Dr Eleanor M Harris: Trees are the green future for our industrial society

In my lunch hour I escape George Street and ­clamber up under ­Edinburgh Castle towards ­Ramsay Gardens, past my favourite larch tree, changing her seasonal dress from chartreuse to hunter green, to Deuchars-orange, to purple-grey.
Timber is the environmentalists gold, says Dr Eleanor M HarrisTimber is the environmentalists gold, says Dr Eleanor M Harris
Timber is the environmentalists gold, says Dr Eleanor M Harris

Up there it feels like proper woodland, damp stone dripping intricate green Pellia and Lunularia liverworts, like entries for a Bake-Off showstopper.

When Patrick Geddes bought them, Ramsay Gardens were derelict buildings in the heart of a rotten city. Geddes believed the complex ­problems of ­Victorian urban society could only be solved by climbing inside. From the slum he ­cultivated this apple-blossom highlight of ­Edinburgh’s romantic skyline.

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After immersing himself in the Old Town for 20 years, healing its ­broken heart, Geddes published his great, hopeful work, Cities in Evolution (1915).

Like the ‘paleolithic’ and ­‘neolithic’ Stone Ages, Geddes proposed that industrial society was between ‘paleotechnic’ and ‘neotechnic’ eras. As paleotects, we ‘dig up coals, to run machinery, to produce cheap cotton, to clothe cheap people, to get up more coals, to run more machinery’, only to discover that our ‘wealth’ consists of nothing but ‘growing infinitudes of mean streets, mean houses, and stunted lives’.

Yet Geddes foresaw the end of coal: ‘the electric utilisation of a single waterfall is now yielding 150,000 horse-power’. He saw the ‘hygienist of water ­supply’ do far more than engineer reservoirs, because ‘with this preservation of mountains and moorlands comes also the need of their access: a need for health, bodily and mental together’.

A core industry would be ­‘forestry: ‘no mere tree-cropping, but silviculture, arboriculture too, and park-making at its greatest and best’. Why didn’t we do it? Well, we started: the ­Forestry ­Commission was founded, and Geddes had a ­tremendous impact on town planning. But, by the time I was growing up, economy had come to be regarded as the sworn enemy of nature. It seems to me this doctrine has itself become one of the ­biggest enemies of nature – and of my generation’s hope.

I’ve always been ­interested in Geddes, but I only ­discovered Cities in ­Evolution recently. My tea burned as I read, spellbound, ­Geddes’ vision which our bureau-speak of ‘sustainable development’, ‘renewable resources’ and ‘ecosystem services’ struggles to ­rearticulate.

I’d just started ­working for Confor, the Confederation of Forest Industries, having developed a hunch that ­timber was the ­defining material of our time. What other material, ­during ­manufacture, sequesters ­carbon, creates wildlife habitat, reduces flooding, and improves health? What other material could renewably substitute every shred of plastic, steel, brick and oil? What other produce is so ­valuable that it can be profitably grown, not only without subsidy, but with far tighter environmental regulations than agriculture? Timber is the environmentalist’s gold.

So like Geddes, I’m a hopeful philosopher. We could be the noble economists– the bioeconomists – who send carbon emissions into reverse, who restore nature and work with it to produce everything from high-rise buildings to bio-plastics. We could plant trees.

Dr Eleanor M Harris is policy researcher at Confor (Confederation of Forest Industries, UK), based in Edinburgh.