Greened

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There’s an interesting article from May of last year (happy belated New Years, blog friends! May your 2019 be better than the disjointed hangover from 2017 that 2018 was) that has been making the twitter rounds today. I’m off twitter at the moment, polishing off the book, but managed to snag it nonetheless. It’s from the folks at the University of Helsinki, by way of Phys.org: “Expansion of global forests reflects well-being, not rising CO2, experts say”. Now, the argument that the ‘global greening’ that is currently way derives primarily from the same forces driving anthropogenic climate change comes from NASA, among other places; I’ll point the interested reader to the following article (from which I nabbed the very pleasant image above): “Carbon Dioxide Fertilization Greening Earth, Study Finds”. In brief, here’s what they have to say:

Green leaves use energy from sunlight through photosynthesis to chemically combine carbon dioxide drawn in from the air with water and nutrients tapped from the ground to produce sugars, which are the main source of food, fiber and fuel for life on Earth. Studies have shown that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide increase photosynthesis, spurring plant growth.

However, carbon dioxide fertilization isn’t the only cause of increased plant growth—nitrogen, land cover change and climate change by way of global temperature, precipitation and sunlight changes all contribute to the greening effect. To determine the extent of carbon dioxide’s contribution, researchers ran the data for carbon dioxide and each of the other variables in isolation through several computer models that mimic the plant growth observed in the satellite data.

Results showed that carbon dioxide fertilization explains 70 percent of the greening effect, said co-author Ranga Myneni, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University. “The second most important driver is nitrogen, at 9 percent. So we see what an outsized role COplays in this process.”

Pretty straightforward stuff. The Helsinki study, however, makes a strikingly different claim:

since the 1800s, transitions from net forest loss to gain have coincided with a switch within nations from subsistence to market oriented agriculture. Today the growth or decline of a nation’s forest resources correlates strongly to the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index.

[…]

The study attributes forest expansion to several factors that have outweighed the impacts of population growth and improving diets. They include:

  • Urbanization, which draws farmers off marginal rural lands
  • Evolution from a subsistence regime to market economy, which further concentrates farming to the best lands
  • Better agricultural technologies and yields, relieving the need to clear new agricultural land
  • Better transportation, communication, storage, processing, and consumer behavior, reducing food waste
  • The availability of alternatives to wood as a fuel

Vilma Sandström underlines that another factor requires detailed impact assessment: developed nations increasingly outsource their resource needs to others abroad through international trade. Earlier research suggested that growing stock stops decreasing at a per capita income threshold at US$ 4,600 (in 2003 dollars). Today the threshold is likely closer to $20,000 dollars income per capita.

What is immediately obvious is the highly unexpected suggestion that the driver of deforestation is, in appropriately non-linear character, the development of the capitalist mode of production itself. Of particular note is the elimination of subsistence agriculture—that is, agriculture produced for the direct consumption of the household, or perhaps the small community—and the movement towards high-yield industrialized agriculture that distributes its output via the market. This point is, of course, coupled to the pertinent issue of urbanization: the decline of subsistence agriculture is directly correlated to the rise of a mobile workforce that goes in pursuit of employment, which generally entails going where capital is the most concentrated, i.e. the city. What the Helsinki study is describing, in other words, is the very dynamics sketched out by Marx, and further elaborated by those theorists that suggest that primitive accumulation is not a one-off event, but an ongoing, continual process of dispossession.

But it also illustrates the other side of this process, the progressive element that makes the capitalist mode of production such a revolutionary force. Dispossession itself is double-faced, oscillating between impoverishment and the radical increase of living standards, but the role of technology and scientific as motive forces alongside this dispossession and marketization must be highlighted. By concentrating agricultural production, by minimizing land-use through high-yield techniques, and by managing both agricultural and non-agricultural land through forest management and other conservation techniques, the trajectory of development appears angled, at least in part, to what the sort of situation Marx anticipated (as I briefly detailed in my post on Eco-Marx):

…The development of this science, especially natural science, and all others with the latter, is itself in turn related to the development of material production… Agriculture, e.g., becomes merely the application of the science of material metabolism, its regulation for the greatest advantage of the entire body of society.

I don’t want to overstate the case, of course, and certainly the report deserves deeper scrutiny, especially in relation to other claims that emphasize the role of C02 in reforestation (not to mention the negative externalities that have arisen to the side of industrial agriculture, from the immense way to the problem of run-off to its own emissions). Nonetheless, it clearly illustrates a lesson, vital in this time in which limited, localist production, permaculture, and other small-scale food production techniques are being privileged: to position oneself against the capitalist system does not mean we do not have to refuse to recognize the progressive elements of the system, for it is precisely these elements—and the ultimate promises which they are denied—that are the building blocs of the future world.

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