Greening skeptically

Greening skeptically

Tree Incredible: Life Sustaining livesTree Incredible: Life Sustaining lives

Madan Mohan Pant
Rupa and Co
2011, pp 240
Rs 395

Ex-forest officer Madan Mohan Pant has written a book in which his love for trees and forests shines through every page. The book is an ardent plea against deforestation and Pant marshals every argument he can to bolster his case. Almost every current environmental or health issue, whether it is pesticides in bottled water, big dams, pollution, or heart attacks, diabetes and yoga, figures here. But, instead of a comprehensive dossier against tree-cutting, what emerges is an unfocussed book based on arguments that are often unsubstantiated, or worse, specious.

The author builds his book quite logically, starting with the basics of how oxygen is essential for life, how trees are ‘biological factories’ that use sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to photosynthesise and produce oxygen. He gets several things wrong here and there, for instance, implying that trees take in oxygen through roots (and not leaves). He also makes interesting claims such as “Americans won in Afghanistan” because the country had no tree cover. But we are still with him. By the time he gets to a detailed chapter on photosynthesis, you notice a definite tendency towards flowery prose. When someone describes the root zone as the “inviolable, sacrosanct, below-the-ground surface areas of our forested mother earth below her waistline,” you start to wonder about the seriousness of the book. Then comes a section on oxygen depletion levels and you are left in no doubt.

The book’s central thesis is: trees give out oxygen when they photosynthesise. Therefore, cutting down trees leads to oxygen getting depleted from the atmosphere. This oxygen depletion causes multiple problems, including pollution and cancer. Sounds reasonable, except that apart from the first statement, it is quite wrong.

Pant’s theories of oxygen-depletion are based on scare-mongering websites rather than on sound scientific data. Because CO2 forms only about 0.036 per cent of the atmosphere, human activities such as burning fossil fuels can indeed affect its levels. But at 21 per cent, oxygen forms such a huge part of the atmosphere that even our disastrous fossil fuel burning does not make much of a dent in it. To be fair, scientists from California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography measuring minute changes in atmospheric oxygen since 1989 have indeed found variations. About 20 molecules out of every million molecules of oxygen are lost a year. But, as many scientists have pointed out, such a miniscule change is entirely environmentally safe. In fact, the oxygen-depletion story dates back to the release of data on oxygen levels from Scripps, when it was picked up by fringe websites who tried to make it the next big environmental scare.

Pant also draws on dubious ‘alternative health’ web sources when he claims that oxygen deficiency in the human body is due to increasing population, pollution and deforestation.

Before advocating oxygen bars that provide oxygen at 40 per cent levels, Pant should have known that high oxygen levels can be injurious to health, causing retinopathy and pulmonary damage, among other things. At least in the US, people have been charged with healthcare fraud for providing the so-called oxygen therapy.

All this is not to say that deforestation is fine or that we should go right ahead and burn fossil fuels. But, instead of winning people over to the cause of greening, by propounding half-truths, Pant provides sceptics with ammunition to use in their oft-heard charge that environmentalists lack credibility. And that is the real tragedy of this book.

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