Environmentally conscious consumers often ask me whether a real Christmas tree or an artificial one is the more sustainable choice. As a horticulture and forestry researcher, I know this question is also a concern for the Christmas tree industry, which is wary of losing market share to artificial trees.
And they have good reason: Of the 48.5 million Christmas trees Americans purchased in 2017, 45 percent were artificial, and that share is growing. Many factors can influence this choice, but the bottom line is that both real and artificial Christmas trees have negligible environmental impacts. Which option “wins” in terms of carbon footprint depends entirely on assumptions about how long consumers would keep an artificial tree versus how far they would drive each year to purchase a real tree.
From seedling to wood chipper
Many consumers believe real Christmas trees are harvested from wild forest stands and that this process contributes to deforestation. In fact, the vast majority of Christmas trees are grown on farms for that express purpose.
To estimate the total impact of something like a Christmas tree, researchers use a method called life cycle assessment to develop a “cradle to grave” accounting of inputs and outputs required to produce, use and dispose of it. For natural Christmas trees, this covers everything from planting seedlings to harvesting the trees and disposing of them, including equipment use, fertilizer and pesticide applications, and water consumption for irrigation.
Life cycle assessments often will also estimate a system’s carbon footprint. Fuel use is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Christmas tree production. Using 1 gallon of gas or diesel to power a tractor or delivery truck releases 20 to 22 pounds (9 to 10 kilograms) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
However, using 1 gallon of gasoline produces about the same amount of carbon dioxide, so if a family drives 10 miles each way to get their real tree, they likely have already offset the carbon sequestered by the tree. Buying a tree closer to home or at a tree lot along your daily commute can reduce or eliminate this impact.
And natural trees have other impacts. In 2009, Scientific American specifically called out the Christmas tree industry for greenwashing, because growers’ press releases touted carbon uptake from Christmas tree plantations while ignoring pesticide use and carbon dioxide emissions from plantation management, harvesting and shipping.
Is synthetic better?
Artificial trees have a different set of impacts. Although many people think shipping trees from factories in China takes a lot of energy, ocean shipping is actually very efficient. The largest energy use in artificial trees is in manufacturing.
Producing the polyvinyl chloride and metals that are used to make artificial trees generates greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. China is working to reduce pollution from its chemical industry, but this may drive up the prices of those materials and the goods made from them.
Moreover, to consider sustainability from a broader perspective, production of real Christmas trees supports local communities and economies in the United States, whereas purchasing artificial trees principally supports manufacturers in China.
Going head to head
Recently the American Christmas Tree Association, which represents artificial tree manufacturers, commissioned a life cycle assessment comparing real and artificial Christmas trees. The analysis considered environmental aspects of sustainability, but did not examine social or economic impacts.
The report concluded that the environmental ‘break-even’ point between a real Christmas tree and an artificial tree was 4.7 years. In other words, consumers would need to keep artificial trees for five years to offset the environmental impact of purchasing a real tree each year.
One major shortcoming of this analysis was that it ignored the contribution of tree roots – which farmers typically leave in the ground after harvest – to soil carbon storage. This omission could have a significant impact on the break-even analysis, given that increasing soil organic matter by just one percent can sequester 11,600 pounds of carbon per acre.
Reuse or recycle your tree
Consumers can’t affect how farmers grow their live trees or how manufacturers produce artificial versions, but they can control what happens after Christmas to the trees they purchase. For artificial trees, that means reusing them as many times as possible. For natural trees, it means recycling them.
This is essential to optimize the carbon footprint of a real tree. Grinding used Christmas trees and using them for mulch returns organic matter to the soil, and can contribute to building soil carbon. Many public works departments across the United States routinely collect and chip used Christmas trees after the holidays. If local tree recycling is not available, trees can be chipped and added to compost piles. They also can be placed in backyards or ponds to provide bird or fish habitat.
In contrast, if a used tree is tossed into a bonfire, all of its carbon content is immediately returned to the air as carbon dioxide. This also applies to culled trees on tree farms. And if used trees are placed in landfills, their carbon content will ultimately return to atmosphere as methane because of the way materials buried in landfills break down. Methane is a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a century, so this is the most environmentally harmful way to dispose of a used tree.
All kinds of factors influence choices about Christmas trees, from fresh trees’ scent to family traditions, travel plans and the desire to support farmers or buy locally. Regardless of your choice, the key to relieving environmental angst is planning to reuse or recycle your tree. Then you can focus on gifts to put under it.
Sunday marks the beginning of Advent, the liturgical season observed by many Christians as a period of waiting and preparation for the Nativity of Jesus. This season begins four Sundays before Christmas and concludes on Christmas. The hanging of greens, adorning sanctuaries and wearing vestments of purple, and lighting the Advent wreath candles in order to move from darkness to light are key components in Advent observation. All of this is in anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus, a birth that people anxiously awaited then and a symbolic birth we should anxiously await now. But some may ask, “Why must we wait for something that has already happened? Why exist in symbolic darkness for a time in order to celebrate that which was revealed some 2000 years ago? Why is this relevant to our time?” I suggest that we must wait in order to reclaim the wonder of the light that was brought into this world.
Earlier this year, during an Ash Wednesday service at a large Baptist church, I looked forward to ushering in the season of penitence with somber worship and a penitent message. Ash Wednesday is supposed to remind us of our finitude and it plunges us into a season of penitence, and the journey into the wilderness with Christ. But as I sat in that Ash Wednesday service, I was jolted from somber reflection with songs of joy and a sermon celebrating victory. Not a moment in the service–besides the impartation of ashes which concluded the service–was spent ushering people into the dry season ahead of them because the church couldn’t not praise. On one hand I understood the church’s inability to squelch their praise. It’s a church that has seen many trials and tribulation and its membership are a part of the resilient race in this country who can’t not praise because of how far they’ve come by faith. Why would they want to launch themselves into a period solemnity? But on the other hand, I desired for this congregation to withhold their praise and shouts of victory in order to rightfully claim it at the end of the Lenten season. In doing this, they would truly walk with their redeemer and taste the sweetness of victory because they had made the journey by way of symbolically situating themselves on Ash Wednesday as sojourners with Jesus. This too is our call during the season of Advent except that we are not sojourners with Jesus this time around but sojourners with a generation of people who were awaiting his arrival. People who heard a particular prophecy about the coming of Jesus and who were waiting and preparing for his arrival. People who didn’t have Christmas gift shopping, parties to attend, and a plethora of “holiday” distractions, but who were watching and waiting for him. I imagine that their wait was one of wonder mixed with skepticism fueled by the rumors of Mary, a virgin, who was impregnated by the Holy Spirit with the son of God. How unbelievable that had to be then and how unbelievable we should consider it now in order to rekindle the wonder of it all. Awesome wonder is what this season is about.
Yesterday in church I was reminded of how in danger we are of losing that wonder because we are so familiar with the stories that tell of the coming of Jesus. Some of us know it like the back of our hands and it has become so commonplace that the narrative of a young virgin impregnated by the Holy Spirit and giving birth to the son of God seems just as plausible as a man getting pregnant and giving birth. Some of us are no longer moved by the story because we’ve spent years with it in our churches, in our seminaries and Bible colleges, and in our homes, but we force ourselves to be moved just a few days before Christmas because that’s what we’ve been trained most to do. Many wind down and reflect as they start to wrap up their Christmas shopping, place the last few gifts under the tree, and bake the last batch of cookies. A reflection on the true significance of this moment on the Christian liturgical calendar is sometimes left as an afterthought to what is given top billing on the calendar of capitalism. But we must wait, and wait longer than a few days, to acclimate ourselves to the coming of Jesus. When we take hold of the season of waiting that Advent is, we give ourselves the opportunity to experience the wonder of every occasion that lead up to the birth of Jesus.
When we read the Gospel narratives that foretell of Jesus’ birth, of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, of the Magnificat, we must stop ourselves from breezing through it quickly because we’ve heard it all before. Instead we should be held captive by every word as if we were hearing it for the first time and as if we may never hear it again. When we repeat the refrain, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear,” we are implicating ourselves as those in captivity in need of a release from our self-imposed exile. Given the capitalism and consumerism that has marked this season—and the violence it has wrought—we are now, more than ever, in the need of the discipline of waiting. We must wait in order to restore the wonder of this blessed season we are in, a season that shines light into dark places and gives many hope. We must wait, not only for ourselves but for every person who has yet to experience the great hope that many of us know so well. We must wait so that we refresh ourselves in the wondrous love to come over receiving it as an entitlement that we might take for granted. We must wait, because in waiting we are forced to slow down, and in slowing down we gain perspective on the significance of this season which brings us back to wonder. The awesome wonder of the coming of Jesus is what this season is about, just wait for it.
The innocence of the question did nothing to prevent me from being flabbergasted. As I stared into the almost cartoon-sized blue eyes of this 4-year-old boy, compassion filled my heart. I simply smiled and replied, “Why yes, of course!”
He nodded in understanding and continued playing with the toys that had previously occupied his attention. As I sat there watching his imagination create a world only he would understand, I wondered if this moment would be as memorable for him as I was sure it would be for me.
There’s a temptation to somehow prove my humanity, to validate my existence; especially because I live in a society that labels me a minority. The definition of “minority” is “a racial, ethnic, religious, or social subdivision of a society that is subordinate to the dominant group in political, financial, or social power without regard to the size of these groups.”
My nation, my homeland, defines me as a racial subordinate to the dominant group. It’s a label that follows me every time I check “Black/African-American” on any document. It’s a label that follows me any time I walk into a room and I’m the only one there who looks like me. I have a pre-disposition to believe that I am less than because it is what I’ve been told since I was born. It’s even printed on my birth certificate.
In indignation, I wear my hair natural. I comb through hundreds of photos on Instagram that have the “#BlackGirlMagic” marker. I recite Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” at any given opportunity. I go out of my way to compliment any black woman I meet.
I vote knowing what it cost my ancestors to grant me this right. I fight to prove that no quantifiable data could box me in and keep me from living the life I want to live.
It’s funny, all of that effort did nothing to quiet the comparison or stop the Caucasian woman from accosting me and my little cousins. It did nothing to abate the voice in my head that hurls insults every time I’m in front of a mirror. The only thing that has proven strong enough to rectify my identity is the Word of God.
I am black. I am a woman. I am southern. I am a millennial. I can come up with lots of ways to identify myself. I can make a list of a thousand superlatives. However, anything I fathom about who I am does not compare to who I am in Christ.
Society has a lot to say about who we are. In fact, we have a lot to say, ourselves, about who we are, and a lot of times we are better than anyone at putting ourselves down. Is it possible that when we say “yes” to Jesus, when we surrender our lives to Him, in doing so, we subject our idea of identity to Him as well? Identity then becomes more than a list of quantifiers.
If the Word of God created the world and all we see, how much more powerful then would it be to believe His words about us? We are children of the Most High God. We are His handiwork. In the same way He created the earth, He fashioned us together in our mothers’ womb. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We, the children of God, are His royal priesthood. We are the head and not the tail. We have every spiritual blessing made available to us through Christ. We are chosen.
We aren’t beautiful because of, or in spite of, being black. We are beautiful because we were created by Beauty Himself. My skin color becomes more than a sign of my socio-economic status; it is part of the hand-picked design as imagined by my Creator. We aren’t worthy because our society calls us worthy, but because Jesus thought us worthy enough to die for.
Our choice is this: To live subjected to societal labels or to allow this new identity to supersede what we once believed. My faith then doesn’t just inform my identity. It becomes the lens through which I’m even able to see who I really am. It doesn’t stop there.
When we are able to see ourselves through this lens, we are empowered, nay obligated, to see others the same way. It transforms a “me against the world” ideology into an understanding that it is “us under God.” The need for validation becomes obsolete and pure confidence flourishes as the love of Christ permeates the entirety of our beings.
I’d garner a wage that if you’ve ever stepped into a church, you’re familiar with the “Offering” moment. It’s generally a time in the service where someone will get up and give a brief message about the importance of tithing.
It is almost comical how quickly the energy in the room changes in this moment. People revert back to high school tendencies and hide their faces for fear of eye contact and looming shame.
At the church I currently attend, they pass buckets down rows and I, as discreetly as possible, glance at how much my neighbor has contributed while simultaneously feeling the need to defend why I have nothing tangible to place in the bucket because I give online. All of this, of course, happens in seconds. Then, the moment passes and everyone seems to release a collective breath, almost as if to say, “OK, we’re done talking about money.”
A lot of times when we hear sermons on giving, we hear it from the perspective of “Give because God’s going to give it back to you.” Another perspective is “Give because God will punish you if you don’t.”
I’m not going to argue against those perspectives. I want to offer a new one, perhaps, a deeper one.
This Giving Thing is Nothing New
2 Corinthians 8 and 9 are basically an offering message nestled in the middle of Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. Without getting too much into the historical context of this passage, let’s establish a little background to set the scene.
It’s important to read the letter as a whole. Paul was attempting to re-establish his authority with the Corinthian church. There were “false prophets” trying to usurp his relationship with the church; there were questions around hierarchy within the church as it pertains to spiritual gifts, etc., etc.
Needless to say, the church at Corinth needed a stern talking to. While this was going on in Corinth, according to Colin Kruse’s The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, the Jewish Christians of Judea had been hit hard by outbreaks of famine during the reign of Claudius (emperor of Rome AD 41-54).
Theologian Tom Wright goes on to explain the sensitivity of Paul’s ask. Wright states, “[Paul] knows that at every stage the project is a tricky one: persuading the Gentile churches to hand over money, especially the Corinthian church that had seemed to rebel against him; taking the money safely, and with proper accounting, to Jerusalem; and delivering it acceptably to the church there.”
There’s one passage in particular that I’d like to highlight. 2 Corinthians 8:4 says, “… they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of
sharing in this service to the Lord’speople” (emphasis mine).
We could all learn a thing or two about giving
The summer after I finished university, I moved in with a family from the church I was attending. It was a pretty new experience for me, living with a family I barely knew and having to get used to their customs. For example, every day at 6 p.m., dinner was on the table and we had family dinner. I was expected to be home for dinner every night, something I’d never experienced before.
One night, I was running a bit late. I didn’t think it necessary to call because I figured they wouldn’t miss me, or they wouldn’t notice or care that I wasn’t there. So, imagine my surprise when I walked in and everyone was at the table waiting on me to get there.
I was floored and embarrassed at the same time. I was lovingly, yet sternly, reminded that dinner is at 6 p.m. and I should kindly let them know when I’ll be late in the future. It was a shift in worldview for me. Because I was now seen as a part of their family, I was expected to act like a part of their family.
In the same way, since we, as Christians, have now been welcomed into God’s family, we are expected to act differently. We are expected to be generous.
God so loved the world that he gave … generosity is a character trait of being the Lord’s people. Our capacity to give exists only because God first gave. We give because, through Jesus Christ, it’s in our DNA to give.
It isn’t by force or threat that we should approach generosity. It is with full conviction of who we are in Christ that we live generous lives. It goes far beyond one moment one day a week. It should bleed into our everyday lives. Urgently search out ways to give.
I’ve challenged myself to carry dollar bills and bottles of water and fruit in my car because I know I’m going to pass homeless people on the street. It’s a simple way to purpose to be generous. It’s our privilege as the Lord’s people to do so.
In a history-making election, plenty of new and unexpected faces — many of them black and brown, many of them female — will now be taking their first steps into their congressional futures.
For inspiration and example, the list of winners that includes Ayanna Pressley, Lucy McBath, Jahana Hayes, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and others might want to learn from the lessons of Shirley Chisholm, the Brooklyn, New York, native who made history 50 years ago as the first African-American woman elected to Congress.
It was the start of a national political career in which Chisholm, who died in 2005, fearlessly and relentlessly stood up and spoke out for such causes as civil and women’s rights and that included a run for president just four years after her first federal win.
“We should be inspired by the fact that she always went up against the status quo,” said Rep. Yvette Clarke, whose Brooklyn district now includes a portion of the area that Chisholm was elected to represent and who introduced a bill earlier this year calling for a statue of Chisholm to be placed at the U.S. Capitol. “She was able to assert a moral political direction that galvanized people across this nation.”
In the days before the November 1968 general election, there was a lot of conventional wisdom spouted about the issues Chisholm faced in her first congressional campaign.
Her opponent, civil rights activist James Farmer, had a national reputation, while she was local. He had the endorsement of powerful politicians while she organized on the ground in her Brooklyn community. And he was a man.
A newspaper headline about the race in the days before the election simply referred to her as “woman.” But Chisholm won the race by a 2-1 margin.
She didn’t let the institutional power her campaign faced rattle her, said Zinga Fraser, professor and director of the Shirley Chisholm Project on women and activism at Brooklyn College. Instead, Chisholm went with a campaign theme of “unbought and unbossed” and reached out to build a coalition of black women and others who had been excluded from the power structure for their electoral support. It was the same approach she took in 1972, when she ran for president as a Democrat and became the first black major-party presidential candidate, competing in 12 state primaries and winning 28 delegates.
Chisholm “called herself the people’s candidate because she wanted to bring on a new way to think about democracy, and who was privileged and who had the audacity to run,” Fraser said.
“We all just take so much strength and inspiration from her, to walk in her footsteps,” said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights, an organization that promotes the political power of black women as voters and candidates. “How she led, how she had no fear of speaking truth to power.”
Hayes, a Democratic teacher and first-time candidate who becomes the first black woman that Connecticut has sent to Congress, even referenced Chisholm in her victory remarks Tuesday night, acknowledging the 50th anniversary of Chisholm’s Nov. 5, 1968, election.
Chisholm, born in Brooklyn to West Indian immigrant parents, was already the first black woman in the New York state Legislature when she decided to run for the seat representing the newly drawn 12th Congressional District, which included central Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights and had been created in a way that made it more likely Brooklyn would have its first black member of Congress.
After winning the Democratic primary, she faced Farmer, nationally known co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and leader of the 1961 Freedom Ride, who was endorsed by then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and other powerful politicians.
Letitia James, the New York City public advocate who made history Tuesday as the first African-American woman elected to hold statewide New York office as the state attorney general, said Chisholm’s example matters all these years later because “we’re fighting for the same people who don’t have a voice at the table.”
On Nov. 5, the 50th anniversary of Chisholm’s congressional victory, Rep. Clarke and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who also represents some of what was Chisholm’s district, announced legislation that if it passes would recognize Chisholm with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.
Lessons learned from Chisholm were clearly resonant for black women running for office this year, incumbents and challengers alike, those who won and those who didn’t.
Vanessa Enoch, 48, who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the Ohio congressional seat once held by John Boehner that hasn’t been out of Republican hands in decades, said she identified with Chisholm’s determination to run, in spite of how obvious it was that the power structure had lined up behind her opponent.
“I admire her courage, I admire her stamina to stick with the things that she believed in as she went into those places that were not welcoming to her, her wherewithal to continue to stand her ground and make sure her voice was not ignored,” Enoch said.
Chisholm left a legacy, she said, “that we don’t allow the status quo to continue to be comfortable ignoring our voices and ignoring those things that concern us.”
If young people are to engage in democracy and society, young people need to learn how to respectfully disagree. Yet, educators often find it challenging to lead discussions on contentious issues.
Based on my experience as a middle school social studies educator, I’ve discovered that there are ways teachers and others who work with young people can show them how to deal effectively and respectfully with controversial topics – as well as what controversial topics to take up. Though the list of seven ideas I have created below were designed with educators in mind, they are applicable beyond the classroom.
1. Avoid personal attacks
In my former classroom, we had a mantra: “We address the ideas, we don’t attack the person.” When a person feels attacked, they stop listening.
Collectively determine what respect looks and feels like within these types of discussions. For example, a student may raise their voice as they passionately discuss a topic, but that can be perceived as yelling. Have a conversation on students prior to discussion on tone, style and how to engage in a topic when it becomes heated.
The educator’s role as a facilitator is to ensure that students maintain respect for their peers as they passionately express themselves. Making this investment will pay off tremendously for any discussion you have, whether in a classroom or another venue. If young people don’t feel like their viewpoints will be heard and respected, they will likely not speak up.
2. Try easy topics first
Before you dive into a more contentious topic, practice the skills of debate and disagreement with a topic such as school uniforms or cellphone use in classrooms.
A critical element of disagreement must also be empathy. Lived experiences often shape beliefs. Allow young people to share their experiences and their rationale. You may not agree, but you can be sensitive and try to understand their perspective. Remind students to seek to understand without focusing on being right.
3. Introduce familiar as well as new topics
To engage students, select social issues that young people are passionate about. This allows them to utilize their own experiences and knowledge as a frame of reference. It’s important that you truly know and ask your students what they’re interested in. Do not make assumptions. At the same time, recognize that there are topics or issues students may not aware of such as racism, global warming, indigenous and LGBTQ struggles for justice, and that this can be an opportunity to introduce them to narratives outside of their lived experiences or interests.
Be mindful when discussing issues that are connected to young people’s lived experience. Understand that certain topics can evoke strong emotions.
4. Keep discussions structured
Effective discussions are structured, whether it is a formal debate or Socratic seminar where students facilitate their own learning through group discussion rooted in shared texts or sources. No matter the format, establish and communicate clear rules. This will make it easier for you as a facilitator to enforce the rules of engagement and respect.
5. Have students prepare
Students should be prepared for the discussion, which means they should have read, viewed and researched multiple sources on the topic. It’s important to emphasize that students understand the topic from various viewpoints. Allowing time for students to prepare will ensure that all students will be able to contribute and engage in the discussion.
6. Take politics head on
Election season provides an array of topics to analyze, which will provide lots of material to inform student opinions for the discussion. With the midterms, students can discuss and evaluate candidate platforms as they relate to various social issues and their proposals for change. Ballot measures and amendments such as abortion in West Virginia, transgender rights in Massachusetts, and voting rights in Florida are vital to evaluate as well. Have students read and question the ballot. There are many social issues embedded within ballot measures and examining them prepares students to be informed voters when they are a little older. The midterms can serve as a springboard, but you can continue having these discussions throughout the school year.
7. Examine social movements
The complexities of social movements such as women’s suffrage and civil rights are not highlighted enough in middle school and high school curricula. There is usually a focus on leaders and not the long-term collective actions of individuals.
Examining historical and contemporary social movements like pro-choice and pro-life, Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, and the LGBTQ movement, provides fertile ground for diverse individual and collective perspectives of an issue. Students can analyze the websites, news articles of social movements, or engage in a pro/con exercise to grapple with perspectives of a social issue. Questions can be posed to students such as: “Why are people organizing?” or “How does each group see the issue differently?” You could facilitate writing projects to legislators and activists or design a research project where students investigate the purpose, perspective and civic actions of a social movement. A lot of insight can be gleaned from social movements that can enhance discussions. More importantly, young people can find ways to engage in civic action themselves beyond the classroom.