The Great Christmas Tree Debate

Oh Christmas tree. Oh Christmas tree. How vocal are your detractors.

Among the great environmental debates of our time, the annual fake-versus-real tree argument now seems as firmly rooted in western culture as the all-out marketing assault that will herald the holiday season in and out. Post-Convenient Truth, the carbon footprint of a real tree is now a focal point for those advocating PVC ‘trees’ as the way to go.

The American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), a shill for various petrochemical and plastic manufacturing interests, claims (without publishing any data) that artificial trees have a smaller carbon footprint than real farmed trees. According to the ACTA website:

…the best way to reduce one’s carbon footprint is to choose an artificial Christmas tree and to use it for ten or more years.

And it’s true that PVC ‘trees’ are as ACTA claims on their website: light weight and durable just like a sewage pipe. But besides the obvious shortcomings of having to look at a fake tree for 10 years, with all the fundamental charm of the aforementioned sewage pipe, the notion that durability automatically translates to environmental benefits is fundamentally flawed.

Real trees are indeed sacrificed to the Yuletide season, but there is no deforestation involved with harvesting the vast majority Christmas trees. You are simply taking the thinnings from an overstocked forest stand that would otherwise choke out and die as the stand matures, or more likely, it is from a Christmas tree farm or semi-natural production area, where every tree that is cut is replaced by new recruit into the stand.

The net effect from most of North America’s 45 million natural Christmas trees is carbon neutral, excluding production inputs and transport. And given that most fake ‘trees’ are borne from the injection molds of China, it’s a good bet there will be considerably fewer petrochemical inputs and miles between a real tree’s source and your parlour than the fake ones.

Chipping and mulching programs in most areas now allow for trees to be recycled into the soil at the end of the holiday season, and “stump cultured” trees result in an even softer environmental impact. Stump culture is a regenerative production system that involves leaving the bottom 2 or 3 branches when a mature tree is harvested. A new shoot can then grow from near the cut, or the uppermost of these remaining branches to form a new treetop. Christmas tree producers in the Kootenay region of BC have successfully stump cultured up to 6 or 7 successive tree crops from the same root base, and have been doing so for the better part of century.

But I say put aside the carbon footprint debate. You can easily offset the couple of kilos of carbon in typical Christmas-sized tree by foregoing extensive lighting and animatronic Santa displays, or by not driving back and forth across town or country to get your tree in a big-box store. The strongest benefits of real Christmas trees comes from the social and psychological impacts.

First, unless you are reading this from somewhere in the Middle Kingdom (and I’m guessing you’re not, given my repeated subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at the totalitarian, human-rights-abusing Chi-Coms that run the country – my posts are sure to be filtered from Chinese page views) you are not supporting a local business by going plastic. Real trees support real jobs and rural livelihoods in a sustainable and renewable sector across North America. Fake ones fatten the bottom line of overseas manufacturers and big-box retailers.

Second, it draws us, if only in a small and mostly symbolic way, into a natural cycle of birth, death and renewal. Life rarely offers us a choice between consuming or not consuming. The difference comes in whether you live inside or outside the regenerative and assimilative capacity of the planet. Real Christmas trees follow that natural cycle and flow. And in a dominant global culture that is ever-increasingly disconnected from the land and natural systems it is crucial to maintain these tangible ties to regenerative processes.

And finally, the main reason to opt for a natural tree is that it feeds the soul. Real trees have an intrinsic beauty and a wonderful smell that can’t be replicated in the hydrocarbon and volatile organic off-gassing from a PVC replicant.

Happy holidays everyone.