I spent most of the day today doing volunteer work with Million Trees NYC.
The primary purpose of this group, as you might have guessed, is to plant one million trees in New York City. However, despite that, most of the work we did today was, in a sense, the opposite. The site I was volunteering at was a park area where new sapling trees had been planted several years ago, right when the project was starting. Our primary task today was, as the fellow from the parks department put it, “removing invasives.” Those saplings still aren’t full-grown trees yet. As such, they are still vulnerable to being strangled by vines and shaded out by other opportunistic non-native plants like burdock. So, to ensure that the trees survive to reach full growth, we had to prune back these invasive species.
It was good, hard work, and I understand why it had to be done. I’ll admit, though, it felt a little weird to me to be volunteering with an organization whose specific mission is to plant things…then spending most of the time actively killing plants. Yes, invasive species are a threat to native ones. But part of me couldn’t help feeling like we had something backwards here. There we were, killing the plants we didn’t like because they were outcompeting the ones we did. That seemed eerily like the kind of attitude that got us into the current environmental crisis in the first place, including the problems of non-native species invading and disrupting the balance of the ecosystem.
And it would have made sense to me if not for the fact that we were working right at the edge of a highway. Why is that relevant? Because, seriously, how can we pretend to care about the disruption to the ecosystem caused by invasive species when we don’t prune back the one invasive species that started these problems in the first place: ourselves? Instead of spending our effort fighting with these invasive plants about what the species composition of the green areas will be, isn’t it more important to fight for larger green areas, and reductions in the concrete deserts? Are we planting these trees because we actually care about trees, or just because we think trees are pretty? It seems a little weird to care about oak trees, but think that burdock is nothing but a nuisance to be chopped down.
Here’s the important question, as I see it: are we just planting these trees to beautify already green areas, or are we planting trees to expand the green areas and push back against the grey? Now, to be fair, I don’t know what that area looked like before Million Trees NYC got there a few years ago. But what worries me is that environmentally-minded people might be spending their efforts on things that marginally improve human quality of life within the city, through increasing the aesthetic appeal of our surroundings, instead of focusing on driving back the concrete and replacing it with ecologically viable land.
Again, I’m not saying that invasive species shouldn’t be fought. What I’m saying is that the most dangerous and high-profile invasive species is ourselves. If we win the fight against every other invasive species, but continue to allow our own sprawl of life-crushing concrete to go unchecked, then none of those other victories means anything, not in the long run. If we want the ecosystems to stabilize, then we need to stop fragmenting them into little bits and pieces, stop paving them over just to make our economy more convenient (in other words, to make our system designed for destroying the world more efficient, so that a tiny number of humans can get even more money at the expense of the long-term survival of the entire species). I felt that I was doing good work today, making sure that the invasive species introduced by globalization, and colonial imperialism before it, don’t gain a foothold in disrupting the new ecosystem that Million Trees NYC was creating here. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but think that even a giant morass of nothing but weeds and mugwort would be infinitely preferable to a paved concrete road. Yes, I’d rather have a healthy ecosystem with thriving local plants, obviously. But the difference between a stable ecosystem and one rich in invasive species seems less important than the difference between having an ecosystem at all and being a concrete wasteland.
It’s the concrete wastelands we should be pruning back first, not the invasive plants. Suppose all the invasive species take over. Yes, the ecosystem will never be the same; but in time, in will achieve a new equilibrium, if we leave it be. Even an invasive plant is still a plant, still a living thing, and where there is life, there is hope. Where there is concrete, there is nothing but despair.