Many more of the world’s old-growth forests are coming under the protection of greater conservation efforts. UN records report that most regrowth over the last decade has taken place in wealthier regions such as North American and Europe. Here the rural populations have continued to decline, dramatically lessening the reliance on clear-cutting for farming and for biofuel. New understanding about the importance of environmental protection has led some densely populated, poorer countries to change the way they see their forests. Perhaps most notably, China has undertaken costly and widespread tree-planting programs in an effort to avoid future environmental disaster. Places that were, just a decade ago, eager to chop down and sell off their natural resources are becoming (from a conservationist’s point of view) fortunately more reluctant.
While this progression toward environmental protection shines a positive light on the potential for humanity to let go of our doomed habit of stripping away the world’s natural resources, it isn’t enough to undo the damage that has been done. To secure biodiversity and restore the water system on which these forests rely, large areas of farmland must have their former forests replanted.
Old Habits Die Hard
Much of human “development”, historic and pre-historic, has been characterized by our ability to transform the environment in which we live and harness the living organism around us to our own benefit. We are talking about millennium after millennium of clear-cutting for agriculture and deforesting for shelter and fuel. Human behavior isn’t going to cease just because regulations change. Decades of public education and a significant shift in how the environment is perceived will be necessary before the world’s forest can be deemed protected. A perceptual separation between the natural world and humanity’s activities continues to exist in modern society.
The pressure on forests has weaned in most wealthy and developed countries, but the third world, home to over half the surviving forests, is too preoccupied with poverty, disease, and increased population to be concerned with environmental protection. To simply tell people (who have no access to alternative forms of energy) that they can no longer turn their forests into charcoal because the developed world has already released too much CO2 into the air is both unjust and doomed to failure. The ever rising demand for food and biofuels will eventually force people to turn to their environment, destroying the natural resources in the process of meeting their needs, regardless of the sustainability of the practice.
Climate change adds an entirely new dimension to the already convoluted equation. Rising temperatures in Canada have already begun to unleash plagues of harmful bark beetles. Cold, very very cold, winters used to act as a natural population control but recent warming has caused this system to break down. Australia was the driest continent on the planet long before man discovered fire or fast-food and climate change has led to more devastating drought and forest fires than ever before.
Forests are the storage tanks in the entire environmental system. Trees capture CO2, holding it for decades before burying it in the ground when the trees eventually die. Scientists estimate that rainforests currently hold twice as much CO2 than the atmosphere, meaning that we cannot live on this planet without these old-growths. Trees also sponge up rainwater runoff when it rains and slowly releases moisture again when the weather turns dry or sends water into underground reservoirs instead of surface streams. The fundamental reason that the Midwestern and Southern U.S. is so devastated by landslides and floods each spring is because so many of its forests have been replaced with fields. Development has disrupted the water-cycle on the local scale and to destroy the world’s rainforests would have repercussions on a global scale. The loss of the Amazon rainforest could diminish rainfall across the Americas.
Globalization has introduced the practice of growing cash crops like cotton, coffee, and sugar cane in regions that can barely provide staple foods for their local population and dramatically augmented the demand for agricultural goods from tropical countries. In the process, populations that used to exist in comparative harmony with their environment are taking big steps in two directions. Greater wealth means better education, stronger government, and more organized conservation efforts but the demand for new fertile farmland and biofuel is equally significant.
A massive international effort will be necessary to change the way the natural world is used and protected. There are no easy solutions when it comes to meeting individual needs while considering the best interests of the entire population. For millennia, people have understood their potential to change the world around them but they believed themselves incapable of altering the environmental system as a whole. Well we did affect the system. Are doing it. Need to stop. Climate change doesn’t just mean warmer temperatures but an unpredictable redistribution of air and ocean currents. Some countries could turn into swamps while other continents turn into dust bowls. The natural world will survive just fine, but large populations of environmental refugees could be our future if we fail to protect the forests and the environmental systems they support.