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

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

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

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

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.

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

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 G

trees and forests

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

Zoologist Bernd Heinrich

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.