There is no Purely Technical Solution to Deforestation
For centuries, mankind has relied upon forests for food, medicine, fuel, timber, etc. To human beings, forests seemed to be an inexhaustible resource to which humans could consume unlimitedly. However, in the light of excessive commercial agriculture, mining, and urbanization, it is an undoubted fact that someday forests will be depleted. Such a phenomenon carries a similarity to the open-to-all pasture Garrett Hardin pictures in his article, “The Tragedy of the Commons.”(Hardin, 1968). In the article, Hardin illustrates his argument through an example of a pasture which is depleted as every herdsman keeps as many cattle as possible (Hardin, 1968). Like the pasture, forests are harvested because of the great profit behind them. Such a great profit comes at the cost of accelerated greenhouse warming, soil erosion, and species extinction.
To tackle excessive deforestation in developing countries, like Brazil and Indonesia, reforestation, vertical farming or education alone cannot restore the forests. It must come along with legislation in the expansion of the protected area of forests, strict licensing, punitive measures on market access, and incentives via funding. Deforestation essentially falls into the category of the issues to which, as Hardin suggests, there is no purely technical solution. In his article, Hardin argues that as a result of the unstoppable exploitation by the “rational”, self-interested men, any common cannot escape the fate of being depleted — “the tragedy of the common.” The term common is defined by Hardin as any open and limited resource. Another term, the “rational”, self-interested man refers to anyone who makes decisions through benefit-to-cost analysis and ignores the costs and benefits of any other. In the conflict between the individual interest to consume commons and the public interest to preserve commons, the “rational”, self-interested men will keep exploiting the commons as long as its benefits outweigh its costs. Hence, “the tragedy of the commons” becomes inevitable. Particularly, Hardin addresses the issues of overpopulation. In this context, “the tragedy of the commons” means the inevitable depletion of all of the open resources on the earth due to overpopulation.
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As Hardin suggests, there is no technical solution to “the tragedy of the commons” because, without a change in human values, the individual interest to consume the commons on the earth overshadows the public interest to preserve these commons. Appeal to conscience, on the other hand, also fails to resolve the conflict between individual and public interests in the short term. Additionally, those conscientious men are locked in the dilemma that they either feel guilty of irresponsible actions or become “simpletons” at odds with others exploiting the commons. The only promising solution is mutual coercion through acts of compelling by the force of authority as a result of mutual understanding (Hardin, 1968). The “rational”, self-interested behaviors to pursue profits in the sacrifice of collective interests is the root cause of deforestation. In this context, the commons are mainly space for agriculture and ranching, timber, and precious metals. These resources are highly profitable and abundant in forests like the Amazon rainforest. Thus, the individual interest to exploit these resources through commercial agriculture, cattle ranching, urbanization, and mining become the major driving forces behind excessive deforestation in developing countries. Among them, commercial agriculture and cattle ranching are responsible for most of the loss of forests.
In order to clear space for agriculture and ranching, the forest cleaners slash and burn hundreds to thousands of hectares of forests, which releases nutrient stored in plants and produces a layer of nutrients above the otherwise poor soil. The Washington-based NGO Forest Trends reports that commercial cultivation contributed to 71 percent of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2012 (Ryan Dube, 2014). In addition to commercial agriculture, cattle ranching also plays a major role. Specifically for Brazil’ Amazon rainforest, about 70 percent of clearing stems from large and medium-sized ranches (PHILIP M. FEARNSIDE, 2005). Precious metals are another highly profitable common in tropical forests. To extract these metals, the entire region of the forest will be completely cleared so that bulldozers and excavators can work on the bare ground. In the Amazon rainforest, gold deposits attract a large number of large-scale operators and informal miners, which accounted for 11,670 square kilometer forest loss between 2005 and 2015 (Sonter, Laura J., et al, 2017). The urban growth due to population growth and a strong trend in the movement of people to cities also imposes intense pressure on tropical forests. Both the consumption in building materials and the clearing for the source of land caused 20 percent of the forest loss (Hosonuma, Noriko, et al, 2012). It is an undoubted fact that forest cover of the earth has shrunk enormously.
To be quantified, nowadays the 3,999 million hectares of global forest cover is only 31.6 percent of that in 1990 (Katherine Dunn, 2015). Such a great loss of forest is responsible for 17 percent of global CO2 emissions as burning and cutting down trees release CO2 (Baccini, 2012). Biodiversity is also threatened as deforestation directly deprives thousands of animals of their habitats. In southeast Asia, Sundaland, 89 percent of species experienced habit loss, resulting in 37 percent of the decline in their populations (Symes, William S., et al, 2018). Moreover, the soil degradation derived from commercial agriculture and cattle ranching potentially preludes mass starvation. Though, as mentioned above, the burned trees produce a layer of nutrients, its soil fertility declines within a few years, and the lands are soon abandoned. In the light of the damages, a question arises: why people still deforest? Like the herdsmen in the pasture Hardin pictures, they all know that their excessive ranching accelerates the depletion of the pasture, but they still keep as much cattle as possible. The “rational”, self-interested herdsmen know that the benefit of more cattle is instant, but the cost is shared and not immediate. In the case of deforestation, the “rational”, self-interested deforesters know that the profit is substantial, but the cost is not directly and immediately imposed on them, so the individual interest to produce endangered commodities dwarfs the collective interest to preserve forests.
To tackle deforestation, many may tend to rely on technology. Even though there are no purely technical solutions to deforestation, they can provide some help. One of the most popular technical antidotes to deforestation is reforestation. Recent years have witnessed a growing commitment by NGOs, local communities, and governments to green up the deprived lands. Among the efforts to reforest, Korean reforestation has been the most successful one ever. In 1953, the Korean forest cover was only 35 percent. To restore the forest, the Korean Forest Service was established in 1967. In 1973, Korea government initiated its first 10-years forest development plan(1973 – 1982), followed by four national forest plans until 2017. In 2007, forest cover had risen to 64 percent. (Teplyakov, Victor K, 2015) However, the success of Korea forestation is difficult to be revived. Behind the triumph of Korean forest restoration is more than 50 years of tireless dedication by all spheres of Korean society, fueled by national enthusiasm and enormous investment. Reforestation is both time and money consuming. In fact, several of the reforestation projects in many countries have been stuck in financial holes. Indonesian Government, for example, had announced a deficit of 5.25 billion dollars for its reforestation project (JAKARTA, 1999).
The essence of “the tragedy of the commons” is, as Hardin argues, the conflict stemming from the imbalance between the benefits and the costs to deforest. Simply relying on technology without a change in human values does not resolve this conflict. Even if a country has enough funding and determination to rehabilitate forests, in the face of the great profit of deforestation, it is doubtful that the effort to reforest can last long. Brazil serves as a concrete illustration: in 2011, the lower house of Brazil Congress passed a forestry bill to loosen up Amazon-logging rules as the strict regulation was at odds with Brazil’s role as a global supplier of soy, beef, and other endangered commodities (John, 2011). The case of Brazil is distinguished from that of Korea via the fact that Brazil reforestation is not backed by the national enthusiasm Korea has to resolve the imbalance. Other than reforestation, vertical farming, though not solving the problem essentially, can slow down deforestation to some extent. Vertical farming is the practice of stacking farms vertically in a skyscraper. In comparison to traditional farming, vertical farming only needs to occupy a relatively limited ground area.
Most important of all, for those countries with a high deforestation rate, farming within skyscrapers in cityscape need not deforest in order to provide agricultural land. More than just saving space, growing in a controlled environment where growing conditions are optical, crops are produced year-round (Despommier, 2011). This all-season farming is far more productive than conventional agriculture, which indirectly reduces deforestation since less agricultural land is needed. However, as journalist Scott Beyer reported, a vertical farm occupying an acre will cost 39 million dollars (Beyer, 2015). Simply replacing traditional farming by vertical farming is not economically practical for regular landholders. For countries like Brazil and Indonesia, in the precedence of the lack of fund in their reforestation projects, it is also questionable that whether the governments can provide enough funding for vertical farming. Essentially, like any other technical solution, vertical farming can only be part of the solution as it is not capable of resolving the imbalance between the public and individual interests. To curb deforestation, strict forest regulations through legislation enforcement are necessary. As Hardin mentions in his article, the only promising solution to “the tragedy of the commons” is mutual coercion through either prohibition or carefully biased options. He gives two examples: one is to prohibit bank robbing through categorizing bank as not a common; another is to keep downtown shoppers from excessively using parking space by introducing parking meter.
In the context of deforestation, the concepts of prohibition and carefully biased options can be borrowed. Specifically, governments in those developing countries with a high deforestation rate can expand protected area for forests, establish strict license system, punish illegal deforesters, and encourage responsible landholders. Simply prohibiting deforestation through expanding protected area is ineffective. In Indonesia, despite the establishment of protected area of forests, rampant illegal logging dismantles the effort of Indonesian government as, at its peak, it accounted for 80 percent of national forest loss of Indonesia(The REDD Desk, 2013). The protected area of forests fails to solve the problem because it is only a one-side coercion instead of a mutual coercion which, as Hardin defines, is the coercion mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people. The coercion is not mutually agreed because there is no sufficient cost to defer the illegal loggers. Here is where the punitive measures come in. At the first step, a strict license system should be established via government agencies to certify wood products so that responsible producers and illegal deforesters can be distinguished. Indonesia, for example, had reached an agreement with the EU regarding timber Licensing (Sara, 2016). For those illegal deforesters, their access to the market should be restricted.
Such a restriction can be strengthened via excluding them from exporting their products and penalizing the companies which indiscriminately fails to exclude them. Incentives, on the other hand, should come hand in hand with punishments. Funding and subsidies can be granted to those responsible landholders whose forest cover of the lands meet the government requirement. For instance, The Amazon Fund was created via Norway government with one billion dollars to encourage green logging(Daniel, 2014). The combination of incentives and punishment can increase the cost of illegal logging and resolve the imbalance between the benefits and the cost so the coercion can be mutually agreed upon by the majority. In addition to prohibition, mutual coercion through carefully biased options by international involvement also has its place against deforestation. The essential driving force behind deforestation is the enormous profit it generates. A major part of this profit is derived from export as the economy of those nations with a high deforestation rate relies heavily on exporting the affected products. Brazil, as mentioned before, fashions itself as a supplier of beef, soy, and other affected commodities as the profit of exporting these commodities contribute significantly to the national economy. The high international demand of these affected products, to a large degree, accelerates deforestation.
To address this issue, the nations importing these products can pass policies in favor of domestic products and impose heavier taxes on the import of the endangered products from the nations challenged via deforestation. For those countries with a high deforestation rate, since the endangered products become less competitive and profitable to export, their producers are discouraged to deforest. In such a climate, local governments are also more willing to pass legislation to discourage deforestation. Other than mutual coercion through legislation, a more lenient non-technical approach is education. Environmental education should occur not only in rainforest countries but also in western countries. In western countries, environmental education help people understand their roles in deforestation. For instance, when buying affected commodities like mahogany, a person who is well-educated about deforestation will make a decision to buy alternative products.
In rainforest countries, educating students about the importance of forests and the downsides of deforestation can help the population recognize the necessity to protect forest even in the sacrifice of individual interests. Such a collective recognition lays the foundation of mutual coercion. Such a collective recognition, on the other hand, also facilitates local protests against deforestation as the local people are more aware of the harms of deforestation. In the cases where local governments do not recognize the need to protect forests, grassroots approaches are the last resort to counter deforestation. One of the most well-known protests is the Chipko Movement led by Chandni Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna. To oppose deforestation, people hugged the trees when the woodsmen came to ax them.
However, as Hardin points out, such an appeal to conscience is self-eliminating. In other words, as a huge part of the population has the individual interest to generate profit from deforestation, it needs to take more than one generation to achieve the collective recognition to preserve forests, which cannot slow down the already rapid deforestation. Modern era witnesses a striking shrinkage of forest coverage mainly because of commercial agriculture, cattle ranching, mining, and urbanization. To curb deforestation, technical solutions like reforestation are never the magic bullet since they do not resolve the root cause – the imbalance between the benefits and the costs to exploit the commons of forests. Also, the non-technical solutions that simply rely on morality like education are also not practical. To eradicate the root of the issue, mutual coercion through legislation is necessary since it can resolve the imbalance. Specifically, the governments of developing countries need to expand the protected area, establish strict licensing, punish irresponsible landholders, and encourage responsible landholders. Though it should be admitted that countering deforestation is not an easy job in the light of the economic structure of developing countries, actions have to be taken. Otherwise, in the foreseeable future, forests will be consumed completely.
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