When I received the invite the Leadership Summit, I had two, conflicting reactions: 1) I was thrilled to be invited, to be asked to participate in a topic that I believe is critical to how we, as a planet, can balance our needs as humans with the ever-changing planet we inhabit and 2) nervous that we would miss the chance to affect real, lasting change and instead devolve to the same, often ineffective, debates.
Although non-foresters may not be attuned to the nuances, the language of the draft vision statement favors a specific set of ideas (for example “proforestation”) and a specific certification system (FSC) over others. There are long-running debates and deep divisions on these issues among the forestry and environmental communities, with many important stakeholders holding conflicting or opposing views. By picking a specific side on these issues, rather than building bridges or imagining new ways forward, this summit has the potential to mire efforts to find lasting, positive solutions to the complex and interrelated challenges and opportunities posed by climate change and the use of wood as a sustainable building material.
I’ve spent the past few weeks fretting, increasingly worried about where we are headed with this Summit. Are we truly meeting the objectives as they were described to me? Last week, I wrote down my thoughts and I’m offering them up today to start a conversation. I will also go back to the draft vision document that is shared in the Google Drive and add some additional comments/thoughts (I did this earlier but many of my comments were deleted, for some reason).
What is our objective?
To start, I’m going to step back to when I first entered into forestry. I was 18 years old, wide-eyed, and open to possibilities. I studied forestry and resource management at UC Berkeley, one of the nation’s oldest forestry programs, but quite different in the late 90s than even two decades earlier, let alone in the early 1900s. I went to school with students who believed we could change the world, who were taught to listen with open minds and open hearts and to ground our actions with a healthy mix of science, philosophy and art. We always started with the question: what is our objective?
So, what is the objective of this summit? Is it to create a space, a shared vision where the human world, the buildings we need for shelter, school, care, and work, can co-exist in a world where forests are adaptable to the impacts of a changing climate and where, even better, these buildings could help mitigate climate change by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? And, do all of that while making absolute sure that forests are also providing the myriad of other benefits, including just being incredible in their own magical ways. I don’t know about anyone else involved in this summit, but that’s what I want to see. That’s my objective.
Today, I’m a long way from being a student of forestry in California. I work for Weyerhaeuser. We are likely the world’s largest private forest landowner, definitely the largest in North America. We steward tens of millions of acres of forest land in the United States and Canada and make a lot of the wood products that frame-up the buildings in which we eat, sleep and work. I spend my days working with foresters and silvilculturists and wood product engineers and scientists and wildlife biologists and environmental managers and harvest specialists and tree growers and so many more who, for the most part, want the same thing. We went into this field because we love forests, love the smell of a forest glade in the sun, love the look and feel of wood in a building, love the challenge that forestry gives us: it’s never a simple answer, it’s never one solution, it’s never one path. It’s truly a system, a living, dynamic system with an infinite number of inputs and outputs and twists and turns.
I used to have the John Muir quote “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world” stickered on my water bottle when I was a student. I lugged that thing around campus, through the mountains, into the desert and all the way to Seattle to attend graduate school. The sticker eventually faded and the bottle took a hard fall and finally cracked after many years. But the quote still lives within me: one tug, the rest of the world. We have a rippling impact in the world, no matter which string we pull on. That’s the beauty of forestry.
It’s also the challenge. It means we can’t put forestry into a neat little package, sum it all up with one number, one solution. What we can do is make absolutely sure we are clear in what we are trying to achieve and then work our hardest to be honest about what we know, what we don’t know, and what we can continue creating.
Can we switch the conversation away from anger and blame?
Just this week, I learned about the Mobius Model and it was like when a flickering lightbulb suddenly shines bright. It perfectly described where I think we are today and offered a different path forward. In short, we can choose to start by identifying the problem (we’re all good at that, we’ve all been trained to do that) and then assign blame as to why that problem exists and then try to fix the problem. But it means we start with the anger-blame-resentment cycle; the path we seem to be headed.
Alternatively, we can start by asking what is present? What do we already have that is working well? Then, we move to: what is missing from making our work successful? If we could ask for anything, create anything, what would we add to what we already have? See, it’s already positive.
I’ve been watching the on-line dialogue the past few weeks with a heavy heart. It seems like we’re already going negative and have yet to even have the summit. When I joined, I was told this wasn’t about building up a bunch of blocks, that it wasn’t about the age-old and super unproductive fight between certification programs. I was told we were going to help create a shared vision for a new path forward. What I’ve seen instead is that we are back where we were decades ago. Throwing barbs cloaked in “my fact is better than your fact” or throwing roadblocks in the face of questions, shared inquiry. Personally, I haven’t been sleeping, laying awake at night, mourning a lost opportunity, a missed chance to focus on what I believe is truly important: how do we live in a world where humans require shelter in many forms AND balance that with what forests require? And, how do we do this differently than before?
What is present, what is working well?
If I could start us over, these are some of my thoughts about what is present, what we have:
- There is an incredible zeal, and lots of uncertainty, about how wood products and forests might help us solve some of the impacts of climate change.
- Forests are being impacted by climate change and we have a growing body of science and experts who are working hard to understand how we can help these forests adapt.
- In the United States and Canada, we have almost 100 years of scientific data to build from and a mix of public and private investment in that research.
- This is a unique moment to harness the collective expertise and incredible talent of the design community and the forest community to chart a new path together.
- There are new technologies that could allow us to understand these systems at even more granular levels than ever before.
- There are varied levels of environmental and social protections and laws around the world, and some of the best in the world are here in the United States and Canada.
- We have some past wounds to heal, some trust to rebuild.
What’s present for you?
Now, what’s missing? What’s keeping us from being successful?
I believe it’s just three things:
- Clarity on the objective.
- Time and space to explore some of the complex, intertwined topics.
What’s missing for you?
I could spend hours rebutting, countering some of the claims spreading on the on-line forum. We all know that would be super unproductive and many wouldn’t trust me simply because I represent Weyerhaeuser. That’s too bad. For those in this forum who know me, I’m an open book. I don’t hold my cards close to my chest and I am a terrible poker player. I prefer to lay down all of my cards and play an open hand. I like cooperative board games where we all try to win together.
I like to learn from others. I like my assumptions to be challenged. I devour new information, suck it up like a milkshake. I dive deep into technical information, love to uncover new threads, new connections. I live in the complex, the messy connected threads. I wish we had more opportunities to do that together, to learn together.
Here are a few places where I’d like to learn – and make progress – together:
- Let’s talk about measuring performance on the ground rather than in theoretical worlds.
- Let’s learn about the incredible work being done by the full spectrum in this community, not just those with the loudest voices or the quickest fingers at the keyboard.
- Let’s talk about the demand side and the supply side together, not just one piece of the complex puzzle we live in.
- Let’s explore how we can leverage new technologies to understand the forest, the supply chain, and the buildings we are trying to build well.
- Let’s understand what forest certification really means and what it doesn’t mean.
- Let’s explore how certification is one tool that we can leverage to build better buildings while also caring for forests.
- Let’s understand why one certification program works for some forest managers and another certification might work for another.
- Let’s separate causal relationships from correlations.
- Let’s spend time designing a mill of the future that supports communities of the future.
- Let’s figure out a way to build the carbon cycle into basic scientific education.
- Let’s figure out how to build buildings using less energy.
- Let’s figure out how to create building materials using less energy.
- Let’s figure out how to grow trees using less energy.
- Let’s figure out how to harvest trees using less energy.
- Let’s explore ways to connect all of us humans to the resources we are dependent on, rather than separating us.
- Let’s build complex, interconnected maps and then help others understand those maps.
- Let’s create a space that is welcoming for everyone to participate, that invites more into the community.
What would you like to learn together?
I don’t know about you, but I would be absolutely thrilled to participate in a summit that was focused on those things. Let’s create a community of people trying to build as many bridges, as many connections, as big of a door as possible. When I read the current vision statement and follow the conversations on the forum, I see mostly bricks being placed in a huge wall and a narrowing of that door. I see us creating a super solid, tension-filled wall with only the smallest of openings to squeeze between.
Imagine instead what is on the other side of this wall, the chances we are missing. Healthy forests, valued for all of their benefits. Beautiful cities and homes and buildings, made from wood products that are from sustainably managed forests. A reduction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. A world adapting to climate change. A connected, trusting community.
Where do we go from here?
I’ll offer a few suggestions, from my perspective, and would love to hear from and learn from others:
- Can we identify a few topics where there are divergent and/or confusing levels of understanding and then structure a series of learning roundtables? Not a debate. A true learning opportunity. Can these learnings build off each other? I would point to last spring’s Wood Carbon Seminars and tremendous work the presenters and facilitators put into the seminars, the follow-up questions (these are a gold mine of information) and the outcomes. Yes, it’s a lot of information to digest – remember, it’s not a simple topic we can wrap-up with a neat bow.
- Could we agree to a set of shared principles or ground rules for how we want to interact and learn from each other? As an example, I’ve been working with a group of amazing people as we form a Women’s Forest Congress and we put together a set of “community agreements” before we hosted a summit last summer. It was super helpful to help set a productive stage for all participants.
- Could we start with a global view – or at least a national or bi-national – view in our discussions and learnings? I don’t think anyone is looking for a climate solution that is limited to one small geographical area? If we agree to start at the appropriate scale the matches the markets or choices we are thinking about influencing, then we could quickly move out of some of the more local examples (or fights).
- Could we identify what’s present and what’s missing and then design a series of research projects that addresses the “what’s missing,” building from what’s present? An example of this is what the Forest Economy Program is doing, a partnership between the World Economic Forum, The Nature Conservancy, the World Resources Institute, and others focused on understanding how to “increase the usage of climate-smart forest products – those that bring climate benefits while meeting social and ecological safeguards.” The group of experts involved in some of the early analysis is diverse and well-rounded and the results are already helping many stakeholders make informed decisions and a shared path forward.
- Could we do expand on the work being done by GreenBlue and the American Forest Foundation on helping companies “understand and invest in the forests we all rely on” through the Forests in Focus tool and resources? This has been a multi-year effort and could help address some of the questions I am seeing swirling in the on-line forum. How can we build from it? Support it? Improve it?
- Can we build on the work GreenBlue is developing as part of their a verified responsible sourcing collaborative?
- Can we build upon the great work done by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development to create the Sustainable Procurement of Wood and Paper-based Products? What else would you like to see in this guide? What more could we add?
- Could we explore where a good starting point is related to sustainable forest management and global certification levels. Last I saw, we’ve been hovering at somewhere around 10% of the global forests being certified to any third-party certification program. Are we trying to improve forest management throughout the world – or even in a country or a region – making the whole pie larger? Or, are we trying to grab and grasp for bits of the smallest piece of the pie? Personally, I’m ready to move past grasping for crumbs. I want to bring a full pie to the world, to the challenges that face us.
- Is it time to pause on the summit and go back to the objective? I for one, would like to understand more about the purpose from all included. It’s obvious the interest is high, that we are all hungry for answers, for solutions. I sure am. I can only assume we are all, since we’re here, participating.
I’ll end with a quote from Sylvia Path that I read just last night: “I can never be all the people I want and all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life.” I invite you to join me in exploring fearlessly in all of the shades, the tones and the variations that forests provide.