What Do We Lose When We Lose the Trees?

The Bay of Bengal, nestled between India and Bangladesh, is home to the Sundarban Mangrove Forest. The forest, which is the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world, lies in the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers and grows amongst a network of tidal waterways and mudflats. By nature, tolerant to water and extreme weather, mangrove forests are resilient, and for centuries, served as homes for diverse flora and fauna species, and have protected their surrounding regions from natural disasters by acting as a sea wall.

Importance of conserving Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world | Source: © The Hindu/YouTube

And yet, a combination of human activity and climate change are threatening these forests, and with it, the biodiversity to which they are home, and the lives of surrounding human communities. Illicit logging, sea-level rise, and an increased frequency in high-intensity cyclones are flooding the mangroves and increasing the salinization (i.e. the saltiness) of the area’s once fertile soil. Flooded, nearby families are moving to urban areas, putting further resource demands on cities in two of the most densely populated countries in the world.

These forests are a simulacrum of the vicious cycle perpetuated by human activity, biodiversity loss, and climate change. Each component in this cycle is not completely independent of another; human activity that does not weigh environmental impacts enables deforestation and habitat loss, which weakens nature’s natural protection against greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration. The result, a warmer world, means rising sea levels, which further threatens human activity and the habitats they extract from.

To work against these forces, human society’s extractive relationship with nature needs a rethinking. Our fate is and has been deeply intertwined with the way in which ecosystems operate, and our failure to recognize our place in them, not separate from them, might seal our future. While much is being done to address biodiversity loss across the world, with some countries agreeing to more aggressive targets or increasing their supports for local biodiversity authorities, society at-large needs to look internally to understand how it can more sustainably fit in to nature’s cycles.  

Why is biodiversity so important? – Kim Preshoff | Source: © TED-Ed/YouTube

Devastation to habitats such as mangrove forests should be viewed as an existential crisis. We do not just lose the economic value of their protection when they erode or get damaged, we lose a part of ourselves because we are tied to this planet’s energy flows and the consequences of their alterations. While we continue to create policies for citizens and businesses, all of which are needed, there is a need for those of us privileged enough to afford time to it to consider the following question: What do we lose when we lose the trees? The answer to this question, should inform how we address the actions of our institutions, and how they can address future biodiversity loss.

Climate Change and Biodiversity

The implications of climate change are, at minimum, severe. If decision-makers are unable to limit global warming to lower than 1.5˚C below pre-industrial levels, populations will suffer from extreme dryness or drought, flooding, destabilized food systems, among other environmental impacts. The effects of these impacts on social systems will be profound; they will exacerbate inequality, urban-rural economic divides, and dependencies, and see to the displacement of several already vulnerable populations.

While this might seem alarmist, it is already happening. Irregular rain patterns in certain countries, such as Guatemala, have devastated small farmers, leading to their migration to major cities in the country, and onwards to the U.S. Bangladesh, the world’s densest country, has funded research and implemented plans on how to best relocate coastal communities that are susceptible to sea-level rise.

This is what sea level rise will do to coastal cities | Source: © Verge Science/YouTube

The vicious cycle of warming, and environmental and social impacts as described above are but one of the challenges that ecosystems face. While all landscapes will no doubt be affected by a warmer world that is unable to shift from fossil fuel consumption, they are already being affected by current human consumption and production habits. Biodiversity is under threat, in many cases, because of the same factors that worsen greenhouse gas emissions. The way that human communities develop land, grow crops, raise livestock, and produce and consume an innumerable quantity of trinkets without adequate waste disposal plans, has led to deforestation, species extinction, marine pollution, and now, as more conservationists highlight, an increased risk in the spread of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19.

These [mangrove] forests are a simulacrum of the vicious cycle perpetuated by human activity, biodiversity loss, and climate change.

The worst-case scenarios are ones which lead to the entire erasure of ecosystems. The Aral Sea, for example, almost completely dried out as a result of a major water diversion program undertaken by the Soviet Union in the 1960’s. Although such a severe collapse might not happen in the short-term, continued deforestation, and unsustainable fishing, farming, consumption, and resource extraction are together already leading to the degradation of a range of natural habitats. Flooding and desertification do not just happen because of global warming — they are a result of the direct impacts that humans have on natural systems, and our efforts to submit them to our needs. Solutions that are frequently discussed for both climate change and biodiversity loss can overlap each other. Climate mitigation and climate adaptation strategies, for example, might lead to solutions that involve investments in “nature-based solutions”. Such solutions involve leveraging the “services” ecosystems deliver (which include provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting services), to protect communities from some of the effects of climate change. An often-cited example is investments in coastal ecosystems that can reduce the impact of extreme weather events and protect coastal communities from flooding. As mentioned above, the Sundarbans regulate the impact of storms, and has most recently mitigated the effect Cyclone Amphan in India and Bangladesh, despite bearing significant losses to its forest cover.

An Asset Backed Approach

The fight against climate change, however, has been popularized as one about a transition to clean energy. This has meant transitioning entire economies from fossil fuel consumption and production, all of which is still very much a work in progress. Supporting this transition, is the development of new renewable energy and battery storage technologies, bolstered by regulations and financial infrastructure that support these markets. Outside of changing human systems to be more sustainable, all of which also has positive impacts on biodiversity conservation, climate change has an advantage over more systemic challenges that human society faces because its solutions are investable. A private equity firm can invest in a solar company, and individual consumer can now choose to buy a solar panel for their homes.

Solutions to systemic challenges, and this includes social and environmental systems, involve investments in things that are not necessarily owned and in change that has to come from within organizations, as much as they relate to the organizations’ resource base. The benefits of public education, a commonly used example of a positive externality, for example, cannot be harnessed for the profit of a single entity and cannot be delivered without a combination of teachers, administrators, and communities’ willingness to improve the status quo.

100% Renewable energy: You can do it | Gordian Raacke | TEDxShinnecockHills | Source: © TEDx Talks/YouTube

In the same way, no single community can completely own a river, because no single community has control over the river’s relationship with its surrounding ecosystem. Rejuvenating a river is considered a behemoth task because it involves aggregating the consensus of a variety of stakeholders. Unlike physical assets, we also cannot recreate major ecosystems, we can only support them either through their protection or aiding regeneration. Put simply, in a traditional understanding of the world, there is no investable asset for private capital, outside of parceled land that private investors can make a surmountable profit from. This is not to discredit the work of mitigation banks or funds that invest in land for the sake of restoration. It is more to highlight that these funds are still unique, and that the average investment fund might take more time to understand the non-financial co-benefits of restoration work. Even if a private investor owned an asset such as a river for conservation purposes, realizing the objectives of conservation would mean that any interaction with the waterbody and surrounding flora and fauna would have to be done sustainably so as not to disrupt the habitat.

Devastation to habitats such as mangrove forests should be viewed as an existential crisis. We […] lose a part of ourselves because we are tied to this planet’s energy flows and the consequences of their alterations.

The comparison above is overly simplistic but I make it for a reason. Both renewable energy and conservation have myriad positive externalities for several communities, but the fact that one can be owned by a non-government entity and earn a profit for said entity fits well into the structure of our society in a way that non-protected but still vital parcels of undeveloped land do not. Convincing private investors to donate more than their pre-determined philanthropic amounts involves the private sector having to change corporate cultures and processes to understand the economic value of biodiversity conservation. This includes building more sophisticated methodologies for factoring avoided costs related to business failures that result from biodiversity loss (something that should not be too hard to imagine for companies dependent on agriculture or natural forests). Some investors in biodiversity-dependent sectors are beginning to do this, bolstered by governments, international institutions, and civil society networks that are pushing for improved and transparent environmental disclosures. There are several organizations who work in this field, who are presenting a range of innovative solutions to ways in which conservation can be sustainably funded, and all of these organizations, to appeal to their stakeholders, highlight the value of ecosystems to society. While their work is necessary to reorienting our past, more destructive, path, the DNA of these institutions, and the way in which each individual citizen consumes needs to be realigned to an ecosystem perspective.

Moving Beyond Economic Values

The financial approach to bolstering biodiversity conservation should raise a philosophical question about our problem-solving arsenal. Market-mechanisms have spurned globalization and the growth of several technologies — all of which have had positive and negative effects. They have, however, still proved inadequate in solving social issues, partly because it is hard to calculate social costs and benefits, and partly because giving the free market rein has benefitted economic classes that have the wherewithal to take advantage of the market. The “market” as it stands, is indifferent to inequality. If an institution that humans have created often misunderstands our own social systems, imagine how difficult it might be to pivot it to understand environmental ones.

Why Biodiversity Is Good For The Economy | Source: © MinuteEarth/YouTube

The question that should arise, therefore, as we attempt to transform our current understandings of value and property for the sake of conservation, is whether these systems are fit to integrate with a more sustainable understanding of how human society fits into natural systems. We have a history of understanding how to take from the natural world, but moving forward, as members of communities, companies, and/or political administrations, we have a responsibility to rethink the fundamental basis of our social world, such that we can better understand how to make the functions of society symbiotic with the natural world that feeds and clothes us.

Of course, the solution to this problem will also be a complicated and thorny systemic one — but that does not mean we should shy away from doing the hard work of rethinking what it would mean to survive an ecosystem collapse or climate change. More so than coming up with solutions immediately, perhaps the first step is to understand ourselves in the individual sense, such that we can better understand what we do to the environment. Since biodiversity loss is so interlinked with environmental justice, it is also important that we ask ourselves how our actions might force others to positively or negatively impact nature. Embedding the fact that our actions are an exchange of negative or positive impacts to nature into our way of living might help us make incremental decisions that are less detrimental to biodiversity. Introducing this cognitive process into our daily lives, at whatever scale, might help us answer a more positive question, one that assumes a future for our species on this planet. What do we gain when we can live with the trees?

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