Summertime, and a young man's fancies lightly turn to thoughts of global warming. What better time for NEC to announce Ecotonoha? It could be anything -- a washing powder, a robotic sea snail or the practice of designing Web sites in a spiritually harmonious way. But no -- this curiously unpronounceable word derives from 'eco' as in ecological and 'tonoha', the Japanese for 'words'. Ecotonoha is a word tree.
Fortunately, the thing itself is much more beautiful than its unlovely hybrid name. Follow this link, and you'll be presented with an elegant flash animation of a tree growing skywards to the sound of ultratasteful new age tinkling. Each branch is festooned with clusters of green words: click on these and you zoom into the tips, where people from around the world have left their names and a short message. Click further and you can add your own tiny missive -- just one a day, mind. For every hundred leaves added, NEC promises the company will plant a real tree to help absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere -- thus helping battle climate change.
It's got the lot -- internationalism, individual action, ecological awareness, and images of shady forests to calm the fevered brows of us sweltering citydwellers. Inspiration to counter perspiration. There's even some unintentional humour: browse the tree and among Yoshi saying "Green Love Is All!" and Natsuru expecting "Happy Cool Again For Hot World" is the occasional Gazza saying "What's the bloody point of all this?" Ah, cross-cultural pollination. The perfect ecoscheme.
Perhaps. If you're going to plant trees, you have to do some digging. Along with the tree itself comes a short corporate background blarneygram. The trees are going to be added to NEC's existing afforestation project on Kangaroo Island off Southern Australia, and they're going to be mostly Eucalyptus Globulus. The climate and land features are ideally suited to growing strong, healthy trees, the company says, and over the next ten years it'll plant a total of 3,000 hectares to absorb around a megaton of carbon dioxide over 20 years.
So far, so good. NEC isn't doing the planting itself, you understand: it's handing that task over to Green Triangle Plantation Company, Ltd -- well, they're the experts. And who owns Green Triangle? A typical Japanese consortium of companies, prominent among which is the Oji Paper Company, Ltd. Ah. A bit more digging reveals that the tree is also known as Blue Gum, which is in great demand commercially for paper, wood chip and timber, and there's a big scheme on -- yes -- Kangaroo Island for industrial Blue Gum production. The island itself is a rare haven of exceptional diversity and biological richness, and not everyone's happy with the idea.
At this point, the Gazzas in the Word Tree will be chirping out their characteristic call “Told you so! Told you so!” Just another piece of big company balderdash disguising exploitation under feelgood pseudo-environmentalism: those are fig leaves sprouting from the Word Tree. Well yes, but there's no doubt that planting trees is a better idea than many other commercial activities: a short trip through the mining history of South Australia will starkly illustrate that. Furthermore, Kangaroo Island is intensively studied and managed by state environmental groups, and any project there will have been audited for impact.
It's very hard for high tech companies to be environmentally aware. Even if the people at the top are committed, the money men conducive and the managers effective, it's difficult to justify in terms that make sense on the balance sheet and the 90-day business cycle. One of the most tangible short-term benefits is good publicity, but even that doesn't come for free no matter how wonderful you are. I remember with a twinge of guilt hearing an Intel exec full of frustration over the lack of press interest in that company's considerable environmental work: I'd had a choice of going to a meeting about that or one on PC motherboard design, and who wants to hear a load of green-tinged blather? But, the executive explained patiently, it wasn't blather: these were real programmes having real effects. Why was nobody interested?
Because we don't believe them. It's all too easy to see cynicism and manipulation everywhere, even when it's absent, because of the long history of environmentalism being hijacked and abused by big business. In order to change that, people like NEC with projects like Ecotonoha have to be absolutely honest and up front: there's no point in trumpeting it as a purely green play if ten minutes with Google reveals the commercial side. Nobody's saying there should be a flash animation of a chainsaw chewing its way through the Word Tree, but anticipating and disarming controversy is an important part of publicity. Hoping nobody will ask is not.
NEC may indeed be bent on good. But it will have to learn that the online environment can be just as unforgiving and dangerous to companies as any real jungle, and that while good intentions may indeed grow on trees, we demand something substantial in the forest of words.