When I was younger, on drives through some of the lushly forested areas of the Great Lakes region, I remember wondering if it would ever be possible to count all the trees that I saw. I remember trying. Looking at a swath of land densely covered with trees is dizzying, as dizzying as contemplating the number of people in the world. Numbers that large are hard to fit into an individual's version of reality.
But, as Evergreen State College student Nalini Nadkarni recently found out, if you take those two vast quantities and divide the number of trees living on the planet by the number of people, the number you get is surprisingly fathomable.
Nadkarni used data from NASA satellites to estimate the number of trees at 400,246,300,201. That means there are roughly 61 trees per person here on Earth.
Think about your one little self standing next to 61 big trees, and it seems like we're in good shape. But then think about all the ways in which people use trees: home building, furniture building, all of the various forms of paper that most of us use each day. If you're like me, suddenly you'll start to feel a sense of worry in the pit of your stomach -- 61 doesn't sound like so many anymore.
And we are destroying the forests that remain at an alarming rate. According to this report from the WWF, for example, 55 percent of the Amazon's forests could be gone by 2030. These numbers represent not only the ruin of beautiful natural area and crucial wildlife habitat, but also the loss of vital carbon sinks that are no longer helping absorb greenhouse gases that human activities produce at staggering rates.
But, as bloggers Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney at Talking Science note, now is the time to remember that trees are a renewable resource. All is not lost -- yet.
The way I see it, the very down-to-earth numbers produced by Nadkani's study could give us the opportunity to think of trees on a personal level – as a kind of bank account. We must plant trees and we much watch what we spend. Did the paper towel, paper grocery bag, cardboard pizza box, etc. I'm about to use come from one of my 61 trees? Or, if I recycle the paper products that I do use, is that like getting money back on my purchase? Better yet, can I protect my 61 trees by avoiding the use of new trees when possible, for example, by furnishing my home with vintage furniture or reclaimed hardwood floors? Having things in real numbers can help many of use feel a sense of connection that it's hard to grasp when thinking about the entire world's responsibility to save all of the world's forests.
In your lifetime, can you save 61 trees? Can you plant 61? And what other resources can you quantify on a personal level?
Photo credit: flickr/Wonderlane, Creative Commons license.