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To Tree or Not to Tree


Trees are important to the health of the earth. If we would imagine that each tree is part of a global air filter network, perhaps we would try harder to preserve trees and replant if we have to cut trees down. I think most people have known about the importance of trees for quite a while – you need to care enough about them to take action.


Benefits of Trees


The TreePeople.org site lists 22 benefits of trees (1). The most important benefit is their ability to take carbon dioxide gas out of the atmosphere, store it, and generate oxygen in return. Trees also combat land erosion and they provide shade to homes which helps reduce energy requirements for HVAC systems. The list of benefits goes on and on.


Trees are also fun for kids. When I was growing up in New York City in the 1950s and 60s, my neighborhood was pretty undeveloped. Although my family's yard was small, we had a couple of nice trees that were 50 ft or taller. I used to love to climb those trees and put up bird’s nests. The plot of land behind our house also had loads of trees that we used to play in. However, if you drove down my old block now, 60 years later, you wouldn't see any of those trees - they are all gone – replaced by houses with a 4x4 foot strip of grass in front. That’s New York City for you. Develop every single spot of land without thinking about the trees.


I also remember listening to New York Mets baseball games on the radio. Our beloved announcer, Bob Murphy, had a wonderful radio voice. I still remember his commercial announcement for the Datsun cars: “Drive a Datsun, plant a tree." I discovered that the TV commercial with that slogan featured Ansel Adams, a world-famous conservationist (2). I guess there weren't many Mets fans on Staten Island because I didn’t see anyone plant any more trees.


My point is that 60 years ago, companies knew the importance and benefits of trees to the environment and tried to incorporate environmental awareness into their marketing strategy. Today it’s commonplace to hear companies brag about how their products are environmentally friendly, but that was a long time coming.


The Lungs of the Earth


Our planet is a living, breathing organism. The planet inhales everything from the atmosphere and exhales everything to the atmosphere in hopefully a cleaner state. When the planet inhales the atmosphere, it breathes it into the lungs of the planet, which are composed of our trees, in combination with the soil, water, the effects of rain, and the most important contributor, phytoplankton.


Phytoplankton are one-celled plants that live on the surfaces of our oceans, streams, and other water bodies. While it’s difficult to calculate their exact oxygen output, studies estimate that 50 to 80 percent of the oxygen that is put back into our atmosphere comes from phytoplankton (3). In addition to our trees, we should also be extremely concerned about the health of phytoplankton, which is also under stress from climate change and rising ocean temperatures (4).


Defend Our Lungs


A real issue facing our planet today is deforestation – the removal of trees to develop the land for another purpose. The part of our planet that gets the most attention for deforestation is the Amazon in South America. Brazil in particular has faced global condemnation for not doing enough to preserve the Amazon (5).


Some scientists argue that the Amazon is not really the lungs of the earth and that its loss would not have that strong of a negative impact on the global climate (6). Whatever side of that argument that you side with, it is clear that tropical forests are highly cost-effective at controlling climate change. According to the World Resources Institute, “forests are capable of providing 23 percent of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed before 2030 to help keep our planet from excessive warming (7). While we can argue over the degrees of importance, trees are a key component in our battle against climate change.


Start at the Micro-Level


Like all things climatological, you start at the micro-scale and zoom out to the macro-scale to you get the complete picture. For example, my town Acton has earned the official Tree City USA designation (8). To qualify, a town must have four items (9):

  • A tree board or department

  • A tree care ordinance

  • A community forest program with a budget of at least USD2 per capita

  • An Arbor Day observance

But what good would being a Tree City USA do if my town was surrounded by other towns spewing greenhouse gases into the environment? If at the micro-level, we could all do a little more toward greening the planet, the holistic macro impact of all those micro-events would make a truly positive difference in the health of our planet. Micro-level positive tree actions need to combine with neighboring areas to start making a positive difference.


It’s Up to Us


When I studied landscape architecture at Utah State University in the 1990s, we did a lot of planning and design work. Part of every single plan was a planting plan to add thoughtful green space to the property being developed. If we had landscape architects to plan and design every land parcel being developed on the planet, I am confident that we would have a healthier planet. However, in real-world development, that probably is not going to happen.


At the micro-level, it’s up to us to take small actions. Why not take an hour a week and walk your neighborhood to clean up some trash? Or if you have any plot of land, plant some plants or, if space permits, a tree. Call your town office and ask if they have a plan to become a Tree City USA? You could even attend meetings at a local environmental group if you have one in your local area. Every micro-level action is a small step leading toward bigger steps. Imagine how Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist, must have felt when she started her journey. But see all the people and movements she has inspired (10).

It’s up to us – our future generations and our planet are counting on us! Let’s start adding positive micro-level actions that will help our planet heal! Let’s start today.


References


(1) Tree benefits. https://www.treepeople.org/tree-benefits

(2) Ansel Adams Datsun. https://japanesenostalgiccar.com/ansel-adams-and-datsun/

(3) Phytoplankton 1. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/6/source-of-half-earth-s-oxygen-gets-little-credit/#

(4) Phytoplankton 2. https://earthsky.org/earth/how-much-do-oceans-add-to-worlds-oxygen

(5) Deforestation Brazil. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/09/brazil-faces-renewed-pressure-protect-amazon-rainforest-200905183005097.html

(6) Amazon not lungs. https://thebulwark.com/the-problem-isnt-the-lungs-of-the-earth-its-the-brains-of-the-earth/

(7) Tropical forests. WRI. https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/10/numbers-value-tropical-forests-climate-change-equation

(8) Acton Tree City. https://patch.com/massachusetts/acton/acton-officially-tree-city

(9) Qualify Tree City. https://www.arborday.org/programs/treecityusa/standards.cfm

(10) Greta Thunberg. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/05/greta-thunberg-says-venice-documentary-shows-her-real-self




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