In ceremonies in London celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 a Kenyan chieftain, Josiah Njonjo, was asked whether his region was a haven of peace despite the widespread ruin of the colony during the Mau Mau uprising. The BBC asked him about the “this Mau Mau business.” He replied that, because of the forest conservation measures in his district, “we have plenty of timber, plenty of fuel, plenty of water, plenty of food-and so trouble.”
Njonjo’s wisdom is helpful for those today who foresee gloom and doom because of the problems of war, recession, global warming, and the ecological abuse of the planet. The remedies are simple and straightforward: Increase the green mantle of the earth, which has been stripped away by human folly. Shortages of water, for instance, which doomsayers predict will trigger the wars of the future, are best prevented by the simple act of planting. This is because forests absorb and store waters that would otherwise quickly run off and cause floods and sediment pollution.
Global warming and climate change have their roots in deforestation, as well as the more familiar problem of spewing carbon into the atmosphere from fossil fuels. Scientists working on the United Nations protocols to update the Kyoto accord estimate that about thirty per cent of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by deforestation.
Deforestation and climate change are problems dating back thousands of years, when people began to clear forests. Before then trees covered 50 per cent of the earth’s land surface. Now this coverage has been reduced to 28 per cent. This has serious results, since the world’s shrunken forests now hold 638 gigatons of carbon (one gigaton = one billion tons). This means that past forest destruction as spewed about 600 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere.
Although important, using vegetation as a strategy for solving climate change involves more than planting trees. It is important to stop urban sprawl, which contributes to the generation of more greenhouse gas emissions by excessive transportation demands. It also fosters automotive dependency, triggering greater emissions.
Austria’s capital, Vienna, has one of the most efficient city transportation systems in the world, based largely on streetcars. One reason it has avoided sprawl is that since 1905 Vienna has been protected by a greenbelt, which has kept its growth within a well-defined urban boundary. This greenbelt was created in part to protect the Vienna Woods, the scene that inspired the great music composers of the 19th century. It has been well defended since 1905 and now extends farther, including large areas of agricultural land between Vienna and the Hungarian border.
Another basic strategy for climate change is urban greening through rooftop gardens, rain gardens, and bio-swales. All these technologies reduce the glare that contributes to global warming and the urban heat effect. Swales can replace the concrete curbs and gutters, the creation of which emits a lot of greenhouse gas. They also provide better conditions for urban trees to thrive and improved streets for cyclists, as shown by successful strategies in Portland, Oregon. Roof gardens insulate and cool the buildings they grace, reducing energy use. Both roof gardens and rain gardens, placed in the middle of parking lots, absorb water better than conventional drains, reducing pollution. They can also be used to grow food. Part of the basic strategy to reduce climate change is to grow crops on rooftops and put much of the 22 per cent of the deforested landscape back to forest cover.
Njonjo’s success in Kenya was achieved in a partnership with the remarkable British forester, Richard St. Barbe Baker. They formed an organization, Men of the Trees, which successfully reforested Njonjo’s district, protecting its forests from the spreading Sahara desert. Baker turned the Men of the Trees into an international organization, which still exists. It is the International Tree Foundation, whose patron is Prince Charles. A key goal of the organization was to reforest the Sahara desert through a massive mobilization of millions of men, assigning troops of the British and French armies to this task.
Although it no longer exists, from 1936 to 1946 there was an active Canadian chapter of Men of the Trees. It was founded by the recently retired Supreme Court Justice of Ontario, Sir William Mulock. As in many Commonwealth countries in these years, membership was drawn from army veterans of the First World War, inspired by the notion of a green peace.
The organization was quite successful. Its disbandment in 1946 followed its achievement of two important reforms: the adoption in Ontario of the Conservation Authorities Act and the Trees Act, which for the first time restricted tree cutting on private land. Through these reforms, forest cover tripled in Ontario from nine to 21 per cent by the planting of a billion trees. This enabled Ontario to avert some of the dangers that had been experienced abroad, such as the flooding of a third of London by the Thames in 1937.
Ontario’s success in protecting its forests was matched by similar achievements in the neighboring America states of the Great Lakes region. The dangers that were overcome can be compared today to the dangers of climate change. The reforms succeeded because of a close working friendship between the Chief Forester of Ontario, Edmund Zavitz, and a provincial premier, E. C. Drury. The two met in 1905 after Zavitz, then a lecturer at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, cycled to Drury’s farm at Crown Hill, north of Barrie.
Recently my wife and I commemorated Zavitz’s 1905 cycling trek and met Drury’s descendants. We learned how serious had been the threats to the forests of the Great Lakes region in the late 19th century. In 1881, as a child of three, Drury witnessed forest fires that threatened to burn his family’s home. These had been deliberately set for the ruthless clearing of land. In the mid-afternoon the sky turned black because of fires in Michigan, which burnt up a million acres in one day. There had been even worse fires a decade earlier, which, in addition to burning up forests, incinerated the city of Chicago. Such disasters are comparable to the worst threats of today and can be overcome by protecting and expanding our forests, emulating Drury’s and Zavitz’s achievement of a century ago.
John Bacher writes on Edmund Zavitz’s reforestation work in Two Billion Trees and Counting (Dundurn, 2011).