Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten answers the stunningly obvious follow-up to the age-old question all parents rhetorically ask their teenage children. Despite (or maybe because) he is just a humor columnist, Weingarten often hits the nail on the head. But today, he nailed only himself. Because he used the word asphyxia he can’t get off by pleading that he’s just a humor columnist. He might have actually done some research.
Here is Weingarten’s complete answer:
Faced with the certitude of the nearly instantaneous deforestation of Earth, resulting in the destruction of our ecosystem and the rapid extinction of humankind through carbon-dioxide asphyxia — all societies would immediately declare their currency worthless. International markets would collapse. Feudalism would return in a new world order based entirely on the barter of goods and services. Parents would tell their children, “What, do you think chickens grow on trees?”
Neutral Source would say something very different to his children: “Grow trees.” Neutral Source likes trees a lot, has several 100-footers in the bottomland woods outside his office window, and does almost everything he can to protect them from the ravages of Mother Nature. (Were she allowed full rein of the local ecosystem, his trees would be doomed to the perils of old age, violent weather, and according to another article in the Post, mechanical asphyxia [there’s that word again] by poison ivy high on carbon dioxide due to global warming.)
But if money grew on his trees, Neutral Source would do everything possible not to cut them down. Once cut down, his flow of greenbacks would stop. Far better to do some careful pruning each year. Maybe quit blogging and become a real live arborist so that he could to maximize their production.
Almost everyone else who owns trees would do the same thing. Cutting down your trees is cashing out your investment. Even if we tree-owners all wanted to get out of the business and move to the desert, we’d sell our living trees instead of cutting them down. According to the Forest Service, in 1997 21% of nonfederal land in the continental United States is forested. (That’s 407.0 million acres, up slightly from 403.3 million acres in 1982.)
If money really did grow on trees, the market would value them based on their, um, moneymaking potential. And Willie Sutton would have robbed silviculturists instead of banks. Which means that a lot more resources would have to be devoted to protecting forests.
Therein lies a great irony. Weingarten’s prediction might be true for trees that aren’t privately owned and protected. For example, if the government owned the trees, they’d be subject to all sorts of political pressures — first to cut, then not to cut. There would be hordes of lobbyists, NGOs and activists, special-interest pleaders of all stripes, all wanting the same thing: control over the public tree harvest.
The federal government can’t watch over all its vast forest holdings any more than municipalities can patrol tree-lined residential neighborhoods. The trees in all these places would be vulnerable to drive-by chain-sawing. Poor countries that lack private property or the institutional means to protect it often don’t have trees. MongaBay.com says only 3.81% of Haiti has forest cover, compared to 28.4% of neighboring Dominican Republic.