The evolution of thinking

Not seeing the forest for the trees & the internet’s dirty little secret

I was listening recently to Peter Wohllenben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, on CBC radio’s The Sunday Magazine. I was overwhelmed to learn how trees engage with each other to bring about a strong and diverse forest, fully capable of sequestering carbon into the soil while supporting a rich diversity of wildlife. No technology fancier than that. Just good old-fashioned science and knowledge.

Wohllenben has just released another book, The Power of Trees, which his publisher describes as “an illuminating manifesto on ancient forests: how they adapt to climate change by passing their wisdom through generations, and why our future lies in protecting them”.

The idea that the gold standard of forestry may be to let them re-wild themselves through a ‘mother tree’, is a revelation of great consequence to my mind. To artificially plant trees, particularly in mono forests or crops, can hardly have the same value in terms of carbon sequestration or biodiversity. Controlled burns such as those undertaken by some Indigenous people is a more enlightened way of protecting these invaluable plant resources so vital to a healing planet.

While listening to the CBC I was also reminded of the costly practice of having lawns, even golfing greens, considering all the water and energy they consume to keep them looking good for the neighbourhood. The history of this practice appears to emanate from Europe, possibly dating back to the 17th century where lawns served various functions, including providing a commons for livestock grazing, or to indicate a heightened social status, an “obsession” examined in Scientific American.

I live on a property which came with a lot of lawn. As I continue to learn in the face of an on-going climate crisis I can see my vision changing. It’s not unlike how I used to see what a forest was – or wasn’t.  No longer am I looking through the lens of esthetics and social status, but instead through a lens which sees that messy pile of leaves as hosting a variety of valuable insects, including pollinators. In addition to rewilding as much of my lawn as I can, what’s left I now mow as little as possible.

I remember last June when I’d been leaving the lawn to grow quite shaggy. Each night the fireflies were out in such great abundance I almost thought I was in a Disney Tinkerbell set! And then one day, I decided to finally mow the lawn. That night when I went out to the porch to see that amazing sight again, instead the grounds were dull with just a few twinkles of light here and there. It was nothing like the previous nights. I could see with my own eyes the huge impact mowing the lawn had had. Slowly but surely, I’m now on a program to reduce our lawn, and let it grow wild and there is much encouragement in doing so.

Such is progress one might say! An expansion, an evolution of understanding.

At the same time, Ronald Wright cautions us in his book A Short History of Progress that there can be many unintended consequences when technical progress becomes unhinged from moral and ethical principles and he illustrates this using the example of the atomic bomb.

This brings me to my evolution of thinking concerning the internet’s dirty little climate secret, the price of our on-line lives.

We’ve had 20 odd years of exploring the ups and downs of the internet and everything that comes with it. Not unlike our fossil-fuel-consuming vehicles of land, water and air, it was sold to us using the arguments of convenience, efficiency, even “progress”.

As with fossil fuels, it appears we’ve driven right down the same road with respect to the “unintended consequences” of technology and the internet. We’re now learning about the massive energy consumption by streaming services and bitcoin mining. Resource extraction for rare minerals is also disrupting habitat, while mountains of disposable smart technology are piling up in places around the world where human rights are also in peril. This is meticulously examined in the chapter “Burning Data” in Ronald Deibert’s book Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society.

It may be that we need to slow down and take our steps more carefully to ensure we’re not missing the forests for the trees, the fireflies in the grass, or the real world for the fake. This would be an evolution of thinking and true progress on our land as well as in our minds.