Can Bloggers See Poverty from Space?


In 2008 a forestry professor from Auburn University and a planning professor from the University of Southern California published an essay in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning in which they considered the demand for urban forests in U.S. cities with populations greater than 100,000. The essay contributed to a growing body of work that investigates the correlation between urban trees and income, concluding that urban forests provide a wealth of environmental and social services—but mostly for the wealthy. Citing previous research the authors note that trees provide important environmental services. Trees:

  1. Moderate temperature and microclimates
  2. Improve air quality
  3. Sequester carbon
  4. Stabilize soils
  5. Improve groundwater recharge
  6. Reduce urban noise levels
  7. Provide wildlife habitat

The ecosystem value of trees and forests, whether in rural or urban spaces, are unquestionably important. But Zhu and Zhang’s research (the authors of the study) is not about environmental science, but rather economics. As such they are less interested in the environmental services trees provide and more interested in the ways trees:

  1. Add value to property
  2. Lead shoppers to spend more money
  3. Make office workers more productive

In addition to these “economic” services, trees provide a number of “social” services. In cities, the research suggests, trees apparently:

  1. Reduce human stress levels
  2. Promote social integration of older adults with their neighbors
  3. Contribute to less violent and aggressive behavior
  4. Help hospital patients recover more quickly

What’s interesting is how the authors describe trees according to these various kinds of “services,” but do not distinguish between them. To these economists carbon sequestration is no more important than the property values that trees apparently increase. And the implication is that trees “produce” these two outcomes (carbon uptake and property value increases) as some kind of function of the nature of trees.

Apparently trees raise property levels in ways similar to the processes in which trees store carbon. Trees convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into sugar, cellulose, and other carbon-containing carbohydrates through photosynthesis. They are unique in their ability to store huge amounts of carbon in their wood, and this carbon storage expands as trees mature. It is a biochemical process that inheres in trees. But what is the process in which trees raise property levels? Surely it isn’t biochemical. It isn’t in the nature of trees. But the authors don’t specify. Rather they just list “economic” services among the apparently magical attributes of trees. And by listing economic and social services of trees among the critical environmental services, the authors contribute to the idea that economic values somehow inhere in trees. And since the “value” of trees is easier to quantify through measures like property values, economic “services” of trees become the key way in which trees enter economic valuation.

The authors conclude: “higher income populations or residents will have more demand for urban forests. Urban forests are economic goods. When income increases the demand will rise as well. Rich communities have larger budget on public forests, and have larger private house lots where private trees mostly are grown” (p. 299).

Rich people have more money than poor people and they spend some of that money on trees. Those trees mature and offer shady portals and leafy streets. It’s all very pleasant. The trees become a sign of wealth and because of raised property values, reinforce income inequality. Hard to argue I suppose. But without distinguishing between biochemical and economic processes, such a conclusion does more than merely describe an effect of income inequality—it implies a causal relationship: the rich somehow recognize the “inherent” economic value of trees and the poor suffer from their lack of arboreal knowledge. In other words, and this may be familiar to long-time readers of La Jicarita, the rich who live in cities (ironically) consider rural populations as alienated from nature. The rich must “speak” for nature. And the alienation from nature among the poor is understood as inherent to poor people and thus comes to explain both environmental degradation and rural poverty.

But maybe you disagree with me. Perhaps you think I’m being too picky here. Trees, you may be saying, undoubtedly contribute to these economic and social services and while they “cause” economic factors like property valuation in ways different than photosynthesis, it is still a process that involves trees. Sure, you’re probably saying, the authors were a bit sloppy in presenting their argument but that doesn’t undermine their larger point—that trees are important in urban spaces and without them certain benefits would not accrue.

If these are your objections, consider the way in which research such as described above has been taken up by environmental bloggers as a way to describe the relationship between nature and poverty.

A number of environmental bloggers have recently latched onto this particular article and the idea that trees are economic goods. Tim de Chant, who writes a blog called persquaremile, summarized the article as offering a nifty way to identify economic inequality. He collected Google Earth images of “poor” neighborhoods and set them alongside images of “rich” neighborhoods. Here are two neighborhoods in Albuquerque.

The top image is a satellite photo of the neighborhood around the Albuquerque Country Club. The image below that is just south of the Albuquerque fairgrounds. While the difference between these two images is not as dramatic as those between the images offered in persquaremile, there is a difference in tree cover. What is the significance of this difference? And what does it tell us about these two places? In the blog, de Chant suggested images such as these allow us to “see poverty from space.”

This is a troubling argument, but not surprising, given that the history of bourgeois environmentalism is one in which the nature of poverty is understood as a poverty of nature.

A lack of trees in an urban area does not cause poverty. There is no causal relationship between trees (nature) and poverty. But the idea that there is has a long and sordid history. The dubious, and racist, notion of overpopulation, for example, as a “cause” of environmental degradation is one such example of this noxious nature/poverty nexus.

Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford professor who wrote the 1968 book Population Bomb at the behest of his friend, Sierra Club President David Brower, warned of mass starvation because of overpopulation. His neo-Malthusian premise was followed up in 1972 by the Club of Rome’s apocalyptical Limits to Growth prediction of a looming catastrophe of exponential population growth.

Like Thomas Malthus’ “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” written in the 1790s, both books understood population as an abstract object that operated according to certain laws and, if left unchecked, caused environmental problems. Such a view assumes that the rate of population increase is a function of natural law rather than of political economy. Factors such as income inequality, uneven resource distribution, and consumption can be ignored when “population” is the problem. And since it is the poor who have all those damn kids, it is the poor (not those who make them poor) who are the real cause of environmental degradation.

Under pressure from international organizations such as the World Bank, Indira Gandhi called a population “state of emergency” in India in the mid-1970s. In April 1976 she launched a series of population reduction programs. Through propaganda and monetary incentives she hoped to lower the rural population growth rate and satisfy her neo-Malthusian creditors. More than 100,000 men received vasectomies and nearly five million women were sterilized.

India’s sterilization program was an echo of the eugenicist projects in the United States in which genetically “unfit” people—which usually meant rural, poor, and female—were sterilized. In India, as elsewhere in the 1970s, the pretense was one in which the poor were described as the cause of overpopulation and overpopulation was the cause of environmental degradation.

Since then demographic and ethnographic research has revealed this logic for what it is—an epistemological fallacy that serves only to protect the control of resources by elites.

Arguments such as those in persquaremile are merely a new version of this old argument. As a blogger who writes for Treehugger, a corporately-owned blog, concluded, “It all makes a pretty powerful argument in favor of tree-planting initiatives in lower income neighborhoods.”

Poor? Hungry? Recent research suggests that your poverty is caused by the lack of trees in your neighborhood. Once we plant some trees, poverty will be miraculously resolved. Trust us.


One comment

  1. Nice post – another example of the kind of bass ackwards thinking that represents UNcritical thinking from that original study. Cause and effect are not only confused, but elided and flattened completely. The counter-point to be made, of course, is that the so-called poor neighborhoods are also not watering or overwatering species or areas that cannot be eaten. What is the point of a lawn? Nostalgia? Power?

    One wonders if the same kind of critical unpacking can’t be made or directed towards the latest craze about urban gardening.

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