Rain forest repair and the moral hazard of hope

The rain forest is shrinking.

Right, you knew that. But did you know this? Google Earth lets you research the topic on your own. Like Superman, you can spin the globe forward and backward in time to see what the yesterworld looked like.

I zoomed in on a region around Ariquemes in Rondônia, Brazil. Once there, I used the “time slider” to change the year in which the pictures were acquired. For this particular part of the world, Google has satellite imagery reaching back to 1975, at which time Ariquemes scarcely existed, and none of the nearby forest had been cleared. Paging forward in time, I saw this.

[This is an animated GIF image with four frames. If you want to see it animate again, click on it or reload the page.]

The forest, there she goes, eh? I resisted the urge to play sad music in the background.

But something big is happening in Brazil right now. Despite our economic troubles up north, Brazil is in the middle of a tremendous boom. That’s more bad news for the forest, right? Not at all. It’s the best possible news. Because what’s happening is people are leaving the impoverished countryside and heading to the city. In many places, subsistence farms are being abandoned.

So there’s this interesting question: if left alone, can the rain forest repair itself? For a long time, we had a ready answer: no. The rain forest is a fiddly machine perched atop poor soil. Smash that machine and you’ve got a parched wasteland that will never bloom again. This is a good story if you like sad-face dystopias, but when you gather real data, a different story emerges. The forest wants to come back if we can just leave it alone (or perhaps help it a little). Here are two encouraging articles.

Some people see a moral hazard in calling out good news like this. Does being hopeful mean we are perforce denying the severity of the problem? That we are abetting the enemies of the earth? The answer must be an emphatic no. The point is not that the situation is good, but that it is not hopeless. Ignoring the problems of deforestation and global warming is harmful, but giving up in despair is worse.

It doesn’t help anyone to make a scary story scarier than it is.