Michael Williams’ book, Deforesting the Earth, describes humankind’s 10,000 year raid on the planet’s forest cover. Readers are taken on a world tour of deforestation through the ages. Ports of call include Greece, Rome, China, India, the Amazon, and others. We discover the regional variations of forest mining, from the first frontier clearings to the lumber guzzling industrial societies.
The saga of the forest molesters begins in the Stone Age, on an embryonic scale. Many imagine that all Native Americans lived in perfect harmony from the dawn of time. Compared to the white colonists, they indeed lived far lighter, but many tribes altered their ecosystems over time via periodic burning, which prevented forest regeneration. They left some footprints on the land.
In the Old World, the experiment in agriculture had been thrashing soils and forests for centuries. But in America, many imagine that similar slash-and-burn techniques somehow caused no injuries. Williams disagreed. He described extensive deforestation and soil depletion in corn country. Note that large-scale agriculture in the eastern U.S. was just 500 years old in 1492, and they lacked metal axes, plows, and draft animals. In Mexico, where large-scale farming existed since 2000 B.C., there was abundant evidence of serious damage — bigger footprints.
Our dependence on wood makes Homo sapiens an unusual species. Without the warmth provided by burning wood, our ancestors could have never left the tropics. Deforestation was civilization’s shadow. Until the temporary blip of fossil energy, wood was our oil. Wood enabled the manufacture of metals, bricks, mortar, glass, and ceramics. It enabled long-term survival in snow country.
The Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas developed big bloody empires without plows, iron tools, or domesticated herd animals — but deforestation kept them on life support. Gold, silver, diamonds, and iron were not necessary for becoming victorious conquerors, but the march to domination required food, water, and wood.
In medieval Europe, the new religion had driven a wedge between humans and nature. Earth was created for us. We were partners with God, and our job was to put the finishing touches on creation. “A wild landscape not hallowed by prayer and asceticism was said to be in a state of original sin, but once it has become fertile and purposeful, it was transformed.” So, the forests had to go, along with the savages and outlaws that lurked within them.
In theory, wood is renewable. Societies with light footprints didn’t kill trees; they gathered dead wood instead. For rising civilizations, on the other hand, wood was more like pure crystal meth. When you had access to it, life was a fantastic amazing rush. You built ships, cities, fortresses, temples, trade networks. But when the wood was gone, you were a burned out, toothless, walking dead tweaker.
Wood addiction was a vicious cycle. Deforestation led to expanded cropland and pasture, which led to growing population, which led to further deforestation, and so on. Eventually, the Ponzi scheme encountered limits. Endless growth is impossible. Simple societies that saw their forest as sacred were helpless sitting ducks for loony societies possessed by an insatiable addiction to wood and wealth. Why practice enlightened self-restraint when you can grow like crazy?
Forests are finite. Perpetual deforestation is impossible, as they discovered on Easter Island. Today, it’s growing at an exponential rate. Listen to this: we’ve cleared more forest since 1950 than in all previous time, and the extermination continues. Consumers encourage rainforest destruction by buying pet food, fast food burgers, soy-based products, foods containing palm oil, and so on.
Williams mentioned the winter of 1695, when the king of France sat at his dinner table, bundled in furs, his glass filled with frozen wine. Before iron stoves, heating was extremely inefficient. The metropolis of Paris was importing firewood from up to 200 kilometers away (124 miles). In the winter of 1709, wood was scarce, and “people died like flies.”
At about this time, folks began seriously fooling around with coal, a nonrenewable source of energy. Before long, coal became the new meth. It threw open the doors to the Industrial Revolution, and a new vicious cycle of exponential growth and resource depletion. Two hundred years later, we slipped into the petroleum nightmare, civilization went viral, and we are now skyrocketing toward bad juju oblivion.
Previously, I thought that the biggest impact of riding the downslope from Peak Energy was the transition to muscle-powered agriculture, a massive shift that we are entirely unprepared for. But what about heating? In 1695, when the king’s wine froze, the planet’s population was just 600 million. Today, there is far less forest and far more people. Today, almost half of humankind uses wood for heating and cooking, and they are burning twice as much as 20 years ago. Imagine the day when wood is the only source of heat for Boston or Chicago, and the chainsaws, trucks, and trains are rusting in the snow.
Williams’ book is a grand banquet of information. Readers get to spend many hours studying charts, graphs, and tables of statistics, observing reality through the mind of a geographer. He described how, why, and when the long process of deforestation has proceeded, but paid little attention to the ecological impacts of forest clearing. He advocated conservation, based on wise management. The rate of cutting should not exceed the rate at which new wood grows. Therefore, efforts to preserve old growth ecosystems were dumb, because mature trees grow slower than young ones.
Williams disliked critics of deforestation. Those youngsters were feeble-minded alarmists who spewed exaggerated hysteria — obnoxious eco-fascists determined to make our lives miserable. For him, deforestation was a necessary evil, “In fact, the clearing of the forest… over much of western and central Europe was one of the most dramatic changes made to human landscapes anywhere and can be regarded as one of the great achievements of the medieval age.”
Williams was born in 1935, and grew up during the zenith of the British Empire, the petroleum blip, the high tech revolution, and the population explosion — an era of staggering chaos. Yes, deforestation was a bummer, but it was a sacrifice required for our joyride to wonderland. Like the worldview of the dominant culture in which he was raised, the book vibrates with cognitive dissonance. Our advanced standard of living must be preserved, at any cost, for as long as possible, by any means necessary.
Reading the book with ecology-tinted glasses is most illuminating. It describes a chain reaction of catastrophic mistakes, made with good intentions, spanning thousands of years — mistakes that continue to multiply at a head spinning rate. We are given a detailed map of the path we took to disaster, including the wrong turns. We can never comprehend genuine sustainability until we identify and understand the mistakes. We must discover our history.
Immense imagination is needed to elevate our consciousness far above the reeking cesspool of pathological illusions. There may come a day, after the storms, when we have a chance to start over again. How could we do it differently — and wisely — next time around? It’s time for good people with hearts and creative gifts to contemplate these issues. It’s time for new lessons, stories, songs, and paintings. It’s time to remember who we are, and come home.
Williams provided a vital clue. “If sustainable societies existed, then they depended on very low population densities, abundance of land, and little or no involvement in a market economy, local or regional, all of which were rare.” I agree.
P.S., I also recommend John Perlin’s book, A Forest Journey.
Williams, Michael, Deforesting the Earth — From Prehistory to Global Crisis, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2006.