Theater of Cruelty

Can the forests come crawling back?

A Trillion Trees: Restoring Our Forests by Trusting in Nature
Forfatter: Fred Pearce
Forlag: Greystone (USA)
NATURAL / Afforestation is the cozy climate solution everyone likes. Fred Pearce believes it is far more important to fight logging and rather let the forest grow back on its own. He points out that with 25 per cent more trees, these would be able to pull as much as 200 billion tonnes of CO000 out of the atmosphere – enough in itself to keep us below the target of a 2 degree temperature rise by 1,5.


The tree is often understood as a picture of nature itself. More than anything else, the Amazon rainforest's uncertain fate has become a symbol of the planet's future.

In his broad-based forest ecology book A Trillion Trees: Restoring Our Forests by Trusting in Nature the experienced environmental journalist and author Fred Pearce highlights Lula da Silva's previous presidency as an example of the decisive importance of politics for nature. Under his environmental protection minister Marina Silva, the rate of deforestation went up rainforestone drastically down, as it then went up drastically under Bolsonaro. Is Silva's new presidency just a small glimmer of hope in a story of decay? And was Bolsonaro's rule just a relapse in a positive learning process?

The wavering between radically constructive and radically destructive tendencies i environmental policyone is dizzying. It gets even worse because the whole gigantic thing Amazon-area is on the tipping point towards a collapse that seems increasingly likely, since the humid weather system generated by the rainforest itself is disintegrating.

The problems of managing the rainforest in Brazil is widely known to be hypercomplicated and politically demanding: Aborigines, settlers, international companies, activists, kvegfarmer, small farmers and researchers twist together in tug-of-wars that seem as unclear and convoluted as the jungle self. Pearce shows in his book that the dispute over the Amazon is just one of many corresponding management dilemmas.

What we can learn from the rainforest also sheds light on the role of forests as such. With a global perspective, first-hand accounts from forests on five continents and with direct dialogues with leading scientists, Pearce discusses forest policy and forest ecology against a large global historical backdrop.

Earth historical roots

Before treesne came into being, 300 million years ago, the world's continents were mostly dry, hot and lifeless. The soil was poor, almost non-existent. Only when the forests crept inland from the coasts did cooler and wetter weather begin to take hold, and the soil built up. Step by step, the trees imperceptibly created their own living conditions and transformed the atmosphere both locally and globally. Research in recent years has given us new insight into how the forests' inhalation and exhalation have an impact on far more than the oxygen balance: Intricate chemical and physical processes have caused the trees to shape and influence the soil systems and ecosystemone.

Indigenous peoples, settlers, international companies, activists, cattle farms, smallholders and researchers are coming together.

After humans entered natural history – and especially with the growth of recent centuries – half of the world's forests have disappeared. The good news is that lost forests can return – and with highly beneficial effects. For the trees' supporters, the vagueness was a problem: How many trees do we need, and how much carbon can they absorb and store? To remedy this ambiguity published Thomas Crowther in 2019, a revolutionary work which estimated that there are today as many as 3000 billion trees on the planet – five times more than previously thought. He also made a controversial estimate that there is room for 1000 billion more trees, even with today's human population and agriculture, and he estimated that this would be able to absorb as much as 200 billion tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, enough to keep us below the target of 1,5 degrees of temperature rise by 2050. Pearce's title plays against this research – and he agrees, with some caveats, with Crowther's ambition of a trillion new trees. At the same time, he tries to take into account all the criticism and the many reservations Crowther and other forest optimists have encountered from scientific and climate policy perspectives.

A light green leather solution?

Afforestation has, with some right, become notorious as a climate solution that is too good to be true. Even Greta Thunberg warns against naive optimism on behalf of afforestation – and tellingly enough, even climate denier Donald Trump advocated planting trees as a climate solution.

The main objections are, in short, that afforestation is not enough, that it will require more land than we have at our disposal, that it will be too expensive, and that it will be an excuse for failing to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.

In addition, there are a number of inconvenient scientific findings that show that forests can in certain cases contribute to increasing global warming, both because they emit more carbon dioxide than they take up when it gets warmer, and because dark forests absorb more light and heat, especially in northern areas. Not only that, but afforestation has often been shown to lead to nature-poor monocultures and out-of-place forests that are not even good for biodiversity, much less for the water cycle or local landscapes.

«Green deserts»

Pearce believes in any case to be able to conclude that forests are a decisive factor in the fight against climate collapse. Equally, he believes we should drop the whole notion of plants 1000 billion trees, yes to plant forests at all! Instead, we should let the forest grow back on its own. If we stop cutting down, 1000 billion trees will creep back on their own.

He argues that the fatal loss of forest is not local logging, but rather gross interventions on a large scale. First we had the colonial expansion into foreign territories, and then we had the international companies' neo-colonialist resource depletion. This does not only apply to Borneo and the cattle farmers' encroachment on the large but vulnerable Chaco forests i Paraguay and others, but also in neglected and overexploited forests in Eastern Europe, where corrupt authorities and mafia-like gangs push for fatal clear-cutting and quick money.

The global market for wood chips means that no forest is safe, and that more and more natural forests are being turned into monotonous tree plantations.

The latest development he points out – the new global market for wood chips for combustion power plants – is perhaps the most dangerous of all. We burn the world's forests precisely when we need them most. The global market for wood chips means that no forest is safe, and that more and more natural forests are being turned into monotonous ones tree plantationr, what environmentalists pejoratively call "green deserts".

When it comes to logging, Pearce believes the solution is to leave the management to those who live in and around the forests – and to make the forests into commons rather than creating overprotected national parks. Here he points out – in a now well-known "ecopragmatic" argument – that the wild and "pure" primeval forestone is a myth. Even the Amazon was arable land and gardens before Columbus, but has since grown over. This is good news, believes Pearce, because it shows that the forest can come back. Rather than planning on behalf of nature, we must emphasize overcoming the problems inherent in human society – because we have systematically underestimated the value of the forest and are only now discovering its decisive role for the climate.

Trust nature?

Pearce can be suspected of being selective and biased in what he tries to mediate in scientific debates, but equally shows an unprecedented willingness to discuss complicating matters and objections. In light of his own points about collapses and tipping points, it may seem odd to insist that we trust nature to repair itself. It also seems strange to reject all measures for afforestation, just because some projects have failed.

Despite certain fads and pointed formulations, the book is all in all extremely worth reading, and Pearce is an exceptionally knowledgeable and committed guide through the world's forests and management's missteps.


Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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