ALL ALONG THE MAIN ROAD workers in Hi-Viz vests are getting ready to cut down trees. Some are sharpening the teeth of their chainsaws, others lean casually against the flanks of their utes and vans, pulling deeply on cigarettes. As the sun’s first rays begin working on the chill morning air, these Hi-Viz wearers begin moving towards what’s left of the trees.
Would asking these workers to stop do the slightest good? The best response one could hope for is a weary “Mate, I’m just doing my job.” Less tolerant Hi-Viz wearers would have less to say – but they would say it much more forcefully!
It is hard to condemn the impatience of working people accosted by middle-class tree-huggers. Sentimentality butters no parsnips. In the time of Covid, jobs are precious. Only an idiot would put their own and their family’s welfare at risk by giving ear to those lucky enough to live in neighbourhoods with surplus trees to fell.
Besides, the workers in the Hi-Viz vests are just the contractors. Neither they, nor the firm that summoned them here at the crack of dawn, had the slightest say in the huge development project of which they are but one insignificant component. It was someone else’s decision: some architect’s, engineer’s or accountant’s; to clear the roadside of trees. Just one more tiny step towards the project’s completion. Certainly not something to waste time or money defending. Contractors are ten-a-penny. Those who raise ridiculous objections can easily be replaced.
All this is so obvious that it hardly merits the space already given to its explanation. We live in a society that assigns to private property all manner of rights and privileges. If the trees, and the land from which their roots have drawn sustenance for the past 100 years, belong to you, then you are free to cut them down. What’s more, if any person, or group of persons, tries to prevent you from cutting them down, then they are breaking the law and subject to arrest. No citizen in possession of their own house and a wee bit of garden would have it any other way.
Which is, of course, why the globe continues to grow warmer, and why every summer is hotter than the last. Because human-beings simply will not surrender the fantasy that the planet that keeps them (and everything else) alive is theirs: that they can own it; and that they can destroy its fragile ecosystems – the Amazon rain forest, or a line of trees along a suburban road – without being in any way affected.
The planners and the builders and the tree-fellers could listen to the scientists. They could learn about the impossible complexity of even the smallest tree. Of its awareness of environmental change. Of the signals it sends out to its neighbours. Of a longevity that reduces our own lives to the span of a single, sad season. But they don’t, because they’re pretty sure that if they did, then they would also have to listen to what the trees were saying.
But just imagine if they did. Just imagine if the workers in the Hi-Viz vests refused to sink their chainsaws into the flesh of these miraculous trees and their mysterious networks of sentience. Imagine if ordinary working men and women stopped leaving all the decisions to the architects, engineers and accountants. Imagine if they said: “This is our planet, too, and we refuse to allow you to inflict any more damage upon its fragile body. So, to all you planners who won’t see what’s lost; to all you builders who don’t count the cost; we say: ‘Stop! Enough is enough!’”
Except, you don’t have to imagine it, because, for a few brief months, it happened. Way back in the 1970s, in Sydney, Australia, when the workers in the Hi-Viz vests and their union imposed the world’s first “Green Ban” and forced the big developers to think again. It didn’t last, of course, the developers’ money and the corrupt union officials who took it saw to that, but it did happen.
And if this poor planet of ours is to be saved, and Climate Change brought under control, then it will be the workers in the Hi-Viz vests that do it.
On the day they tell their bosses to let the trees stand.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 August 2020.