Making Something Out of Nothing

03/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I love the New York Times, I really do -- Mark Bittman taught me how to cook, Maureen Dowd is the reason I have something say at cocktail parties, and Thomas Friedman keeps me grounded. The other day, however, as I flipped through "All the news that's fit to print," I was completely thrown by an article that was nowhere near fit.

In "New Jungles Prompt a Debate on Rain Forests," Elisabeth Rosenthal highlights the steady migration of many farmers from tropical areas into the city and the resultant budding (no pun intended) of "secondary forests" on the land these farmers once cultivated. After her examination of this phenomenon, Ms. Rosenthal concludes her report by stating that:

"saving primeval rain forest . . . may be less urgent than once thought."

The thinking contained in the article scares me for several reasons. Not only is Ms. Rosenthal ignoring a long-settled debate about the importance of rainforests on the basis of a lone source and paper-thin reasoning, but she is advocating the dangerous fallacy which threatened this ecosystem in the first place: that the nature we destroy can, in some way, be replaced. More so than economic forces, stubborn governments and large scale pollution, it is this specific thinking that got our planet in the condition it is now and it is this belief that remains the single biggest obstacle we face to combating global warming.


Without a doubt, rapid growth of secondary forests is a good thing for the planet, as it "returns to nature" land that previously provided limited or no benefit to the environment. Suggesting that secondary and primary rainforests are interchangeable, however, is comparing apples to oranges -- in the same family, but totally different fruits.

There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that secondary forests can provide the same or even comparable benefits as their primary counterparts. Ms. Rosenthal's article itself quotes a senior U.N. official saying,

"Our knowledge of these [secondary] forests is still rather limited."

The extent of our understanding today is that, typically, secondary forests have only one canopy layer and significantly less biodiversity than the original forest ecosystem that they mimic. For example, at Cool Earth's three forest nurseries in South America, we grow over 60 tree species to fill in smaller areas of destruction amongst our projects. The rate these secondary trees grow is truly incredible, but while they will reach nearly 20 feet in five years, the understory, the lianas and the settled habitat that supports everything from lice to jaguars takes hundreds, if not thousands, of years to grow and flourish. It has taken centuries for rainforests to create nurturing soils on top of their sandy estuaries and there is no cause to believe secondary forests will immediately and successfully be able to forest the savannah.

The sustainability of these forests is also in question. Neither the size nor the continuity of this forest development assures me of that it is a viable solution to offsetting rainforest destruction. Rainforest communities have always cleared small patches of forest for farming and cultivation and I don't expect that tradition to end anytime soon. While migration from rural areas to cities and the growth of secondary forests is on the rise today, there is no guarantee this will be the case forever. Arguing that today's growing secondary forests lessens the need for protection of primary rainforest, which continues to be rapidly cleared for logging, soy, palm and cattle, is short-sighted given the potentially devastating effects of global warming.

While question marks encircle the effects of secondary forests, the benefits and sustainability of primary rainforests are intimately known. The environmental community has been working for decades to protect rainforest as a means of stemming global warming -- and for good reason. There are countless unique attributes of the standing rainforest that only this aged ecosystem can provide. Primary rainforests act as the Earth's thermometer, moderating the planet's weather systems, temperature and water supply. Further, no less than 5,000 endangered species call the rainforest their home and countless medicines used and developed today are derived from the rare flora and fauna found in only their soil. Most importantly, however, these rainforests trap a staggering 260 tons of carbon dioxide per acre from being released into the air. Secondary forests, no matter how fast they rise, can never make up for the losses should primary rainforests disappear.

Let me be clear that we need to take every meaningful step possible to offset climate change and there is no better way to do so than protecting endangered rainforests. Rainforest destruction is not "less urgent than once thought" and I take umbrage with the bold, and rather naive notion that we can destroy and simply rebuild ages-old rainforests without an environmentally and socially significant loss. This skewed vision demonstrated in the Times -- where we neither see nor appreciate the immense consequences of our consumption -- is exactly what fueled the current development of global warming and demonstrates that we, as a society, still have a long way to go before we can get serious about environmental change.

More than anything else, I strongly advise against this flawed way of thinking. We need to reconsider and revise this understanding of what and how we consume in order to truly change and reverse our dangerous course. It is only then that we will be able to grow something worthwhile from the destruction.