How to Cut Deforestation: New Economic Development Model or Reduction in Consumer Demand?

Teak Logging

Teak Logging in Togo

I thought I’d share with you a longer version of the letter to the editor of The New York Times that I submitted in response to Thomas Friedman’s op-ed on Wednesday, November 11th, “Trucks, Trains, and Trees.” Friedman unfortunately missed the mark with his analysis. The only way deforestation will slow and stop is if it is no longer profitable to convert the world’s forests into products and farmland. That means targeting consumer demand.

Dear Editor,

While Thomas Friedman’s proposal (November 11) of cutting deforestation as quickly as possible to start addressing climate change is sound, the strategy he suggests will not succeed. He explains that what is to blame is economic development—cutting down forests to grow soy and make furniture. But who ultimately is creating demand for these goods? Affluent consumers that eat large quantities of meat (animals that were fed soy) and have too-large homes filled with too much furniture. Friedman suggests a new economic development model based on tourism and government subsidies to maintain the integrity of the forests. But in reality, the new economic development strategy we need to ensure long-term human survival is not the one Friedman outlines, but a rapid transition away from the intentional stimulation of consumerism and the consumer economic model.

Until there is less demand for meat, tropical woods, and palm oil, business interests in tropical forest regions will continue to cut down forests to harvest these products. As that demand shrinks, entrepreneurs will find new ways to make a livelihood with the forests—such as harvesting tropical fruits, cacao, and coffee, which can be cultivated sustainably and actually play a role in actively restoring forest ecosystems.

Right now we’re under the delusion that to maintain economic stability, our economies must perpetually grow, so people must be encouraged to consume ever more. But in reality it is this growth that is leading to instability—of the climate, of ecosystem health (and not just forests), and even of our waistlines.

Shifting to a new economic and cultural reality that centers on sustainability and restoration as opposed to consumerism and growth will be essential to solve deforestation, climate change, and many other looming ecological and social threats looming on the horizon.

Erik Assadourian
Senior Researcher
Worldwatch Institute

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