Seriously tackling climate change is going to mean sacrifice. We all know, whether or not we want to admit it, that eventually we will have to stop depending on fossil fuels for everything. And we will have to stop producing and using plastic for everything. Stop parceling out the planet to fire and fund and fabricate our every desire and whim. Stop basing our diets so heavily on meat and dairy. Stop spreading misinformation that accretes into ignorance. Stop consuming so much … well, basically, stop consuming so much!
Defining solutions solely in terms of sacrifices has its drawbacks, however. Conscientious citizens can be daunted; giving things up can be difficult or unpleasant. And scaremongers, like opportunistic politicians and pundits, can be energized to prey on their constituents’ fears.
But as John Reid and Thomas Lovejoy argue persuasively in their wide-ranging and earnest new book, “Ever Green,” not every necessary step need be seen as deprivation. Great benefits can be had by appreciating, nurturing, and celebrating something we don’t appreciate, nurture, and celebrate often enough: namely our forests. Marshaling their broad expertise — Reid is an economist and conservationist who works with Indigenous groups, and Lovejoy, who died at the age of 80 in December, was a pioneering biologist who championed the Amazon rain forests for nearly five decades — the men assert that saving Earth’s forests is essential not only to securing our future but to protecting our past.
“Ever Green” diligently lays out the science supporting forest preservation, starting with the crucial role trees play in capturing and processing carbon, which contributes to rising temperatures if left floating freely in the atmosphere. But the book’s best moments come when the authors talk about the forests themselves and the luxuriant diversity of life — animal, plant, and human — that can be found in them. The result is an appeal to both the mind and the heart. We must preserve the forests to survive, and we must preserve the forests because it is a moral imperative.
The book focuses on Earth’s five remaining megaforests. Their terrain may vary, with lakes, ponds, rivers, or mountaintops scattered throughout, but none of the contiguous tracts have been extensively logged, hunted, industrially farmed, or crisscrossed with roads. Two megaforests are in the tropics: Lovejoy’s beloved Amazon, which runs across most of South America’s “bulge,” and the Congo, which touches six central African countries. Two are boreal, located up north: the Taiga, which spans 10 time zones across Russia and northern Europe, and the North American, which ranges from Canada’s Atlantic coast to Alaska. And one covers most of the island of New Guinea, which is divided between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
But just because megaforests are intact doesn’t mean they are untouched. “Life is in full riot in the intact forests,” Reid and Lovejoy write. They travel to all five regions, documenting this richness firsthand. In southeastern Russia, we find tigers and fire-loving insects. In the Amazon, we see “blind pink dolphins” with unfused vertebrae that allow them to hunt among submerged trees. In the Congo, we encounter the “water chevrotain, a striped and spotted dog-size deer, known to hide from predators in the water.”
The diversity of people, cultures, and languages is even more staggering. Among the many groups Reid and Lovejoy meet or discuss are Indigenous residents in the Amazon who have resisted decades of attempted contact and conversion by missionaries, and in the Congo who are vital guides to any successful — and survivable — research expedition there. Many of these groups speak languages that are not heard anywhere else on Earth. Some have lived on their lands for hundreds or even thousands of years. And despite centuries of colonization by white Europeans and their descendants, many of these Indigenous groups, especially in New Guinea and parts of the Amazon, have maintained control of their lands.
But more must be done, Reid and Lovejoy argue, both because preserving Indigenous ownership, language, and culture is just, and because it makes practical sense, as Indigenous lands protect carbon better, with only temporary losses due to selective logging, gardening, or occasional fires. Unprotected lands conversely face large-scale loss due to deforestation and other threats, such as development and hunting. The “single most important factor” for ensuring megaforest conservation is limiting roads, which open the door to multiple dangers. “Roads are the largest of our artifacts, like very large initials carved in the smooth bark of a beech tree,” Reid and Lovejoy write. “When it comes to our great forests, the urge to carve must be resisted.”
Cultural anthropology dominates “Ever Green,” to its great benefit and readers’ enlightenment, but ultimately this is a book about climate change. Compelling ethical arguments, even bolstered by data, will only sway so many, and as long as forest preservation yields no financial gains, large-scale preservation efforts will be scarce. Or as Reid and Lovejoy conclude, “As economists would expect, spending extra money voluntarily to protect forest carbon, a public good, did not take the corporate world by storm.”
What will take the corporate world by storm, if nothing is done to seriously address climate change, are literal storms, increasingly extreme and dangerous ones. Then they will be forced to spend money to protect themselves, their profits, and their shareholders, and hopefully save the forests, the planet, and the rest of us while they’re at it.
EVER GREEN: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet
By Thomas E. Lovejoy and John W. Reid
Norton, 320 pages, $30
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.