C.J. Semones Ethics: The Environment Professor James Olsen The Questionable Ethics of Christmas Tree Farming As the holiday season gets into full swing thousands of households will venture out in search of the perfect Christmas tree to decorate with lights and ornaments. This festive tradition dates back to 16th century Germany when devout Christians began bringing evergreen trees into their homes in order to celebrate the birth of Christ. Since then the practice has become a worldwide holiday phenomenon. In recent years however, the practice has come under scrutiny due to the unsustainable methods in which the trees are harvested each winter. This paper seeks to demonstrate that the current design process surrounding this seasonal custom is environmentally unsustainable. From there it will attempt to confirm that this lack of sustainability is due to its anthropocentric basis and is thus, highly unethical. It is estimated that in America alone roughly 25-30 million evergreen trees are harvested for the holidays each year. In 2012 the seasonal industry was valued at roughly 1.1 billion dollars.1 In his work, “Making Capitalism Sustainable”, John Elkington discusses how the environment and free market economies are at odds with one another. He argues that sustainability is undermined by capitalism because 1 "National Christmas Tree Association Education Quick Tree Facts." National Christmas Tree Association Education Quick Tree Facts. 2015. Accessed December 22, 2015. http://www.realchristmastrees.org/dnn/Education/QuickTreeFacts.aspx. it cuts corners in order to boost profits at the expense of environment.2 He continues on asserting that regular checks to free enterprise systems are not enough when it comes to the environment as they often take a significant amount of time, which the Earth does not have. Although Elkington asserts that Capitalism is the environment’s biggest nemesis, he makes the claim that if the necessary changes were made to the system it might also be nature’s best ally in the fight for sustainability.3 However, he emphasizes that this is only possible if significant social and regulatory pressures are applied to current free enterprise practices. To back this assertion Elkington puts forth the precautionary principle whereby a high priority is placed on maintaining a balance between use and replacement.4 Additionally, he calls for a shift in the burden of proof so that producers should now have to prove that their products were produced sustainably before going to market, rather than having outside third parties confirm that they are in fact unsustainable after the fact. John Elkington’s call for sustainable capitalism fits under the broader theme of design and redesign promoted strongly by environmentalist engineers like William McDonough. According to McDonough, many of the environmental issues we face today are the result of design failures across current ideologies, industries, and practices related to our relationship with nature5. Our present approach to the environment and the Christmas tree industry in particular needs to be redesigned 2 Keller, David R. "68: Making Capitalism Sustainable." In Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 3 Ibid. 4 Ibid. 5 McDonough, William, and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press, 2002. with a fresh emphasis on sustainability. The idea of a design shift in holiday related evergreen harvesting has already begun to take hold in Germany. After seeing piles of rotting dead trees each New Year two eco-minded German entrepreneurs came up with the idea of renting out live trees in pots. Their business, “Happy Tree”, gives families the opportunity to decorate beautiful and authentic trees each year before giving them back after the holiday season ends.6 The company’s owners reported a 75 percent tree survival rate at the end of the first season in 2014 and their goal is increase that number to over 90 percent by the Christmas 2015.7 In addition to the unsustainable practices used by the vast majority of Christmas tree farms, the industry faces other ethical issues in regards to its labor methods and pesticide use. According to The Guardian, many evergreen growers use harmful chemicals like Monsanto’s Roundup, a potent herbicide, in order to maximize their crop yields.8 Additionally, seasonal workers, who are typically overworked and underpaid, do the majority of the hard labor that goes into harvesting Christmas trees. What about other alternatives such as fake trees, which are cost effective one-time purchases? The owners of “Happy Tree” counter arguments that favor fake evergreens by stating that they are made with synthetic plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which have the potential to make families sick.9 They emphasize that their business is a happy medium as both the wasteful Sewell, Anne. "Going Green: Ecological Festivities As Germans Rent Out Live Christmas Trees." The Inquisitr News. December 20, 2015. Accessed December 22, 2015. 7 Ibid. 8 Hickman, Leo. "Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree." The Guardian. December 4, 2008. Accessed December 22, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/ethicallivingblog/2008/dec/04/christmas. 9 Ibid. 6 practice of using a new tree each year and the potential exposure to harmful toxins are avoided altogether. The first portion of this paper was dedicated to demonstrating how current methods of Christmas tree harvesting are unsustainable. The wasteful nature of seasonal tree use and disposal combined with the potentially dangerous ways in which the trees are farmed confirm a need to redesign the industry. The second part of this paper seeks to prove that this unsustainability is the result of our perceived human excellence, which numerous environmental thinkers have deemed as unethical. In his essay, “The Land Ethic”, Aldo Leopold asserts that humans need a new ethic for dealing with the relationship humans have with the land and the plants and animals that grow on it. Leopold argues that the next step in the evolution of environmental ethics is the inclusion of the non-human members of the biotic community.10 Furthermore, Leopold claims that a thing is right and therefore ethical “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."11 Under this new land ethic humans are no longer the conquerors of other living organisms but rather, they become equal members of the environmental community. Aldo Leopold would argue that our current economics based land ethic is flawed because most members Leopold, Aldo, and Charles Walsh Schwartz. A Sand County Almanac With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River. [Enl. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.] 11 Ibid. 10 of an ecosystem possess no monetary value even though they are necessary for the health and overall survival of the biotic community that contains them.12 Sebastian Schoefeld and Jan Wehmeyer, the owners of Happy Tree, support Leopold’s land ethic through their biocentric approach to the Christmas tree industry. A spokesman for the company was quoted presenting their business philosophy with the following statement, “the idea is that Christmas tree will no longer have to die, but can be as happy as their human families during the festive season.”13 This statement on behalf of Happy Tree demonstrates that the business does not put humans first, but rather it takes into account the wellbeing of non Homo sapiens organisms, such as evergreen trees. This line of biocentric ethics is further supported in Paul Taylor’s, “The Ethics of Respect for Nature”, which demands regard for every living organism. According to Taylor, all organisms are teleological centers of life with goods of their own that we should morally consider for their own sake.14 Moreover, Taylor asserts that humans share a kinship with all species as Earth’s life-processes have brought all creatures into existence thus establishing a common origin. Furthermore, Taylor argues that humans depend on nature and not the other way around, in fact he claims that nature would be far better off with out us.15 Thus, our dependence on nature means that it is unethical for us to violate it. Lastly, Taylor establishes that Ibid. Sewell, Anne. "Going Green: Ecological Festivities As Germans Rent Out Live Christmas Trees." The Inquisitr News. December 20, 2015. Accessed December 22, 2015. http://www.inquisitr.com/2646090/going-green-ecological-festivities-as-germans-rentout-live-christmas-trees/. 14 Taylor, Paul W. Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. 15 Ibid. 12 13 the world is an interdependent system in which everything is connected to everything else, thereby disproving the notion that humans somehow hold a higher status than nature does due to our superior intellect.16 Based on the claims made by Paul Taylor it is unethical for humans to wastefully cut down trees as a means of celebration as we have no right to end the life of another organism, especially since we depend of these very organisms for our continued existence. While Paul Taylor and Aldo Leopold present a biocentric approach to environmental ethics, Utilitarianism is a far more economic oriented line of thinking popularized by John Stuart Mill. According to this ethical stance, an action is considered to be morally in the right if it produces the maximum good for the most number of people.17 Although this approach is far more anthropocentric, it too would declare unsustainable Christmas tree farming as an unethical industry. The concept of having a Christmas tree in your home is a very Christian practice, though many non-practicing households also participate in the tradition. Estimates put the number of Christians worldwide at 2.2 billion though this particular custom is really only carried out in Europe and other predominately western Christian countries thereby reducing the total number of Christians who also have a tree each year.18 Regardless of how you spin it, the majority of the world does not participate in this Ibid. Rest, Henry. "Utilitarianism." Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed December 22, 2015. http://www.utilitarianism.com/utilitarianism.html. 18 Chappell, Bill. "World's Muslim Population Will Surpass Christians This Century, Pew Says." NPR. April 2, 2015. Accessed December 22, 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/04/02/397042004/muslim-populationwill-surpass-christians-this-century-pew-says. 16 17 holiday festivity thus, proving that it is not a morally correct practice according to the tenets of utilitarianism. Although the tradition of having a freshly cut and decorated evergreen on display in your home is a long established holiday practice, it has become a unsustainable practice and therefore, environmentally unethical. The problem is not with the tradition itself, but rather with its design. If seasonal celebrators want to continue the tradition in an ethical manner they need to move away from their current capitalist, anthropocentric approach towards something much more sustainable. This would require a design shift to the practice such as utilizing reusable trees, which are far more biocentric and therefore, ethical.