"How little we would need if we knew how much we already had." Richard Powers on how attending to trees might save us

Trees seem to have become more than an occasional interest on the Daily Alternative. We ran a blog at the end of last year profiling research on how trees are the ultimate networkers - whether in their own root networks supporting each other, or their chemical communications with animals, or a myriad of other ways. A quote from the blog:

Author of The Songs of Trees David Haskell calls trees “biology’s philosophers,” dialoguing over the ages, and offering up a quiet wisdom. We should listen, the biologist says, because they know what they’re talking about. Haskell writes, “Because they are not mobile, to thrive they must know their particular locus on the Earth far better than any wandering animal.”

So it was a delight to discover that one of America's leading novelists, Richard Powers, has just published The Overstory - which is essentially an epic of several human encounters, set across the ages, with the deep power of trees. (It has just been longlisted for the Man Booker literary prize.)

Powers has a reputation as one of the most science-literate of contemporary fiction writers. So when he says the below - from a Los Angeles Review of Books extended interview - it has some force:

[My novel] is the story of immense, long-lived creatures whom many people think of as little more than simple automatons, but who, in fact, communicate and synchronize with each other both over the air and through complex underground networks, who trade with and protect and sustain their own and other species. It’s about immensely social beings with memory and agency who migrate and transform the soil and regulate the weather and create a breathable atmosphere. As the great [Ursula] Le Guin put it, the word for world is forest.

It's worth quoting a few more passages from this amazing, world-encompassing interview. Here, Powers talks about the contemporary politics in his country:

It may be neither hyperbolic nor rhetorical to call the current turn in American politics a collective suicide. Premature deaths, damage to human health, dislocation of populations, destruction of coastal and storm-belt property, disruption of essential components of the food supply: climate change casualties are mounting rapidly, and coping with, let alone trying to reduce them will require one of the greatest concerted public efforts in history.

(Incidentally, deforestation contributes more greenhouse gasses than all the world’s trucks and cars, and climate change contributes massively to deforestation, a most vicious positive feedback loop.)

Instead, the current, proudly suicidal administration is backing out of climate agreements, crippling the solar power industry, subsidizing “beautiful, clean coal,” opening national monuments to drilling, and revoking or rescinding protections of air, water, and land that took half a century of massive political effort to put in place. Cynical appointments have destroyed guardian agencies from the Department of the Interior to the EPA, killing them from the inside out.

History is filled with moments when doomed regimes redouble their own insanity by speeding up self-destruction rather than capitulating to accountability. We are in one such moment, perhaps the most catastrophic one ever.

No one should be fooled: the motive behind all of this “deregulation” is not primarily economic. Any reasonable accounting reveals that the sum of these measures carries external costs far greater than the hoped-for benefits. (Did you know that the number-one killer in the world is pollution? And that doesn’t even include premature deaths from climate change.)

The push to remove all environmental safety strikes me as mostly psychological. It’s driven by a will to total dominance, underwritten by the hierarchy of values that George Lakoff calls “stern paternalism,” putting men above women, whites above minorities, Americans above all other countries, and humans above all other living things. Trumpism calls it a return to greatness (a.k.a., “Grab ’em by the…”). It might better be called a tantrum in the face of a crumbling control fantasy.

...If the most common causes of individual suicide are depression and psychic isolation, the cause of our accelerating and collectively willed suicide may be despair over the failed system of capitalism and commodity-driven meaning, as well as the crippling condition that psychologists call “species loneliness.”

We will always be parasites on plants. But that parasitism can be turned into something better — a mutualism. One of my radicalized activists makes this proposal: We should cut trees like they are a gift, not like they are something we a priori deserve. Such a shift in consciousness might have the effect of slowing down deforestation, since we tend to care for gifts better than we do for freebies.

But it would also go a long way toward treating the suicidal impulse in people caused by species loneliness. Many indigenous people knew this for millennia: thanking a living thing and asking for its pardon before using it goes a long way toward exonerating the guilt that leads to violence against the self and others.

As a friend of mine likes to put it: How little we would need if we knew how much we already had.

More from the interview here. Also worth reading is The Guardian's feature interview with Powers.