Plant a tree, save a life

There are no quick and cheap ways to mitigate air pollution in urban areas, especially in places like Prishtina which is close to Kosovo’s power plants,  but there are no better air filters in the ecosystem than trees themselves.

In his “Memoirs From Beyond the Tomb,” French writer, diplomat and traveler, François-René de Chateaubriand, wrote that when he returned home from a journey to Jerusalem, he bought himself a house in in the wooded hills of Aulnay in Southwestern France.  There, as he watched the sunset on an October evening of 1811, Chateaubriand wrote about the young tree saplings he was nurturing: “The trees which I have planted are…so small that I provide them with shade when I stand between them and the sun. One day…they will protect my old age as I have protected their youth.” He was so attached to trees that he sang to them and reflected with a striking poignancy that “the trees nourish illusions in the depths of my heart… I have addressed elegies, sonnets, and odes to them… I know them all by name as if they were my children: they are my family…and I hope I die among them,” he wrote.

Chateaubriand was not the first or the last writer to  write and sing about trees. The muse has always lived in the canopy of trees sparking the imagination of countless people down through the centuries. The English poet, William Blake, also wrote that, “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing … but to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.” Both Chateaubriand and Blake were articulating an ancient and powerful relationship between nature, wellbeing, and creativity, which has even been proven by scientific experiments conducted recently.

But our attachment to trees is not merely intuitive or an emotional experience that moves us so deeply. As far back as there was nature and people, trees have been fundamental to our existence, providing us with essentials, such as nourishment, oxygen, fuel, shelter, economic survival, energy, technology and medicine. The list of benefits from trees is endless. Life without them is unimaginable, or as Anton Chekhov once wrote, “Life on earth is inconceivable without trees.” And never more than today have trees been so vital to our sustainable living and public health. Their role in purifying the air from toxic particles, such as carbon dioxide, is ever more critical, especially in today’s crowded cities where air pollution has caused all kinds of  respiratory diseases, which have become leading causes of death in many countries.

Where trees succumb to death, so do humans. Take the devastating case of the Asian Emerald Ash Borer, a vicious beetle, which has destroyed about a hundred million trees in the United States. An alarming study in 2013, conducted by the U.S Forest Service, found that between 1990 and 2007, there were more than twenty-one thousand human deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases in places where the trees were destroyed by the beetle. Another similar analysis in 2011 suggested that treeless urban areas were associated with an incidence of preterm and underweight newborns in Oregon, United States. Trees seem to have a direct impact on human well-being. Studies as far back as mid 1980s have found a direct relationship between the presence of trees and human health. In 1984, Robert S. Ulrich researched an intriguing phenomenon in a hospital in Pennsylvania with patients recovering from gallbladder surgery. Ulrich noticed that patients who had a view of trees outside their windows were discharged faster than patients who looked at some blank wall outside. He concluded that a simple view of trees had a restorative effect on patients, reducing their anxiety as well as convalescence time.

That background brings us to Kosovo where, according to a 2012 government study, the country’s trees are vanishing at an alarming rate. The grim study concluded  that Kosovo has Europe’s highest rate of tree felling. The main culprit to this ongoing calamity is illegal logging, which is responsible for over 40% of trees cut in public forests. The cause of this ongoing tragedy is economic where over 90% of Kosovo’s households use wood for heating purposes. The consequences of this deforestation are devastating and cut across the country’s fragile environment, economic development, and most importantly, public health.

Take, the quality of outdoor air, for example, which is laden with particles such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. These pollutants are considered as highly poisonous air toxins and have rendered Kosovo’s outdoor air as Europe’s worst. In a 2012 environmental assessment for Kosovo, the World Bank concluded that Kosovo’s air pollution causes almost 900 premature deaths a year, over 300 occurrences of bronchitis, and 11,000 hospital emergency visits. Cities are particularly dangerous places to breathe, and Kosovo has witnessed high rates of cancer, pulmonary and respiratory diseases. The estimates of the study are conservative and it is highly likely that countless other similar incidents never surface.  

There are no quick and cheap ways to mitigate air pollution in urban areas, especially in places like Prishtina which is close to Kosovo’s power plants, responsible for almost 80% of the particles and dust spewed into the air that residents breathe. Investment in various technological filtering solutions combined with a gradual shift into more clean ways of producing energy will address the particular challenges coming from energy production. But there are no better air filters in the ecosystem than trees themselves, which absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Studies show that a single tree can absorb up to 4.5 kilograms of air pollutants in a year and produce 118 kilograms of oxygen. In other words half a hectare (0.40) of planted trees can produce clean oxygen for seven people and purify the air polluted by eight cars running for twelve hours.    

Given that power plants and cars aren’t going anywhere, at least for a foreseeable future, the only way to fight their negative impact is to plant trees in cities, in roads, in backyards, in fields, everywhere. Armed with a basic understanding that trees can save our lives and the lives of the children we bring to life, each Kosovar should start planting a tree because, as a Chinese proverb has it, “the best time to do that was twenty years ago, and the next best time is today.”


26 May 2016 - 15:11

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