In the last week, there have been many reports about the fires in the Amazonian forests. Many of these reports led news shows or were on the front pages of leading newspapers. The Amazon forest, which produces about 20% of earth's oxygen and is the world’s largest rainforest, is often referred to as "the planet's lungs." The nickname strikes the imagination and it is frequently used in campaigns regarding the perils of deforestation. As such, the news reports about the fire strike a fear that one of the last great forests is disappearing.
That’s completely untrue. Forests are making a comeback! More precisely, the tree cover of the planet is increasing. To be sure, it is nowhere near what it was at the beginning of the 19th century when the world’s population was below 1 billion individuals (most of whom were abjectly poor). Indeed, many forests on the planet were destroyed and cleared as population grew in number and wealth. However, globally speaking, the tree cover has begun to recover. Since 1982, a recent peer-reviewed paper in Nature suggests, the planet’s tree cover increased by 2.24 million km2 (an increase of roughly 7%).
The transition also differs by region as some countries saw a recovery of forest much earlier. Many European countries saw the beginning of this recovery in the early decades of the twentieth century (and some began the transition much earlier). For the United States, there are some studies placing the beginning of the recovery in the 1930s but many states (especially in New England and the Middle Atlantic states) saw their forest recoveries begin as early as 1907. To be sure, some regions on Earth are experiencing falls in forest cover. This is the case for Brazil and many other Latin American countries (not all as Chile and Uruguay have already seen their forest recoveries begin). Nevertheless, the global picture is one of optimism.
And there is cause for being optimistic that the trend will continue.
Geographer Pierre Desrochers and economist Hiroko Shimizu noted that nine-tenths of all the deforestation caused by humans took place before 1950. The main reason for this was that forest-clearing was one of the easiest channels by which to increase the food supply while also providing energy.
However, as we are now vastly more productive in our agriculture, we require less land to feed the same population. The effects of productivity growth in agriculture are so strong that some agricultural scientists are speaking of “peak farmland” – the idea that we will need less and less land to feed a growing population.
Moreover, as transports and communication technologies have also improved, we have been able to concentrate production in the most productive areas of the planet in ways that explain a sizable share of total gains in productivity. As we grow more productive in farming, mankind can now leave some acres to return to nature to be reforested. With the prospect of new advances in bio-engineering, meat printing, sky-farms and other innovations, this is a force for reforestation that will only strengthen.
There have also been considerable improvements in the ability to transform wood into products. Consider simply the role of saws. A few decades ago, most saws were quite thick. This meant that large portions of trees became saw dust which could not be reused. Today, most saws are razor-thin. This minimizes the waste which, anyways, we now reuse as plywood.
While this may appear like a trivial example to use, but this was the margin to play on a few decades ago to improve productivity. Today, considerable resources are invested in the scientific management of forests and bioengineering better trees. This ability to derive more value from tree incentivizes reforestation.
These sources of reforestation are also the channels that improve the well-being of mankind: greater productivity makes us richer. This is why some researchers have noted that improvements in human well-being (using both narrow and broad measures such as GDP and the Human Development Index) and forest expansion seem to go hand in hand.
Other researchers have noted the same, in a more indirect fashion, when they pointed out that the institutions that generate improvements in living standards may also hasten forest recoveries. As living standards are globally on the rise, this only reinforces the case for optimism with the fate of forests.
To be sure, none of this suggests that the fires in the Amazonian ought to be ignored. However, it does suggest that one should not focus exclusively on those fires to infer anything about the state of forests worldwide.