Forests are essential for life on Earth and are much more than a simple collection of trees. Forests are home to 80 per cent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. They are ecosystems of unimaginable complexity, webs of organisms that include plants, animals, fungi and bacteria. But how much do we truly know about trees? The latest scientific studies, conducted at world-renowned universities, confirm that trees are far more alert, social, sophisticated and even intelligent than we have ever thought.
Since Darwin, trees have generally been seen as striving, disconnected loners, competing for water, nutrients, and sunlight, with the winners shading out the losers, sucking them dry. However, there is now a substantial body of scientific evidence that refutes that hypothesis. It has been demonstrated that trees of the same species are sociable, and will often form alliances with other species. Trees in virgin or old-growth forests are connected through underground fungal networks, through which water and nutrients are shared. Trees also communicate through these channels: they send distress signals about drought, disease or insect attacks, for example, and other trees alter their behaviour on receipt of such messages. By the use of communication networks and with collective intelligence, forests in a certain way behave like insect colonies.
You might question how it is possible that such forest or woodland communities have not received much recognition before now. Well, the answer is, they are easily appreciable but we do not pay enough attention: such networks are formed in ultra-slow motion – in “tree time”. What we see can be likened to a freeze-frame of the action.
Not only can trees communicate through underground fungal networks, but they can also communicate through the air using pheromones and other scent signals. Just think about this a little more – in a dark forest, how is it possible, despite the lack of sunlight and nutrients, those young saplings manage to survive? Lacking sunlight to photosynthesise, they survive because big trees, including their parents, pump sugar into their roots through the network!
At the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Suzanne Simard and her team are making astonishing discoveries about the sensitivity and interconnectedness of trees in North American forests. Simard is best known for her groundbreaking research into mycorrhizal networks and her identification of hyperlinked “mother trees”. The biggest, oldest trees in the forest with the most fungal connections, mother trees – not necessarily female – play a nurturing, maternal role. With their deep roots, they draw up water and make it available to shallow-rooted seedlings. They also help neighbouring trees by sending them nutrients; when neighbours are struggling, mother trees detect their distress signals and increase the flow of nutrients accordingly. This is the reality of an environment in which nothing is lifeless, everything within the system is sentient in its own unique way.
Despite their pure magnificence and glory, our misunderstanding of the true nature of forests has led to a frightening rate of deforestation. This has had a devastating impact on many species of plants and animals, which are now threatened with extinction, and on the livelihoods of local populations and the survival of indigenous tribal communities. People have the power to counter deforestation. However, it is not yet necessary to entirely stop using wood and paper made products.
Humanity will never be able to survive without forests. In a sense forests breathe for the Earth, absorbing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere and producing the oxygen we require in return. Moreover, by storing carbon, forests help to regulate the global climate: forests presently capture nearly 40 per cent of human-produced fossil fuel emissions. They also provide fuel for cooking and warmth, medicinal plants, food, wildlife habitat, clean water, spiritual and cultural touchstones and for many the means to earn a living.
It is essential to understand that the conservation of our forests should not be limited to sustainable forest management practices by timber and logging companies. This is why today I wanted to concentrate on the measures that we as individuals can take that will make a significant difference: whenever something seems too big for an individual, for a community of individuals, what seemed impossible becomes achievable.
Here is a list of some of the most effective practices that, in my personal opinion, we as individuals can do to massively decrease the adverse effects of deforestation for future generations:
1) Print less and use digital files instead. This practice is challenging at work, school or even at home, mainly due to a centuries-old belief that sees paper as the easiest and most trusted way of transferring data. However, many things have changed and with the invention of digital files and folders, unnecessary paper wastage can be significantly decreased. With relative ease, technology can allow us to cut our expenses, store data more securely and in turn help the environment.
2) When shopping, go for recycled and recyclable products as much as possible. The world population is growing and so too is the amount of waste each human being produces over their lifetime. Although not directly linked to deforestation, now more than ever recycling has become extremely important. In general, recycled and recyclable products carry higher prices, but not many understand why this is: the production of most such products includes costly initial stages. It is crucial, however, to realise that the extra money spent goes towards a more sustainable environment not only for your children and their children but for many more generations to come. It is true that buying more environmentally friendly products may cost more in the short term, which over a year might add up to an extra piece of clothing or a new phone, but just ask yourself whether those consumer items are more important than a brighter future for younger generations. By paying a little extra, you prevent your garbage ending up in places like landfills where it would be buried and left to decompose – a process which takes hundreds of years even for products that are made from biodegradable materials. Even worse, your non-recycled waste may end up forming part of a garbage patch in the ocean, the biggest of which is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, measuring 1.6 million square kilometers (3 times the size of France).
3) Plant a few trees. According to scientific data, around 3.5 to 7 billion trees are cut down each year, an area of deforested land equivalent to the size of 25 Grand Canyons. Whenever a problem seems insurmountable for an individual, for a community of individuals it is capable of being overcome. Were families to find a few hours a year for a mini trip to a forest together and each member plant a single tree, the impact would be unimaginable. Moreover, if the more well off took it upon themselves to shoulder the burden and plant trees for the less able, we may be able to sustain the resources provided by mother nature and give some love back, the same love which has been given to us ever since we took our first breath, ever since we opened our eyes or heard the first sounds of the surrounding environment.
4) Educate your children so that future communities don’t end up making the same mistakes. Remember that if groups of people are used to living in a specific way, it doesn’t mean they are living sustainably! Many factors contributing to climate change have come to light over the past century and previous generations failed to tackle them. Now one in five species on Earth faces extinction and that will rise to 50% by the end of the century unless urgent action is taken!
It is wrong, however, to lay all the blame on previous generations, especially those in underdeveloped countries, as not only did they not have the data, they also did not have the resources that were available in industrialised nations. Lives in the developing world are more often than not a continuous struggle for small amounts of food, basic clothing and shelter. What can education achieve when even basic needs can not be met? Standards of living vary enormously between LEDCs and MEDCS and many people with a relatively higher standard of living may well say, “well I am also working hard to provide for my family”, which is true, but wealth inequality is vast! While a citizen of a developed nation might work extra hours in order to buy their son or daughter a Christmas or birthday present worth some hundred dollars, people in parts of Africa work for a dollar a day. What presents can they possibly consider buying?
Sometimes paying respect comes at a high price. Everybody can be a hero, but honour and admiration have to be fought for and will only come with hard work and dedication to a higher purpose. Right now I am just 17 but if the fight for a sustainable environment takes until the end of my life, well, I will be on the front line amongst those who are not scared to commit. Right now I would like to appeal to you to stop passively observing the continuous extinction of precious wildlife and become a role model, take the initiative and do what you can. Making a change, not being scared of being judged by those who can not see further than a day ahead of them, is an important moral lesson. It's not necessary to be renowned; if only a few people around you whom you love understand what kind of person you are, then I can tell you now that you have already succeeded in your life.
It's the ones who take the first step who are judged at the beginning but with time they become idols, they gain followers and they are remembered by those who once cared about them. Make the change today. Don’t wait until tomorrow. You never know how much time is left for you to make a change, so ACT!!!