Posts Tagged ‘deforestation’

Humboldt on scientific collaboration and climate change

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

In September of 1828 Alexander von Humboldt organized a conference for the German Association of Naturalists and Physicians. He invited hundreds of scientists from across Europe, using an interdisciplinary approach that reflects very much the philosophy of a research institute with which I have the good fortune to be affiliated: IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis) in Laxenburg, Austria.

Unlike previous such meetings at which scientists had endlessly presented papers about their own work, Humboldt put together a very different programme. Rather than being talked at, he wanted the scientists to talk with each other. …. Humboldt encouraged the visiting scientists to gather in small groups and across disciplines. …. He envisaged an interdisciplinary brotherhood of scientists who would exchange and share knowledge. ‘Without a diversity of opinion, the discovery of truth is impossible,’ he reminded them in his opening speech.

Similarly, Humboldt foresaw the work of IIASA and other research centres when he highlighted the relationship between human activity and climate change:

Humboldt wrote about the destruction of forests and of humankind’s long-term changes to the environment. When he listed the three ways in which the human species was affecting the climate, he named deforestation, ruthless irrigation and, perhaps most prophetically, the ‘great masses of steam and gas’ produced in the industrial centres. No one but Humboldt had looked at the relationship between humankind and nature like this before.

These quotes are from Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Knopf, 2015), pp. 196, 213.

This is a follow-up to my TdJ post of two-weeks ago.

our relationship with trees

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Most often, the best treatment for an infected wild forest is to leave it alone, writes beloved naturalist Richard Mabey.

An insidious anthropomorphism governs our relationships with trees, from beliefs about their conception to judgments on their health. We persist in regarding them as frail humanoids in need of intensive care, not as autonomous organisms. For at least two centuries trees have been rebranded as the products of human enterprise, and their existence predicated on our behaviour as surrogate parents. We must plant, stake, weed them, employ hygienic or cosmetic surgery if they are to survive, and put them out of their misery when they don’t pass our tests of worthiness. What we shut our eyes to is that this pattern of ubiquitous, regimented intervention is part of what makes them susceptible to trouble. ….

A wood without any diseases or parasites would be a lifeless cohort of leafy poles. No leaf-eating insects, therefore no insect-eating birds. No rot-holes for bats and owls. No timber recycled back into the soil. Trees are social organisms. They tend to live with other trees, in a complex network of mutual dependency. They are linked by chains of benign underground fungi that distribute nutrients and information about insect predation, and which one ecologist has nicknamed “the wood-wide web”. If one species of tree succumbs to stresses, other species take its place. In individual trees, reduced vitality prolongs life. What we regard as “diseases” are often just the intricate exchanges and workings of the forest food-chain.

Exotic diseases, to which these exquisite networks are not adapted, are the exception, and there is no conceivable argument against a total ban on imports of tree material from areas where non-native afflictions are rampant. But we should reflect on how the ways we manage trees and woods provides conditions as conducive to epidemics as an overcrowded hospital: battery-grown saplings with minimal genetic variety; dense block planting with single species, often in unsuitable sites; suppression of natural regeneration; ignorance of trees’ natural immune systems and survival mechanisms. At every point we are the cause and aggravator of malignant tree diseases, but it is natural woodland that is likely to be the remedy.

Richard Mabey, “Wildwoods don’t need our help to survive ‘apocalyptic’ diseases“, Financial Times, 27 June 2015 (metered paywall).

UK nature writer Richard Mabey (born 1941) is author of numerous books, including Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants ( Ecco, 2011).

deforestation and global warming

Monday, May 26th, 2014

The UN says the world must cut carbon emissions by some 40-70 per cent by 2050. This target cannot be reached if the current rate of deforestation does not dramatically slow. But any action to protect the world’s forests creates a dilemma: how can these vital areas be protected without unfairly holding back the economic growth of developing countries?

An important part of the solution is to enable rich-nation emitters to pay developing countries to maintain their forests. Compared to other carbon-reducing policies – such as investment in renewables – this is a very cheap option. ….

[But,] there is a constant risk that the protection of one part of a forest merely leads to another part of it being chopped down instead. Even if the government is fully committed to a scheme, its governance systems may not be able to protect an area from illegal destruction. International bodies therefore need to put in place agreed systems to certify that forests have both truly been protected and that the schemes are additional to plans that existed without the extra funding.

The role of forests in cutting carbon“, Financial Times, editorial, 26 May 2014.


climate policy in poor countries

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Two American academics have drafted a compelling op-ed for today’s Financial Times.

Having failed to stem carbon emissions in rich countries or in rapidly industrialising ones, policy makers have focused their attention on the only remaining target: poor countries that do not emit much carbon to begin with. ….

In Nigeria [for example], the UN Development Programme is spending $10m to help “improve the energy efficiency of a series of end-use equipment … in residential and public buildings”. As a way of lifting people out of poverty, this is fanciful at best. Nigeria is the world’s sixth-largest oil exporter, with vast reserves of natural gas as well. Yet 80m of its people lack access to electricity. Nigerians do not simply need their equipment to be more efficient; they need a copious supply of energy derived from plentiful local sources.

Or consider Pakistan, where energy shortages in a rapidly growing nation of 180m have led to civil unrest – as well as rampant destruction of forests, mostly to provide firewood for cooking and heating. Western development agencies have refused to finance a project to use Pakistan’s Thar coal deposits for low-carbon natural gas production and electricity generation because of concerns over carbon emissions. Half a world away, Germany is building 10 new coal plants over the next two years. ….

We in the rich world have chosen economic growth over emissions reductions. It is cruelly hypocritical of us to prevent poor countries from growing, too. If we are forced to adapt to life on a planet with a less hospitable climate, the poor should at least confront the challenge with the same advantages that are enjoyed by the rich.

Roger Pielke and Daniel Sarewitz, “Climate policy robs the world’s poor of their hopes“, Financial Times, 27 February 2014. (ungated link)

Political scientist Roger Pielke is a professor in the environmental studies programme at the University of Colorado. Geologist Daniel Sarewitz directs the Washington, D.C. office of Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes.

protecting the Amazon rainforest

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

NPR’s “Planet Money” podcasts are 15 to 20 minutes long and almost always worth listening to. This one is particularly interesting.

Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, a pristine corner of the Amazon rainforest, is home to jaguars, giant otters, and the golden-mantled tamarin. The park also sits on top of hundreds of millions of barrels of oil, worth billions of dollars.

The government of Ecuador faces a choice: Should it protect the park, or go for the money?

Planet Money, “Episode 433: Holding A Rainforest Hostage?” (Update), 30 August 2013.

Ecuador’s government attempted to do both, but failed. Listen to the podcast to find out what happened, and why.

more on Easter Island

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

UCLA professor Jared Diamond, in his best-selling book Collapse (Allen Lane, 2005; Penguin, revised edition, 2011), popularised the thesis of British archaeologist Paul Bahn and others that the collapse of Easter Island was caused by deforestation and internal social problems, long before the arrival of Europeans. Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo argue, in The Statues That Walked (Free Press, 2011), that, despite deforestation, the islanders managed to grow sufficient food and live in relative peace until the Europeans brought germs and violence to their shore.

Paul Bahn, reviewing the book of Hunt and Lipo, concedes that the huge stone statues were moved upright for miles, without need for timber. This is an important concession, for it implies that the islanders could have been carving and moving statues up to the time of the arrival of the Europeans.  Bahn complains, however, that “coverage of work by others is incomplete”.

For example, a variety of evidence contradicts their claim of rat predation: numerous palm fruits not gnawed by rats, palm stumps burned and cut, continued germination of palms despite the rats’ presence, and the disappearance of other plant species that coexist with rats elsewhere. Hunt and Lipo’s claim that human skeletal remains show little evidence of lethal trauma is refuted by quotes from anthropologist Douglas Owsley, the author of a 1994 paper that they reference. After examining more than 600 Easter Island skeletons, Owsley stated in a 2003 BBC documentary that the extreme frequency of injuries proved that these were people at war: “They’re slugging it out, there’s no doubt about it.”

Hunt and Lipo present some of the island’s many features entertainingly, but the history of Rapa Nui is more complex than they allow.

Paul Bahn, “Anthropology: Head to head“, Nature 476 (11 August 2011), pp. 150-151.

Whether rats (who accompanied the human colonizers) or humans themselves were directly responsible for the deforestation of Easter Island is a moot point. A crucial fact – which Bahn in his review does not contest – is that the islanders were healthy, well-fed and peaceful in 1722 when the first Europeans arrived. A society that survived on an inhospitable, treeless island was devastated by previously unknown germs introduced by Europeans. A similar fate awaited numerous tribes and civilisations in the Americas following their contact with Europeans. Hunt and Lipo might overstate their case, but their thesis seems to have more merit that the ‘ecocide’ thesis popularised by Jared Diamond.

Paul Bahn is author (with John Flenley) of Easter Island, Earth Island (Thames & Hudson, 1992).

response to ecological bottlenecks

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

I am an economist who shares [Jared] Diamond’s worries, but I think he has failed to grasp both the way in which information about particular states of affairs gets transmitted (however imperfectly) in modern decentralised economies – via economic signals such as prices, demand, product quality and migration – and the way increases in the scarcity of resources can itself act to spur innovations that ease those scarcities. ….

Here is an example of what I mean. Forests loom large in Diamond’s case studies. As deforestation was the proximate cause of the Easter Islanders’ demise, he offers an extended, contrasting account of the way a deforested Japan succeeded, in the early 18th century, in averting total disaster by regenerating its forests. Now consider another island: England. Deforestation here began under the Romans …. In the mid-18th century what people saw across the landscape in England wasn’t trees, but stone rows separating agricultural fields. The noted economic historian Brinley Thomas argued that … England became the centre of the Industrial Revolution not because it had abundant energy but because it was running out of energy. France, in contrast, didn’t need to find a substitute energy source: it was covered in forests and therefore lost out. I’m not able to judge the plausibility of Thomas’s thesis … but the point remains that scarcities lead individuals and societies to search for ways out, which often means discovering alternatives. Diamond is dismissive of the possibility of our finding such alternatives in the future because, as he would have it, we are about to come up against natural bottlenecks. We should be persuaded by the evidence that has been gathered over the years by environmental scientists that he is right, but simply telling us that we are about to hit bottlenecks won’t do, because environmental sceptics would reply that discovering alternatives is the way to avoid them.

Partha Dasgupta, “Bottlenecks“, London Review of Books, 19 May 2005.

Recycled from 17 May 2005.

Cambridge University Professor Partha Dasgupta is reviewing Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (2005). Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, in a new book, argue convincingly that the Easter Islanders managed to survive and thrive despite deforestation, and that their ‘discovery’ by Europeans – not deforestation – was the proximate cause of their demise. The book by Hunt and Lipo is The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (Free Press, New York, 2011).

paper recycling and trees

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Two years ago TdJ posted a statement of University of Toronto philosopher Joseph Heath with the title “Paper recycling can be bad for the planet“. Heath’s argument in essence was:

Why are there so many cows in the world? Because people eat cows. Not only that, but the number of cows in the world is a precise function of the number that are eaten. If people decided to eat less beef, there would be fewer cows. Yet the same is true of trees.

In the current issue of the Canadian Journal of Economics, two economists from the University of Montreal reach the same conclusion, with a sophisticated model that embodies precisely the same reasoning. Here is the abstract of their paper:

Interest in recycling of forest products has grown in recent years, one of the goals being to conserve trees or possibly increase their number to compensate for positive externalities generated by the forest and neglected by the market. This paper explores the issue as to whether recycling is an appropriate measure to attain such a goal. We do this by considering the problem of the private owner of an area of land, who, acting as a price taker, decides how to allocate his land over time between forestry and some other use, and at what age to harvest the forest area chosen. Once the forest is cut, he makes a new land allocation decision and replants. He does so indefinitely, in a Faustmann-like framework. The wood from the harvest is transformed into a final product that is partly recycled into a substitute for the virgin wood, so that past output affects the current price. We show that in such a context, increasing the rate of recycling will result in less area being devoted to forestry. It will also have the effect of increasing the harvest age of the forest, as long as the planting cost is positive. The net effect on the flow of virgin wood being harvested to supply the market will as a result be ambiguous. An important point, however, is that recycling will result in fewer trees in the long run, not more. It would therefore be best to resort to other means if the goal is to conserve the area devoted to forestry.

Didier Tatoutchoup and Gérard Gaudet, “The impact of recycling on the long-run forestry“, Canadian Journal of Economics 44:3 (August 2011), pp. 804-813.

The link is to an earlier version of the paper, which has a slightly different title: “The Impact of Recycling on the Long-Run Stock of Trees”.

For the moment, I continue to toss all old paper into designated recycling bins, but should reconsider this action, given its negative effect on the number of trees, hence positive effect on greenhouse gases.

trees and forests

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

Zoologist Bernd Heinrich  today focuses on biofuels, but his words apply equally to Joseph Heath’s call for “a simple, cogent line of reasoning that defends the practice [of paper recycling] against the ‘economic’ objection”.

Trees are often called a “carbon sink” — implying that they will sop up carbon from the atmosphere for all eternity. This is not true: the carbon they take up when they are alive is released after they die, whether from natural causes or by the hand of man. The only true solution to achieving global “carbon balance” is to leave the fossil carbon where it is — underground.


[The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 does not provide] carbon-reduction credits for saving existing forests. Since planting new trees does get one credits, Kyoto actually created a rationale for clear-cutting old growth.

This is horrifying. The world’s forests are a key to our survival, and that of millions of other species. Not only are they critical to providing us with building material, paper, food, recreation and oxygen, they also ground us spiritually and connect us to our primal past. Never before in earth’s history have our forests been under such attack. And the global-warming folks at Copenhagen seem oblivious, buying into the corporate view of forests as an exploitable resource.

Bernd Heinrich, “Clear-Cutting the Truth About Trees”, New York Times, 20 December 2009.

Ewald Rametsteiner’s comments on my 20 August 2009 recycling post make more sense to me now that I have read this column.

Professor Heinrich lives in a 300-acre (120 hectare) Vermont forest. He is author of numerous books, including The Trees in My Forest (Harper, 1997) and Summer World: A Season of Bounty (Ecco, 2009).

Elinor Ostrom on human activity and deforestation

Monday, October 12th, 2009

Recent attempts to understand processes leading to general environmental harms involve multi-variable models. Ehrlich and Ehrlich (1991), for example, adopted Barry Commoner’s earlier (1972) three-variable causal model: I = P*A*T, where, I = impact on the environment, P = population, A = affluence …, and T = technologies employed. An alternative model developed by Grant (1994) for UNICEF … is the PPE spiral, where poverty and population pressures are viewed as reinforcing one another and jointly impinging on environmental conditions while all three factors – population, poverty, and environment – affect and are affected by political instability.

… [T]hese two models [have many differences.] First, they disagree on the sign of the relationship between poverty and environmental variables. …. [S]hould we expect poverty to adversely affect deforestation in developing countries [the UNICEF model] and affluence to affect deforestation in industrialized countries [the Commoner-Ehrlich model]? The Commoner-Ehrlich model includes population size …. The UNICEF model identifies population growth rather than current size. Technology appears in the Commoner-Ehrlich model, but not in the UNICEF model. Political instability appears in the UNICEF model, but not in the Commoner-Ehrlich model. … [W]hich model best describes the world [?]. If one accepts the Commoner-Ehrlich view, one should focus attention on the most affluent countries and ignore political instability. Accepting the UNICEF view, one would focus on the poorest countries and emphasize the impact of political instability.


[So much for theory. What does the empirical evidence show? Unfortunately, not much.] [A]nalyses of [the effects of] demographic, socioeconomic and institutional factors on deforestation … do not support the idea of human driving forces, whereby there are human mechanisms that operate everywhere the same way – similar to gravity or other physical forces.

Elinor Ostrom, “The International Forestry Resources and Institutions Research Program: A Methodology for Relating Human Incentives and Actions on Forest Cover and Biodiversity”, in F. Dallmeier & J.A. Comiskey (eds.), Forest Biodiversity in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean (UNESCO, Paris, 1998), pp. 2-3, 10.

After so much effort, we still know almost nothing about this important subject. Political scientist Elinor Ostrom is a leading … perhaps the leading … researcher in this field. Lesser researchers actually believe that they understand the relationship between human activity and deforestation, so torture the data until they confess.

Update: Elinor Ostrom today was awarded, along with Berkeley economist Oliver E. Williamson, this year’s Nobel Prize in economics, “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”.

recycled from the Thought du Jour archive.