One of the oldest living multi-cellular species on the planet, trees have formed an invaluable part of man’s history and gradual development. From serving as fuel for fire to providing timber for furniture, mankind is as dependent on trees today as he was thousands of years ago. With the advent of the global population boom, however, mankind’s demands have far exceeded any sustainable level of deforestation and tree-felling that can be justified.
Apart from the obvious benefits which a forest cover provides, such as reduction of carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere (which in turn fights global warming), and providing a home to thousands of animal and plant species which would otherwise have gone extinct (and now slowly are due to rapid clear cutting and tree burning), the absence of trees has severe consequences on the environment and the planet as a whole. Rapid deforestation leads to soil erosion, mudslides and landslides. Forests are often cleared to make space for cash crops, but the roots of these crops cannot hold onto the soil in the manner that forests can. This further results in the seeping of soft soil and silt into local water bodies such as lakes and rivers, drastically reducing the quality of water for human settlements which depend on such water bodies for their primary source of potable water and water for cooking and washing.
Regardless of just how obvious the ill-effects of deforestation are, there are some who attempt to use anthropocentric arguments to justify it, i.e. to say that deforestation is justified if it benefits human lives. One of the primary reasons for deforestation is the area it makes available for cattle ranching, and the space it clears for housing and urbanization activities. Hence, what was once the centre of a forest is now a steel factory or a chemical plant, a man-made construct built to benefit humans. As an intelligent species capable of making rational decisions, one must expect that parties both for and against such a statement take into consideration both the costs and benefits that come with deforestation and the felling of trees. Combined with the space made available for arable land, the cutting of trees provides huge inputs for the furniture industry. At the same time, however, one must analyse whether the aforementioned costs which come with deforestation are worth the benefits.
Deforestation not only destroys the homes of rare animal species, it also poses a significant threat to the only home we have – Earth. Moreover, being the predominantly intelligent species on the planet who have often acted with little to no regard for the consequences of our eternal attempts to satisfy our eternal wants using limited resources, many argue that it is now mankind’s duty to protect species who are now endangered due to human callousness. In such a scenario, one must be open-minded enough to look beyond the myopic benefit-centric argument, and incorporate a provision for net benefits into the considerations, i.e. benefits net costs. Such net benefits would reflect the remaining benefits of deforestation (if any) once the costs had been deducted. Benefits here would have to include contingencies for future generations, as a depletion of forest reserves within our lifetime would leave nothing for our children.
The question now becomes how we quantify costs and benefits so as to devise an economic model. Quantifying benefits are easy enough as the money value of goods and commodities produced as a result of deforestation could serve as a reliable substitute in this case. With costs, however, the quantification is a little more tricky. The cost of government interventionist anti-climate change policies would be one way to measure costs. Also included would have to be the costs of reforestation and mitigation, to the extent possible, of the adverse effects of deforestation. Unfortunately, however, experts predict that mankind has already crossed the level where net benefits exist. The marginal costs now far exceed the marginal benefits of deforestation, and the time has now come for governments of the world to drastically reassess what exactly constitutes justified deforestation. Even anthropocentric arguments fail in such a case, as the only manner in which deforestation could be justified is if it saves a large number of human lives; something it does not presently do.
Since the primary focus of the debate is on whether it “benefits” human lives, one cannot help but feel that benefit here simply means a small improvement in the already-luxurious standard of living enjoyed by some members of society, which comes at the cost of the lives of thousands of plants and animals. The question now is just how much humankind is willing to prioritise its endless wants over the basic needs of all other living things.
Contributed by Prithviraj
Picture Credits: carbonbrief.org