168 Can We Live Without Trees?

Adventures in Sustainable Living Podcast

Episode 168

Can We Live Without Trees



How many times per day do you walk by a tree and never give it any thought. It is almost as if we take trees for granted. They have always been there and we never think that there may come a time when they are gone.


From my previous episode you may remember how many trees we use versus how many we plant. It is obvious from those numbers we are consuming this natural resource faster than it can be replenished. And that of course is a problem because sooner or later we are going to run out. 


But trees serve numerous purposes other than their obvious practical and commercial value. Beyond that could we actually live without trees? If you want to know the answer then stay tuned for E168 Can We Live Without Trees? 


Welcome back everyone to the Adventures in Sustainable Living Podcast. This is your host Patrick and this is E168 Can We Live Without Trees? 


But first up, the sustainability question of the week. 


Other than water, what is the most valuable natural resource on this planet and why? 


So, stick with me until the end and I will answer that question. 


In this episode I am going to talk about several things: 


-The value of trees. Why are they important? How do we use them? Trees has numerous environmental benefits as well as supporting human activities. 


-Next up is to discuss the primary drivers as to why so many trees are disappearing. 


-Then I am going to discuss the affects on our planet of not having any trees and will of course answer the question of whether or not we can actually live without them. 


-And finally I will give you ten tips on things that each of us can do to help stop deforestation.  


Good news story of the week: 


The good news story of the week comes out of Austin, Texas in the United States. 

I have spoken before about communities or cities in Europe sponsoring a community refrigerator. It is a place where people can donate food or take food as needed. Such an endeavor is supported by charities, community funds, and even tax dollars.  The point being is that it benefits a part of a community that is typically underserved and it helps a lot of people in need.  


There is a couple in Austin, TX that funded a community refrigerator outside of their restaurant. Groceries and fresh produce in that particular area of Austin tended to be scare. During the pandemic, during heat waves, winter storms and other times of need the couple replenished the fridge sometimes 20 times a day. Such things of course become a life line for people in times of need and the couple was happy to do it.  


A one point the community discovered that they were going to have to shut down their business due to some expensive electrical issues. They decided to start a GoFundMe page and in two days donations surpassed $80K USD. To date, they have raised $118,000 USD. 


They surpassed their financial goals, stayed in business and continue to support the community. And I guess that is what you could call paying it forward.


The first thing I want to do is share a story with you that is directly related to this episode. But it also underscores the typical attitude that many people have toward our natural resources. 


There was a time early in my career when I worked for a small veterinary clinic that was close to home. At the time there was still very little development in the surrounding community. There was only one  shopping center that had a small supermarket, one gas station, one bank, and couple of restaurants.  


Everyday at lunch time I would hike up on the hill behind the shopping center where the veterinary clinic was located. There was an area of about one hectare, so about 2 1/2 acres that was covered with old growth trees. I would sit in the middle of these trees and eat my lunch. It was a miniature island of sorts right next to modern development. 


I would always look closely at the deeply corrugated bark  to see if I would find anything interesting. What I noticed right away is that there were various types of plants growing on different parts of the tree that created miniature isolated ecosystems. If you looked even closer it was obvious that there were different insects and different types of moss in these miniature ecosystems depending on where they were located on the tree. I presumed this was because of different moisture levels, variations in wind exposure, slight differences in temperature and available sunlight. 


As I would sit there I would often wonder about the age of these trees. How does a person accurately age a tree without cutting it down? After all you do not cut down a giant Sequoya tree and count 2000 rings just because you wanted to know the age of the tree. A core sample maybe. I didn’t know. So I looked it up.  


Turns out you can measure the circumference of  a tree about one meter off the ground. Most trees grow about 2.5 cm per year. Circumference measurement to the nearest cm divided by 2.5 gives you an estimated age.  The other way is to take a core sample. And of course you can cut the tree down and count the rings. 


At any rate, I soon learned the age of these trees albeit by an unfortunate circumstance. I went on vacation for a couple of weeks. When I returned to work I walked up the hill to have lunch and most of the trees had been cut but down to make way for someone’s driveway. I went to several stumps and counted the rings. Average age was 330 years. Needless to say I was extremely angry. 


Even now when I drive through that community I still see that same house up on the hill that 20 years later it has never been completed. There are sheets of plastic over the windows and it sits vacant. Three hundred year old trees lost for no good reason. And those trees will not regrow in the lifespan of anyone alive today. What a complete waste of a small island paradise that can never be replaced.  

The Value of Trees


So, I think it is important to talk about the value of trees and what they actually do for us and the planet. Once you now that, I think it will be obvious what our world would be like if we had no trees.


Environmental Value 


1) Clean air and oxygen


Trees are one of the things that provides us with the oxygen we breath through a process called photosynthesis. Trees absorb CO2 and release oxygen. According to the US Department of Agriculture “One acre of forest absorbs six tons of carbon dioxide and produces four tons of oxygen. Trees produce approximately 35% of the oxygen we breathe. The other 65% is produced by algae and phytoplankton in the oceans. 


Beside producing oxygen trees also absorb pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. They also act as carbon sinks by absorbing the excess CO2 that we produce by the burning of fossil fuels. This is one of the reasons why deforestation causing the release of such large amounts of carbon. 


2) Biodiversity


Trees and forests also support and sustain tremendous biodiversity. They provide habitat for over 80% of the world’s terrestrial animals. A single tree can provide a habitat for hundreds of species of plants, mammals, insects, fungi, and moss. 


Remember the story I related earlier about the diversity of plants and animals I saw on the old growth trees. Well that is an example. As it turns out the local habit changes according to the stage of growth of a forested area. 


A young open forest, which results from a forest fire or logging activity, will have shrubs, grasses, and young trees. 


A middle aged forest has taller trees but still has an open canopy


Older forests have mature trees and a very complex canopy. This results in a highly developed understory of vegetation that provides habitat for a wide range of animals. 


3) Water filtration and retention


Trees of course have complex root systems which holds soil in place and reduces erosion. Their ability to capture rainwater reduces the risk of natural disasters such as floods and landslides. Their ability to store captured rainwater helps to recharge ground water. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Association, one mature evergreen tree can intercept or capture more than 15,000 liters of water every year. 


4) Climate Control and Mitigation


Trees of course absorb carbon dioxide which limits the accumulation of green house gases. Trees also  moderate the effects of the sun, wind and rain. The leaves provide shade and absorb radiant energy and cools the planet. Trees provide screening from harsh wind speeds and influence wind direction and speed. They also reduce impact damage from rain, sleet, and hail. 


Besides providing shade, surface temperatures further moderated through a process called evapotranspiration. Trees and leaves absorb water through their roots and cool the surrounding area by releasing water vapor into the air. The moistening of the air is what produces more clouds. More clouds means more rain. This maintains the balance between fertile land and desolate desert.


Research has also demonstrated the cooling effect of trees and vegetation in urban areas. Urban areas tend to be what is called heat islands. Heat is more concentrated because of all the concrete, asphalt, buildings and the human population. Urban forests and vegetation can cool these areas by as much as 8 degrees Celsius. This is important because over 50% of the global population lives in urban areas and that is expected to increase to 65% by the year 2050. 


5) Food and compost


Trees are also an important food source for numerous animals. The leaves and flowers pride calories for numerous species. Nectar is the favorite food source for many birds, bats and insects. Many animals eat the same fruits that we do. The consumption of these foods products also provides a natural dispersion of seeds sometimes over long distances.


Trees also provide homes, shelter, and protection from predators for hundreds of species. Leaves falling on the ground protect the soil and provide compost which enriches the soil and provides nutrients for numerous other ground dwelling species. 


The Value of Trees for Humanity


1) Timber


The most common way in which humans use trees is for timber, meaning construction and structural materials. About 3,716 species of trees have been recorded as being used for timber, many of which are valued for strength, resilience, and appearance. Additionally, over 1,500 species of trees are traded internationally. 


2) Medicine


The second most common use for trees according to the Global Tree Assessment is for medicinal purposes. Approximately 10% of all trees, nearly 6,000 species, have medicinal or aromatic uses. These uses spread across both traditional western medicine as well as the practices of numerous indigenous peoples. Medicines are commonly extracted from leaves, flowers, fruits, wood, bark  and roots. 


3) Ornamental Trees


This is the third most common use of trees. Many species are cultivated particularly because of their attractive appearance related to shape, foliage, flowers, fruit, cones or bark. It is many of these species that we see in parks and gardens worldwide. 


4) Fuel


In most developing countries, wood is used for fuel and charcoal. Nearly 900 million people around the world spend time collecting wood for fuel or producing charcoal either for home use or for commercial purposes. In some countries this activity alone produces significant environmental pressure on local tree species. 


5) Food and drink


Trees also provide many important sources of food and drink. They actually provided a significant contribution to global food security. Many wild tree species are important relatives to numerous cultivated crops such as avocados and coffee. Tea, which is the world’s most popular drink, was originally derived from a tree and is now cultivated in 40 countries worldwide. Apples, oranges, grapefruit, are also good examples of cultivated fruits. 


6) Cultural and symbolic significance


There is an enormous variety of cultural and symbolic functions related to trees around the world. Some trees are even consider sacred. 


7) Economic benefit


Trees also enhance the monetary value of property. Landscaping has been showed to increase property values by as much as 6 to 7%. The financial investment into landscaping shows a recovery value of 100% to 200 %. Trees and shrubs strategically placed around a properly can result in significant savings in heating and air conditioning bills.  


8) Employment


The forests around the world provides jobs for over 1.6 billion people. And that does not include the agricultural industry nor does it include all the global industries that manufacture goods from forest products.  


9) Mental Health, Community and Social Value


Trees and forests help to reduce stress, anxiety and  reconnect us with nature. Trees also have healing powers. Studies have shown that people that are hospitalized recover nearly 8% quicker if they are placed in a room that overlooks trees. 


Trees are aesthetically pleasing and provide a peaceful environment for parks, streets, playgrounds and backyards. Trees also bring a natural element to urban areas. Community areas often contain and protect some of our oldest trees. And many people have tremendous sentimental value associated with a particular tree. 


Why Are Trees Disappearing?


So, as you can plainly see, trees provide tremendous value both environmentally and from the aspect of human welfare. That being said, why are trees disappearing? Why are so many species threatened with extinction?  


According to the State of the World’s Trees Report, there are nine principle threats to the world’s trees.  


  1. Agriculture


Agriculture is responsible of the greatest threat to trees world wide. Crop production which typically results in complete removal of vegetation and tree cover in favor of monoculture crop production. This affects about 29% of our global tree population. 


2) Direct exploitation


The second major threat is direct exploitation especially logging for timber and timber products. This industry alone impacts over 7,400 species of trees worldwide and affects 27% of our trees globally. 


3) Livestock farming


If you have been following me for awhile you know very well that the livestock industry produces significant global environmental impact. This industry impacts 14% of our trees


4) Residential and commercial development

With a greater and greater number of people moving into urban areas, this has resulted in significant expansion of our cities. In order to make way for this progress every natural element is destroyed simple to make way for yet another subdivision. This affects 13% of our tree species. 


5) Fire and fire suppression


As may well know, over the last few years, there have been devastating fires in numerous countries destroying untold millions of acres of forests. Humans efforts to control these fires also produces a significant impact.  As these types of disaster become more frequent, that is followed by more human efforts to suppress such events. This means fire mitigation such as clearing and thinning. This affects another 13% of our tree species. 


6) Energy production and mining


Energy production and mining affects about 9% of our tree species


7) Wood and pulp plantations affects about 6% of our trees 


8) Invasive species affect about 5% of tree species


9) Climate change affects 4% of our species. 


Now obviously if you add all of these percentages you are going to get more than 100%. This is because there is tremendous cross over in the species affect by each industry.  The point being, is that all of our human activity results in a significant impact on the nearly 60,000 species of trees worldwide. 


Quick summary


Now just to do a quick over view of what has been covered.  

Trees obviously provided significant value. They provide us with clean air and oxygen, biodiversity, water filtration and retention, climate control and mitigation, food and compost, timber, medicine, ornamental trees, fuel, food and drink, cultural and symbolic significance, economic benefit, employment, mental health, community and social value. 


The primary drivers of the loss of tree species globally are crop production, logging, livestock farming, residential and commercial development, fires and fire suppression, energy production and mining, wood and wood pulp plantations, invasive species and climate change.  


So, the next obvious question is what has been the end result of this. Well, since the beginning of time trees have provided us with the essentials of life: oxygen, food, shelter, and medicine. 


As we have evolved, we have come up with even more creative ways to exploit this resources. At the end of the last ice age, roughly 10,000 years ago, 57% of our habitable land was covered with forests. Since that time, we have lost one-third of our forests world wide. That is equal to an area twice the size of the United States. Over the last 300 years alone global forests have decreased by 40% and 29% of countries worldwide have lost more than 90% of their forest cover. At our current rate of exploitation it is estimated that this planet will be devoid of trees in another 200 years. 


So, now what? 


Can we live without trees?


So the big question of this episode is whether or not we can actually live without trees. 


First of all, think of the repercussions on the planet of having no trees. What would happen?  


Soil and air pollution would skyrocket. This is because trees remove CO2, produce oxygen, filter ammonia, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide. Without trees oxygen levels would drop significantly and air pollution would increase. 


Evapotranspiration would cease: This means decreased moisture vapor, dryer air, fewer clouds and much less rainfall. Fertile land would dry up, deserts would expand rapidly. 


Less rainfall would eventually mean a depletion of fresh water. Ground water would be rapidly depleted. Agriculture on a global scale would begin to fail. 


With no trees to filter the air, what rainfall remains would most likely be acidic or otherwise contain enough pollutants to make it poisonous to any remaining plant life. 


Global warming would increase exponentially. Polar ice cap melting to accelerate, sea levels would rise, coastal areas with be flooded with sea water and further inundate coastal fresh water supplies. 


Melting of the polar ice caps would desalinate the oceans resulting in even more erratic weather patterns.


Smaller animals that were completely dependent on the trees for food and shelter would be the first to die. There would eventually be a complete collapse of the natural food chain. Carnivorous animals would survive the longest. 


With increased air pollution and decreased oxygen, humans with respiratory problems would be the first to die. 


With atmospheric and temperature changes, the natural food chain for every living being on the planet would soon collapse leading to eventual complete extinction including humanity. 


And it is anticipated that all of this would happen during the first 50 to 100 years without trees. 


So, to answer the question, can we live without trees. NO, NO, NO!. Plain and simple no!


Hopefully by now I’ve given you more than one good reason to go out and plant a tree. 


What Can We Do? 


So now that I have painted a rather grim picture, this also begs the question of what can we do to stop deforestation. 


  1. Go paperless


If you have questions on just how to do that, go back and listen to E167 and learn some tips and tricks to go paperless. 


2) Recycle, recycle, recycle 


The average household throws away over 13,000 pieces of paper every year. If you have to use paper, then be sure to recycle. 


3) Find companies that produce products form sustainably sourced materials. This is a way to support those companies that are actually being responsible. 


4) Plant a tree


Take part in tree planting initiatives in you community. The more you plant the better. 


5) Reduce your meat consumption


Notice I did not say be a vegetarian. But reducing your meat consumption even by 25% can have a significant impact. The average person in a developed country consumes twice as much protein as they need and most of that is meat based protein. Try eating more vegetable proteins. Go meatless one or two days per week. 


6) Look for the Forest Stewardship Council Certification. 


Wood, paper, and food products with this certification means they have been sourced sustainably.


7) Avoid the use of palm oil because the production of this product contributes significantly to deforestation. When you purchase a product, read the label. Palm oil is one of the most common additives to a surprising variety of products that we purchase. 


8) Support sustainable agriculture. 


Purchase from local farmers who incorporated sustainable practices in their farming and husbandry. 


9) Use renewable energy


This reduces deforestation by reducing the need for mining and drilling. 


10) Teach others to live sustainably. 


Using your voice and teaching others to live sustainably is one of the most powerful things you can do.  


Hopefully by now the next time you walk by a tree you will stop and just look at it and be thankful for the tremendous value and literally the life support for our planet that trees provide. As you can see if deforestation continues it will have devastating affects on every living creature on this planet. And many of these resources that are being destroyed are simply not renewable in the lifespan of people alive today. So think about that the next time you walk by a tree.  


I want to start wrapping up this episode with one more story that is relevant to this topic. 


Years ago I owned a house in South Carolina. One of the reasons I decided to purchase this particular home was because of the number of mature trees on the property. In the back yard were two enormous mature oak trees. It wasn’t until producing this episode that I realized that these trees were ancient. Based on what I discussed earlier on how to age a tree without cutting it down, these two oak trees were between 250 and 300 years old. 


Eventually I sold this home and moved back to the cabin full time. A year later I went back to this area to visit some friends and drove by the old house. I truly wish I had not decided to do that because I saw what had been done to the property. The new owners had paid someone to clear cut the backyard. I was incredibly angry because I assumed they did this in order to reduce their yard maintenance. That is the only reason I could come up with unless they made a significant sum of money from selling the timber. Still, it was completely unbelievable. Yet another example of wasting an irreplaceable resource for no valid reason. And this is something we needs the attention of everyone of us.  


Now I want to close this episode by giving you the answer to the sustainability question of the week. 


Other than water, what is the most valuable natural resource on this planet and why? 


The answer to that is trees. And the reason is that we truly cannot live without them. So just take some time to think about that over this next week. And I also want you to follow the link I have provided to the State of the World’s Trees Report. It is a 50 page PDF and it is truly enlightening to read this information. I think it will inspire you to take some action. 


So until next week, this is your host Patrick sighing off. Alway remember to live sustainably because this is how we build a better future..






State of the World’s Trees


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