In Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa strives to return to “the Green Place” – a tree-filled oasis in the otherwise lifeless wasteland that the Earth has become. When Furiosa arrives at the sacred spot, however, she finds only skeletal trunks and sprawling dunes. She screams in anguish. Without trees, all hope seems lost.
Furiosa’s feelings were justified. “Forests are the lifeline of our world,” says Meg Lowman, director of the Tree Foundation, a non-profit organisation in Florida that is dedicated to tree research, exploration and education. “Without them, we lose extraordinary and essential functions for life on Earth.”
Trees’ services to this planet range from carbon storage and soil conservation to water cycle regulation. They support natural and human food systems and provide homes for countless species – including us, through building materials. Yet we often treat trees as disposable: as something to be harvested for economic gain or as an inconvenience in the way of human development. Since our species began practicing agriculture around 12,000 years ago, we’ve cleared nearly half of the world’s estimated 5.8 trillion trees, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Nature.
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Much of the deforestation has happened in recent years. Since the onset of the industrial era, forests have declined by 32%. Especially in the tropics, many of the world’s remaining three trillion trees are falling fast, with about 15 billion cut each year, the Nature study states. In many places, tree loss is accelerating. In August, the National Institute for Space Research showed an 84% increase in fires in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest compared to the same period in 2018. Slash-and-burn is also especially on the rise in Indonesia and Madagascar.