The memory of trees

Brian Fagan is the author of "The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850" and the forthcoming "Before California: An Archaeologist Looks at Our Earliest Inhabitants."

The myth of the dark, primordial forest still exercises a strong hold on the Western psyche. So does the notion that the forests were part of a harmonious, God-given backdrop, a passive spectator of history. Geographer Michael Williams’ authoritative history of deforestation draws on a broad range of sources to debunk these myths. He shows how forests were always dynamic entities, affected by short- and long-term environmental and climatic changes and even by quite minor human disturbances. The ax and the fire stick are inseparable from forests and make a mockery of the myth of the divinely provided backdrop. Yet the fiction persists: that the Earth was pristine, unaltered by humanity, before the Industrial Age.

Williams begins with the return of forests to Europe after the Ice Age, in what he calls “the deep past,” for which only climatology and archeology can tell the story. He describes the dramatic vegetational changes and global warming that transformed Europe, North America and the tropical world. Humans colonized the newly vegetated land and transformed it with fire, hunting and foraging, and soon with their fields and grazing animals. The fire stick was one of the most powerful artifacts in the human armory. It allowed people to clear and manage forest landscapes long before anyone put a hoe into the ground.

Farming was the reason for the first great forest clearance, beginning 10,000 years ago in southwestern Asia, the first great human change of the face of the Earth. The effect of the first farming societies paled into insignificance when compared with the promiscuous forest clearance of Classical times, when brick making, building, heating, metal smelting and shipbuilding consumed enormous quantities of timber. Williams looks behind the trees at the changing “cultural climate” of the day, the social and political setting of deforestation. The nature that had once been revered was modified, traded and sold. Land was wealth.

Medieval Europe witnessed forest clearance on a grand scale in the 11th through 13th centuries. The forest was deeply embedded in the fabric of medieval life, the property of monarchs, a place where nearly everyone had some rights, covering everything from firewood to grazing land for swine. Timber had become an indispensable raw material in daily life. As populations grew, so the forest dwindled in the face of subsistence farming to the point of near-crisis. Much of the deforestation came at the hands of religious houses, which preached that the world was a “sojourner’s way station,” a place where humans assisted God in improving their earthly home.


Williams contrasts Europe with China, where persistent population pressure and the demands of agriculture destroyed forests everywhere. Europe broke out of the cycle with the Black Death and the Age of Discovery, which took some pressure off tree clearance. China never had such epidemiological or environmental safety valves.The Age of Discovery defined the context of deforestation of the next 250 years, during which Europe discovered the wider world. Soon discovery gave way to bulk trade commodities like coffee, tea and sugar, which affected forest growth in the tropics. In Europe, forests again dwindled in the face of growing populations and a rising demand for timber for shipbuilding and such other activities as charcoal burning. But along with the deforestation came the first efforts at coppicing and forest management and deliberate tree planting, for both economic and entirely pleasurable reasons. Despite these efforts, the demand for timber was insatiable. By the end of the 18th century, China and Southern and Western Europe were effectively cleared of forest. America was beginning the clearing that would transform the continent and be a model for colonists everywhere: a vast continent’s frontier forests cleared to create new farms, complete with the inevitable log cabins. By the end of the 18th century, an irrevocable change in forest biomes was underway.

The Industrial Revolution created a new social environment for deforestation. Mechanization made logging more profitable and even more destructive. Nevertheless, the 19th century was an era when deeply entrenched notions of human progress, of technological innovation, went hand in hand with an emerging interest in natural history and the environment. George Perkins Marsh wrote in his “Man and Nature” in 1864 that wherever humans set foot, “the harmonies of nature are turned to discord.” His statement was distinctly unfashionable but reflected a new concern for conservation. A sensibility about forests and natural landscapes slowly developed, creating the profound tensions about the environment so characteristic of the modern world. Conflicting attitudes and aims about domestication, preservation and regulation will always encompass the economic, environmental and ethical requirements of the society that begets them. The nascent environmentalists of the 18th and 19th century helped pose the fundamental question for the 20th century: Which of these goals should dominate? Much depends on how essential the forest is for the survival of a large part of the population.

The late 18th and 19th centuries witnessed the climax of deforestation in the world’s temperate climates. The pace of deforestation accelerated even more dramatically during the 20th century in a rapidly changing cultural climate, with lengthy debates about the limits, availability and ownership of some of the Earth’s key resources, including timber. The controversies reflected the realities of a more global world, where wood was second only to petroleum as a strategic resource. By mid-century, the world’s forests fit into two categories: those that were managed carefully for production and environmental protection or leisure, and those that were felled to grow food or for profit. What the world’s temperate zones lacked was purchased from tropical zones, as relatively wealthy nations conserved their own forests at the expense of poorer countries.

After 1950, the debate shifted, when new considerations, including biodiversity and global warming, affected the discourse on deforestation. Williams calls the six decades after World War II the time of “The Great Onslaught.” The figures are frightening: 336 million hectares cleared between 1945 and 1980, mostly converted to cropland, almost all in the tropics. Since 1980, 220 million more hectares have been deforested at a rate of more than 15 million hectares annually. This level of forest destruction -- about half the area of Arizona annually with no end in sight, is unique in history. Williams also shows how the statistics are unreliable. No one knows the true magnitude of contemporary deforestation caused by population growth, logging, agriculture and, in the developing world, insatiable demands for firewood. He calls this “the mad assault,” and he is right.

“Deforesting the Earth” offers no panacea for environmental degradation. Instead, Williams attempts to make sense of a long-drawn-out process of environmental change that began more than 10,000 years ago and continues unabated. He documents the immensity of deforestation in earlier times. As much forest was cleared before 1950 as has been destroyed during the last half century, so talk of an environmental world “of the present” is nonsense. History also shows us that underlying social, economic and political factors -- the all-important “cultural climate” -- drive and have always driven deforestation. We know far less about what brings deforestation under control, something Williams believes needs “governments strong enough to be pluralistic,” that listen to the concerns of their people. Nothing much has changed over the centuries, except that deforestation is now more than an economic issue. It is becoming a humanitarian one. Williams sees another potential chapter to his book in a decade or so, chronicling how humans grappled with the use and abuse of “their incomparable heritage, a green, global mantle of forest.”

“Deforesting the Earth” is not a book you read from cover to cover at one sitting but a definitive study to which one returns again and again, to browse, to marvel at the expert synthesis of myriad sources and the daunting statistics on virtually every page. Anyone who doubts the power of history to inform the present should read this closely argued and sweeping survey. This is rich, timely and sobering historical fare written in a measured, non-sensationalist style by a master of his craft. One only hopes (almost certainly vainly) that today’s policymakers take its lessons to heart.