The Ungreening of the World

Everyone I meet claims to love trees -- I mean really love trees -- yet collectively the human race behaves as if it abhors green things. If you take a step back from whatever biome you are in at the moment and look at the entire Earth and its forests through recorded history, you will see that the relationship between humans and trees looks Strangely Like War (the title of a recent book on forests by Derrick Jensen and George Draffan).

The exact extent of the damage is difficult to discern, because for many years records were not kept, but the estimates are that 75% of the world’s original forests have been logged or burned by humans. Some of them have grown back of course, or have been replanted, but it is thought that we now have only half of the amount of forest land we once had on this planet.

In some places, particularly the drier places of the globe, the deforestation was so severe, and was followed by such intense grazing, that forests have not been able to grow back. The landscape has been permanently altered.

When you imagine Greece, Italy, and Iraq, it is likely that you imagine a dry landscape with open views, the way they look today. Historical records indicate, however, that these places were once covered by dense forests. The forests fell as civilizations flourished, so the earlier a place became “civilized” the sooner it became deforested.

This march of so-called progress resulting in the loss of forests was documented by John Perlin in his 1989 book A Forest Journey .

So today we sit on a planet with only 50% of its forest cover remaining. And here’s the part that should bring tears to your eyes: we continue to lose more forest cover every year.

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The more recent losses are well documented. Every five years the United Nations produces a summary report called the Global Forest Resource Assessment; The team in charge of assembling the assessment relies on internet reporting and satellite surveillance to come up with the figures. According to the most recent report, between 2000 and 2005, we lost forest acreage equivalent to the land mass of Panama -- more than 77 thousand square kilometers of forest gone, some of it never to return.

The next report is due to be released in 2010. I will not be surprised when it is released and I read that the global forest area has continued to shrink.

If this happens when we claim to love trees, I shudder to think what would happen if we were ambivalent about them? Or thought we could live without them?

In the United States, deforestation began as soon as the colonies were settled. Before long, the colonies were exporting wood to the many nations that no longer had the timber they needed for ships, casks, shingles, and other construction materials. Trees were also cut to clear cropland, provide heat, and the fledgling nation was using up its forests to build its own ironworks and railroads as well.

By 1920, more than three-quarters of the US’s original forests had been cut. Similar to the global figures, today the US has only half the forest cover that it had in 1600. And we continue to destroy forest land.

At the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro it was agreed that, “efforts should be undertaken towards the greening of the world.” The UN recognizes that “forests are essential to economic development and all forms of life.” But the UN Charter also reads: “states have the sovereign right to exploit their own resources.” And so we do.

Although the UN and my country recognize the value of forests, both ecologically and economically, such recommendations are not strong enough to stop my local council from voting “yes” to deforestation. Last week, I went to a zoning meeting in the town where I live. A real estate housing project developer wanted to cut many acres of trees so he could build houses. That forest land will be lost, probably forever, and a few more numbers will be added to the global deforestation total next year.

Why do local politicians, tree lovers all, allow yet more forest destruction? Why do humans all claim to love trees, but their actions deny their claim? I think it has to do with fear. When a would-be exploiter of trees stands before a politician and requests, or demands, the right to clear a forest, the politician, out of fear, complies. But we do not fear trees. We do not fear their retaliation.

Trees stand mute despite our betrayal. Perhaps that is one of the reasons we really love them. But if we want to do more than love them, if we want to save them, we must become fearless.