The Value of Trees and Combating Global Warming

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

I love trees. Maybe that makes me a kind of an outlier because we Americans and most of humanity seem to hate or only want to exploit them for whatever cash we can squeeze. The economic paradigm we adhere to and have believed since at least Adam Smith’s publication of Wealth of Nations in 1776 holds that land has no value unless it is improved. So, cutting down the forest improves and increases its value. Draining wetlands raises the land value. Extraction, drilling, and fracking all have a higher value than protecting and preserving what exists. Nature and people have no value in this model, beyond providing what our greed and lust for material wealth and profit offer. We are human production units with limited value or utility.

We are the only species on this planet that take what we want and return nothing to replenish and reinvest in the Earth to ensure its sustainability. Our economic model is narrow, short-sighted, fatally flawed, and will soon lead to the collapse of our civilization and quite possibly the extinction of our species. 

How different we might be, not to mention the Earth, if we had developed an understanding and appreciation of the value of things surrounding us, we take for granted. What if we had retained what our alleged primitive hunter-gatherer ancestors knew well. Our approach to global warming and climate change would be seen from a different perspective. Imagine if we did not believe the value of land cleared of trees and turned into a pasture or a parking lot as having a higher value than if we left the trees alone.

Kurt Vonnegut once suggested we need a Secretary of the Future whose purpose would be to represent the future of the yet-to-be-born. Native Americans, whom we saw as savages to be exterminated so we could have their land, saw it as their responsibility to look ahead seven generations to ensure their sustainability. Savages indeed! Think about what that would do to the way we view everything. Unfortunately, the economic paradigm we have developed is based upon dominance and giving no value to people, the environment, and no thought about the future. Both people and the Earth are viewed as being disposable. 

The question we have never bothered to ask is what the value of a tree is. At least, until now. Professor T.M. Das of the University of Calcutta decided to try and answer it. Professor Das determined a tree of any variety living for 50 years generates $31,250 worth of oxygen, provides $62,000 of air pollution control, controls soil erosion, and improves soil fertility amounting to $31,250. This partial list does not include the value of any fruits a tree may bear, lumber, or intangibles such as beauty and shade. Das puts the value of an ordinary run-of-the-mill 50-year-old tree at $193,250. Scientists recently noted if we were to engage in a massive restoration, planting 1.2 trillion trees, we could cancel a decade of CO2 emissions.

Since our current economic models attach no financial worth to the environment, nature, or to people, we fail to take these values into consideration when we are ripping up and burning down forests to make way for ‘improvements.’ Our current economic model does not consider a forest or woods to be the highest and best use of the land, and trees, unless they have a commercial value as lumber or produce fruit, nuts, or some extractable products are just something in the way of achieving what we desire. So, we cut them and turn them into pulp to make paper or simply burn them, adding more CO2 to the atmosphere and adding to global warming.

On October 13, 1994, the late Astronomer Carl Sagan made a powerful observation about our predicament as a species in a speech at Cornell University about a photograph taken by the Voyager I from six billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) from Earth. In the photograph, our Earth was a barely perceptible tiny blue dot. Sagan said,

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor, and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturing’s, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves…”

I hope you can see the irony in our behavior as a species, especially at this moment when we have more than adequate data and information to alert us to the self-defeating, absurd, and irrational behavior we continue to engage in. We continue to divide ourselves into little tribes or nations and become slaves to the behavior encoded in our DNA and seek to destroy “others” we perceive as competitors seeking resources necessary for our survival or simply having a skin color that is a bit different from ours.

You would think 26 years after Sagan’s speech that some of it would have sunk in and awakened enough of humanity to help shape and alter our course, but looking around, we see the fires burning, the temperatures rising, the ice melting, floods, and continuing slaughter of each other, apparently not.

Dark as the picture is and may seem, there are signs of hope mostly tucked away from view and our awareness. One such sign is the results of an experiment on tiny Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.

Ascension is an island of only 34 square miles (88 square kilometers). The British Overseas Territory was essentially a barren rock pile when Charles Darwin visited there at the end of his second voyage aboard the HMS Beagle in 1836.

The Spanish explorer, Joao da Nova, discovered Ascension Island in 1501. It attracted no interest due to its dry climate and little freshwater. Passing ships continued to stop so sailors could catch seabirds and turtles, but no permanent habitation.

Settlement of Ascension did not arrive until the British Navy placed a garrison in 1815 as insurance against any attempted escape by Napoleon, exiled on Saint Helena some 800 miles to the southeast. It became an imperial outpost and a rest stop for scientific explorers like Darwin and his friend botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker.

Darwin was on his way home after his five-year exploration mission on the HMS Beagle when it stopped at Ascension Island in 1836. He had visited Saint Helena first and came to Ascension out of curiosity and a desire to compare the two islands. He found little on Ascension Island. It was an arid island buffeted by dry trade winds from Southern Africa with sparse vegetation and few animals or insects. There were no trees, and the little rain that fell quickly evaporated. The Scarcity of freshwater impeded the growth or expansion of the imperial outpost.

Despite its shortcomings, Darwin was intrigued. A few years later when Joseph Hooker embarked upon his scientific study, Darwin encouraged him to stop at this barren outpost. After returning to London in 1843 and with encouragement from Darwin, Hooker, the botanist, devised a plan to alter the Ascension Island environment.

Hooker’s father was the Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. Hooker, assisted by his father, arranged for trees to be shipped to Ascension to use them to capture the rain. They hoped that using trees to capture moisture from the rain would help make the soil fertile and change the barren island into a lush garden. It was hope without any evidence or example suggesting the plan might work.

Over the years that followed, new shipments of trees of many varieties were shipped annually from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa, and Argentina. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the island was home to Norfolk pines, eucalyptus, bamboo, and banana trees. The 2,817-foot Green Mountain, highest on the island, was transformed into a cloud forest characterized by a persistent low-level cloud cover.

The trees drew moisture from the clouds, enriching the soil and allowing other vegetation to thrive as hoped. Darwin and Hooker assisted by the Royal Navy turned the barren island landscape into a lush oasis. The success of this experiment was far beyond their expectations.   

What Darwin, Hooker, and the Royal Navy created was the first self-sustaining and self-reproducing ecosystem. What might we learn from this first attempt in terraforming? The environment they created is artificial. It has a mixture of plants and trees that do not belong together in nature, but they are growing side-by-side. Such ecosystems as this should take over a million years to develop through a slow process of co-evolution. This ecosystem was built over a few decades by the Royal Navy. The lessons learned here are of immense future importance. It tells us we can create a fully functioning ecosystem through careful planning, trial-and-error, and aided by a few chance accidents.

The process is now known as ecological fitting. The plants on Ascension were collected from locations around the world and have self-organized into a thriving artificial system. The success accomplished on Ascension Island remains relatively unknown and largely ignored by the scientific community. Its implications have immense potential importance both in our need to restore the Earth and when we try to reshape environments on other worlds.

To combat and mitigate the effects of global warming, we must change our thinking and behavior. Rather than taking from the Earth by drilling, extracting, stripping, and pumping resources, we must invest in restoring the environment and ecosystems to protect its health, sustainability, and welfare. Creating artificial ecosystems by planting large-scale planned forests may not be our first choice, but it may become the only choice. The knowledge and expertise we acquire have implications and impact on what we do later elsewhere on the Earth. We may learn how to turn deserts green again that we created by our rush to extract, drill, and pump Earth’s bounty to support our greed and lust for material gain.

Green mountain shows us much about how ecosystems form and function in ways we never imagined. It may help us understand how an ecosystem can be constructed and used for carbon sequestration to combat global warming. Planned forests may lack the diversity and the regional peculiarities we find in nature, but they may be the price we have to pay to save our world, given what we have lost and are losing in our currently rapidly warming one.

History and experience suggest humans do not want to face reality. We try our best to avoid difficult choices and making painful decisions, even when our very survival is at risk. We seem unable to defer on pleasure even knowing continuing a behavior leads to death. Consequently, acknowledging we must learn to live within the sustainable limits of Earth’s capacity to regenerate is a requirement and not a choice.

Why? Because it is the only path that does not lead to the destruction of the Earth and our extinction. If we survive this test, we may finally understand wherever we go into the cosmos we will take Earth with us. We share half our DNA with every living thing in this world. Before we go elsewhere, we must have a healthy Earth to draw from and return. We must recreate Earth wherever we go. Any life we find elsewhere will undoubtedly be toxic to us. Bringing the Earth with us wherever we go is not a choice. It is a necessity. 

Global warming and climate change make studying and understanding what has taken place on Ascension Island imperative to restoring the Earth. Here lies a gift for us, hidden on a small forgotten island in the middle of nowhere. We only need to see and take advantage of what we have inherited. It may provide us with what we need to know and use to save ourselves and most life on Earth, but the time for action is now.

Love and Serve           Wabi-Sabi                   Namaste

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