Rainforest Cafe/Landry's Restaurants

When I think back on the post-Pogs, pre-Pokémon mid-'90s, three words come to mind: save the rainforests. I'm not sure how helpful my tree frog tees and shoebox dioramas were in achieving that goal, but the idea that it was up to me and my classmates to rescue those delicate ecosystems was hugely impressed upon our young, impressionable minds.

Spoiler alert: We haven't saved the rainforests yet, so what happened? Is "saving the rainforests" simply not a thing anymore? A quick scan of Google's Ngramm Viewer, which tracks word usage in published texts, finds a "rainforest" peak in 1999.

Meanwhile, the two-word variant "rain forest" peaked a few years earlier in 1996.

A deeper dive into the New York Times' archives reveals a more complex picture. While there's an observable dip in the number of times the words "rain forest" and "rainforest" are mentioned after 1998, that number returns to meet its '90s peak by 2007, even surpassing it in 2008.

There's also the outrageously high number of mentions in 2014 to contend with, although, after reviewing the archives from that year, I believe that count has more to do with World Cup coverage than anything else.


The major takeaway from the NYT's archives is that the rainforests have never left our national discourse–it's what we say about them and how we say it that has changed.

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Before the '80s, rainforests were spoken of as a site of biological curiosity like the Marianas Trench, one where scientists were always discovering new things. Aside from this letter to the editor from 1950 that urges readers to take the planet's vulnerable biodiversity more seriously, rainforests are usually only invoked as metaphor or in reference to a dance piece by Merce Cunningham that was apparently all the rage back then.


The early to mid-'80s saw a major shift in tone. With the "blossoming" of ecological activism, coverage of the rainforests became linked with environmental concerns. In eight years, the Times went from profiling an industrialist developing on "virgin" Amazon land to the extremely sensationalistic "Rape of the Rain Forest."

Enter Rainforest Crunch.

Ben & Jerry's Homemade Holdings, Inc./Unilever NV

Ben & Jerry's capitalized on the nation's growing concern for the environment by releasing candy treat-turned-ice cream flavor made with Brazil nuts from the Amazon rainforest, with 40% of the profits going to various rainforest-oriented charities.

Other industries followed suit: film, music, fashion, publishing, tourism, and even home goods. Corporations wanted consumers to positively associate their products with pro-environmentalist politics, no matter how apolitically these brands behaved with their own capital, and "point-of-purchase politics" was born.

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By the mid-'90s, the rainforests were a liberal-stereotype punchline (Al Gore's pick as Clinton's VP was described as "a bow to the Rainforest Crunch Bunch"). Elsewhere, a theme restaurant. Elsewhere, an actual set of ecosystems that was still being heavily deforested by illegal logging operations and whose destruction was now linked to global warming. Elsewhere, a fashion charity event.


So. Many. Charity. Events. If a rich person was at an event in the '90s, you can bet it benefitted the Rainforest Action Network or something.

Anyway, the bloat of our collective rainforest mania took its toll in the late '90s and early '00s. Ben & Jerry's ceased production on Rainforest Crunch after they revealed that they had to outsource most of the product's Brazil nuts from Peru to meet demand. Nobody was hitting up the Rainforest Cafe anymore, and, at least according to one 2000 op-ed, "public concern [for the rainforests] hovers near zero."

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Since Y2K, rainforests have frequently found a way into the Times' various health stories about a new fad diet, like raw foods and the rise of "organic," like it's some kind of environmental shorthand. Deforestation remains a frequent topic of coverage, but there's not the same sense of urgency found in articles two or three decades prior.


I guess we haven't stopped talking about saving the rainforests–we've just stopped talking about it like it's a possibility. Maybe you had to be eight-years-old to think it would be as simple as knowing the difference between the canopy and the understory layer.

Bad at filling out bios seeks same.