In the middle of the Sahara desert there are drawings on rocks that portray a land full of trees, wild animals and water. Not long after they were made, humans began to learn how to farm. They marvelled in the wonderful increase in crops they could achieve by deliberately planting wheat and millet on cleared ground. Then the climate gradually deteriorated and the land dried out. It happened so slowly that each generation scarcely noticed.
The impact of human civilisation on our planet
There is a disturbing correlation between the places human civilisations first developed and dry desert conditions. The Indus valley civilisation emerged in land that is now bone dry. The deserts of Iraq were part of the fertile crescent. When humans arrived in Australia, tree cover declined and the continent dried out. Large numbers of wild animals were wiped out including giant kangaroos. When humans arrived in America, it was the giant sloths that went, along with much else.
There is a theory that woolly mammoths disappeared because the climate changed. In actuality the climate changed many times in their millions of years of existence and they survived by simply migrating. They went extinct at exactly the time when humans got good at hunting.
According to Fred Pearce in A trillion trees, around half of the world’s forests have disappeared since the dawn of civilisation. Industrialisation speeded up the pace of destruction and the introduction of fossil-driven technology increased it still further. The destruction of wildlife has now reached such a scale that it represents an extinction that compares unfavourably with exceptionally rare geological events.
Deforestation, extinction and pandemics
Over half of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef has been destroyed. The Amazon rain forest is being cut down and burned at rates that risk turning it into a second Sahara. In Siberia, the largest forest in the world, there are no meaningful controls whatsoever over logging and corruption is stripping it away. The tree cover there drives the climate for the whole of northern Eurasia.
Disturbingly removing tree cover and putting humanity into close contact with species that once lived in remote and rarely visited places is a known way to trigger zoonotic diseases. Pandemics spread easily when humans encounter diseases in mammals such as bats. It only takes one microbe to succeed in crossing the species barrier and human beings that have no resistance to that disease are in big trouble.
Put those factors together and it is not hard to see why we don’t actually have a climate emergency. We have a massive environmental emergency that goes way beyond the climate. We have a crisis of destruction. Put simply, if we carry on wiping out wildlife, we are almost certain to drive our own civilisation into a collapse. If we don’t kill ourselves via a pandemic first.
Sustainable forest management
The only piece of good news in all this is that it is entirely possible to grow food and support a wide range of wildlife whilst creating rich wet habitats. It just requires willpower and a willingness to manage a global society, a global economy and a global ecology via global structures. Just as it requires willpower to take all the appropriate local and national action that we can.
Those same Brazilian rain forests that are so much at threat from clearances to grow soya and produce beef are actually not pristine. Research is now demonstrating that before the Europeans arrived and spread disease, the Amazon was heavily populated and the humans living there managed to grow large quantities of food for thousands of years within a rainforest.
Instead of simply cutting down trees, what happened across much of Amazonia was that the locals selected trees. They encouraged the growth of plants that fed them like Brazil nut trees and removed trees that they found to be less useful. They built up the fertility of their soil via recycling food and human waste. They cleared relatively small areas for growing crops and managed the regrowth of the forest whenever soil fertility declined.
The scale of what they achieved is exceptional. Ecologists have documented 16,000 tree species in the Amazon. Yet over half of them come from just 227 species, even though there is no evidence that they are in any way better suited to the environment. What is different about these trees is that most of them are of value to humans, who deliberately assisted their spread.
Yorkshire upland farming
The lesson of this for Yorkshire ought to be obvious. Most of our uplands aren’t naturally free of tree cover. They are open exposed areas because the trees have gone. Many of the plans to restore those trees are unrealistic attempts to restore a past that has never existed, by planting mixtures of trees that are deemed to be native to the area. If they succeed, that land would then produce next to no food and we’d be dependent on importing more. And once the wrong trees are planted, they are exceptionally difficult to remove.
What needs to be done is to be more selective about the trees we plant and to select species that are both useful to people and good for wildlife and for soil health. It is quite possible to grow apples, pears, plums, cherries, hazelnuts and even walnuts on upland Yorkshire moors that are currently only supporting a few sheep. It is quite possible to run cattle beneath those trees. We can, if we choose, restore our Yorkshire upland forests in ways that feed us whilst giving farming a sustainable future.
Reforesting the right way
The benefits of reforesting our upland areas are becoming increasingly well known. It is one of the best ways of regulating water flows and preventing downstream flooding. It significantly increases biodiversity.
Yet the way that we reforest is every bit as important as whether we reforest. There is no such thing as rewilding. Almost every bit of land on earth has been reshaped by humanity. What we need is intelligent land management that feeds us whilst enabling other forms of life to prosper.
We face a wildlife emergency that is every bit as urgent as the climate emergency. How we tackle it locally and globally will determine whether our civilisation has a future. Let’s not opt for an illusion that we can rewild parts of the Yorkshire landscape that haven’t been wild for thousands of years. We need genuinely sustainable agriculture. Not a theme park.