When you read this month's cover story, "The Tennessee Tree Massacre" by Alex Shoumatoff, you will be appalled. And that is a good thing.
The absurd, almost incomprehensible truth is that paper companies are clearcutting millions of acres of native hardwood forests -- North American woodlands dense with plant and animal life -- and converting these wildly flourishing habitats into acres upon acres of sterile, ghostly pine plantations. They do this to feed our insatiable appetite for, among other things, newspapers and shopping bags, Dixie cups and paper towels, and that most disposable of all commodities, toilet paper.
This "ecocide," as Shoumatoff calls it, is particularly egregious in the southeastern United States, where he spent several weeks interviewing activists, paper industry representatives, and local residents. One of this country's most distinguished journalists, he has brought back a rich, unforgettable account of what is being done -- often hidden from public view -- and of what is being lost.
Fortunately, Shoumatoff reports that a number of environmental organizations and activists are beginning to gain real traction in persuading large companies -- Home Depot and Staples, for instance -- to use sustainably harvested wood or recycled fiber for their products. Recycled, in this case, means postconsumer waste, an important distinction because this is the stuff that consumers have actually used and discarded, to be used again to make new things. Shoumatoff also writes that local groups such as Tennessee ForestWatch and the Dogwood Alliance literally roam the forests and waterways, reporting abuses and legal violations to help stem the tide of destruction.
So you can be appalled, but you can't despair. Because there is hope -- always hope.
It will take time to persuade paper companies to change their ways in the Cumberland, Canada's boreal region, and other timberland gems around the world. But altering our patterns of consumption, when at least some choice exists, is a solution closer at hand. In this light, you should take genuine pleasure in Barry Estabrook's entertaining profile of the quirky upstart company Seventh Generation, which uses recycled, nontoxic materials to manufacture some 50 household products, from diapers to napkins to laundry detergent. If Seventh Generation finds in the major supermarket chains even a little of the spectacular success it has already achieved in natural foods markets across the country, larger companies (like Procter & Gamble) may be forced to follow its lead or else lose precious market share. And that could have far-reaching, wonderful consequences for our planet: your free enterprise system at work.
A final note: I am thrilled to welcome a new contributing editor to our masthead -- the Pulitzer prize-winning poet and essayist Mary Oliver, a longtime friend of OnEarth (formerly The Amicus Journal), where she has published her work regularly for many years. Mary Oliver is a rare beacon of intellectual, moral, spiritual, and literary goodness. She and our other splendid contributors help OnEarth, in its humble way, remain a beacon too.
Douglas S. Barasch