Flushing our future down the toilet

When future historians cast around for symbols of our current age of consumerism, I reckon they'll be hard pressed to go past toilet paper.

"For centuries, billions of humans cleansed themselves after defecation using a soft, paper product made from trees," could well be the introduction to the year 2497 (digital) bestseller What Went Wrong?

Think about it. You and I can live up to two months without food, perhaps three days without water but roughly five minutes with no oxygen.

Despite this, the dominant global culture of the west insists we cut down one of our major sources of oxygen - trees - at a rate of 27,000 a day so even our most humble citizen may wipe their bottom.

It's a rather perverse "f-you" to Mother Nature yet hardly the sole example of humanity's belligerent and systemic disdain for its well-being, nor of our cavalier attitude to trees.

Imagine explaining telephone books to someone a century from now? Or the concept of printing out an email on a sheet of paper and leaving it on someone's desk? Or newspapers?

Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon.com and new owner of The Washington Post said recently he thought newspapers "on actual paper" may one day be a luxury item.

"It's sort of like, people still have horses, but it's not their primary way of commuting to the office," said Bezos, repeating a 2008 analogy he used to describe printed books.

Paper as a luxury - there's a thought - yet it's one that actually pays respect to the silent, swaying sentinels which allow us humans to devour each other on this "atom of clay".

One of the earliest surviving works of literature, the 4000-year-old Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of a powerful Mesopotamian king who sets out on an adventure to find not treasure but trees because his city has so little wood with which to build.

The Vikings who colonised Greenland in the Middle Ages were so desperate for wood they constructed houses and churches from turf and sod, thus sealing their doom through starvation via soil erosion.

In his international bestseller Collapse, Prof. Jared Diamond recounts perhaps the starkest example of a "society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its resources" - Easter Island.

Famed for its towering stone statues, the now completely denuded Easter Island was once blanketed in a forest of gigantic palm trees.

Because Easter is one of the world's most remote islands, its inhabitants did not have the usual distractions of raiding, war, trade and colonisation with neighbours.

Deprived of the standard boy's games, its dozen clans instead competed with each other over hundreds of years to build enormous statues of their chieftains.

To move the blocks of stone weighing up to 270 tonnes from Easter's volcanic quarry, the islanders consumed huge amounts of wood from felled trees to make long ladders on which to transport the statues.

"I have often asked myself, 'What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?'" writes Diamond.

"'Jobs not trees!'? Or: 'Technology will solve our problems!'?" 

Diamond argues because of Easter Island's extreme isolation, when later generations got into difficulties after they'd run out of trees they had no-one to turn to for help - kinda of like us modern earthlings, bobbing away in space.

In a later chapter Diamond observes that "apart from Antarctica, Australia is the continent with proportionately the least area covered by forests: only about 20 per cent of the continent's total area".

At one time they included what were possibly the world's tallest trees, "now-felled Victorian Mountain Ash, rivalling or topping Californian Coast Redwoods in height".

"Of Australia's forests standing at the time of European settlement in 1788, 40 per cent have already been cleared, 35 per cent have been partly logged, and only 25 per cent remain intact," writes Diamond, with logging continuing in old growth forests.

"Of forest products, half ... are turned into wood chips and sent mostly to Japan, where they are used to produce paper and its products."

It makes me wonder if one day, our descendants will walk amongst our monuments like scientists do Easter Island's, except instead of imposing statues to memorialise our folly they'll find millions of rolls of fossilised dunny paper?

There's a legacy.

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