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.
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.
After 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.