In my intro trade theory class in graduate school, I was introduced to the concept of autarky, a condition of economic self-sufficiency where a country produces everything within its borders. The argument against autarky is that it is inefficient and reduces everyone’s consumption, with the underlying assumption that the more we consume, the happier we will be.

Now, since a tree can’t move, it can’t pop out to the grocery store for a bag of sugar when it runs out, much less put in an order to Brazil for the same. It’s gotta figure out substitutions! (I am exactly this kind of cook, but for reasons of laziness more than anything.)

Dipterocarps, but really all plants, are mad scientists. Leave aside food (remember photosynthesis?), they cook up all sorts of inventions in their internal chemistry labs. You name it, they make it.

Weapons? Theirs is the original biological weapon. For example, dipterocarps purposefully make their leaves excessively tannic so that predators won’t eat them.

Communication technology? In mast flowering, one dipterocarp lets another know about its flowering plans by emitting certain chemicals.

Medicines? Have you seen what happens when you cut a branch off a tree? An oozy substance flows to that spot and hardens over it to protect the wound. This is resin, an invaluable ingredient in medicines used by humans in traditional communities.

Because of the ideological slant of my alma mater, I graduated with the dogma “autarky is bad, trade is good” drilled firmly into my head. But as catastrophic climate change goes from possibility to reality, I’ve started to wonder, if trees can do just fine consuming only what they produce, would it really be so bad if we humans, with all our ingenuity, made more of an effort to do the same?