Tree-mendous: the Power of Protest in the Face of Emergency

Back in September 2019 I was excited by the forward-thinking and well-informed decision made by Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council (DMBC) to declare a ‘Climate & Biodiversity Emergency’ after a 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested that there was a slim twelve year window where we could act to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees of warming. Going beyond that will irreversibly change life on this planet as we know it. The report inspired Greta Thunberg’s global School Stikes for Climate and mobilised the climate and extinction pressure group Extinction Rebellion, who we have talked about previously in Doncopolitan. The growing pressure had seen Many UK local authorities declare a climate emergency, but DMBC was unique in that it also explicitly focused on the biodiversity crisis.

The UK has lost 75% of its flying insect mass in just 25 years. Once common and well loved species, such as the humble hedgehog, are now endangered and critical habitats such as woodland and meadow have been destroyed by development and industrial farming techniques. With Thorne Hatfield Moors, Doncaster has an endangered ecological site of international importance. So, as I say, the choice to highlight biodiversity excited me and gave me hope for our borough. But an incident known as the Middlefield Road Tree Massacre gave me some serious doubts.

 

The ‘Save Middlefield Road’s Trees’ (SMRT) protest began when DMBC decided to fell 64 mature and healthy trees along Middlefield Road in Bessacarr. Learning absolutely nothing from the the 8-year-long Sheffield Tree Felling Protests, DMBC pushed ahead with their plan until SMRT and the Doncaster Green Party managed to halt felling earlier this year by questioning the need and the legality of such a drastic approach.

The attritional Sheffield protests had proved that there were a variety of engineering solutions to pavement and road damage which would not only allow healthy, mature trees to survive, but were more cost effective than the chop. These solutions were not discussed with residents. Nor did anyone conduct full and thorough inspections of each tree. It is well known that all tarmac repairs (only ever a cheap and temporary solution) lift over time, with or without help from tree roots. Just look at most pavements which have been dug up for utilities and repaired with the same materials; where I live the pavements are full of trip hazards and there isn’t a tree in sight. Only by lifting the tarmac can it be guaranteed that the trees are the culprit. But even then, engineering solutions can save a mature tree.

It is widely known that mature trees sequester more carbon than the saplings which are being planted (badly) on Middlefield Road to replace them. These saplings will take decades to mature, but the IPCC report says we have a single decade at best to take decisive action. There are some arguments that having to use lorries and machinery to remove the leaves from roads, and the subsequent composting of those leaves, create more carbon than the trees sequester, but this tells us more about how we have to change our centralised, bureaucratic systems to become more ecologically sustainable than it does about the value of street trees. Because, as the ‘Biodiversity’ section of the DMBC emergency declaration suggests, the current ecological crisis isn’t just about carbon emissions.

Biophilia is our innate tendency to seek connection with nature. Studies show that simply being able to see trees through a hospital window has a significant influence on a patient’s recovery rate. As lockdown has illustrated for so many people, a connection with nature is essential to or physical and mental wellbeing. Street trees are so conducive to our biophillic needs that they actually increase house prices! Each tree is also an ecology in its own right, home to a multitude of insects, birds, mammals, plants, galls and fungi. Residents have already observed that there is a distinct lack of birdsong in the area since the killing of the trees. Over time these ecologies may rebuild themselves, nature is resilient if it is left alone. But only if we change our ways to allow this to happen. We all know that our attitudes, ideas and actions need to change dramatically if we want our planet to continue to support life as we know it.

 The DMBC did appear to have completely the wrong attitude when they restarted work to fell the remaining trees on Middlefield Road at the beginning of the second lockdown. As this report from the Independent reveals, they even snuck in after dark to destroy the trees. Protestors were fined by the police under Covid-19 laws, even though they were acting within the guidelines. South Yorkshire Police subsequently withdrew the fines, which showed, as we suspected, that they were simply trying to scare protestors away from legitimate protest (a suspicion further confirmed by the fact that the police have told journalists that the fines have been dropped, but have still not officially notified the protestors themselves). With 60 mature trees already destroyed, DMBC fenced off the four remaining trees, which locals then christened ‘The Beatles’. Sadly, thanks only to local residents, SMRT, the Doncaster Green Party and a blue, tree-climbing elephant only, Paul and Ringo remain.

 At the last minute, just when it looked like all hope was lost, a team from DMBC, including CEO Damien Allen who helped instigate the Climate & Biodiversity Emergency declaration in the first place, arranged to talk with the protestors and a representative from the Sheffield tree protests. Paul and Ringo are to get a full inspection and the felling of trees (unless sick and/or an obvious danger to the public) has been suspended until the end of February 2021 so that new policies can be put in place. This is an amazing illustration of people power, as the famous Margaret Mead quote goes:

 “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

 Sadly, too many trees were lost and Kate and Richard (key protestors who dressed as the elephant and who even slept under the trees to defend them) had their car trashed by one of the aggressive, anti-tree protest, locals who had been a tiny, but vocal minority during the protests. Sadly too, the whole debacle not only reeked of the local authority abusing its power, it also made the Climate & Biodiversity Emergency declaration smell heavily of greenwash.

 Greenwash is when people, companies or institutions talk about being green, while continuing to be environmentally destructive. And it isn’t just the Middlefield Road Tree Massacre which made me worry about greenwash at DMBC. I was invited to sit on the Doncaster Climate Commission panel to help create a paper on how Doncaster might respond to the Climate & Biodiversity Emergency. The panel has done some great work identifying key areas for action which will be highlighted in a forthcoming report. Ironically though, and I don’t think I’m giving too much away by mentioning this, it includes plans to plant some 80,000 trees and to: “Create more space for wildlife and nature in gardens and local green spaces.” I know, right?

Both panel and report are warmly welcomed, but my experience on the panel was marred by the fact that Peel, the company behind Doncaster Sheffield Airport who own vast tracts of ecologically sensitive land earmarked for development, were invited to steer two of the twelve meetings, even though the airport barely gets a mention in the report. There are two things which we, as individuals, can do to help reduce greenhouse emissions; fly less and eat less meat. That’s it. The rest is down to curbing emissions from private industry (100 companies are responsible for 71% of all greenhouse emissions). This shows the significance of aviation when it comes to climate change, and yet the fact that Doncaster has an airport is not truly tackled by the report. This ‘elephant in the room’ is the reason the Green Party bought a bright blue elephant costume in the first place… to sit silently in any forthcoming meetings. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is about cheap holidays though, that is another smokescreen (albeit a definitely less green one). The airport’s real objective is air-freight. This will become a 24/7 going concern, increasing traffic and noise pollution and leading to more and more flights over our beautiful and sensitive Thorne Hatfield Moors. If we are serious about addressing the Climate & Biodiversity Emergency then we can’t let companies like Peel steer the agenda, and we certainly can’t go on with ‘business as usual’.

 

Human beings are naturally neophobic, we don’t react well to change. Which is why we often see friction between the generations. But this crisis demands change. It has become a crisis exactly because politicians, bureaucrats and business leaders failed to embrace change when we first recognised the problem of climate change decades ago. But change is coming whether you like it or not. The only choice we are left with is whether that change is comfortable (through the development of more ecologically aware socioeconomic systems) or destructive to the vast majority of life on this planet (the ‘business as usual’ which has already seen the loss of 50% of land animals in the last 40 years). This is a decision we need to make right here, right now. And I firmly believe that it is a decision best placed in the hands of our youth. Today’s youth are much more ecologically literate than we adults, and they have a lot more to lose. When asked to vote on what subject was most important to them, 5000 local primary school kids (your kids and our future) said the environment was their top priority and cited Greta Thunberg as their hero. They are the ones who will inherit both our successes and our mistakes.

 

The Climate & Biodiversity Emergency declaration has the potential to be a massive success for our town, but the Middlefield Road Tree Massacre shows that we will need to be vigilant. We must work together to ensure that we make the changes necessary to build a better, braver, brighter, greener Donny, and to ensure that those changes benefit each and every one of us. Despite occasional conflicts of opinion, DMBC are definitely not the enemy or the villain here. Ultimately we all want the same thing, a beautiful, healthy planet… where else are you going to live? But time is of the essence and we must continue to be vigilant and exercise people power wherever necessary… such as phasing out glyphosate sooner rather than later. For the sake of future generations we must continue to plan, push and protect a greener agenda for Doncaster.

 

Those who know me know that I don’t hold any political ambitions, quite the opposite is true. But with the interests of our youth in mind I have agreed to stand as the Green Party’s candidate in next year’s mayoral elections. We will run a campaign which not only aims to make the mayoral system more democratic, but which places more decision making power in the hands of those who will be most affected by those decisions, the young. This is as much about ensuring that the Climate & Biodiversity Emergency isn’t used as greenwash as it is about actually getting elected. It will be a platform to argue for a true green future, not just greenwash. It will highlight the fact that we have to think of our environment as a living extension of ourselves, not just resources, assets or street furniture. We have to alter our decision making processes to favour the fate of living things over inanimate objects and crass profit (it is very telling indeed that DMBC currently have a combined Environment & Economy directorate). These 64 trees were not mere things, they were living entities which gave home and sustenance to an abundance of other living entities. If we are to guarantee life on this planet (and why wouldn’t we want that?.. where else are we going to live?) we have to put life itself at the forefront of future planning decisions.

Because, as Alanis Obomsawin famously said:

“When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money”

Words by Warren Draper.


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