True environmental protection requires a shift in how we talk about and with forests.

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Which came first, the acorn or the oak tree?A more important question is which came first: our words for trees or our understanding of what trees are?

Human dialogue around trees shapes and is shaped by our education, beliefs, experiences, and relationships with trees. Simply put, how we talk about trees matters.

Ten years ago, I valued trees with a concern for the health of the planet, but I wasn’t thinking about how we talk about trees and their deep complexity. Later, through unexpected developments in my research, I became more aware of the relationships, senses, and intelligence of trees and their interconnectedness with the environment as home and community.



Read more: COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal: Canada missed its 2020 conservation goals. Will 2030 be better?


As we approach the anniversary of last year’s United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal, we are committed to reconnecting Kunming and Montreal to the integrity, interconnectedness and protection of all ecosystems that is required globally. It is clear that the discussion around collective trees needs to fundamentally change. Biodiversity framework.

Such changes and permanent changes mean that we should not talk about trees, but and wood.

What is tree discourse?

Behind every discourse is a system of language, behavior, and beliefs. Contemporary discourse reflects and shapes people’s beliefs that trees are either living members of the community or inanimate objects used for human well-being.

This dualism becomes complicated when people understand the relationship between the vitality of trees and non-human life, prioritizing the economic value of humans and the need for trees.

Our relationship with trees in the West has evolved from perceiving trees and plants as humans, kin, and gods, to viewing the natural world as independent and subject to human desire. During the European Enlightenment, British philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that beneficial human actions “improve the spontaneous course of nature” and that imitating nature is despicable, so we follow nature. He said that was “equally irrational and immoral.”

This paradigm, which has dominated Western, and by extension, world, thought for centuries, considers trees and plants to be “merely the wallpaper of life” and resources to be exploited.

The impact of tree discourse

Basic text by British author John Evelyn Silver Published in 1664, it became one of the most influential books on forestry.

Conceived as a practical guide to silva culture (the science of growing and harvesting trees for manufactured goods), this book was written in response to the Royal Navy’s concerns about timber shortages. In the 17th century, he needed 2,000 oak trees to build a single naval ship, and England’s forests were being destroyed.

These same wooden ships carried imperial and colonial expansion that was so widespread that it resulted in a global “Little Ice Age” and caused untold genocide and environmental destruction in the Americas (Turtle Island) .

2,000 oak trees being cut down to build one ship shows that humans can act as the dominant species on Earth and exploit trees and other non-humans in the name of progress. It has been normalized by an embedded and convenient belief. Similarly, the continued deforestation we see around us (10 million hectares of deforestation per year since 2010 alone) is enabled by the same ideological discourse.

I see a brown/gray ground with felled trees in a green forest.
Since 2010, approximately 10 million hectares of forest have been lost each year.
(AP Photo/Eraldo Perez)

The effects of deforestation include loss of non-human species, reduced ability of trees to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and increased drought, fire, and heat, all of which inhibit the growth of plants and trees. and contribute to the climate crisis.



Read more: Have we reached the end of nature? Our relationship with the environment is in crisis


Furthermore, the loss of old and venerable old trees in search of better landscaping, new farms, or the installation of solar panels affects not only the eco-communities that live within them, but also other communities of trees, non-humans, and humans. is also affected.

In many indigenous and animistic ways of knowing, non-humans, including trees, are humans and relatives.

They are called “Standing People” and are admired and respected for their unique tangible and intangible qualities. The relationship with the tree is recognized through acts of gratitude and reciprocity, such as offerings and prayers. In many Indigenous worldviews, recognizing and respecting intelligence and equality in the living environment is essential to guiding responsible interactions with the world and protecting all life.

celebration and change

Over the past decade or so, there has been an increase in Western literature and media publications about trees. Trees have been of practical use to humanity, serving as a valuable source of symbolism and creativity.

Trees protect urban centers, reduce their expenditure, interact biologically and socially, and live and reproduce through elaborate, tiny biological parts.

Western discussions of trees increasingly recognize trees as entities in their own right. Scientific research shows evidence of self-awareness, intelligence, perception, and cognition in trees and plants.

The ongoing debate over plant intelligence is tied to the recognition that “intelligence” cannot be applied to organisms that lack intellectual functions or organs for movement.

On the contrary, Stefano Mancuso, a prominent Italian botanist and scholar, argues that it is impossible and evolutionarily unrealistic to think of any life form as lacking intelligence. This includes that “plants that cannot move necessarily have to solve problems.”

A couple walking hand in hand through the forest.
Growing evidence suggests that the intelligence of trees has been historically underestimated by Western science.
(AP Photo/Matthias Schroeder)

Changes in scholarly thinking toward human bias and interest in non-humans over the past few decades (known as the non-human turn), and the growing field of critical plant studies, have led to a shift in the recognition and action of non-humans and plants. As such, it is attracting attention from both the academic world and the public. our lives and the world. This attention must include the recognition that indigenous relational knowledge with non-human intelligences and humanity existed long before the emergence of Western ways of thinking.

In 1972, American legal and environmentalist Christopher Stone called for the rights and moral status of trees, stating that it is neither inevitable nor wise for natural beings to have no rights, position, or voice in human society. .

Rather than assuming or imposing that non-humans have no voice, we humans need to recognize the limits of our ability to listen. Discourse is not just for humans.

trees are important

In September 2023, England’s iconic 300-year-old plane tree, which was “part of the region’s DNA”, was “literally murdered” in an act that was described as “theft of joy”.

This type of discourse reflects the sense of security and identity that people develop in their long relationships with trees and the natural world. These words reflect respect for the immense presence and healing qualities of trees, their inherent life force, their right to be recognized as sentient beings, and the support they provide to all life on Earth. doing.

A tree stands in a U-shaped valley under the starry sky.
The Sycamore Gap tree in Northumberland, England, was cut down on September 28, 2023 in an act of vandalism that some are calling “murderous.”
(AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

Hearing and understanding people describe trees as “related” and “killed” why In doing so, they help change our understanding and perspective of trees. People are increasingly aware of the need to treat trees with respect, compassion and consideration.

Journalists can critically expand the discussion of trees by not only elaborating on such descriptive language in media articles, but also by elaborating on people’s understanding of trees. The changing discourse of trees urgently informs action towards ecological conservation.

Efforts to incorporate trees as relationships and persons into Western worldviews are an attempt to relearn and reconnect with old ways of knowing and living with trees and all non-human beings in relation to each other and kinship. , will help create a decidedly different future.



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