Forests, Biodiversity, and Resource Change
T. Peterson, Ph.D.
(the following text excerpts are taken from:
The Creator's Window -Viewing Global Change,
Universal timelines, & The Promise, © 2000)
Deforestation and Desertification
The Council on Environmental Qualitys Global 2000 Report to the President of the US. states:
'Twenty-two years ago, forests covered one fourth of the worlds land surface. Now forests cover one fifth. Twenty-two years from now, in the year 2000, forests are expected to have been reduced to one sixth of the land area. The worlds forest is likely to stabilize on about one seventh of the land area around the year 2020.'
A number of assumptions are made to calculate the amount of forest remaining in 2020. If deforestation progresses at or exceeds present rates, one must assume negative consequences lie ahead. Numbers are often confusing, especially in terms of the tropical rainforests. This subset of the worlds forests, approximately 16%, presently occupies about 7% of the globes land surface. The other 84% are designated: dry deciduous, very dry, moist deciduous, and hill and mountain forests. The media tell us about the rainforests, but often neglect the fact that all other forest losses outside the rainforest are more than twice the area deforested in the tropical environment.
'Two hundred million hectares of tropical moist forest remainan area about the size of the United Statesand it is being lost today at the rate of about 20 million hectares a year, which amounts to the removal of an area about the size of the state of Washington every single year.' (SXi 130)
In the near future this trend may be reversed with new policies that stabilize regional needs. However, economics drives the exploitation of virgin forests because countries in the South must convert timber into cash. And quick cash pays debts!
In 1950, industrialized countries imported 4.2 million square meters of tropical woods; in 1980, they imported 66 million.' (SXi 54)
After a forest is removed, the open land may stabilize as a grassland or scrub area. Secondary effects include changes in the local water cycle, possibly altering global rainfall patterns, thus jeopardizing plant and animal habitats elsewhere on the planet. These formerly productive forested lands may also become vulnerable to the processes that creates new desertsi.e. desertification.
... about 10% of the worlds land surface has been desertified already and that an additional 25% is at risk. One of the most frightening statistics, I believe, is that an estimated 20% of the topsoil from the worlds arable lands was lost, while the global population was increasing from 2.5 billion in 1950 to about 5.4 billion today. Top soil is now being lost at a rate of about 24 billion tons per year, which, as Lester Brown and his associates have pointed out, is equal to a loss of all the top soil on the total wheat lands of Australia every year. (SXi 128)
Soil erosion serves as witness to human wear and tear on the Earth. Soil loss is simply equivalent to loss of agricultural potential and lowers the globes capacity to sustain life. Admittedly this is a slow process, it doesnt happen over night, and is therefore relatively irreversible. Hundreds and thousands of years are required to rebuild soils lost in recent years. Hope for reforesting bare land and recapturing the deserts must be tempered with the populations pressures that threaten continued deforestation and desertification. Challenge what you hear or read! Ask to see both sides of each environmental issue! Where is true progress? What is the price of miscalculating consequences? Some say not to worry about the Amazonian deforestation because only a small percentage (less than 10%) of the Amazon is deforested. This, however, is not the only site of deforestation, and science has yet to understand the long range implications of global deforestation. One conclusion is certain, humans are directly responsible for denuding the planet of forests.
Historically, desertification is an ongoing process. In various locations, Africas Sahara desert continues to expand in a southerly direction. Some discount this as nothing more than the dynamics of natural change. In contrast to present events, portions of the African desert were previously ancient grassland. But now, Africas poor scavenge trees for firewood, which fuels climate change and increases the pace of local desertification.
The term biodiversity collectively refers to the worlds biological life which exists in a vast array of forms. Does science have a name for every living creature? Dr. Robert May states:
'Despite more than 250 years of systematic research, estimates of the total number of plant, animal, and other species vary widely, all the way from three million to 30 million or more.'
Curiously, there is today no central archive to collect information about the worlds species. Every biological discipline has its own incomplete catalog, but no one compiles a master list for the totality of biodiversity.
Carolus Linnaeus, in 1758, launched taxonomy by recording 9,000 species. The discovery and naming of living species still continues. For example, back when Henry Thoreau tended his bean field near Walden Pond, science only knew of 80 species of nematodes (little parasitic or free-living worms which one can see with the naked eye). Today, the tally is 15,000 and climbing. This upward trend holds for microbes, fungi, insects, and to a lessor degree larger plants and animals. Humanity is fascinated by data collection. I hear some say science must catalog every species to better understand the effects of change and species losses. In other words, humans should expend energy to know the exact numberto better understand the rate of biological erosionbefore making a total commitment to species preservation. This sounds like someone is looking for funding before finding good sense!
Dr. Peter Raven ties biodiversity to economics and change by noting:
'Unfortunately, we still have very limited knowledge about the worlds biological diversity. We have given scientific names to only about 1.4 million kinds of organisms. Although we know flowering plants, vertebrate animals, butterflies, and a few other groups reasonably well, we have only a small amount of information about most of the other living inhabitants of this planet. What we are losing, therefore, is being lost mainly in ignorance; it is being lost because of the operation throughout the world of an outmoded economic system, which assumes that the best way to deal with natural resources, renewable or non-renewable, is to convert them into cash and bank the cash. National economic planners traditionally have no way of calculating the very real irreversible loss of productivity, and, as a result, we simply continue with our routine business, dealing with our natural resources as if they would be renewed in some way.' (SXi 131)
Science knows species are being lost. Evolutionism says they will be replaced. I ask: When? Science finds virtually no evidence for evolutions back-filling the ranks of lost species. Humanity appears to subdue the Earth by destructionbut for how long?
Todays extinctions occur because, first, consumptive use of animals and plants for human needs, and second, a loss of habitats results from the exploitation and conversion of forests, grasslands, wetlands and other natural systems to agricultural or other human uses. Habitats are also lost due to pollution and erosion which indirectly and effectively degrade natures capacity to support native populations of plant and animal species. Additional losses must be expected when future climate changes occur.
Artificial habitats, namely zoos, are modern Arksrepositories keeping evidence alivefor species no longer found in the wild. Many falsely believe these animals will be reintroduced to the wilderness. In reality, their habitats are nonexistent. Funding, dollars and cents, is the lifeline perpetuating rare species held captive in zoo habitats. Zoological committees meet to discuss the fate of zoo species based on dollars and each species ability to breed in captivity. Dollars, not habitats, determine an artificial state of being. Larger animals are lost because they are too expensive to justify continued support. In such cases, a life form no longer living in the wild is essentially extinct, a living fossil, dwindling through attritionall this within sight of zoo keepers and their patrons.
The issues surrounding biodiversity are deeply rooted in the persistent pressures that erode the Earths inventory of species. The greatest collection of life is located in high risk areas. Speaking of the South, Dr. Raven states:
'They are home to at least 80% of the worlds biodiversityplants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms on which we all depend.' (SXi 126)
How will the South use, study, manage, and conserve precious or less known species? The rural slash-and-burn agriculture is often cited as the typical cause for the loss of this natural resource. Yet urban areas demand firewood, paper, pulp, packaging materials, lumber, and other fiber products. Geographically, no one escapes the blame for the loss of forests. Richer industrial countries bear a significant responsibilityrepresented by their demands for manufactured productsfor which the raw materials are found in the lesser developed countries.
Biodiversity as a topic is quickly consumed by economic and anthropocentric arguments.
'... as we enter a 30-year period when 20 to 25% of the total number of species on Earth may disappear permanently. ...we need to find ways to store comprehensive, viable samples of at least those groups that are of most interest to ourselves.' (SXi 134)
I wonder if one day humans might find themselves living on a barren space rock. Could it be they will search the planet only to find freezer chests full of genetic material, preserved in the vain hope that humanity can reconstitute life. Lessons from tropical deforestation demonstrate the problems when humans try to regenerate forests (e.g. Window Pane Two). To recreate an environment requires something specialmore than simply adding water and nutrients.
All specieseven the undiscovered onesfit into an intricate relationship, fragile and balanced, for which any loss threatens future healththe geophysiologyof the planet. Practically speaking, lifes diversity fills every possible habitation to insure the maximal capture of solar energy (by photosynthesis), and further regulate and recycle nutrients, create and protect top soil and water supplies, and regulate local climates. Loss of biodiversity is lifes loss of a strong hold on Earth. Meanwhile, I perceive humanitys false sense of security as some species go extinct without an immediate consequence. Accelerating the loss of life forms potentially leads to local or global ecological collapse.
The importance to global change is in looking at how social, biological, and physical sciences all reveal data and signs for more ominous changes in the near future. This is change in every aspect of human and earthly affairs ... globally. The Window looks further to see change as a backdrop to a biblical timeline. Driving forces for change force us to ask the most important questions about our true origin, who we are, why we are here, and what the Scriptures tell us about the future. Change forces us to look deeper to face choice or crisis. Life is an opportunity to look for the answers.
This is just one of many panes in the WindowView. This is a fraction of the process identified earlier within the section entitled 'Convergence.' Keep exploring the view, visit our page titled 'Experience WindowView' to see how global changes are part of a larger holistic paradigm which is the reason behind assembling this cyber-place. Putting the picture together helps to envision humanity's direction along the dimension of time.
A copy of this text with footnotes and a complete listing of references used in writing this text can be obtained by downloading the chapters and reference list for the Creator's Window. References that appear as ''(SXi #)'' signify the page number from Sigma Xi's publication related to a 1991 forum on global change (see reference list for the Creator's Window for a complete citation of this work).
References from SXi and page number refer to the Sigma Xi Forum Proceedings: Global Change and the Human Prospect: Issues in Population, Science, Technology and Equity, November 1991. The importance of this science society's forum is that the meeting was forward looking and demonstrates how scientists from social, biological, and physical sciences all saw change on the rise. Not just climate change, but change in every aspect of human and earth affairs ... globally.