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Is planting a tree really helpful?

Written by Science

It is a common practice among environmental advocates to promote planting trees to help the environment. However, given the enormity of environmental destruction, is planting one tree, or even a few hundred trees, really helpful?

In order to understand why planting a tree may not make a difference, it is important to look at the statistics. According to a 2015 Nature study, 15.3 billion trees are cut down every year, out of the approximately 3.04 trillion trees in the world. In 2016, Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that 7 million hectares of forest are lost each year, which led to an estimation of 3.5 billion to 7 billion trees cut down each year. Regardless of the exact number of trees or hectares cut down, reality suggests that the solution to deforestation is not to plant more trees, but to create a sustainable plan to preserve existing forests.

A large number of factors contribute to forest destruction, including but not limited to agriculture, timber harvesting, construction of roads and pipelines, mining, and drilling for oil. These activities are initiated by large corporations such as BP and Shell, rather than by individuals. The key to preventing deforestation is limiting the impact that corporate action has on the environment through social and legal action to preserve the environment on a massive scale. Of course, change this massive requires a shift in society’s values to prioritize environmental preservation over business profit and urban development. It also requires a reframing of environmental destruction as a human rights issue, as the people most impacted by environmental destruction are often Indigenous, BAME, and working-class people who already have their rights frequently disrespected, particularly land rights. This reframing also frames the environment as a place where people live that is to be preserved and not a raw resource to be infinitely exploited.

Here are some actions more effective than planting trees:

  • Research smaller, more active organizations rather than large charities. Large charities often spend more money on advertising and outreach than on environmental preservation. However, there are many smaller groups in existence, often led and run by people from marginalized groups such as Indigenous and BAME people, who are doing effective, proactive work to protect their land and rights. These groups often have websites where you can learn about their work, donate money, and sign petitions. The Indigenous Environmental Network is one example: https://www.ienearth.org/
  • Support small businesses. There are plenty of small businesses and creators that utilize sustainable practices and don’t contribute to large-scale deforestation. Nowadays you can purchase recycled furniture, locally-grown produce, and sustainably-made clothing, both in your local area and from online retailers. Buying local also helps to support your local economy, which is helpful to producing a sustainable society.
  • Educate young people about the environment. If we want our society to value the environment, we need to teach children its importance from a young age. There are plenty of websites, organizations, camps, and programs that seek to teach children about ecology, the history of the land, and their place in the world. When young people learn about the value of the ecosystem, resources such as air and water, and sustainable practices, they are inclined to protect those things for future generations. Learning about human rights and the different ways that people interact with their environment also helps them to learn empathy for others and become active citizens.

This is not to say that planting trees has a negative impact. Planting a tree is an excellent idea to add beauty to a school or public place, provide a learning experience for young children, or even improve air quality in an indoor setting if a small tree is safely placed in a container. However, it is neither the only, nor most effective, thing an average person can do for the environment.

Last modified: 23rd March 2020

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