Book Review: An Urgent Plea to Save the World’s Megaforests

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Yves here. Even though the press has made much of the importance of the Amazon rainforest, and has also described how it is being destroyed, the identity of and the importance of the other four megaforests has been neglected. The new book “Ever Green” seeks to correct that.

By M.R. O’Connor, who writes about the politics and ethics of science, technology, and conservation. She is the author of “Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things” and “Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the Earth.” Originally published at Undark

The first peer-reviewed map of the world’s megaforests was the result of an improbable collaboration between the Swedish furniture maker Ikea and the environmental activist organization Greenpeace. They were thrust together following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Russia’s forests — including a mature and verdant demilitarized zone knows as the Green Belt of Fennoscandia — were opened up to European timber companies. Roads and logging began to eat away at the landscape until environmentalists began to protest. Ikea wanted wood and Greenpeace wanted to protect special parts of the forest, places of extraordinarily complex webs of organisms.

To find out where their interests aligned, they needed a map. In the following years, an international group of scientists assembled one, but went beyond Russia, searching for major forests on all continents, eventually encompassing the globe’s tropical and boreal regions. In 2008, they released a cartographic marvel: a map of 5 million square miles of intact forest making up 2.6 percent of the planet’s land area. It required 150 billion pixels.

BOOK REVIEW“Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet,” by John W. Reid and Thomas E. Lovejoy (W.W. Norton; 320 pages).

In “Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet,” John W. Reid and Thomas E. Lovejoy, who died last yearat the age of 80, explain that the map — and the concept of intact forests it illustrates — shows us “where the magic is still happening — where there are massive fully functional forest cores, which the planet needs to keep working.”

The authors’ passionate argument is that the current focus on reducing coal and gas consumption or switching to electric vehicles to prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees centigrade overlooks an essential reality: Humans need to keep carbon in the ground.

As they point out, the boreal forests alone hold 1.8 trillion metric tons of carbon, the equivalent of an astonishing 190 years’worth of worldwide emissions at 2019 levels. Limiting emissions is important, of course, but if we lose our forests, it won’t matter much. “The math of keeping our world livable doesn’t add up without caring for our planet’s biology in general and keeping our big forests in particular,” they write.

Lovejoy and Reid focus on the world’s five remaining megaforests — New Guinea, the Congo, the Amazon, the North American boreal zone, and the Russian taiga — and they make a real effort to persuade readers of their arguments by avoiding a book that reads as a dressed up International Panel on Climate Change report.

They vividly describe their boots-on-the-ground reporting around the world and their many conversations with people who live and work in the forest. The places they visit are described richly: In Russia, amur tigers and leopards roam woods abounding with autumn foliage. In the Amazon, tapirs with droopy trunks and watery eyes step “mincingly” along riverbanks, and blue morpho butterflies the size of postcards careen “reckless and beautiful” through their camp.

In the past, scientists and conservationists have described such forests with a bewildering number of different terms: frontier, primary, pristine, virgin, deep, natural, ancient. Reid, an economist and conservationist, and Lovejoy, who coined the term “biological diversity,” refer to them as megaforests, or simply big forests.

Their choice to move toward a new vocabulary reflects their belief that previous names were misleading. Since its inception over a century ago, the conservation movement has been plagued by a conviction that “real” nature possesses a kind of “prehuman purity,” they write. Reid and Lovejoy refute this idea: “People have been dwelling in the world’s forests for tens of thousands of years, and they are still there.”

They make a crucial distinction that what defines megaforests is not that they are devoid of humans but they have not yet been compromised by modern industrial development. As botanist Alexey Yaroshenko tells the authors, “They are the last remnants of forest that were in equilibrium with an old type of human influence.” The Green Belt of Fennoscandia, for instance, is not just a landscape of elk and whooper swans — it is the home of the Indigenous Sámi, whose traditional knowledge of plants, animals, and geography is encyclopedic.

The chapters describing the human influence on forests are where “Ever Green”sings in its human-centric argument for conservation, one that is both compassionate and convincing. Megaforests, they explain, are places of wondrous biodiversity and a locus of human diversity.

Forests “reveal the full spectacle of human inventiveness” that have spawned thousands of cultures. For example, the world’s forests contain over a quarter of the Earth’s languages. In the Maybrat language of New Guinea, the words for “forest” include toof, which when spoken “feels like clearing water out of a snorkel” and refers to the forest that people touch everyday through hunting and collecting and gardening.Moss, on the other hand, is reserved for “secret, sacred forest places.”

Each forest culture, they write, has “its own unique way of perceiving reality, processing information, and making it into verbal expression. Each, in other words, with its own way of being in the world.”

This area of forest in West Papua used to be a farm plot. A native pandanus tree, which are cultivated for their leaves and fruit, can be seen at left. Visual: John W. Reid

Incredibly, anthropologists have found that the greatest predictor of language diversity has little to do with physical, geographical barriers but the amount of annual rainfall. The more consistent the rainfall, the more able a community is to be self-sufficient and therefore isolated. “These ecosystems where languages and cultures multiply are also those where the vegetation thickens and grows tall — forests,” write Reid and Lovejoy.

“Ever Green” goes into depth on the topic of deforestation but avoids a standard narrative of environmental tragedy. (“The most shocking thing” one scientist “has to say about deforestation in the Congo,” they write, “is that he’s never seen any.”) They argue that logging does not necessarily have to spell doom for forests, and that tree-planting campaigns like those put forth by billionaire Marc Benioff are unhelpful distractions from real solutions.

They emphasize that one of the most effective ways to protect forest landscapes is carbon finance — paying heavily forested countries to keep stored carbon in the ground — an idea with enormous potential. They also recommend severely limiting road building, and ensuring that Indigenous people are not sidelined but at the center of forest conservation policy.

For this reason, “Ever Green”is a surprisingly hopeful book. In the final chapter, the authors report that the most common message they heard from forest people to their readers was: “Tell them to come!” They encourage readers to consider their choices as consumers in the context of forest health but mostly to go see a big forest in person or, if that is impossible, to view a small forest where they can encounter the rest of creation. “Step outside anywhere and find a leaf and permit it to blow your mind,” they write.

Unlike so many other smaller ecosystems, our scientific understanding of the significance of the world’s forests and the will to preserve them may have overlapped in time to help slow their destruction. One finishes the book believing that it is possible for these beautiful, mysterious places where humans and trees and animals coexist to be saved, and more determined to support policies that preserve those relationships.

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  1. Eclair

    “They emphasize that one of the most effective ways to protect forest landscapes is carbon finance — paying heavily forested countries to keep stored carbon in the ground … ”

    I finished reading Kim Stanley Robinsons’s The Ministry for the Future this week, rushing through because I’m reading the ebook version borrowed from the library and there’s a wait list. One of the policies implemented (after much push-back) by The Ministry is a Carbon Coin; a planetary virtual currency, paid to corporations, states, municipalities, etc., for carbon-sequestering projects … from not cutting forests, to not drilling for fossil fuels, to no-till agriculture, to ditching fleets of airplanes and tankers. Shades of MMT!

    The System has spent centuries monetizing extraction …. felling forests, slurping up oil and gas, wringing out carbon-rich soils until they are nothing but sterile dust. Now we need a movement towards monetizing sequestration. That is, if we wish to survive as an intact eco-system.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Even though it seems crass, in a market economy, most people need to sell their labor to live, and so money can get them to do things other than resource exploitation.

      The tiny non profit I like, Snow Leopard Trust, hires former snow leopard poachers to photograph and track snow leopards to document numbers and movements to see how the population is doing. Educating people generally about snow leopards seems to help increase sympathy for them and get community members to see the leopards as part of their heritage. They also hire local women to do craft work, like prayer-style mats for bedside, mittens, kitchen towels, and other items to sell in the West. Again getting more perceived to be snow leopard income into these small economies helps reduce incentives to poach.

  2. Ashburn

    I spent two and half years living in a small town, or large village, in the Taunus Mountains outside Frankfurt, Germany. The whole area was heavily forested, as all the other towns in the area were tightly clustered. The locals referred to the Taunus as “the breath of Frankfurt.” A two minute walk from my house took me into a forest that I could walk for miles. What impressed me was how well managed the forest seemed to be. Yes, there was logging but it seemed to be small scale and the logging trails were narrow, and unpaved, more like wide walking paths. There was even a small headstone-like plaque honoring a deceased ‘Waldmeister’, who had been the local forest manager. When it comes to mixing modern human settlements with forests, the Germans really do it right.

    1. anon in so cal

      Anecdotally, the few times I’ve looked for birds in southern Germany’s forests, there were very few.
      Managed forests, it turns out, can be inhospitable for wildlife.

      Separately, conserving forests seems to be the only remedy that also conserves biodiversity. Tree-planting campaigns typically result in “industrial” forests—monoculture with non-native trees.

  3. Amigauser

    How much money in taxes are people in western countries willing to pay, to make it worthwhile for third world countries to not cut down their forests?
    Pleading that poor people should not do what we have done , whether it’s cutting down forests, eating meat and dairy or driving cars will be ignored.
    Poor people have access to TV/internet and will want to have the lifestyle we have.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      That’s why the concept of “carbon finance” was introduced. Make the forest pay.

      Of course the Deep Forest peoples so far reject the anti-forest lifestyle they see all around them and have so far chosen “less stuff, more forest”. So your concern really applies to the ravening hordes of landless peasants and peasant-wannabes all around the forests, and also the elite pirates who seek to strip mine and strip burn whole zones of forest for their own elite profit. And they will mobilized and send forward waves of peasants as their shock troops for burn-it-all-down, as in Brazil.

      And of course Industrial Civilization peoples could reduce their levels of material consumption in a visible way also, too, of course. That would strengthen their moral standing to make the argument.

  4. Carla

    “Step outside anywhere and find a leaf and permit it to blow your mind.”

    What an utterly magnificent sentence!

    1. Anthony G Stegman

      Not to be snarky, but where I live when one finds a leaf what blows is not the mind but a noisy, gas powered leaf blower.

      1. deplorado

        I seriously think the gas powered leaf blowers should be outlawed. And for residential areas, only rake and brush, no blowers of any kind. I distolerate them with passion.

        Nature indeed, blows one’s mind who’s open to it. This whole existence is a miracle, and the way we live is like that is the last thing anyone will ever think to respect.

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