Deforestation: to be or not to be?

In 1987 I was terribly busy trying to be one of those self-important people who are too busy to be doing anything else. It’s no surprise that I disdained to see a new film billed as student humour, with the unpromising title Withnail and I.

Last Sunday, a cult generation later, my oversight was remedied. I don’t know why the film should resurface in Winchester at this particular moment, especially as the Everyman Cinema chain has a rather unkind pricing policy towards students.

There’s no truth in the local rumour that the fearsomely lecherous Uncle Monty was drawn from a member of staff at Winchester College. More plausible is the suggestion of a plot by the Labour Party to promote the film in marginal constituencies, demonstrating the unsuitability of public schoolboys to run the country. Certainly, the self-pitying, cowardly and sozzled Withnail would not be the man to inspire the nation under attack by Al Qaeda.

Only the most diehard followers of the cult might glimpse any link between this idle speculation and my serious business of the week, the updating of our Tropical Forests Guide. It all lies in that final scene whose startling gear-change invites more serious interpretation of the film than it otherwise deserves.

Having staggered across Regent’s Park in the pouring rain, increasingly deranged by swigs from Uncle Monty’s bottle of Margaux ’53, Withnail summons up his longest oration of the film in word perfect lines of Hamlet:

….indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy….why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

Never mind that Hamlet’s canopy refers to the roof of the stage and that his sterile promontory is a state of mind. In the modern world an excellent canopy is synonymous with the preservation of a tropical forest and we environmentalists see sterile promontories at every corner.

No wonder that this language resonated with my subject and mood. I see little hope for the protection of large mammals in the wild and fish stocks are on the brink. The capacity of technology to overwhelm the so-called lesser life forms and their habitats has simply outpaced our ability to manage it wisely.

Nonetheless, in the nick of time a potential saviour for the tropical forests has emerged in the improbable guise of climate change. Since the IPCC 2007 Assessment estimated that deforestation contributes 17.4% of greenhouse gas emissions, the movement to save the rainforest has a new spring in its step. One dimension of our ecological mass suicide holds a knife over the other.

Few argue with Lord Stern’s conclusion that protection of the forests is the most cost effective mitigation strategy on the table. Of all the principal sources of greenhouse gases, deforestation offers least harm from the optimum solution – to stop doing it outright and soon. Global targets of 25% reduction by 2015 are bandied about and Brazil has offered 50% by 2020 on its vital Amazonian patch.

The devil lies in the detail. The more I understand about proposals for REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation), the more I find it hard to believe that it can function on any scale in the short term. How can countries as massive, multi-ethnic and biologically diverse as Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo be held accountable for payments to cease deforestation, this year, next year and indefinitely? Is there indeed a philosophical flaw in creating monetary value for not doing something?

This is confusing territory and leads swiftly back to the introspective mood of the Prince of Denmark. Let’s refer instead to As You Like It, an ever-reliable source of cheer. When the characters assemble for the first time in the Forest of Arden, the Duke sums up its value…

Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?

And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in everything.
I would not change it.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK