woody_zimmerman_118_2007A college in New York that I know pretty well has launched a multi-faceted campaign to "green" the campus. One part of that effort features elimination of trays from the college's cafeteria-style dining room. Besides the environmental advantage of not having to wash the trays, cafeteria managers anticipate saving several tons of food each year because students will have to carry their plates and cups by hand. This - according to theory - will cause diners to take smaller portions than they might otherwise have done, were trays still available.

Greenies like this writer immediately saw a rich opportunity in the "trays" initiative. Why not eliminate plates, too, thus effecting further savings of both food and dishwashing-expense? We reasoned that food intake would be reduced even more without plates. To our surprise, the suggestion was not well received. One humorless fellow wondered why we were mocking a perfectly sound idea (i.e., ditching the trays). Others sniffed that we were being "as ridiculous as college boys." (This was, of course, an unanswerable charge - no doubt accurate, but surely only a few degrees off from the tray-offensive.)

I couldn't help wondering if anyone had considered food spillage. You're bound to get some without trays. Or the amount of time potentially wasted by repeated trips through the cafeteria line to get items you couldn't carry in the initial trip, lacking a tray. It's possible that any savings in food and washing costs might be degraded by these disadvantages. A "cost-benefit" analysis of this seems unlikely, however, as this is politics, not business or science.

Ah, those "bright college days" of which Tom Lehrer sang in my wasted youth. [1] Students are always coming up with ideas like this, and they need somewhere to try them out. I believe this is one of the reasons that college was invented. We can all be glad that students haven't been allowed to get near serious enterprises like automobile companies or government. (Or have they?) But I digress.

This spring the same college also started a more conventional green initiative. It's a tree-planting project designed to "...balance sustainable environmental management with economic development," as one participant put it. (I respectfully decline to try to interpret that statement.) But, of course, the effort is entirely praiseworthy. Who could possibly object?

Not I, certainly - except that there is absolutely no reason to plant trees in the part of New York where this college is located. The college sits one of the most wooded areas of the state - indeed of the entire country. The campus and its surrounding environs are crowded with trees. Of course, one can argue that you can never have too many trees, so where's the harm?

The "harm" - if we may call it that - is in mistaking symbolism for real action that accomplishes something worthwhile. If every student at that college planted a tree - or even 10 trees - in that part of New York, there would be no noticeable result, because there are so many trees already. Unused farmland there is already overgrown with new forest, with more springing up all the time.

The issue of trees has captured the popular imagination of both college students and politicians who want to win college students' votes. We obsess about "saving the trees," with no clear idea of whether trees actually need saving - at least, in the USA. I read somewhere that the USA has more forest cover than it had in 1900, and 90% as much as when Europeans landed here in the 16th century. I have no idea if that is precisely true, but you don't have to drive very far across the country to realize that we do have an awful lot of forests. Even tracts of the Great Plains - treeless when the Indians hunted buffalo there - now have trees. Pioneers planted them.

I have looked for data on how much forest cover North America had in 1600, 1700, 1800, etc. But such data are difficult to find. Perhaps it is because they might show how extensive our forestation still is - thus serving no "useful" purpose for extracting government funds.

Trees are a "renewable" resource. If you cut them down, new trees grow up in their place. This doesn't mean we should do destructive clear-cutting, as in the 19th century. But it does mean we don't have to make schoolchildren worry about the trees. There are plenty left.

So-called "old-growth" forests are scarce, of course, because pioneers chopped down most of them, clearing land for farming in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. I'm glad we still have the redwoods and giant sequoias, for they are unique living things. There are plenty of other forests to supply that kind of wood without cutting the old growth.

This is not to say that trees are plentiful everywhere in the world. One place where uncontrolled clear-cutting has actually damaged the ecology is Haiti - the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the most impoverished places in the world. Because Haiti lacks industry that could provide a decent standard of living, people are reduced to cutting down trees to make charcoal - both for their own heating and cooking, and as a commodity to sell.

Haiti needs both trees and knowledge. "Missions trips" to Haiti to plant trees would be helpful, but they would not be sufficient because the people lack knowledge. Poverty and self-interest would cause people to cut down any trees altruistic Americans might plant. Haitians need to learn why trees must be left in vital areas as protection against flooding, like that which ravaged the country in recent years, when hurricanes Hanna and Ike swept through.

Haiti's ecology has been ruined by its poverty, and its poverty has ruined its ecology. That ruined ecology produces disastrous flooding, resulting in more poverty. The cycle must be broken. If a college wants to accomplish something real about trees, it can start by coming to Haiti to plant trees, teach Haitians how to manage their forestation resources, and help industry to get started.

Many other places in the world - primarily in Africa - are poor beyond Americans' imagination. They have plenty of trees, but they lack the modern development that might pull them out of poverty into modernized life. Development means industry, which they lack because they lack reliable sources of energy and electric power. Even hydroelectric dams have become unreliable because lakes like Chad and Victoria are shrinking. Electricity from solar and wind is simply too unreliable to power major industries.

This should be no problem, because Africa has vast reserves of oil and natural gas. Experts estimate African oil reserves at nearly a trillion barrels - enough to fuel the whole world for 100 years - and gas reserves at nearly ½ quadrillion cubic feet. With western technological assistance, Africa should be forging new industrial might. Yet this is not happening. Why not?

The reason promises to be the greatest, most shameful scandal of the 21st century. Africa is not developing its fossil-fuel resources because western nations are preventing it - ostensibly over concerns about global warming and climate change. Radical environmentalists flying to climate conferences in private jets and cruising in gas-guzzling SUVs want Africa to stay primitive to "save the planet."

This means millions of people will fall sick and possibly die each year because they live unhygienic lives in huts with dirt floors, huddle around smoky fires of wood or dried dung, and try to scratch subsistence from the earth with sticks. No "boutique" climate-activist would tolerate those conditions for five minutes, yet we expect it of Africans. I'm embarrassed that my country is part of a racist effort that puts environmental "purity" ahead of people.

This is one of the reasons that I get impatient about things like cafeteria trays and planting trees in New York, while places of real need - like Haiti and Africa - get nothing. If we really want to do something, let's cut back to one car, turn off the A/C, cut out the vanilla skim lattes, and send the savings to address real needs. Development is the answer, not the problem.

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[1] "Bright College Days." Tom Lehrer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dl3mRjydcPw