A crazy way to help save a planet

Not every idea will work. Most won’t change the world all by themselves. But all point to a mental diligence that refuses to sit still and accept the problems of the present as unsolvable.

Daniel Grossman
Andy Marshall’s chief assistant, ruben Mwakisoma, leads the way through Tanzania’s Magombera forest.

At first, Andy Marshall’s idea seems a bit nutty. His great idea to mitigate the rise of greenhouse gases globally is essentially the world’s biggest gardening project. He wants to go into tropical forests damaged by logging and deforestation and cut out all the invasive vines that flourish there.

As world-altering ideas go, it would seem to fall somewhat short of Elon Musk’s solar tiles and missions to Mars. Thinking about how to save the planet often conjures up an image rather more epic than someone slathered in bug spray and toting a machete. But it shouldn’t.

The cover story this week by contributor Daniel Grossman takes us to Tanzania, where Mr. Marshall has used a small swath of African jungle as a laboratory. 

In damaged parts of the forest, he found, cutting away aggressive liana vines allows trees to recover more quickly and robustly. And larger, healthier trees suck up more carbon dioxide. That fact might seem trivial until you realize that forests consume one-quarter of the carbon dioxide we produce – and that tropical jungles are the best sponges.

To be honest, Marshall’s plan is not going to save the planet – at least not singlehandedly. But that, in a sense, is its beauty.

In thinking about what constitutes effective action, there’s a tendency today to think on a “Lord of the Rings” scale. If we’re not going to conquer Mordor, vanquish Sauron, and destroy Mount Doom, then what’s the point of even leaving the shire? 

Put another way, it’s easy to be mesmerized by the epic and grand. You can see it even in politics. A Harvard Business Review report argued that the greatest threat to effective democracy was a take-no-prisoners, “all-out war” philosophy – and that was back in 2012. The tendency to demand sweeping and absolutist solutions instead of incremental steps has only grown since then.

But look at one of the items from our Points of Progress this week (see page 14): Iceland has made astounding progress against teen substance abuse. From 1998 to 2016, the percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month fell from 42 percent to 5 percent, the BBC reports. Cigarette smoking fell from 23 percent to 3 percent.

What led to the change? Dozens of steps. Raising the age for buying tobacco helped. So did a new nationwide curfew. Every school had to create an organization to engage with parents. And perhaps most important, kids were given new opportunities to participate in sports, music, and art.

Marshall’s Tarzan take on climate change is quirky and hardly a cure-all. But it’s a step backed by mounting evidence. And in that way, it’s part of a bigger picture.

The portrait of progress is a picture of thought in motion. Not every idea will work. Most won’t change the world all by themselves. But all point to a mental diligence that refuses to sit still and accept the problems of the present as unsolvable. And that inevitably does change the world – occasionally, in grand swoops, but more often, vine by vine.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

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