The Hidden Anti-Capitalism of The Hidden Life of Trees

This afternoon the kids and I will be drilling a hole into the trunk of a venerable old cottonwood—a necessary step to complete a super-cool DIY suspension bridge which, in the immortal words of Douglas Adams, “must be built—has got to be built. …” Prior to reading Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, I wouldn’t have given such a destructive act a second thought. Today, perhaps, I’ll pause a bit. I might even offer a silent little debt of gratitude. Wohlleben’s prose has personified trees to such an extent that I feel almost certain it will appreciate it.

I say almost since I’m also about equally certain I’m being had.

The Hidden Life of Trees is a collection of anecdotal and scientific zingers—some startlingly novel and others reassuringly passé—about forest societies and the individuals which compose them. Trees, we are told, chemically communicate with each other, and will even support one another (even a cut-over stump!) by sending nutrients via underground mycorrhizal fungi. This is genuinely interesting, if still scientifically debated, stuff. We are also told, however, that trees don’t “like” plantations, have “friends,” and desire only to be left alone to engage in their own little Marxist utopias. In short, while The Hidden Life of Trees claims to reveal “discoveries from a secret world”—including what trees “feel”—it ends up instead revealing more about our modern political landscape than of some sublime sylvan universe. 

Wohlleben is a forester, making his living managing a beech forest in Hümmel, Germany. And while it may be a cheap shot to drag his national identity into the mix, it’s damnably hard not to since he is forever dragging a progressive German statist ideology into the mix. He suggests, for instance, that forests are “gigantic redistribution mechanisms—whoever has an abundance of sugar, hands some over, whoever is running short, gets help—it’s a bit like the way social security systems work.” Well, no, actually, this sugar-exchange system, to the extent it can meaningfully be compared to human relations, is far more akin to voluntary charity than to state-enforced redistribution programs. Wohlleben’s quip that forests exist “… to ensure individual members of society don’t fall too far behind …” is, I’m afraid, a rather too-naked attempt to pretend that his political ideals are exemplified in the noble forests.

The rest of the book’s problems (and successes, too, for that matter) stem from this type of anthropomorphizing. To show the variety and complex interrelatedness of trees, Wohlleben resorts to fairy-tale fable-mongering to make his points. Especially in the audio version (read in a comfortable Oxfordian accent), the book steeps you in an oddly soporific fog of sentimentalism, which, coupled with a dash of New Age “low-impact” eco-ideology leaves you feeling as if you’ve had too much glühwein. This comfortably numb, vaguely self-satisfied feeling should be a warning. While the book has its merits, the generalized sympathy for authoritarian greensplaining will leave libertarians, despite the book’s warm style, with decidedly cold feet (spoiler alert: capitalism is the root of all evil).

A Laissez-Faire Approach to Nature

The Hidden Life of Trees takes a telescopic approach—one moment describing the wide ecology of North American redwoods, and in the next, minutely examining the “nurse-tree” phenomenon in Wohlleben’s own backyard. The style is thus engaging and packed with interesting observations and factoids that will have you staring about at trees (their age, their composition, their shape) in ways you’d never anticipated. The book is telescopic in another sense, however: promoting the detached perspective of a distant observer. Wohlleben is not a fan of active forest management and is a dedicated proponent of “hands off” old-growth management exemplified in “wilderness” policies. In short, he channels the prevailing environmental zeitgeist that human “meddling” is pretty much the worst thing to happen to trees. 

Yet herein lies a basic paradox, not only in the book but in the environmental movement writ large: advocating for a leave-it-alone laissez-faire approach to our natural world always seems to require interventions in how humans do things. “In these times of dramatic environmental upheaval,” says Wohlleben, “… countries around the world are enacting legislation to protect what remains” of their “original” nature. He doesn’t clarify what “original” is in an ever-changing environment, or by what measure “protection” can be judged—just that rules need to be applied by powerful elites to ensure that the “natural world” is properly protected from wayward humans—particularly those who wish to make a living from it.

These rules stem, Wohlleben suggests, from “lay people,” who he says, “intuitively understand forest management better than professional foresters,” and who now demand that managers “embrace higher environmental standards.” Wohlleben doesn’t explain how we might consistently arrive at these “higher” standards, or who these enlightened “lay people” are, but it’s safe to assume they aren’t forest dwellers dependent on forest products. In fact, I would guess they are more likely to be the wealthy urbanites who buy Wohlleben’s books (two million of them, at last count). Wohlleben tells us, for instance, that in his town where he “un-manages” a local forest and leads eco-tours through the woods, they will now “not consider any other way of managing their forest.” This is convenient for them, where they can charge hefty sums to visiting tourists, but it doesn’t suggest a nuanced, evolving approach to management that can branch out when needed.

Baked into precepts for “fighting” global climate change lies an unacknowledged regressive impulse to return the earth to an imagined golden age of environmental tranquility.

The book thus has had its share of rightful criticism. A growing spat within the plant physiology community has questioned many of the basic premises of tree communication and the “wood wide web” concept more generally. Bill Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness” dealt with many of the inherent contradictions in Wohlleben’s “hands off” management philosophy decades ago, so it’s a bit of a surprise to see the idea sprouting up again with such evident vigor.

Foresters have pointed out the book’s lack of accuracy and there is even a petition by his colleagues demanding a retraction of his “fairy stories.” Wohlleben inadvertently treads through cringeworthy territory when he holds forth on “natives” and “invasives”: he believes trees will naturally sort out invasive problems “if only they are allowed to take over.” He talks much of pure breeding lines and deplores the dilution of native species that intermingle with foreigners like Canadian poplars. Themes like these, coming as they do from the heart of the Rhineland, is more than a little disconcerting. But this is the problem with over-personification of the natural world: if you’re going to anthropomorphize, then you need to be prepared to accept the inevitable extrapolations—you can’t on one hand talk cheerfully about a forest’s “social security system” and in the next talk about the pitfalls of un-pure bloodlines without it raising eyebrows.

A Missed Opportunity

All this said, I don’t dislike the book. In many ways, it’s a comforting and engaging read. There are a number of genuinely interesting advances in mycology presented in an accessible way. It’s “woodsy” in the best sense: elegant, ponderous, and a bit mossy about the edges. It makes you want to go for a long walk. And Wohlleben, to his credit, is disarmingly frank about some of his own internal contradictions. He recognizes that as “part of nature” we can’t entirely exclude ourselves from using (i.e. killing) other organisms, including trees. He talks of his battles to maintain his forest lodge’s lawn by “scything down” young oak and beech saplings. He knows we will not stop using wood (or paper). His basic point, and one I agree with, is that we should more carefully consider the impact of our consuming choices and think on longer time scales than our own. It is worth slowing down and watching sometimes.

But this, I fear, is the biggest downside to The Hidden Life of Trees: the missed opportunity to turn these careful thoughts and observations toward the more fertile side of modern ecology. Wohlleben’s ceaseless promotion of the now-tired “delicate balance” view of nature entirely ignores the budding school of “Austrian Ecologics” which sees dynamic disequilibrium as the norm instead of the exception. As Daniel Botkin, Emma Marris, and others have noted, the idea of just letting nature “do its thing” is naïve—there is no objective “pristine” or ”climax” state to return to, and even the decision to not manage a resource is a management decision.

Attempts to dictate other human choices over resource use, moreover, imply an omniscient monopoly on knowledge despite the fact that eco-planners are every bit as prone to fatal conceit as economic planners are. In fact, in the Austrian ecologic sense, the observations Wohlleben makes about forest dynamics are much more reminiscent of the functioning of spontaneous markets than of the sort of guided order he implies. A co-author of the seminal paper that first proposed tree nutrient-sharing now says the system is much more like a free market than anything else.

This basic tension in worldviews has enormous implications for the looming showdown over international climate policy. Baked into precepts for “fighting” global climate change lies an unacknowledged regressive impulse to return the earth to an imagined golden age of environmental tranquility. Not the Devonian, mind you, or anything that golden, but something, well… more preindustrial. The Hidden Life of Trees, complete with its anti-capitalist spin, fits perfectly into our era’s general understanding—that humanity exerts a negative influence and that reducing our ecological “footprint,” like “leaving not a trace,” is an inherently moral act that will give the planet the “rest” it needs to recalibrate. There is something in this, of course, but it quickly devolves into sanctimonious pap.

And this, I suppose, in its way, is a heartening sign of things to come: people will collectively say one thing (“reduce emissions!”) and quietly do another. For proof, look no further than the ironic phenomenon of millions of people reading a book, printed on paper sourced from plantations and distributed through the modern miracle of global industry, sagely nodding their heads about the evils of altered forests and capitalism. The future is bright.