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We think the forest is out there, but it’s inside us

A Matter of Perspectives and Movements – what is the forest, who are we, and who are the Others? Giorgio Vacchiano, Emanuele Coccia and Stefano Boeri tackle nature

Stefano Boeri: Centennial scientist James Lovelock recounts his insight into Gaia as he investigates the possibility of a human species transferring to Mars. He turns, in a sort of conceptual twist, looks at the Earth, and perceives its uniqueness. A movement taken by Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta, the ESA astrophysicist, who explained how the image of the Earth rising as seen from the Moon was a great little catastrophe in the conceptualization paradigm of the planet. Your work may have this sort of conceptual precondition. You both tend to view life and its joints in the plant and animal world as an interconnected system. This is the first point on which I would like to hear your reflections. The other theme is the reflection on anthropocentrism — any act of ours is a strengthening of anthropocentrism.

Giorgio Vacchiano: You mentioned Earthrise, the photo taken from the Moon, the dawn of the rising Earth. There is another photo, also taken from space, that gives me this idea: it is called Pale Blue Dot. When the Voyager II spacecraft passed Saturn, astronomer Carl Sagan — who was also a talented storyteller — had the idea of ​​spinning the spacecraft and took a photo: a barely visible dot. The only bright spot in the middle of a band of Saturn’s rings. Smallness and interconnectedness: it is all enclosed in one point. He commented on that photo saying everything you love, all the history you have studied, all the great empires, are all concentrated in that single point. I was talking to my colleagues about new research ideas: teleconnections are climatic systems that cross the earth and, through the ocean or atmospheric currents, connect different points, tying them like two ends of the same elastic, to the same climatic trends. What happens in one place happens in another, even if apparently distant. When a catastrophe occurs — the recent fires in Australia — even the media realize that these are not isolated events. In the last ten years, ‘bad weather’ has been revealed. Events linked to an ongoing trend. We are finding that even in densely populated Europe, agricultural fields are more fertile and productive when surrounded by trees and forests because pollinators, insects, can circulate quickly — as can nutrients, which contribute to soil fertility. Relating to ecosystems is equivalent to relating to other people. Good use of wood can benefit other humans. A wooden house improves someone’s living conditions. There is a book by Haskell, The Song of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, which talks about how trees help us build relationships, even with distant people.

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Amazon forest fires 2020. Image Luca Parmitano

Emanuele Coccia: The scientific revolution was born when the gaze turned to space from the Earth, passing from geocentrism to heliocentrism. Lovelock marked a turning point in the history of science: inhabiting space for the first time, setting foot on the moon, and understanding how the atmospheres of Mars or other planets work, we realized the uniqueness of our planet compared to others in the solar system. We are the Earth: we are not in front of Gaia, we are not inside Gaia, each of the living is Gaia. Our planet is more than our home, it is our body, our matter, our flesh. We need to take care of biological space and all the species that inhabit our planet. Everything that surrounds us is a sort of archive of our lives, present, past, or future. With Lovelock, what modern science had denied is re-established: the dependence of the destinies of the human species with the destiny of the lowest species of earthly reality. Terrestriality is no longer conceived in a Christian key as a form of lowering. It means that in each of our singular lives as individuals belonging to the human species, the fate of the planet follows. Regarding anthropocentrism: the ecological crisis we are experiencing is linked to the survival of our species — we must avoid setting ourselves up as saviors of the planet because the planet will survive even without us. If anything, at stake in this crisis, is the survival of our species at the economic or living standards that we think are right for everyone. Anthropocentrism overturns itself into something that surpasses it: even thinking only of us, we must think of the rest of the planet.

The Darwinian theory of evolution implies that each species is the metamorphosis of a previous species: there is no creation from nothing. Each species is a mosaic of species that preceded it, collected in its DNA. We consider as human form what is 99% sedimentation of non-human forms. We have pieces in our DNA that come from viruses, from fish, from primates. Through horizontal genetic transfer, these pieces never stop passing from one species to another, even without a genealogical link. Just look in the mirror: there is nothing human in the eyes, mouth, ears because we share these aspects with a thousand other species. We live a life that is already multi-specific, we already have biodiversity within us. Saving a species means saving a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand. We cannot think of ourselves without thinking of others. Let us stop thinking of the city as a space for monoculture. The urban contract should be blown up and built in a multispecific way. From an ecological point of view, one of the most important forestations is the ornithological and entomological repopulation. Putting trees on a skyscraper means increasing the number of species present in the city and allowing other species, which had not even been considered, to repatriate and return after disappearing.

SB: Today, we are more aware of this interdependence. The theme is that of a government of these interdependencies, especially when we talk about the relationship between cities and forests. The challenge is to rethink the city — and perhaps also rethink the forest — as an element that has its own technology, its own potential, and that also includes our presence.

GV: Speaking of Coronavirus, I would like to point out that 8% of our DNA is of viral origin, incorporated into our DNA over the course of millions of years of evolution. This viral DNA plays a key function in the formation of the placenta. Our reproduction depends on viruses. In nature, everything is communication between matter and energy, relationship. This also applies to the inanimate sphere: wood is made up of 50% carbon — half of its composition was once air, but the atoms are still the same. Speaking of governments, we lack structures that can guarantee the common good. During this pandemic, we have seen how national responses that only look at the borders of a territory or a state are partly useful but partially solve the problem. The return of animals to our cities has been noted. If we look at the planetary level, we see that the story is different. The World Union for the Conservation of Nature has sounded an alarm: the economic consequences of Covid-19 in developing countries will have negative effects on the conservation of biodiversity — there will be a tendency to divest into biodiversity, to try to promote the industrial, productive sector, agriculture, subsistence. In Central African countries — Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda — the main funds for the conservation of biodiversity derive from ecological tourism. With tourism zeroed, conservation programs will be put at risk. We are not yet structured to have a global look.

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Right Eye on Mars, September 1999. NASA/JPL

SB: Let us think of a double movement: trees towards the city, humans towards the forest. In the first case, there are some successful experiments and attempts underway, with urban forestation starting in the cities — and active transnational policy. The second movement is yet to be deciphered. We speak of naturalistic forestry, widespread agriculture, forest governed by technological devices. I am thinking of Hervé, the Fondation Cartier, the work they are doing on the Yanomami, the populations of the Amazon, and the relationship with the virus. We need to educate ourselves to reverse and reduce the monocultural and mineral dimensions of cities, working on inclusive capacity.

GV: The example is that of fires: there are paradoxes when we try to study the reason for the spread of fires and the factors that cause the flames to expand in a certain territory. Let us talk about the mechanical propagation of flames. The paradox of fire in the western United States: in ecosystems where fire passed relatively often every ten, fifteen, twenty years — causing only a little damage because passing so quickly it often consumed vegetation — humankind thought of self-protecting by extinguishing all fires. A century — the whole of the twentieth century — almost without fires, seems to be a success, until years of drought conditions ignite uncontrollable fires. This time, they have at their disposal to consume — to eat, the fire is an herbivore — vegetation that has grown undisturbed for 100 years, for 300 years. The fires take on proportions that those ecosystems are not used to holding. Another paradox: in a landscape where forests expand and recapture abandoned agricultural spaces, pastures, vineyards (as often happens in the mountains and within Italy) the flames have increased chances to spread and become a danger to humans. A mosaic landscape, in which there are forest tiles alternating with cultivated fields, vineyards, and pastures can represent a resource of greater balance between us and the environment through a lower danger of the spread of fire. Finding natural barriers, the fire stops, deviates. If we were not there, fire would not be a problem, but only one of the mechanisms with which the earth works and changes. An economic activity of sustainable production, agroforestry, can contribute to the prevention of natural risks, not just to healthier food. Pope Francis also expressed himself in this sense in Laudato si‘.

EC: We must free ourselves from the idea of ​​the forest — perhaps also from the term ‘forest’, which is a residue. ‘Forest’ comes from the Latin foris, which means ‘outside of’, based on the concept of bringing together outside the city everything that does not belong to humans, which is considered ‘outside civilization’. The Vertical Forest is a symbolic condensation, which opens the negotiation of two parallel artificial elements: the forest is the multispecific design space, in which several species have come together and tried to negotiate a relationship of coexistence. The Vertical Forest, on the one hand, represents the post-modern city, and on the other, it invites you to see the forests as skyscrapers. This is what we too must do: think that all that we call the forests are skyscrapers that we cannot see as such: technical works whose artificiality we cannot grasp. Another consideration: we have never left the forest; we have only made the forest we inhabit less evident. Without wood, without oxygen, without fruits, we do not exist. We never got out of the forest, because biologically we cannot do it. We are in the forest, all this is forest, the problem is realizing it.


Emanuele Coccia
Philosopher and writer
Teaches at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales and the École Duperré

Giorgio Vacchiano
Researcher and teacher at the Università degli studi di Milano