The origins of debates about sustainability relate to trees. They go back to 1662, when John Evelyn from Deptford planted trees and wrote the Sylva treatise in concern about wood shortages. This is an updated ‘treetise’ for the extraordinary problems of the 21st century, to explain how fundamental trees are to life.
1. The future of life on the planet depends on trees
The wellbeing of humans and all other living species depends on enough land being covered in plants (and ocean filled with phytoplankton) to act as carbon sinks. We breathe the air that trees breathe out. We are currently deforesting at the rate of 86400 acres a day, combined with pumping out 9 billion tons of carbon a year. The oceans are also losing greenery and become acidified. The climate disruption resulting from this imbalance is further attacking trees, with drought an underlying weakening factor, and more extreme fires, floods, winds and diseases than ever before. Scientists think that forests are on the cusp of being unable to store carbon. Also, the impacts of climate change can be mitigated by forests because they protect against soil erosion in floods and storms, and help resist drought.
- We have to learn how to measure biomass and its capacity to store carbon.
- We have to stop deforestation for food, wood, biofuel and mining (and promote forest farms, wood coppicing and renewable energies)
2. The continued existence of millions of species depends on trees
Over 80% of Earth’s species depend upon forests for food, water, disease protection/medicine, shelter and interactions with other species. The biggest factor in the extinction of biodiverse species is habitat destruction, especially deforestation. The rate of extinction in the past century has been 1000 times higher than the background rate and in the coming century this will climb to 10,000 times. Over a million species will be lost in the next 50 years.
- we have to conserve old growth forest
- restore diverse forests, to enable biodiverse life to thrive.
3. The continuity of many human cultures depends on trees
Millions of indigenous people live in tropical forests in 70 countries. These types of forest, in fertile land, are the most threatened by landgrabbing and deforestation. Over 1 billion people depend entirely on forest environments for their livelihoods, including fresh water (enabled by the sponge-effect of trees) and a whole range of trades, crafts, medicines, clothing and shelter materials as well as food. When whole cultures are moved from their traditional lands, they disperse to towns, get drawn into conflicts or forced to survive through hard labour, then lose their health, languages and traditional knowledge.
- we have to raise awareness of the importance of human cultural diversity and value traditional knowledge which helps protect the forests while using them.
- protect forest habitats of indigenous people
4. The future thriving of many countries or regions depends on trees
Countries and communities hit by conflict and rising food prices, such as in Egypt, Syria or Somalia will be able to thrive if trees are at the forefront of recovery. This has been proven by permaculture Food Forests in places such as Malawi, Zambia and Costa Rica, where people are well fed and self-sufficient.
- we have to promote the idea, and model the reality, of trees as infrastructure for food, jobs and growth
5. Some industries depend on diversity of trees
Forestry businesses are more successful long term when they operate in sustainable ways, not by clear felling old growth forest. There are many businesses that can only thrive when forests are diverse, providing a variety of different materials and with diverse species maintaining the health of the environment.
- we must learn about and support products from sustainable practices of agriculture and forestry
6. Trees depend on other trees
Trees thrive when they are in large communities, with mixed species that are suited to their climate and place. They thrive when they are connected beneath the soil by fungus, which communicates and distributes resources according to need.
- we must learn more about what trees need to thrive
- plant more woodlands and forests, and maintain them for their own sake as well as for all of life.
7. Human health benefits from trees
Trees improve air quality, by absorbing airborne pollutants (e.g. from car or airplane fuel) which exacerbate asthma and lung disease. Trees have a cooling effect (by releasing moisture from leaves and providing shade) so they reduce illness and death from overheating. Woods are great places for exercise, they reduce stress and increase recovery times from illness. Being in woods has beneficial effects on young people with ADHD. Also, research is showing positive results for ‘forest bathing’, or the use of phytoncides in reducing cancers.
What can you do?
To enable thriving with trees, we can do four things with our places: Leave wilderness to be; rewild land by nurturing its diversity; build and design with trees; imitate them.
As most politicians and engineers won’t work with trees in these ways, it falls to artists, designers and ecologists to demonstrate the possibilities and vitality of this work.
If you’re not in this position you can still support a tree organisation. See a list here (and make suggestions)
You can learn more: For more about the stresses of climate change and diseases on UK woodlands, go here. For a new strategy for broadleaf trees in UK see here. For a clear list of why forests matter go here.
Do whatever you can to protect trees, for example, to ensure that house building or new roads don’t destroy our woodlands. Don’t consume products, such as palm oil, that destroy forests.