When I’m not writing books or essays on environmental issues, or sleeping or eating, you’re likely to find me playing the violin. This has been an obsessive activity for me since I was a boy, and seems to deliver ever more satisfaction as time passes. Making and operating the little wooden box that is a violin is essentially a pre-industrial activity: nearly all its parts are from renewable sources (wood, horsetail, sheepgut), and playing it requires no electricity or gasoline. Violin playing therefore constitutes an ecologically benign hobby, right?
It probably was, a couple of centuries ago; now, not so much. You see, most violin bows are made from pernambuco, a Brazilian hardwood that’s endangered because too many bows have already been made from it. Ebony, too, is over-harvested; it’s used for making fingerboards, tuning pegs, and bow parts. Some fancy older violin bows are even decorated with tortoiseshell, ivory, and whalebone. And while maple and spruce (the main woods from which violins are constructed) are not endangered, whole forests are being cut in China to meet the burgeoning global demand for student instruments. Modern strings (most of which are made using petroleum derivatives) are often wound with nonrenewable silver or aluminum, and almost nobody tries to recycle them.