The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: The Death of Trees

An excerpt from the book.

The Death of Trees

The development of civilization and industry in general has always shown itself so active in the destruction of forests that everything that has been done for their conservation and production is completely insignificant in comparison.
-Karl Marx (1818-83), Capital (1867)

We have already done irreversible (in our lifetimes) damage to the soil, water, air, and life forms of Earth.

More than 75% of the topsoil that existed worldwide when Europeans first colonized America is now gone, and substantial damage has been done to the water cycle by cutting our forests.

In this chapter we’ll explore this subject and learn what it means for our future. By burning trees, coal, and oil, we’re currently pouring over six billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year, an explosion compared to the 1.6 billion tons we spit out in 1950. That carbon (most in the form of the gas carbon dioxide) is creating a greenhouse shield which is believed by the United Nations and informed scientists to be causing wild extremes of weather worldwide. Grain and food production in both America and the rest of the world peaked during the 1980s (and have been declining in the 1990s), leading to both record profits for the agriculture companies and the most widespread hunger and starvation in the history of the planet.

How can it be that our scientific knowledge, which is real and produces tangible benefits, is also leading to a disruption of our existence? The answer is that the tangible results come in isolated specific arenas, and their gains are accomplished by mortgaging our future: spending one part of the system to benefit another.


When I was in elementary school, we were taught that the oceans and the forests were the chief sources of oxygen for the planet. It turns out that, at least for those animals that breathe air, this is only partially correct. The oceans account for less than eight percent of the atmosphere’s oxygen, and that is dropping rapidly: there are now millions of acres of ocean which are dying from the dumping of toxic wastes or changes in water temperature and therefore have become net consumers of oxygen. So trees, it turns out, are the major source of recycled oxygen for the atmosphere. They are our planet’s lungs.

A fully grown pine or hardwood tree has a leaf surface area that can run from a quarter-acre to over three acres, depending on the species. Rainforest trees have leaf surface areas that run as high as forty acres per tree. Throughout this enormous surface area, sunlight is used as an energy source to drive the conversion of carbon dioxide into oxygen and plant matter (using the “C” which is carbon). Trees literally breathe in the CO2 through that enormous leaf area after we exhale it as biological waste, and they exhale oxygen as their own waste. Without trees, our atmosphere would most likely become toxic to us, and because rainforest trees have such a massively larger leaf area than our common trees, the rainforests of the world provided much of the oxygen which you are breathing as you read this page.

While this is common knowledge, it’s really among the least important functions that trees play: other details about trees’ role in our survival are less well-known.

The Root System “Water Pump”

A rainforest tree will draw three million gallons of water up through its roots and release it into the atmosphere as water vapor during its lifetime. While it may seem that this would deplete the soil of water, actually the reverse is true: trees draw water into the soil, the first step in a complex cycle which prevents land from becoming desert.

Without forestland pumping millions of tons of water into an area’s atmosphere, there’s little moisture released into the air to condense into clouds and to then fall again as rain. The result is that just downwind of the place that was once forest but is now denuded, the rains no longer fall and a process called desertification begins. This has happened over much of north and eastern Africa, leading to massive famines as the rains stop, crops fail, the topsoil is then blown away, and what is left is desert. (Most rainfall on non-forest land either is absorbed and becomes surface ground water, or is transported along culverts, ditches, sewers, streams, and/or rivers, eventually reaching the ocean. On our continental land-masses, only trees effectively cycle large quantities of water back up into the atmosphere. For comparison, think about the evaporation from a forty-acre lake. That may seem like a lot of water to be evaporating into the atmosphere, but that forty acres is also the evaporative leaf surface of a single large tree.)

As of this writing, over 1500 acres of land are becoming desert worldwide every hour, largely because of the destruction of upwind forests. The total amount of rainforest left on the planet is about the size of the continental United States, and every year, an area the size of Florida is cut down and permanently destroyed.

Reseeded Saplings Can’t Pull the Water Down

The timber industry’s ads which show loggers planting seedlings after stripping trees from a forest are utterly misleading with regard to the water cycle. They may well be replacing trees, but they’re creating a decades-long gap in the water cycle.[1] Taking thousands of tons of biomass (fully-grown trees and habitat) out of a forest and replacing it with saplings that weigh a few ounces will do little for the downwind areas that need the atmospheric moisture to produce rainfall.

Even by the time the trees regenerate, the ecological diversity and natural fauna and flora of the region have been decimated as the diversity of numerous plant species are replaced by the single-species seedlings used by the loggers.

It is, after all, more efficient that way: the classic modern view.

But it’s not just the timber companies who are responsible for the destruction of the planet’s forests.

Trees for Beef: Slashing rainforests so Americans can have a 99-cent burger

According to a 1996 report by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, funded by the World Bank and the United Nations, 72 acres of rainforest are destroyed every minute, mostly by impoverished people who are cutting and burning the forest to create agricultural or pasture lands to grow beef for export to the United States.

This 38 million-acres-per-year loss will wipe out the entire world’s rainforests in our children’s lifetimes if it continues at its current pace. The end, literally, is within sight. A spokesman for the World Bank said the study pointed out that poverty and overpopulation are the primary factors leading to the destruction of these forests which are so essential to maintaining human life on the planet.

Recently, a friend of my son complained to me that one of the giant fast-food hamburger chains was responsible for the destruction of many of the rainforests in the Americas. I didn’t understand what he meant: the assumption I’d always had was that the rainforests were cut by timber companies eager to sell rare woods to Japan and Scandinavia for manufacture of furniture and specialty items. If the fast-food chains were killing off the rainforests, I thought, it must be because they were buying cheap wood for paper to wrap their burgers in, or that their plastic packaging was somehow damaging to the rainforests.

It turns out, however, that I shared a common misconception, and one that I’m sure the American fast-food industry is probably quite happy keeping intact. While these rainforests that have taken centuries to grow are often logged and the wood is sold, they’re just as often simply burned and not reseeded, particularly if it’s in places where it’s inconvenient to take the wood to market. The “free” wood is usually only an added bonus, a quick buck for a peasant farmer to use to buy some breeder cattle.

The most common reason why people are destroying most of the South and Central American rainforests is poverty: the American meat habit has provided an economic boom to both poor farmers and corporate ranchers, and it is the primary reason behind the destruction of the tropical rainforests of the Americas. Poor farmers and factory farmers alike engage in slash-and-burn agriculture, cutting ancient forests to plant a single crop: grass for cattle.

The United States imports two hundred million pounds of beef every year from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama—while the average citizen in those countries eats less meat each year than the average American house cat. This deforestation of Latin America for burgers is particularly distressing when you consider that this very fragile area contains 58% of the entire planet’s rainforests. (19% are in Africa and 23% in Oceania and Southeast Asia).

Deforesting removes roots, affecting groundwater and the water cycle

Another problem relating to deforestation is the loss of drinkable groundwater. Drinkable water falls from the skies as rain and soaks into the ground.

At deeper levels, the water has often acquired (from the soil) high concentrations of dissolved minerals, particularly salts. Trees reach deep down into the earth and draw up moisture from just above this salty water and pump it up into the atmosphere, using the minerals to harden the wood of the tree. This removal of water from the soil creates a downward draw, into the soil, for the fresh water raining down from above. This circulation keeps the soil healthy.

When forests are cut, however, the more saline subterranean water begins to creep upward, infiltrating into higher and higher levels of soil.

When this salty water hits a level of a few yards below the surface, the remaining trees become immune-damaged, just like an AIDS patient, vulnerable to parasitic infections. We see the result of this in beetle infestations and fungal infections such as “rust” which are wiping out trees around the world.

People often think that beetle, caterpillar, moth, and fungus infections are external agents which cause forests to die, and react to them with mass sprayings of insecticides or fungicides, or by shrugging their shoulders and saying nothing can be done. But in a healthy forest such infestations are rare, just as in a healthy human opportunistic infections are rare. One reason why even multi-species, varied aged tracts of forest in Europe and the United States are dying from these conditions is because they’ve already been weakened by humans pumping out much of the surface water, pouring down acid rain on them, and destroying surrounding forests.In Europe the percentage of land that is forest is down to 27%. In Asia it’s 19%. In North America (including the vasts forests of Canada), it’s at 25%.(The worldwide replacement of forests with pastureland for cows has become so pervasive that wood-poor England is now, in some communities, using charcoal made from burned cow bones instead of the traditional wood charcoal to filter city water supplies.

Reacting to protests from vegetarians in Yorkshire, England, the Yorkshire Water company pointed out that the bones were imported from India, because the company couldn’t afford the cost of wood-made charcoal and, the Associated Press quoted an official as saying, “we can’t undertake to supply water which meets individual dietary needs...”[2] As of 1997, cow-bone charcoal, cheaper than wood charcoal even after including the cost of shipping it from India, is now being used in 10 water treatment plants, and the company plans to add it to six more in the coming months.) When the salty water continues higher and reaches a foot or two below the surface, crops begin to die. And when it hits the surface, the soil becomes incapable of sustaining vegetation and desertification sets in.

To deal with this growing soil salinity crisis, farmers from California to Europe to Australia have begun installing deep-water pumps to remove the salt-contaminated water that the trees would have once drawn down deep below the surface. While this works as a short-term solution, over the long term it only makes the problem worse because that undesirable water is not being cycled back up into the atmosphere as it would be by a tree, but instead is dumped into waterways where it poisons them on its way to the sea. The result is further downwind desertification as well as the poisoning of rivers and lakes.

This mineral and salt contamination of ground water is also a crisis for thirsty humans. In many parts of the world, city drinking waters are so brackish they’re dangerous. Most major US and European cities have water that is, at best, unpalatable. Dissolved salt levels of 1300 ppm (parts-per-million) are the point where people begin to become sick and dizzy from drinking water: in many cities levels now exceed 1000 ppm. The loss of trees means not only the loss of current topsoil because of salination and desertification, but also the loss of future soils. The roots of most plants only anchor into the topsoil, using it for mechanical support and as a medium from which to derive nutrients and water. Trees, however, have deep roots which break up lower levels of rock, slowly bringing them to the surface, and shallow roots which break up surface rock. They also draw minerals up into the tree itself to help make the plant matter. When the leaves are shed, they form an essential component of soil.

The result of this action by the roots of trees is the formation of new topsoil. It takes, on average, about 400 years for a forest to create a foot of topsoil which is capable of sustaining crops. Without a forest there is virtually no topsoil being created at all. (Some sand is formed through air and water erosion of rock, but that is not soil.) This also shows how “slash and burn” agriculture, where a few feet of topsoil are exposed by burning a forest and then used up by agriculture over a few short years, is so shortsighted. Given that without soil we can have no crops, it would seem that we’d be concerned about both the loss of our soil-creating trees and the loss of our current soil itself. Instead, over 300 tons of topsoil are lost worldwide every minute as governments and the agricultural corporations that produce most of America’s crops look the other way. Because of rising average temperatures from global warming, the life-cycle of the bark beetle in Alaska has been cut from two years to one for reproduction. This has led to a near-doubling of the population of bark beetles, which have devastated several million acres of Alaskan forests.

Forests are imperiled worldwide

Hardly anything illustrates the rich, complex, interdependent nature of our environment as well as trees do, but they continue to be cut and burned. The result aggravates our situation in these last days of ancient sunlight: we have less oxygen-releasing leaf surface, less circulation in the water cycle, we risk increased desertification, while at the same time the burning puts more carbon into the atmosphere.

These facts make it appear that humans (at least the humans who control such matters) have no concept of their role in the ecosystem.

But the domination is now weakening us in another way, too: the same extermination mentality that killed off the Taino (and any other population that interfered with the dominators) is killing off species at an absolutely unprecedented rate, resulting in another change that cannot be quickly undone: loss of diversity.

[1] Another problem is that they’re setting up an ecological disaster by planting the same species throughout a reforested area. When an entire forest is all made of the same species of tree, and they’re all the same age, it becomes an irresistible treat for tree-eating caterpillars, beetles, and we’ve seen in numerous forests in North America and Europe. Forests with a wide variety of species and ages are highly resistant to such epidemics.

[2] Associated Press, August 25, 1997, story by Dirk Beveridge

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