This piece of writing began life as a talk for Extinction Rebellion Scotland's Festival of Climate Reality in Edinburgh as part of the April uprising, and was one of a series of talks given in the Solutions Zone. Inspired by the research for this, it then developed into a talk and workshop which formed part of my exhibition Trees vs Capitalism, at Woodlands Community Workspace, in Glasgow in August this year.
Climate Saving the trees we have and planting many more of them is critical for halting and reversing the climate and extinction crisis we face. Trees literally make the air we breathe. They breathe out the oxygen we breathe in and breathe in the carbon dioxide which we breathe out. They also breathe in the increasingly toxic levels of industrially produced carbon which we are pouring into the atmosphere, thereby by detoxifying the mess we have made. If we plant enough of them, they can help save us. But trees and forests can also teach us about how we organise ourselves politically to stop capitalism driving us ever further into climate breakdown and mass extinctions.
Capitalism colours not only how we relate to one another but also how we relate to nature. Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees started out as a commercial forester. He comments that, “When I began my professional career as a forester I knew about as much about the hidden lives of trees and butcher knows about the emotional lives of animals… Because it was my job to assess their market value, my appreciation of trees was restricted to this narrow point of view.” What did this mean for how he managed forests? He explains how, in order to encourage vigorous growth in the trees to be harvested, standard practice was to cut back the surrounding understory, the competing young trees, every five years.
Now the rationale for this looks straightforward. Trees grow, build new wood, through photosynthesis, chemically combining elements of air (carbon), sunlight, water and minerals to produce new growth. So, in order to maximise growth, it was assumed that removing the young competitors provided the commercially planted trees with better access to water, soil nutrients and greater sunlight, giving them space to spread and grow.
But is this how nature really works? Is nature really, as we have been taught, red in tooth and claw? Or is it simply a view which we imposed on nature through our own ideologically coloured lenses? Do we see it that way because that is how we think it ought to be?
And if we think about it this description, it can sound remarkably like how we, as humans, are supposed to relate within the capitalist economy ...We are all schooled in the idea that, for us to succeed as individuals, just like trees, we need to compete with others to get access to limited resources. We need to compete to get a good job in the competitive labour market. We need to maximise our income to get a foot onto the competitive housing market, or rent in an area where we feel safe or even just to get us out of debt slavery, put food on the table and pay our bills.
But if we actually pay attention to what is happening within forests, without the ideology of capitalism colouring our understanding, it turns out that all sorts of inspiring and complex things are going on. In fact, we discover a world which in many ways has more in common with the world as many of our ancestors understood it - and a number of cultures still do. A world in which humans and the rest of nature are interdependent, a world understood as sentient, deserving of respect and honour, in which nature and in particular trees, have much to teach us.
We can probably never understand how people in the ancient past understood the world around them. But the evidence we have points to view which saw all of nature: plants, animals and birds, rivers, wells, trees, valleys, mountains - the earth itself as ensouled, with all linked together in a complex web of reciprocal relationships.
And scientific discoveries over the last few decades have shown that these relationships are far more complex, creative and cooperative than we ever imagined. In the early 1990s Dr. Suzanne Simmard, Professor of Forest Ecology, made the remarkable discovery. She noticed that whenever the young paper birches, which were growing amongst Douglas fir plantations, were felled, the Douglas fir appeared to suffer. So she set out to discover why. Using microscopic and genetic tools she found that the huge underground network of mycorrhizal fungi which link trees together was acting as a vast, cooperative, internet. She discovered that when the firs were young, the birches supported them, feeding them carbon via this underground network “like carers in human social networks”. The firs also helped the birches, when they needed support, “each (tree) took different turns as “mother” depending on the season”. When her work was published in 1997 her discovery was dubbed the “wood wide web”.
Since then scientific discovery has continued apace with enormous numbers of new studies about how and why tees communicate via the “wood wide web”. Peter Wohlleben discusses several in his book, including a study of undisturbed beech trees in Germany.
In a forest not all trees have equal access to the resources to photosynthesise equally. Some grow in poor, stony soil lacking in nutrients, others in dry areas with inadequate water, others in deep shade with little sunlight. So, by all accounts, this should mean that they are all going to be photosynthesising and growing, at very different rates.
But In this study of the beech forest, when scientists analysed the rate of photosynthesis going on in the same leaf area, it was the same for every tree, despite their very different circumstances. But how could this be when they didn’t have the same access to resources? What they found was that the trees were redistributing resources via the wood wide web. Those trees who had plenty of light, water and nutrients were giving their excess resources via the underground web to those who were less well provided for. It was like a ecological social security system, a sort of citizens income for trees - none of them had to prove they were making sufficient efforts to grow as well as they could! The trees shared resources amongst each other so that they all ended up with equal amounts and were able to grow into the best they could be, given their circumstances.
Researchers also found that trees crowded together were healthier and stronger that those managed using the usual forestry practices. Trees which did not have strong connections with their surrounding neighbours grew less strongly and were prone to illness and instability in the long run.
Creating gaps in the canopy can also disrupt the internal climate of the forest. Together trees create a microclimate, they moderate extremes of heat and cold which help maintain humidity, good soil quality and water, collectively maintaining an environment in which all can thrive.
The same applies to us – if we allow a few individuals can amass great wealth whilst the majority struggle with insecurity, this diminishes the fabric of society as a whole. Like trees in ideal conditions, some people are born with a proverbial silver spoon in their mouth, they have access to the best education, good diets, clean air, and inherit sufficient to start out, without a life of debt slavery. Others are born into poverty, live in poor housing or a polluted environments and struggle to find sufficient to pay for even basics like food and a roof over their head.
But unlike the trees our network of reciprocal support is failing. And, because we no longer provide an adequate financial safely net for those who are need it, even those who have sufficient to meet their material needs often feel fearful of falling between the cracks. As a result, our sense a sense of community is worn down and loneliness and isolation proliferate. Antisocial attitudes and behaviour, born of a lack of compassion and empathy, are more readily tolerated and even encouraged (think of attitudes in certain media and elsewhere towards asylum seekers and refugees or people living in poverty, for example). Paradoxically, this makes us all the more susceptible to lure of mass consumption. Those who have the means to do so, can try to fill the void left by lack of community with aptly named “retail therapy”, no matter how transient and destructive to ourselves and our planet. Which of course, suits capitalism just fine.
The result is that collectively we fail to focus on the real challenges and solutions. We are made to feel personally responsible for climate breakdown and mass extinctions as though our individual choices can save the world. Of course, choices like the food we eat, the clothes we buy or the type of transport we use matter enormously, but on their own they are not enough (and of course for people living in poverty these choices are simply not available in any case). This focus on individual behaviour suits capitalism just fine too. It serves to obscure the fact that the impact of most people’s individual behaviour (I’m not talking about super rich individuals here) is small compared to the impact of the corporate sector. And when we look to many countries in the Global South the contribution of individuals’ actions there towards climate breakdown is minute compared to the impact of both corporations and individuals who live in industrialised counties like Scotland.
The truth is that in order to stop capitalism driving us off the cliff of climate and extinction disaster, we must take collective action to reign in the corporate sector and we must to do it quickly. And, we have to begin to understand that the alternative to disaster capitalism, is not some miserable, low tech, austerity imposed by some “nanny state” as some of the tabloids would have us believe. Rather, taking inspiration from the trees, it is a society where how we relate to each other and how we organise politically is no longer based on fear, insecurity and competition. Instead it is a society which is compassionate and caring, where the resources of this earth are shared in justice amongst us, and all the beings of the planet.
I am an artist, activist and author. My artwork is often inspired by, or forms part of activism I am involved in. Recently, I have been talking about the links between environmental and social justice, to call attention the ecological and political crisis we face and talk about some solutions to it.