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In Defense of The Wood Burning Stove

There is currently much hoopla over human-influenced climate change, leading to sweeping changes in policy and outright bans. Some of these new policies however, directly threaten traditions thousands of years old. Good traditions.

There is currently much hoopla over human-influenced climate change, leading to sweeping changes in policy and outright bans. Some of these new policies however, directly threaten traditions thousands of years old. Good traditions.

And while I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of taking care of the planet we live on, especially as it’s the only one we have and will have for the foreseeable future, I am afraid I take issue with some of the approach. You see, all over North America right now, wood stoves are being banned. Either existing stoves or sales of new ones. Well, I don’t think these policy makers have really thought this through too carefully.

Let me explain:

First of all, while they sit in their offices running their latest fancy iphones and sending messages off via the internets, all sustained by the electrical grid, it’s very easy to forget that the next cabin vacation they have planned may just rely on a little something called a wood burning stove. What’s that, you say? It runs on natural gas now? Okay, but what about that exotic “sawna”? What about that ice fishing trip on the lake? What about that winter festival you were planning to attend, with all that hot cooked food and places to cozy up by some heat? In short, the human experience created by many small moments of simplicity away from society and technology, which has long been prescribed for our well being, is itself being attacked.

Though I will also be talking about some specific traditions important to many of us, that to me sticks out first and foremost as the obvious facepalm moment. And if I needed another point to make this plan sound poorly thought out (which I really don’t, but here it is anyway) then here it is in three words simple enough for anyone to understand: Electric Grid Failure.

Now, about those traditions. There are many cultural traditions around the world dating way back. Way WAY back. Back so far, that we don’t really know the ramifications of messing with them. Well I do but you, policy makers, apparently don’t. That or you don’t care, as usual. For all the positive steps made to recognize minority rights, protect religious practices and so forth, a lot of that can be undone with the simple banning of one device or placing of regulations on it – the wood burning stove.

Indigenous cultures such as the Navajo, Sioux and Cherokee of the United States all rely on wood burning for ceremonies of various types, if not explicitly always using a stove (though they many times do). All over the world, similar things are done. The Finns, the Sami, Estonians, and many more all rely heavily on the wood burning sauna, not just the convenient modern electric stove variant. Finland alone has roughly 2 million saunas, of which I would estimate 50% are the wood burning variety. For the other 1-2 million Finnish people globally, many of whom are in North America, the practice of going to their saunas and camps is equally as important. Are our traditions, which many of you have taken as your own and enjoyed the fruits of, to be sacrificed? At what cost?

Here is why, in our case at least, wood burning is not really such a problem.

It has been pointed out by some studies that black carbon smoke is the real culprit of the worst emissions when it comes to wood fires. But, not all wood is created equal for the purpose of sauna, which any Finn should know. Birch is by far the preferred type, and produces a very minimal amount of black smoke, usually upon the initial burn. Because it lasts a while and produces good heat, this reduces the overall amount of wood which will need to be used for a typical session.

Poplar, Fir, and Spruce are examples of woods which all smoke heavily and are thus rarely used for such purposes. So let’s be honest here: Black carbon and carbon emissions in general are far more likely to come from industrial applications, burning waste including plastics, and natural disasters such as forest fires. If we could compare firewood use in saunas, camps and homes with these, it is like a drop in the bucket emission-wise. A fart in the wind, if I may. And yes I mean collectively. That anyone thinks therefore that banning or replacing wood stoves is in any way an effective use of resources, is laughable.

In early 2016, I rewrote the first chapter of my book Inger: Father & Son, which described both life growing up Finnish, and growing up in Sudbury. In this new revision, I dedicated a page or so to a landmark I had grown up with – the infamous INCO superstack.

In the late 1800’s, the location where Sudbury now stands had turned out to be an opportune spot through which to run the Canadian Pacific Railway, and during its construction, the potential in the area for its unique mineral resources became apparent. As word spread and the town began to grow, people arrived from all around the globe including the French, Irish, Scotts, Germans, Italians and yes, Finns too, who were experts in forestry and eager to escape their poverty in Europe.

Over the following decades, the town turned into the biggest producer of acid rain-causing chemicals in North America, completely destroying the native ecosystem and earning itself a reputation as a wasteland for much of the 20th century, with rock and slag dominating as far as the eye could see. That is where the nickname [The Rock] comes from.

By the 1970’s, in an effort to mitigate the damage, Inco constructed the so-called “Superstack”. At 380 meters (1250 feet) in height, what it ironically succeeded best in was creating the tallest symbol of industrialization in the entire world at that time; even today, only one smokestack anywhere surpasses its size. I remember how that big fat stogie dominated our skyline, spewing a thick cloud of sulfur dioxide and other chemicals which reeked up even far away neighborhoods with the smell of rotten eggs. Some people say it still does. As far as mitigating damage, all they really managed to do was disperse it over the rest of the continent, making it more difficult to detect.

The story of its arrival has a very interesting twist. In August 1970 – on the final day of construction in fact -the worst tornado to hit the region in modern history bore down with six workers trapped at the top of the tower. It swayed violently in the storm, and the men, on a platform and fully exposed to the winds, were nearly blown off the edge. All survived, but the next day they all quit. One is forced to wonder in events such as this, if a supernatural force might have been expressing its own dissatisfaction with this monstrosity man had thought to build and blemish the earth with.

In January of 2017, as fate would have it, Vale, the new owners of the Inco mine, announced plans to have the superstack decommissioned and eventually dismantled. With my book having gained exposure in the Sudbury papers last year, I can only dream that I played some small role in this decision, though that’s unlikely as the pressure was no doubt on them already from the Trudeau administration, and Ontario’s climate change “action plan” under which “$400 million will (also) be used to get rid of old wood stoves, targeting northern, rural and First Nations communities, and encouraging them to switch to new high-efficiency wood stoves.” (quote: Forbes).

One short footnote I’d like to mention before moving on from the Superstack story is that a Finn, Aarne Kovala, was a foreman on its construction back in 1970. According to him, the degree of swaying is a bit of an urban legend, though he does admit that several workers quit. He wasn’t one of them. Methinks his sisu just didn’t let him acknowledge how bad his situation really was up there. I’ll certainly gladly amend this point in a future edition of Inger. It would be interesting if a Finn helped build it, and a Finn helped take it down? Okay, fantasy over.

I am a storyteller, and if there is one impression I hope I’ve got in your head by including that passage, it’s the sheer scale of damage produced possibly globally by one single industrial operation. It’s great that they are taking steps to minimize further damage, but more is needed in this area because this is, again, where the real problems are.

While we’re at it, why not point out that an insane amount of the world’s paper is used by bureaucrats sending out needless reminder letters and other junk mail? What about that carbon footprint? And why is it only being talked about in Pakistan??

Regular people, especially in rural areas or those practicing ancient traditions should, in my opinion not be forced to change ways which often times already operate in harmony with nature, not to mention provide health, security and healing for us as a species. Is it realistic to expect everyone to switch over to new high-efficiency wood stoves? No, as many stove solutions are purpose built and nearly impossible to replace, and the financial burden is unlikely to be eased much with this 400 million or whatever amount future subsidies offer.

I’m sure there is a lot more I can say but I’ll end this here for now. I hope I have made the message clear, and that some people will begin to see the forest through the trees. It is industrialization which got us into this mess, and therefore it is primarily the industry which should continue to correct its practices until our environment recovers. Leave the rest of us alone.