Imagine a torus. At its centre is a tree. We fell the tree and break the torus. We trigger a process of drought followed by desertification. The end of life on Earth. The torus, the cycle of life vital to our very existence, has effectively been destroyed by an axe, a saw, a chainsaw, a heavy-duty John Deere feller-buncher that can harvest 400 trees per hour. The fact that humanity now has some notion of how many PMHs (Productive Machine Hours) it would take to harvest all the 400 billion trees left in the Brazilian rainforest using heavy-duty logging machines is in itself alarming in the extreme. The problem with numbers is that they make fantasy real. Someone has fantasised about extracting all the timber from our rainforests, all the oil and minerals from the ground they grow on, and selling the lot for profits that may seem vast but are in fact entirely illusory. The engineers and the economists are there simply to do the maths. “Productivity is not about how many hours you spend on the job. It’s about how much work you get out of every one of those hours.” This is the mentality that conquered the West. This is the mentality that would condemn me for being a New Age liberal tree-hugger for even writing these words. This is the mentality that is axing the torus.

What we call the Amazon forest is not only in Brazil, of course, and if we include in our calculations all the neighbouring countries, the overall estimated number of trees is closer to 600 billion – each one of them transferring something in the region of 1000 litres of water per day (figures from Antonio Nobre’s TED-talk, ‘The Magic of the Amazon’). That means 1000 litres of vapour per tree per day that rises into the skies and produces rainfall. 20 billion metric tonnes of water per day – some 3 billion more than the Amazon river with all its 1100 tributaries discharges into the Atlantic Ocean. Let’s say our hypothetical John Deere feller-buncher managed 400 trees per hour in the Amazon rainforest. It’s just a figure, enough to paint a picture. That means we are robbing the atmosphere of 400,000 litres per PMH of vapour, and therefore rainfall – 3.2 million litres in a day’s work for one high-tech lumberjack. This is homespun maths, I admit, but, really, with all that’s going on, who is counting?

Twenty billion metric tonnes of water per day pouring upwards and falling as rainfall as far afield as California and Argentina. Or not, as the frequent devastating forest fires in North America attest. And elsewhere. And what of the great forests of North America? How much moisture were they releasing into the atmosphere before the Europeans turned up with all their engineering and economics? And let us not forget that Brazil is not the greatest tree-felling nation on Earth. Russia takes that prize – although their net forest loss is lower than Brazil’s by a long chalk. Numbers again: we are talking in the order of just over 20 million ha (200,000 sq. km) of net forest loss over a twelve-year period between 2000 and 2012 in Russia, as against something in the region of 28 million in Brazil. How many litres of vapour not being released into the atmosphere anymore is that? If we estimate 1000 trees per square kilometre, for an area of 200,000 we get something like 200 billion litres of water no longer being pumped into the atmosphere. Just because humankind made an axe and started counting.

The good news? The good news is simply extraordinary. The Loess Plateau in China, a high-profile project led by Daniel Liu and documented in a now-famous film presented at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, Hope in a Changing Climate, proved that it is still possible to rehabilitate landscapes thought to be beyond recall in a very short time. “Even in the lifetime of the project,” the World Bank website tells us, “the ecological balance was restored in a vast area considered by many to be beyond help.” Farm incomes quadrupled over a period of ten years thanks to a re-greening project that brought an area the size of Belgium back from beyond the brink with some very basic (albeit hard to achieve) landscape redesign. It took manpower and a lot of investment. But it proved that there is nothing, absolutely nothing preventing us from demanding that our governments and corporations devolve even only a fraction of what they spend on military budgets towards regreening and rehabilitating lost habitats in key areas around the world.

Restoring the full power of the torus – rehabilitating the rivers in the sky – will go along way to cleaning up the mess caused by air traffic, wars, cars, industry, industrial farming, cigarettes, and the brain farts of our ridiculously disempowered politicians. In a hopeful article for The Guardian newspaper published today, Judith Schwartz writes:

“There is nothing magic about any of this: throughout human history – the climatically benign period known as the Holocene – climate moderation has derived from functioning ecosystems. The important thing to realise is that we can restore ecosystems, these environments that have nurtured and sustained us, and bring heat and water dynamics back into balance. Because natural processes are so entwined, every step toward regeneration brings multiple co-benefits: more plants mean more photosynthesis, which means more carbon pulled from the atmosphere into the soil, where it adds fertility; every 1% increase in soil organic carbon represents an additional 250,000 litres per hectare that can be held on the land; the more water held on the land, the greater resilience to floods and drought.”

Further Reading

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