Planting Nature: Trees and the Manipulation of Environmental Stew-ardship in America

Planting Nature scrutinizes the discourse of trees, meaning the construction of trees in the cultural imagination and the manipulation of that construction for political and economic ends. The book’s argument proceeds from the pun in its title. Shaul E. Cohen provides a brief history of tree planting, from the first Arbor Day in 1872 to the present, to show how interest groups with poor-to-indifferent environmental records offer a green face to the public. Through seemingly benign programs like the Urban Forestry Initiative, Global ReLeaf, and Tree City USA, corporate sponsors can sidestep important matters of sustainability and stewardship.

The book’s central observation should surprise no one: that “a ‘green’ image is good marketing” (p. 5). But Cohen broadens this point by drawing from Antonio Gramsci, whose concept of hegemony explains how an ostensibly nonpartisan activity (planting trees) serves the corporate sector. Trees tap into the feelings of a virtuous citizenry, tree planting provides the panacea for a host of social ills, and participation in tree planting programs allows American consumers to feel as if they are doing something positive—all without addressing the root causes of current environmental crises.

The book’s strongest chapters outline the history of two venerable institutions, the National Arbor Day Foundation and American Forests, untangling a dense web of corporate altruism, government partnership, charity, and private gain. The National Arbor Day Foundation, established in 1972 to mark the centennial of J. Sterling Morton’s first holiday, sponsors popular initiatives such as Tree City USA, Trees for America (where ten trees get planted for each new membership), and poster contests. Backing by the Keebler Corporation, Wal-Mart, Toyota, and the flooring company Triangle Pacific suggests that the foundation is used, whether practically or cynically, “as an emblem of environmental responsibility” (66). (In the shade of Cohen’s analysis, one hears a basis for the paranoia expressed in that recent gem of environmental film, I Heart Huckabees.) The discussion of American Forests, a group supported by the timber industry, clinches Cohen’s argument. Founded in 1875 as a response to wanton destruction, American Forests has a long history with the U.S. Forest Service, and it has fought the same battles between conservation and raw exploitation. Cohen focuses upon the Global ReLeaf program, a massive planting effort that “rescued American Forests as an organization” while accepting “the sponsorship of major oil, coal, and timber companies” (p. 69). Its message: Any damage to the environment “can be undone by planting trees” (p. 70). Don Henley with the Walden Woods Project, heirloom seedlings from Elvis Presley’s Graceland, on-line calculators computing net-gain carbon sequestration and the like provide the human link to activities based on discourse—that is, the feel good quality of trees—rather than science.

Two final chapters, which rescue this book from claims of conspiracy, further document the long association between the timber industry, the federal government, and foundations like American Forests. Cohen addresses the motives and immediate gains of maintaining a “green” hegemony. As the Forest Service has visibly struggled between the conflicting demands of profit and sustainability, the timber industry has worked to maintain its public image, so that companies seen as “hostile to the environment” may “distinguish themselves as environmental stewards” (pp. 136–37). Making more solid links, Cohen debunks two dubious claims advanced in American Forests literature: That tree farms benefit the environment because the industrialized species grow faster, and that planting directly curbs global warming.

Such points of direct manipulation, in fact, could have been expanded to round out what is a slim but suggestive volume. In a short disclaimer from the final chapter (“Roads Not Taken”), Cohen gestures toward further avenues of investigations, and while those temperamentally suited to left-leaning arguments (like myself) will buy Cohen’s case, he would have gained by leaving the cushiony realm of discourse occasionally and establishing causal links. He writes primarily in the passive voice, and while one may dismiss this as a mere stylistic flaw (where was his copy editor?), it also stems from the mode of analysis. The focus upon discourse allows the critic to simply imply, without documenting who did what to whom. Perhaps this haziness derives from the very nature of his topic, and besides, readers should have no trouble connecting the dots. For in the end, Cohen provides a striking study, offering specialists insight into constructions of the natural, and establishing a basis of understanding for anyone who has ever suspected that her or his good intentions—while comfortably shaded by the rhetoric of trees—might be manufactured.

 

 

By Shaul E. Cohen

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