Environmental Conservation Questions

The Need for a Dialectical Approach to Forestry

One hundred and forty years ago, Frederick Engels, close collaborator of Karl Marx, wrote in his book The Dialectics of Nature that "in nature nothing takes place in isolation. Everything affects every other thing and vice versa, and it is usually because this many-sided motion and interaction is forgotten that our natural scientists are prevented from clearly seeing the simplest things."[1]

He further wrote, "Let us not flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us." And he cited examples of this revenge by pointing out how, in previous centuries, cutting down the forests in Mesopotamia, Greece, and other places in Europe, created the conditions for devastating floods and erosion.

In that regard, Engels criticized many of the thinkers and politicians of that time for viewing natural phenomena as isolated and separate from other phenomena -- as if things existed solely in themselves -- and not taking into account their multi-sided interrelations and interconnections. It was a kind of compartmentalization of nature and life itself which put things into silos and went against how the real world unfolds.

Since then, science has made great strides in showing how, as Engels and other dialectical thinkers have argued since ancient times, nature is interconnected and interrelated in so many ways and, indeed, how the earth itself is an interconnected whole, a great, complex biosphere that is the womb of life, and that is in a state of continual change, development and motion.

As human beings and creatures of the biosphere, far from being cordoned off from nature, we are an extension of this nature and, conversely, nature is an extension of us. We are both organic and inorganic. By that is meant that matter, such as the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and so on, can be said to be an integral part of our larger being as humans and without which we could not survive.

Indeed, we could not last for more than a few minutes without the oxygen-rich biosphere that surrounds us which has been built up by other life forms over millions of years. Even our digestion of food is dependent upon billions of microbes and bacteria that live symbiotically within our gut.

Forests are complex networks that exist in continuums of time and space, from plants that can be hundreds of years old to wildflowers that last only a brief season; from larger landscapes involving many kilometres of forest, to the tiny ecosystem of a pool in a creek.[2]

In this biosphere, rather than being mute, solitary, isolated entities, trees themselves have been found to interconnect and communicate with one another displaying, some believe, a type of proto-consciousness. For example, trees that are attacked by insects send chemical warnings to other trees to issue sticky sap to repel the attack.[3] And there are countless other examples of these interconnections between life forms and matter itself in this biosphere of which we are the most conscious part.

After so many years and so much evidence that has emerged about the dialectical interconnections of nature, one would think that forestry and environmental policy would follow in line with this holistic way of thinking. But, unfortunately, that is too often not the case.

For example, in 2018 -- just like the flooding long ago in Mesopotamia and Greece that Engels mentioned -- the community of Grand Forks in BC suffered a devastating flood which residents say was caused by clear cut logging and over-harvesting by companies on nearby mountain slopes, that resulted in torrents of water pouring down and flooding the town.[4]

This clear cutting was done despite many warnings about the interconnection of trees as crucial reservoirs for rainwater and stabilizers of the soil. Now residents have taken the government and forest companies to court for compensation. But the damage has been done. Unfortunately, the same problem has repeatedly happened elsewhere in the province.

In another telling example, decades ago, decisions were made to clearcut forests throughout the Interior of the province and replant them with vast monocultures of lodgepole pine, rather than replicating the natural diversity of deciduous and coniferous tree species. By focusing solely on growing lodgepole pine and not looking in an all-sided way at the imbalance and disruption such a planting would cause, government and forest companies created a vast monoculture host of vulnerable pine.

As a result, a serious pine beetle epidemic was unleashed which eventually destroyed millions of hectares of BC's interior forests, resulting in the closure of dozens of mills, the loss of thousands of jobs, devastation of communities and even more catastrophic flooding and erosion. Of course, other factors like climate change and forest fire suppression also played a big role in the pine beetle epidemic, but the singular focus on planting vulnerable monocultures of pine to achieve maximum corporate profit was an important factor.

And then there is the issue of glyphosate spraying in the interior of BC. Monsanto, the giant herbicide and chemical company that manufactures glyphosate is a big promoter of this narrow view of looking at natural phenomena to the extent that the company pays corrupt scientists to write reports that claim the effects of glyphosate are compartmentalized and only impact broad leaf plants and not the larger environment or the health of human beings.[5] This is despite numerous other studies showing that glyphosate and its effects migrate through the food chain and environment impacting these in a negative way.

As dialectics reveal, the quantitative build-up of glyphosate in human bodies can eventually result in qualitative change, i.e. people contracting cancer as is shown with the court cases in the U.S. and Canada launched by thousands of cancer victims.[6]

Old growth forests are viewed in a one-sided way by the big companies and government officials in their service as simply trees to be cut down, rather than in an all-sided way as eco-systems with all sorts of environmental, economic, scientific and cultural values to be preserved. Experience has shown that once a forest is clearcut, the original eco-system is permanently altered and cannot be brought back.[7]

The wood product itself is seen in a most limited way, for example, as raw logs to be exported or minimally processed, rather than as a wonderfully complex organic substance which can be processed into a wide range of useful products from pharmaceuticals to fabrics to engineered wood.

So, what is the block to conducting forestry in an all-sided way? Not a few would argue that it is the interests of globalized monopoly capitalist forest companies aggressively pushing their narrow, profit-seeking, compartmentalized views and policies on government and the society at large, and who have monopoly control over the forest resource.

One of the most insidious claims is that forestry workers and their jobs are somehow separated from or at odds with the environment itself and that you can only prioritize one at the expense of the other. The fact is that the workplace environment is part of the larger environment. For example, back in Engels' time of the 1800s, the first victims of the horrific environmental pollution generated by the workplaces of the industrial revolution in England were workers and their families.[8] In 2018, many of the houses that were flooded in Grand Forks, BC likely belonged to mill and forestry workers.

In regards to glyphosate, helicopter pilots and forestry workers who are engaged in spraying of the herbicide are exposed to its toxic effects. Furthermore, because the big companies over-harvest, clearcut, and refuse to produce more value from the wood, timber supply in regions is affected and many workers lose their jobs because of shortages of fiber.

In this monopoly capitalist model, workers are alienated from their forestry jobs and have little or no say over production, and communities are alienated from the forests around them, also having little or no say over what happens. Small and medium-sized companies, forestry contractors, independent scientists and others are left out of the picture as well and the big forest companies dominate. The end result is the current disastrous state of our once great forest resource in the province.

It is in the interest of workers and communities to be environmental-minded and it is in the interest of environmentalists to reach out and include workers and communities, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous in their proposals for the forests. Together progress can be made.

And there are solutions on both smaller and bigger scales. For example, instead of glyphosate spraying, why not have manual brushing and cutting of broad leaf trees? Or better yet, why not maintain existing broad leaf trees such as aspen and birch as productive and beneficial species, as Stop the Spray BC has suggested. This will certainly create more jobs and be easier on the environment.[9]

Instead of clearcutting why not selective harvesting, as well as more value-added production? Again, these would create more jobs and reduce the impact on the environment.

Why not preserve what little old growth forest remains in the province and have forest production focus on second growth forests, as Conservation North is proposing?[10] Rather than looking at forests as stands of trees simply to be knocked down, why not see human activity as being embedded within forest ecosystems and strive for this activity to be consistent with the natural laws of those ecosystems?

And why not have communities, whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, have control over adjacent forests rather than big companies and distant government bureaucrats?

On the larger scale, why not base the model for forest management and the forest economy itself on a dialectical, all-sided approach that puts the environment and the interests of workers, communities and the people of the province first and in charge?


1. Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature (1882).

2. Silva Forest Foundation, "An ecosystem-based approach to forest use: definition and scientific rationale" (September 1997).

3. Peter Wohlleben, The hidden life of trees (Greystone Books, 2015).

4.Tom Popyk, "Negligent logging caused 2018 floods, Grand Forks residents allege in class action lawsuit," CBC News (September 15, 2020). 

5. Carey Gillam, Whitewash: the story of a weed killer, cancer, and the corruption of science (Island Press, 2017).

6. Jonathan Gatehouse, "A roundhouse against Roundup," The National (May 19, 2019).

7. Frederick Engels, The condition of the working class in England in 1844.

8. Herb Hammond,  Ecosystem-based conservation planning (video). 

9. Stop the Spray BC

10. Conservation North

This article was published in

Volume 51 Number 8 - March 21, 2021

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