Planting trees is a facile option

It has taken some time but at last Britain has come up with a symbol to represent our commitment to the environment and concern for the planet. Our version of the polar bear on a melting ice cap is to be… the tree.

It is now National Tree Week and it would be churlish to deny that a tree, with its roots in the past, its varied and changing beauty, its ecological benefits to wildlife and to the atmosphere, is as good a symbol as one could hope to find.

The BBC has entered into the new spirit of tree-worship by supporting a speed-planting campaign. Over the next few days, 300,000 saplings are to be given away, at a cost of £96,000 to the corporation. Then, between 11 and 12 o’clock on 5 December, an hour to be known as “Tree o’clock”, we will be encouraged to plant trees as fast as possible with a view to breaking the current speed-planting campaign in the Guinness Book of Records.

It is a marketing campaign and perhaps should not be judged too harshly. The cost to the BBC is comparatively small – less than an eighth of what its director-general pockets every year. The exercise will, according to a spokesperson, be “furthering people’s understanding of wildlife”. It will also “inspire and empower individuals to take action that benefits communities”.

That, surely, is pushing it a bit. The only real benefit will be to the viewers’ sense that they are “doing their bit”. The majority of saplings will be thrown away or forgotten. Some will be put in pots and allowed to die. The encouragement to chuck as many young trees into the ground as possible within an hour is encouraging careless planting. The small matter of protecting and keeping trees alive has been ignored.

As with many marketing campaigns, there is more to it than meets the eye. Whenever a developer – usually a supermarket – is involved in a controversial project, it will ensure that it plants a few trees to establish its (fake) green credentials. The equivalent is happening with the BBC’s planting race. People are being encouraged to see environmental challenges in terms of easy gestures which will make them feel better. A silver birch sapling stuck into a pot is being presented as a private little planet-saver.

Campaigns like this are the gesture politics of environmentalism. Wasteful and showy, they suggest that if we as individuals play our part, then the problems we face will recede. That lets government off the hook. The emphasis is on small, sentimental, domestic activism rather than serious policy-making.

The Woodland Trust has rightly pointed out that a huge increase in the woodland across Britain, one of the least wooded countries in Europe, would benefit wildlife and the landscape, as well reducing the risk of flooding and locking up carbon. The equivalent of 30,000 pitches of new woodland needs to be planted every year, according to a recent report by the Forestry Commission.

Achieving environmental targets will not involve celebrities or the Guinness Book of Records. It might even be politically difficult or unpopular. The plant-a-tree-and-save-the-planet option is altogether easier.