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Why Do We Plant Trees?

Updated on February 26, 2013

Why Must we plant trees?

It is a concept that has been beaten into our heads, especially if one belongs to any one faction of the Environmental Movement. Planting a tree, they say, will offset carbon emissions and restore balance to our planets fractured ecosystems. A single tree can absorb up to one ton of carbon dioxide during its lifetime. In fact, trees are veritable "carbon sinks," meaning that they absorb many of the greenhouse gasses that permeate our Earth's atmosphere. Global Warming, the argument goes, can be stopped if we do our part, and plant a few trees.

To be sure, there are many benefits to planting trees, in an urban setting. Planted in the right way, a tree can act as a cooling device in the hot summer, by providing shade. Trees can lower the sum of a city's Air-Conditioning costs by up to 50 percent, and a tree planted next to a window can block much heat from the summer sun, which allows businesses to cut back on electricity from Air-Conditioning. And in the winter, trees can actually act as a heating device. Trees are natural windbreakers, and in winter they can help break up cold air. Trees remove excess dust from the air and, in the case of a flash flood, trees can break up the flow of water.

These are good reasons to plant trees, as long as you plant them in cities.

It is quite possible that you have also seen advertising that promotes planting trees in rural areas as well. If so, don't fall into the same delusions that they harbor. Tree planting programs actually cause more harm to the environment than they help it.

The Harmful Effects of Tree Planting Programs

There are three major harmful effects of tree planting. The first of these is the simple monotony of certain tree plantations. Pine trees and Eucalyptus trees are two popular brands of plantation trees, and they fit into the description of monoculture plantations. Such trees have been observed to suck water out of the ground at such a rate that they end up decreasing the flow of nearby streams. Plantation soil is more salty than average, because monoculture tree plantations absorb more calcium, magnesium, and potassium, while enriching sodium in the soil. But monoculture trees also have only limited biodiversity, and, in the event that they are planted to compensate for destroyed forest, such trees will not support the same diversity of life as did the forest they were intended to replace.

There is a second reason not to plant trees over-abundantly. Governments and activists have called, for years, to up the ante on planting trees, because, they say, this will reduce the effects of global warming. These forests, carbon sinks in and of themselves, would have a cooling effect on the planet. But this line of reasoning comes into conflict with the 1999 report issued by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) which stated that such carbon sinks are only a temporary measure, at best. At worst, forests release carbon back into the atmosphere after a few years, most particularly when trees die. This can actually result in increased global warming. And at any rate, when planting trees presents only a temporary fix to the problem of global warming, why would any sane organization call to double up on the practice?

There is a yet more harmful effect caused by tree planting programs initiated by governments; exploitation. Japan is a prime example of this. Japan has had perhaps the most successful tree planting programs of any country in the world. 66 percent of Japanese land is blanketed by forest, making Japan the most heavily forested nation on Earth. The country's self sufficiency in timber fell from 86.7 percent in 1960, to 19.2 percent in 1999. Yet Japan is the world's largest importer of wood, paper and other products traded on world markets. Its environmental footprint is found in many countries around the world, including the United States and Canada. Japan has indirectly contributed to deforestation in the tropics, as a means to fulfill their demand for timber without clearing their own forests. Nor is Japan the only country to do this. The Scandinavian countries have also done their part, as has the United States. The result of this exploitation has been that deforestation in developing countries is not only increased, but passively encouraged.

Cattle ranching takes up the majority of deforestation in the Amazon, but logging accounts for a fair amount as well.
Cattle ranching takes up the majority of deforestation in the Amazon, but logging accounts for a fair amount as well.

Tree Planting Is Delusional

Although efforts to replace deforested land are generally well intended, they fall into the same sort of wrongheaded thinking that got humankind in the precarious ecological situation that it finds itself in the first place. The reasoning was always that, somehow, man could control nature, and influence it, to fit into his plans and his designs. This sort of outlook, to me, is the height of arrogance. Human beings are not a separate entity from nature. No one is truly sheltered from the natural world, because human beings are made of the same stuff that comprises all of nature. Human beings are a part of nature.

In many ways, it seems, humans are a part of nature gone wrong. But no matter. The Earth takes care of itself quite well enough without human help; it did perfectly well on its own before humans arrived on the scene, and would do perfectly well without us. Human actions, by contributing to global warming and heating up the atmosphere, have simply increased the likelihood that the Earth will take care of us, though not in a good way. By heating the atmosphere, we increase the likelihood of forcing the planet to respond in ways that are detrimental to us, as in its changing weather patterns, rising sea levels, more intense heat waves and more severe droughts.

We thought, at one time, that we could dominate nature. The paragraph above depicts the results of that thinking. Now we speak of massive tree planting projects, and many in the Environmental Movement hope to one day replace many thousands of acres of deforested land with replanted trees, that may or may not be native to the surrounding environment. Already, we can see the results of tree planting projects in exploitation of developing, tropical countries. Nations like Brazil have an incentive to cut down large areas of the Amazon Rain Forest to export to developed nations. And monoculture plantations cannot support the same diversity of life that natural forests can.

Looking at this evidence, wouldn't it be a good idea to look at other ways of combating climate change? Here is an alternative to replacing a jungle in the tropics with an oak in Manhattan...

Just Let Nature Do All The Hard Work

So what is the best alternative to planting trees? Simple, really. Just let nature do all of the hard work. Many of the great environmental leaders, such as James Lovelock, have bought tracts of land, and then left that land undeveloped. They dispensed with any notions of planting trees in the first place. Why? Because, in order to create a truly lush, vibrant forest ecosystem, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up.

This means letting the weeds grow. And grow. And grow, ad infinitum. Weeds don't grow forever, of course, but they do die, and decompose, and fertilize the soil. After the weeds, come the shrubs. Let them grow, too. They will eventually die and decompose. Repeat this process enough times, and soon enough, the first trees settle in. These will be pines. Let them grow as tall and as cluttered as you see them. Eventually, they, too will die off, to be replaced by deciduous trees, the hardwood trees, the oaks, elms, ashes and sycamores. And many other varieties of tree. Along the way, this forest will nurture an ecosystem that could never be sustained by a colony of plantation pines.

That is what happens when you just let nature do all of the hard work.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it must be said that planting a tree is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Trees do live up to the faith put into them, especially when they are planted in the right ways. Adding more trees in major cities is a fine idea, and hopefully will be accomplished in a timely manner. But the Environmental Movement, and Governments around the world, have been irresponsible in their own tree planting programs. They are caught up in the same sort of wishful thinking that encouraged humans to deforest land in the first place, only in reverse.

In regards to climate change, I am afraid that all we can do is mitigate to it, to adjust our societies as needed. It is too late to reverse the trend. As we allow nature to work at its own pace to reestablish its damaged ecosystems, we must change our ways, in preparation for the climate change to come.

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