Deforesting the Earth

From Prehistory to Global Crisis

Michael Williams

Deforesting the Earth
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Michael Williams

715 pages | 48 halftones, 99 line drawings, 46 tables | 7 x 10 | © 2002
Cloth $92.50 ISBN: 9780226899268 Published December 2002
Since humans first appeared on the earth, we've been cutting down trees for fuel and shelter. Indeed, the thinning, changing, and wholesale clearing of forests are among the most important ways humans have transformed the global environment. With the onset of industrialization and colonization the process has accelerated, as agriculture, metal smelting, trade, war, territorial expansion, and even cultural aversion to forests have all taken their toll.

Michael Williams surveys ten thousand years of history to trace how, why, and when human-induced deforestation has shaped economies, societies, and landscapes around the world. Beginning with the return of the forests to Europe, North America, and the tropics after the Ice Ages, Williams traces the impact of human-set fires for gathering and hunting, land clearing for agriculture, and other activities from the Paleolithic through the classical world and the Middle Ages. He then continues the story from the 1500s to the early 1900s, focusing on forest clearing both within Europe and by European imperialists and industrialists abroad, in such places as the New World and India, China, Japan, and Latin America. Finally, he covers the present-day and alarming escalation of deforestation, with the ever-increasing human population placing a possibly unsupportable burden on the world's forests.

Accessible and nonsensationalist, Deforesting the Earth provides the historical and geographical background we need for a deeper understanding of deforestation's tremendous impact on the environment and the people who inhabit it.
Thomas E. Lovejoy | American Scientist
"In an epic undertaking, Michael Williams has provided a seven-millennium overview of the impact human beings have had on 'their incomparable heritage, a green, global mantle of forest.' .... This is a breathtaking work in the sweep of what it encompasses. It is also a book important for many interests: environmental, historical, economic and more. Clearly it will endure for decades to come, even after the current struggle over remaining forests has largely played out."
William Meyer | Annals of the Association of American Geographers
"A geographer has now written a book that takes its place among a handful of essential works for understanding this phenomenon. . . . Deforesting the Earth is a well-written, richly and beautifully illustrated, and solidly documented work of synthesis. . . . It is also a model of geographic inquiry that quietly transcends all of the divisions that have plagued the discipline for so long. . . . If more geographers had written such books in the past, the discipline's place and value in academia would today be too obvious to require any justification."
John Flenley | New Zealand Geographer
"This book is a tour de force in historical geography. The original volume . . . was much larger, but even the new summarized version is a comprehensive account of the destruction of natural forests. . . . [A] great achievement."
Vera Rule | Guardian
"'A culture is no better than its woods,' wrote WH Auden, who thought on the sylvan evidence of his own time, when the Amazon rainforest had barely lost a twig, that 'our great society is going smash.' Michael Williams's tome is a planetary overview of the impact of humanity on trees since the neolithic era, which has varied from disastrous to frighteningly catastrophic, and is worsening by the second. (If humans are intelligent, why didn't they understand sooner that a strict limit on their reproduction was the fulcrum of all balances?) Williams does the big view with statistics (how much timber was required to heat Rome's baths and effects thereof on the Mediterranean ecostructure) and the smaller, precisely placed detail—the dissatisfaction with the Chinese mandarinate felt by those whose fir trees were burnt in quantities to produce the soot for the bureaucrats' considerable ink requirements. The careless felling of forests was the foundation of the fortune and attitude of colonial and postcolonial North America—once peak wood had been consumed, the profligacy was transferred to peak oil."
Judith Tsouvalis | Royal Geographical Society
"[The book] will be of interest to academics, students, and practitioners in many disciplines and professions, but for those who care about natur in general and forestes in particular, and for whom history and geography matter, it constitutes essential reading."
Carl Reidel | Northern Woodlands
"The book is unquestionably a monumental achievement, a comprehensive history of how episodes of deforestation over 10,000 years have transformed societies and landscapes everywhere. . . . The book is superbly crafteD, well organized, and beautifully written."
Brian Fagan | Los Angeles Times
“<I>Deforesting the Earth<I> 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.”--Brian Fagan, <I>Los Angeles Times
Virginia Quarterly Review
“Williams livens this monumental work with colorful, interpretive essays on the human factors motivating the hunter to burn, the lord of the manor to reserve, the peasant to use and abuse, the colonist to exploit, the pioneer to vanquish, and we moderns to overuse the forests.  The conservation and environmental movements are discussed with an objectivity and impartiality that is refreshing.”--<I>Virginia Quarterly Review
John Dargavel | Environmental History
“This is truly a magnum opus—a great scholarly work. It is great in scope, it addresses one of the major global problems of our times, it is detailed in execution, and it proffers the perceptive and balanced judgments of an eminent scholar at the height of a long career.”
Char Miller | Journal of Forestry

“A monumental accomplishment. . . . Williams has ranged widely, read deeply, and thought carefully about the historical contexts and transnational implications of deforestation so that the less daring among us might situate our regional stories into his wider narrative. That’s what makes Deforesting the Earth paradigmatic. And fascinating.”

List of Illustrations
List of Tables
List of Measures, Abbreviations, and Acronyms
1 The Return of the Forest
Prologue: The End of the Ice Age
Writing the Biography of the Forest
The Return of the Forest
The Human Impact
2 Fire and Foragers
Fire: "The First Great Force"
Before the Ice: Prehistory "Caught Alive"
After the Ice: Europe
After the Ice: North America
After the Ice: The Tropics
3 The First Farmers
Domestication and Centers of Agriculture
The Neolithics and Forest Clearing
"From Predation to Production": Mesoamerica and South America
The Indians and the North American Forest
The Rest of the World
4 The Classical World
"Then and Now"
The Mediterranean Environment
The Causes of Deforestation
Deforestation and Soil Degradation
Creating a Second Nature
5 The Medieval World
An Active and Energetic World
Causes of Clearing
Extent and Pace of Clearing
Complexity and Conflict in the Forest
European Epilogue: Plague and Reforestation
China: A Land of "Ponderous Unknowns"
6 Driving Forces and Cultural Climates, 1500-1750
Driving Forces and Cultural Climates
7 Clearing in Europe, 1500-1750
A Timber Crisis?
Agricultural Clearing
Charcoal and Iron Making
The Demands of the Sea
Plunder, Preservation, and Planting
8 The Wider World, 1500-1750
"Ecological Imperialism"
Stepping-Stones and Circuits to the New World
The Encounter with the American Forest
China: "A Dark Area in Space"
Japan: "The Foundations of the Hearth"
9 Driving Forces and Cultural Climates, 1750-1900
Population and Migration
Transportation and Communication
Forest Domination, Preservation, and Regulation
10 Clearing in the Temperate World, 1750-1920
Europe: Three Stories of Clearing
Clearing a Continent: The United States
The Pacific Rim: Complexity and Contrast
11 Clearing in the Tropical World, 1750-1920
Indigenous Use of the Forest
Capitalist Penetration: The Passage to India, 1750-1850
Colonial Consolidation: India, 1850-1920
Mainland and Insular Southeast Asia
Brazil and the "Long Journey to Extinction"
12 Scares and Solutions, 1900-1944
Destructive Exploitation of Global Resources
The Coming Timber Famine
Clearing in the Less-Developed World
Clearing in the Developed World
13 The Great Onslaught, 1945-95: Dimensions of Change
The Causes of Change: "A World Losing Shape"
Concern about Change
The Rise of Biodiversity
Calibrating Change
14 The Great Onslaught, 1945-95: Patterns of Change
Agricultural Development
"Hoofprints on the Forest": Ranching and Pasture Development
Fuelwood and Charcoal
Timber Extraction
Epilogue: Backward and Forward Glances
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