Joseph Beuys' '7000 Oaks' and tree planting initiatives - positive change or mere gimmicks?

Graphic by Aimée Lister

The search engine Ecosia vows that with each search request the money generated goes towards the planting of a tree. In 2013-2014 the loo paper brand Velvet promised that with every tree they used in the making of their product, they would plant three more. Alongside these efforts, just last year the outdoor clothing brand Timberland pledged to plant 50 million trees in order to bolster its ecological reputation. Barren rainforests exist as symbols of the damaging effects that capitalist modes of production are having on our natural world. Deforestation and droughts provide some of the most visible evidence of the alarming effects of climate change. To combat this, the planting of trees has been used to visualise a direct solution to the damage. As more trees burn and die out, more are planted in a bid to combat this – the tree in this scenario acts as a symbol for both damage and progress.

In 1982 at the Documenta 7 exhibition in Kassel; the German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) planted the first tree in the city to mark the beginning of his 7000 Oaks (1982-87) project. Throughout the city 7000 Oaks were to be planted. At the base of each tree a basalt stone was placed to signify that they were part of Beuys’ project. A pile of 7000 basalt stones were deposited outside the Fridericianum Museum in Kassel. With each tree planted, a stone was removed from the pile to accompany it, which saw the stone mass reduce in size over time. As the mound of stones grew smaller it indicated the success of the project. Eventually the last tree was planted at the opening of the 1987 Documenta 8 by Beuys’ son, a year after Beuys’ death.

The tree in this scenario acts as a symbol for both damage and progress.

The legacy of Beuys’ 7000 Oaks has seen artwork reproductions occurring throughout cities globally. Between 1988 and 1996 New York planted 23 trees – including a variety of oak, gingko and sycamore – with accompanying basalt stones in continuation of Beuys’ momentous project. In 2000 the Joseph Beuys Tree partnership helped to plant a variety of trees within the city of Baltimore, like New York they were also accompanied by stone appendages. Beuys’ project had a proven global impact.

As a pioneer for climate change, Beuys co-founded and ran for the German Green Party in 1979. He coined the existence of ‘social sculpture’. The Tate defines social sculpture as the idea that life itself constitutes a mass artwork, which we – the artists - have helped to create. Such an artwork could therefore be formed and moulded to benefit society by society itself. Inherently political, Beuys’ own social sculpture was often concerned with environmental and ecological subject matter. His 7000 Oaks (1982-87) is an example of such a work. As noted on Public Delivery, Beuys’ project was in direct response to the rapid urbanisation of the city acting as an ecological ‘intervention’.

Brands concerned with pushing climate change initiatives capitalise on a similar idea to Beuys’ social sculpture, in which the individual can contribute towards bigger change. Through buying a product which promises to cultivate some foliage in an unknown part of the world, it too allows the individual to feel like they are making a difference through completing an act as small as buying some toilet roll. However, the planting of trees can also be met with cynicism. In Sara Black and Amber Ginsberg’s 7000 Marks (2018) essay they critique Beuys’ work by claiming that tree planting is merely ‘gestural’ and that it is not enough to tackle the root of the problem. Ginsberg and Black (2018) state that if climate damage is caused by capitalism, deforestation, colonialism and more; then the planting of trees is not addressing the cause at its source.

As 7000 Oaks has proven, climate action can be taken from within your very city. All of us have the ability to fight for positive change.

With such ideas in mind, it is easy to understand how some tree planting initiatives could be met with contempt. The Evening Standard reported that Velvet’s own campaign faced backlash from Greenpeace after it was revealed that the creation of their product caused devastation to the forests in North Sweden, resulting in a dwindling population of endangered reindeer. Velvet’s attempt at positive climate action could therefore be viewed as a marketing ploy which lacked gravitas. It appealed to the idea of creating positive change through individual action, whilst the promised action of planting trees is largely unchecked by the consumer. Brands such as Velvet are concerned with conjuring feelings of helpfulness within the very instance of purchase. The act of planting trees is otherwise distant to those who buy their products.

In contrast to the devastation caused by Velvet, many other efforts such as Ecosia’s worldwide initiative, offer benefits to developing local communities through the jobs generated. Ecosia functions as proof that of course, many climate-oriented projects also do reap positive rewards for both communities and the planet. The Trillion Trees project, supported by Birdlife International, WWF, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, has the aim to plant a trillion trees by 2050. Their tree planting is supported by three key points of focus: ‘ending deforestation, improving protection, and advancing restoration’. Importantly their initiative is not just concerned with contributing to the worldwide tree population, but to also prevent and confront any further damage caused by environmental exploitation.

Is it fair for Beuys’ work to be met with cynicism? His art was devoid of the capitalist aims of brands who merely choose to jump on the eco-friendly bandwagon, and whilst critics may dismiss his work as a gimmick, it is not destructive, nor is it counter productive. The Trillion Trees project acts as evidence of an organisation who are tackling deforestation at its cause - which both Black and Ginsberg dismiss Beuys’ project as doing. However, 7000 Oaks exists within a different setting to such initiatives. As a public artwork, 7000 Oaks helped to raise awareness about an issue that may otherwise seem distant from the city’s residents. It was created during a time where there was no internet meaning public attention had to be garnered in other ways. The initiative also contributed to urban regeneration, proactively offering a slice of climate productivity within a city setting. As a public artwork it helped raise the aesthetic value of Kassel’s streets. Campaigns such as Trillion Trees therefore have different aims to Beuys’ 7000 Oaks, but are inspired by a similar cause.

The legacy of 7000 Oaks persists today. As the trees throughout Kassel continue to grow, many others have been planted in cities globally in direct response to Beuys’ work. Beuys’ idea surrounding ‘social sculpture’ still endures. As ‘artists’ we too can start creating ‘work’ which fights for positive change in order to shape and mould our society for the better. It is up to us to be wary of big brands who capitalise on climate activism, who may potentially cause more harm than good. In turn, why not support global tree planting from organisations who are solely committed to positive climate action - this could be as simple as changing which browser you use. As 7000 Oaks has proven, climate action can be taken from within your very city. All of us have the ability to fight for positive change.

Further reading: Black, Sara, and Ginsberg, Anna. “7000 Marks.” CSPA Quarterly, no. 22, 2018, pp. 49–55. JSTOR, Accessed 21 May 2020

Written by Guest Writer Charlotte Russell


Recent posts








  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram