7 min read

Building Beyond: Leaf Me Alone

Down With NFTrees

Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.

The global forest community has decided to cut off all economic and trading ties with the outside world. From now on, forest-based resources are for the forest alone.

Stephen Rider is a BuNine member and MBA Finance graduate interested in sci-fi from an early age. He works for a family business producing beverages.

The reaction to the events of the early 21st century by the Global Forest Community (GFC) to the continued predation of arboreal environments of severing all economic and trading ties with the rest of the world (the Global Non-Forest Economy) is seen in hindsight as short-sighted and destructive. Proponents of the split pointed out that the GNFE use of the GFC was itself short-sighted and destructive, be it the direct elimination of land or knock-on effects from GNFE economic activity. Through private conversations, to this day shrouded in mystery, the GFC and the GNFE were split, forbidden to interact economically or via trade. The exact definition of economic activity and trade was generally understood to relate to goods and services. Coconut oil would not be exported to the GNFE in exchange for tourist visits, for example. As the split became deeper, ingrained resentment for the GFC grew and the GNFE expanded their definition of trade and economic activity.

Initially isolationism was hard to enforce as poachers and other maleactors continued to exploit the forests’ resources. As GNFE investments in alternative resources came online to fill the gap, as any good capitalist system would do, these individuals became relegated to the black market, and the GNFE investors had a strong incentive to prevent the use of natural resources, after all, they needed a return on investment.

Many civilians in the GNFE understood and could even appreciate the GFC’s choice to isolate themselves due to historical factors. Others saw the GFC’s actions as hypocritical, and just as the GNFE had to realign to find substitute resources, the GFC had to do the same. Many investors in the outside world shaped policies to protect their new investments. Most of these increased the isolation of the forest communities. Much as animal populations decreased as their historic range was split up by human intervention, forest communities came under increasing pressure as they were isolated from imports.

Isolationists viewed this as an acceptable cost to prevent further forest destruction. This view was not universally shared by the forest inhabitants. Even access to the global knowledge base, established as a universal human right in 2051 by the UN, was increasingly difficult due to the forest communities’ lack of access to computers.

Subversions of GNFE dictates varied in scale. The most ambitious was the use of automated cargo ships to deliver over 100,000 computers to GFCs. Though well meaning towards — and very useful for — the majority of communities they helped, these acts also created tensions between communities.

Doctors without Borders (MSF) made the most dramatic gesture in protest over the split when 108 doctors, nurses, and support staff went into the Amazon Zone to help with an outbreak of an unknown SARS virus. Ultimately, though they were able to preserve the Amazon Communities, international pressure prevented most of the people directly involved from finding mainstream work after the incident, and many public backers also found themselves blacklisted.

The black market between the GNFE and the GFC is as varied as the trees themselves. Forest communities, almost by definition, lack the infrastructure for large-scale manufacturing and precision engineering. Pharmaceuticals and electronics comprise most of the black market trade into the GFC. Some of the trading is done by people who believe the biggest boon from the GFC is still the oxygen that the forests provide to the whole world.

Exports from the GFC often include food stuffs and exotic animals. With the separation of the GFC from the rest of the world, many of these items were eventually grown either in non-GFC farms or substitutions were made when they became unavailable. Even civets, the small cat-like creatures that aid in the processing of a particular type of coffee, have been found on expansive ranches in order to fill that production niche.

Beyond the physical goods traded, a more important part of the black market between the GFC and the GNFE is the exchange of knowledge. The GFC represents a collection of smaller groups, and individually none of them have the scope to keep up with or match the GNFE’s development of knowledge, be it weather modeling or material and medical sciences.

Economists note that the split caused the GNFE to develop substitute resources that created supply chain disruptions, while blaming the GFC for those disruptions. Many point out that due to existing factors those disruptions would have existed without the GFC. A narrative with a villain is useful to explain to people why the shoes they liked so much cost more now. This vilification of the GFC’s ‘overreaction’ to economic trends has been the most important long term effect of the split. Communities that initially applauded the idea of the GFC’s separation have become less comfortable with the idea, and factions that are putting pressure on these communities likewise feel more cautious about pushing so hard.

Most tragically, the vituperative rhetoric employed against the GFC makes any sort of reconciliation difficult, if not impossible in the short term. The survival of the GFC in any viable numbers remains an open question.

Amal El-Mohtar is an award-winning writer of fiction, poetry, and criticism. Her stories and poems have appeared in magazines including Tor.com, Fireside Fiction, Lightspeed, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Apex, Stone Telling, and Mythic Delirium; anthologies including The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories (2017), The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales (2016), Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories (2014), and The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (2011); and in her own collection, The Honey Month (2010). Her articles and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, NPR Books and on Tor.com. She became the Otherworldly columnist at the New York Times in February 2018, and is represented by DongWon Song of HMLA.

People found out about mycorrhizal networks just in time to figure out why so many loggers were dying of heart attacks in the woods — but too late to stop them.

It took a while for the news to spread: a period of reporting strange stings, confusion, feelings of unease in forests that had previously seemed inert material to be harvested; a further period, about a year, of “Logger’s Lurgy,” an inflammatory condition that cleared up when the afflicted moved away from forested areas, but flared up worse when they tried to return to their work. And then, finally, heart attacks.

Of the roughly 12,000 known fungi in the world, only 100 or so are bioluminescent; of those, an even smaller fraction can interact with cyanobacteria in such a way as to deliver electric shocks. But necessity, as they say, is the Mother Tree of invention; it appears those fungi have been sharing that knowledge like carbon over the last decade, developing their own nodes of slow scholarship, and now all 12,000 species are capable of administering extraordinarily high voltage shocks under certain conditions.

Those conditions are still being explored.

“It’s not everyone,” says biologist Emil Hernandez. “As far as we can tell people are still living in forests unharmed. There seems to be an issue of breaching perimeter – some kind of trigger that sets off the volts. But it’s proving difficult to study, and the forest-dwelling people won’t talk to us anymore.”

“You’ve got to see it from the Mother Trees’ perspective,” says Dr. Jay Gould, a subject matter expert with the Canadian Forest Service. “They’ve been trying to gently dissuade us from doing the thing that’s bad for us by making it unpleasant to do so. But our world is broken on so fundamental a level – we’re like lab mice that keep throwing themselves against a shock-button because they can’t remember another way to live. But now we have to, or else die.”

With no more wood being removed from forests, nations are scrambling to invest in alternative building materials, and the price of reclaimed wood is soaring. But agricultural experts warn this is treating symptoms without addressing the …root causes of the problem.

“I mean, we’ve figured out it’s the mushrooms causing the shocks – that all the mushrooms are connected to each other, talking to each other, protecting the trees,” says Dr. Tara Saber, a crop and food safety scientist. “Well—what’s the difference, ultimately, between a forest and a farm? If you’re a mushroom? How wide is the mycelial definition of me?”*

(*with Amal's profuse apologies to Arkady Martine)

Both of these possibilities are just beginnings. Stephen's examination of the contribution of forests and their inhabitants to the global economy is a straightforward projection that helps us see how much we stand to lose by alienating the greenest parts of our planet. Amal's is a fundamentally terrifying look at what will happen to us when the plants finally, finally start to say ‘no.’

How would your global forests withdraw themselves from participation in the global economy? What kind of black market trade would spring up from that? Would the world survive such division?

Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.

That’s amazing.

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