A Tale of Two Forests: United States

Date: 23 Oct 2022

Author: Indescribled 

Tags: N. America, Economics

From the air, deforestation stretches as far as the eye can see, near União Bandeirantes in Brazil’s western state of Rondônia. Time

Climate change often feels too weak a description. Sure, the climate is changing, but definitely not positively. What we are witnessing, primarily at the hands of the United States, can be better described as climate destruction. Destruction of glaciers, coastal land, forests, and more, due to increasing temperatures and frequency of natural disasters. The United States hides the truth behind minimal domestic deforestation—while the climate crisis is definitely felt in the states, the brunt of the problem is being exported to the developing world, and utilized as pretext for the final desperate maneuverings of the US-led imperialist order. 

Forests are a massive defense against climate catastrophe, but they are being destroyed at an alarming rate. MIT explains the importance of forests:

Forests cover about 30% of the Earth’s land surface. As forests grow, their trees take in carbon from the air and store it in wood, plant matter, and under the soil. If not for forests, much of this carbon would remain in the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2), the most important greenhouse gas driving climate change… This “carbon sink function” of forests is slowing climate change by reducing the rate at which CO2, mainly from fossil fuel burning, builds up in the atmosphere… Since 1850, about 30% of all CO2 emissions have come from deforestation.

Since forests are so important in combating global warming and climate change, why would we ever cut them down? A question we can pose to the imperialists. Pinpointing every factor is nigh impossible, but there are a few outstanding ones. As previously reported, transportation accounts for 30% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation is both increasing greenhouse gas emissions, while at the exact same time causing "substantial forest loss" along highways due to “increased timber demand along the transportation corridors”. It makes sense—the highways, the suburbs, the cities, are expanding and growing; they need timber to do so, as well as removing those pesky forests to make room and free up space for urban/suburban sprawl. In regard to deforestation specifically; however, transportation is not actually the leading cause, despite being such a large pollute - paper and wood products  only account for 10% of total deforestation according to a 2016 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The remaining 90% of deforestation, perhaps surprisingly, comes from cattle ranchers, soybean farmers, and palm oil plantations. 

Trees blackened by the 2021 Bootleg Fire in Oregon, which burned through woodlands providing Microsoft with carbon offsets. NATHAN HOWARD / AP 

In a fantasy land where deforestation for agriculture means everyone gets food, it would still not be justifiable; but we live under capitalism, so one-third of all food produced globally is wasted. The expansion of agriculture and simultaneous deforestation is doing little to nothing to solve the hunger crisis created by capitalism, because the expansion of agriculture has only profits in mind. Capitalists do not grow food for the needs of the people or there would be no one going hungry; houses are not built for the unhoused or there would be no homeless, and colleges are not built to educate or everyone would have access. While it may be a side-goal of specific  organizations, or even the primary goal of some farmers, teachers, and construction workers, the companies in charge of these industries are driven by the profit motive. Some Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), State initiatives, and feel-good capitalists scout out ecological/environmentalist causes, e.g. a goal of planting trees with the intent of helping the climate, but many of these tree planting projects have failed, and overall have served little to no purpose besides astroturfing the reputations of the very same people and institutions most responsible for our impending ecological Armageddon It looks good on paper to declare that you are planting 1 billion trees, an initiative Trump pushed, but what good is it if those trees die within five years? What good are feel-good initiatives, often used as a moral pedestal from which to cast aspersions and brow-beat the global south, when the real material conditions are not only not improving, but continuing to decline? 

Deforestation domestically in the United States is relatively minimal when compared to actions taken by the U.S. globally. According to the Global Forest Watch, the United states lost 16% of tree coverage from 2000 to 2021. About a fourth of that loss was due to fire and the majority is from forestry—harvesting and deforestation. It is unclear what the “Disturbed” category is meant to represent. Of course, some of the forest expanded due to natural growth or intentional planting, but an overall decline over the course of 20 years in the richest country in the world indicates the cynicism underlying most discussions and initiatives. The country with the most resources is in position to be a global leader on climate change, but instead is the global leader in climate destruction. There were three main factors driving deforestation: cattle ranching, soybean farming, and palm oil plantations. Domestically, cattle inventories have remained stagnant or even declining since 2000, but soybean acreage has increased slightly. As we look at palm oil, the global contradiction becomes clear—the United States has minimal domestic deforestation because it causes that deforestation to happen in other parts of the world. The U.S. is exporting climate crisis.

The United States produces 0.00 ounces of palm oil while consuming 1,600 metric tons per year—meaning it is all imported. In 2000 the U.S. imported 182 metric tons while during 2022 it is, so far, at 1,725 metric tons— an almost 10x increase over the course of 22 years. Where is the palm oil coming from, and is deforestation an issue in those countries? According to the Department of Labor, two countries produce the majority, 84%, of the entire world’s palm oil—Indonesia, at 59% and Malaysia, at 25%. The surge in U.S. demand for imports can be seen when looking at palm oil exports from Indonesia. In the year 2000 Indonesia exported 4,776 metric tons of palm oil, while in 2022, so far, 29,000 metric tons have been exported— an almost 600% increase. The massive growth in palm oil production is directly tied to deforestation. The University of Sheffield reported that more than 80% of the Indonesian rainforest is at risk of being destroyed. Horrific as these figures are, the United States is only the 5th highest palm oil importer—India, China, the EU, and Pakistan all rank higher. Palm oil production, use, and its association with child labor and deforestation seems to be a global problem. Compare American and European export of ecological devastation with other nations’ ecological protection and renewal initiatives, such as China’s de-desertification program and Africa’s Great Green Wall, and a vastly different, alternative path becomes clear.

Who’s got the meat? Brazil, and the Amazon Rainforest. As of 2018, Brazil exported 20% of the entire world’s beef. The $6 billion USD worth of beef exported in 2018 was an annual record for any country in recorded history. As previously mentioned, cattle ranching is one of the three factors that accounts for 90% of total world deforestation. In Brazil specifically, cattle ranching and the beef industry overall accounts for 80% of deforested land. The importance of the Amazon Rainforest cannot be understated—it is one of the largest rainforests in the world, and helps fight climate change on an unimaginably massive scale. Known as the lungs of the world, the Amazon alone is responsible for absorbing over 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon per year, but rancher-driven deforestation and the displacement of indigenous communities has caused an ongoing decline in the rainforest’s ability to protect us from ourselves. It is so important to understand the drivers behind its deforestation. Records on beef exports from 2018 likewise don’t tell the whole story, as in that period the United States had a moratorium in place against buying Brazilian beef. That moratorium was lifted as of February 2020. Since then, the U.S. has quickly jumped to become the second highest importer of beef in the world. China remains the largest overall importer, however, it is worth highlighting here that the United States contains only 4% of the world’s population, compared to China’s 18.5%. 

An aerial view of União Bandeirantes, once a protected rain forest, shows signs of nascent wealth. Time

There are so many factors involved in deforestation and this has only been a brief look into a few of them in a handful of countries. Continued deforestation and climate destruction show us, as most actions under capitalism do, that a society focused on preserving the planet and supporting the people is better than one focused on profits. The United States hides its deforestation by promising to plant trees domestically and having only small drops in forest cover while burdening many countries in the Global South with the brunt of deforestation, and climate change. Compared to Chinese-led initiatives and work to save the planet, as highlighted by President Xi Jinping’s remarks at the recent 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the United States represents the largest and most shameless force behind the climate apocalypse looming over us.

Innovation is the primary driving force for development. It is important that we promote scientific, technological and institutional innovation, speed up technology transfer and knowledge sharing, boost the development of modern industries, close the digital divide and accelerate low-carbon transition, with a view to achieving stronger, greener and healthier global development…

China will take pragmatic steps to give continued support to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development…

China will work with all sides to advance cooperation in priority areas and mobilize resources for development to deepen global cooperation on poverty reduction and eradication, build capacity for food production and supply, and promote clean energy partnerships; step up innovation, research and development and joint production of vaccines; work on the conservation and sustainable use of land and marine ecology; and raise digital literacy and skills of the public, transform and upgrade the path to industrialization at a faster pace, and enhance digital-era connectivity to inject new impetus into the development of all countries…

As an ancient Chinese adage goes, ‘With one heart and one mind, we can accomplish everything we aspire for.’ Let us firm up confidence, stride forward in pursuit of high-quality partnership, and usher in a new era of prosperity and development.

Thank you.

— Xi Jinping

President, People’s Republic of China

Remarks at the High-level Dialogue on Global Development

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

24 June 2022