Guest column by Don Ogden: The climate crisis and the trees

Sept 22, 2019 | Don Ogden | Guest column Don Ogden

Throughout history we humans have had an exploitative relationship with trees. At the same time we valued them for their gifts of beauty, cooling shade, fruits, nuts and sap, we also cut them down and used their wood to build, furnish and heat our homes and businesses.

Over the centuries we planted and nurtured trees on farms and in towns in order to maximize their service to us. We mourned the loss of many species to scourges like chestnut blight or Dutch elm disease, and we were quick to replace dying street trees with other types of trees so we could continue to benefit from the trees’ many contributions to our existence.

As our cities grew and towns spread out across the countryside, our relationship to trees became more complex and varied. Some people began to be concerned about the rampant logging going on as the nation grew, a time when massive flotillas of timber began clogging our rivers on their way to the increasing number of sawmills, many of them right here in New England.

At the turn of the 20th century the conservation movement arose and political leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and others began the process of raising awareness of the need to set aside forests and protect them from “progress.” They were part of the Progressive movement of that era, but their idea of progress was not as we know it today. Back in those days, the concept of peoples’ “dominion over nature” was a given and the exploitation of forests and trees, as well as wildlife, was the status quo.

Only a few voices were raised to question our relationship with the natural world as humans continued building a world apart, a world not always in keeping with the natural world.

In the late 1970s however, an environmental movement grew out of a series of ecological disasters and rising discontent with authority. Many young people, this writer included, were active in the anti-nuclear movement. At the same time, out West, another sort of movement was taking shape.

Earth First! was a movement of activists primarily concerned about the abuse of the national forests by logging interests and their enablers in government. Earth First! embraces the phrase “subvert the dominant paradigm.” The tree huggers were and are defending the right of trees and forests to live and flourish on their own terms.

Earth First! was instrumental in bringing the assault on our public lands for private profit to front pages and the evening news in the 1980s and ’90s, by way of their tree sits, blockades and direct actions in the forests and elsewhere.

As time passed, the movement also grew to address issues of animal rights, various forms of environmental pollution and ecological philosophy. That philosophy took a major turn in the early 1990s when it began to become public knowledge that the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was leading to climate change. Now the science is in: Most of those CO2 emissions are a result of human activity in its many forms.

Today, climate change is regularly referred to as the climate crisis and the vast preponderance of scientific evidence points toward a very narrow window of a decade or so for governments and industry to act in greatly reducing those emissions for life as we know it to continue on the planet. Period. Along with the increasing scientific evidence of climatic disruption and our role in manufacturing it, there is growing evidence pointing toward trees, forests and forest soils as life forms able to capture some of those emissions and store them, an unacknowledged service they have been providing humans and other life forms on Earth for ages.

Yes, it turns out all those trees we have been exploiting for centuries are our allies in the existential struggle against climate chaos.

The recent efforts by the Wendell State Forest Alliance, trying to stop state-sponsored logging of 100-plus-year-old oak trees in our public forest for private profit is another example of that existential struggle.

The devastation of those old oaks under the auspicious of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation will be done by the time you read this, but forest protectors are working to convince the Legislature to pass H.897, an act to protect other forests suffering the same fate. If you want to help our friends the trees do their critical work, go to:

Don Ogden is the producer of The Enviro Show on WXOJ and WMCB.