Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Death to the trees! (Where in the world am I? [37])

Originality of thought is not commonplace in this country.

People at all levels of society eagerly and unquestioningly parrot fatuous, unsupported ideas that have been planted in their heads by the frighteningly thorough state progaganda apparatus.

Take trees. If you ask anyone in this city what can be done to improve their environment, they will unhesitatingly respond, "Plant more trees!"

I've had this from my students many times: undergraduates, post-graduates, mid-level managers from local government and state-run industries. They all say the same thing: "Plant more trees!"

That's about all they say. They don't really have any other ideas on the environment. But they're very enthusiastic on the trees issue. They don't really know why. They can't remember where this idea came from. They struggle to come up with any arguments in support of the suggestion. But they're absolutely certain it would be a good idea to plant more trees.

I remain a sceptic. "Where would you put the f***ing things?"

I have posed this question (minus the exasperated expletive) to various groups of students. On one occasion I led them over to the window to demonstrate my point: on the narrow strip of parched grass between our classroom block and the next there were a good half a dozen trees. "Tell me," I said, "can you show me 20 sq. m of open space anywhere on this campus that doesn't already have a tree on it? And what about the sidewalks? Do not most of the sidewalks in this city already have trees planted regularly along them, often at a spacing of only 1.5m or 2m, on both sides of the road? And the parks - are the parks without trees? No, there are plenty of trees in the parks. If you were to plant more trees, if you were to replace all the grass, and all the flowerbeds, and all the ponds, and all the playgrounds with trees - which is what some of you seem to want to do - then you would not have a park any more, but A FOREST."

You may suspect me of exaggerating for comic effect, but no. This is really how it is. I'd be willing to have a little bet that this city has more trees per square mile (the locals use the metric system; I do not, except when I'm humouring them) than any other on earth. In parts of the city, at least, there seem to be very nearly as many trees as people.

And it's actually, I think, a major cause of the ecological crisis here. This city is desperately short of water; the water-table beneath us is sinking dramatically year-by-year; our city, in fact, clings to existence in a borderline desert. Washing is an irregular habit for most people here; providing enough water to drink is quite enough of a challenge for the city authorities, without encouraging people to take showers every day. How much water does a tree suck out of the ground every day? How much water do 5 million trees suck up? It's frightening. What's even more frightening is that I really don't think anyone in the government here has ever tried to do that calculation (I used to teach the deputy director of the water department, and she hadn't got a clue).

The city suffers from suffocating humidity in the summer. The climate is quite intolerable throughout July and August. The humidity tends to get trapped under the lavish foliage of our many, many trees. And where does most of that moisture come from in the first place? The only real argument most people make in favour of the trees (apart from their looking pretty) is that they provide welcome shade in the summer. Oh, please. Scoot from one shop-awning to the next. Wear a hat. The direct sunlight is not so bad. It's the f***ing humidity that kills you! I'd happily accept a bit less shade if we could reduce that humidity problem.

This city also suffers appallingly high rates of particulate air pollution, and is plagued by dust storms in the Spring and Autumn. The government likes to foster a myth that these dust storms all originate far to the west, a long, long way from here; but in fact most of them arise right here on our own doorstep. Almost every one of those leafy, beautiful, shade-giving trees that crowd our parks and line our streets is surrounded by 1 sq. yard of dustbowl. The trees suck every last drop of water out of the ground, the grass dies, the earth becomes dry and hard and dusty..... and that dust gets airborne. And the people choke.

I am perfectly serious. The zeal for tree-planting long ago got completely out of proportion here. What we need now is FEWER TREES. And SOON.

Pass me that axe.

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