Author Archives: Markus Eichhorn

About Markus Eichhorn

I'm a lecturer in ecology at University College Cork. My research studies how patterns of trees in forests form, and how the organisation of forests influences the things that live inside them. Hence trees in space!

Will herbal medicine provide a cure for COVID-19?

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COVID Organics, the miracle ‘cure’ for COVID19. Original source of photo unknown.

As the pandemic spread around the world, the President of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, made a startling announcement. He launched a new drink, COVID-Organics,  developed by Malagasy scientists, which was purported to cure the new disease. The evidence of its efficacy was slight, but the basis behind it was linked to a history of local herbal lore and an existing treatment for malaria*, combined with an association with a modern-style research institute.

Already several African states, including Tanzania, Guinea-Bissau and Congo-Brazzaville, have invested scarce resources on importing the new treatment, and it’s being rolled out across Madagascar, some of which is at national expense. It’s easy to understand why. Western medicines are often unaffordable at the best of times, and in the international scramble for resources they are now simply out of reach. COVID Organics is available on the doorstep. Moreover, there is a strong desire to support native expertise, despite most international scientists advising caution in the absence of any reliable evidence. Every society looks to its own authority figures for hope and guidance. We shouldn’t criticise desperate people for trying whatever remedy is actually available.

The claim of a wonder treatment was however met with scepticism from medical experts. President Rajoelina has hit out at critics from the Global North, accusing them of a condescending attitude towards African expertise. At the same time there is a reluctance by many to openly dismiss a treatment that has been promoted as an indigenous African solution drawn from a respected tradition. Even the WHO did so only obliquely.

I am on record as being strongly in favour of recognising and valuing alternative approaches to the development of knowledge beyond the frequently colonial attitudes we are responsible for perpetuating. In this case, however, I’m not inclined to mince my words. COVID-Organics on its own will probably do no harm, but there’s very little chance that it will do any good. By all means test it like any other potential drug, but its provenance doesn’t make it any more plausible as a candidate treatment. And if it takes the place of known, genuinely effective interventions (social distancing, hand washing etc.), or wastes money that could be spent on proven medical care, then it will become positively dangerous to health.

Why am I so sceptical? Those who advocate herbal medicine as an alternative to conventional treatment usually follow one of two lines of argument in support. The first is that it is an ancient practice, based on thousands of years of development, and that this long duration has ensured the transmission of only the most effective cures.

It’s easy to pick this apart. Firstly, the foundations of herbal medicine were derived from theoretical grounds which we now know to have been fundamentally flawed. In its Western form these include the Doctrine of Signatures, which states that God indicated the medical uses of plants through their physical characteristics, or treating symptoms as manifestations of the four humours. Such methods of identifying possible plants and matching them to conditions is little better than random. We shouldn’t expect paradigms that predate germ theory to stumble on insights into a novel threat.

Second, herbalists will often advocate their art by picking out those remedies which have gone on to be important medical drugs. It’s a classic case of the prosecutor’s dilemma; a number of effective treatments have come from plants, but not all medical plants are effective. One which is usually rolled out is the Madagascar periwinkle, which gave rise to a lucrative pharmaceutical used to treat a common form of childhood leukemia. This is however completely unrelated to its traditional usage as a largely ineffective treatment for diabetes. That it yielded such a valuable modern drug owes as much to serendipity as herbal medicine.

Finally, the legend that tropical forests contain a fabled pharmacopeia whose secrets are held by traditional healers has been comprehensively demolished by prolonged enquiry. The story remains persistent because of its connection to a number of beloved folk images rather than any basis in evidence. We have probably taken all the low-hanging medical fruit from the plant kingdom already. A forest-dwelling shaman won’t solve our new problem, not least because remote tribal people live at such low densities that they tend not to suffer from contagious viruses.

Should we instead be scouring the plant kingdom for potential COVID cures? To do so would almost certainly be a waste of time and resources. Not that I’m sure some unscrupulous or naive researchers are putting in grant applications to do exactly that right now. Note that most major pharmaceutical companies gave up on this approach to drug research many years ago after wasting spectacular sums in the process. If it worked then Big Pharma would be doing it already for the diseases we already have.

OK, you might ask, but what if one of these herbal cures turned out to actually work? Medical plants contain a vast number of chemicals. Identifying, purifying and testing the active ingredients is a long process. Sometimes physiological effects rely on complex interactions with other constituents which mean that the individual chemicals don’t act quite the same in isolation. Controlled dosages of herbal medicines are almost impossible to achieve. And there is a high risk that one or other component will be allergenic or otherwise harmful. Demonstrating efficacy and comprehensive safety of a botanical treatment is therefore much harder than for any single component drug.

To summarise, it is possible that herbal medicine might eventually lead to a cure for COVID-19, but it is much less likely to do so than conventional scientific approaches. Even if a cure does eventually arrive through the herbal route, it will take much longer, likely many years, and the lack of any precedents in the modern era is not encouraging. We haven’t found a herbal cure for any other virus yet, and not for want of trying. Maybe Madagascar really has stumbled on the solution to the world’s greatest current problem. Until we have some solid evidence, however, I wouldn’t bet on it. We are all desperate for a cure to appear but wasting time and scarce resources on dead ends will ultimately cost lives.

 


 

* Is it coincidence that both the presidents of Madagascar and the United States have promoted the use of treatments for malaria, a fever caused by parasitic infection, as supposed cures for an entirely unrelated virus?

 

The importance of luck in academic careers

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As usual, there’s an XKCD comic for everything.

Not long after I received my first permanent academic contract I attended a conference and went out drinking after the sessions. By the end of the evening I found myself amongst a large group of people around my own age, mainly post-docs and PhD students. Conversation turned to careers and it so happened that I was the only one with a secure position, which prompted an immediate question. What was the secret? Everyone was feverishly after the same thing, and here was someone in the room who knew the trick.

My answer, ‘luck’, went down like a glass of cold sick. It was honest but unpopular. I now regret saying it, and realise that I should have added ‘privilege’. At the time I hadn’t appreciated the extent to which privilege played a part in the relatively smooth passage of my career*. It didn’t seem that way to me, but in retrospect I certainly had it easier than most. The truth, however, is that ‘luck’ is often the secret, insofar as it’s the element no-one wants to talk about. All the other things, the ones we can either control or are imposed upon us, are obvious. I had none of the magic bullets: no Nature paper or prestigious research fellowship**. Objectively there was nothing on my CV that set me apart from most other post-docs on the job circuit. It certainly felt a lot like luck to me.

Why don’t people like to hear this? Accepting the importance of luck downplays the extent to which anyone has agency in their professional lives. We like to hear that working hard and chasing our dreams brings success in the end. I think for the most part that it’s true, and almost everyone who manages to get into the ivory tower will tell you that backstory. But it’s akin to hearing an Olympic gold medalist tell you that their secret is dedication and never giving up. As if all the people that didn’t come first just weren’t dreaming hard enough.

Telling people to keep plugging away until they get their break also assumes that there are no costs to them doing so. It’s the mindset that leads to the eternal post-doc, a restless soul traveling from university to university, country to country, for the chance of another year or two of funding, then having to pack up their things and move on once again. While still young and relatively carefree, that can be fun for some. When you’re 40 and want to get married, buy a house, have children or care for your parents, it becomes impossible. I never had to go through that and I’m extremely grateful for it.

Declaring the importance of luck and privilege also somehow diminishes the achievement of those who have made it, and therefore provokes hostility from those who are already through the door. It’s not the story we like to tell ourselves, and it’s certainly not one we like other people to tell about us.

So let me lay my own cards on the table. I believe that I deserve to have a permanent academic job***. I worked hard to get here, and I’m pretty good at it. But I can also say without any equivocation that I’ve known people who worked much harder than me and were demonstrably smarter than me but who didn’t manage to capture one. I’m comfortable admitting that although I surpassed the minimum expectation, if it were a true meritocracy then the outcome would have been different.

My first job came about because I was in the right place at the right time. I had hung around long enough in a university department to pick up the necessary ticks on my CV, despite substantial periods of that being spent on unemployment benefit. Small bits of consultancy through personal connections and a peppercorn rent from a friend made a big difference. I had the privilege of being in a position to loiter long enough for a job to come up, and the good fortune to find one that fit. Lots of others wouldn’t have had the luxury of doing so, and had it taken another six months, I wonder whether I would have been hunting for another career as well.

Does any of this change the advice given to an eager young academic? No. You still need to publish papers, get some teaching experience, win some competitive grant income, take on some service roles, promote yourself and your work as widely as possible. The formula remains exactly the same. It’s not easy, and it’s got even harder over the last 15 years. Good luck. And if you don’t have luck, make sure that you have a Plan B in your back pocket.

Any change needs to come from the academy itself. Its us who have the problem and it’s our responsibility to fix it****. There’s no way to entirely remove luck from the hiring equation (think of it as a stochastic model term) but we can influence the other parameters. I was wrong to think that privilege wasn’t part of the equation that got me here, but I can try to minimise its distorting effects in future.

 


 

* I have the ‘full house’ of privileges, being a white, male, heterosexual, tall, healthy, able-bodied, native English-speaking, middle class… did I miss anything out? Don’t bother talking to me about my struggle because I didn’t have one.

** The one thing jobs, Nature papers and grants all have in common is that your probability of getting one increases with the number of times you try. It’s not entirely a lottery but there is a cost to every attempt and some can afford more of them. And I still don’t have a Nature paper.

*** There are almost certainly people who will disagree with this, but let them.

**** As pointed out in this post, however, our survivorship bias can prevent us from recognising that those following us are facing very different challenges to the ones we went through.

 


 

Postscript: I already had this post lined up to publish when an excellent and complementary thread appeared on Twitter.

The bitter tree

Like many ecologists I have a fascination with the scientific names that attach themselves to species. Sometimes these celebrate the person who discovered or described the species*, or a benefactor, or are made as a tribute to a notable person. One that I recently stumbled across is the South American tree Quassia amara, a common understorey species of disturbed lowland forests. Until I encountered the backstory to its name while reading The Ethnobotany of Eden (which I strongly recommend) I had no idea where its name came from. The story is complex and revealing.

The tree is one of a relatively small proportion of tropical species which owes their name to Linnaeus, indicating that its significance was recognised early in the development of modern taxonomy. That a Swedish botanist came to hold a sample is due to its potential as a remedy for fevers, a serious concern of the European powers whose hold over tropical lands was still tenuous while their colonists struggled with malaria and other unfamiliar afflictions.

The tree’s Latin name celebrates the man who introduced the plant to Europeans as a medicine, the freed slave Graman Quassi (c.1690–1787), originally of the Akan people of West Africa from modern-day Ghana, hence his Kwa name Kwasimukámba which I will use in preference here. He arrived in Suriname as a child slave of the Dutch empire. So successful was Kwasimukámba that he not only lived an unusually long and ultimately comfortable life but was also celebrated internationally. He even travelled to The Hague and received an audience with Willem V, the Prince of Orange, who bestowed a number of extravagant gifts on him in recognition of his service to the empire.

If we ended the story here then it would be almost heart-warming. But let’s delve deeper. How did Kwasimukámba come to be a freed slave?

Many other slaves escaped from servitude in South America and formed independent communities, known as the maroons, often deep into colonised territories. Some of these became well-established enough to effectively become trade partners of the European powers and were tolerated. Others, such as the Saramaka, fought lengthy insurgencies before eventually winning this recognition. It was in this struggle that Kwasimukámba first demonstrated his worth to the Dutch, acting as a negotiator and tracker on behalf of the white colonists. Later he led a corps of African conscripts known as the Black Rangers, even losing one of his ears in the fighting against the rebels. For his efforts he was gifted a gold breastplate on which was inscribed ‘Quassie, faithful to the whites’. The Saramaka remember him as a traitor.

What then of the tree that bears his name? It was Kwasimukámba who introduced it to Europeans as a local remedy for fever in his other noted capacity as a herbalist and sorceror**. It was soon overtaken as a cure for malaria by Cinchona, another South American tree and the source of quinine. Nevertheless, Quassia amara is still used as an effective treatment for intestinal parasites, an insecticide, and a bittering agent in foods and drinks. The second part of the species name, amara, comes from the Spanish word meaning ‘bitter’. Even here Kwasimukámba is memorialised because the most bitter of the tree’s chemical constituents is now known as quassin, one of a family of chemicals called the quassinoids. These are amongst the most bitter-tasting chemicals in nature and form ingredients of Angostura bitters***.

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Flowers of Quassia amara. All parts of the plant can be used for their extracts.

Without wishing to be unfair to Kwasimukámba, whose reputation as a healer cannot be entirely unfounded, it is highly unlikely that he personally discovered the medicinal benefits of Quassia. More likely is that he learnt of its efficacy through his interactions with the Saramaka or other maroons. They, in turn, are likely to have acquired the knowledge from the indigenous peoples they encountered in the forests. My scepticism about who deserves the credit is simply based on a matter of probability. Native healers had been using the tree for many generations before the African slaves and their European masters arrived, and continue to do so.

We will never know who first named the bitter tree and divined its useful medicinal properties. In a fair accounting of history they would receive the credit for Quassia, although Kwasimukámba deserves his recognition too. He can hardly be blamed for the accolade of being immortalised in science as the tree was named for, not by, him. Then again, in his later years he styled himself ‘Professor of Herbology’, so he was not averse to personal aggrandisement.

So who was Kwasimukámba: a manumitted slave who achieved fame in his lifetime? An imperial collaborator? A talented herbalist? Or a charlatan who took credit for the insights of others? The truth must be all of those things, and no single story is complete without the rest. We should beware making moral judgements on our forebears, as I’ve argued before, because these were complex people making personal decisions in very different times. The name Quassia links a bitter-flavoured tree to a bitter history, one that invokes slavery, oppression, forgotten indigenous peoples and the legacies of colonialism. The struggles of the Saramaka for recognition of their rights continue to the present day. Perhaps we shouldn’t resent Kwasimukámba his place in the annals of science though. At least this once an oppressed slave managed to make a decent life for himself. I can raise a glass to that.

 


 

* Which usually means the first person from the Global North to place the species in the context of a largely imperial system of classification. That a species was long known to local people in its place of origin is usually overlooked, although taxonomists are getting better at this.

** Not all of his concoctions were as widely approved of.

*** Amusingly Angostura bitters do not contain the bitter-tasting bark of Angostura trifoliata, but are instead named after the town in Venezuela from where the recipe originated. I should write another blog post about that.

Oops there goes another rubber tree

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Rubber trees bend, and they also break. This is one of the CATAS plantations in China being battered by strong winds.

Frank Sinatra credited an ambitious ant with shifting a rubber tree, which was a rather implausible achievement. The presumptuous ant might have been taking undeserved credit for a much more normal occurrence, which is rubber trees blowing over in strong winds. That happens all the time with no help from ants.

Rubber tree plantations are found in the tropics, these days predominantly in Asia (despite the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis being originally a South American species, as its name suggests). Many of the main regions of production are also subject to periodic hurricanes which can cause serious damage to the trees and therefore economic losses to the producers. We can’t prevent hurricanes, but could we manage plantations to make them more wind resistant?

This is a question which we approach in a new paper (led by my collaborator Yun Ting at Nanjing Forestry University*) using terrestrial laser scanning and some novel computational methods. The study site was a research station in southern China where a number of different clones have been planted, each of which has a distinctive branching architecture. We already know which of these is most vulnerable to blow-down from the evidence of past hurricanes. What management options are likely to help prevent damage to the trees?

At present simulations are the only way to approach this problem. It’s not just that it’s far too risky to carry out detailed environmental measurements in the middle of a hurricane (not least because the trees often fall over), but the equipment is likely to blow away too. It’s hard enough to find equipment that’s capable of withstanding hurricane conditions anyway. And then there’s the issue of not knowing when or where a hurricane will strike. Our approach can potentially circumvent all these limitations.

The study involved a large team all of whom had incredibly specialised skills and I don’t pretend to fully understand all of them. The first step was using a terrestrial laser scanner to record the full three-dimensional structure of several rubber trees. This creates a high-resolution point cloud which could be used to reconstruct virtual trees which aim to capture every leaf and branch on the original tree. These were then used to create plantations which were subjected to hurricane-force winds in a simulation environment developed for testing the aerodynamics properties of aircraft and other vehicles. This allowed us to evaluate what the implications of crown structure were for the wind forces experienced by trees during a hurricane. No-one had to put themselves at any risk.**

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Computer visualisations of two rubber trees reconstructed from terrestrial laser scanning data. Notice how the one on the left has broader, spreading branches, while the one on the right has a more upright form.

There are many caveats to this study; don’t bother pulling it apart because we already know a good few of them. Most of the assumptions and simplifications were enforced by the computational demands of such high-resolution simulations. For example, plots were relatively small in size (nine trees at a time).*** More problematic is that adding natural flexibility to the trees wasn’t an option. What we are measuring is therefore the wind resistance generated by something approximating a tree made of platinum. Of course we know that this isn’t realistic, but I’d suggest that you look at the qualitative outcomes rather than expecting the quantitative predictions to be precisely accurate. This is a first demonstration of the approach, not a complete realisation of every possible feature. It’s good enough to reveal some interesting differences.

What did we find? Well, clones with larger, denser crowns put up greater wind resistance and generate higher degrees of turbulence, making them more likely to be damaged when exposed to hurricane-force winds. Reassuringly, these are the same ones that blow over more commonly in the real world. So we did all this sophisticated work… and found out something that everyone already knew.

That’s not really the point though. Having shown that the simulations generate reasonable outcomes that match with experience, we can now start to tweak the models and explore the impact of management strategies. Manipulating tree spacing or thinning of tree crowns can all be done virtually, more quickly and with less effort than establishing another plantation and waiting for the next hurricane to discover whether it was effective. What we have is a framework for trying out almost any combination of tree sizes, shapes and arrangements.

Rubber plantations are one of the simplest types of forest, which was a deliberate choice. We can imagine further applications of our method in more complex habitats, where a mixture of tree species could be put together to see how real-world forests cope in the face of one of nature’s greatest destructive forces. That’s our eventual aim, anyway. High hopes, as Sinatra would have put it.

 


 

* This was a massive collaborative study in which my own role was very minor. I haven’t even visited the field site.

** No trees were harmed in the preparation of this paper. It’s not even in a print journal.

*** When I suggested some minor amendments to a late draft I thought Yun Ting was about to cry. It’s hard to convey quite how much computational effort goes into generating just one of these figures. Simulations are not easy research!

 

Tree diseases harm people too

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An olive grove in Surano, Italy, following infection by Xylella fastidiosa. Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 Sjor

In the midst of a global pandemic, expressing concern about trees can feel like an indulgence. That’s not to say that COVID-19 is foremost on everyone’s minds. For farmers in East Africa about to face another devastating plague of locusts, or those in Vanuatu whose homes were destroyed by Cyclone Harold, there are more pressing concerns. On our own doorstep there are many people going without food in the UK, one of the world’s richest countries. Even climate change is having to take a back seat for the time being.

And so you might find it hard to spare any thought for a disease which is quickly sweeping through Mediterranean olive trees. For those of us living in northern Europe the direct impact is likely to be felt as increased prices for olives and olive oil, and perhaps even some scarcity in the next few years. I’m sure your heart bleeds for the middle classes.

Many people don’t have the luxury of shrugging this calamity off though. And it truly is a calamity for producers in some of the poorest regions of Europe, particularly in rural parts of Italy, Greece and Spain where olives and other orchard crops have been the mainstay of livelihoods for generations. They are about to face not only a pandemic, but the prolonged recession that will be its aftermath, in which their whole way of life will simultaneously be disappearing. A new paper estimates that the total economic impact of this disease could exceed €5B*. It isn’t just about the trees.

This was a disaster that could so easily have been avoided. The pathogen Xylella fastidiosa was first recorded in olive trees in southern Italy back in 2013. It likely arrived from Central America where similar pests are endemic, probably via the horticultural trade. National and international agencies rapidly responded, and a containment plan was put in place, agreed with both the Italian government and European Commission. This was beset with protests and legal challenges which delayed any action. Amazingly, several scientists and public officials were accused of deliberately spreading the disease and subjected to a police investigation**. All this wasted valuable time.

By 2016 the disease had already reached Spain and southern France. Now it’s also been detected in Portugal and Israel. Unfortunately it appears that trees can be asymptomatic for some time, which has made tracking and modelling its spread more problematic. It can also infect a range of other trees, including common orchard species like cherries, almonds and plums. These are often asymptomatic hosts though, which means that the disease can spread across landscapes undetected, carried by common xylem-sucking insects. Now that the disease is at large across Europe, local containment might be possible in some regions, but a full outbreak is almost inevitable.

The new paper by Schneider et al. suggests that constant vigilance, which means routine testing and reporting of cases, should be combined with measures to reduce the rate of spread, such as felling of trees in buffer zones and vector control. This may buy enough time for resistant trees to be developed and planted, or for a transition to substitute crops. To do so requires trust and co-operation between government agencies and individual landowners, something that has thus far been in short supply. It also inevitably means that some farmers will have to sacrifice healthy orchards for the good of others.

Whatever the outcome, the landscape of large parts of the Mediterranean looks set to change dramatically in the coming years. And all because we failed to act even when the evidence was in place. Will we learn the lessons for next time?

 


 

* Roughly equivalent to $5.5B or £4.5B at time of writing, but have you seen how crazy FOREX markets are at the moment? Oddly some of the media coverage has talked about a figure of €20B, which wasn’t the headline figure of the original paper, but appears to be based on adding up all the largest estimates and assuming a worst-imaginable scenario.

** Italy has previous form when it comes to prosecuting scientists and officials whose advice is not approved of.

What trees would we plant to maximise carbon uptake?

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Fangorn Forest as represented in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. This is fantasy fiction, not the type of habitat that we should expect to find or create in the real world.

One of the reasons often put forward for growing more trees is that it’s a method to draw down carbon from the atmosphere and lock it up in wood. Afforestation is far more efficient and straightforward than any currently imagined ‘carbon capture technology’. Photosynthesis is the original carbon uptake mechanism, evolved and perfected over more than a billion years, and human ingenuity isn’t going to design anything better, at least not on the scales required by rapid climate change. Trees have done it all before.

Before going much further, and for the avoidance of doubt, planting trees (even a trillion of them) isn’t going to solve the climate crisis. It’s one potential tool but no substitute for massive reductions in emissions. At its very best, tree-planting would only remove the carbon which has been released from land-use change, not that from the burning of fossil fuels, which represent stores of carbon generated hundreds of millions of years ago. That’s even before we get to the contentious question of where we might plant the trees, which usually turns out to be someone else’s country.

The other problem with tree-planting is that it assumes the trees either stay in place or are continuously replenished. Forest fires, logging, land clearance, droughts, pest outbreaks… all the potential causes of tree mortality will eventually lead to this carbon returning to the atmosphere. A tree is at best a temporary carbon store, albeit one that can last a few centuries. We’re not laying down any new coal deposits, they just don’t make it any more. I’m therefore sceptical of any off-setting program which justifies current emissions on the basis of anticipated long-term carbon storage through tree planting. It’s not something we can rely on.

All these caveats accepted, we can begin to ask the question: if we really were planting forests with the primary objective of taking up carbon, and we planned to do it in the temperate countries which are overwhelmingly responsible for global change, what should we plant?

A recent newspaper article asked this question with the UK in mind*. By coincidence I had a Twitter exchange on the same subject shortly before the article came out. As a thought experiment it’s a reasonable discussion to have, and by doing so publicly it forces people to contemplate the implications of the arguments that are so often made for planting trees.

The right tree species should be (a) fast-growing under local conditions, (b) tall, preferably forming dense forests with as little space between the trees as possible, and (c) of high wood density, maximising the amount of carbon for a given volume of trunk. Ideally they should also be long-lived and relatively resistant to the many forms of disturbance that kill trees, including extreme weather and diseases. There’s no single species of tree that satisfies all these conditions, not least because high wood density leads to slower growth rates. Some compromise is necessary.

The conclusion of the article, taking into account the assumption that carbon uptake was the sine qua non, was that plantations of fast-growing non-native conifers were the best way forward.** The backlash to this suggestion was immediate, predictable and justified. Such tree species are not only hopeless for conservation (and therefore would lead to a net loss of biodiversity) but also aesthetically undesirable as they would transform familiar landscapes. Yes, say the public, we want more forests, but surely not like this.

I don’t disagree with any of the objections to such a scheme, but it does highlight the inherent problem with making so many claims for the benefits of tree planting that are logically incompatible. It is impossible to design a forest which maximises all the potential functions we want from them: promoting native species, boosting biodiversity, storing carbon, amenity value, aligning with our aesthetic preferences, and maybe also providing some economic benefit to the landowners who are being asked to turn over their productive estates to trees. If we pick just one of these factors to emphasise — in this case carbon — then inevitably we will have to lose out on the others.

Every response to climate change presents us with difficult choices. The trite maxim that we should plant more trees puts people in mind of a sylvan idyll of sun-dappled glades beneath the bowers of mighty broad-leaved giants. Such forests exist in Europe only in the imagination. If real trees are to be used to solve our problems then real forests will be necessary, and they might not be the ones that everyone expected. Be careful what you wish for.

 


 

* Full disclosure: the academic whose views the article reports, Prof. John Healey of Bangor University, is also a collaborator of mine (we co-supervise a PhD student). We haven’t shared our opinions on this topic though.

** My pick, if we’re playing tree Top Trumps, is the Nordmann fir, Abies nordmanniana, which is so much more than just a great Christmas tree. It’s also the tallest-growing native tree in Europe and as a montane species tolerates a wide range of challenging environments.

Stop the eco-triumphalism now

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There is no excuse for this. Image taken from the Twitter feed of XR East (@xr_east)*. Note that Extinction Rebellion UK have disavowed both this group and the sentiments expressed in the post. Similar opinions have been circulating on social media for some time though.

I’m angry. I was reluctant to write anything on this blog about COVID-19, pandemics or epidemiology, given that none of them are among my specialisms*. But lately I’ve been appalled by a subset of ecologists and environmental campaigners — admittedly small — who have used this crisis to score points for their personal obsessions.

This is not to criticise those who seek positive messages to cling onto when there is so much to mourn or fear. Some of this desire is misdirected, including numerous stories of nature returning to areas which have seen dramatic reductions in human activity. Whether it’s drunk elephants in Chinese villages or dolphins in Venice, these have usually turned out to be false reports. Does it matter that many people share stories that are quickly disproven if they offer a brief cheering distraction? Perhaps not so much. There are more dangerous lies out there.

Yet linked to many of these stories is an agenda, sometimes implicit, other times actively advanced, which has at its core a desire to show that something good has come of the pandemic. Few would say so with quite that lack of subtlety, but there is no other way to interpret many of the articles on declines in air pollution, clear skies or the potential for advancing a green agenda during the anticipated recovery. I’m more sympathetic to those who point out that the international response shows that we have the ability to pull together for the collective good that could be harnessed again. There may be opportunities to be taken once we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but that still seems a long way off.

Others are even less subtle, for example the assertion by the European Agroforestry Federation that all this wouldn’t have happened if we’d had more agroforestry. Even if true, and despite being a longstanding advocate of agroforestry I’d struggle to make an evidence-based case for it***, now is surely not the time.

The most pernicious narrative, one which lurks in the fringes of the Deep Green movement and other more mainstream environmentalist groups, is that anything that reduces human populations and activities can only be a good thing for the environment. I have even seen it argued (and I refuse to link to it) that COVID-19 is an expression of Gaia immunity, the Earth fighting back against the infestation of humans that is taking it out of some mythical balance****. The refrain ‘we are the virus’ has been expressed repeatedly on social media. The sentiment at the top of this article is not a isolated incident. Nor is it a new idea; in 1988 Prince Philip told a German interviewer that he was ‘tempted to ask for reincarnation as a particularly deadly virus’ so as to aid in population control. Yes, he really did say that.

To believe that a catastrophe causing widespread mortality is somehow beneficial is simple eco-fascism. Privileged people in the Global North, living in splendid isolation whilst delighting (even indirectly) in the death, privation and suffering of others, is not morally acceptable on any grounds. There is no positive side to a pandemic.

There are two strands to eco-fascism. One has a long history in the belief that restricted national resources compel populations to resist immigration in the name of supposed sustainability. This narrative has already inspired acts of terrorism, but also been made in more mainstream settings by France’s National Rally (Rassemblement national) among others. Most reasonable, compassionate people would disavow this set of arguments.

The other narrative, however, holds that any reduction in human population can only help the natural world. This is sometimes expressed as the suggestion that not having (so many) children is the best way of combating climate change, an argument which is both logically and morally suspect. Any case for global population control always ends up being anti-female, racist and ultimately anti-human. Even if we might agree on a ‘sustainable’ human population level — and that’s not an easy figure to decide upon — the process of reaching it is unconscionable by any means, and certainly with the speed required for it to be an effective measure. As Jenny Turner put it, “How can a planet lose seven or eight billion humans… without events of indiscriminate devastation? When people start thinking about getting rid of other people, which sorts of people does history suggest are usually got rid of first?”

On this point, in which countries do you expect the death rate from COVID-19 to be the highest? It will almost certainly be in the Global South where access to medical care, nutrition and government support is most lacking. They are not the ones who bear the greatest responsibility for global change, and once again they will carry the heaviest burden. This pandemic is first and foremost a tragedy. It will not in itself be of any lasting benefit to the environment.

We are rightly offended when politicians use disasters to advance their own partisan agendas. As scientists, including ecologists, we need to step back from the campaigns that are usually at the forefront of our minds and accept that this situation is a distinct crisis of its own. Yes climate change remains a pressing issue; yes extinctions continue apace; yes the international wildlife trade is abhorrent. But these are separate problems which the world’s attention will return to again. For now simple compassion and decency requires us to stand back and accept that for once it isn’t about us.

 


 

* I suspect (and rather hope) that the post will be taken down, but here’s the evidence. There is a dispute going on about whether this represents a genuine faction of XR, or ‘infiltrators’, which are difficult for an autonomous movement with no central leadership to protect themselves against. It wouldn’t be the first time that someone associated with XR has said something offensive though. For the record, I continue to be a strong supporter of XR and their core principles.

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** Not that this has stopped quite a number of people.

*** The only relevant project I’ve been involved with, on mosquito-borne diseases in Northern Thailand, actually implicated orchard expansion as a likely cause of greater risk of infection. But this is a complicated subject and no single study can tell the whole story, particularly one which wasn’t designed to test that hypothesis.

***** I don’t have time here to explain in detail why Gaia theory is nonsense and has been rejected by the majority of ecologists. For more see pages 175–176 in my textbook and the papers it refers to. I’m also writing another book about it.