Knock on Wood

Solutions don’t always grow in trees

In the Brazilian Amazon, 1.3 million hectares of rainforest disappeared between August 2020 and July 2021, up 22 percent from the year before. Because of climate change, at least in part, deserts are growing. Meanwhile, 41.3 percent of the world’s terrestrial surface is more or less arid drylands. Why not plant a whole lot of elms and pines and poplars in all that empty space, and sequester some carbon along the way? Afforestation, or the mass planting of trees where trees have never been, makes perfect environmental sense — doesn’t it?

According to Rosetta Elkin, a self-described “curious landscape architect” who holds senior academic positions at both McGill and Harvard, the answer is a hard no.

Elkin musters an impressive amount of source material and relentlessly solid arguments to support a powerful and compelling critique. With Plant Life: The Entangled Politics of Afforestation, she offers an in‑depth analysis of three well-known mass tree-planting projects. One has barely reached the formative stages (Africa’s Great Green Wall); one is well under way (the Three Norths Shelter System in China, sometimes also called the Great Green Wall); and one is nearly a century old (the Prairie States Forestry Project in the central United States). Despite the positive gut feel it engenders — one that has sparked huge infusions of cash and expertise from nation-states, international agencies, and non-governmental organizations — afforestation has proven to be an environmental snare and a delusion.

To grasp the central notion of “plant life,” Elkin draws upon, among other things, work by Aristotle’s student Theophrastus and the writings of Goethe. Plants are important in and of themselves, she argues, not merely for the use that humans can make of them.

But what is a plant, exactly? Broadly speaking, there are two ways of addressing this question. We can collect specimens, give them Latin binomial names, describe their various parts, decide those that have “value” and those that are “weeds,” and, in general, reduce them to a social construction, which Elkin calls “artifact.” Or we can regard them as processes, following their own logic of growth and survival. We might see them as present to and with us, not merely for us. In the words of Martin Heidegger, “The botanist’s plants are not the flowers of the hedgerow; the ‘source’ which the geographer establishes for a river is not the ‘springhead in the dale.’ ”

The urge to name, classify, and control, which Elkin links to the colonial impulse, has largely won out. Dominant settler societies have imposed their abstract knowledge and science upon both the landscape and its Indigenous people, physically deforming one and dislocating the other. Local knowledge, acquired on the ground, built up over generations of inhabiting the land, has been and continues to be dismissed in favour of top‑down governance, armies of “experts,” and international “environmentalist” pressures.

Plants do not exist entirely of themselves. They form deeply complex relationships with the soil, the fungi, and other micro-organisms in the rhizosphere (the portion of the soil populated by roots), as well as the aeolian and surface environments, each other, and animals, including us. Far from being empty, many drylands are teeming with life: millions of micro-organisms in a cubic metre of soil, for example, or more than forty kilometres of rootlets in a single square metre of prairie grass. Altogether, there are “millions of unnamed species and unknown relationships that surpass the human imagination.”

Plant life, says Elkin, is based upon cooperation and collaboration. If that sounds a little anthropomorphic, buckle up. She doesn’t shy away from notions like intelligence, behaviour, communication, even consciousness and memory in plants. But this isn’t New Age mysticism by any means; Elkin uses those terms to describe the exquisite sensitivity of plants to their location, both temporal and spatial, and their ability, through numerous chemical cues, to persist and to adapt quickly to changes, both below and above ground.

In each of the three major initiatives discussed in Plant Life, this intricate web of relationships, built up over time and space, has been largely cast aside in favour of an “acceleration of disembodied practices,” one that assumes “a vacancy of life where projects unfold.” The work of afforestation, Elkin writes, “is a kind of environmentalism out of whack with the nature of change inherent to the environment itself.” She calls it a “violent exercise,” a too easily conceived solution to an exaggerated problem.

The Great Green Wall of Africa, proposed by Nigeria’s president in 2005, would plant a 7,000-kilometre-long and fifteen-kilometre-wide wall of trees spanning the continent across eleven nations, to protect the semi-arid Sahel region from Saharan desertification. The wall has been mapped out, and funding has poured in from various United Nations agencies and the World Bank. A number of NGOs are also involved. But by September 2020, while the undertaking was more than halfway to the projected completion date of 2030, only 4 percent of the planned area was covered.

Monitoring systems have been spotty. It is unclear, for example, how many of the twelve million trees planted in Senegal have actually survived. As Elkin points out several times, planting trees is not the same as growing them.

One “success” story emerged from the Majjia Valley in Niger. There, villagers were committed to establishing a windbreak even before the Green Wall undertaking, to correct for the overharvesting of fuelwood. Local know‑how was combined with local control and traditional expertise, as well as some outside funding. “The windbreak is living in context,” Elkin writes, “and calibrates to the scale of the village.” But such projects can’t be simply scaled up and replicated across widely disparate geographies, communities, and environmental conditions. Nor will maps, grids, and yield metrics do the trick.

Faidherbia is an example of Green Wall planning gone awry. It’s a species of acacia that thrives in arid places, growing in harmony with people and their livestock. (The latter helpfully digest its seed pods to allow new germination.) It also provides welcome shade in the dry season, unlike most other trees in the region, and is an excellent fuelwood source. For all of these reasons, it appears on afforestation lists. But the problem is that “it succeeds on its own terms and is indifferent to nursery practices.” Faidherbia plantations have been marked by a succession of failures.

“Desertification,” too, is a problematic concept. The term was coined in 1949 to describe the results of colonial despoliation of old-growth forests in a humid region of Africa, but it then was transposed to the Sahel. Is afforestation necessary here? Or can arid lands sustain themselves, in concert with concrete measures to mitigate climate change? For Elkin, seriously tackling anthropogenic global warming would be more difficult than just digging rows of trees into the ground but is also more necessary.

At this point, the Great Green Wall, for all the hype, cash, and technical expertise backing it, is little more than a “well-funded committee,” and its future does not look particularly bright. Although it’s easy enough to put them in the dirt, Elkin reiterates that it’s “remarkably difficult for millions of trees to grow, thrive, and survive in drylands.” The Chinese Three Norths Shelter System serves as an example and a cautionary tale. The scope of the plan was immense: to plant 400 million hectares over the course of seventy years in China’s vast northeast, a “protective forest system” that would also help modernize agriculture. Elkin describes it as a “supracontinental afforestation” initiative and “a national policy with incalculable repercussions.”

The project began in 1978, with a planned completion date of 2050. By 2005, 2.2 billion hectares had been planted in traditional ways and another thirty million hectares had been seeded by air. But in 2006, only fifty-three million hectares of trees remained. (A study two years earlier indicated that only 15 percent of those planted since the project began had survived.) Moreover, the original cost estimate — $300 million (U.S.) — had ballooned to $23 billion.

The widespread use of poplars for afforestation in Three Norths has often had disastrous consequences. They are thirsty trees, sucking up all the available water and frequently dying — taking the surrounding vegetation with them. And monoculture planting, a characteristic of many afforestation projects, has made forests vulnerable to pests: in 2000, a staggering one billion poplar trees, representing two decades of work on the shelterbelt project, were lost to an infestation of the Asian longhorn beetle.

The Three Norths megaproject was superimposed upon the landscape, without regard to extant plant or human life, and the consequences have been dire. Whole villages have been forcibly relocated. Sand dunes have been flattened. Extensive areas have been covered by straw planting grids, with pumphouses depleting ancient aquifers to run drip-line irrigation systems. The systems utilize perforated plastic tubing that tends to clog, and when that happens, the greenbelts fade, becoming, as Elkin puts it, “bounded fields of obsolete technology.” In fact, the uncontrolled irrigation required to keep the new trees alive has allowed the desert to expand. Sandstorms have increased in number and severity. The very purpose of this enormous project, in other words, has been turned on its head.

Elkin takes a long, detailed look at the history of prairie afforestation in the American Great Plains, in particular the Prairie States Forestry Project, a New Deal initiative to plant trees across six states. The plan was initiated in 1934, as a counter to the (human-made) Dust Bowl, but it seems to have been more a Depression-era employment project than a conservationist one. It ran until 1942. A generation or two earlier, the Timber Culture Act of 1873 had built upon the better-known Homestead Act of 1862. Settlers were promised 160 acres of land, but they had to plant forty acres’ worth of trees, at an impossible density of 2,700 per ten-acre block. Most land claims failed, and the act was repealed less than twenty years later.

But that was by no means the end of it. Government experts moved in; they blamed the farmers for the failure while regarding the prairies as a blank canvas for a new, professionalized planting initiative. Divorced from material context, deforestation for agriculture and afforestation to “tame” the grasslands that were home to many Indigenous people would continue: “The landscape is objectified, appearing and disappearing through measurement and calculation. In this way, felling and planting develop synonymously.” Put another way, “the accumulation and distribution of homogenous units triumphed over the diverse, interconnected, spontaneous and multiple.”

In Nebraska, another “success” story emerged in the sprawling Sandhills, where settlers actively displaced Indigenous communities. This area offered a uniquely favourable environment for tree planting, although nursery-raised seedlings suffered some spectacular failures. But the “landscape anomaly” of the Sandhills was not fully appreciated. Efforts were scaled up over widely different terrains and local conditions, becoming “a model for planting forests along the entire 100th meridian.” One fast-spreading afforestation tree, the Siberian elm, proved to be a weed, taking root where it willed and inhibiting the growth of crops and other species of trees. Cutting it back presently costs $100 million (U.S.) a year.

Afforestation, Elkin concludes, has made for “a century of enmity acted out on the planet, in a time of so‑called heightened environmentalism.” There is no need to plant in the world’s drylands, she insists. It’s a lazy-minded diversion from the hard political work involved in attacking real environmental crises, such as climate change, massive deforestation, and industrial pollution.

“There are no simple, singular solutions that do not create more problems,” Elkin writes, especially when the problem is largely invented and the solution is a series of political vanity projects. And there is a blinkered insolence in discounting the knowledge, experience, and lifeways of those who have lived on the land for generations, under the arrogant assumption that technology and outside expertise will show the way.

It takes extraordinary hubris to imagine that humans can successfully impose our will upon the enormously complex biomes that make up the biosphere. As the British scientist James Lovelock has noted, the still-prevalent Christian notion of stewardship of the earth sets before us an impossible task. What we need to do is to let the planet be, live our lives as part of it, and cause as little harm as possible — not try to run it. We can never do merely one thing, the ecologist Garrett Hardin once warned. When we try, we are likely in for unwelcome surprises.

Written in a stiff academic style, Plant Life is at times difficult to grasp, and some concepts often associated with “deep ecology”— which regards human beings as integral to the environment as a whole, not living “in it”— will challenge many readers. Regarding plant life as having superior claims to “our” landscapes may also appear absurd to some, and the notion that plants exhibit a complex kind of intelligence, knowledge, collaborative behaviour, and so on may seem impossibly anthropomorphic to skeptics. But Elkin’s rich, devastating work, informed by a lively conceptual and ethical imagination, rewards careful attention. Ideally, it should prompt radical reflection — and concern. One would be hard put to leave this book without feeling that a monstrous, long-term environmental crime is being committed, in the very name of environmentalism.