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 reforms in policy and outright bans of wood burning equipment. It began in areas of Canada and the United States, and as of this update, is currently hitting the UK. In this article I will show how despite no doubt being well-intentioned, such policies could have dangerous consequences if implemented in the wrong way. It is therefore important that any new laws are carefully thought through.
Let me start by saying 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. Furthermore, based on what I’ve read, I don’t really fault the approach that they’re going for in London, which supposedly targets only densely populated areas with high pollution levels, and only affect sales of new stove equipment. Fair enough. To be honest though, I’m still a bit confused, and worried as to what the next step might be.
I imagine that for those in the position to make such decisions, it might not always be so easy to remember, while they sit in their offices running their latest fancy iphones and sending messages off via the internets, all sustained by a national electrical grid, that the next cabin vacation they have planned may just rely on a little something called a wood burning stove. Perhaps it’s that exotic “sawna”. Or maybe to keep warm during an ice fishing trip on the lake. The winter festival, with all that hot cooked food and places to cozy up by a fire. In short: An important aspect of the human experience is created by many small moments of simplicity away from society and technology, long prescribed for our well being. Let’s not forget it.
And let’s not forget that major catastrophes involving electrical grid failure do happen, as the Northeast Blackout of 2003 demonstrated. That was only one night. What about the January 1998 ice storm, where many were without power for an entire month? Without wood stoves, I can assure you that there would have been far more than only 35 casualties. And if there is another Carrington level solar event, referring to the solar storm of 1859, sorry to say but without a proper infrastructure of wood burning stoves in place, and people who are well stocked with chopped, dried wood, well… do the math.
Of course, that’s all worst-case scenario stuff. Let’s change the subject. How about culture? It might not seem it sometimes, but even today, there are many (sometimes just barely) surviving traditions from around the world dating way back. Way way back. Back so far, and in some cases gone for such a short time, that we don’t really know the ramifications of messing with them. For all the positive steps made toward recognizing minority rights, protecting religious practices and so forth, a lot of that can be undone with the simple banning of one practice, or placing too many regulations on it.
Indigenous cultures such as the Navajo, Sioux and Cherokee of the United States all rely on wood burning for ceremonies of various types. 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. To the lawmakers I say, are our traditions, many of which 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 knows. 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. 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 growing up Finnish, and in Sudbury, Canada, this time dedicating 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 miniscule 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).
If there is one impression I hope I’ve put into your head, 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.
Henrik Ryösä is a Finnish-Canadian author and researcher with a focus on nordic culture, currently living in Sweden. His upcoming book Sauna Tribe discusses the many benefits of sauna practice — including the wood burning variety.