Give the Gift of Life (To Your Christmas Tree)

During the holidays, trees are treated the same as other disposable products and on the first garbage pick-up day after the holidays, worn out Christmas trees line urban streets.

This is frustrating in our age of ecological enlightenment. We know the importance of trees for regulating our planets climate and providing other essential ecosystem services. We are aware of the massive loss of forests globally. But we still support a huge amount of resources (water, fertilizers, land, etc.) to be put towards growing Christmas trees that will be cut down and ultimately, thrown in the garbage.

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There are many reasons that we could be concerned about the Christmas tree industry. Like other plantation set-ups, Christmas tree farms are sprawling monocultures of genetically manipulated species. The average size of a Canadian plantation is nearly 55 acres. Growers often use toxic pesticides and fungicides to keep those trees looking perfect so that we will buy them and put them in our living rooms.

And buy them we do. According to Statistics Canada, in 2012 Canadians spent $53 million on cut trees. Canada also exported 1.6 million of our trees to families abroad.

And so the question begs: why do people buy dead trees for Christmas? The tradition is deeply rooted in our societies. In Europe, Christmas trees originated in Germany in the 16th Century and over time, they spread to Europe’s colonies as well. Canadians must have completely eaten up this tradition, with all kinds of evergreen trees to choose from.  By the mid-1800’s, Christmas trees were part of our holiday identity as well.

But this is 2014 and that model of tradition is simply not relevant anymore. I am not arguing that we should squash this part of our identity. In fact, the tradition of buying Christmas trees presents an exciting opportunity for making widespread ecological improvements in our communities.

Many communities are seriously devoid of nature, especially in new subdivisions. Christmas is a rare time of year where mass amounts of people buy trees. Imagine if every year all the people who buy cut trees chose to have a live tree instead. Maybe taking it a step further and buying a species that is found in that area natively.

xmas in vernon 109After Christmas every year there would be millions of trees that would be available to enhance our yards, parks and boulevards. This would do wonders for improving water quality, stopping soil erosion and reducing the heat island effect. It could ultimately be the largest urban tree planting effort to date.

There are different considerations that need to be made when buying a live tree. Many of these are outlined in this article from This Old House Magazine. In Canada specifically, January is no time for gardening. There would need to be a cooperative effort with municipalities to store and care for trees that people don’t have room for after Christmas. But perhaps if people were buying live trees, they would want to keep them around longer in their homes and enjoy the extended connection with nature that is often hard to find when it is too cold to be outside.

Christmas is a time when people often feel generous. We give each other love and gifts and feel thankful for everything that we have. But our relationship with Christmas trees is unnecessarily selfish. Let’s update this tradition to fit the times and restore nature in our communities while were at it.


It’s Time to Make Room for a New Measure of Development

GDP (Gross Domestic Product) has been improperly used to measure development for decades.

It was originally devised to see how poorly the U.S. economy was doing during the Great Depression. Today, it’s not only used to indicate the economic health of our nations but also to compare the overall state of development and determine which countries are doing well and which are doing poorly.

The problem with GDP, which has been well documented by economists and development professionals alike, is that it doesn’t give an accurate picture of national economics, let alone state of development.

GDP is a representation of the total spending, or value of goods and services, of a country.

However, to get an accurate indication of how well countries are doing, we need to look at more than just spending.

For example, a nation’s GDP increases when a family spends money on an alarm system because they live in an unsafe neighbourhood. This means that the more money that families spend on locking up their homes from thieves, the better the country looks overall.

Spending to remediate environmental disasters also increases GDP. For example, efforts to clean up after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico boosted the U.S. GDP by billions of dollars. Unfortunately, the extreme devastation that this event caused the local people and the environment didn’t register anywhere.

As shown in these examples, increased spending doesn’t necessarily mean that the well-being of citizens is improving. Not only are the ‘goods’ produced accounted for in GDP but also are what ecological economists consider the ‘bads’. As a result, spending can only ever register in a positive way, when in reality, spending to mitigate pollution, crime or other undesirable social spending should be deducted from the total.

In addition, not only does GDP inaccurately reflect our societies by including the detriments, but it also misses out on some important merits that reflect the greatness of our societies and don’t involve spending, such as volunteering and growing your own food.

Many alternative measures have been provided and are used such as Human Development Index (HDI), Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI), and Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). These indicators include other important factors such as education, health and happiness.

However, none of these indicators have gained the global prominence that GDP has, largely because institutions such as the International Monetary Fund firmly insist that tracking economic growth (GDP) is an important way to track development and ultimately, human well-being.

It’s time to finally move away from GDP. Instead of adding up all spending and celebrating the total, we should add up the value of the things we want (such as spending on education, health care and environmental protection) and subtract the value of the things we don’t want (including pollution and theft), ending up with a more accurate reflection of the state of our nations.

Many economists have argued that this approach of weighing the costs and benefits associated with economic activity is the only way to get an accurate understanding of growth and ultimately, the development of a country.

Canada poses an interesting example of this. According to Canadian Industry Statistics from 2011, the energy sector is responsible for nearly $85 billion of Canada’s annual GDP. That is almost 7% of the country’s total GDP.

A large part of this comes from Alberta’s oil reserves.

If the ‘bad’ elements of energy extraction, such as the cost of maintaining toxic tailing ponds, the massive demand for water, and the emissions of greenhouse gases were subtracted from this $85 billion, the industry would undoubtedly be painted in a much different, and more realistic, way.

Herman Daly, an American ecological economist explains that when the cost of growth exceeds its worth, it becomes uneconomic growth. By focusing on a cost-benefit balancing approach we can begin to see if our economic activities are indeed experiencing uneconomic growth. If so, we can focus on improving the quality of these activities instead of merely the quantities involved. And ultimately, it is essential to have a clear picture of the quality of our economies and societies to create an adaptable and resilient planet.

Let The Beavers Do The Work

City workers were doing their job when they removed a beaver dam from my Kitchener, Ontario neighbourhood in late November. A family of beavers had spent the last six or seven years damming a storm water channel and creating an adjacent wetland. The water had finally risen above the storm water outflow pipe and threatened to block the community’s drainage if the water was to freeze. The city had been monitoring the situation and decided it was time to act. They brought in heavy equipment and removed the dam.

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I’ve spent the last three months exploring this area with my dog. Trails wind through an overgrown field bordering the main Grand River channel on one side and the wetland on the other. It’s an ever changing, water soaked landscape with a novel mix of disturbance tolerant invasive and native plant species. There were three beaver dams that I noticed in the wetland area. Mallards, geese and blue herons also took refuge in the mix of what was shallow cat-tail dominated areas and open water. With very few other visitors, this spot was a rare gem in this urban area.


One November afternoon I took my dog for a hike to the river and found that the beaver dam was gone and the water in the wetland had been drained. This was a very cold week and the water had been frozen over. When the dam was removed and the water drained from under the ice, it left a frozen outline of ice around the trees and cattails. The dramatic change in water levels could be easily seen. In just two days, the water had receded by almost a meter.


My initial feeling was one of personal betrayal since my favourite nature refuge had been completely changed overnight. My thoughts then went to the beavers. First, where had the family gone that had lived in the dam that was removed? Second, how would the others survive with only a muddy couple of inches of water left?


Beavers are fairly ubiquitous in this part of the world and like other species that are considered pests they are grossly undervalued. In this case, water managers perceived the beavers as working against their water management objectives. If the water hadn’t been drained there could have been damage to the infrastructure. This is certainly understandable. But at the same time I can’t help but think about the hard work of the beavers. Consider that just two beavers had built an entire water treatment system that filtered the storm water from my community. Best of all, the water was cleaned without the cost or footprint of a human built water treatment facility.

The water that washes off of our communities can be toxic. This water in particular runs off an industrial area where transport trucks and heavy equipment frequent. Chemicals drip off these vehicles, are mixed with road salts, lawn and home pollutants and wash into storm water drains. Since the dam was removed, these chemicals go directly from the pipe into the Grand River.

The cheapest and most efficient way to clean water is to treat it as close to its source as possible. In this case, the wetland had been cleaning the runoff from my community only a couple of hundred feet from where it falls as rain or snow. The beavers were inadvertently achieving best management practices and water managers failed to recognize this.


Today more than ever we need to recognize this type of opportunity. People in Ontario have removed most of the wetlands over the last hundred years. However, we now understand the benefits that wetlands provide for us and for other organisms. Not only do they filter water but they also reduce flooding and support biodiversity. Huge amounts of money are poured into wetland restoration projects to re-establish these ecosystems.  Imagine the amount of resources that could be saved if we allowed other animals to help us restore our environment.

Over the last couple of weeks the beavers have begun to rebuild their home in the same spot. I imagine when spring arrives the naked stream bank and muddy flowing water that was left by the city workers will evolve into something similar to what it was before the dam was removed. This time, instead of seeing the beaver as working against our goals, we should recognize the habits of these animals as creating an opportunity to restore wetlands in this region and improve the water quality of one of Ontario’s main river systems.