Although the vast majority of Canadians live in urban environments, we tend to define ourselves as a nation through the rugged, wild, natural character of our country.
If asked to describe Canada, most of us would reference water in some form, mountains or rock (depending on where you live), rolling prairies (again depending on where you live), ice and snow in winter, sweltering heat and mosquitos in summer.
But above all else, I think, we define our country as a land of forests — vast, uncountable swathes of trees spreading endlessly north to the Arctic and west (or east, depending on your coast) to the grasslands of southern Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Forests so endless that we could have half a dozen fires, each bigger than Prince Edward Island, raging in Northwestern Ontario this summer and barely be aware of their existence down here on the muggy shores of the Great Lakes.
We take nature’s bounty for granted and look with a certain smug condescension on other nations of the world who do not have such vast, limitless resources or are in the process of squandering what they do have.
I was stunned to find out — and I am assuming you will be too — that this view of ourselves and our position in the natural world is a load of crap.
Really. I know it’s hard to believe, but let me explain.
Just to put your head in the right space, consider these three points:
1. The United States has far, far more forested land than Canada — more than 300 million hectares compared to just over 200 million hectares for poor, barren Canada.
(I visually judge large areas in units of football fields; I cannot conjure up a mental picture of either an acre or hectare, so we’ll stick with the metric hectare since those are the figures I have. A CFL field, by the way, is about two acres and it takes about 2.47 acres to make a hectare so Canada has about a quarter billion CFL football fields worth of forest by my count.)
2. When I think of China, I think of the world’s most populous country — more than 1.3 BILLION people — and one of the world’s oldest societies. A land, in other words, that has been intensively cultivated for eons, a land of rice paddies, not forests. Wrong again. China is smaller in total area than Canada but today has almost exactly the same amount of forested land as Canada — but with an extra 1,265,000,000 mouths to feed.
I’ve been to China, I travelled through its countryside, I’ve hiked in its forests … but I always subconsciously felt there was a city of teeming millions or a sprawling industrial complex just beyond the treeline. Wrong again.
One of these photos is from Canada and one is from China. Can you tell which is which?
Answer: Top photo is from Inner Mongolia, bottom photo is from British Columbia
3. Canada’s forest change is basically neutral — new forests grow or are cultivated at approximately the same rate as old forests are cut down or destroyed by fire or pestilence — but both China and the United States are growing more and more forests every year. Over the past decade, U.S. forested land has increased by about a third of one percent each year. Not bad, but nothing compared to China’s staggering 3% a year forest growth rate.
(All this data comes from the wonderfully informative and reliable Economist magazine, which in turn is using global satellite analysis collected by Brazil’s Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais — National Institute for Space Research — to track deforestation in the Amazon and keep tabs on the rest of the earth’s forests.)
So, despite our self image, Canada does not have as much forest wilderness as we believe in our guts we do and we don’t do as good a job as those nasty industrial carbon footprinters, the United States and China, in replenishing our forests.
Here’s a chart The Economist ran a few days ago showing the world’s top 10 countries with largest forest area and here’s a link to the online article accompanying the chart at www.economist.com.
As you can see, Mother Russia has by far the most forest on earth, at around 800 million hectares, followed by Brazil at more than 500 million hectares. (They’re both chewing through their forests at a fair clip, Brazil especially, but that’s a discussion for another time. The fact remains that Russia has four times the amount of forest that Canada does and Brazil’s forested area is about 2.5 times greater than Canada’s, both of which comparative circumstances surprised me. I would have said Russia’s forests were at most double the size of Canada’s and that Canada probably had more forest coverage than Brazil.)
Then there’s the U.S. at about 300 million hectares, Canada and China at just over 200 million hectares each, followed by the rest of the world.
(Again, I would also have said Canada has two or three times more forest than the U.S. I’m starting to get a case of wood envy.)
The next five have some interesting revelations.
For starters, I never would have believed that Australia and Sudan have some of the largest forests in the world. I think of them both as being basically arid desert countries.
And I thought India, like China, had too many people and too much history of human habitation to have much in the way of forests left. And, yes, I’m impressed that India has been increasing its forested land by about .3% a year over the past decade.
So I guess I’ve changed the way I look at Canada and the rest of the world. I don’t feel quite so smug about our endless, majestic wilderness.
It’s still there and still vast and still defines us to a large extent, but there are cautionary limits as well.
I think I’ll go out and hug a tree.
Then I’ll dip a toe in Canada’s vast, endless supply of pure, fresh water.
Hey, where did all the water go?