[Recap] Saving forests – a special issue of National Geographic


In May 2022, National Geographic released a special issue called “Saving forests” and how they are the key to protecting the planet. There are quite a few remarkable insights that would be beneficial for the readers of Waste is a Failure of Design, so we make a quick recap here.

The “Wood-Wide Web” explained

The convention theory held that “trees were isolated loners engaged in a cutthroat Darwinian competition for water, sunlight and food ” was dominant until the late 90s. Timber companies, therefore, “planted rows of the most lucrative species and eradicated most of the competition” – a plantation approach that “ignored the messy genius of nature, with its many interwoven species”, according to Suzanne Simard

In 1997, she published in Natureher revolutionary findings, “demonstrating how trees communicate and even cooperate between species, relaying distress signals about drought and disease, and trading minerals through a complex circuitry that she compared to neural networks in human brains”. 

She also identified “the “mother trees” that act as hubs for these networks. They can recognise their own offsprings and shuttle extra resources to them. When these elders die, they “dump” carbon and defense compounds into the network, uploading food and information for future generations.

Forests and trees as an intricate machine (Photo source: Unsplash)

Lives on Earth depend on Forests

Today, forests “cover one-third of Earth’s land surface”. Each year, “forests and other vegetation absorb up to a third of the CO2 released from burning fossil fuels”.

In a warming world, they are “our best chance for survival”. But timber companies still continue to cut down old-growth trees (i.e trees in a primary forest that attains great age without significant disturbance) or deploy clearcutting, in which most or all trees in an area are “uniformly cut down”.

Clearcutting in a century-old forest in Oregon, USA. Almost all trees in each patch are of the same age. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Why protect old-growth forests and protest against clearcutting?

Because old-growth forests “store twice as much carbon as century-old forests and six or more times as much as clear-cuts.” And as the old trees age, “they continue to store carbon in their boles and sequester it into soils where it is protected”. Altogether, the world’s forests and their soils“store about 90% of global terrestrial carbon”. 

Studies have confirmed that “logging old-growth forests releases 40% to 65% of ecosystem carbon to the atmosphere”. Once the forest floor is pushed around by the clear-cutting machinery and exposed to the air, about “60% of the carbon is lost through displacement, erosion, and decomposition”, and “ultimately 90% is lost when the replacement tree plantations are logged again.”

Clearcutting and exploitation of old-growth forests are the remnants of a “detached, exploitive relationship with nature” that we have gotten used to for the last few centuries. This mentality will be the death of life on Earth. 

How do we let go of this mentality to save forests, which eventually will save us from a more warming planet? 

Suzanne Simard suggests five actions: 

  1. Stop converting natural forests to industrial plantations and agricultural fields. Governments commit to ending global deforestation by 2030, but they need to include ending industrial forestry practices too. 
  2. Take immediate action to protect and restore old-growth forest ecosystems
  3. Press for land management policies that restore plantations back to natural forests, for example: taxing forest carbon emissions (meaning that “forestland owners who release more carbon through logging than is sequestered by natural forests on their properties would be levied a tax equivalent to the social cost of carbon”
  4. Press for climate policies that put as much emphasis on protecting forest carbon sinks and preventing emissions from logging as they do on preventing fossil fuel emissions. 
  5. Shift toward a “close, protective and regenerative” relationship with nature. “We can learn from the Indigenous Coast Salish people of the Pacific Northwest”, who treat trees as their kin, and consider that “the forest is made of many nations living side by side in peace”. According to Simard, “this communal spirit will be essential for building alliances, forming a web that binds us and makes us stronger.”


We invite you to read the next part of the special issue here on National Geographic, especially these 4 articles: 

  1. For an overview of threats faced by our forests: The future of forests – how to limit the damage of heat and drought, as they are killing our forests. 
  2. For people who seek wisdom from our ancestors): How Australia’s aboriginal people fight fire with fire – using the ancient practice of planned burning to renew and preserve their homelands
  3. For elephant lovers, as described in the movie The Jungle’s book, “The elephants created this jungle. They made all that belongs”:  How a warming climate threatens Africa’s endangered forest elephants, and hence, threatens the survival of forests in Gabon. 
  4. For people who seek solutions: 4 solutions for trees and forests threatened by a hotter world, including relocating trees to beat the heat, planting more trees at the right places and at the right time, creating sturdier trees by altering their DNA, leaving forests alone and allowing nature to heal itself. 

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