Critical to our global
survival must be an emphasis upon resource depletion and environmental
degradation or pollution as crucial areas for student study in the schools
of the United States. This emphasis includes renewable and nonrenewable
resources, resource dependence, stockpiling critical resources, recycling,
and the role of commodity power in international commerce. The critical
nature of this problem is related to both population growth, air quality
and survival and balance of nature's creatures in the animal/insect world.
While there is general recognition of such present or potential problems,
there is not general agreement about what the major issues are, or what
possible solutions might be offered and effectuated to solve them.
A general search of the Internet and the resources for information that
it affords us can help students to zero in on the condition of the planet.
Just in the one area of deforestation the sources and resources are voluminous.
Deforestation involves the permanent destruction of indigenous forests
and woodlands. Much of the deforestation that is going on today is in
vast areas of Africa, Latin America, and southeast Asia.
This means that deforestation includes the destruction of forests, in
which the treetops touch each other to form a canopy, as well as woodlands,
in which trees are spaced further apart. The term deforestation does not
apply to the removal of trees from plantations or industrial forests.
Human beings have always cut down trees. Wood has historically been the
most dominant form of heating fuel, as well as one of the most often used
building materials for houses and ships. Twenty-five percent of the world's
lumber harvest now goes towards paper production (Bryant).
No one can deny the basic human need for housing. And no one can deny
that any advanced culture requires a great deal of paper to transact its
daily business. However, one must also recognize the importance of forests
in and of themselves.
Forests are important for several reasons. First of all, many would espouse
the opinion that they should be preserved for future generations to enjoy.
Certainly, the family camping trip is a true hallmark of American culture.
Second of all, they provide habitat for many important species. Old growth
forest in the northwestern United States is the only suitable habitat
for the Northern Spotted Owl, for example. Tropical forests compose only
7% of the earth's land surface, but are home to more than half of the
species on earth! (Bryant). Thirdly, forests perform important ecological
functions. As aggregates of plant matter, forests do a great deal of oxygen
production and help prevent excessive global warming. Additionally, forests
tend to help replenish nutrients in land and thus prevent desertification.
Lastly, and perhaps most obviously, we need to have forests since we rely
on them as a source of timber! If we exhaust our supply of forests, we'll
no longer be able to continue using them as the source of our building
materials, heating fuel, and paper.
Nevertheless, deforestation is a very big and important environmental
problem which is yet to be effectively addressed. According to Norman
Myer, who published a book on the subject in 1979, the main causes of
deforestation are excessive logging, slash and burn agriculture, cattle
raising and harvesting for fuel.
Don Bragaw is professor emeritus of East Carolina University in Greenville,
Logging is the main threat to old growth forests found in the northwestern
United States. Much of this forest land is managed by the United States
Forest Service with the intention that they be used in the combination
that will best meet the needs of the American people and not necessarily
the combination of uses that will give the greatest dollar return.
The Forest Service is obviously heavily influenced by the timber industry,
as it actually subsidizes timber companies to the extent of $500 million
per year in taxpayers’ money. This makes paper and wood cheaper than they
should be, and makes it more difficult for the recycled paper industry
to succeed. The forest service apparently does this in order to create
jobs within the timber industry. (Bryant)
Logging is also a major problem in other countries. In Brazil, for example,
the construction of the Transamazonian Highway in the 1970's opened up
large areas of forest both for logging and for agricultural purposes.
It's estimated that the Brazilian state of Rondonia has lost 20% of its
forest through burning.
It is this problem that lumber certification programs are attempting to
address. Lumber certification programs would enable consumers of lumber
to determine if the lumber they are using was grown in a forest whose
managers practice sustainable forestry. If these programs come into effect,
though, governments would have to find some way to create alternative
jobs for the lumber workers which would be displaced.
A less obvious aspect of logging is habitat fragmentation. According to
Elizabeth Brown, president of Laguna Green Belt, certain species may live
in a forest but depend on a nearby grassland or wetland for a food source
– or the other way around. When logging companies move into a forest area,
they build roads through the center of the forest and then perform their
logging operations around those roads. If these roads come into common
use, they can pose barriers for wildlife. As such, while only a small
area may have actually been harvested, a large portion of the forest's
wildlife may lose access to certain essential nearby habitats.
Excessive logging is a serious problem and must be discouraged. While
logging is, of course, necessary (since we do still depend on wood), it
should be done in a carefully controlled, certified manner in order to
ensure that it doesn't destroy essential wildlife habitats – and, more
obviously, in order to ensure that we don't eventually completely run
out of wood to log!
Slash and Burn Agriculture
Many developing nations practice slash and burn agriculture. This form
of agriculture attempts to take advantage of nutrients stored in forest
land to grow crops. Unfortunately, the forest areas in these countries
are most often tropical forests, and in tropical forests most of the nutrients
are stored in the planet matter itself – and not in the ground.
Slash and burn agriculture therefore generally constitutes an extremely
inefficient use of land. Nevertheless, it tends to be sustainable as long
as the population density is less than 12 people per square mile. With
such low population density, the land is used for 2-3 years and then left
fallow for about 10 years, to replenish its nutrients.
The problem is that today, population densities are more than 3 times
that much. As such, the land gets used a great deal more extensively.
Since there is still a need to let the land lie fallow, new land must
be acquired on which to plant crops on a regular basis. This is done by
slashing and burning down new forest areas.
While this form of agriculture obviously contributes a great deal to deforestation,
it also increases pollution. In November of 1997, thousands of fires (most
of which were blamed either on slash-and-burn agriculture or on logging
companies) were burning in Southeast Asia, bringing Malaysian air pollution
indexes to over 6 times the level considered unhealthy! (Bryant) It is
hoped that this problem could be alleviated if more advanced nations provide
nations still developing with access to modern agricultural techniques.
Cattle Raising, and Subsistence and Commercial Farming
Deforestation for cattle raising is especially prominent in South America.
In Costa Rica many US companies have purchased tracks of forest in order
to raise cattle which is then exported as beef, largely back to the United
When used for this purpose, forests are cleared away entirely, then used
as grazing land for 6 to 10 years, and then left for scrub growth. Since
the cost of raising cattle in South America is cheaper than it is here,
though, it allows US companies to sell hamburgers at a cheaper price.
Economic and population pressures often encourage farmers into clearing
more land than is desirable ecologically. This has often resulted in large
scale corporate farming where there is primarily a bottom line rather
than a concern for environmental concerns.
The only realistic solutions to this problem would be to convince governments
to subsidize cattle raisers who raise their cattle in an environmentally
safe manner, or to put enough political pressure on cattle raisers to
do so on their own and take a financial loss. It is probably unrealistic
to expect the public as a whole to decrease its consumption of beef or
to agree to pay substantially higher prices for environmentally-safe beef.
Many less advanced nations still depend on wood as a primary source of
fuel and energy. The web from which this article was taken (see source)
lists many of the energy sources in use today around the world and rates
them by the amount of pollution they produce, how commonly they're used,
and the amount of time it takes for them to replenish themselves. It lists
wood fuel as the most polluting, and as one of those which takes the most
time to replenish itself.
To the less careful, it may appear that this problem could be easily solved
by exporting fossil fuel technology to the nations which currently depend
on wood fuel. This is not a good solution, however, as the world's fossil
fuel resources are already so heavily taxed as to warrant large scale
wars between nations over them, i.e., the Gulf War in the early 1990's.
Research is currently being done into more effective use of renewable
energy resources, so that hopefully they could be used to alleviate the
use of wood as fuel.
J. Bryant. Biodiversity and Conservation: A Hypertext Book. Adapted for
use in this publication from 5/7/99