Just Go Plant A Tree

Tree planting programmes are immensely popular public gestures of environmental responsibility. It seems like every other package I buy touts the efforts of the company to plant trees in some vague, unspecified location. Reforestation programs are all the rage as are using planted forests as carbon offsets; consume all you like, just remember to plant a tree at the end.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Trees are excellent things. They do contribute to carbon sequestration, which is a good thing. They help to prevent topsoil loss and stabilize temperatures. In cities, this can be especially critical, as large amounts of paving and roofs can tend to radiate heat and cause temperatures to rise by several degrees more than they really ought to. Trees create habitat for animals, which is excellent, and they look pretty. They can even act as air purifiers; they are good at pulling out compounds and giving up some oxygen in return, although marine organisms are actually responsible for the bulk of fresh oxygen production (which is another argument for caring about ocean health, incidentally, because environmental changes in the world’s oceans could pose a threat to these organisms). I like trees, ok?

But I do not necessarily think that planting them is a good, or appropriate fix, to some environmental issues. It can certainly be beneficial, but it doesn’t get at some of the fundamental underlying issues; rather than planting trees, I would like to see companies using less resources to start with. I’d like to see more a focus on cutting down packaging, using more recycled materials. I would like to see people turning away from a consumption-based lifestyle and towards one where they use less and create a smaller footprint in the process. Planting trees is a nice smokescreen to sidestep the fundamental issue here, which is that resource use is happening at a disparate and alarming rate. The developing world uses huge amounts of resources and we cannot actually fix this problem by planting some trees.

Here’s a thing, about trees: They are actually rather finicky. When I was a wee child, every year we got to go on the tour of the Georgia Pacific mill, and it always ended at the mill’s tree nursery. Every student got a little baby tree to take home and plant. None of those trees survived, not even if we followed the directions printed on the little card. Because the trees didn’t get the support they needed to thrive, not least because most of them were going into a garden in isolation, not growing in a woodland environment. Reforestation programs have to use a lot of resources to prepare seedlings for transplant and not all those seedlings survive. More survive than if the companies were using a third grade class as their forestry crew, but, still. The point is that you cannot just plop a tree in the ground and then walk away.

Trees are also not necessarily suited to the environment where they are planted. Initiatives that involve non-native species are a problem. Organizations may promote a particular tree species because it is hardy or grows fast or can be useful when it matures. But, if it’s not native, it may use a lot of resources in the course of growing. And it may choke out native species. Look at the spread of eucalyptus, an Australian native, in California. There are vast groves of eucalyptus across the state, all the result of introduction of trees in this genus at some point in the past. Yes, they are pretty and they smell nice and they make great firewood, but they are not native plants, and the whole ecosystem is disrupted by their presence. We can’t go back, at this point. They are well established and they like it here. No wonder, its a temperate climate and the native plants can’t really compete because they haven’t adapted to do so.

And while a single tree can provide environmental benefits, it’s not very helpful if this happens in a vacuum. Great stretches of uninterrupted forest are what we need, and they are not what we are getting. Tree plantations work best when there’s lots of room for an actual habitat and ecosystem to develop. Just tossing a few trees in your yard is really not going to cut the mustard. Nor is contributing to a plantation isolated in the middle of a city, or in an agricultural plantation. The surrounding environment and the trees will interact with each other, and not necessarily in a friendly way. Some trees are better than no trees, of course.

Simply throwing money, or trees, at a problem is not enough when you don’t get to the roots of the problem and explore why it happens in the first place. Yes, tree planting initiatives can be a good thing, and I am certainly not advocating that we leave clearcut hillsides bare to seep their topsoil into the watershed and turn into barren wastelands. There is absolutely a time and a place for tree planting. And that time and place should be less reactive and retroactive and more proactive. Less assuaging guilt for using resources, and more protecting the environment and promoting environmental health.

Some problems require hard and unpleasant solutions. Like using fewer resources. There is no way around the fact that the best way to contribute, environmentally, is to use less if you are in a region of the world with very high resource usage levels. Recycling is great, planting trees is great, but fundamentally, you are still using resources at a rate faster than they can be replaced, and there’s no fluffy pine-scented bandaid you can use to cover that up.