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Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis

Author(s):Williams, Michael
Reviewer(s):Libecap, Gary

Published by EH.NET (August 2003)

Michael Williams, Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. xxvi + 689 pp. $70 (cloth), ISBN: 0-226-89926-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gary Libecap, Department of Economics, University of Arizona.

Michael Williams is Professor of Geography at Oxford University and a Fellow of Oriel College. He is the author of numerous books and articles on forestry and historical geography.

Deforesting the Earth is valuable economic and environmental history. These two often do not go together, unfortunately. In much environmental history, humans (especially those from western industrial societies) are the problem. Nature in general and forests in particular, are often alleged to have been in a natural equilibrium with native peoples until both were ravaged by the onset of capitalist exploitation. With contemporary fears of globalization, global warming, species extinction, losses of biodiversity, deforestation, and depletion of many critical resources, advocacy groups and other special interests exaggerate environmental “crises” and fail to place them into their historical bases. In this setting it is difficult to find careful, reasoned examinations of key problems, their histories, complexities, and likely, long-term patterns and consequences. Deforestation, particularly of Amazon and other rainforests, certainly ranks at or near the top of any list of environmental crises. The issue is an impassioned one and a flood of alarmist books and articles have appeared on the subject, but they provide little understanding of the extent of deforestation, nature of regeneration, or of the underlying issues involved.

Michael Williams places deforestation into a broader historical and geographical context, and explores the linkages between forests and people since the end of the last Ice Age; identifies important economic forces; and provides estimates of the extent of forest clearing. He primarily examines Western Europe and North America, but also describes the extent and forces underlying deforestation in China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Africa and South America. There are extensive endnotes, figures, illustrations, and tables; an inclusive bibliography; and a complete index.

The book is divided into three parts: Clearing in the Deep Past, Reaching Out: Europe and the Wider World, and the Global Forest. Part I explores timber cutting from the end of the Ice Age through the medieval period. Williams points out that the thinning, changing, and elimination of forests is not a recent phenomenon, but rather is as old as the human occupation of the earth. Clearing, and indeed, deforestation, has been intricately tied to conditions of population growth and economic development for the past 14 to 15,000 years. He states that the book “is about how, why, and when humans eliminated trees and changed forests, and so shaped the economies, societies, and landscapes that lie around us.” He also provides some measures of the magnitude of deforestation. Chapter 1 describes the return of the forest as the ice sheets retreated some 16,000 years ago. Not only were Europe and North America affected by changes in the climate, but tropical regions as well — although less is known about the latter. As humans migrated to newly forested areas, they would have nearly as much impact on the forest over the subsequent 10,000 years as the glaciers had for 100,000 years. Chapter 2 points to fire as the main vehicle used by primitive peoples for deforestation. Williams argues that the manipulation and taming of nature by prehistoric and native peoples is commonly ignored and underestimated. Their actions have been romanticized and asserted to have been ecologically benign. But, according to Williams, natives never were “in perfect harmony” with nature, but attempted to transform it, and fire was the first great force. The combination of human predation and destruction of habitat through burning led to the extinction of many species across the planet, and Williams provides examples from Europe, North America, and Polynesia. He argues that the first Europeans to visit North America likely observed a profoundly disturbed landscape. At their peak around 1492, the Indian population of North America had long been transforming the forest for agriculture and hunting. Chapter 3 turns to the rise of agriculture, which involved both the domestication of animals and plant species and the removal of forest. The examination begins with the Neolithic period in the Middle East, Europe, and North and South America, and moves on to describe the gradual expansion of agricultural methods and clearing practices. Chapter 4 looks at agriculture and deforestation in the classical world of Greece and Rome. By this time three other factors in forcing timber cutting were becoming important, shipbuilding, urbanization, and metal smelting, and these were to become even greater forces in the harvest of trees in Europe by the fifteenth century. Williams provides some estimates of the amount of timber harvest necessary for ship construction and metal smelting. Chapter 5 turns to the medieval world, which brought new onslaughts on the forest. Population increases in Europe and the introduction of new plows and horsepower speeded the pace and extent of deforestation. Williams describes the complex relationship that medieval peoples had with the forest as a source of food, firewood, and other products. Forests were closely bound to everyday lives of ordinary people. At the same time, the forests were the enemy with dangerous animals and trees that blocked the paths of roads and fields. The Plague and the fall in population in the fifteenth century gave European forests some respite. The chapter ends with discussion of clearing in fourteenth century China.

Part II covers more modern factors in deforestation. Chapter 6 beings with the internal and external economic expansion of Europe between 1500 and 1750, with associated changes in cultural and economic forces affecting the forest. This was the age of discovery, and discovery needed ships of wood. Technological change brought new products and means of production and communication. Population growth surged, trade increased, and new sources of power were required. All of these dramatic changes impacted the forest. New views of nature arose, whereby trees and other natural resources became seen as instruments of human development. As described in Chapter 7, clearing accelerated in Europe during this period. The prices of firewood, charcoal, and timber stores increased sharply as population densities grew. This forced a turn to new, more distant, sources of supply, and importantly, for the first time, to a new concern with conservation. Plunder, preservation, and planting went hand in hand. Chapter 8 extends the analysis of this critical time, as the age of discovery, from Europe to the Americas, China, and Japan. Trade in timber products and clearing for European settlement in North and South America profoundly altered the landscape. In Chapter 9, Williams explores underlying driving forces that were eliminating primary forests across the world. These forces included industrialization, mechanization and motive power, population growth and migration, colonization, and improvements in transportation and communication. He illustrates the effect on the forest with a discussion of new, large-scale processes in timber harvest and industrial sawmilling. Steam power for cutting trees, sawing lumber, and transporting timber products changed the pattern and process of deforestation. As the eighteenth century began to end, however, the sense of inexhaustibility of the forest, at least temperate forests began to disappear. A new emphasis on conservation in Europe began to rise. Chapter 10 follows temperate deforestation from 1750 through 1920. In Europe and especially, the Americas, agricultural clearing was still viewed as “improvements.” The demands for shipbuilding, home fuel, construction, and charcoal continued to encourage timber harvest. Williams spends considerable time describing the path of clearing in the United States as frontier settlement expanded. Estimates of the extent and geographic pattern of clearing are provided. Experiences in Australia, New Zealand, and Japan are also included. Chapter 11 turns to clearing of tropical forests through 1920, beginning with an overview of the use of forest by indigenous peoples. As populations grew, indigenous agriculture expanded, with associated burning and clearing. Gradually, more permanent agriculture emerged. Precolonial forests were not untouched Edens or community resources shared equitably by all. Societies were stratified and elites had more forest. In any event, tropical forests were under siege even before Europeans arrived, and with European colonization, pressures grew. Experiences in India and Brazil receive considerable discussion in the chapter.

Part III, the Global Forest, turns to contemporary forest issues. Chapter 12 begins with early twentieth century scares and solutions to “timber famine.” By the turn of the century, the process of deforestation had been so relentless in many areas that fears arose that timber supplies, along with supplies of other natural resources, were soon to be depleted. Advocates for greater government ownership and regulation, such as Gifford Pinchot manipulated concerns about “the coming timber famine.” In America the National Forests were established and expanded and the Forest Service was created. Publications, such as The Forest Resources of the World, painted a bleak picture, not only in North America, but also in the less-developed world. Laissez-faire capitalism and self-interest became viewed as threats to the remaining forest. But in the Soviet Union, which certainly was not laissez-faire capitalist, timber removal moved into new areas with increased levels of exploitation. Chapters13 and 14 attempt to summarize the magnitude of the onslaught on the forest between 1945 and 1995. This modern period brought greater population growth in many previously relatively forested areas, new technologies, higher incomes in the developed world with greater demand for forest products. As forest cover dwindled, concerns arose not only regarding the impact of scarcity on prices, but on broader climatic and ecological effects. Biodiversity became an objective to be pursued, at least by influential populations in rich countries. Williams presents data on global land use through 1985 and the distribution of remaining forests. While forest harvest is regulated and/or moderated in most developed societies, disturbing rates of deforestation occur in tropical regions due to demand for teak, mahogany and other valuable species and due to agricultural settlement and a shift to cattle raising. In the Epilogue, Williams places these current concerns with deforestation into the historical context he has described earlier in the book. There is some optimism as he notes that reforestation occurs without gaining media notice. Nevertheless, pressures on the remaining forest are intense, and he is wary of much of the current literature on the issue prepared not only by advocacy groups, but also by the scientific community, whose interests are molded by funding agencies. Williams concludes with a call for more dispassionate analysis of the problem of deforestation and potential solutions.

Deforesting the Earth is a work of first-rate scholarship. Parts I and II are particularly impressive. The discussion of the more modern period and trends is somewhat less satisfying, in part because the underlying issues have become so complex that to address them in any detail would involve additional material for an already large book. Even so, some attention to the role of prices to encourage conservation and reforestation on private forests, as compared to the public National Forests, would have been useful. Further, discussion of secure property rights — the absence of which so critically affects harvests of tropical forests — also would have added to the analysis of contemporary conditions. In the end, however, this is an important and valuable book for economic and environmental historians for gaining a clearer understanding of the historical complex human relationship with forests.

Gary D. Libecap is Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Arizona and Research Associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research. Having just completed (for now) a project on homestead settlement, dryland farming, farm failure and the Dust Bowl on the American Great Plains, he is now turning to water. The project focuses on the history, law, and economics of water transfers from agriculture to urban and environmental uses. The initial task is to re-evaluate the Owens Valley water transfer to Los Angeles, 1905-1940, which was the subject of the movie Chinatown and which casts a dark shadow on all efforts to transfer water today.

Subject(s):Historical Geography
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative