I’m not sure what the “holiday season” means in this weirdest of years. A chance to reflect, refresh, and recharge. 2021 will—eventually—be better, even if the first half will be bleak. One of the essential parts of the psychological stresses induced by the pandemic has been the uncertainty over its depth and duration. At least we now have a sense of an ending.
Speaking of which…hopefully, the worst thing that will happen in the last month of Trump is a gaggle of perverse pardons. The Biden Presidency will staunch the bleeding and make incremental steps on many necessary fronts. But the Dem’s ability to really move things forward is severely limited, even if things turn out well in Georgia.
So, both in terms of newsnoise and substance, I’d like to change the subject and talk about something that
* can be done
* have a real effect on a major human challenge, and
* doesn’t depend on who is running our government (or, indeed, most governments)
The Earth’s forests once comprised 6 trillion trees. Half of those are gone.
When the Bible was written, the issue of human domination of nature (embedded in Genesis) seemed like a theoretical problem. Even when Francis Bacon sparked what we call the “Scientific Revolution” in the 17C, human ability to leverage new knowledge was a dream. But the knowledge that resulted, compounded with Bacon’s assertion that humans were separate from and superior to nature, launched us to our present place.
The harnessing of knowledge and energy over the past 400 years has brought many wonders, but immense damage has been done along the way. Profound climate changes will, in the absence of wholesale changes in human behavior, cause massive destruction of natural systems, rising oceans, dramatically increased weather, and the deaths of millions of people through storms, droughts, famine, forced migration and flooding. Incremental changes, even if widespread, will only mitigate the likely losses.
This problem is not a surprise. People have been talking and writing about it for a long time.
* It would have been nice if people had figured this out and started to remedy it 160 years ago (George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature (1864)).
* It would have been nice if people had figured this out and started to remedy it 60 years ago (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)).
* We have it figured out. Do we want to wait—like corona deniers last spring? How much will we pay to repair and prevent sea-level rise over the next 40 years?
There are two major (interrelated) impediments: inertia and nescience. [FN 1]
In modern times, large-scale intentional human endeavors have only occurred under the aegis of political communities. However, both domestic and international political systems appear to be unable to mobilize action at a scale and pace necessary to significantly mitigate, much less prevent ecological disaster. For example, efforts to construct a global carbon market or otherwise integrate what economists call “externalities” (i.e. things markets can’t account for) run afoul of bureaucratic inertia and incumbent opposition. All efforts—by individuals, cities, companies, and some countries—to attack this problem are to be applauded. But they are not enough.
Indeed, from this perspective, there is little reason to be optimistic. The consistent record of human history is to defer painful solutions to obvious, even life-threatening, problems until the problems become too large to ignore; at which point remediation is implemented at a much higher cost (and intervening damage) than if the problem had been addressed at an early stage.
Winston Churchill famously warned the British government for much of the 1930s about the dangers of a resurgent Germany. Facts were disbelieved or downplayed. Proposals for response were drowned by estimates of the costs involved which would burden an already weakened British economy. The psychological shadow of World War I prevented otherwise intelligent and well-meaning leaders from contemplating what would be necessary in the future. The result was cataclysm.
Once the War began, Britons adopted a new perspective and the question shifted from ‘How could we possibly do a little more?’ to ‘How can we do what needs to be accomplished?’ The same was true in the US after Pearl Harbor. Amazing things happened. Once the US entered WWII, Henry Kaiser figured out a way to produce “Liberty” cargo ships in 4 days rather than 45 days. Once the US entered the War, it was over in 44 months.
Our own experience with the coronavirus over the past year has demonstrated that many—most—people will not take threats seriously if the remedies are painful and the harm seems distant. The apparent multi-vaccine miracle may reverse this crisis. It may also help many people think: “Someone [else!] will figure it out and save us.”
If people cannot be troubled to wear a mask or avoid indoor parties, how much effort can we expect to drive less, consume less, or pay more for the carbon we use? If political leaders (not just our own, but those in most countries) are pusillanimous in the face of dire daily death counts, how much heat will they take for requiring the wide and deep social changes necessary?
Yet, pessimism is no reason not to “take up arms against a sea of troubles.” Feeling resigned or ‘tuning out’ will kill (more, and increasing) people.
Unlike German rearmament or pandemic prevention, those who perceive the problem can still act effectively in the absence of tops-down direction or leadership. What is required is a “coalition of the willing.” Not a league of countries, but a collection of those people, organizations, and governments who “get it.”
What is to be done?
Planting trees can do it.
Taking, for discussion’s sake, a target of 200 gigatons of carbon to be sequestered and an average carbon storage capacity per tree of ? ton, all it would take is 400 billion trees. That would make a big dent in the climate change problem. Now, since we (as a planet) are down 3 trillion trees, there is plenty of space to plant 400 billion, even given the huge expansion of the human footprint. One recent study of climate change shows that by 2100, climactic effects could well reduce the global economy by 5-7% (or about $5T/year). So, investing $10B a year would seem like a good investment. [FN 2]
Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House back in the ‘80s used to say that “All politics is local.” Trees are, too. Environmental conditions vary, county to county and country to country. And with global warming, what might have made sense to plant twenty years ago, may not make sense twenty years from now. Beyond the botany, forests need to be supported by local people; it’s better for the trees and better for the people: communities connected with the earth. This means adding a tree to a backyard, adding a dozen to a park, finding an open space (highway rights of way, for example) and plant a few hundred.
Many people and groups around the world are starting to do this, but most projects are necessarily small. And, given embedded climactic and cultural differences, there is good reason for a multitude of projects around the world. There is no reason to force their integration or control all these efforts, but there is plenty of opportunity to coordinate, share information and best practices, and foster the flow of funds from both public and private donors to well-designed, well-organized, well-supported, and sustainable projects. Until this year, there were two projects which have spoken of the size of effort referred to here, but they have no plan behind their catchy slogan of a “trillion trees.” The Nature Conservancy has a “billion tree” program. The Arbor Day Foundation in the US has a 100 million tree program. The National Forest Foundation in the US has a plan and infrastructure to put in 50 million trees by 2023.
In pre-pandemic 2020, Marc Benioff and the World Economic Forum announced a coordination effort for a trillion trees. Awesome. Perhaps they will be the information infrastructure to help local efforts around the country, but they’re not planting anything directly.
Most actual planting groups talk about their ‘stretch’ goals; that they are doing more than they’ve ever done before. It’s true and is admirable; but incremental improvement isn’t enough. After all, planting 400 billion trees would mean 8,000 projects of the size of the NFF program.
400 billion trees. It’s a lot. But, it’s feasible. The land (2 billion acres) is there, the science is there, the money (USD 100B) is can be found. How can it be knit together?
Local science, local land, local people, local planting; global funding, global network, global results.
Besides the moral benefits of personal/community action, the practicalities of the size of the project and the diversity of environments means that many localized projects have to be organized. After all, we’re actually talking about more than just planting, we talking sustainable long-term carbon sequestration that fits in with local people, local cultures, and local environments. How can we provide them with the knowledge, tools, ‘best practices,’ and a meta-community network to make this more feasible?
Recently, I connected with a group called Eden Projects that has been planting trees for fifteen years. They were pretty small for the first ten years, but now have been ramping up, building on a network of local projects that they manage on three continents. They combine science and an investment in local communities who they pay to plant and maintain trees and forests. This year, they are planting over 100 million trees and are committed to a radical expansion of their capabilities into the billions every year.
They’re getting my attention and support. But even if they plant 20 billion trees in the next forty years, we still need another 20 projects like them. So, there’s lots of work to be done. Planting trees is not the only approach, it’s certainly not a simple solution. But it can be done by those who are willing.
There is an old Chinese saying:
“When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago.
When is the second-best time to plant a tree? Now.”
1 Nescience (one of my favorite words) means willful ignorance.
2 I have some back-up for all these numbers. Contact me for more details.