Matt Smith

Trees or the lack thereof

Global warming - something horrible is probably going to happen

I was reading on the forum about how some people were skeptical of the phenomenon of global warming. And it made me think how, for me, the issue isn’t so much whether the evidence for global warming meets the standards of scientific certainty, but rather that, when you look at humanity’s impact on the environment, it doesn’t seem to require copious degrees of imagination to see that if we continue with our ways – the same ways that have led to the crisis of global warming – something really ghastly is probably going to happen. I guess this makes me more willing to jump on the global warming bandwagon, and I’m equally guessing that this goes for a lot of other people too – on the other hand, I think defenders of the opposition need to admit too that in their case there’s a lot of truth to the argument that we couldn’t say that global warming is a fact (in the same way that we can’t say that the non-existence of deities, spirit worlds and garden pixies are facts, you see what I mean), but that they’re treading onto tenuous ground when they say that the overall impact of the status quo they are defending doesn’t look set to make the world a less nice place for most of us to occupy. Actually, a comment lament from people who don’t come from the world’s concrete jungles, or who grew up in less dense settlements, is that the quality of living has already been diminished considerably for human beings because there are so few places most of them can go to without a crowd, and obviously, with the world population increasing, this isn’t going to get any better – the loss of access to the amenities of an unspoilt environment alone, or perhaps I should say more concerningly the loss of experience that cultivates an appreciation of unspoilt environment, and the consequent vanishing of the value that should be placed upon it within society (and what about the mass media supplied information, or mass media constructed world, that supplants it, eh, where’s the quality in that?)…the loss of this itself, let alone given any of the other risks we face, would seem enough to inspire us to action.

One of the best renditions of the pattern of capitalist development was supplied by Alfred Crosby. In his book Ecological Imperialism, he outlines the fate of the first placed colonised by European people when they swept out of their native homelands, the Canary Islands. This is how European civilization ‘developed’ the Canary Islands: firstly, the native people, the Guanches, were murdered, slain by disease, or interbred with the Spanish population – today, there is abysmally little remaining that is in any way Guanch at all. Then, the forests were cut down, and replaced with farms that grew introduced cash crops. Animals like donkeys, camels and rabbits were also brought to the islands – it looks like subsequently the rainfall grew less, and the end result of it all was that today, after deafforestation, desertification, erosion and soil quality failure, the Canary Islands are a treeless and fairly barren wasteland. This is significant, because if we want to observe firsthand the effects of this pattern of development which has been repeated in so many places around the world, the Canary Islands provide us with the most long-term result. Although they did fall short of having the final step in the pattern, the blooming of dense settlements of human population (or shall we say avoided the final nail in the coffin) – still, it’s not too difficult to imagine how this step might add to the model.

Now, when I look around myself, I can see a couple of places that are on this road. The first is my own country, Australia. The native people were, in the appalling jargon of the times, fairly much ‘dealt with’ by 1900, as was the forest – most of the valuable old growth, in fact, had been felled by halfway through the 19th century. And as the 20th century shows, Australian people were fairly good at replacing pre-European settlement ecology with farms. We’re even having a fair crack at present to create centres of dense population settlement, or have more than our fair share of people (‘tax’ collectors and people who sell and make things, or who own real estate mostly, for obvious reasons) who look enviously at America’s 300+ million – just 200 years down the track from when we got started, things are drying and salting up quite nicely (this is the demonstrated pattern of development, remember), and there are very few places you can go to enjoy the best things that Australia’s environment offers where you aren’t going to meet a few friends. In other words, we’ve replicated the conditions of the Canary Islands very successfully, and it looks like we can be fairly confident we’re going to enjoy their fate…except worse, because Australia is going to be a crowded barren wasteland.

Even more concerningly, because this is where I live at present, I can see the lower north of Thailand happily heading out on this course too. Around my town, at the foot of the mountains, there is an endless sea of rice fields – as you go into the mountains, they are clothed in forest. But, there is absolutely no old growth forest visible whatsoever, it mustn’t have been so long ago that the hillsides were absolutely denuded. I poked around under the vines and things and there are any number of huge stumps (or more often holes, because even the stumps have been pulled up and sold); a couple of my classes also interviewed the old people, and we found out that it wasn’t so long ago that this area was the middle of a jungle. I headed to the temple museums too, to check things out – it was very sad to see these edifices built from massive trees, full of the few remnants of old growth wood that had been managed to be saved and put on display, and full of the stuffed skins and glass-eyed gazes of the many fantastic animals you could once have seen around here (I’ve seen nary a one of them out in the bush), not least because they are a very poor experience of the marvelous world they hint at. Anyway, what you obviously had here in the past was part of some of the most biodiverse and lush old growth forests in the world, and in recent times this has been converted into farmlands and towns (the population is really booming around here); this short way down the track, it’s hard to imagine there’s any negative impact from what’s happened, and certainly because the loss of forest was so abrupt and because there are so many people of immigrant descent around these parts most people are used to what you see now – is it my imagination, though, that Thailand seems to, in the 21 years since I first came here, have become each summer substantially drier and dustier? Certainly, if Thailand continues on this course, there is every reason to imagine that this could happen.

If each couple chose to have one child, the world population would halve in a generation. Or, if wealth was limited, the people who profit from increasing population would no longer have the power to push their agenda they currently possess, people would come to their senses, and this would naturally happen. The alternative is to try and reduce people’s footprint, if you can in any meaningful way, by reducing their liberties – in other words, so that economic growth and profit could be maintained by those to whom these things are most important, there could always be a bit of further slave training. The latter solution is what we’re stuck with, because the former solutions, despite the straightforwardness of their application, are very difficult to bring about - that, to me, seems rather a sad thing.


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