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January 2011 Issue
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Seeing the forest beyond the trees

Living with a little chaos could benefit us, and the planet

Welcome to 2011; the United Nations’ International Year of Forests. It’s the year when the good folk at the UN have set themselves the not insignificant task of convincing people around the world to like – and look after – forests.

It sounds pretty straightforward, but let me sketch out a quick picture of what they’ve let themselves in for.

The main problem they’ll have to tackle is that on the whole, we just don’t seem particularly fond of forests. According to a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation study, over the last 10 years we’ve destroyed 13 million hectares of forest, and 16 million hectares in the 1990s – that’s more than the entire land area of New Zealand in the space of 20 years!

Even more concerning is the fact that we’ve lost 40 million hectares of primary forest, that is forest with no visible sign of human influence, in the last 10 years. At this rate, we’re destroying 0.4 per cent of the world’s virgin forests each year. Giving us about 250 years before the last of it is gone.

The UNFAO found that the biggest forest clearers were the poorer countries (or at least ones with large income inequality). Tanzania and Nigeria lost about four million hectares each through the decade, Indonesia got rid of around five million and Brazil destroyed a staggering 26 million hectares.

For the people manning the chainsaws, the reasoning seems pretty simple; day to day they’re faced by two problems: poverty and hunger – and the forest is an obvious solution to both. Just chop it down, sell the timber (or just burn it) and then use the newly available land to grow crops and raise cattle.

In reality the only way these developing countries are going to get around this situation is with help from developed countries, but for the developed world our attitudes to forests are a bit more complex.

In my experience the average westerner – the New York stockbroker, French bureaucrat, or Sydney housewife – takes great pride in knowing that wild forests exist, at least as an abstract notion. But if you drop them into a pure wilderness environment, they’ll generally find it to be a confronting and not entirely pleasant experience.  

Author Richard Flanagan captured it brilliantly in Death of a River Guide: “[The forest] smells strongly of an acrid, fecund earth, and its temperate humidity weighs upon them like a straitjacket of the senses. Wherever they turn there is no escape: always more rainforest and more of it irreducible to a camera shot. No plasterboard walls or coffee tables are found to act as borders, to reduce this land to its rightful role of decoration.”

This combination of pride and aversion usually averages out into a mild apathy – if the forests don’t bother them, then they don’t bother the forests… that is as long as no one finds any minerals underneath them.

So the UN’s job is to convert this mix of predatory pragmatism and dysfunctional apathy into custodianship – as I said, it’s not a small job. But if they can do it, there are some big payoffs for us all.

Firstly there are the benefits to the planet: cleaner air, clean water, improved species diversity and a more stable climate. But beyond that, forests and wilderness areas have direct benefits to their human occupants.

Studies have shown that people exposed to natural environments – like forests – have lower childhood obesity, lower stress levels, recover from stressful events better, live longer and are basically healthier and happier for it. But I think there’s an even more significant benefit that has as yet gone unmentioned.

To an extent, our destruction of forests seems instinct-based. We all have an innate drive to bring order to chaos: mow the lawn, tidy the kitchen, organise our belongings (teenagers being a notable exception).

This instinct has served us well over the years. It’s seen us create the great pillars of civilisation: schools, libraries, hospitals, parliaments, courts and indoor climbing gyms; these are all places of great order (many of which stand on previously forested sites).

However, given that the defining trait of humanity is wisdom (the ‘sapience’ in Homo sapiens) which involves acting independently from our instincts and if as a species we can be wise enough to control our ordering instinct and live with a little chaos then paradoxically we’ll be all the more civilised for it.