Trees, Hills, and Justice

My permaculture class went on a field trip to learn more about dealing with water in permaculture designs. One of the first things you notice in the areas around San Francisco: The hills are brown. During the summer time, there is virtually no rain browning all the grass on the hills in East and North Bay. I always thought of that as natural: No rain, no green grass. I didn’t stop to think about why there is only grass on the hills! The MA Center, the site of our field trip, visually shows that things could be different. On one side, the hills are the usual brown, dried-out grassy areas. But on the other side are hills that are lush with green! The difference? The green hills have trees! Trees are important for retaining water (and can also help make rain). And, of course, the absence of trees is not natural. The trees were cut down for building material. Then the hills were parceled out to sell them to farmers. The farmers brought cows onto them. Since the parcels are too small for moving the herds, the cows just grazed on the grass that was there, eating it beyond regeneration, destroying the soil. Now the hills are bare. The soil is dead. The small area with green hills was for some reason spared that fate. There are now lush forests there and water run-off does not threatened soil erosion downhill. The water is slowed down, spread throughout the forest, and sinks into the ground for storage. There is a healthy ecosystem on those hills.

In addition to attending the Urban PDC, I am doing independent reading to ground what I learn during the PDC in philosophical theories. The field trip coincided with my reading of David Schlosberg’s book on environmental justice. The juxtaposition of the brown and the green hills brought home his arguments: The thoughtless destruction of the forests on the hills is unjust. It is environmentally unjust – current generations are paying for the overgrazing of past generations – and it is ecologically unjust – it disrespects a functioning ecosystem. The beauty of permaculture is that we can slowly undo the damage by regenerating the soil. It will take time and work. But it can be done.

The brown hills aren’t the only damage, though. The droughts that we are experiencing are also, at least partly, created by the destruction of the hills. We know that trees on ridges can help us create rain. By cutting down the trees, we are breaking that cycle. Worse, we expose the hills to the full power of the rain, when it does come. The water runs downhill without being slowed starting a ripple effect: Soil erosion, which then makes soil even less able to capture the rain, drying it out more, causing more soil erosion. This is known as a negative feedback loop – spiraling down into completely useless brown hills. So, the injustice of destroying and not regenerating the hills goes further: We are altering the climate, not just with CO2 emissions. Again, it’s important to break this loop – not only because green hills are pretty. It’s the just thing to do!

What do you think? The tools are there, so do we have a moral obligation to regenerate the soil to undo the damage? If not, why not? If yes, why?

(Cross posted here).

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Trees, Hills, and Justice — 2 Comments

  1. I would imagine that part of the problem is that those hills you were looking at are most likely owned by someone, and having them covered in trees, while pleasant to look at and healthy for the environment, is not economically viable. The destruction of that ecosystem was likely necessary at the time in order to turn a profit, which equates to someones livelihood.
    I would like to see our thought process as a society migrate towards a more symbiotic approach between environment and economics at the lower rungs of the ladder. We seem to be getting much better at rewarding large corporations for making environmentally responsible decisions, but could do much better with small scale entities. For instance, the landowner could decide to place some wind turbines and a cell phone tower on top of the hills, generating revenue to support their livelihood. Most states have laws in place now that require utilities to purchase the electricity at a reasonable rate to support this. But what incentive is provided for the landowner to plant some trees and let the are reforest itself? The reforestation part of the scenario is too small to be worthy of any sort of legislation, but if there was an entity that the landowner could go to for a custom, one-off “reforestation tax break” then everyone wins.
    I kind of got lost in all that, but to answer the question: Yes, there is a moral obligation, but the needs of a small business entity or individual to sustain themselves will probably trump that obligation every time unless society does a better job of incentivizing the small-scale players on a case-by-case basis.

    • Yes, you’re absolutely right: We cannot force small businesses to make ecologically wise decisions and then leave them in or near subsistence living. This requires a social change not just individual change. As a society, we need to stop rewarding short-term thinking and profit.

      I don’t think, though, that the reforestation part is too small because most of the hills in the San Francisco East and North Bay are bare and could use reforestation. This would also likely help with our chronic water shortage here… But, again, this isn’t something only one individual can do. We can start small but ultimately, change will require a paradigm shift when the number of trees growing for the next generations’ use is more of a measure of wealth than the size of your bank-account (for example…).

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