Thursday, January 21, 2010

Maybe We Ought to Hug Trees

Yesterday I wrote about the deep irony behind Avatar’s deep ecology storyline. I want to pick up on one more thread from the movie’s story: the worship of trees.

One movie character derides another as a treehugger, an epithet I doubt will be used in 2154, when the movie is set. And there’s a reference to there being no green left on Earth at this time. The Tree of Souls is the most important religious shrine on Pandora, and becomes a central player in the storyline.

Seems that idea raised the ire of the Vatican, which has condemned the movie for its celebration of pantheism and trees.

Which got me thinking about trees here on Earth.

It turns out that if a sick person in a hospital is recuperating from a disease, they get better faster, leave the hospital sooner, and are less likely to return if they see green outside their hospital window. Even one tree is enough for this effect to work. Imagine that.

Kids playing outdoors in nature during the day—swinging from trees, playing with acorns—are smarter (scoring higher on standardized tests), socialize better, exhibit less ADHD, and are less truant. Schools nationwide are trying to get kids back outdoors and into trees.

Trees are homes to innumerable other creatures. They cool the air in the summer, stop wind in winter, buffer noise pollution, and naturally remove—and lock away—carbon dioxide, thus ameliorating global warming. Plant trees around your house, and your energy bill goes down.

Here in the suburbs, they stop the scourge of stormwater: a tree’s millions of leaves slow rainfall’s velocity. After it rains, stormwater is slowly released by trees to the ground where it can safely percolate into soil. Remove trees, and rain pours unimpeded into our streets and immediately into streams, where it roils the stream’s banks, eroding them into naked cliffs.

And mature trees outside your home can raise its asking price by as much as 20%.

So trees offer innumerable services to us, but we have been doggedly doing our best to remove them—and religious leaders like the Vatican are fairly silent on the worldwide deforestation going on in plain sight around us every day.

Just look at what trees do for us: maybe we ought to worship them.

But don’t listen to me, I’m just a treehugger.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Avatar": Deep Ecology, Deeper Irony

Like millions of others, I just saw James Cameron’s Avatar this past weekend, and was totally surprised: as a naturalist and nature geek, I fell in love with—and bought—the nature of Pandora.

Bioluminescent forests. Six-legged insectoid wolves with glistening beetle-black skin. Monstrous rhinos sporting sledgehammer horns: duck! Multi-colored pterodactyls one plugs into—and rides through the skies. Tree seeds that float through the air like jellyfish. And, of course, 10 foot tall, blue-skinned Nav’i, the movie’s central characters.

I’m not alone. Kids across the planet love the animals of Avatar; so do scientists. Science writer Carol Kaesuk Yoon, author of the recent book Naming Nature, about the importance of knowing the natural world, published a lovely piece in the New York Times agog over the glowing forests.

OK, the movie’s plot is not that deep: Dances with Wolves meets Pocahontas meets FernGully. Fine. But somehow, the damn thing worked, and fewer better environmental movies have ever been made.
And since this will soon become the highest grossing movie ever (Cameron beating his own Titanic; he’s still king of the world), the highest grossing movie will have a dark green bent and provocative activist message:

If the industrial polluters come after your sacred forests, kill them.

But there is a deep irony behind the deep ecology. As I left the movie theater, workers were collecting mountains of trash, the detritus of viewers like me, millions of trees turned into popcorn buckets to be used once and discarded. And thousands of SUVs and minivans clogged access lanes into the megaplex built on a long-gone forest that showed the film with its plea to protect forests.

For decades, since 1970’s era Silent Running with Bruce Dern, our movies—not to mention our books and TV shows—have been greener than us.

We love deep ecology entertainment, but utterly refuse to live deep ecology lives.

We mourn the loss of the Tree of Life in Avatar, but watch the Amazon disappear without a peep. In fact, we contribute to it directly through profligate waste and indirectly through inaction.

While I loved the movie, I wish I understood the irony.