Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Outsourcing Nature- Can a Fake Tree be Greener Than a Real Tree?

Providing ambiance.

Your great aunt will be pleased to find out that artificial trees are making a stylish comeback!
Not the artificial trees such as the one shown to the right, which is arguably useless and requires dusting.  I once watched a man climb a ladder in a rest stop atrium to vacuum the leaves of a forest of fake trees. The ceiling overhead was composed entirely of skylights, for the record, but someone felt that fake trees were a good choice for that space.

There is a trend to produce structures modeled on trees that clean carbon from the air.  But you know what already cleans carbon from the air?  Real trees!  Why design and construct a structure that looks like a tree and acts like a tree when we've already got trees?  Is it really easier to extract resources from the earth and spend funds to construct an artificial tree and ship it to a site than it is to prepare a healthy bed for an acorn to thrive?  Some would say yes, that the performance of a machine is easier to measure and predict than that of a unique, living thing.

If you search for "artificial trees" on the web, you get countless pictures of ficus in pots.  If you add "carbon" to the search, you will find many articles invoking the groundbreaking technology of replicating trees to act like trees. Inhabitat, ColumbiaBBCTreehuggerThis Big CityHuffington PostYaleand Go Green all raise the idea that artificial trees can provide a solution to rising CO2 levels that live trees can't muster. 

Human/nature adjacency in Guatemala. 
Massive deforestation is occurring across the globe, effectively removing the planet's most powerful tool to combat the increased emission levels that we produce through consumption.  Deforestation is a two part challenge- it stops living trees from actively removing carbon from the air and it releases the carbon building blocks of those trees as they are burned or decomposed.  Expansion of global agriculture, suburban sprawl and development-based wildfires are major drivers of deforestation; all human pressures.

What is it about human nature that drives the desire to emulate but not adopt a naturally occurring process?  Does embracing an existing process not give us the satisfaction of problem solving? One of the strategies to bring our planet into sustainable alignment is called the Promethian strategy.  Proponents believe in the ingenuity of the human mind to engineer our way out of problems.  I agree that increased efficiency in technology is vital to reduce our consumption, but I'm not convinced that we should lean on technology exclusively to save us.

I would liken artificial trees to solar energy harvesting.  While huge leaps in technology and production have increased solar panel efficiency rates and dropped the cost to near competitive levels, there is still a massive amount of energy and material that goes into creating the panels so that they can passively collect solar energy for about 30 years.  

To create artificial trees, you need to extract raw materials, such as metal or oil for plastic.  The production process requires energy and water.  The structures will then be hauled to site and installed, where earth will be excavated and concrete poured.  Be sure to get the proper permits and Environmental Impact Statements first.

Trees showing off.
To plant real trees, you need raw materials; seeds, trowels, water and sun.  For installation, you can pay laborers with money, pay volunteers with serotonin, or pay an army of squirrels with acorns (while squirrels are harder to direct, their use is a win-win as they will plant their pay, forget where they put them and more trees will grow).

Are noble efforts better spent protecting and restoring forests at levels adequate to clean the air?  It's arguably easier to build something new than to fix a global trend that is broken.

One person has created a movement through the planting of one tree at a time.  Wangari Maathai has been awarded the Nobel Prize for starting the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. Since 1977, Maathai has led a shift toward widespread social, environmental and economic equity for women in Africa.  By planting trees, women actively combat desertification, generate income through sale of seedlings and gum arabic collected from acacia trees, and empower themselves to thrive.  Over 40 million trees have been planted so far.

Many smart, well-meaning individuals can engineer a product; it is a rare and powerful person who can harness the human element to effect sweeping positive change using tools available at all our fingertips.  

2 comments:

  1. Aarugh! Fake trees. What a concept. Although trees have this amazing ability to capture carbon that is only one of the very important ecosystem services that trees provide. Fake trees would not be able to provide that very basic element-the beginning of the food chain. Doug Tallamy, Professor and Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware provides research that 96% of terrestrial birds feed their young insect food. Oaks provide 534 species of caterpillars. What are our birds and small mammals going to eat? Fake insects?

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  2. Yes, real trees provide many ecosystem services other than carbon capture and you highlight the key role that people need to play in making this happen. Some of your references such as from the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-schiffman/artificial-trees-carbon-capture_b_2728083.html) suggest that carbon capture strategies in the industrial sector also have merit and should be pursued at the same time. The market value of carbon to serve industrial needs is rising every day and technology is advancing that will drive new uses such as replacing water in hydraulic fracturing and in generating alternate fuel sources. Every strategy for carbon capture and carbon trade needs to be put on the table to counteract the carbon we are generating . . . and if fake "trees" is one of them that has economic merit why not!

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