Sustain6 BLOG

Can Trees Save Us?

By Steve Quirk

Trees, it turns out, might just save us. Trees have regularly taken center stage in creation and salvation myths (see: Tree of Life and Knowledge, Bodhi Tree, James Cameron’s Avatar Hometree – spoiler, sequels are coming) and for good reason: they provide food, shelter, warmth, clean air, shade, sanctuary and improved health (biophilia). And if that isn’t enough, it now looks like trees are emerging as a critical tool in addressing the climate crisis. Mark Benioff, the outspoken Salesforce founder, has been extolling the virtue of trees via his support (both personally and via Salesforce) for 1T.org, a reforestation initiative of the World Economic Forum with a goal to plant a whopping 1 trillion trees by the end of the current decade.
 
Professor Tom Crowther at the Swiss university ETH Zürich co-authored a recent study estimating that reforestation could remove 205 billion metric tons of C02, roughly two-thirds of the total CO2 put out by us humans. Crowther stated “I thought restoration would be in the top 10, but it is overwhelmingly more powerful than all of the other climate change solutions proposed.” While there are a lot of logistical concerns (planting 1 trillion trees requires an area equal to the United States and China combined), trees are inexpensive to plant, can be implemented globally and have numerous additional benefits including increased biodiversity, erosion reduction and recreation opportunities.
 
Currently, atmospheric CO2 stands at approximately 415 ppm, roughly 50% higher than the 280ppm that existed prior to mass industrialization. We have to go back about 5 million years to the Pliocene era to get to CO2 levels of 415 and in that 5-7 degree F warmer period (global average) there were forests in Antarctica and sea levels were 45-60 feet higher today due to ice sheet melting (note, Antarctica hit a balmy record 65 degrees F yesterday). CO2 persists in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and it is this constant warming blanket that has so many climate scientists concerned with not only transitioning from fossil fuels but also how to sequester (i.e capture or bury) excess CO2. While many sequestration theories have been suggested, none have proven remotely economical which is why trees and reforestation are getting a fresh look.
 
But sometimes facts and figures just aren’t enough to move people. “Reason never convinced anyone. Only a good story can do that,” says Adam Appich in The Overstory, the 2019 Pulitzer prize winning novel by Richard Powers. And a good and moving story is exactly what Powers has planted. Drawing upon a wide array of inspiration including E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth, Peter Wollheben’s The Hidden Life of Trees and the timber wars of the Pacific Northwest, the Overstory is, as Bill McKibben noted, “beyond special. Richard Powers manages to turn trees into vivid and engaging characters, something that indigenous people have done for eons but that modern literature has rarely if ever even attempted. It’s not just a completely absorbing, even overwhelming book; it’s a kind of breakthrough in the ways we think about and understand the world around us, at a moment when that is desperately needed.” In short, The Overstory is an utterly unique and compelling book that will change you and how you see trees: Here are some seeds:
 
“A great truth comes over him: Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible.”
 
“What we care for, we will grow to resemble. And what we resemble will hold us, when we are us no longer.”
 
“She could tell them about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, and scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it’s the stuff of poems. If forests were patentable, she’d get an ovation.”
 
“A tree is a passage between earth and sky.”
 
“Trees know when we are close by. The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes of their leaves pump out change when we’re near…when you feel good after a walk in the woods, it may be that certain species are bribing you”
 
“Life has a way of talking to the future. It’s called memory. It’s called genes.”
 
“You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes. . . .”
 
Though I can’t be certain, I’ll wager that Mark Benioff has read (or at least thought about reading) The Overstory. If novels aren’t your thing, you’re in luck because another good option is The Lorax, Dr. Suess’s most personal and favorite work. He urges: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
 
Despite our tendency for occasional recklessness and misadventure, human beings can be wildly creative and compassionate. Change is hard and takes time (just ask a tree), but change we must and a trail in the forest just might lead the way.
 
P.S.
 
1. The folks at Climate Interactive have a done a great job with their Climate Simulation tool to provide more insight into afforestation at https://vimeo.com/352783180. Their simple and easy to use tool can be found here: https://en-roads.climateinteractive.org/scenario.html?v=2.7.6
 
2. Some good additional information on reforestation activism can be found at: https://www.plant-for-the-planet.org/en/about-us/trees-are-amazing/baumweltkarte
 
3. Google Earth is also powering Global Forest Watch’s forest monitoring tool. Very slick and interactive.

Thanks for your interest in helping your employees or co-workers become more sustainable.