Deforestation: A Modern Problem or an Ancient One?


By Paul Robbins, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

We tend to think of deforestation and land cover change as contemporary problems, a problem of today. But, since the time that humans first started using tools and fire, we’ve changed and altered the Earth’s surface repeatedly, clearing forests and grasslands, producing fields, and building structures and infrastructures all across the Earth’s surface. We’ve appropriated the Earth’s generative capacity and its productivity to suit our own purposes.

A painting depicting the raise in pollution during the Industrial Revolution
Deforestation greatly accelerated after the industrial revolution. (Image: D.O.Hill/Public domain)

All the Way Back to Strabo

Deforestation was a well-known phenomenon in the classical world.  For example, the historian Strabo wrote in the first century B.C.E. that the lowland areas of the island of Cyprus were once covered with forests that prevented cultivation, but these had all given way to farming and other activities. 

Illustration of Strabo
Historian Strabo’s account describes deforestation in Cyprus in the first century B.C.E. (Image: André Thévet/Public domain)

Strabo goes on to describe how mining, in particular, resulted in deforestation to supply smelters with copper and silver. And he explains how timber was felled for the construction of fleets and how areas were fully cleared of trees to make way for farmland. Indeed, urbanization and the expansion of agriculture had enormous effects on the indigenous forest cover throughout the Mediterranean, and not just in Cyprus.

Population Explosion

Deforestation, in other words, is a really old problem. Those kinds of changes accelerated, and they accelerated during the medieval period. The world after 1200 experienced a rise in urban populations, with increasing demand for food, and so, increasing demand for farms. 

At the same time, improved iron technology allowed more efficient clearing of forests and breaking of the land for cropping because it’s very hard to clear a tree, like the kapok tree with a hand saw. And nor was any of this unique to Europe. 

The data are difficult to assemble, but it’s likely that the Chinese cleared land on a large scale as early as the 5th century C.E. when whole forest areas were felled for civil and military settlements. By the end of the T’ang Dynasty, around the year 900, large parts of Northern China had already been fully transformed. 

In fact, the Chinese imperial government from this period implemented protections against forest destruction for agriculture and limited cutting in important watersheds so as to decrease erosion. Clearly, there wouldn’t have been a need for government activity if high levels of deforestation of the land hadn’t already occurred.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Understanding Cultural and Human Geography. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Change in Native American Landscapes

An old painting of a Native American camp
Contrary to popular belief, Native Americans changed the land around them before colonists had even arrived on the continent. (Image: Albert Bierstadt/Public domain)

Even the native peoples of the Americas engaged in large-scale land transformation. Despite some depictions of Native Americans living in a pristine and untouched wilderness, the great and industrious societies of native North and South America cleared the land of forests, rerouted waterways to create artificial lakes and dams, and maintained prairies and forests through extensive use of fire.

The landscapes of North and South America on the eve of the arrival of Europeans were already greatly impacted by human action. So, clearly, human activity and industry have long had an impact on the Earth’s surface, but it wasn’t until the revolutionary events of the Colombian Exchange, after 1492, and later, with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 1700 and 1800s that land-cover change would accelerate to a global phenomenon.

Colonial Settlements Encouraged Deforestation

The rise of plantation economies, both in the Americas and throughout Asia, where British, French, and Portuguese colonists settled and intensified agriculture for global commodity trade, had a huge impact. Colonial settlement and economy also greatly increased the rate of land-cover change and deforestation. 

The increasing shift to industrialized production that followed only accelerated this process further. Demand for fuelwood, charcoal, and timber at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, coupled with the rise of this large, hungry, urban population requiring farmland, all led to widespread forest clearance.

A Big Jump in Forest Loss

One of the most comprehensive studies of historical global change was led by National Academy scholar and geographer Billie Lee Turner, and it was entitled, ‘The Earth as Transformed by Human Action’. That study sought to determine just how much change had occurred in differing regions of the world over time. 

The results show that between 1700 and 1850, almost five percent of forest cover had been lost in North America. And Europe saw a loss of 10 percent of its forests during this same period. That century and a half were especially dramatic periods of deforestation. In the years after 1850, some forests did recover, but this represents a remarkable loss during the colonial and early industrial eras all the same.

Common Questions about Deforestation

Q: What’s an example of an account of deforestation happening in the classical world?

In the first century B.C.E., the account of Strabo shines a light on the deforestation that happened in the classical world. He writes that though the lowland areas of Cyprus were covered in forests, they had now given way to farming and other activities. He particularly describes mining as an important activity that resulted in deforestation.

Q: Why did the rate of deforestation accelerate during the medieval period?

After 1200, the world experienced a boom in urban populations, which led to more food and subsequently more farms being needed. Also, iron technology improved which made clearing forests easier and faster. All of this came hand-in-hand to accelerate the rate of deforestation in the medieval period.

Q: Did deforestation happen in North and South America when the Europeans arrived there?

Yes. The Native Americans had already engaged in large-scale land transformation before foreigners arrived on the continent. Deforestation had already become a problem through the extensive use of fire.

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