The Fruits of Civilization (72-6) Forests

Forests

All arts and artisans must fail and cease if there were no timber and wood. ~ John Evelyn in 1662

Homo erectus discovering how to control fire would not have happened, and been for naught, had it not been for wood. Historians claim no Wood Age only because no such archaic artifacts remained to show wood’s importance; hence, prehistory begins with the Stone Age.

Prior to the Neolithic, man lacked implements powerful enough to cut and carve wood, let alone fell trees. The development of metal technology and the felling of forests went hand-in-hand.

We never really left the Wood Age, as the value of lumber to humans has been everlasting. Wood products are used for fuel, construction, and as personal implements, both at hand and between the cheeks.

Cold climes became habitable from the heat of wood fires. Inedible grains were transformed into food. Clay became pottery which could store all sorts of foodstuffs.

Farming became possible because of tools and plows built with wood. Wood was the fuel that afforded chemistry and metallurgy to develop.

Transportation would have been unthinkable without wood. From the invention of the wheel, every vehicle on land depended upon wood, as did everything afloat that people traveled on.

Waterwheels, windmills, and mineshaft supports were all built with wood, as were the buildings that gave rise to urban life.

Deforesting is not a recent phenomenon. It is as old as the human occupation of the Earth. ~ American geographer Michael Williams

Ancient writers observed that forests always recede in the face of civilization. Failing felling forests, all civilizations throughout history – from Sumer to North America 7,000 years later – would never have emerged. Scarcities of wood started wars, cajoled conquests of foreign lands, and triggered technological changes.

Metallurgists on the island of Crete in the Late Bronze Age developed many ingenious methods of conserving energy as wood became dear. Eventually, acute wood shortages impelled these metalworkers to separate iron from copper, thereby transitioning technology into the Iron Age.

18th-century-BCE Hammurabi, the great ruler and codifier of Babylonian law, saw to it that timber felling and its distribution were regulated, to thwart profligate use of wood.

Before 4000 BCE, Crete was just another island in the Aegean Sea; then its rich woodlands attracted traders from Mesopotamia, where all the forests had been felled. Thus arose the Minoan civilization.

Likewise, Macedonia was a woody backwater on the fringes of ancient Greek civilization until the great city-states ran short of timber. The Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE) between Athens and the Sparta-led Peloponnesian League was fought for possession of the forests in northern Greece and Sicily.

The exhausted combatants were then bested as Macedonia rose to power under Philip II. Philip’s son, Alexander, would go on to build the greatest empire in the ancient world. Its glory was brief. The Macedonian Empire declined as Rome’s rose. Roman conquest of Gaul and Spain was driven by demand for wood.

Having acquired sailing technology and a taste for easy wealth, the Vikings took to trading and marauding other lands. The Vikings discovered the rich forests of Iceland in the late 9th century. Settlers slashed and burned to grow hay and barley, and to create grazing land. They used the timber for building, and to fuel their Iron Age forges. Within 3 centuries, the forests were gone. Hardship fell upon the land. To this day, the forests never recovered, even as the most modern agricultural technology has been applied.

In the 16th century, Englishmen lusted after the lush forests of North America, having cut most of their own trees down. Conflicts over timber rights provided part of the drive for American colonists to revolt against their British masters. England wanted the best stands of trees for its navy. Americans wanted the freedom to fell whatever woods they would.

Without its timber resources, America’s revolt would have surely failed. An abundance of iron and charcoal for steel spelled weaponry aplenty, and all of its ships were built locally.

Scarcity of timber forced the English to move to fossil fuels, substituting coal for wood as the principal energy source. This in turn inspired innovations which begat the Industrial Revolution.

◊ ◊ ◊

Throughout history, ecological concerns grew the most heated, and were most heeded, as forests disappeared.

Plato vividly warned fellow Athenians of the consequences of deforestation. In the 2nd century bce, Cato taught the Romans how to husband their diminishing wood supplies.

No wood, no kingdom. ~ English writer Arthur Standish in The Commons Complaint (1611)

The most influential text ever written on forestry – Sylva (1662) – was a bid by English gardener John Evelyn to save the few remaining forests in Stuart England.

Just as timber fueled prosperity, deforestation has repeatedly meant decline. Along with other ancient civilizations, the Roman Empire was weakened as it became dependent upon others for food; having cleared its farmlands of the tree cover that had nourished the soil for ages.

Blessed by easy access to forests and rich soil, a society develops materially, and people grow confident that Nature will always provide for their needs. Ultimately the attempt to maintain high economic and population growth over time, in the face of dwindling resources, results in decline. ~ American environmental scientist Lester Brown

Trees still fulfill their historic roles for the majority of the peoples on the planet, but the lessons of history have not been learned. Judicious harvesting has yet to dawn on those who depend most on trees for their livelihoods. This willful ignorance ensures future impoverishment, as well as depleting the single most critical resource under human control for fighting the global warming created by man.

Forests play a more important role in cooling the surface in almost all regions of Earth than was previously thought. ~ Chinese American Earth scientist Kaiguang Zhao

Like beavers gone rabid, humans now chew through some $1 trillion dollars of wood products each year. People in industrialized countries account for only ~20% of the world’s population but consume 76% of its timber. By 2010, Americans were using twice as much wood as they did in 1950.

Forests are fragmented to carve out farmland, and to build villages, towns, and cities. Roads and dammed rivers fragment forests and woodlands. This fragmentation disrupts the delicate balance of Nature that exists, and can cascade to devastation, especially for forest creatures.

Even minimal deforestation has had severe consequences for vertebrate biodiversity. We found little support for the alternative hypothesis that forest loss is most detrimental in already fragmented landscapes. ~ American forest ecologist Matthew Betts et al

In 1986, the government of Thailand built a dam across the Khlong Saeng river, creating a 97-kilometer2 reservoir. As the reservoir rose, the river valley drowned. This transformed 150 hilltops into islands, each with its own isolated menagerie of life.

5 years after the flooding, the islands less than 10 hectares in size had lost all their small mammals. Overall, the average island had only 2 mammal species. The larger islands, with up to 56 hectares, had 7–12 species.

Within 25 years, all the islands were bereft of native mammals. The only mammal left was the Malayan field rat: an invasive species that does not venture deep into large forests but had colonized some of the islands.

◊ ◊ ◊

10,000 years ago, nearly half of Earth’s land was covered by forest. Over 1/3rd of those forests have been obliterated.

Forest fragmentation has been accelerating throughout the world, especially in the tropics: those regions with relatively rapid economic development. This is a death knell for biodiversity, and for humanity.

Deforestation is typically not accomplished by harvesting timber. Instead, woodlands are burned, with the charred remains cleared as needed. This is a hoary practice. Prehistoric hunter-foragers manipulated vegetation via fire to round up and slaughter game. Nowadays, vast tracts go up in flames as a shortcut to gaining arable land. The dirt is damaged by such wildfire. The loss of soil productivity from such practice is seldom recovered.