Years of Living Dangerously Recap: Episode 2, The End of the Woods

The second episode of Showtime's nine-part documentary series "Years of Living Dangerously" featured two stories: "Last Stand," featuring Harrison Ford (continuing from last week's episode) and "Fire Line," featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Check out last week's recap here.

Continued kudos to the series team on a real showstopper - and given that, what a shame that, for the moment, Showtime has not made the program available to non-subscribers via iTunes, Netflix or other avenues. The team has commented on YouTube and other websites indicating that alternative distribution is "in the works" - we'll keep you posted. In the meantime, check out the show's YouTube channel and website.

Stories of the Week

Fire Line
"The Governator" (and vegetable-oil powered Hummer driver) himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, joins the Snake River Hot Shots on duty. The Hot Shots are one unit of an elite federal firefighting group who serve as the last line of defense between massive forest fires in the US wildlands and nearby communities. Fire seasons are now two-and-a-half months longer than they were only a few decades ago, running a $1 billion tab for the US Forest Service. They're also far deadlier; 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots died in an overpowering Arizona blaze last year.

What's fueling these longer, more intense seasons? Higher temperatures and earlier mountain snow melts have led to drier conditions in the Western US. Simultaneously, forests are falling prey to bark beetles, a formerly mid-summer predator attacking briefly each year. Now, warmer temperatures allow the critters to reproduce twice each summer in expanded ranges - and they are infesting trees at astronomical rates. Indeed, the beetles have destroyed more trees than all fires in the US and Canada over the past ten years. Given these twin killers, the prognosis for Western US forests is not good - we could lose as much as 50 percent of them in coming decades.

Last Stand (continued from Episode 1)
This week, Ford first paid a visit to Lone Dröscher Nielson, director of the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rescue Center, home to some 600 orphaned or homeless orangutans. Orangutans don't only lose their homes to deforestation; they're at risk if they enter plantations, seen as pests for eating shoots from the growing palm trees.

Afterwards, Ford's anticipated meeting with Indonesian Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan gets a bit testy. Hasan argues that Indonesia is still a new democracy, so "too much freedom" is to be expected while everyone adjusts. Ford presses him to agree to protect some of the peat forest we saw in Episode 1 ; the Minister chuckles a bit. "It's not funny," Ford glowers. "There are new roads, forests's devastating, heartbreaking. You saw it. You pledged resolution. What have you done?"

"Why does a Republican care [about climate change]? It's not about politics."

Their brief meeting last fall made headlines on Indonesian television and there were rumors Ford was to be deported - he wasn't. Deep tensions underlie transnational environmental politics around wealthy powers like the US asking for a higher standard of regulatory conduct in developing nations or (relatively) new democracies than it has itself always observed. Ford's interviews with Indonesian officials and businessmen reflect those tensions.

Hasan has since declared 50 percent of the peat forest would be protected from development and Wilmar, the largest palm oil manufacturer in the world, said it would no longer buy palm oil from recently deforested plantations. When Ford wraps up his story with a tour of Unilever's production facility in Sunnyvale, California, we get to see some American spin on the palm oil situation. Unilever announced plans to sustainably source all of its palm oil by 2015 after it was also continually "attacked" (in their rep's words) by Greenpeace activists wearing orangutan suits. So collective action continues to drive most reform in the trade, and I would have liked to hear more from those activists, particularly in Indonesia.

Voices from Episode 2 

  • "Why does a Republican care [about climate change]? It's not about politics." - Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • "Once you've seen them (the orangutans) sitting behind bars like this, it sort of brings the reality home." - Lone Dröscher Nielsen, wildlife conservationist
  • "Today's fires are so big and burn so hot that they burn through the soil; it can take up to 1,000 years for the trees to grow back." - Thomas Swetnam, tree scientist (and former Hotshot)
  • "All those dead trees are no longer going to be sequestering carbon. What they're going to be doing is releasing warms, the trees become stressed, the beetles do better, they kill a lot of trees, but then that releases more carbon, and that affects everybody." - Diana Six

Take Action and Learn More

On monitoring of Western US drought conditions: For US Water, ''Hotspots,'' Satellites, Monitoring and Obama

On climate change and drought: The Impact of Climate Change on Water Resources

On Palm Oil Action, from the Union of Concerned Scientists: Palm Oil infographic

From Years of Living Dangerously's Years Project: Take Action

To discuss the series on social media, join us in conversation with @YearsofLiving on Instagram, @YEARSofLiving on Twitter or @YearsofLiving on Facebook using #YEARSproject.

Check out our other Years of Living Dangerously recaps:


Episode 2, The End of the Woods

Episode 3, The Surge

Episode 4, Ice and Brimstone

Episode 5, True Colors

Episode 6, Winds of Change

Episode 7, Revolt, Rebuild, Renew

Episode 8, A Dangerous Future

Episode 9, Moving a Mountain