The last forest and the future of life on Earth
Part adventure travelogue, part popular science journalism, part conveyor of big truths, Ben Rawlence‘s The Treeline is a beautifully written, mind-opening account of how trees are migrating north in response to climate breakdown. It’s a page-turner and yet also book I lingered over, because there were so many passages that necessitated an intake of breath, followed by a solemn stare into the distance, and then a re-read to make sure I had fully understood the devastating implications of the new information just imbibed.
The Treeline’s mission is to describe the shift of the northern hemisphere treeline – the highest latitude at which trees survive before falling prey to freezing Arctic temperatures. This zone has shifted multiple times over the last 360 million years, effectively doing a back and forth dance with descending and retreating ice-sheets, but the current pace of change is unprecedented. As Rawlance puts it “The migration of the treeline north is no longer a matter of centimetres per century; instead it is hundreds of metres every year. The trees are on the move. They shouldn’t be. And this sinister fact has enormous consequences for all life on earth.”
To investigate, Rawlance traverses some of the most inhospitable terrains on Earth, at one point trusting his life to a pair of fear-free Russian truck drivers and a climate-denying guide as they hurtle hundreds of miles across lake-ice of uncertain durability. The author clearly revels in an element of risk taking and early in the book swims across a freezing-cold Scottish loch just to see what lies on the other bank.
Trees and not the author are, however, are the central characters in Rawlance’s narrative, and the twelve pivotal ‘treeline’ species he identifies while travelling across six far-northern regions not only enjoy lyrical description in each chapter, but also their very own glossary. Nevertheless, humanity is also rarely out of focus, not simply because of our culpability in mass extinction of other life-forms, but because as an Anishinaabe woman tells Rawlance “If the land gets sick, we get sick”.
This is not entirely a tale of breakdown and looming catastrophe, however. Some trees are doing rather well at this stage of climate breakdown. The downy birch, for example, “loves the warmer weather. It used to be confined to the dips and gullies on the [Finnmark Forest] plateau, out of the icy winds, but unleashed by the warmth it is storming over the top and out into the open, moving upslope at a rate of forty metres a year. An enormous amount of space is being tranformed from tundra into woodland at lightning pace.”
Indeed, Rawlence notes that “[t]he downy birch detected the current warming trend much earlier than most scientists. The trees were the canaries but few understood what they were saying.”
This is good news in one sense only: some tree species are grabbing the opportunity to expand into vast new territories, sucking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they do so, although sadly at nowhere near the rate that humans are increasing its release into our shared atmosphere.
In pretty much all all other senses, it’s a problem. In general, today’s living things are adapted to thrive in the ecosystems of the geological period that has persevered since end of the last ice age. Now human activity has shifted our Earth into a new geological period – the Anthropocene (or Captilocene to some) – and many species are struggling, including the Scots pine, as Rawlance observes when he starts his journey in the Scottish highlands: “Over 8,000 years of wooded history and all the birds and insects and mammals that make up a finely balanced system of fest that has evolved around the Scots pine could be obliterated within the lifetime of a single tree. Where once Scotland was at the northerly treeline, above which it was too cold or too high for pines to grow, in less than a hundred years it may find itself below the southerly limit of that range.”
The Treeline is rich in information that strongly suggests climate breakdown is dangerously effecting the eco-systems upon which all human, and much other life depends, much faster than even the worst-case-scenario climate models have hitherto suggested. I have dedicated most of my waking hours for the best part of twenty years to trying stimulate human action to stop climate breakdown, but there was lots of data in ‘The Treeline’ that left me stunned. To list but a few:
- The Siberian taiga – the greatest forest on Earth, covering 3 million square miles across two continents and ten timezones – is desperately migrating north, as drought and fire ravage its southern extremities, belching out greenhouse gas emissions as it dies. Prior to 2018 the average volume of wildfire emissions was 2 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year. In 2019 it was 5 megatonnes. In 2020 it was 16 megatonnes. “Forest fires on this scale had not been predicted until 2060.”
- “During the 2019 season the Greenland ice sheet lost 2.54 billion tonnes of ice, seven times as much as in the 1990s. Ice sheet melt on this scale had not been expected until 2070. And it is accelerating..The chain reaction is underway. The curve only gets steeper from here. From emissions already in the atmosphere..five metres of sea level rise is locked-in; it’s just a question of how fast the ice melts. Once again, the models seem to have underestimated the speed.”
- Most significantly, The Treeline casts new light on the rapidity, extent and potential impact of permafrost melt. Until it started degrading due to climate breakdown, permafrost underlay almost one quarter of our planet’s landmass, half of that in Siberia. As Nadezhda Tchebakova, one of the few remaining Russian scientists working in what during the Soviet era had been a huge Siberian institute, tells Rawlence on his visit to Krasnoyarsk, “It is my belief that a chain reaction has already started. The permafrost is already melting. It is hard to see how it can stop.”
The Climate Crisis Advisory Group has separately pointed out that because the Arctic has been warming at three times the rate of the global average, permafrost melt is occurring 70 years earlier than models originally predicted. They estimate that up to 89% of near surface permafrost could melt by the end of this century, releasing tens to hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane (which has 140 times the warming impact of carbon dioxide in the short term). Peat soils in the boreal and Arctic regions hold more carbon than all the world’s forests*.
Rawlence learns that this situation is not as widely incorporated into climate impact projections as it should be because “[t]here are only four land-based monitoring stations in Siberia attempting to capture data on methane and carbon dioxide release from permafrost..If Nadezhda is right and the tipping point has already been passed when emissions from melting permafrost will now drive more warming regardless of what humans do, then we should be very worried indeed.”
Alongside the startling facts, Rawlence is an assiduous collector of provocative stories, gathered from the varied cast of characters he meets on his travels. Many of the most striking of these are recounted by members of indigenous communities struggling to preserve thousands of years of heritage in the Arctic.
These are people whose lives have already been immeasurably changed by climate breakdown, from the reindeer herders who have seen tundra turn to forest in less than a generation, shifting their nomadic homelands hundreds of miles, to the disorienting obliteration of natural places of ancient spiritual significance.
Rawlence notes that in many such communities, humans’ relationship with the rest of nature is fundamentally different to that in ‘developed economies’. Quoting the American anthropologist Richard K. Nelson, he recounts that the Koyukon people of Alaska, for example, “live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes. A person moving through nature – however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be – is never truly alone. The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified. They feel. They can be offended. And they must, at every moment, be treated with proper respect.”
Most modern societies around the world could benefit from adopting this way of thinking, a conclusion drawn by one of Rawlance’s Koyukon interviewees, Catherine/Kiltaakllaanee, who argues simply, “The Supreme Court [in the USA] should make a law requiring people to approach the earth as they would another human.” A small number of countries have actually done something similar to this, I believe, with Ecuador becoming the first to enshrine the rights of nature into its constitution under President Correa in 2008, followed by Bolivia a few years later.
Alongside this stimulating thinking about how humans could live as part of nature, derived from indigenous communities, Rawlance also gathers some interesting ideas on how to ‘manage’ nature within capitalist societies. Some are pretty counter-intuitive, such as the success land manager, Thomas McDonnell, has had in enabling an old-growth Scots pine forest to begin rejuvenation from the brink of extermination, courtesy of killing 5,000 predatory deer and then leaving the forest to manage itself. Or back in Siberia, the Russian scientist whose experiment suggests that cutting down, not preserving, forest is the best way to limit permafrost melt (because the expanding forest acts as insulation for the soil and so accelerates warming).
The Treeline is a deeply thought-provoking book. It is so well written that it was a pleasure to read (and re-read for this review) despite the often disturbing content. Rawlence himself appears to have the drawn the conclusion that the climate impacts that are now locked-in are so severe that humanity needs to fundamentally focus on adapting to a much more hostile environment, alongside rapidly ending our fossil fuel addiction (or, more accurately, the fossil fuel addiction of a wealthy minority of humanity). The book’s epilogue, ‘Thinking like a forest’ alludes to the very practical contribution Rawlence has himself taken, establishing the wonderful Black Mountain College in Wales, dedicated to equipping students with the skills to thrive in the Anthropocene and help build an ecological civilisation.
I think that’s where I am at too. Sadly, almost all the evidence that comes across my desk suggests that we are well past the point where we could get climate breakdown under control sufficiently to avoid millions, if not billions more people suffering devastating consequences. The vast majority of humanity is already negatively affected by climate breakdown.
The next few decades are going to be tough even if we can quickly overcome the death-grip that the fossil fuel and neo-liberal lobbies hold over much of human society. If we can’t rapidly achieve political and economic hegemony based on the long-term interests of the majority, rather than the immediate enrichment of a tiny minority, there is a real possibility that human civilisation won’t survive to what would otherwise have been the end of my natural lifespan (I turned 50 last year).
If the permafrost data is right we might already be past that point. But we don’t know we have to move forward on the basis that and every tonne of carbon dioxide and methane we keep in the ground now might be the difference between a habitable and uninhabitable world in the near future.
The rapid movement of the northern hemisphere treeline is yet another warning. As Rawlance argues, it is one that should make all of us act like a forest and start adapting our communities to a dangerously changing climate, while simultaneously building new societies that comprehends humans as part of nature, not masters of it, and understand that survival, and progress, depend on equity and collaboration, not elitism and competition. Back to work, then..
* A statistic from ‘Regenesis’ by George Monbiot, p.89, which I intend to review soon
One Response to “The last forest and the future of life on Earth”
A most perceptive, intelligent review of a book so perceptive and intelligent itself. We need to all read it.