Source and Sink: One Year.
Considering the Earth is 4.6 billion years old, one year is just a dizzy trip around the sun. Time is not immeasurable, though time does not stand still. For 100 million years forests have swathed the Tropics, repeating and reinventing their lush cycles. Some trees span 1,400 years from seed to sky. Geologic timescales eclipse our circadian rhythms, but day-by-day is how we measure 365. We count holidays, paychecks, heartbeats. The death of an elder, the birth of a child. But seen from above, through the troposphere, the rare air, one short year can bring irreversible damages. See the smoke from a leveling slash and burn, the bare dirt where a forest used to stand. The felled timber is slumbering down a river. The death of a species, the birth of disaster.
Tropical deforestation is no longer an obscure catastrophe. The consequences, locally and globally, are well documented, well publicized. Biologists, lawyers and diplomats are working hard to moderate the crisis. But the work, like a forest, has tangled edges. Where does the science end and the policy begin? Where do the humanitarian and the environmental concerns overlap? The data and treaties like leaf litter require endless sifting, the parsing of numbers and words. Will the market outgrow its ethics? Does technology engender compromise? Will one year spur conservation, or just more conferences while the trees continue to fall?
The questions outweigh the answers. What percentage of the rainforest is destroyed annually, eradicating how many species, releasing how much carbon? These forests are dense, kaleidoscopic, psychedelic. Even the numbers twist and spin. Hypotheses are contentious, based on assumptions and forecasts and curves. To deforest is to remove fertility from the earth and fertility is uncountable. Her numbers are like quicksand. The mere idea of ground.
Biodiversity is a labyrinth of unknowns. Expert opinions place the total number of species on Earth somewhere between 5 and 50 million. Only 1.5 million species have been named thus far. There are 700 distinct bacteria in the human mouth and 350,000 described beetles alone. Hundreds of new species are identified annually. A scientifically unexplored mountain was just discovered in Mozambique. And we are only now beginning to understand the microbial ecosystems inhabiting our own organs.
We are in the midst of what some call the sixth great extinction event. The Red List of Threatened Species includes over 16,000, although only around 2% all named species have been assessed. Even so, one in three primates and one in three amphibians are considered Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered. Extinction itself is not a new phenomenon. The vast percentage of all species that have ever lived on the planet are now gone. But present rates are assessed to be thousands of times greater than background rates. Evidence points to human liability, directly and indirectly, this time around.
Being an ecological hotbed, the estimated counts of rainforest species are staggering. And as a corollary, so too the projected rate of loss. Tropical populations are particularly vulnerable to perturbations in habitat and climate. Species that should have taken billions of years to run their course are red-listed in a day. The death of the last remaining means languages, whether bird song or bee dance, no longer spoken.
“It is very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain figures for the rates of deforestation,” begins one Wikipedia entry on tropical forests. Even if we could settle on the rate of loss, could we also quantify the loss a forest can tolerate before it exhausts all stamina for regrowth? A species that was suited to the interior now finds itself, disoriented, on the edge. We can guess at the rate of extinction, but can we comprehend the extinction debt? Numbers intersect curiously with time. Remove the pollinators, the seed sowers, and the effect will be felt generations down the line.
There is, of course, a quantitative truth snaking through the forest. An exact count of trees per acre and acres of cutting per day. The precise number of insects falling from one fogged tree. A calculated change in atmospheric gasses. The tally of families displaced. But the statistics themselves, even when attainable, are like a temporary platform. Something to arrive at, something to depart from.
Tropical deforestation has accelerated the source greenhouse gasses beyond workable levels, overstepping the natural carbon cycle. The death of the planet is not what is at stake. Earth was Earth when the surface was a molten sea. Earth was Earth when it was cooling, enduring centuries of rain. It is our own gloomy extinction that hangs over our heads. In a macro-expression of human excess, we have disrupted the balance between source and sink. The butterflies migrate too late. The buds burst too soon. Is one year enough time to steady the scales? To balance foresight with hindsight, convenience with consequence, economic pressure with individual need?
Marking climate change the enemy, a beast to tame, is not the answer. We are the rolling blackouts, we are the overfilling landfill. Until we can think of the forest as us, there will always be a rift. And in the rift we sow our ignorance, our greed. We are the undiscovered insects in the unnamed trees. To say a forest is dying is not enough. A forest is dying like what? Like ten million wounded. Like a cliff driven herd. Like morality in modern darkness. How we take care of the earth is how we take care of ourselves. We are bleeding from our middle. The swelter has reached our frozen toes.