“We can’t save everything, but we have to save the richest places, and the richest places on Earth are forests like this”
This is a quote from the documentary programme about New Guinea, “Lost land of the Volcano”. Obviously it is a point that I think can be debated, but I think it has as good a claim to a valid environmental concern as any. Personally I would argue that it has a greater claim than most.
So what is the best way to protect rainforests? There have been many methods tried, with mixed results at best. However there are some ideas to consider that might point to a long-term strategy that might be of great indirect benefit to the rainforests.
Rainforest destruction is usually connected to economic activity. Logging, slash-and-burn agriculture and crude mineral extraction is primitive economic activity, of a kind that tends to reduce importance to the community as the economy develops.
Environmentalists’ claims that economic development increases environmental destruction is not as obvious as they claim. Vaclav Klaus has pointed out that the Czech environment, destroyed by the Communist economy, only improved with the developments in the economy of a free Czech Republic and Slovakia. Developing economies not only allow resources for clean technology, but also for activities not essential to everyday survival, such as the leisure to take interest in long-term environmental protection.
In the UK, and I believe other western economies, the number of trees has increased in the last few decades. Outside areas with direct population pressure the forest land has all but stopped retreating, and in many areas is being managed to either keep its extent or even spread. This is after massive destruction of forests for centuries. In Britain continuous forests once stretched from the south coast to the Scottish Highlands.
Economic development also tends to lead very quickly to population stability and even reduction, reducing environmental pressure. Human populations explode when they have western medicine available and food aid or improved agricultural technology but not education and other cultural changes which lead to family planning. The most economically-developed nations are almost all suffering from reducing populations.
Is the solution to the preservation of the rainforests as simple as economic development? I doubt it. Rule of law and property rights will be essential both for that economic development, but also for ensuring that someone has an interest in the forests beyond short-term gain, and that those guardians are able to protect their wards.
Unfortunately environmentalists seem to have a knee-jerk reaction against economic development. There are many connections with communism, with many former communists and fellow travellers prominent in the environmental movement. They have a dislike of economic independence and also of property rights and the strict rule of law.
I would argue then that for many years the environmental movement has opposed development that might have helped protect the environment. However without authority they brought attention to important issues, but struggled to make a great impact until a few years ago. A weak hypothesis, supported by models that skated over the most critical issues using fudge factors made up by true believers, was trumpeted as The Great New Truth.
Politicians with little understanding of the science or of scientific process used this claim to their own ends, to take power over people, and to keep themselves in office. The science is uncertain; the politicians bought the certainty of scientists, and distorted the channels of communication until they only heard what they wanted to hear. That might just seriously damage some of the wonders of nature, not just in parallel with but because of condemning billions to poverty.