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What Would Treebeard Do?

Updated: Jul 25, 2019

by Lucy Whitaker

"Nobody cares for the woods as I care for them."

Troubled Lands

When I look at my country I see division. I see the left struggling to unite under strong leadership and form a solid resistance. I see the right squabbling over Brexit plans like fresh gammon at a Yuletide butchers.

The very country itself is fracked, polluted and destroyed in the name of industry. Pessimistic premonitions ring out that the age of man is coming to an end…

All of which reminds me of my favourite piece of environmentalist propaganda, JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Anyone who has read the trilogy (or watched the Peter Jackson-directed film adaptations) has probably picked up on the not-so-subtle environmentalist message. The Lord of the Rings is a love letter to the rolling hills of the countryside, and the magic inherent in the forests. Saruman is the greedy, evil industrial mind who destroys and consumes these environments. As Treebeard in The Two Towers puts it: “He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”

These books were published in the 1950s, dramatically predating mainstream concern with environmental issues. Growing up in Birmingham, Tolkien saw first hand the stark contrasts between the area’s industry and its nature. His observations remain relevant to today’s climate change discussion, and that The Lord of the Rings stands as one of the most important artistic reflections on the human relationship with nature to date.

As Rome Burns...

I mentioned in the introduction two of the main issues with environmental debates as I see them. First, political infighting: tories fight tories, others rage at labour who continue battling amongst themselves (and any other political faction that may come to mind). We lose sight of the main issue: that the guaranteed destruction of our planet and race is imminent if human-made climate change is not regulated.

Second, much of the debate on the topic of climate change is focused on how we as a race will survive. The UN predicted that - due to deforestation and intensive chemical farming - the Earth’s soil has only 60 years of harvests left. But as scary as this sounds, this does not necessarily mean human destruction. Other techniques are available which will ensure our species can continue to feed, from vertical farming to science fiction turned reality solutions like moving to Mars once we are done here.

However, this to me is an entirely human-centric way of looking at the world. Though we might ensure our own survival, should we not also be concerned about the life on the planet more generally?

Speaking to Trees

John Ronald Reuel invites us to look at the world itself as a life form. The trees in The Lord of the Rings are talked about as an unrepresented class in the wars going on in Middle Earth. They are angry, mean spirited and tired after they have seen their friends torn down to fuel Saruman’s war. They feel abandoned because no one has taken the time to hear their troubles.

Again, this view is articulated in The Two Towers in the words of Treebeard: “I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them.”

Much like the war for Middle Earth, the politics of our earth are centred around the concerns of people. Tolkien asks us to also consider the world around you as a living, feeling thing. It is not something to be torn up and drained. It is not something we should be thinking about abandoning once humans have the technology to survive without it.

Like in Middle Earth, the planet cannot represent itself in discussions about its future. So perhaps we should take a leaf (pun intended) out of this book and choose to take the planet’s side. This means holding ourselves to account when we fail to be political representatives of the environment. It means focusing climate change solutions on the survival of the whole eco-system, not just humans. Don’t be like Saruman. Be Treebeard. Be a voice for the environment.

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Dare to Dissent


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