Treeplanting: As Unsustainable As Sustainability

A look back at how planting deforested and sustainability apologized for continued devastation

B. Lorraine Smith

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Me carrying trees to be planted in a farmer’s field in Southern Ontario, where we planted as a warm-up until the frost receded further north. In this image I didn’t yet know how bugs, weather, pesticide-soaked hair, and life with tree bags strapped to my hips for 14 hours a day would shield me from reality. It would take a few more decades steeping in corporate sustainability for that to become clear. (Unknown photographer/1991).

I am going to compare the experience of working as an industrial treeplanter in the 1990s in Northern Ontario, Canada with the ongoing unlearning of my experience in international corporate sustainability. I will be gentle although it is a journey fraught with discomfort. There is lots I could say but I’ll just say this much for now.

In the spring and early summer of 1991 and 1992, I planted trees to earn money to pay for university. Ahead of my first season of industrial treeplanting I had only heard the legends. I had no idea what I was in for.

From dawn to dusk, my crewmates and I fanned out across vast tracts of barren terrain, laden with heavy sacks full of wet seedlings. Every six feet, we raised our spades high and slammed them into the ground to expose mineral soil beneath a layer of loose duff. We bent our bodies in half, slotted the seedlings into the ground, heeled the holes shut, took two steps forward and repeated the cycle again. Thousands of times a day.

As far as student jobs go, I was well compensated. I was a “highballer” in treeplanter parlance, meaning I planted above average numbers. Guido and Jet usually planted more than I did. But of the three women on the crew, Andrea and I consistently highballed just below those guys’ numbers. Trees, trees, trees was our mantra.

I loved it. But I didn’t understand it. Looking back now I see slivers of reality that now widen through the prism of time.

In the summer of 2003, I took a job at an NGO in the field of corporate social responsibility, or CSR as it was often called back then, a term that morphed into sustainability and a bunch of other jargony synonyms.

I didn’t know anything about the field —my qualifications were transferrable skills like editing and database management. I had never heard of CSR before I applied for the job but it sounded like a good idea.

I asked my boss on my first day, “How long till we’re done and we close up shop?” She laughed. That should have been a clue.

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B. Lorraine Smith

Former sustainability consultant replacing ESG with reality-based insights about corporate purpose and impact. https://www.blorrainesmith.com/