Archive for March, 2016

Trees New York

A 2007 study found that for every $1 spent annually on planting and maintaining New York’s street trees, there was $5.60 return. Some of this return was in the form of environmental benefits such as summer energy savings from cooling effects, air quality improvement and reduced water run-off. But almost half of the benefits came from increased property values and the associated growth of rate and tax revenue.

In a similar study using data from the city of Brisbane, Lyndal Plant found that street trees generated property value benefits of $29 million – more than twice the cost of planting and maintaining them.

Findings like these are bound to capture the attention of planners, developers and politicians because they make a “business case” for investing in urban greenery. And in our materialistic world, having a strong business case is a powerful incentive. It is all well and good to parade the environmental, health and lifestyle benefits of green infrastructure, but in a dollar-driven society like ours, what counts more often than not are “bank-account” benefits.

Well, if this is the way of the world, why not welcome the emergence of a compelling business case for greening our streets, apartment complexes and commercial centres? Why not go further and push business arguments for creating and maintaining national parks, for expanding venues that attract nature-based recreation and for greening work places to make employees healthier, happier and, “Ta-ra”, more productive?

Why not Indeed!

Well I can think of one very good reason why we need to use business arguments with great caution especially where nature is concerned.

That doyen of finance and economic commentators, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Ross Gittens, wrote about this risk only a day or so ago. He was commenting primarily on the way deteriorating business ethics and behaviour are eroding trust. One reason for the decline, he says, is the growth of economic fundamentalism or rationalism. At the core of economic fundamentalism is the assumption that the market finds the best resolution of the competing self-interests of sellers and buyers, producers and consumers. It also assumes that the market mechanism assures the most economically efficient use of resources.

But there is a moral problem with these assumptions. As Gittens says, by emphasising monetary value, economic fundamentalism views all things, including “labour” as resources to be exploited, as grist for the market mill. Worse than that, he reminds us, economic fundamentalism has had the effect of “sanctifying selfishness”.

When I put my interests ahead of other people’s, I’m not being greedy or self-centred or anti-social; I’m just being rational.

Economic fundamentalism, like ideological extremism of every kind tends to be blinding. It easily blinds us to values that lie beyond the economic or materialistic sphere. Not only that, economic fundamentalism is incapable of putting a value of many things including virtually all aspects of nature. The fact that a value has been put on urban tree plantings may seem to say otherwise, but any attempt to assess nature in dollar terms is doomed to be difficult, dangerous and demeaning.

  • It’s difficult because it presupposes complete knowledge, when in fact our understanding of what natural products and services could be useful is very incomplete.
  • It’s dangerous because economic calculations ignore social concerns about who benefits and who loses. It is dangerous also because market-determined values fluctuate as economic conditions change.
  • It’s demeaning because it is an invitation to act with ignorance and arrogance. How presumptuous it is to assume that natural beauty, serenity, tranquility or wonder, for example, can be measured in monetary terms!

Unfortunately, economic terms are the ones that dominate present-day public discourse. There are conservation and other organizations in our own society striving to change that discourse – to have all things in nature, including ourselves, seen primarily as ends and much less as means. All such organisations warrant our support.

At the personal level, we can help support the change by modelling, advocating and promoting the “I-you” rather than the “I-it” relationship with nature. And we can certainly resist trivialising nature by discussing it in marketplace terms. We do well to heed what the noted environmental ethicist Aldo Leopold said:

We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.


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Tree hugger bIt is not always complimentary to be called a “tree hugger”. The label is sometimes attached disparagingly to people considered by others to be overdoing the business of loving and protecting nature. It has been given to scientifically informed conservationists, as well as to people who seek the mystical properties and powers of nature (whatever these may be).Tree hugger a

But if the label means a person who enjoys a rich personal relationship with natural objects and places, then I am happy to claim it. Properly understood, the term conveys two very important ideas.

First, the “tree” part of the term points us to the fact that a relationship with “nature” has to be a relationship with particular natural places, objects, creatures and events. The vast and complex totality of nature defies being known and loved in a personal way. But we can and we do relate at a personal level to trees, flowers, lakes, landscapes, animals and a host of other particular elements of nature. We can have a genuine “love” for a particular tree, for example, a plant, a garden, a scenic lookout, a mountain or a waterfall.

Our personal relationships with nature’s elements are not only rewarding and important in themselves, but they also serve to open our hearts and minds to nature more broadly. A person’s “love of nature” is actually the composite of many “loves”. It is no accident that a passion for the well-being of nature in later often stems from childhood encounters with the natural world.

I choose the word “encounters” deliberately because of the strong link it has with the second of the ideas to be drawn from the term, “tree hugger”, the “hugger” part specifically. Giving someone a hug can be a superficial social gesture of course, but it usually conveys affection, empathy and comfort – all elements of a personal and “feeling” relationship. An authentic “tree hugger” has established just that kind of relationship with at least some and probably many elements of nature.

Way back in the 1923, the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, published a landmark book about human relationships, I and Thou. In the book, he draws a distinction between “experience” and “encounter”. These, he said, represent the two basic ways or modes by which we engage the world.

In the experience (“I-it”) mode, we relate to whatever we are engaging (including another person) as an object or an “it”. We gather information about the object in order to interpret it. The object is viewed as a thing to be utilised, a thing to be known or put to some purpose. In the experience mode, we see our object as a collection of attributes and qualities (sometimes quantifiable). There is an inevitable distance between the experiencing “I” and the experienced “it”. The “I” is a more or less objective observer rather than a personal participant in this mode of engaging the world.

Do you recognise this mode? You should because, says Buber, this is the way that characterises the world we live in. People are employees, for example, or consumers, customers, clients, welfare-recipients, “negative-gearers”, refugees and illegal immigrants before they are people. In politics, economics, public institutions and even aspects of personal life, people predominantly view one another as “it” rather than “you”.

Unlike the impersonal “I-it” way of relating, the encounter or “I-you” (I-thou) mode is intensely personal. It is the person-to-person mode; the mode laden with feelings of love, affection, attraction, empathy, compassion and bonding. In encounter, there is a mental and emotional dialogue between the “I” and the “you”, as whole beings; both are changed as a result. “I-you” is a relationship of reciprocity and mutuality, while “I-it” is a relationship of detachment and separateness, one which only ever involves part of the “I” and the “it”.

We can enter into encounter with any objects that we experience; with inanimate objects; with animals; as well as with one another. With one another, the phenomenon of encounter is readily recognised as love. With animals and objects, encounter may not have all the range and richness of the love between people but it does comprise many of the same emotional elements, including affection, pleasure, reward, empathy and compassion. And just as does the highest form of love between people, it draws us into an unconditional regard and valuing of the other.

There is no doubting that this photo of Jane Goodall and Wounda depicts encounter.

Wounda farewelling Jane Goodall

Equally, it is safe to assume that the “I-it” relationship figured very prominently in the events leading up to the scenes in these photos.

Whale slaughterForest destruction b Tarkine




Now it is important not to rush to judgement about these two events simply on the basis of the kind of relationship, “I-it” or “I-you”, implicit in them. Both have a necessary place in human existence. Indeed Buber says they are equally important.

Moreover, the two modes of relating are not independent of one another. If fact, they readily change from one to the other. My fernery, for example, is an “it” to me when I doing the tasks to maintain it, butIMG_1870 very much a “you” when I am sitting contemplating it.

Perhaps a better example of the way “I-it” and “I-you” can interplay is found in North American Indian hunting attitudes and customs. Typically, the prey is accorded respect as a co-inhabitant of nature and before the kill, which is only ever for food, permission is sought from the animal’s spirit.

Although the two modes of engaging the world are equally important, Buber claims that in modern society, experience is far more highly valued than encounter. If we are to have a truly meaningful and fulfilling society (a true community), he argues, we need to make much fuller use of the neglected, encounter mode, of engaging the world.

Revisiting Buber’s ideas has led to me to something of an epiphany (or awakening). In a nutshell, I have come to realise a personal connection with nature is forged through encounter rather than experience. Experience can be part of the journey but there has to be encounter if the journey is to be completed. The chapters in my book and the many posts that now comprise my blog fall roughly into two categories – those that talk about why we need to connect with nature and those that suggest ways of making that connection. The material in the second category is by far the more important and useful because it more directly facilitates encounter.

If a person were to ask me, How can I acquire a love of nature?, my answer would be along these lines:

Spend time as often and as regularly as you can with any “bit” of nature that you find (or think you will find) appealing in some way (Find a tree to hug, so to speak). Connect emotionally rather than logically, analytically or intellectually with your “bit”. If you are able to do this, encounter will follow almost certainly with no further effort from you.  

I dedicate this post to the memory of a valued friend and colleague, Frances “Beau” Aspinall, who  awakened my interest in the writings of Martin Buber.

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