New Zealand Forestry: Getting off the Love affair with Simple

Through the better parts of 2018 to 2020 occurred a massive disruption of the British Columbia forestry sector. A true Annus Horribilis for the lives of many people. BC forestry, and not that province alone, was hit by multiple factors. Monique Keiran wrote a useful summary of the perfect storm, outlining pest epidemics, fire, salvage volume overcuts, US market disruption, and growing public concern from all sides. She makes the point that the debacle has been almost two decades in the making.

“A number of forces led to us to this point. They include wildfire devastation, with 2017 and 2018 both setting records for area of forest burned. High log costs and low prices due to a slowing U.S. market contribute.

We’re also at the end of the mountain pine beetle harvest — a period of high timber cuts permitted to salvage as much beetle-killed timber from the landscape as possible while it was still worth something.

The unfolding consequences were pronounced steadily and relentlessly. In my memory, the conversation has taken on the quality of a bell tolling.

In other words, he was describing a catastrophe — an inexorable, slow-motion catastrophe.”

Surprise after surprise. Surprise exacerbated by strategies that built fragility rather than resilience. Surprise exacerbated by the logic of efficiencies seen through spreadsheet eyes. Surprise exacerbated because people saw certain machines where complex systems lay.

Buzz Holling, the gifted ecologist who revolutionised ecological and wider systems thinking away from determinism and climax states – one of the pioneers in resilience thinking – actually predicted the demise of the BC forestry ‘industry’   An overreliance on only a few species and connecting structures were his key reasoning.  It was too simple.  Complex systems that are framed as simple – by engineers, financiers and agronomists – in the monocultural or one-dimensional mind, do not *remove* complex.   The complex world remains – the markets, the costs, the communities and their values, the weather events, the fires, the epidemics.

British Columbia forests are at growing risk of fire through climate change …. and forests are not just at risk through fire.

One dimensional thinking does not reduce surprise. Something will always happen.  The real problem is that we set up what is termed a ‘simple complex system’. We simplify the system, presuming greater control and order, more certainty. An agronomic machine *seems* more logical to the Newtonian mind of order. I’m sure General Haig thought the same about the Somme … until the battle commenced.

Simplification doesn’t reduce surprise; it exacerbates it. It also exacerbates the effects of that surprise. Surprise still happens, but because we have removed all those ‘redundant’ and ‘inefficient’ buffering rivets, the system cascades more rapidly and more unpredictably than before. Cause and effect leaps from one domain to another, outside the framework of agronomic analysis, spreads like a contagion, because one trip cascades to another, to another, to the point of extinction. 

When you simplify what are inherently complex systems[1]; when you presume to control the complexity rather than acknowledge and embrace it,  then you will create fragility, not resilience.   

In the case of land use systems, they are complex not just within the economic domain, but across and within social, community, environmental and economic domains.  Over intergenerational time scales.  Over regional and planetary scales.  Reducing this complexity to not just economics, but to finance using unsubstantiated high real discount rates that do not relate to opportunity cost or risk over time … is nothing short of lethal.  It blinds.  It fools.  It increases the chance of surprise and cascades … and extinction.

A large section of New Zealand forestry has stepped away from the social-scapes within which they abide. Apply a blinding blinker, look to the spreadsheet, and, when faced with the inevitable ire, plan a programme of sales and marketing through transactional thought, attempting to buy that public still presumed to be over the fence and ‘other’.

Even more bewildering, they have shifted away from the complexity of landscapes, geology and meteorology, and the quite obvious potential shocks associated with that landscape, and then cry “how could we have known?” Those who live *within* the same landscapes and socialscapes shake their heads in wonder.

If you want another example, think Fonterra; producing largely undifferentiated milk powder, from largely undifferentiated milk inputs, to largely one market.  The logic of a centralised industrial clone, engineered to ‘perfect’ efficiency’ for this one exact set of conditions. 

A clone, as fragile as a feather in the breeze …. believing there will never be a breeze.

It is far better to embrace complexity than to will simplicity on an always complex world. Complexity is real. Simplicity is anti-real.

Rebecca Solnit wrote about opening up the mind to nuance and perspective. But these are the strengths of the Humanities. Perhaps there is now too little of that; replaced by spreadsheets soothing the mind to think all is orderly.

Figure 1: Working with complexity and uncertainty; different mindsets, cultures & tools.

Using hierarchical-mechanical approaches (over-simplification) to an inherently complex systems, decreases resilience, and increases the chance of surprise and unpredictability.

What happened with the forestry sector in British Columbia provides a lesson for us all, including in New Zealand.  It’s a lesson about ‘resilience’ and ‘fragility’, and the thinking that is needed to sit in the resilience space.  It also relates to how the land use professions may change in the next 30 years. 

I think we’ll need our multifunctional breadth more than ever, our foresters’ sense of the wider.  We need to resist the attempts to make us radiata pine agronomists.  A forester is much more.  We’ll need our sense of forests as far more than manifestations of capital or fibre. 

And looking around the world, that is an obvious trend: the shifting sands from industrial fibre factories to ecosystem management and continuous cover; from centralised hierarchies to localism; from continuous to batch processing; from economies of scale to economies of scope; from divorced commercial power and the values of the spreadsheet to participation by people; from consumers who take what is offered to those that discern acceptable from not; from the colonial segregation/allocation approach to old-world functionally-integrated landscapes: away from blanketed 10,000 acres of ryegrass and Romney, and over the fence another blanketed 10,000 acres of radiata pine, both of which smother system scope. 

I think there is a trend to break down the simplified boxes of the mind built over the last 30 or 40 years.

There is also a shift away from the industrial headspace whose underlying metaphysics presumes certainty, control and the efficiency of one thing, to post-industrial resilience structures whose metaphysics are fundamentally different. 

The Planetary Boundaries work is based on that emerging systems thinking.  It’s a space that expects to be surprised, that expects things to happen that will be outside our control.  It is a space that doesn’t accept the excuse that “it was a surprise, who could have known?” because it is not about having perfect predictability.  It is about setting up thinking organisational cultures of awareness that are able to cope with complex, non-linear systems.   And that at least keep an eye on the trends and what they mean to strategy.   The nine boundaries of the Stockholm Resilience are at least a start.  And there are social and economic boundaries in play as well, from local to international scales.

Foresters used to do this well.  Be aware.  Look at the values, objectives, constraints and conditions here in this place – from ecological to social – and with knowledge of the wider world.  Then decide on options and best approach.  Don’t be a recipe agronomist working as if management means prescription. 

Learning to Think and Act Beyond Colonial Commodity & Scale

A colleague in the University of British Columbia had hopes from the mass disruption of the forestry sector there.  He told me that this BC crisis may be their chance to move away from the narrow, industrial, Economies of Scale commodity strategy and shift to a strategy that emphasises value, diversity, resilience, socio-ecological systems thinking and the potential we get from thinking in Economies of Scope terms, not mechanised Scale.  A policy turn.

Figure 2: Allocated to Integrative Landscape Functions

Source: Per Angelstam’s et al.’s (2006) vision of a policy turn from industrialised specialist scale to integrated scope.

Within landscapes, those scope economics come into their own.  Mutualisms that save costs, create diversity, provide value, connect community and give a market position, are potential features of self-organised systems. 

Reducing a forest to an isolated structure of certain controllable capital will replace mutualisms with the act of chasing fires no one has foreseen.   A case in point is the continued objectification of community, their objections to the consequences of industrial management reduced, in the best deficit model way, to a problem – usually of perceived ignorance.  Then it is given a label – ‘license to operate’ – and then ‘managed’ with PR and one-way communication (to inform the – presumed to be – ‘ignorant’). 

I would challenge that framing.  The root of the ‘problem’ does not reside within the communities, but within that very objectification of people and landscapes (give them a number and put them in a spreadsheet) that goes hand in hand with narrow industrial thought, be it dairy or forestry. 

The solution to the symptom of public annoyance is not a pamphlet campaign or other form of ‘re-education’; it is for us to see, think and act differently.   People are part of the complex system within which forests reside.  Removing community and their values from the spreadsheet does not make it magically simpler.  It merely creates a delusion, which might be convenient for the box-ticker, but delusions are not good for strategic thought.

A Future Forest Strategy

All of this relates to our future forest strategy.  There have always been two broad alternative strategies for land use.   Either sell on price bulk scale homogeneity – the price taker approach – or sell on quality, diverse, price positioned – the price maker.  New Zealand has a colonial past of doing the first; producing lots, cheap.  While the real commodity prices erode.  And yet we still hold to it …. “This is what we do.”

We hold to that model, even though the history of commodity prices is negative.  This was the problem observed by Willard Cochrane not yesterday, but in 1958 agriculture.  He analysed it and termed it the ‘technology treadmill’.  Various positive feedbacks in a complex system. 

Post-war intensification led to production increases, within an increasingly undifferentiated, corporate agribusiness commodity market.   Prices dropped, so the growers shift emphasis to cost cutting.  They presumed they would hold the ‘efficiency’ gains.  They aggregated for scale efficiencies, specialised and homogenised, used less and cheaper labour, with the spiralling down of local aggregate demand reducing community function, and long-term environmental function compromised. 

Or they took up the techno-fix; the new technology input to raise yields (which costs, and then creates other system effects no one tells you about), and the prices fall again because buyers have more power than sellers in commodity markets[2] … and the whole thing repeats. 

A treadmill.  Cochrane, who 20 years later was advising President Carter, said the imperative was to get off the treadmill.   Differentiate.  Position yourself in a sellers’ market.  Build relationships.  Look to mutualist efficiencies of scope and differentiated market position.  Focus on market position before you make costs savings to ensure the margin is maintained by the grower. 

Figure 3: International Agricultural Real Price Trends

Judging by the graph above, agriculture is still largely in the industrial commodity game. 

I remember discussing the relative nominal flat line (log price spike excepted) in the early 2010s.  Log prices had started to rise after the GFC as China provided a surge of infrastructural development spending.  He was surprised when I said I had been doing runs with pretty much the same stumpages 20 years earlier in 1992.  Even our nominal prices trended down until 2008.  So what about real prices?

This, over a 30 year period where a number of positive ‘miracles’ occurred that favoured NZ forestry enterprises.  From privatisations, log price spikes, Korean development to offset Japan’s slowdown, then China the same, the ETS etc. 

We should be openly acknowledging that these have been three favourable decades.   In literary terms, every time there is something to worry about the deux ex machina miracle comes along to save the protagonist.  Zorro magically appears in the nick of time.  Look, Korea.  Look, China.  Look, the ETS. 

Perhaps those decades have led to complacency, and what many foresters feel is – with the odd smaller company exception – a stifling homogeneity. 

Figure 4: Nominal Radiata Pine Prices 1992 – 2019 (no inflation adjustment)

 Source: MPI  data. Nominal decline until 2008 GFC.

Looking at the real picture, even the ‘log price recovery’ since early 2009 doesn’t look so impressive.  In point of fact, it looks more like a stabilising than a rise. 

Figure 5: Real Radiata Pine Prices 1992 – 2019 (PPI Adjusted)

Source: MPI & Stats PPI data.  Real price stability associated with rise in post 2008 China trade.

I don’t like looking back on the last 30 years of New Zealand forestry.  The sector had a number of fortunate breaks, but I see it as a time of wasted opportunity, of increasing fragility, of the narrowing of thought, and … yes, complacency.   The ‘business as usual’ imperative. 

I don’t know what the next 30 years will bring, but two things are likely.  In line with the biblical principle of famines and feasts, there will be a series of events that won’t be positive, and Zorro won’t appear over the horizon.   Given the way climate is shifting, with all these connections of pest epidemics and fires, I consider that ‘likelihood’ practically a certainty. 

I think there will also be fundamental changes in the ways we look at forests.  People will ask the question “What is a forest – in scope and meaning?”  A challenge to the metaphysics of land, of forests, of the simplified dispassionate uncaring industrial model.  Communities are already demanding it, around the world.  People and land matter.  They cannot be objectified.

To respond to those challenges to thought, they will need people who see forests as far more than a manifestation of a discounted cashflow or agronomics.  Frankly, they’ll need foresters – real foresters where the short-term is measured in years not months, and the long-term is measured in decades or centuries – and forests are not just seen, but known, as a subset of a much much broader complex system that extends beyond economic, environment and society, and well beyond the presumed regularity of a factory. 

I think the days of simple are coming to an end.  And many of us, frankly, will welcome it.  We don’t like being considered by the public as radiata agronomy technicians. Or carbon traders.

Chris Perley


Angelstam, P., E. Kapylova, H. Korn, M. Lazdinis, J. A. Sayer, V. Teplyakov & J. Tornblom. 2006. Changing forest values in Europe. In Forests in landscapes: ecosystem approaches to sustainability, eds. J. A. Sayer & S. Maginnis, 59-74. London: Earthscan.

[1] In the case of land use systems, they are complex not just within the economic domain, but across and within social, community, environmental and economic domains.  Over intergenerational time scales.  Over regional and planetary scales.  Reducing this complexity to not just economics, but to finance using unsubstantiated high real discount rates that do not relate to opportunity cost or risk over time … is nothing short of lethal.  It blinds.  It fools.  It increases the chance of surprise and cascades … and extinction.

[2] Price is not all about supply & demand.  That only occurs in a market without power – Adam Smith’s village, or the old Stock & Station firm mutual society & cooperatives.  In the real world, it is about power and knowledge asymmetries, where supply and demand is one factor in that differential of power between a buyer and a seller. 

Originally published in NZ Institute of Forestry Newsletter

Chris Perley grew up in landscapes. His playgrounds were hills, streams, fields and woods. He studied forest ecology because of the experience he had sitting within a complex forest. You can see, hear, feel, smell and even taste a forest. But those feelings were not taught in his science education. Something was missing. A rainbow was being unwoven. Quanta was all.

The quiet dissatisfaction grew while working to integrate the woodlands into what were essentially colonial factory landscapes, and later in policy and research. The marginalising of our potential, and our connection to place, was all too evident. He has called for a ‘Reimagining’ ever since.
 From a machine able to be reduced to disconnected bits, to a complex system that is inherently indivisible.

His subsequent work was on the philosophy – old and new – required to reimagine our landscapes, to see and be something different as members of place and community.
Chris has worked as an editor, a writer, and is an affiliated researcher for Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

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2 Responses to New Zealand Forestry: Getting off the Love affair with Simple

  1. Barrie Ridler says:

    Brilliantly thought-provoking as usual Chris. Your description of Forestry “Models” and their use seems similar to those used in Agriculture. As you know, my approach is quite different. I take some pride in the criticism I get when some have trialed the quite different model methodology used : “I change one thing and everything changes!”
    Agricultural thinking has largely been dictated by two main models over the past 15 years. In that time agricultural debt has increased from $8 to near $60 billion and much of the farm environment has been degraded. One could ask “how’s that policy working for you then?”
    In describing Forestry (“And yet we still hold to it .. “This is what we do.”’) you also describe agriculture in NZ.
    I could (should) write a book on this but unfortunately, I am no Zorro.
    Realignment seems unlikely because in a similar way to forestry all “thinking” comes from a small group who control funding for R&D and who, as you describe, think more production and cutting (the wrong) costs is the way forward despite the obvious failure.

    • cjkperley says:

      Don’t we know it Barrie. I wonder about our reputation for number 8 wire making do. I think that applies to a problem in front of us. Need to rig the door. Need to get the pig back in and keep it caged. But I don’t think we are very conceptual – meaning able to dig into the whole framework of our approach.

      And we ignore the realities that should make us think. Like rising debts. Or the economic unit size climbing from the 60s from 800su to 1200 to 1600 to 2000 to 2500. Or the problems with farm aggregation, or rural decline, or streams & soils & landscape sponge going south.

      I actually heard that quote “But this is what we do” after documenting the multiple financial, community & environmental decline as a base for a “So what do we do differently?” question.

      And that was the answer from someone relatively senior.

      And as you say, forestry is down the same rabbit hole where conceptual critique is rare.

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