly to reduced harvests on federal forests, that is no longer the case.

“If you stop harvesting trees in Oregon, for whatever reason, but then go overcut a forest in Siberia – with detrimental impacts there – or cut down a rainforest in South America that has larger ecosystem impacts, I'm not sure that you're actually getting ahead.”

What You Can Do...

  • Redouble efforts to recycle
  • Use recycled products and avoid disposables
  • Use lighter-weight paper whenever possible
  • Post information and pay bills electronically
  • Read newspapers and magazines online
  • Reconsider needs vs wants


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