Once upon a time, at the dawn of civilization, the planet’s forests were in peak condition, in terms of their age, range, and health. Wildlife was thriving. Modern lads and lasses would not believe their eyes if they could dream their way back to 10,000 BC and observe the stunning abundance of birds, fish, and wild grazing animals — and the absence of cities.
Sadly, on a dark and stormy night, some wise guys figured out how to smelt ore and forge ax heads, and things have been going downhill ever since. Axes did make it much easier to cut down trees, but the mad scientists totally failed to imagine the unintended consequences of their brilliant invention (as usual). But this was an era when it was quite popular to invent technologies that would have negative effects for many, many centuries. It was the trendy thing to do.
For example, the digging stick. Agriculture preceded metal making. First, they farmed shorelines and riverbanks until the soil fertility wore out. Then, they cleared forests, and wore out the soil there. Then they moved to a different forest, killed the trees, and wore out that soil. And on and on. This cycle has been repeated for thousands of years.
Prior to the digging stick, hunter-gatherers simply limited the number children they allowed to survive. By keeping their numbers low, they could live in a wild and healthy land, and enjoy a life that required far less effort and drudgery. Remember that!
John Perlin’s book, A Forest Journey, is a history of forest destruction, with stops including Mesopotamia, Crete, Greece, Cyprus, Rome, Venice, England, Brazil, and America. Humans have always used wood in a number of ways, but the era of agriculture has shown little mercy for forests, and it has turned more than a few of them into barren wastelands and urban wastelands.
A healthy forest grew in healthy fertile soil, but wheat would not grow in the shade, so the trees had to go. The wood was used to build houses, bridges, temples, and palaces. It was made into fences, docks, wagons, furniture, tools, and barrels. It heated homes and fueled industries that produced metal, glass, pottery, lime, sugar, and salt. Staggering quantities of wood were consumed by industry. Very importantly, wood was used to build cargo, fishing, and war ships. In earlier times, almost everything moved via water.
A civilization with access to abundant forests had great potential power. It could grow, create profitable industries, participate in trade networks, defend itself from conquest, and conquer new forests. Be careful not to confuse this glorious enterprise of never-ending growth with a free lunch. The path of never-ending growth always seems to end at a mountain of skulls. Typically, it allows for a few generations of excess and debauchery — and then the bill arrives. Holy expletive!
Perlin discussed the pattern repeated by the civilizations of the Mediterranean Basin. The trees were cut, then the heavy winter rains came, the soil eroded from the hillsides, the ports and bays were buried with eroded silt, and flash floods roared through the valleys. Eventually, the prime soil was sent to the bottom of the sea, and the remaining wasteland could produce little more than olives, grapes, and goats. The fuel for industry was gone, population plummeted, and the forest could never again recover on ruined land. Most of the arid wastelands of today’s Mediterranean Basin used to be forests.
Even the ancients understood that their civilizations were unsustainable. In the epic poem Cypria, Zeus started the Trojan War to thin the bloated human herd so the weary earth could recuperate. Plato wrote a bitter lament about the devastated land of Attica, a sickly skeleton of its former vitality. In Works and Days, Hesiod described the decline of humankind from the wonderful Golden Age to the horrid Iron Age. In Genesis, the Hebrew deity observed the stunning wickedness of humans, regretted creating them, and sent a huge flood to eliminate his multitudes of embarrassing mistakes.
Well hey, if they could see that what they were doing was really dumb, then why didn’t they just stop? They could have quit cutting trees, thrown away their icky plows, implemented a draconian population reduction regime, and lived happily ever after, right? Our modern consumer society has similar healthy options. Why don’t we just stop?
The bottom line was that people who preferred to limit their numbers, and continue living in harmony with nature, had no future. Their thriving unmolested forests looked like mountains of treasure in the eyes of civilized sailors cruising by — and civilized people cannot tolerate the sight of unmolested forests; it drives them nuts. In other words, if you didn’t destroy your forest, someone else would. If you didn’t build war ships, you were a helpless sitting duck. Thus, civilization bounced from region to region, repeating the same mistakes, turning countless paradises into parking lots. Progress!
That was the story in the Mediterranean Basin. It was a completely different story along the Pacific coast of America and Canada. In this region, the people remained hunter-gatherers, and their ecosystem stayed as healthy as it had been 10,000 years earlier (until you-know-who arrived). In the absence of agriculture and civilization, life can be far more pleasant for one and all, including the entire ecosystem. Remember that!
Perlin concluded with two huge chapters on industrial England and America, for which large quantities of written records still survive. He described greedy industrialists, corrupt politicians, exploited peasants, and several centuries of ridiculous environmental destruction.
By the end of the book, alert readers will recognize similar patterns of unwholesome behavior that continue to this very day. The rate of destruction has skyrocketed — and so has our understanding of the harm we are causing. Alert readers will be compelled to discard all fantasies of quick and easy remedies.
This book makes me crazy. Why isn’t ecological history a compulsory subject throughout every student’s education? Why are we still training our youth to be mindless consumers, and punctual obedient industrial robots? There is more important information in this book than I learned during most of my school years. Imagine what could happen if we ever produced a generation of well-educated children. Hug every tree you see.
Perlin, John, A Forest Journey — The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1993.