Sigh. Me neither. I guess that means I’m going to have to get real with you guys and gals. Get ready, because I’m about to drop some serious knowledge.
Deforestation, a primary concern for environmental activists at the global scale, is often talked about as a problem faced exclusively by developing countries. Discussions of deforestation gravitate toward recent situations in South America, in Africa, such as these in Gambia, The Congo, Cameroon, Zambia, Tanzania, and other areas such as Malaysia and Thailand. This is, in large part, due to the immediacy of the situations in these countries: deforestation is a current and ongoing problem throughout these areas, while it is less so in Europe and the United States, though it is worth noting that we have cleared 95% of our country’s forests in the past 200 years.
Vandana Shiva discusses deforestation in India extensively in her 1988 book Staying Alive, providing a useful historical context for that region, as well as opposing lenses with which to view forest ecology and forestry through. She describes the “feminine” view of the forest, as a life-producing and life-sustaining ecosystem that humans share a symbiotic relationship with. This view of forests emphasizes biodiversity, harmony with nature and a sacred, nurturing, mutualistic bond between forests and human beings. A principal element of the feminine view is the recognition that everything within the forest serves a useful and meaningful function; species that do not yield edible or otherwise valuable resources directly to humans do so indirectly, in their relationships with other species, both floral and fauna. While a tree may not provide food or functional lumber for building, it enriches the soil, the air and other species around it. This was, she explains, the dominant ideology guiding Indian peoples in their relationships with the forest. She contrasts this with “masculinist” or “reductivist” views of the forest, wherein the forest is viewed as an economic resource, and the relationship is driven by profit-seeking. In this model, species that do not provide economic benefit are viewed, essentially, as weeds. This is the ideology, she argues, that drove deforestation in India, and, it is an easily observable ideology that continues to guide deforestation, both in India and on a global scale.
While deforestation proves visibly harmful to the direct ecosystem it destroys, its impacts don’t end there. The earth’s ecosystems interact with each other and operate in a delicate balance. Damage to, and destruction of, one ecosystem has effects on ecosystems everywhere. As this, admittedly dated but still relevant, piece by NASA describes, deforestation has impacts on climate conditions far beyond the reach of the forests’ immediate vicinities.
Shiva extensively articulates the severe environmental and social costs of deforestation that are often neglected in the quest for profit-making. Deforestation leads to soil depletion, the destruction of food and shelter supply for peoples and animal species alike, landslides, drought, flooding, and numerous other problems, each of which have individual ripple effects. For example, flooding issues extend far beyond drowning crops or filling basements with puddles; floods negatively affect water quality and deteriorate infrastructure. The water quality impact is obvious; we drink water and cook with it and brush our teeth with it. It needs to be clean. The infrastructure aspect requires perhaps a bit more pause. When water infrastructure floods, sewer systems back up. This is bad for sewer systems and plants that manage them, but this can often have really gnarly results like raw sewage in your basement and/or your water systems. Raw. sewage. in. your. basement. Not. cute.
It is essential to recognize our own individual roles in deforestation. It is not faceless companies and corporations alone who reap the benefits of mass deforestation; we, as consumers, actively participate in this process in the products we buy and use. Many of our everyday products, while not direct products of deforestation, are the finished results of extracted resources. However, there are ways to be a social and environmentally responsible consumer. For instance, Nestle, the largest food corporation in the world, as a result of a successful campaign I referenced in an earlier post devoted to Greenpeace (shameless self-promotion, what up?!), pledged in 2010 to stop selling products that were the result of deforestation, and have followed through on that. The following quote illuminates one successful approach to more socially and environmentally responsible methods of production:
Governments and consumers also play a role. In Brazil, where deforestation resulted from soy and cattle farming, mounting pressure from consumers forced the government to declare a moratorium on buying or exporting soybeans produced on recently deforested land. This moratorium, along with other laws and programs protecting the forest, drastically reduced deforestation in the Amazon over the past five years – so much so that Brazil has lowered its heat-trapping emissions more than any other country on Earth – all while increasing the production of soy and cattle.
It’s made evident by the Brazil example that change is possible. The reductivist ideology of forestry has pervaded for centuries, and the disastrous environmental results are headed toward catastrophic. A return of the feminine view of forestry would be beneficial not only to the rural peoples of countries currently being devastated by deforestation, but to the earth as a whole, and, according to a recent report, ending deforestation could actually provide an economic benefit to the United States. A coalition of US groups from different industries ranging from agriculture groups, forestry groups and even United Steelworkers presented this study to Congress to call for an end to tropical deforestation, explaining that “overseas agriculture and logging operations are expanding production by cutting down the world’s rainforests, allowing them to flood the world markets with cheap commodities that undercut American goods.” The economic benefit estimated is astonishing – between $196 and $267 billion by 2030.
With an abundance of complicated problems in our own communities, particularly in economically difficult times, it’s challenging to inspire people to extend their realm of concern beyond things that pertain directly to their lives. While deforestation and its consequences do extend into our lives, we are largely the beneficiaries of the havoc being wreaked on the environment and peoples of the regions affected. Attempts to convince the public to change their daily routines in an inconvenient way that is a notoriously difficult sell, and we have no shortage of immediate and devastating problems throughout the world to contend with. However, Brazil and Nestle prove that drastic change is possible, and the positive effects extend just as negative effects do. Through supporting companies who make responsible decisions in purchasing and production, and supporting the efforts of groups like Greenpeace who apply the necessary types of pressure, it’s possible to restore some of our lost forests.