plant a tree and make a difference

Submitted by Green Lily on Wed, 2011-12-14 14:31

With COP17 and news stories of climate change bearing down on us, some of us may be feeling a little helpless of late. Some may be feeling as though they single-handedly want to solve the climate crisis. In this instance, it may be wise to remember the maxim: many hands make light work. One way in which we can all contribute to mitigating climate change and slowing biodiversity loss is by joining or establishing social groups to plant trees and other plants.

Some reports pin the average tree as absorbing 1 ton of carbon over it's 100 year lifespan, with most of that carbon being sequestered between the ages of 20 and 50 years. Planting now is essentially an investment in some serious carbon sequestration between 2030 and 2050 - and we are sure to be needing it even more desperately by then.

There is abundant space in our cities, towns and gardens where trees and shrubs could be growing. Along highway verges and in rural areas such as on farms, there exists space where plants could be capturing atmospheric carbon. In addition, there are important co-benefits such as provision of refuge for insects, birds, frogs and small mammals, protection of soils against soil erosion, absorbtion of air pollutants, and the recycling and retention of water.

If groups were to make tree planting a year-round social activity, based around a community, work or class group, it would likely be more sustainable than if it were something they tried to do on their own, occasionally, to assuage their guilt. If we were able to achieve a common goal working (and playing) together, co-operation being an innate part of us, we could reap the satisfaction of having planted whole hillsides together. If we harnessed our spirit for competition and comparison, we could perhaps be spurred to grow the most saplings to bring along to a planting day.

soon to grow: photo credit to Greenpop Facebook pagesoon to grow: photo credit to Greenpop Facebook pageThere are two approaches to the idea of social planting. One is to use beauty and size as criteria, the main aims being that trees are tastefully chosen and placed, and sequestering plenty of carbon. The other is to be cognisant of the natural ecosystem one is (ideally supposed to be) surrounded with.

Quelling the din
The former approach may suit the city, where your neighbours decided to pre-empt your best intentions by having planted exotics from all over the world, with the city council having followed suit (Jackarandas, anyone?). In that case, bigger may be better, as long as the trees poses no eventual threats to underground pipes, surrounding buildings, or phone/power lines. In the city, trees also help break up sound waves and absorb gaseous pollutants, thus combating noise and air pollution. There is also merit to local being defined as lekker, in the sense that indigenous trees and shrubs would attract more indigenous birds and insects, and equate with more birdsong to help quell the din of traffic.

City dwellers may immediately think of their space options as being quite limited. A cycle through random passages of any city will possibly make one realise just how much space sits idle and unused, where owners do not make full use of space and earth sits bare - especially evident in industrial areas and suburbs.

Some public and private properties are covered almost in their entirety by grass and rubble, waiting for better days. Here, arrangements can be made with municipalities and business and home property owners to plant up these areas. When decisions are ultimately made to sell or develop properties, land owners may come into some valuable timber. Where land is actively used but there still sits apparently unused earth, state actors and private land owners may actually appreciate a bit more greenery. In both scenarios, detective work and willingness to approach suit-and-tie strangers would pay off, groups usually have a charmer or two waiting in the wings. Another arrow in the quiver of persuasion may be to convince them they can add that to their green and social responsibility credentials.

Shrubbery terrorist cells
Where one encounters resistance or where bureaucracy/detective work is too arduous/time-consuming, one could always consider forming a shrubbery terrorist cell. For those unwilling to cross private property lines, street verges and rogue public patches of bare grass or dirt do not commonly have 'no planting' signs on them. The shrubbery terrorist can only hope their efforts are ultimately appreciated or at least unnoticed by the 'man'.

encouraging the ecosystem: photo credit to Greenpop Facebook pageencouraging the ecosystem: photo credit to Greenpop Facebook pageIn the city, one can only go so far in encouraging ecosystems. These types of social projects would be more successful if the aim of carbon mitigation and improving bird-life was supplemented by the aim of introducing psychological benefit and creating aesthetically pleasing spaces. Studies have revealed that urban landscaping reduces levels of crime and promotes a feeling of well-being, and show that youth surrounded by nature are more likely to be environmentally conscious in adulthood.

And even if urban opportunities for finding suitable space are limited or exhausted, or require too much effort, one can always identify and escape to areas outside of the city, in which case...

Mimicking ecosystems
The latter approach of mimicking ecosystems may suit a place more obviously a part of the natural ecosystem, in a town, peri-urban or rural setting. The social group would need to have some professionals or advanced amateur ecologists either willing to consult or as part of the group, to say what trees, shrubs, flowers and groundcover in what quantities are needed. They would envision what would grow there naturally, at what spacing and frequency and whether on North or South oriented slopes, to imitate what nature intended as far as is possible. This would be in an effort to make the new plant community as sustainable as possible, and thus mitigate carbon and act as habitat effectively.

Sustainable in this sense would mean, the progeny of the community in the form of seeds that could spread elsewhere, the trees would not be prone to disease or to falling over in strong winds (they are adapted to local conditions including amount of rainfall and soil type), and they would attract the fauna in the area, having co-evolved over aeons.

After learning more about the natural biome they inhabit, some social groups may experience some disappointment. Their biome may naturally be grassland or otherwise hold limited opportunities for tree-rearin', but grassland soils do hold a lot of carbon and are very biodiverse, so not all is lost. Others may discover that land underfoot was previously forest - much of the world once was - , in which case they may like or need to plant in stages, mimicking growth in stages. Away from the city, more can ultimately be done.

Groups restoring landscapes
It all starts out with seeds to which is added soil, sunshine and water, and it can evolve to a group activity of restoring landscapes to what they resemble in pristine nature. It sounds like fun - having meetings to create a blueprint and disperse seeds, creating a corner in your garden to grow seeds out of vermicompost in old tins, conducting scouting exercises and site visits, locating the targeted area using GPS, taking a hired bus there (bus party!), breaking from scattering seed and digging with a communal picnic. Phew! ...Returning yearly to examine the progress and to harvest fresh seed and to take photos to add to the group blog or facebook page, calculating how far back in time you can balance your carbon budget, thinking of all the animals that have homes since you arrived on the scene.

hand in hand to a greener tomorrow: photo credit to Greenpop Facebook pagehand in hand to a greener tomorrow: photo credit to Greenpop Facebook pageIf we are gregarious creatures and we desire to be part of a group, what better group activity than to be helping cool the planet and buffer biodiversity against extinction? As we leave our descendants the legacy of sky-reaching trees, we sow an idea that could catch on like wildfire.

One might even go further with the idea, and dream of software to create planting blueprints, a website where those interested could locate the group nearest to them, annual gatherings of regional groups. But wait, let's not get ahead of ourselves... anyone have any tin cans lying around?

For group plantings in Cape Town checkout Greenpop