Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Plant a tree? Maybe not.

As in a lot of industries, many people involved in publishing are thinking green these days, and the focus of their thinking is on the trees that get pulped to make paper for books. (Somehow they don’t usually think about the transportation component—moving trees, moving pulp, moving paper, moving books—which can also be significant.)

Realistically, if unappealingly, the greenest way to publish a book is electronically, of course. But as a designer of printed books, I don’t like to think about that. The next best choice is digital printing, particularly print-on-demand, because it consumes only the paper needed for copies people are actually planning to read, not the excess paper needed for books that will sit unread in a garage or warehouse.

But emotionally, publishers are frequently drawn to the idea of offsetting their carbon footprints, particularly their vicarious destruction of tropical rainforests for pulp, by just as vicariously planting trees. They do this by contributing funds to any of several organizations that plant trees—trees that will grow up to sequester carbon, presumably.

Here’s the rub:

Most people whose understanding of the outdoors extends as far as their front lawn (which means the majority of Americans) think of planting a tree as a transaction that involves a nursery, a large hole, a specimen that costs anywhere from thirty to a few hundred dollars, and a lot of water. So the idea of donating three or five dollars to some organization per tree planted sounds like a heck of a deal.

However, anyone who has ever done any conservation tree planting or reforestation work knows that planting a tree actually consists of swinging a mattock (once!) to bury the head in the earth, pulling back on it slightly to open a slit, peeling a tree seedling from a bundle of 50 or 100 that you can easily carry in one hand, dropping the seedling in the slit, stepping on it with your boot heel to close the slit, taking one pace forward, and repeating the procedure. Total elapsed time less than ten seconds. The seedlings, depending on species, are available from state-run nurseries for prices in the range of ten cents to thirty cents. So if the “charity” is getting three dollars and the state is getting a dime, and the Americorps kid doing the planting is getting another dime (unlikely), you do the math.

If you want to plant trees to offset your carbon footprint, skip going to the gym or golf course one Saturday and go out and plant 1,000 trees yourself. Contact your state forester for a location where your volunteer labor will be put to good use. You’ll be out the cost of a good pair of lightweight work boots (not construction boots, which are too hot and heavy, but something more on the order of hiking boots) and you might have to buy your own mattock (thirty bucks or so at Home Depot). But you won’t have spent $3,000 on tree seedlings worth $100.

I hasten to add that I’m sure many tree planting programs are legitimate efforts run by reputable nonprofits that make excellent use of all donated funds. I’m pretty sure, though, that there are also a lot of scams out there. If you want to make a difference, it makes a difference where you send your money.

No comments: