Tackling Large Problems

Large problems can be daunting, and even once they are fully comprehended, the scope of required action filtered through the imagination may sustain inaction. Sometimes there is a certain comfort in apathy; we do not desire to commit ourselves emotionally to an uncertain outcome. Nor does the ego enjoy feelings of helplessness where one’s activity appears to be ineffectual or inconsequential. There are often easier thoughts to attend and the mind has a fickle nature.Tidal Wave

The way we live on this planet and feed off its resources is unsustainable. This is a large problem. But let us not stand in a stupor, after all, to quote system’s theorist Ervin László, “Today’s economic, social and technological environment is our own creation, and only the creativity of our mind – our culture, spirit and consciousness – could enable us to cope with it. Genuine creativity does not remain paralyzed when faced with unusual and unexpected problems but confronts them openly, without prejudice. Cultivating it is a precondition of finding our way toward a globally interconnected society in which individuals, enterprises, states, and the whole family of peoples and nations could live together peacefully, cooperatively, and with mutual benefit.”

We are connected with the state of

We are connected to the state of the planet – let us not remain paralyzed

To put it simply, what we see about us we created, and we have it within us to create something different. This cognition will take some existential responsibility, but it is only in working together that significantly different creations can occur. This does not deny individual rebellious action against the status quo, but leadership is needed and especially leadership that can harness the imagination of many.ficus

To return to the root is often necessary in clarifying problems. This I see as our relationship with nature and our relationship with ourselves. This does not need to be in an exercise in navel-gazing; first can come action, and with action we can re-awaken our genetic imperative that can provide our species with its forgotten context.

With Teratrees, action will take the form of planting a tree and/or supporting those who do, and to try and influence these dynamics through economics.

Online and Connected?

As of 2010, more than half of the planet’s population lived in cities. This will continue to grow (although at a slowing rate) and is driven by rapid urbanization in large modernizing countries such as China – from 1950 to 2005 their urbanized population grew from 13 to 40 %. By 2030 it is estimated that 6 out of 10 of the world’s citizens will live in cities.

New York

New York

What does this mean for the natural environment? Well there is the positive result of a higher concentration of humans in cities meaning more ‘space’ for Nature, although this is not found to be consistently true around the planet as areas of natural environment get smaller due to resource pressure. But what it also means is that there are generations of humans growing up with less contact with Nature, and with a potential decrease in empathy and understanding of the other organisms that share this planet and how they interact in a marvellous ecosystem that has taken 3.8 billion years to evolve.

Green Forest

Social connection and education is higher in cities, which at least offers a potential offset to this disconnection from the wilderness, provided the education is of a holistic nature. The internet and spread of social media is also a positive for the survival of Earth’s organisms, with environmental campaigns and awareness being easier to promote and organize. The Teratrees project will be part of this direction, with goals to increase human-nature interaction and the creation of a nature-minded community not constrained by geography. Trees are a universally recognized feature of landscapes and a common symbol in human consciousness.Internet

However, there is still no substitute for being outside in green spaces. This does not solely mean in the wilderness; a local park or your own garden give benefits to the psyche and facilitate a connection which is natural and fundamental to our physical being. Teratrees hopes to increase this interaction and the sharing of this activity with others. Fundamentally, our relationship and understanding of Nature will determine our role on this planet, as partners or as parasites.

13 Reasons to Plant Trees and the Psychology of Tree Planting

Beautiful Tree

Why plant a tree?

  1. Trees provide the oxygen that keeps us alive. One mature tree provides enough for 10 people to breathe per year.
  2. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, removing and storing the carbon as they grow. This should be reason enough as the global CO2 concentration surpasses 400 ppm.
  3. Strategically planted trees can reduce home energy use by as much as 30 % (Arbor Day Foundation). Planting deciduous trees on the east and west sides of the home provide shade in summer, while coniferous trees planted on the north and northwest sides can shield properties from cold winter winds.
  4. Trees raise property values for the entire neighbourhood: A 2010 US Forest Service study concluded that a tree planted “growing along the public right of way added an average of $12,828 (£8,500) to the combined value of all houses within 100 ft”.
  5. In 1985 the US Forest Service estimated the value of an individual tree at $273 annually (£180), well over $57,000 over its life time (£38,000). This value comes from its contribution to climate control, soil erosion, stormwater management, wildlife shelter and air pollution reduction.
  6. Trees improve biodiversity and improve habitat for local wildlife. Trees and large shrubs in your garden can make a real difference to butterflies, bees and birds.
  7. Trees cool the streets and the city, reducing the urban heat island and the evaporation of fuels within your car parked outside.
  8. They help the soil by reducing soil erosion by slowing run-off and holding soil in place with their roots, and also by remediating the soil and breaking down harmful chemicals.
  9. Trees help conserve water through reducing evaporation and run-off, allowing underground aquifers to recharge.
  10. Aesthetically, these organisms provide beauty to residential and urban areas and research has shown their presence decreases hospital stayover times of patients who had a view of them from their window.
  11. Socially and communally they provide a sense of identity and communities often band together to protect significant or historic trees.
  12. As playmates for children and places of rest and spiritual retreat for adults.
  13. Trees can form an effective sound barrier to noisy streets, providing more peace to one’s home.

    An oak tree in Wales (John Haynes)

    An oak tree in Wales (John Haynes)

The Psychological Motivation to Plant a Tree

If the above reasons are known and understood this should provide some rationale for planting a tree in your garden or local area. To summarise key motivations:

  1. Improving Your Living Space: The serenity of trees in one’s garden adds natural beauty
  2. Financial: A mature tree increases the value of your property
  3. Helping the Planet: Understanding the environmental condition of the Earth and why trees are needed
  4. The Feel Good Factor: The sense of satisfaction that comes from providing value or help

As seen, there are already powerful human drives present in these reasons. However, with the Teratrees project I hope to add to these motivations. This project shall be launched in the near future and updates shall follow!

Bohinj Lake, Slovenia (http://www.slovenijaturizem.com/)

Bohinj Lake, Slovenia (http://www.slovenijaturizem.com/)

Deforestation: Above and Below the Waterline

A multi-faceted approach is needed in tackling the effect of human activity on the climate and natural world. A reduction in industrial emissions through better practice, technology and efficiency is key, coupled with protection of carbon sinks, namely the forests and the oceans.

Seagrass meadows play a critical role in the carbon cycle (photo: M. Sanfélix)

Seagrass meadows play a critical role in the carbon cycle (photo: M. Sanfélix)

The oceans are the largest carbon sinks in the world storing 93 % of carbon in the form of algae, vegetation and coral, and sequestering 20 to 35 % of anthropogenic emissions. However, there is evidence to suggest that the oceans are becoming less efficient since around the year 2000 in absorbing these emissions1. Further, since the 1940’s, marine carbon sinks have been suffering with a loss of 30 % of mangroves, 25 % of salt marshes and over 30 % of seagrass meadows2. These are being lost at a faster rate than the rain forests.

Coastal development, aquaculture operations and timber removal are destroying these marine ecosystems, and thus there is a connection between the destruction of forests on land and under water. Deforestation through clearing and burning also generates 17 % of global carbon emissions, more than from all the world’s air, road, rail and shipping traffic combined. The highest rates of deforestation are taking place in the regions where illegal logging is at its worst – the Amazon Basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia3. These are areas where there is a lack of forest governance and where accountability and transparency are often in short supply.

Mangrove forests are threatened by coastal development (Source: www.sundarban.org)

Mangrove forests are threatened by coastal development (Source: www.sundarban.org)

Illegal logging actually floods the market with cheaper wood, which suppresses global timber prices between 7 and 16 per cent3. It is estimated that legal timber companies are being denied US$30 billion per year from these activities.

It looks good, but do you know where it was sourced?

It looks good, but do you know where it was sourced?

As can be imagined, protecting forests and marine ecosystems require political and economic solutions, as well as enforcement of law. And as an end user of timber products we have a deep responsibility to ensure that our furniture, floors and wooden features in our homes and businesses are from sustainable and legal timber. We are all part of the solution.


  1. Khatiwala et al. (2009). Reconstruction of the history of anthropogenic CO2 concentrations in the ocean. Nature 462, 346-349
  2. Blue Carbon – The Role of Healthy Oceans in Binding Carbon. Rapid Response Assessment by GRID-Arendal and UNEP. 14 October 2009
  3. Davyth Stewart. Combating illegal logging key to saving our forests and preventing climate change. Project LEAF (Interpol), 21 March 2013

A Solution in our Midst

The atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration, as reported by the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, was recorded at 395.5 ppm1 (parts per million) as of January 2013. This value is consistent with the upward trend as measured since 1959 from this observatory. The maximum value Earth’s atmosphere should have, if we wish to sustain life on this planet in its current form, is 350 ppm2. Not only do we have much work to get there, but we first have to stop the rising trend which is moving in the opposite direction.

Latest CO2 Trends (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - US Dept. of Commerce)

Latest CO2 Trends (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – US Dept. of Commerce)

Copenhagen climate negotiators in 2009 argued to keep the increase in average global temperature below 3.6 °F or 2 °C. This target of low ambition would lead to a different planet, one with an ice-free Arctic and sea level rises of many metres3,4, affecting hundreds of millions of people and the planet’s fauna and flora. Currently, The Marshalls, Kiribati, and Tuvalu islands are already feeling the effects of rising sea levels. If we continue business as usual we are looking at an increase of 5.4 °F or 3 °C, which would result in a collapse of the Amazon ecosystem, sea levels 25 metres higher and huge terrestrial areas exposed to permanent drought. The Earth will be vastly different.

Already Kiribati is suffering from sea level rise. They are currently negotiating with Fiji to by land for relocation. (Ciril Jazbec)

Already Kiribati is suffering from sea level rise. They are currently negotiating with Fiji to buy land for relocation. (Ciril Jazbec)

As is often the case, governments are slow to act, and even when the facts are simple and the case is clear, presidents and prime ministers have been fearful about affecting their re-election.  A broader and more honest response is required. Such a response requires first understanding the gravity of the situation and then acting, or creating incentives for solutions. Richard Branson has done exactly that with the setting up of the Carbon War Room as well as creating the Virgin Earth Challenge where a $25 million prize will be awarded for an economically viable and environmentally sustainable way to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Current finalists have been announced.

A $25 million prize

A $25 million prize

Such a contest is to be welcomed and the technologies celebrated, but perhaps there is a simpler technology in our midst. One that is so familiar that we take it for granted, yet when absent, its lack is felt in barren landscapes and concrete vistas. I speak here of the tree. The first tree appeared in the mid-Devonian period 385 million years ago. As forests rose in the latter part of this period the Earth’s CO2 concentration was reduced which resulted in a cooling of the planet. We thus know this technology works.


Trees can be large and small, narrow and broad. But no matter their size, the carbon content of woody matter (trunk, branches and roots) is about 50 %.  Researchers at Ecometrica derived a general equation for the mass of a tree based on its dimensions and calculated that a mature sycamore of height 12 m contains one ton of carbon. And this ton of carbon would have locked up 3.67 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere in a form pleasing to the eye and of much use to fauna and ecosystems.  Simple is beautiful.



  1. Mauna Loa Observatory Data
  2. Hansen et. al. (2008). Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?
  3. Mark Fischetti. 2-Degree Global Warming Limit Is Called a “Prescription for Disaster”. Scientific American Dec 2011.
  4. Robinson et. al. (2012). Multistability and critical thresholds of the Greenland ice sheet. Nature Climate Change 2, 429 – 432 

The Boreal Forest (Taiga)

Rainforests gain a lot of attention due to the amount and variety of species they support, but the world’s largest land-based biome is the Boreal Forest, aptly named after Boreas, the Greek God of the North wind. Also known as Taiga, from Russian, this concentration of trees covers much of Russia, most of Canada, Alaska, Sweden, Finland and Norway,  coastal Iceland, and the northern parts of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, the U.S. and Japan representing 29 % of the world’s forest cover.

Distribution of the Boreal Forest (Wikipedia)

Distribution of the Boreal Forest (Wikipedia)

Largely comprised of coniferous trees, this forest supports 85 species of mammals, 130 species of fish, 300 species of birds and approximately 32,000 species of insects. Life is hard here with temperatures ranging from -65 °F (-54 °C) to 86 °F (30 °C), low precipitation (200 – 750 mm/year), 50 – 120 frost free days per year and acidic, low nutrient soils.

Alaskan spruce

Alaskan spruce

Canadian wetland systems

Canadian wetland systems

The region also contains vast areas of wetland, bogs and fen, and the Canadian boreal region contains more rivers and lakes than any similar sized landmass in the world. Fire is a natural part of regeneration, and some trees like the lodgepole and jack pines have resin sealed cones which rely on fire to open and spread their seed.

Fire is a natural part of the regeneration cycle

Fire is a natural part of the regeneration cycle

This forest provides humans with enormous amounts of lumber and supports 1,400 communities in industrial activity. However, forestry practices are often still primitive in their approach, for example the practice of clearcutting in Canada removes most trees in an area only to be replanted as a monocrop (a singular species), which does not emulate a fire and is often followed by an increase in erosion.

Vast terrain with subterranean peat in western Siberia

Vast terrain with subterranean peat in western Siberia

Deforestation and oil exploration along with the processing of tar sands pose significant threats, however, climate change is the main threat to this region. The boreal forests stores huge amounts of carbon, possibly more than the temperate and tropical forests combined, with much of it in the form of peat. The boreal zone of latitude has experienced some of the greatest increase in temperatures on Earth over the last 25 years, with greater relative increases in winter temperatures than those in summer. The release of carbon, mostly in the form of methane, greatly adds to a feedback cycle of warming.


Attacks visible by the mountain pine beetle (Lorraine Maclauchlan)

Furthermore, the warmer winters lead to an increased survival of tree-damaging insects and recent years have seen forest destroying plagues of the spruce-bark beetle, the mountain pine beetle, the aspen leaf-miner, the larch sawfly, the spruce budworm and spruce coneworm. In Siberia, the boreal forest is changing from predominantly deciduous larch trees to evergreen conifers; this is also likely to accelerate warming as evergreen trees absorb more of the sun’s rays. These signs indicate that serious change is already underfoot.

But this does not mean that we should bury our heads in the sand, or imagine our individual actions to be inconsequential.  Anthropomorphic warming of this planet is comprised of the activity of individuals and human minds. There may be perceptions of fear or paralysis in the comprehension of the enormity of the task required, but this is the time to act –  there is no other.

O Christmas Tree

As we gather with those closest to us under the decorated conifer in our homes, let us pay a small homage to the tree: a living organism that gives us oxygen, shade, beauty and which sustains life on this planet. But Christmas has not always been about trees, in fact for the last 2000 years the tree has been around for a quarter of that time, and mostly in the last 100 years.

A living Christmas tree

A living Christmas tree

Some early evidence points to Livonia, now present day Latvia and Estonia, where in the 15th and 16th centuries trees were decorated with sweets in guildhalls for children who would collect them on Christmas Day. After the Protestant Reformation there was a transition from the guildhall to the family home and this tradition became popular in Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 19th century the tradition was further adopted by European nobility, and came into Britain through the union with Hanover.

The annual Christmas tree on the White House Lawn

The annual Christmas tree on the White House Lawn

German troops in Canada brought the tradition to the North American continent in the late 18th century and it continued to grow in the US in the 19th century in those cities with German immigrants. Russian children were not so lucky, and the tree was banned after the October revolution in 1917, but reinstated in 1935 with the Red Star replacing the Star of Bethlehem on top of the tree. Christmas trees then became more public in the 20th century, in department stores , the South Lawn of the White House, the Vatican City and in many major squares of cities.

Spruces, firs and pines are most commonly used e.g. Picea abies, Abies nordmanniana, Pseudotsuga menziesii, Abies fraseri, Pinus pinea. Today these are commercially grown on farms and cut after about 10 years of growth. Some are possible in containers with their roots, but the indoor atmosphere of the home generally brings them out of their dormancy, and so replanting back into the cold results in a poor survival rate.

A Christmas tree farm

A Christmas tree farm

Most trees will end up on the garbage tip or left horizontal on the pavement, suffering a New Year hangover. While it is a symbol of festivity, family gatherings and cultural tradition let it also be a gentle reminder of the Tree, and what it provides us humans.

May you all have a Merry Christmas!

Man of the Trees

We take the ideas of conservation and reforestation for granted, and putting them into practice varies around the world. These ideas have not always been present and they did not arrive spontaneously. One man whom we are indebted too is Richard St. Barbe Baker.

Richard St. Barbe Baker (1889 – 1982) initiated international reforestation and conservation.

Returning to Britain after working as a missionary in Canada, he started studying divinity at Cambridge, but was interrupted by the Great War to serve in the Royal Horse Artillery regiment in France and was seriously wounded twice. Perhaps this changed his perspective, as well as his observations of the soil loss resulting from deforestation, as upon returning to Cambridge he took up a Diploma in Forestry. After graduation he joined the Colonial Office and was sent as a Forestry Officer to Kenya. There he witnessed centuries of land mismanagement from the wheat farming of the Romans to the grazing of goats introduced by the Arabs. Determined to halt deforestation he formed an organisation called ‘Watu wa Miti’ with the local Kikuyu people – this translates as ‘Men of the Trees’, and would form the basis of an international organisation.

St Barbe Baker mobilising The Green Front

He joined the Bahá’í Faith after Kenya and continued to do forestry work in Nigeria, Australia and Palestine, uniting different faiths to work on the common goal of reforestation. He crossed the U.S. and toured the Redwood groves of California, and in the 1930’s he worked with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the Civilian Conservation Corps. He was a popular speaker now and continued to grow chapters of his organisation, which became known as the International Tree Foundation. After World War II he toured through Europe and launched the idea of an international Green Front to promote reforestation, and ambitiously launched a project to reclaim the Sahara desert after a 25 000 mile journey around the perimeter.

His organisation and those he assisted planted many millions of trees and he was seen as one of the fathers of the organic agriculture movement.

His autobiography entitled “My life, my trees” was published in 1970 and in 1972, the board of directors of Friends of Nature (USA) awarded Dr Baker their Conservation Award, for “being the foremost world citizen to stress the importance of maintaining tree cover for the continued existence of life”1. He was presented an OBE by the Queen in 1978 and up until his ninety-third year he was still travelling the world and died on 9th June 1982, whilst visiting Canada.

“Planting and growing increasing quantities of trees is the scientific solution to Earth’s environmental dilemma.”  ~ Richard St. Barbe Baker

1. http://www.menofthetrees.org.au/about-us/

The Language of Trees II

A few months ago I wrote about the communication of plants and trees using hormones, which was often when a member species was under threat. However, this is not the complete picture as more research starts to come through of the influence of sound on plants as well as sound being produced by the plants themselves, and the production and measurement of electrical signals.

Lyall Watson (1939 – 2008) earned degrees in botany, zoology, geology, chemistry, marine biology, ecology, anthropology and a doctorate in ethology

This is not a new concept – South African born zoologist Lyall Watson  in 1973 wrote about the electromagnetic signals of plants connected to a lie-detector which could measure their ‘emotions’ which was dismissed by the scientific community. There is also the Federation of Damanhur, a communal ecovillage in Northern Italy, which have been conducting experiments on plants since 1975. The researchers there have used a variation of a simple electric circuit, known as a Wheatstone bridge to measure unknown electrical resistance. They found that the greatest signal variation occurred in the plants upon the arrival of the person who tended the specific plant most regularly.

Is there more going on when we water plants? (Getty Images)

Regarding sound, a recent paper1 shows  how young roots grow towards sound at 220 Hz which suggests they exhibit a frequency selective sensitivity. Moreover, they recorded the production of sound by plants, measured using a laser Doppler vibrometer, had definite spike-like structures which could not be explained by tension release in their water transport system. The researchers posit that sound could be particular useful for short range communication as well as being much cheaper biologically for plants to produce than hormonal chemicals. They also noted that the reception of sound underpins the behavioural organisation of all living organisms and the relationship with their environment – thus it should not be necessarily deemed as irregular in the life of plants.

Roots of young plants grew towards the specific sound source of 220 Hz (1)

What this suggests is that there is much still to learn regarding plants and trees, and these investigations may require interdisciplinary approaches. It also raises questions about the effect of the frequency of human vocal chords on plants, and if specific frequencies of sound can be used to help plants grow, as well as to encourage growth in particular areas of landscape.

  1.  Towards understanding plant bioacoustics. Gagliano et al. Trends in Plant Science, Vol. 17, Issue 6. pg 323-325, 22 March 2012

Inhibiting the Mafia and the Prevention of Illegal Logging

The value of rare wood attracts petty thieves, government officials and the Mafia. In fact, a new report from the United Nations finds that up to 90 % of tropical deforestation can be attributed to organised crime which controls 30 % of the global timber trade. Unfortunately illegal logging rates have actually been rising, with many ploys being initiated such as fake permits, bribed officials, hacked databases and mixing illegal timber amongst common stock.

The theft of tropical wood. Photo source: see ref (1)

Last month, Hang Serei Oudom, a Cambodian journalist who exposed illegal logging and corrupt officials involved in forest crimes was found murdered in the boot of his car. In April this year, tireless campaigner Chhut Vuthy, was shot dead by a Cambodian military policeman after refusing to hand over photographs showing illegal logging in the southwestern Koh Kong province. Or that’s the official version – his family insist a third person was involved. According to the UN, Cambodia’s forest cover has decreased from 73 per cent in 1990 to 57 per cent in 2010.

Chhut Vuthy, killed in April. (The Economist)

This destruction of natural habitat is with a double-edged sword, not only are threatened forests and their creatures destroyed, but deforestation followed by burning, largely of tropical rainforests, is responsible for an estimated 17 per cent of all man-made emissions (50 per cent more than that from ships, aviation and land transport combined)1. As the UN report notes, today only one-tenth of primary forest cover remains on the globe.

Project LEAF, an Interpol and UN collaboration

Unlike with drugs or ivory, shipping timber is still legal. However, Interpol recently stepped into the logging foray this year in June with the creation of LEAF (Law Enforcement Assistance for Forests). This is a combined effort by the UN and Interpol funded by the Norwegian government. The project’s objectives are:

  • Providing an overview and review of extent, primary geographic locations, routes, causes and structure of networks involved in illegal logging, corruption, fraud, laundering and smuggling of wood products;
  • Supporting countries in improved enforcement efforts;
  • Providing training and operational support;
  • Providing insights into the way organized criminals organize their activities;
  • Developing best practices for combating REDD-related and forest-related corruption.

While it is certainly positive that this initiative has been launched, enforcement is difficult when dealing with governments who are involved in the profits, and illegal logging is often taking place in countries with lesser degrees of law and order. This suggests to me that a combined use of tracking technology and enforcement would aid this project.

RFID tag, commonly attached to goods we buy. (BBC)

Radio chip tracking technologies are already on the increase by global brands to monitor products and customer behaviour, and some environmental use has started. The Instituto Ação Verde (The Green Action Institute) is using thumb-sized RFID devices to track over 2,500 Amazon trees. The Fraunhofer Institute is even working on a RFID tag comprised mostly of wood, to prevent adding impurities and extra labour in downstream processing, thus overcoming some objections from timber companies.

Perhaps LEAF is looking at this line of thought already, but it seems to me a global database of tree RFID tags allowing effective tracking would make Interpol’s and the UN’s life easier. These could be created by LEAF and given to local enforcement and forestry agencies, with initial supervision of their attachment to the tree or/and shipment of trees leaving ports and harbours. An international legal requirement of tracking timber shipments would be a further boon.


1. Green Carbon, Black Trade: Illegal Logging, Tax Fraud and Laundering in the World’s Tropical Forests. UNEP and Interpol. 2012.  http://dev.grida.no/logging/layout/RRAlogging_english_scr.pdf