Monday, July 22, 2019

Can Trees Save Us, The Big Brained Animal?

We have a small backyard, but there are those of us who love it. It's only about 50 by 35 feet or so, but we have a full size 100 year old California redwood – sequoia sempervirens – and a full size dawn redwood – metasequoia. The latter can't be 100 years old, since it was thought to be extinct and was rediscovered in China in 1944. The shortest of the redwoods and the only one that is deciduous, its eventual height should be about 165 feet. Both of them are quite beautiful. We also have some yuccas and a couple of loquats – eriobotrya japonica – which is also from China. And a grapefruit tree, purchased at Costco 25 years ago.  Small it may be, but our backyard is certainly woody! Since I lived in West Philadelphia until the age of 13, living in the midst of woods is something of a wonder to me.

So I was thinking the other day as I ducked out back and looked around, what if more people had backyard trees the way we do? We also have trees up and down our little street. What if the rest of Berkeley had trees on their streets the way we do, and what if everyone in the country did it, and what if the rest of the world did it? Would it make a difference to the overriding existential issue of our time, global warming? After all, trees drink up the CO2 that is poisoning the atmosphere and keeping the heat in as we burn up the planet.

To review our situation in one paragraph, the basic equation for global warming is based on carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration. CO2 generation - CO2 uptake = total CO2 added to atmosphere. Since the major change that has produced global warming is an increase in CO2 generation, our attention has centered on efforts to reduce that CO2 production. While there has been progress and there is hope and expectation of a great deal of further progress, it won't be easy. But the part of the equation after the minus sign has been paid less attention – the so-called carbon sink. The sink cannot be the only change to be made, but I wondered, could more trees make a significant impact? And if so, how much? What if others had my backyard; what if others had our tree-lined street, what if we as a city, a state, a country, a collection of nations, went full bore Johnny Appleseed and planted, planted, planted? Would that make a difference?

Only a few weeks after I wondered this, a significant paper appeared the Science.

The global tree restoration potential
Jean-Francois Bastin1*, Yelena Finegold2, Claude Garcia3,4, Danilo Mollicone2,
Marcelo Rezende2, Devin Routh1, Constantin M. Zohner1, Thomas W. Crowther1

tin et al., Science 365, 76–79 (2019) 5 July 2019

The intent of it is to answer the question I had posed in my back yard – could trees significantly contribute to the solution to the global warming problem? The article says:

This highlights global tree restoration as our most effective climate change solution to date.
Our results highlight the opportunity of climate change mitigation through global tree restoration but also the urgent need for action.”

More than 50% of the tree restoration potential can be found in only six countries (in million hectares:Russia, +151;United States, +103; Canada,+78.4; Australia, +58; Brazil, +49.7; and China,+40.2) (data file S2), stressing the important responsibility of some of the world’s leading economies.”

Nevertheless, under the assumption that most of this additional carbon was sourced from the atmosphere, reaching this maximum restoration potential would reduce a considerable
proportion of the global anthropogenic carbon burden (~300 GtC) to date (1). This places
ecosystem restoration as the most effective solution at our disposal to mitigate climate change.”

As an article in Science, the turbidity of the prose and presentation is regrettable but rather standard. It is policy-relevant, rather than a policy article. But, frustrating as that is, the article nonetheless appears to answer my question – trees should be a significant part of the climate change answer. Which leads us to think – why do we hear so little about it? Why do we hear only technological answers to our technologically introduced global warming? Especially when we could easily envision tree-planting solutions that involved millions of people participating, companies making money from it, a part of a green new deal?

I don't know the answer, but one thing we do know is that deforestation has been severe and it is ongoing. Lots of people and companies are making a lot of money in the developing world by developing, which means clearing land, which is deforestation. How can one stop them? It's a classic case of the tragedy of the commons.

What is Tragedy Of The Commons?

The tragedy of the commons is an economic problem in which every individual has an incentive to consume a resource at the expense of every other individual with no way to exclude anyone from consuming. It results in overconsumption, under investment, and ultimately depletion of the resource. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, every individual who consumes an additional unit directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits. Generally, the resource of interest is easily available to all individuals; the tragedy of the commons occurs when individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gain.

The answer to the tragedy of the commons is strong government, which is hard enough to muster in one country, but virtually impossible in the world at large, where the local rich say, why shouldn't I have my piece of the action, especially when it was the First World that made the problem in the first place?

Still, as the article points out, the developed world could make a contribution, and one wonders if straight payoffs to the developing world to preserve forest could work.

While we have a moral imperative for optimism, and we must remain optimistic, some are pessimistic. The originator of the Gaia theory of the world (, James Lovelock, postulated years ago that we would develop our way to oblivion. Oblivion, he was asked? The end of human beings? Well, he responded, the species will probably survive. There will be mating pairs at the poles. Shiver, and not from the cold....

Which leads to the question, maybe, is the human species worth saving? How special are we? Are we just another species that comes and will go, as >90% of species have done? Are we just sentimental about our own species, putting ourselves speciously at the center of the universe, indulging in pre-Copernicus species thought?

I like to read short, sweet works of genius. Edward O. Wilson, the originator of sociobiology, author of Ants, has just published Genesis, The Deep Origin of Societies. (

He lists the Great Transitions of Evolution, where “In each..., altruism at a lower level of biological organization is needed to reach the one above.”:

  1. The origin of life
  2. The invention of complex (“eukaryotic”) cells
  3. The invention of sexual reproduction, leading to a controlled system of DNA exchange and the multiplication of species
  4. The origin of organisms composed of multiple cells
  5. The origin of societies
  6. The origin of language

Language! How did that get in there? I think it must be true. It's based on the rise of the brain from 600 cubic centimeters to 1,400 cubic centimeters in guess who, you and me. It's recent, maybe over 3 million years, which is nothing in geological and evolutionary terms, but more than we can imagine on the basis of our lifetimes. And what allowed our brains to grow, was necessary but not sufficient? The taming of fire, which led to cooking, which led to markedly more calories per meal (heating does that), which allowed our brains to be nourished by what people could find to eat in a few hours a day of hunting and gathering. (I read this in a great book by an Oxford biologist, but I can't find the exact reference right now. It's an amazing book, carefully calculating calories and time, with numbers.)

So, yes, we are indeed a special species. Our attachment to the power of our brains – Woody Allen's second favorite organ – isn't just sentimental. How on earth did this brain every evolve? If we exit, it won't be invented again.

We need to plant trees. We need much more powerful governments. We might need the end of democracy, the end of non-state capitalism. We're back to better Red than Dead thinking, grim as that is.


Wouldn't it be worthwhile planting the world full of trees, and buying up huge swaths of land, while we pursue technological improvements in our energy generation and utilization?

And oh yes, in today's NYT there's a nice little article on the potential of trees: The author refers to the NYT summary of the Science article I started with. Since that article a few weeks ago, this is the only follow up I've seen.

I guess this essay of mine is what you'd called discursive.

Budd Shenkin