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Deforesting the Earth

From Prehistory to Global Crisis, An Abridgment


“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, Los Angeles Times 

Published in 2002, Deforesting the Earth was a landmark study of the history and geography of deforestation. Now available as an abridgment, this edition retains the breadth of the original while rendering its arguments accessible to a general readership.  

Deforestation—the thinning, changing, and wholesale clearing of forests for fuel, shelter, and agriculture—is among the most important ways humans have transformed the environment. Surveying ten thousand years to trace human-induced deforestation’s effect on economies, societies, and landscapes around the world, Deforesting the Earth is the preeminent history of this process and its consequences. 

Beginning with the return of the forests after the ice age to Europe, North America, and the tropics, Michael Williams traces the impact of human-set fires for gathering and hunting, land clearing for agriculture, and other activities from the Paleolithic age through the classical world and the medieval period. He then focuses on forest clearing both within Europe and by European imperialists and industrialists abroad, from the 1500s to the early 1900s, in such places as the New World, India, and Latin America, and considers indigenous clearing in India, China, and Japan.  Finally, he covers the current alarming escalation of deforestation, with our ever-increasing human population placing a potentially unsupportable burden on the world’s forests.

561 pages | 33 halftones, 97 line drawings, 29 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2006

Biological Sciences: Botany, Conservation, Natural History

Earth Sciences: Environment, General Earth Sciences

Geography: Environmental Geography

History: General History


"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."

Vera Rule | Guardian

"My first shallow reaction was that at 543 pages this is a big abridgement. But I soon realised the astounding breadth and depth of contained information and understood why it could not possibly be smaller. The book relays the complete story of forests the world over from the Holocene to the present, and somehow Michael Williams has managed to keep the story cogent and concise. . . . The sheer breadth of information in this book makes it a valuable addition to any bookshelf belonging to people that want to understand why the world’s forests look the way they do."

Robert M. Ewers | Environmental Conservation

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Tables
1. The Return of the Forest
2. Fire and Foragers
3. The First Farmers
4. The Classical World
5. The Medieval World
6. Driving Forces and Cultural Climates, 1500–1750
7. Clearing in Europe, 1500–1750
8. The Wider World, 1500–1750
9. Driving Forces and Cultural Climates, 1750–1900
10. Clearing in the Temperate World, 1750–1920
11. Clearing in the Tropical World, 1750–1920
12. Scares and Solutions, 1900–1944
13. The Great Onslaught, 1945–95: Dimensions of Change
14. The Great Onslaught, 1945–95: Patterns of Change
Epilogue: Backward and Forward Glances
List of Measures, Abbreviations, and Acronyms
Bibliographic Essay

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