What’s wrong with cutting down ancient trees?

We protect old buildings for their historical and cultural value. Are old trees the same, or is there something more to them?

Every nine years, six men with axes arrive at the Portuguese village of Marateca. The atmosphere changes. People become tense, short-tempered, unable to concentrate on their work. They know these men will soon be hacking away at the village’s most famous resident.

The resident in question is 231 years old: an ancient cork oak whose branches spread and twist around Marateca’s outskirts. Nicknamed ‘the Whistler’ for the cacophony of birds nesting among its dense leaves, the tree is so large that its crown covers a fifth of an acre, and three people would struggle to circle its trunk with outstretched arms. The Whistler is an integral part of life in the village: children shelter in the cool shade of its trunk, families picnic beside it and couples spend romantic nights gazing up at the stars through its shimmering canopy. No wonder people are worried when the axemen turn up to harvest the outer bark for cork. One misplaced cut could be a mortal wound for this old giant.

Luckily, the workers are skilled. They strip the tree with delicate precision to leave it standing for many more years to come. This is good, because surely it would be wrong to cut down a magnificent old tree like the Whistler. But why exactly is it wrong? This question is a lot more difficult to answer than it seems.

Like the Whistler, many old trees are important historical and cultural landmarks – and most of the reasons commonly given for valuing and looking after them are based on this fact. Old trees become fascinating symbols with stories and lives of their own: 5,000 year old churchyard yews still thick with the illicit air of ancient druidic religion, massive hollow oaks that served as village dining halls and animal pens. They’re important markers of how the land was divided in ancient times, or the last remnants of wildwoods that colonised landscapes thousands of years ago.

These are all good reasons to take care of ancient trees, but there’s a problem. These are also good reasons to take care of ancient buildings, or historical artefacts. It looks like the value of ancient trees isn’t actually anything to do with them being trees – it’s just that they’re historic or cultural objects.

What’s wrong with this? Well, there’s one really important difference between old trees and old buildings: trees are living things. They haven’t just been around for a long time, they’ve lived for a long time. It seems like this should make a difference – when we’re cutting down an old tree, we’re not just destroying an object: we’re ending a life that’s been lived for hundreds, sometimes even thousands of years.

An old building doesn’t have value separate from people. Historic value, cultural value – these all depend on people being around to appreciate them. If there were no people left in the universe there would be nothing wrong with these buildings being destroyed. But old trees are different. Maybe, just maybe, living things have value in themselves, independent of human interests.

Of course the lives of people have value in themselves, and so do the lives of animals who can think and feel. Trees don’t seem to be conscious in the same way, but they’re definitely alive. So the question is: is being alive enough to make a difference? Does being alive give some special moral value that isn’t possessed by objects like old buildings?

It’s controversial. Immanuel Kant put plants in the same moral category as things like crystal formations – things that should be preserved for their aesthetic value, but which don’t have any value in themselves. For him, being alive didn’t make any difference at all to something’s moral status.

Today there are some philosophers who do think being alive confers intrinsic value on things – a view known as ‘biocentrism’. The view goes back to the Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian and medical doctor Albert Schweitzer, who in 1923 wrote: “True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness: ‘I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live.’” But in the absence of any thoughts or feelings, it’s difficult to say exactly why being alive is an automatic ticket to having moral value.

As I’ve discussed in earlier blogs, one argument is that our moral duties should be based around helping organisms meet their interests, whether these involve consciousness or not. If something is alive, then its interests include staying alive. In the case of a tree, its interests might include having enough access to light and water, finding enough energy to produce seeds, and that sort of thing.

This idea is a bit dubious, though. Because when we talk about interests in this way, couldn’t we also attribute interests to objects? Does a car engine have interests in all its parts working, so that we have a duty to keep it in working order to help it meet its interests? If not, why not? Don’t say it’s because an engine isn’t alive, because then we’re right back where we started. Doesn’t an old building have interests in staying standing, being free from damp and woodworm? Again, old trees are starting to seem a lot like old buildings.

Perhaps the reason ancient trees should be valued differently to old buildings is their uniqueness, their individuality. Like the Matareca Whistler oak, old trees have been around for so long that people get to know them very well – their shape, their features, the way they change over the seasons. When we think about trees in general we might think of rows of identical saplings, each much the same as one another. But ancient trees are different – we see them as individuals.

So far, so much the same as old buildings. An old Tudor mansion could definitely be described as unique, too. But this is a case where trees’ being alive takes their individuality to another level. An old tree is truly individual in the sense that once that particular life is gone, it’s gone forever – there’s no getting it back. You can restore an old building, rebuild it brick by historically accurate brick, and it’d still be there. But there’s no chance of restoring or reconstruction an ancient tree. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

What allows us to appreciate value of ancient trees is their uniqueness and individuality. But what gives them their value is the fact they’re alive. Being alive gives something an individuality that the most precious object can never have.

Individuality is something we come to appreciate in living things by getting to know them. So maybe if we got to know all trees better, we’d come to value them all in this way.

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