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01 / 05
A Few Forest Fires Don’t Mean the World Is Burning

Blog Post | Forests

A Few Forest Fires Don’t Mean the World Is Burning

Although bad news stories about the environment are certainly concerning, they do not provide a robust basis for shaping our outlook of the world.

This article challenges the pessimism about the future of forests, especially in Ukraine. It shows that forest coverage in Ukraine and many other regions has increased over time and that deforestation rates are declining globally. It argues that bad news stories about fires and climate change do not reflect the overall trends of forest recovery.


Last week, The Scotsman published an article by the journalist Anastasiia Zagoruichyk. In the piece, Zagoruichyk claims that thanks to climate change, fires, and deforestation in her native Ukraine, her children won’t get to experience childhood joys like “walking in the autumn forest, picking mushrooms and breathing fresh air.”

Forest coverage in Ukraine is, admittedly, a niche topic, but alarmism about the future of our forests and our children is unfortunately widespread. Indeed, it was not long ago that Extinction Rebellion founder Roger Hallam confidently declared that due to deforestation and other environmental damage, “our children are going to die in the next 10-20 years.” Thankfully for humanity, these far-fetched claims are not based in reality.

Contrary to what Zagoruichyk would have you believe, forest coverage in Ukraine has increased drastically in recent years. Between 1992 (the oldest data available) and 2020, the share of land in Ukraine covered by forest increased from 16.1 percent to 16.7 percent. While a 0.6 percentage point increase might seem like a small amount, this equates to an additional 3,622 square kilometers of forest – a land area more than 3 times larger than Hong Kong.

Globally, the world does continue to lose forest area. However, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the rate of deforestation between 2010-2020 was 40 percent lower than in 1990-2000. At this rate, even without additional promises from world leaders at COP, the global deforestation rate will likely hit zero. Indeed, over the last 30 years, net afforestation has occurred in Europe (including Russia), North America, Oceania, and Asia. 

The world’s two poorest regions, South America and Africa, are also the only ones that continue to experience net deforestation. This is no coincidence; many environmental scientists and commentators suggest that economic and ecological well-being are intimately related. According to one hypothesis, called the Environmental Kuznets Curve, a region’s environment worsens in tandem with economic growth but only until a certain income per capita is reached. At that point, people can afford to protect the environment, and ecosystems flourish. This environmental recovery has occurred across Europe and North America and is currently happening in China, Russia, India, and Vietnam.

Therefore, as South America and Africa continue to become richer, we can expect their rate of forest loss to slow and eventually reverse. Given this good news, why is there so much pessimism about the future of our forests? Zagoruichyk’s article offers some answers. 

In the article, the rationale Zagoruichyk provides for her pessimism surrounding the future of Ukraine’s forest is because, in 2020, two fires destroyed a fairly large area of Ukrainian forest. Her thinking is that as global temperatures increase, fires will become more common, and in turn, most Ukrainian forests will be destroyed. This analysis ignores the fact these forest fires were likely caused by the common but harmful Eastern European practice of burning straw and other agricultural residues rather than climate change. But even if climate change were responsible for the fires, it is problematic to base predictions about the environment on recent events.

One of the problems with relying on recent news events to predict the future of our planet is that this outlook disregards long-term trends, which usually go unreported. As author and member of the House of Lords, Matt Ridley, points out “Almost by definition, bad news is sudden while good news is gradual and therefore less newsworthy.” This means the availability bias of bad news can distort one’s perception of a topic, concept, or trend. Simply put, it is easier to recall bad news because negative stories are more likely to appear in the media. In contrast, good news is gradual, less likely to be reported, and, therefore, harder to recall. 

Similarly, in his work on the decline of violence, Harvard Professor Steven Pinker often notes that you never see a news reporter speaking to a camera from a foreign land stating that war hasn’t broken out there. The same concept is true for deforestation. All the deforestation or forest fires that don’t occur are not reported in the media. 

To see the extent that availability bias and relying on recent events can distort one’s outlook about the future, it’s worth considering that the two Ukrainian forest fires in 2020 – which Zagoruichyk uses to justify her pessimism about the future of Ukraine’s forests – destroyed about 265 square kilometers of woodlands. While substantial, this amount of burnt forest represents an area of land that is a staggering 13.5 times smaller than the total amount of forest coverage that Ukraine has gained since 1992. 

Indeed, contrary to popular headlines that suggest fires in places such as Ukraine, Australia, and United States indicate a worrying global trend, the amount of land burned worldwide each year has declined drastically over the last 120 years. In the early 1900s, roughly 4.2% of land worldwide was burned every year. Last year, just 2.4% of land was burned. Although bad news stories about the environment are certainly concerning, we should acknowledge that they do not provide a robust basis for shaping our outlook of the world.

Despite occasional setbacks, as global deforestation continues to decline, global net-afforestation will become the norm within the next few decades. And thankfully for Zagoruichyk and her future children, there will be even more Ukrainian forests for joyful autumnal walks. 

The Guardian | Forests

Trees Stalling Effects of Global Heating in Eastern US

“Scientists have long been puzzled by a so-called ‘warming hole’ over parts of the US south-east where temperatures have flatlined, or even cooled, despite the unmistakable broader warming trend.

A major reason for this anomaly, the new study finds, is the vast reforestation of much of the eastern US.”

From The Guardian.

Reuters | Forests

In Brazil, Drones Take Flight in Rio in High-Tech Reforestation Push

“Brazil’s seaside city of Rio de Janeiro, famed for its crowded beaches and lush surrounding hills, is sending drones buzzing into the air to disperse seeds, part of a high-tech push that seeks to speed up local reforestation efforts.

The green initiative, a partnership between Rio’s city hall and startup Morfo, launched last Friday and is being used to seed local native species in hard-to-reach areas that would be more difficult using traditional methods.”

From Reuters.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.

Agriculture

Aquaculture

Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce

Pollination

Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats

Birds

Turtles

Whales

Other comebacks

Forests

Reefs

Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation

De-extinction

Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing

LGBT

Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources

Fission

Fusion

Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development

Education

Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment

Health

Cancer

Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes

Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases

HIV/AIDS

Malaria

Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations

Freedom

    Technology 

    Artificial intelligence

    Communications

    Computing

    Construction and manufacturing

    Drones

    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles

    Transportation

    Other innovations

    Science

    AI in science

    Biology

    Chemistry and materials

      Physics

      Space

      Violence

      Crime

      War