Have you spotted the fake trees in your neighborhood that hide cell phone towers?
There is one on the Hutchinson Parkway about 20 miles north of New York City. Another is on Houston and Bowery in New York City. You can spot them by their enormous height and their ever-so-slightly plasticized deep green.
When I see them, I think of the cemeteries filled with plastic flowers, the Halloween decorations that fill up landfills in November, or Christmas wreaths that do the same in January. I wish my grandkids didn't prefer the plastic Easter eggs to the ones I dye with beet juice.
In posh New York City apartment buildings, some still employ a resident florist who stuns us with giant bouquets of real flowers, newly fresh every week. Others opt simply to buy the high-end — but highly fake — orchids. When I see these, I always have to talk the doorman into allowing me into the lobby so I can rub these plants to feel either rubber or leaf. I like knowing when and how I am being tricked.
I make fun of the cell phone towers and the cemeteries and the orchids only to find myself looking in the mirror at words like sustainability and long-looking or long-lasting. What's so good about something that is born to die, like a great flower? Or a potted plant, put on a grave on Memorial Day only to be brown by the Fourth of July?
Moreover, what about my cell phone and me? Is my love affair with it green in any way? Or am I being tricked into habitual and immoral worship at the altar of convenience?
I don't like to be in places without a cell tower. I like to be connected. I like to have phone meetings instead of using fossil fuels to go someplace to park, sit for two hours and then drive home. I love webinars, which keep me off airplanes. I like being in touch with my whole family without paying long-distance phone call fees — remember those?
Without the fake forest, I wouldn't have all this convenience, and yet pseudo-value convenience is surely the enemy of the Earth. I cop to worshipping at the altar of the God named convenience and am only trying to make a small point here: Cell phones and plastic flowers also worship at the altar of convenience. What is their green benefit, and what is their green problem?
To me, old-fashioned, high-touch meetings are more interesting than high-tech group phone calls, where most people are doing other things while wearing their pajamas. Real trees are much more beautiful than fake trees, as real flowers are more beautiful than fabricated imposters.
When we memorialize a person with plastic, we are indulging nothing so much as mixing metaphors. The person is gone. Death is not an insult to nature but both a compliment and complement to it. Death compliments nature by entering into the great seasonality of life. Death complements nature by understanding that life cycles are holy and pre-ordained.
My inquiry about fake forests has to do with what is good about our little gods of convenience, like the cell phone. Or the much maligned water bottle? (I like to pick them out of the trash and reuse them. My cellar is filled with bottled water for the next time my neighbors and I lose "power.")
We don't need fake environmental theories while living amidst fake flowers and forests. We need real ones. Cell phones are made under horrible conditions, and their batteries' creation pollutes Chinese villages. Yes, they do some good, but could they do more? Or are they just too fake?
That is my question.
[Donna Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City.]
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