Speeding Succession

I've been searching for over an hour trying to figure out how many trees are felled to produce the average suburban McMansion. I hope you enjoy fuzzy math because you're about to read some pretty hefty guesstimates.

To start out, Habitat for Humanity of Midland, Texas estimates that, to build a 1104 square foot home, they use about 600 two-by-four beams. Wikipedia's page on McMansions lists the average square footage of a suburban home today as being between 3000 and 5000 square feet! (Coincidentally, it also provides the image for today's post.) That means a McMansion requires something between 1630-2717 two-by-fours. An article at How Stuff Works that estimates how much paper comes from one tree provides some numbers that allow me to estimate that the average pine tree produces roughly 161 2x4s. That means that, lowballing the average suburban home at 3000 square feet, just over ten trees (with one tree being 1 foot in diameter and 60 feet tall according to HSW's formula) come down to produce the skeleton for one Mcmansion. That's right -- just the skeleton.

So what's with all of the numbers? We'll get to that in a minute. First, some news: I read last week about a plan by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to plant more than 9 million trees in areas of the world that have been deforested by refugee camps. This made me think back to an article I wrote for a local paper last summer about ecological succession, the process by which nature reclaims developed land that has fallen into disuse. It's easy to spot, even in urban areas -- just take a look at the shaggy grass growing through those endless miles of rusting, unused train tracks all over the US.

The UNHCR plan, then, sounds almost as redundant as it does brilliant. If nature will simply reclaim areas deforested by displaced humans over time (and it doesn't take as long as you might think for ecological succession to kick in), why bother wasting time and resources to plant a bunch of trees? What saves this particular project from being an exercise in ceremonial hubris is that the refugees are being involved in the replanting process. From the WorldChanging article: "They [UNHCR] are seeking to involve refugee populations directly in environmental management and rehabilitation activities, in the hope that such stewardship can have positive effects long after displaced populations are able to return home."

This is total and complete awesomeness on several levels. First, it's just a great project to get a large number of disenfranchised individuals involved in creating positive change in their immedeate surroundings, which always earns gold stars. More importantly, it creates this kind of souped-up, hybridized process of ecological succession that makes humans part of the natural progression of the earth's self-healing process. In other words, people, in this instance, are part of enhancing and actually accelerating a natural progression. It's all very warm and fuzzy and Circle-of-Life, I know.

And at last, back to the fuzzy math! (You'd almost forgotten, no?) In these post-Kunstler days of the "green" cultural awakening, the question of what to do with the suburbs does occasionally come up. And what, really, will we do with our vast swaths of tract houses and prefab, peaked-and-dormered McMansions if things get even half as bad as Mr. Kunstler has predicted? Assuming that the pendulum will eventually swing back, and the population flow will once again move toward dense, urban cores, something will have to be done with the suburbs.

Why not help along the process of ecological succession? As urban areas around the world begin to reimagine and reconfigure themselves as more localized, sustainable places, people stranded by a fuel crash or a series of eco-disasters could get work replacing suburban communities with trees. For every house torn down and mulched, ten trees could be planted. These sapling armies would grow into massive forests over time, knitting together to form fabulous greenbelts around urban centers. They would provide recreation and clean air to cities and, depending on the kinds of trees planted, even food.

Imagine if, just fifty years from now, visitors to the top of the Empire State Building could look out over New Jersey and see, not far past the Hudson, a seemingly endless expanse of tall pines and white oaks. If you had told someone in 1957 that in just half a century the view from that very point would be of houses as far as the eye could see, they probably wouldn't have believed you. If nothing else, human beings have shown that they are very capable of drastically altering the face of the planet in a relatively short period of time. But for almost (or more than?) a century, we've been swimming upstream, a fact that is reinforced every time we see weeds poking up through the cracks in the sidewalk. So let's try going with the flow, for a change. Imagine how fast we could change things then.

Midland County Habitat For Humanity Statistics

Wikipedia entry for "McMansion"

How many sheets of paper can be produced from a single tree?

A Billion Trees to Help Refugees (WorldChanging)

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