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The 300-Year Party: Peak Forests
This post is the first in a four-part series describing how we became so dependent on fossil fuels.
In order to understand the nature of our current dilemma, including climate change, it is useful to consider how the development of our society that is based on the use of fossil fuels came about.
Like all living creatures, humans take in energy in order to live, grow and reproduce. For virtually all of human history we humans have lived a lifestyle that we now call sustainable. We consume plants that obtain their energy from sunlight. We also consume animals, both domestic and wild, that feed on those plants. The amount of energy available to us depends on the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth, and on the efficiency of plants is turning that sunlight into food in the form of carbohydrates. Then, about 300 years ago, we learned how to extract immense amounts of buried energy in the form of coal, oil and natural gas. This one-time inheritance, a gift from millennia long gone by, started the industrial revolution and the development of our high-consumption lifestyle.
But these buried resources are being irreversibly depleted. Moreover, our waste products — including the CO2 that we have dumped into the atmosphere in ever-increasing quantities — are fouling our skies, seas and earth. There are many alternative energy sources, some of which are discussed in later ebooks. But none of these possess the unique combination of qualities provided by fossil fuels, particularly crude oil. Like it or not, we will be forced to return to a sustainable way of living.
The Industrial Revolution started in Europe about three hundred years ago. Many factors such as the rise of science and Enlightenment thought contributed to this development. But another reason was that the Europeans had depleted their primary energy source — wood — and so were forced to find an alternative.
Imagine that we could go back to Biblical times and could take a magic carpet ride over northern Europe from east to west. The area is circled on the map shown below — an area that Ugo Bardi rather unkindly refers to as, vast regions of fog and swamps, inhabited by hairy Barbarians . . . the area we call today "Western Europe".
We fly over what is now western Russia, then over Ukraine and Belorussia, northern Germany and France, and on to England and Eire. Looking down we see a continuous forest with a scattering of clearings and villages, and just a few towns — very small by modern standards. These isolated settlements are connected by narrow roads, tracks and footpaths.
Fast forward from Biblical to modern times — if we repeat the above journey we see that most of the primeval forest has gone. In its place we see fields, towns, large cities, railways, airports and roads. What happened in the last 2,000 years to cause such a dramatic change in the landscape?
One answer to this question is that sometime around the 7th century A.D. the heavy plow was invented. The soils of the Mediterranean are generally light and dry, so a plow was quite easy to pull. Generally, two oxen or horses were more than sufficient. Also, because the team was small, and the plow was light it was fairly easy to turn around and plow the next furrow in the reverse direction. Hence the fields were generally square in shape.
The soils of northern Europe, on the other hand, are generally heavy, and the climate is wet. This made it difficult to use Mediterranean-style plows. The invention of the heavy plow overcame this problem. It had a vertical knife with an iron cutting edge, a horizontal share to slice under the sod, and a moldboard to turn it over. However, it did require more effort to pull than the Mediterranean plow, so teams of up to eight oxen were needed. Turning such a team was difficult and required more space than the Mediterranean system, so the fields tended to consist of long, narrow strips.
Because few peasants could afford either the oxen or the plow they had to pool their equipment to form communal teams. Consequently, society gradually came to be organized around the demands of this new technology. Indeed, the heavy iron plow can be seen as being one of the precursors to the industrial revolution, both technologically and socially.
The effectiveness of the new plow meant that huge areas of land could be opened up for cultivation, which meant that the trees had to be cut down. Which they were.
The availability of the new agricultural land and the consequent increase in the supply of food allowed for population growth and for changes in the way society was organized. More people could move to the towns and work in activities that did not directly contribute toward the production of food. Society could now afford more extras such as standing armies, monumental architecture, priests and libraries.
A positive feedback cycle ensued, one that is eerily similar to what we are experiencing now (except that, in our case, it is oil that is disappearing, not trees). As the forests were cleared, more crops were produced, so the population grew, so more land was needed to feed the increased number of people, so more forests were cleared, and so on. Eventually a limit was reached; by the late 17th century much of the forest had disappeared so there was not much new arable land to exploit. The picture below shows the North York Moors in northern England — an area now regarded as a place of natural beauty. Actually, the original, natural beauty of this area is forest, not moorland.
The destruction of the forests meant that there was less wood available, yet wood was an absolutely crucial resource for mediaeval civilization — not just as a source of heat, but also as the universal material of construction for buildings, tools, boats and equipment, including the cross plow itself. This was also a time when industrialization was developing; the new industries needed wood as a source of fuel and as a construction material.
So, deforestation created a double-edged dilemma: there was less new arable land to feed a burgeoning population, and the supply of wood — the raw material needed for equipment, buildings, heat and industry — was being depleted. Consequently, the people of the of northern Europe in the late Middle Ages were faced with a conundrum: where were they to find a new source of energy? Their answer, just like ours now, was to find a source of ‘alternative energy’ — which, in their case, meant coal.
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