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An Asset Grows in Brooklyn

Conforming ecology to capitalist logic

A batch of scrawny black cherry trees (#2425, #2419, #2428) at the southeast corner of New York’s Prospect Park are not pulling their weight. Much as we all might enjoy the classic American black cherry tree for its bittersweet berries, the medicinal qualities of its bark, or the aesthetic delight of its white blooms, it may be difficult to justify these individual arboreal assets when they offer less than $40 in annual property benefits. The water they’re saving is basically negligible—especially when compared to their close neighbor #2442, an industrious slippery elm that is saving literally thousands of gallons more than these three trees combined. Worst of all, the slacking Rosaceae are sucking up less than $0.35 worth of greenhouse gases every year. These underperforming juveniles might be tolerated in some unnamed backwoods off in some unexamined wilderness—if there are any left—but this is Prospect Park we’re talking about, “Brooklyn’s Backyard,” where the green space is less about chlorophyll and more about property value.

Trees may be good for public health, air and water quality, psychological well-being, facilitating biodiversity, and of course guzzling carbon—which is particularly useful in the context of the runaway train of global warming. But for the market, which neither feels temperature nor requires clean water and air to survive, the living tree is only legible as a source of value when it can be rendered in the form of money. And so blooms, in our noxious age of green capitalism and “sustainable development,” the business of eco-valuation: a tech-inflected spin on the longstanding regression of ecosystems to fit market logic. 

Which is presumably why New York’s Prospect Park Alliance, a nonprofit organization that monitors and maintains the park, decided to partner with Davey Resource Group, Inc., to utilize their TreeKeeper software to tabulate the “value” of its green assets. Containing data on over half of the park’s thirty thousand trees, TreeKeeper serves as an arboreal ledger of the over $2 million in value they produce annually. Only the most recent of New York’s ongoing efforts to quantify and exploit the “eco” dollars out of every living cedar, oak, ash, birch, and pine, the effort is the product of $113,000 in Urban Forestry grants from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Unveiled in 2018, the interactive catalog assesses a tree for the “water benefits,” “greenhouse gas benefits,” “air quality benefits,” “energy benefits,” and “property benefits” it apparently pumps out, which equate to a total dollar amount of yearly “eco-benefits.” The hardest working trees are given the high honor of being labelled “Gold Medal Trees,” indicating that they annually generate about $300–$450 worth of eco-benefits.

For whom does the Siberian elm toil? Who eco-benefits from the $404.09 it “produces” per annum?

In divining dollars out of the water, air, energy, and carbon benefits of public park trees, the living tree takes on another life completely separate from its leaves and branches, roots and trunk: a life commodified, a life that can finally be accounted for. Even as this conversion makes the long worthless trees now worthwhile, for whom does the Siberian elm toil? Who eco-benefits from the $404.09 it “produces” per annum? TreeKeeper’s interface, and the design of similar programs like i-Tree, provides insight into the bleak functions and intended users of the tree tracking tool. 

In 2016, New York City released the results of its year-long effort to record every tree lining its some eight thousand miles of streets. This scrupulous census, relying on nearly twelve thousand hours of volunteer labor, formed the basis of the city’s Street Tree Map, an interactive catalog of 692,892 trees and counting that collectively “produce” $104,991,168.49 worth of eco-benefits every year, a considerable “concrete return” on investment, as their site boasts. Utilizing i-Tree, handy software designed by the USDA Forest Service, helps private corporations and developers use the city’s public trees to “offset” the environmental misdeeds they have carried out elsewhere in the name of erecting glass-walled repositories for capital.

The way New York’s and now many other city’s living trees are being used to offset the ongoing environmental crimes of private interests has led architects Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe to more appropriately label New York’s self-proclaimed “urban forest” an “offset forest,” following the practice of carbon offsetting: buying, selling, and trading carbon emissions by planting trees or carbon sequestering. In other words, it is the commodification of living beings for the sake of ecologically antagonistic business. New York City’s trees have now “acquired the mission to trade environmental destruction with environmental preservation. At the same time, their newly assigned role expropriates all kinds of inhabitants of the city from their environment, as the main aim of the trees is to become a public asset for developers.”

The duo notes that this new form of green capital is owed in part to George H.W. Bush’s “no net loss of wetlands” policy. Put into place in 1989, it allowed for the continued destruction of wetlands and other landscapes so long as an “equivalent” portion of the landscape was restored somewhere else. While this policy set a new standard for legally eviscerating ancient ecosystems here in the United States, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol further legitimized offsetting practices globally by enabling wealthy nations to keep on polluting so long as they invested in green projects in “developing” nations. While the protocol mandated the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, it also formally assigned a monetary value to these emissions through the creation of an International Emissions Trading market, whereby nations who fail to meet their reduction targets can “buy” “offset credits” from nations who exceeded their commitments.

In the many cities that use the same offsetting logic of New York, urban trees have become a living and literally green representation of those environmental crimes. In his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, environmental scholar Rob Nixon describes “slow violence” as the acts of environmental destruction by multinational corporations that have long been concealed in overlooked geographies and across generations. With carbon tracking software, the urban tree, diligently sequestering carbon outside the offices of those multinational corporations, brings that violence back to its roots in the city while further obscuring it under the unassailable rhetoric of urban greening. 

TreeKeeper thus converts Prospect Park, a well-endowed public asset, into a pit to be mined for eco-benefits for the benefit of real estate developers and polluters of all stripes. In 1987, the Prospect Park Alliance formed to save the park from what it calls “a long period of deterioration and decline.” Over the past two decades, the PPA has injected $15 million into restoration projects that have helped to maintain the hundreds of species of plants and animals that call the park home. It is host to a number of education programs, employs a large staff, and draws many well-off volunteers from the surrounding neighborhoods to help keep the park clean. Offering nature walks, an urban Audubon society center, baseball fields, food festivals, a zoo for some reason, concerts, a skating rink, hiking trails, community parties, organized sports, horseback-riding, Prospect Park has the works. 

Yet the unique luxury of Prospect Park, and others like Brooklyn Bridge Park, Central Park, and Hudson River Park, all of which are backed by well-endowed nonprofits, stands in stark contrast to many of the city’s over one thousand seven hundred parks, playgrounds, and recreation facilities. As a dismaying 2018 report makes clear, public funding for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is hardly enough to adequately care for the ecology of the more than thirty thousand acres of land under its stewardship, let alone seed long-term climate resiliency, even with the help of countless volunteers. And it should come as no surprise that the department’s expenditures concentrate in parklands positioned in more monied areas of the city. The report notes that the average age of a city park is over seventy, which speaks to the lack of new parks that the city has built in recent decades as well as the litany of infrastructure issues that old parks face. Meanwhile, the ambitious projects for Hudson River Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Central Park, and other riverside parks in high-rent neighborhoods never seem to end.

The deception lies in the idea that there is anything at all ecological about the money that grows from the offset forest.

All of this—the unchecked exploitation of eco-benefits and fiscal neglect—complicates the idea of parks being ecology for the public. The economic revelations of TreeKeeper, along with the New York City’s Street Tree Map, have an undeniable impact on rent and property values of the surrounding neighborhoods. As green gentrification has long afflicted the surrounding neighborhoods of Prospect Park, the living ecosystem of the so-called public park has been unwillingly recruited as a source of value for the propertied class, bolstering property investments that expedite the evacuation of poorer communities to browner pastures on the urban fringe.

Despite New York City’s Million Trees initiative, completed in 2015 to unremitting and uncritical praise in the press, and the many “million” tree programs that followed in Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and other cities over the last few years, urban tree populations continue to wane. While “million” tree projects sound quite grandiose, it is worth noting that, according to a 2018 study co-authored by one of i-Tree’s leading developers David Nowak, the United States loses about thirty-six million trees a year. (New York’s Million Tree Project took nearly a decade to complete.) CNN is quick to point out that this ongoing ecocide “matters” because of the $96 million dollars stuffed in all those trunks—and not primarily because of global warming or mass extinction: the article declines to even mention the more palatable “climate change.”

TreeKeeper and i-Tree uphold the money form—calculated down to the penny—as a more legitimate calculus for determining the “value” of ecology, rejecting notions of value that resist such commodification. In this pandemic, a global catastrophe of a more vicious speed than climate change, the willingness, and indeed the eagerness, with which the market sacrifices life considered expendable has been made freakishly clear. TreeKeeper and i-Tree only abet this process, proclaiming that certain living trees, properly tracked, have more value in the marketplace than others. The deception lies in the idea that there is anything at all ecological about the money that grows from the offset forest. On the contrary, the brutal reduction of ecology to currency only makes our understanding of ecology more confused. Amid mass extinction and the global climate crisis, continual efforts to reduce the vast ontology of natural ecosystems into the limited frameworks of the market is a cataclysmic act of regression.