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.

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.

Wangari Maathai: A Green Vision within a Structure of Freedom

Wangari Maathai (Alan Dater and Lisa Merton)

With 7 billion humans on the planet it is easy to talk oneself into accepting one’s own perceived limitations along with the placing of governments, corporations and large institutions on a pedestal. However, some have seen the folly of this apathy and have come to realise themselves as agents of change. One such person, who died nearly 9 months ago, was Wangari Maathai.

A constant battle with President arap Moi. Moi was convicted of bribery in 2006

Born in a village in the highlands of Kenya in 1940, she studied well and ended up doing a masters in biology attained at the University of Pittsburgh which exposed her to the ideas of environmental restoration. Her education continued in anatomy in Germany and was completed at the University of Nairobi, where she was the first East African woman to receive a PhD. This was certainly an accomplishment in a male dominated culture, but there were further battles to be fought against President Daniel arap Moi when she campaigned for a parliamentary seat in 1982. She was denied her right to campaign on a technicality and ended up losing her university position and home.

Maathai and Senator Obama, Nairobi 2006. (Frederick Onyango)

This did not deter her, and she carried on working on her Green Belt Movement with a vision of greening Kenya as well as providing a source of employment for women. This was made possible through Norwegian funds from their Forestry Society and then eventually from UNEP, which allowed expansion beyond Kenya to form the Pan African Green Belt Network. Successful activism includes the prevention of a 60 story complex being built in Uhuru Park and the protection of Karura Forest, with further battles against Moi.

The movement, with its respect for the natural landscape and for individual freedoms, naturally progressed to a democratic movement which kept her continually in and out jail, along with hunger strikes and experiences of police brutality. She finally united the opposition to displace the corrupt government in 2002, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”. This was one person’s vision and determination.

Tending seedlings at the Tumutumu Hills nursery (Alan Dater and Lisa Merton)

The Green Belt Movement now has 3,987  supported community tree nurseries across Kenya which take care of more than 8 million indigenous seedlings annually for planting in degraded forest lands, private and public lands, sites of cultural significance and protected reserves. It has planted 47 million trees around Kenya.

“We cannot tire or give up. We owe it the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!” Wangari Maathai

The Language of Trees

The Forest of Dean. Much more is going on between trees than we can see. (CORBIS)

As much as tree evolution and adaptability is affected by selective pressure from the environment, we must not forget that trees have evolved communication processes over hundreds of millions of years which are more forgiving than playing life’s deadly experiments alone. Each tree produces hormones, (with evidence of many being undiscovered) and these molecules act as signals and allow communication with their selves and fellows in the area. Common science talks about 5 major hormones: auxin, cytokinin, gibberellins, abscisic acid and ethylene. These hormones switch on or off chemical pathways and affect responses not only by the type of hormone, but also by their concentration. In this way the same hormone may induce two different responses. And some of these responses are very interesting.

The tent caterpillar

In 1979, David Rhoades, a zoologist at the University of Washington, was investigating the effect of tent caterpillar attacks on willow trees. He monitored two groups of trees in a field in Seattle, one with no caterpillars as a control, and the other infested. Two weeks later he plucked leaves from the infested tree and fed them to caterpillars in a laboratory and found that they grew slower than usual. What was interesting was that plucked leaves from the nearby control group of willows also inhibited caterpillar growth. The willows flood their leaves with unsavoury chemicals (normally phenolics) which discourage insect growth, however, this defence tactic had also been used by the control group, suggesting that communication must have happened via chemicals in the air from the infested tree. Since then similar results have been found with poplars and by using isolation chambers to have a third control which prevents diffusing molecules from being in contact with other trees, and with no resulting phenolic increase.

Air pollution of Mexico City. Not an easy environment for a tree.

Unfortunately trees in urban environments are exposed to many more chemicals and hormonal communication can be somewhat confusing. Thus root growth may be mismatched to foliage growth, or early blooming may occur from unnatural local ethylene concentration. This is the price trees pay living with us until we can sufficiently increase our air quality. And this is a price they pay while they absorb carbon dioxide and provide us with oxygen, shade, and the natural beauty of their presence.

Biophilia: Our Bonds with Nature

The pre-frontal cortex refreshes itself in Nature

Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist, wrote a book called The Biophilia Hypothesis which describes “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life”.  He argues that this desire for connection with nature is rooted in our biology. This is not a fantastic leap considering humans share 15 % of their genes (protein families) with rice or 33 % with the honey bee. Or as Arthur Koestler argued, we have an evolutionary history that includes the more instinctive reptilian part of our brain which argues with the enlarged neocortex, the centre for rational thought.

Although this should not be interpreted as irrationalism being a requisite cause for walking in nature. In fact, some researchers have found that it is precisely our rational habits of evaluating the environmental stimuli that allow people in nature to have a pleasant mood and experience. Stimuli in natural environments have shown to modestly attract our attention, unlike dense urban environments with their blaring horns and noisy streets which dramatically announce themselves. This modest focus of attention is like a slight meditation that allows the prefrontal cortex to refresh itself. This thinking is part of Attention Restoration Theory which examines environments that lead to improvements in directed-attention abilities.

Stripmalls...we can do better

These theories may go some distance in explaining the faster recovery of patients in hospitals with a view of nature. In 1984 Roger Ulrich, of the Texas A & M College of Architecture, found that gall bladder removal patients over the course of 10 years with a green view spent 7.96 days in hospital compared with 8.70 days of those with a brick wall view. Ulrich even found that hanging art representing natural landscapes yielded positive effects.

Cubicle nation is not natural

With these kinds of results and natural human tendencies it seems poor design to create sterile work environments which lack signs of nature, yet this is often the case. Nor does it make sense to completely concrete over natural spaces to create boring city blocks and moribund malls. What makes sense is to ‘greenify’ our surroundings as much as possible, while not forgetting that the tree is a ubiquitous component of natural landscapes.