A Fine Romance

I’m a somewhat typical 30-something creative New York transplant. I work on my novel, practice yoga and burn incense and brunch on the weekends. I love love and I frequently send friends and family hand-written notes on the “just because” tip. When I’m fired up, I get into long discussions with friends about the Flint water crisis, #BlackLivesMatter, the presidential election, and the latest celebrity hullabaloo, IRL and on Twitter.

Demetria Irwin

Demetria Irwin

Nobody in my (highly active) social media circles ever questions why I’m so invested in those things, perhaps because the connections are clear: I’m from Michigan; I have my very own black life that’s been mattering for quite some time now; picking the next leader of the free world is pretty important; and everyone needs a little guilty-pleasure entertainment every now and then.

But when I told my friends that I got a new job at the Rainforest Alliance, I got different versions of the same question over and over again: “Why should we care about some trees, especially trees in another country?”

It’s not that my friends are oblivious to climate change and the many other environmental crises we humans collectively face. In fact, most of them are well aware that human beings need to curb certain behaviors to restore the health of the planet. But “tree hugging” just isn’t at the top of their priority list, given more immediate concerns like climbing out of student loan debt and not becoming a hashtag after a traffic stop. Most of my buddies live in urban areas, so a forest in Brazil, Ghana, or Indonesia seems about as relevant and accessible as a sci-fi film set.

In responding to the well-intended question my friends have asked, I’ve decided to bring it back to the love thing. In the same way that I try my best not to take for granted the wonderful friends, family, and pets in my life, I also try to be aware of my relationships with all living beings. Trees are certainly part of that group, and as I’m learning, they play a more crucial role than I’d ever imagined in sustaining life—and therefore love—for all my family and friends.

The Amazon alone produces 20 percent of the Earth’s oxygen. Not only do trees quite literally produce the air we breathe, they also absorb carbon dioxide, one of the biggest culprits of global warming, and act as natural filters for freshwater streams and rivers. Rainforests around the world contain key ingredients used in about one-fourth of all modern medicines, not to mention some of my favorite things to eat and drink (such as? Acai? Brazil nuts?). And of course, they are the source of the timber used in basic human shelters around the world, as well as some of our most elegant architectural masterpieces.

When I told my friends that I got a new job at the Rainforest Alliance, I got different versions of the same question over and over again: “Why should we care about some trees, especially trees in another country?”

Essentially, trees give us most of what we need to live and to live well. That’s what I call unconditional love. Loving trees back is part of self-preservation and self-love. It’s a no-brainer.

Maybe my friends will never step foot into a rainforest, but the health of rainforests in every part of the world impacts us all. If climate change makes for an all-around bad season for major coffee bean growers, just like that, your favorite cup of joe is scarce and costly. But beyond the possibility of a minor personal inconvenience, climate disasters typically have the most severe and long term impacts on the poor and disenfranchised. Policy and planning decisions make certain populations more physically and economically vulnerable to the ravages of climate change. Shantytowns in places like the Philippines are no match for typhoons. Southern California’s drought means people are spending more money on bottled water and that added daily expense is the most costly for those who are already scraping by check to check.

Social justice and environmental justice do intersect. Forests are also important because according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1.6 billion people around the globe depend on forests for their livelihoods. That’s sustainability in the human sense– economics, culture and community. As someone who is very invested in social justice issues, I care about everyone’s quality of life. And again, in this global economy, it behooves all of us to care about comprehensive sustainability.

That is a lot to take in, and I’m not advocating for everyone to quit their jobs and become full-time rainforest activists. But there are things we can all do to help make sure that the love forests give us does not go unrequited. A very simple first step is to become a more mindful consumer by taking the time to learn about how the things you love in your everyday life like coffee, chocolate, and flowers impact our forests.

Know that there are hundreds of millions of trees out there actively loving you. Next time you’re near one (and if nobody is looking), I’d highly recommend swooping in for a nice long hug.

Burning Peruvian forest - photo by Mohsin Kazmi

Forests are falling at an alarming rate.

Each minute, 85 acres are destroyed.