Ed. Note — While the specifics of Peak Oil can be debated, the existence of an inflection point in which petroleum becomes increasingly difficult and expensive to extract is not. A few days ago our Melinda Burns looked at possible scenarios on how the world might cope with Peak Oil. Here, John Perlin, author of A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization, recaps and expands on the cautionary tales he’s recounted on how the world has already experienced the age of Peak Wood.
Constant fuel wood crises taught pre-Colombian Americans in New England the precariousness of accessible wood supplies. Their minimal tool set circumscribed the distance they could gather firewood essential for survival before the task became unbearable. Reliance on stone tools made felling trees and cutting them up laborious. Lacking domesticated animals as well as wheels for carts and sails for ships for hauling added to their burden. Village sites constantly moved to access forests close enough for humans to carry such bulky cargo as it was only a matter of time they cleared the woods nearby
When they encountered the newly arrived Europeans, such as Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, their obsession with “peak wood” would often enter the conversation.
Williams recalled the often-asked question, “Why come the English hither?” And then projecting onto the English their own obsession the indigenous Americans would reply rhetorically, “It is because you want firing. Having burnt up the wood in one place, [Englishmen] are [forced] to follow the wood, and so, to remove to a fresh, new place for the wood’s sake.”
The Native Americans’ unending search for plentiful wood supplies also led to questioning the reality of Christianity’s notion of hell and as a consequence, rejecting Christianity.
As one Jesuit complained, “When [the Iroquois] first heard of the eternal fire and of the burning decreed for the punishment of sin, they withheld their belief, because, as they said, there could be no fire where there was no wood then what forest could sustain so many fires through such a long space of time” as eternity?
The idea of no limits to resources like wood and oil derived from technological advances such as metallurgy, domestication of animals, the wheel and sails for ships. Thanks to such technological advances, humanity began to believe it had moved beyond nature.
In the West, such arrogance began, at least in literature, with Gilgamesh in the Fertile Crescent almost 5,000 years ago.
Gilgamesh was the ruler of a city-kingdom in southern Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq), and a mythologized version of his reign appears what’s likely the world’s oldest written story, The Epic of Gilgamesh. In this story, the ruler wished to construct great palaces and temples to make his city a wonder for all to view. To realize his dream, he had to have at his disposal large amounts of timber. Fortunately for Gilgamesh a great primeval forest grew in the mountains just north of the lowlands we now call the Fertile Crescent. These timberlands occupied such a huge swath of land that no one, not Gilgamesh or anyone else, knew how far they stretched.
When these forests went, the successors of Gilgamesh sailed the Mediterranean for huge trees, found them in Crete, cut the forests down with their metal axes, put the timber in their boats powered by sails and hauled them overland when they arrived on shores of the Middle East.
Civilization continued its march westward in search of wood. In the poet Hesiod’s time timber grew throughout Greece. Some 300 years later Plato reminisced how in an earlier period “there was an abundance of wood in the mountains” but “now they only afford sustenance to bees.”
So the Greeks, with their ships and bronze axes, eyed the woods of Sicily and Italy. Theophrastus, a botanist and a younger contemporary of Plato, reported that the land of the Latins contained bay, myrtle, wonderful beech, fir and silver fir. The Greeks named one forest just south of Rome “birdless,” because the trees there grew so close together that not even birds could enter.
A few miles north of Rome lay a forest, described by the historian Livy as more impenetrable than those in Germany, at that time regarded as wilderness. Two centuries later the Roman philosopher Lucretius watched “day by day the woods retreat farther and farther” from Rome, as farmers cleared the land for cultivation. Three centuries later the deforestation of much of Italy forced the Roman government to establish a fleet of fuel ships, much like oil tankers of today, to scour the Mediterranean lands west and south, especially North Africa and France, for fire wood.
Southern England’s woods also attracted the Romans because the ground there yielded iron ore and hardwoods, an excellent fuel for smelting. More than a thousand years later these same woodlands provided building material for England’s fleets and fuel for its first industrial revolution that once more produced iron for the nation.
As the English lost its woods to agriculture and industry, the country, once coveted by Rome for its trees, now searched abroad, as had the Romans years before, for necessary commodities.
Sixteenth- and 17th-century entrepreneurs only had to look to Ireland for great woods and thickets to continue producing iron and building casks and ships. By 1641, the English had felled so many trees on the former densely forested island that according to a 1651 survey of its natural resources past and present, a person could now “travel whole days without seeing any woods or trees.”
England also sought out the Baltic countries for timber large enough to mast its Royal Navy, which served as the “wooden walls” protecting the kingdom. Centuries of providing England, as well as France and Holland, with its biggest trees took its toll. By the beginning of the 18th century few trees large enough grew in the Baltic.
White pines growing in Britain’s New England colony, then judged as the largest trees in the world, took up the slack. The colonists, though, regarded these large trees as ideal for lumber to sell abroad for capital to start up new homestead. By the time of the American Revolution, woods close to population centers on the Eastern Seaboard no longer existed.
(As environmental ecologist Kent Mountford has written in an elegy for the woods of southern Maryland, “Many of the colonists and our founding fathers were perfectly able to read the Greek and Latin accounts, but the lessons went unheeded, and the litany of errors continues.”)
As impressive as the Eastern forest had first appeared to Europeans, those venturing west of the Appalachian Mountains and descending into the Ohio Valley “were agreeably surprised on finding nature in a novel and more splendid garb,” than ever seen before. The trees made up “a grand assemblage of gigantic beings which carry the imagination back to other times before the foot of the white man had touched the American shore.” Indiana, at the beginning of the 19th century, was “one vast forest.” Ohio, though, presented “the grandest unbroken forest of 41,000 square miles that was ever beheld.”
Cheap lumber and cheap fuel extracted from these forests made possible America’s development from the Revolution to the Civil War into a powerful and prosperous nation. Such growth, though, took a terrible toll on the woodlands. By 1877, one observer reported in The Popular Science Monthly that “the states of Ohio and Indiana … so recently a part of the great East-American forest, have even now a greater percentage of treeless area” than portions of Europe settled and cultivated for thousands of years.
The author continued, “In the economy of Nature forests perform innumerable functions which no artificial contrivance can imitate,” and closed writing, “‘Timely prevention,’ wrote Dr. Radcliffe, ‘not only saves us from diseases, but from those greater evils — the remedies.’”
It became clear that the decimation of the forests from the Atlantic to the Mississippi were going to become just another chapter in humanity’s piecemeal destruction of the planet.
Today’s assault on the Amazon and other rainforests continues the same sad story. The lure of present profit has driven this relentless war against the world’s trees throughout time and all continents. As liberal economists in the 17th century showed, a landowner could expect a profit of a little more than 3 shillings per acre by preserving his woods, whereas by converting it to pasture brought three times that much. It therefore made perfect pecuniary sense to clear the land.
Despite such accounting, Frederick Engels, the social scientist and communist theorist, saw residual issues beyond immediate gain when it came to deforestation.
“What did the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down the forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained sufficient fertilizer from the ashes for one generation of highly profitable coffee trees, care that the heavy tropical rains later washed away the now unprotected upper stratum of the soil and left only bare rock behind?” he asked in his Dialectics of Nature.
Engels then added his critique: “In relation to nature, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the first, the most tangible result. Why should one be surprised, then, that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be of quite a different character?”
Current events have proven Engels a seer. No one considered that by removing the trees and turning to fossil fuels would now threaten the planet by accelerating climate change. Nor did many stop to think that oil would peak, just as wood has done so many times before.
We should therefore take Engels quite seriously when he admonished his generation and those who came before and those to come, “Let us not flatter ourselves on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first.”