Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Voice of the Trees

One month from now we will be advised as to how humanity will tackle climate change. As the closing manifestos are being spun into the tapestry heralding the dawn of a new age of ecology, we will see many efforts to insure that those who have asked for too much cede “enough” for those who seek to preserve their lust for consumption. Extraction and consumption incumbencies already presage a win post-Copenhagen in which, no matter what, the models they have come to use will require marketing adaptation rather than systemic transformation. Following the innovation already rife in the carbon trading world – namely the present laundering of money and U.S. Treasuries for drug, terror, and arms trade using carbon credits as the unregulated utility of choice – alchemists will do their best to turn Copenhagen into gold. NGOs will raise money to champion their particular cause. Industries will hire marketing firms to create messages to insure that public knows they’re committed to bold initiatives. And in the end, I wonder, who will speak for the trees?

Not long ago, I was asked to explain carbon credits to a group of community elders and leaders in a land far removed from Copenhagen. Combined European Union and National Aid agencies had taken advantage of the Prime Minister of this place and his imposed mantle of being a “model for the developing world” as a collaborator in carbon trade. Communities were asked to enter into an agreement to sell their forest canopy for a fee in exchange for the industrial use of said canopy for carbon absorption.

After explaining photosynthesis, the Kreb’s Cycle, and combustion in a detailed level thought tedious by the most respectful of the group, one of the elders looked at me with the most puzzled of expressions. “But why have they picked the trees to clean up the mess?”

Together, we sat beneath a rain tree, with its branches spread wide against the humid skies. Its trunk and limbs held thousands of ferns, mosses, and vines. Bird, reptile, and mammal had sanctuary in every vantage point. What would these carbon buyers pay for:
- the pure water which the leaves condensed from the air irrigating the plants, animals and people below;
- the medicine that can be prepared from the leaves;
- the nutrition that can be derived from the bark and roots;
- the wood that is used to build homes when a branch falls;
- the animals that call the tree home;
- the soil that the tree’s roots retain;
- the leaves that the tree produces which provides fertile soil for crops; and,
- the promise of the new trees which sprout in the protection of this one tree?
The living being – the tree – it turned out, was worth more than its carbon consumption value. And the communities were being asked to indenture the tree for a carbon credit.

I was struck, in that moment, with the realization that our best intentions to save the rainforests, purchase carbon indulgences in a vain attempt to buy our souls’ redemption, and to create a monetary utility for development – all seemingly laudable objectives – actually had created a greater ecosystem tragedy. In the end, having fully addicted ourselves to our pathology of relentless consumption, we have now taken an interesting social psychotic shift. It appears that our environmental preservation impulses may actually be aligning with a concept attributed to David Bernstein called “Abusive Multiple Transference”. Here is the much repeated (though uncited) lay definition of AMT:

“abusers not only transfer negative feelings directed towards their former abusers to their own victims, but also transfer the power and dominance of the former abusers to themselves.”

Now, let’s consider the ecological impulse in light of AMT. Having consumed ourselves to the point of destruction, “we” (both as perpetrator, participant, and victim, we tell ourselves) need to “do” something. So, what “we” “do” when we are most awakened to a laudatory enlightenment is solve our social problem by making the trees consumers. Yes, that’s right, in an impulse to create a solution, we turn to the only utility we have – consumption. Only this time, we’re imposing our consumption on the trees. As if the trees, all along, have been slacking! Somehow, we rationalize, if we exchange money in their sight, we will induce them to consume more CO2. And the most vocal supporters of this advocacy are those who feel most victimized and helpless in the face of an extracting and polluting insanity!

In the run-up to Copenhagen, can we please consider a world, just for a moment, where we don’t project consumption onto nature? Haven’t we done enough damage? Can we consider that an alternative approach would be to look deeper? Why have the sum total of our utilities been reduced to consumption memorialized by an exchange of money? Could Brazil, India, China, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Peru, Indonesia, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Egypt, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Republic of Korea, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine actually be united in an economic engagement in which they are not compensated for what they don’t do in terms of environmental destruction but rather lead as prime contractors for deployment of technologies and corporate models which are aligned to humanity and nature? Could the “Woods of Bretton” become the new paradigm where a systemic monetary policy could be freed from capricious extractive debt and aligned with stewardship of the Global Commons? And while we’re in the woods, could we take a few minutes to contemplate how the trees could teach us?

breathe, just breathe
let the life that you lead
be all that you need
let go of the fear
let go of the time
let go of the one
to try to put you down
you're gonna be fine
don't hold it inside
go ahead right now
and let it all come round
breathe, just breathe
take the world off your shoulders
and put it on me
breathe, just breathe
let the life that you lead
be all that you need

- Ryan Star “Breathe”



  1. David, this is a superb blog post. I am working on the periphery of the energy efficiency and carbon offset markets and tuning into the emerging dialog about the inherent injustice in the cap and trade approach. This post is exquisite. I stumbled upon it through TAI - am registered for John's upcoming conference. I watched your talk on TAI's website and didn't actually know how to 'take' it. I am most heartened by this post - its creative and insightful. Thank you for writing it. Mike Harris

  2. Mike, I deeply appreciate your comment and would like to reinforce that if we use the old system's deferral of accountability and place our carelessness on an unsuspecting nature, we will have the same systemic failure in nature that we have in our geopolitical and economic landscape.


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave