A couple of weekends ago I had the chance to visit the Observer Tree where Miranda Gibson has been living on a 60m high platform for over seven months.  Two things have stayed in my mind since that visit.

The first is how cold it gets in the Tyenna Valley in the winter time. Every time I stopped moving I could feel my hands and feet turning to ice. That Miranda has been up there for 226 days through snow, rain and storms with nothing but a clear tarp over her head says volumes about her passion for, and determination to protect Tasmania’s high conservation old growth forests.  The forest that Miranda’s tree stands in was part of 572,000 ha supposed to have been protected by a moratorium back in December 2010, but due to repeated backpeddling by the Tasmanian Government, that moratorium never happened. So the logging in our high conservation forests goes on, and while I’ve returned home to my fluffy slippers and electric blanket, Miranda continues her treetop vigil, vowing to stay on her platform until these forests are protected. 

The second thing that kept me thinking was something that came up during a chat with farmer Michael Kelly, who was also at the Observer Tree as part of a pro-logging ‘counter protest’.  Michael explained some of his concerns about the proposal to protect any more areas of old growth forest, including the impact it will have on Tasmanian workers and towns who have been reliant on the forestry industry. In addition to these economic concerns, Michael also said something that caught my interest, which was that he didn’t want to see any more forests ‘locked up’ because that would be ‘wasting’ a resource.

This is a common sentiment not only in Tasmania, but throughout the world. If a resource can be exploited, and there is potential economic gain, why wouldn’t we do so? If we were to leave oil and coal deposits in the ground, and old growth forests standing, aren’t we missing out on economic benefits and, as Michael says, ‘wasting’ those resources?

It’s a valid question, and one that will become increasingly important this century as human beings continue their population expansion and resource use in a world where the environmental chickens are coming home to roost. But the answer to the question of what is a ‘wasted’ resource really depends on your point of view.

If I am a laid off mill worker at Triabunna who has a family to support and mortgage repayments to meet, and I don’t have any other skills or ways to earn income outside of the forestry industry, it’s a no-brainer that I will consider the end of logging in high conservation native forests as a wasted opportunity to utilise that resource.  From a short term and individual point of view, I’m right. From a long term and ethical point of view, not so much.

You see, all that stuff we humans call ‘resources’ is actually the planet. Trees, fish, forests, and oil reserves are all components of ecosystems, and ecosystems are of far greater value than just the sum of their resources. Healthy ecosystems provide, for free, a wealth of services that are needed for our survival.  Things like fresh water, fertile soil, species diversity, a stable climate, and even the oxygen we breathe are essential to life on Earth as we know it. For example, an old growth forest is more than just a bunch of wood. It provides essential ecosystem services such as filtering clean fresh water, sequestering carbon, maintaining soil fertility, and being home to a rich array of biodiversity. When a tree comes to the end of its life in an old growth forest, it serves as shelter to species like this baby Tasmanian Devil (filmed 300m from Miranda’s tree-sit), acts as a home for lichens, insects, and microbes, and eventually decays down to become the rich, fertile humus from which new generations of trees will grow. It is far from ‘wasted’.

Another way of looking at resource use is from the perspective of ethics and fairness. At this point in human history, those who are privileged to live in First World countries are surrounded by an incredible array of material abundance and opportunity. Compared to past generations, the majority of people in a wealthy country such as Australia live like kings and queens. But this wealth comes at a cost: to the environment, to those in countries less well off, and to future generations. It’s not to say that we can’t have material things, or progress as a society. But we must do it within a sustainable framework, and in a world seduced by the impossible fantasy of neverending economic growth, that is just not happening. Bill McKibben recently wrote an article for Rolling Stone magazine which talks about the global ‘budget’ for carbon emissions that we must keep to if we are to avoid dangerous climate change.  The actual known oil reserves that exist amount to five times the carbon budget, which means that if we exploit all of those resources in the ground, we will overheat the planet to levels that will make life as we know it unviable.

And here’s where we come to the heart of how we view a ‘wasted’ resource. Leaving 4/5 of the world’s fossil fuel reserves untapped is a waste if we take a short term economic view. But if we take a long term view, one that factors in the future viability of life on earth, we can see that no amount of short term economic gain makes up for what we stand to lose if we push the planet’s temperature beyond safe levels. And it’s not just about us, the 7 billion plus people here on Earth right now. It’s about future generations, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the kind of world we are going to pass on to them. It’s a paradox – we trash our forests, fish and climate to grow our economy and make our immediate lives better, while condemning future generations to a wasted and potentially unliveable planet.

There has to be a better way, and thankfully, there are signs of hope. Haltingly, in the face of political campaigns based on fear and ignorance, the world is slowly working towards a global emissions target to avoid dangerous climate change. Increasingly, countries are recognising the true value of their natural assets and acting to ensure they are kept intact for future generations. The discipline of economics is finally starting to accept that infinite growth on a finite planet is a flawed model, and the concept of a steady state economy that operates sustainably is being explored.

But ultimately, this is about you. Because person by person, country by country, we must all come to understand that this beautiful, incredible, fragile Earth we inhabit is worth far more to us than just the sum of its resources.  Humans have reached into every corner of the globe, and as we’ve done so we’ve left swathes of environmental destruction in our wake. Fifty percent of the world’s forests are gone. Seventy five percent of fish stocks have crashed or are in dangerous decline. Unless we act soon, we risk bringing on the end of 11,000 years of stable climate in which human civilization has flourished. We are clever enough to put a man on the moon, but are we wise enough to look after the only home we’ve got?

I hope so. I hope that we will all learn to take the long term, ethical view, and that our vision will be as far reaching as Miranda Gibson’s view from her treetop eyrie. That soon, homo sapiens will come to understand that an old growth forest is worth more standing than as a pile of woodchips, and truly live up to our name of ‘wise humans’.

Miriam Moriarty is a writer with a focus on the environment and social issues.