Anna Krien’s book begins with violence, travels through corruption and pain, and ends with a vague, vain sort of hope. With a structure like that, you might expect that it’s about a catastrophic event, some natural or human-created event that has crushed communities and people, and is now being overcome. And you’d be half right – it’s certainly about a kind of catastrophe in motion.
Krien’s book Into the Woods is a look at the history of Tasmania’s forests, the people who try to protect them, and the people who have been exploiting them. Let’s note that I’m using ‘exploit’ here in an economic sense: exploiting a resource is economically rational for as long as it lasts. But what the books makes clear is that as a resource, the forests won’t last much longer, and every avenue sought to prevent their demise – violence, law, litigation, sheer lies – has failed. The book follows Krien as she travels through Tasmania meeting everyone from activists to loggers to politicians (though Gunns themselves won’t talk to her), as she tries to figure out why the situation is as it is, how it got there, and whether it’s reasonable to be there at all. The answers are depressing.
I am an environmental scientist, I naturally lean to the green side of any argument, and I suspect Krien is the same – she’s certainly was there by the end. But I don’t think you need to be a greenie to be horrified by her recitation of facts regarding the Tasmanian forests. For example, while many of us can possibly understand using old growth wood to supply sawmills for extravagant projects – maybe even floorboards, if they’re really, really good ones – most of us won’t support using that same wood to make woodchips. By Gunn’s own statistics, up to 98% of the wood may become just that. And while we all recognise that political conflict can become violent, few of us would fail to cringe when told of activists being driven off the road and assaulted, or that Bob Brown – while an elected leader of Tasmania – was beaten with an iron bar, for which charges were never laid. There’s a particularly charming incident on page 10 that nearly had me put the book down then and there – look out for that one.
This isn’t to say Krien leans solely to the environmentalist side of the argument. She certainly does talk to as many people as she can, and she repeats as much as she can of the defences and arguments used by Gunns’ people to justify their use of the forests. And as they argue repeatedly, it’s hard to say it’s Gunns’ fault for exploiting a natural resource which the government has made available for purchase. On the other hand, it probably is their fault that they have engaged in what have been called SLAPP – Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – and that they have reportedly made repeated efforts to bribe government officials. Other strong arguments are made when Krien considers the total number of people employed by logging versus the value of one of Australia’s most valuable forests and when she looks at the effects of poison sprays and bait used to encourage forest regrowth.
Into the Woods is tough reading because of the content rather than the style. Despite efforts to be fair, Krien acknowledges that her book will probably be seen as one-sided. She describes herself as seeing in shades of grey, while people involved will want the issues in black and white, and on those terms, she’s a traitor. Still, it’s hard not to agree with her at the end. No matter what’s at stake, jobs or money or companies, it’s hard to justify those numbers and how they came about when you consider the damage done.