Ever Green

Forests are special places. Walking through a forest — I don’t do this often enough — makes me feel calmer and more alive at the same time. My senses seem more alert or maybe more receptive. And I know they’re special not just for the personal experiences they offer. They benefit the whole planet, especially very large forests.

The world’s five largest forests collectively cover roughly 5.6 billion acres or about 15.5% of Earth’s total land area. These megaforests support an unbelievable range of biodiversity. They are home to thousands of human communities, mainly Indigenous. We can’t keep global warming to within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels without their enormous capacity to absorb and store carbon.

But they’re in trouble.

Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet is about why it’s so important to conserve Earth’s megaforests and how to do it.

The book was co-authored by John W. Reid and Thomas E. Lovejoy.

Reid brings an economic perspective to conservation. He’s written on this topic for The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and Scientific American. He currently serves as Senior Economist with Nia Tero, an organization that supports Indigenous guardianship of vital ecosystems.

Lovejoy died in December 2021, just before this book was published. He was a pioneering researcher in biodiversity – a term he invented in 1980. He served on science and environmental councils of the Carter, Bush and Regan Administrations. Prior to his death, he was a Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University.

The Big Five

The world’s five great megaforests are:

  • The North American boreal forest which stretches across Alaska and northern Canada all the way to the Atlantic
  • The Taiga which covers large swathes of northern Scandinavia and Russia across Siberia to the Pacific
  • The Amazon of course
  • The Congo, and
  • Most of the island of New Guinea.

New Guinea? Yeah, I was surprised to see New Guinea on the list too. This island off the northern coast of Australia doesn’t look that big on a map, but it’s actually about twice the size of California.  

Ever Green starts by taking us on walks through of each of these forests, examining their unique geographies and ecosystems through scientific research and interviews with the people who study them and live within them. It then explores a range of topics about how to preserve them. I’ll summarize a few that I found most interesting.

Cover of Ever Green

Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet
By John W. Reid and Thomas E. Lovejoy
W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2022

Forest Economics

There are a couple of chapters in the middle of Ever Green that do a great job explaining the economics of forest exploitation and look at some possible mechanisms for financing conservation. I presume John Reid mainly wrote these parts.

In just a few pages Reid presents one of the most succinct Econ 101 summaries I’ve ever read. He explains how companies literally cannot see the forest for the trees. They see only board feet of lumber or tons of minerals or whatever other resource they’re extracting. They do this to meet consumer demand for houses, furniture, paper, and a whole cornucopia of goods that come from the forest.

But if you look at the forest as a repository for carbon, or as a home, then you have to see the whole forest. It’s an ecosystem, a complex interdependent relationship of millions of living things.

Economics and free markets aren’t good at doing this. And they can’t help us set a goal like preserving megaforests, or limiting global warming to 1.5°C. What they can do is help us decide how to effectively reach a goal once we’ve chosen it.

So how do we make it more economically attractive to conserve forests than to cut them down? Ever Green explores some emerging mechanisms for financing carbon storage, such as the UN backed REDD+ framework where rich, emitting countries pay poorer, lower-emitting countries to keep their forests intact. These arrangements have had very limited adoption so far but they’re laying the groundwork for new and innovative financial approaches.

They also remind me of the “carbon coin” idea from Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future.

Another approach that’s achieved much more success is declaring megaforests, or large parts of them, to be national parks or protected areas. Ever Green reports that the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has been largely successful at achieving its goal of protecting 17% of Earth’s land by 2020, and has adopted an ambitious new goal of protecting 30% by 2030.

Indigenous Stewardship

Saving the megaforests doesn’t mean making them off-limits to people. This is one of the most important messages of Ever Green. The authors visited and interviewed Indigenous people from all five megaforests and their voices come through clearly and eloquently.

Humans have lived in and cared for forests for tens of thousands of years. Today’s Indigenous peoples have inherited and preserve languages, ways of knowing nature, medicines, herb lore, navigation, and hunting techniques that almost all of us have forgotten.

Roughly a quarter of the world’s 7000 languages are spoken in the five great megaforests, 350 in the Amazon, over 1000 on New Guinea.

Outside the forests, most of us live in human communities with little connection to nature. Our ways and practices and laws are geared to managing our relationships with each other, and often center around property, boundaries and ownership.

Forest people, maybe Indigenous people generally, think differently. One member of British Columbia’s Heiltsuk Nation put it this way:

“The thing I struggle with when people reduce it to a question of rights and title is that it starts to feel like it’s about ownership and I don’t feel like that is the point. It was always about your reciprocal obligations to place, the way places took care of you and you took care of them in turn and helped each other to thrive. I think that happens through very careful relationships with the places we live.” [p. 146]

World governments are starting to recognize the special relationships and expertise that Indigenous people have with forests. Today, about a billion acres of forest are under some degree of officially recognized Indigenous stewardship.

“Less Roads Traveled”

There’s a whole chapter of Ever Green devoted to roads. That’s because one of the most destructive things we do to forests is build roads through them. Whether they’re expansive projects like the Trans-Amazonian Highway, or more modest country roads, they have serious negative environmental impacts. 

First, there’s never just one road. New ones branch off like creeks and streams branching off a great river. Roads enable, even invite, greater human penetration and activity in the forest. Hunting, logging, mining, farming and eventually settlement-building all follow the roads. Okay, pretty obvious.

Less obvious: roads lead to forest fragmentation. They chop up Intact Forest Landscapes – large undeveloped forest regions – into smaller patches. These smaller forests dry out along their edges. Drier forests store less carbon and are more prone to fires. They’re less diverse too. Roads interfere with the free movement and seasonal migration of many species. Lots of animals won’t even try cross open roads, and it’s perilous for those that do. Roads and power lines also give greater access to predators. So forest-dwelling animals like woodland caribou abandon the smaller fragments and retreat further into the remaining megaforests.

“Globally, there are 190 years’ worth of worldwide emissions tucked away under boreal forests. That buried carbon is like a slumbering beast whose sensitivity to the disturbances on the surface we don’t fully understand.  Creating forest edges with seismic grids, roads, power lines, pipelines, and logging in a drying climate warms the forest floor, making fire likelier and soils quicker to release CO2. The precise degree to which these changes will destabilize the carbon under the North American boreal is unclear. We haven’t had time to find out. … It’s an experiment we only get to run once. How much do we want to poke the beast?” [p. 64]

One of the best things we can do to preserve forests is to refrain from building roads and close down existing ones. The US Forest Service has started doing this already, in large part because they don’t have a big enough budget to maintain all the forest service roads anyway.

Conservation First

Ever Green makes a compelling case and an eloquent plea to conserve the world’s megaforests.

The authors don’t exactly reject the idea of planting lots of new trees, but they consider the hype about tree planning, like the One Trillion Trees initiative of the World Economic Forum, to be a distraction.

Newly planted trees take generations to mature, they point out. They grow shorter than old growth forests, store less carbon, support less biodiversity and are more prone to fires.

They think the main benefits of tree planting are less tangible:

“As long as we do the rest of what’s needed for the megaforests, the trifling near-term impact planting has on the balance of gasses in the atmosphere matters less than the change that may take place in the heart of the planter.”  [p. 247]

It’s far better and far cheaper, they recommend, to preserve the forests we already have through more and larger protected areas and through Indigenous stewardship. The next priority is to protect lightly-logged places that can recover into full forest ecosystems.

After that, plant all the trees you want.

Unsolicited Feedback

In the last couple of years, I’ve read a number of books about the importance of preserving trees and forests. I wasn’t sure I really needed to read another one.

But I’m glad I read Ever Green.

There’s plenty of facts and research for the scientifically-minded reader, some travel reporting on each of the megaforests, interesting economic analysis, and – what was new for me – a strong focus on the important role of Indigenous peoples.

It’s clear the authors have a deep love for these forests.

The book is nicely illustrated with maps of each of the five great megaforests and plenty of photographs.

Whether you’re not yet convinced about the importance of forest conservation, or even if you already are, Ever Green is well worth reading.

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3 Responses to Ever Green

  1. Pingback: Nonfiction November 2022 Week 1: Your Year in Nonfiction | Unsolicited Feedback

  2. Great summary of this one! I’ve not read many books on this topic, so while I knew forests were important, I was still surprised by the many different ways that they help store carbon and a little terrified by the fact that it seems like degradation could be an accelerating process.

    Liked by 1 person

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