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Excerpt from Strangely Like War

Forest Dwellers (p. 10)

From chapter "Forest Dwellers"

When a forest is cut, not only trees are killed. Whether it’s lions in ancient Greece, spotted owls or coho salmon right now in the Pacific Northwest, or gorillas in Africa, the loss of forests means the loss of the creatures who live there.

The list of plants and animals damaged or extirpated by the deaths of once-great forests is long, and getting longer every day. Golden-crowned lemur, orangutan, Siberian tiger (of whom there are only two hundred and fifty left), marbled murrelet, Port Orford cedar (killed by a fungus transported on logging equipment), black forest-wallaby, aye-aye, red cedar, mahogany, ivory-billed woodpecker, Carolina parakeets, golden-capped fruit bat, Hazel’s forest frog, smooth-skinned forest frog, Amur tiger, Amur leopard, forest owlet, Nelson’s spiny pocket mouse, Saker falcon, red wolf, panda bear, and on and on.

Scientists estimate an average of 130 species are driven extinct every day. That’s about 50,000 each year. That is not just by deforestation, but by the larger effects of industrial civilization. Deforestation plays its part, though, in great measure because forests are home to so many creatures. For example, although rainforests presently cover only 3.5 percent of the planet’s land surface, they support more than half of all known life forms. The national forests of the United States provide habitat for 3,000 species of fish and wildlife.

Seventy-five percent of the mammals endangered by the activities of industrial civilization are threatened by loss of forest habitat. For birds, the figure is 45 percent. For amphibians it’s 55 percent, and for reptiles it’s 65 percent.

Even those apologists for industrial forestry who admit other creatures besides humans live on this planet, and who acknowledge that destroying their homes could possibly—remotely possibly, mind you—harm them the tiniest little bit still then argue that logging is a trivial cause of damage compared to mining and agriculture. They especially like to show pictures of poor (brown) people using slash and burn agricultural techniques in the rainforests. But this argument is as much a deflection as most of their others. Worldwide, logging likely accounts for more than two-thirds of the forests destroyed, as opposed to burning and other causes of destruction. In Oceania it’s “only” 42 percent. Asia, 50 percent. Central America, 54 percent. South America, 69 percent. Africa, 79 percent. Europe, 80 percent. North America, 84 percent. Russia, 86 percent.

Recent studies show, too, that species extinction likely continues for a century after deforestation. Guy Cowlishaw of the Zoological Society of London cautions, “We should not be lulled into a false sense of security when we see that many species have survived habitat loss in the short term. Many are not actually viable in the long term. These might be considered ‘living dead’.” By correlating, for example, the number of individuals of different species of primates living in Africa, their habitat size, and the extent of deforestation of their habitat, he has come to the conclusion that deforestation is leaving Africa with a large extinction debt. Even if no additional forest were to be cut, six countries—Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Nigeria—stand to lose more than a third of their primate species in the next thirty or forty years. That presumes, once again, no further deforestation. But scientists estimate that within that same time, 70 percent of remaining West African forests and 95 percent of remaining East African forests will be cut.

It’s not just primates. Studies on birds show similar trends. Thomas Brooks, a biologist from the University of Arkansas who has studied avian extinction in Kenya’s Kakamega Forest, said, “Even a century after a forest has been fragmented, it may still be suffering from bird extinctions….The good news is we have a brief breathing space. Even after tropical forests are fragmented, there is still some time to adopt conservation measures to prevent the extinction of their species. The flip side of this is bad news, though: There is no room for complacency.”

Healthy forests are crucial not only to the creatures who live there. Forests purify water and air. They mitigate global warming by storing carbon. Forests increase local precipitation (half of the rain in rainforests comes from local water evapotranspirated from the forest itself). They prevent flooding and erosion.

It is common when making a plea to halt deforestation to talk about the ways the loss of these forests hurt us, using, for example, the fact that rainforests can be considered great medicine chests, if only we will use the medicines instead of destroying the chests. Just tonight I read on a website deploring tropical deforestation, “The rainforest is the earth’s natural laboratory, from where one quarter of today’s pharmaceuticals are derived. One seemingly insignificant plant, the rosy periwinkle, gave us medicines which revolutionized the treatment of leukemia in children. According to the National Cancer Institute, seventy percent of the plants used in fighting cancer can only be found in the rainforest. But less than one percent of tropical forest species have been thoroughly examined for their medicinal properties.”

While it’s certainly true that there are many selfish reasons to stop cutting down forests, we don’t want to emphasize them, because ultimately—and even in the short run—we don’t think that particularly helps. It doesn’t challenge the grotesquely narcissistic and inhuman utilitarian perspective that is our worldview and underlies our attempts to dominate the world.