A bad case of the Humans

Let’s imagine your name is Gaia, you’re a planet and you have a bad case of the humans. For many years you lived in symbiosis with humans, but then they evolved exogenetically, adapted in ways you were unprepared for and started to multiply in extraordinary numbers. Suddenly, the delicate balance of bacteria in your ecological gut got out of whack and now you have a bad case of gas, greenhouse gas! And no Rennie tablet is going to get you out of this one.

The single most influential contributing factor to climate change is Human overpopulation.

The good news for you (Gaia):           The human birth rate is going down
The bad news for you (Gaia):             The death rate is going down too
The really bad news for you (Gaia):    A subpopulation of Humans, most notably Politicians and Economists, are encouraging the rest of the population to have babies, babies and more babies because they want money, money and more money…

Being Mother Earth, you can be prone to the occassional natural disaster and angry tempest which somehow keeps things in check. The Humans at various times have been keeping themselves in check too. Their greed and excessive conflict over resources has led to genocide, war, famine and disease. In recent times, they have even managed to surpass these constraints on their population growth and as Mother Nature, it’s got you pretty worried–you were kind of attached to the biodiversity that the Humans will take with them as they die on their own effluent.   

So as Mother Nature, what can you do?

Well, the truth is, you’re not mother earth, you are human.

And here’s something you can think about:

Your last greenhouse emission

In Australia, as with many other countries, an increasing number of people are choosing to be cremated. Did you know that it takes over 6 hours on a giant gas stove to cremate a single body? Blurk!!! Think of the CO2 guys!!! …and, your ashes will do absolutely nothing for the cylce of life on this planet! In India, they don’t use gas, instead people save up money to buy enough logs to burn someone’s corpse. The really wealthy use lots and lots of dead trees. Not only does this release vast amounts of CO2 and contribute no nutrients to the soil (or the River Ganges), it also destroys the very trees that are needed to convert the CO2 back into good old oxygen!!! But even traditional casket burials are destructive. In Africa, vast amounts of pine forests are being cut down to accomodate for the rising numbers of AIDS victims who have wooden coffins for their burials.


Les Tombes Arborees

  1. Get buried in a bio-degradable coffin
  2. To save on space, decide to be buried vertically.
  3. Plant a tree over your dead body and be the nutrients for another living organism – it will be your life after death! Just think how much more beautiful it would be for your friends and relatives to water your chosen tree than to have them spread dead flowers onto a concrete slab. Furthermore, these trees will be protected because they mark graves, so no company/corporation will ever be allowed to cut them down for money!!! Become a tree in your after-life!   

Woodland Burial

Don’t lay me in some gloomy churchyard shaded by a wall
Where the dust of ancient bones has spread a dryness over all,
Lay me in some leafy loam where, sheltered from the cold
Little seeds investigate and tender leaves unfold.
There kindly and affectionately, plant a native tree
To grow resplendent before God and hold some part of me.
The roots will not disturb me as they wend their peaceful way
To build the fine and bountiful, from closure and decay.
To seek their small requirements so that when their work is done
I’ll be tall and standing strongly in the beauty of the sun.

Pam Ayres

England has two consecrated woodland burial grounds: http://woodlandburialtrust.com/ 

“Death does not just exist. In order to have coherence and to find its
place, it has to be integrated into a wider scheme of things.”
(Barley 1995:151)

Dancing on the Grave: Encounters with Death
Barley, Nigel. (1995) John Murray: London.

Anthropologist Nigel Barley has studied the burial rituals and funeral ceremonies of a vast number of cultures and found the above quote to be the rule. Death must be coherent with the cultural understanding of the world. If an action is not coherent with our cultural understanding of the world it is seen as irrational.

Our cultural understanding of the world is more comprehensive than it has ever been before. And yet, never before has our relative inaction in response to this cultural knowledge been so poor. Returning humans to the cycle of life in their afterlife through woodland burial is a timely response to global environmental issues and our current understanding of the world. It coheres with ecological reasoning and is symbolic of a vital paradigm shift in contemporary culture.

In some cultures, most famously Ancient Egypt, families would virtually financially ruin themselves in order to deal with the death of just one person. Other cultures such as the nomadic peoples of southern Africa, simply pull down the roof of their dwelling onto the body and move on, while the wrapped bodies in Torajan (Indonesian) houses are used as shelves. There are some insightful reflections on how the treatment of death is culturally constructed- e.g. the wailing practises in Zambia. What is interesting to me, is very much about how these traditions came about.

Knowing what we now know, what is the legacy we want to leave behind as a culture? New-age movements so very often hold traditional tribal and nomadic cultures in great esteem, but are we willing to take our respect for living in harmony with the planet to the grave? Let’s hope so!

Only when the last tree has died and
The last river has been poisoned and
The last fish has been caught,
Will we realise that
We cannot eat money”

19th Century Cree Indian

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, between133,000 and 134,000 people die in Australia each year (one death every 3 minutes and 57 seconds as compared to one death every 3 minutes and 54 seconds only a year ago). Imagine for a moment, the incredible amount of CO2 released each year if we simply multiplied 133,000 deaths by the amount of CO2 released by burning each corpse for 6 hours!

Plant a Tree

He who plants a tree
Plants a hope.
Rootlets up through fibres blindly grope;
Leaves unfold into horizons free.
So man’s life must climb
From the clods of time
Unto heavens sublime.
Canst thou prophesy, thou little tree,
What the glory of thy boughs shall be?

He who plants a tree
Plants a joy;
Plants a comfort that will never cloy;
Every day a fresh reality,
Beautiful and strong,
To whose shelter throng
Creatures blithe with song.
If thou couldst but know, thou happy tree,
Of the bliss that shall inhabit thee!

He who plants a tree,–
He plants peace.
Under its green curtains jargons cease.
Leaf and zephyr murmur soothingly;
Shadows soft with sleep
Down tired eyelids creep,
Balm of slumber deep.
Never hast thou dreamed, thou blessed tree,
Of the benediction thou shalt be.

He who plants a tree,–
He plants youth;
Vigor won for centuries in sooth;
Life of time, that hints eternity!
Boughs their strength uprear;
New shoots, every year,
On old growths appear;
Thou shalt teach the ages, sturdy tree,
Youth of soul is immortality.

He who plants a tree,–
He plants love,
Tents of coolness spreading out above
Wayfarers he may not live to see.
Gifts that grow are best;
Hands that bless are blest;
Plant! life does the rest!
Heaven and earth help him who plants a tree,
And his work its own reward shall be.

by Lucy Larcom
Born March 5, 1824; Died April 27, 1893

The above has been inspired by my friend and mentor, Professor Roger Short,
who is currently working to make Woodland Burials a reality in Australia.


Professor Roger Short faces head-on the problems of the human population explosion, a degraded environment, the HIV pandemic and poverty. Professor Short is a highly respected reproductive biologist whose research interests span topics as broad as the evolution of sexuality, novel ways to prevent HIV infection and the discovery that melatonin can prevent jetlag. He helped to cross a camel with a llama to produce the first ‘cama’ and discovered that elephant ancestors lived in water. Professor Short was on the Population Panel of the Wellcome Trust from 1996 – 2000 and acted as a consultant to the Global Programme on AIDS of the World Health Organisation in Geneva designing strategies for the integration of HIV prevention and family planning programmes.

Published by

Paul Mason

I am a biomedically trained social anthropologist interested in biological and cultural diversity.

6 thoughts on “A bad case of the Humans

  1. Hi there,

    Very interesting post, and I’m heartily in support, as you can read in my online excerpt of “Be a Tree” at beatree.com.

    I have only one change I’d make to what you’ve written above, and that is to suggest that — if the desire is to provide nutrients for the tree and be a space-saving measure — a vertical burial is unnecessary, and even counter-productive.

    The microbes that decompose the body, and especially the mycology capable of breaking down bone, generally colonize the upper 20″ of soil. A vertical burial will put too much of the body out of reach of the decomposing microbes and simply petrify, as opposed to transmute and redistribute, the body’s elements.

    Additionally, a tree needs more earth than the footprint of its trunk to survive, so confining the body to a ‘trunk sized’ width is unnecessary, from the space-conserving perspective. Generally, the root system of a tree will extend out to the width of its canopy – on many mature and healthy trees, the feeder roots actually create a mirror image of the branches below the ground. As a result, in the more thoughtful natural burial grounds, a number of horizontal burials can actually take place in the “drip zone” of a single tree, serving folk and tree alike.

    The ‘vertical burial’ is striking because of its difference – since our minds tend to note difference more readily than sameness, I like the vertical idea because it does beg the question “why not?”

    However, as I promote natural burial in the various places I go, a common response from environmentalists is “well, I still don’t want to take up space and anyway, if we buried a tree for every person, wouldn’t we eventually run out of space?”

    I’m still working out the math for this. I haven’t been able to find a good estimate for how many trees there are in the world right now. I’ve read a guess of one billion. If that’s true (and 1 billion doesn’t feel like enough trees to me!) then that means there are 6 people for every tree — since we know that we don’t have enough trees currently to hold soil, transpire moisture, provide habitat and shade, and survive our current clear-cutting mania, it seems to me like it’s a very easy case to make that perhaps 1 person/1 tree is a really, really, really good idea.

    So I say to folks who worry about trees displacing people:

    1)I’m willing to support (at least!) one tree for its natural life in return for all the support I got from trees for mine

    2)The day we’ve got too many trees and not enough room for people, if it ever comes (which I doubt), is a day we could happily deal with when it arrives.

    3)I would love to see what a world with “almost too many trees” would look and feel like, and I’m certain that future generations might like to see and feel that, too.

    4)And once we got to feeling a bit crowded out by all those trees, we could just cut a few more down now, couldn’t we?

    Thanks for providing this comment and thought space.

    in trees,


    Cynthia Beal
    Natural Burial Company
    author “Be a Tree, the natural burial guide for turning yourself into a forest”

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