Democracy and the Dignity of Trees

Or: can we avoid death by a thousand cuts?

Until yesterday there were six mature pine trees in the communal garden where my parents-in-law live in rural Hungary. Then a neighbour Eva decided that they cause “litter” with their needles. So she waddled round to Erzsi who agreed. And the two waddled round to Ilona who nodded. Then the three geese honked round to the other Eva who couldn’t care less. The thug next door offered to cut them down if he could keep the wood. Deal done. Trees gone.

Parents-in-law were asked. They said no. But in communal gardens, just like in many countries, majority voting applies. So protest was to no avail.

Any tool in the wrong hands is dangerous. Democracy is no exception. In the hands of the stupid and the thuggish, democracy is no picnic. Particularly if you are a tree.

So if you believe that the dignity of trees is more important than the rights of humans not to have to sweep up pine needles, what do you do?

First you have to get over the anger. No use stringing up Eva and Erzsi on the remaining trees. It won’t get you far.

But before moving on, there’s a point worth making here. It’s about the asymmetry of our attitudes to people and other living things. An asymmetry which rarely occurs to us. If you chop down a tree, people can say: “No problem, we can plant one to replace this.” If you bop off Eva, they don’t say: “No problem, there’s plenty of old ladies around.” Because Eva is a unique individual. So we see humans as unique individuals but everything else as a fungible member of a set. This makes it much easier for us to kill other species. Perhaps teasing out the individuality of members of other species could be a route to better protection of nature. Naming eventually becomes a problem with, say, grass, but we should at least have a go.

But this is about business and policy, not philosophy.

Can the market protect nature from senseless destruction? No, because the regulated installation (tree Z) is too small, any efforts are rendered unfeasible by the high transaction and supervision costs. Nor can you regulate effectively — how many inspectors would be needed, at what cost? Perhaps a combination of random inspection scheme, draconian penalties, and zero tolerance would work. But can you really make an example of old ladies?

No, there are practical and desirable limits to artificial markets and regulations.

The trouble is that it matters, because most of the destruction of the environment is through a thousand tiny cuts, individually unaccounted for. So to stop people chopping down trees, paving over grass, tramping wild flowers, and uprooting hedges, all because they are plain stupid, the only alternatives are advocative: education, media, campaigning, name and shame. And you can’t teach an old goose new tricks. So wait for the oldies to die off and invest in the youngsters.

It’s a long-term play but a democratic, market economy gives no alternative. Bad news for a planet pressed for time.

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