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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 274-276

Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis

Center for the Study of Institutions, Population, and Environmental Change, Indiana University, 408 N, Indiana Avenue, Bloomington IN 47408, USA and Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, 659, 5th A Main Road, Hebbal, Bangalore 560 024, India

Correspondence Address:
Harini Nagendra
Center for the Study of Institutions, Population, and Environmental Change, Indiana University, 408 N, Indiana Avenue, Bloomington IN 47408, USA and Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, 659, 5th A Main Road, Hebbal, Bangalore 560 024, India

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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Nagendra H. Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis. Conservat Soc 2008;6:274-6

How to cite this URL:
Nagendra H. Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2008 [cited 2021 Jan 25];6:274-6. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2008/6/3/274/55816

Michael Williams. Deforesting the Earth: From Prehi story to Global Crisis. 2003. 689 pp. London: The University of Chicago Press Ltd. 2003. 689 pp. USD 80 (Hardcover). ISBN: 0-226-89926-8.

This book-organised more at the scale of an epic- focuses on the human processes that have given rise to 'the thinning, changing and elimination of forests', i.e., to deforestation. The author, a geographer at the University of Oxford, approaches this subject using a vast historical canvas , beginning with changes in forest cover after the retreat of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age, and proceeding all the way to the end of the twentieth century. He approaches this in 'the old fashioned way'-not by using a team of research workers, but as a single, lone scholar working his way through, what is by any account, a massive amount of literature (the bibl iography extends over 83 pages, with what must be at least 2,000 references and notes). Apart from the comprehensive bibliography the book provides, the discussions are also supplemented by a wealth of supporting information, from maps and drawings to woodcuts, archival phot ographs and tables. This book presents the outcome of this immense effort, and should be required reading for any environmental historian, economic geographer, ecologist, conservation scientist, or indeed, for any scholar or reader interested in understanding how and why the nature and arrangement of forests has changed over time.

As is probably inevitable for anyone attempting to tackle such a large volume of literature, Williams warns readers at the beginning that he is (a) focusing on literature written in English; and (b) adopting a Euro- and North America-centric focus. Williams justifies this by stating that the history of deforestation is, for the most part, driven by what Europeans and North Americans did to the world, and is also limited by the fact that most literature on deforestation examines changes wrought by inhabitants of these countries across the world. The hi story of other parts of the world where this does not apply to the same extent-for instance, in large parts of medieval China-is only now coming to light as Chinese sources of literature are being discovered by Western scholars. But these are limitations only to be expected in a book of this ambitious magnitude and scope, which is still tremendous.

The book is divided into three sections: 'Clearing in the deep past', which addresses change from the end of the last Ice Age until the medieval period; 'Reaching out: Europe and the wider world', which examines the time period between 1500-1920; and 'The global forest', which looks at more recent changes that have taken place during the twentieth century. Each section has chapters that deal with the human driving forces of change; followed by descriptions of change in the temperate world (largely Europe), and finally, a chapter on the 'wider' world including the tropics. As perhaps dictated by the amount of information available, while the time periods examined in each section shrink progressively, the volume of literature on each time period increases, so that each section is discussed in greater detail than the preceding one. The author eschews explicit theoretical frameworks and efforts towards disciplinary categorisation, instead crossing boundaries of history, geography, economics, ecology and cultural studies, and viewing deforestation as an outcome of intertwined temporal and spatial processes. This, in itself, makes for a fascinating read.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution of this book, if it could be so summarised in a single sentence, is to point out that deforestation is not a recent phenomenon, and that the evidence for human-induced deforest ation is as old as the history of humankind itself. Thus, discussions of the supposed golden age when a harmonious balance existed between man and nature, in pre-capitalist and preindustrial times, fall more within the realm of myths rather than facts. In the first section of the book, Williams clearly exposes the fallacies involved in such thinking, summarising evidence from pollen and other records that establish linkages between deforestation, population growth and the impact of transformative activities- especially fire-as far back as 14,000 to 15,000 years before present. By the Neolithic period, agriculture and animal domestication became critical additional drivers of change, and by the medieval period, the introduction of new technologies such as the plough accompanied by steep increases in population, speeded up the pace of deforestation further. He throws in fascinating asides throughout this discussion, for instance reminding his readers that the term 'forest' in medieval and later Europe was actually a technical term, not meaning 'woodland' (as one might have thought), but rather, 'land reserved for the use of the king, above all for his hunting' (emphasis mine) (p. 102). This clearly points out the role played by forests in the balance of power, tenure and the right to hunting as a privilege of the most powerful-a role that also resonated across much of India until independence.

The second part of the book, covering the medieval and later time periods, describes how the economic expansion of Europe accelerated the pace of deforestation. As forests were first cleared within Europe, temperate forest cover began to shrink to less than one-fifth of the land mass. At this point, the emphasis within Europe shifted to forest conservation, while European countries began to depend on tropical forests in areas colonised by settlers- including Brazil and India-for important economic activities such as ship building and construction. This section also contains a brief, but very interesting, account of changes in forests in China and Japan during this period, which follows some rather different patterns compared to those experienced in Europe and European-settled areas. Unfortunately, the literature in English from these parts of the world is too limited to permit a deeper exploration, which may have allowed for some interesting insights into the generic versus the specific cultural, technological and economic drivers of deforestation in these very different parts of the world. Chapter 11 also contains a relatively short, but detailed and fascinating account of colonial impacts on forest change in the Indian subcont inent, especially during the period of colonial consolidation between 1850 and 1920, when increasingly commercialised farming, a comprehensive forest policy and greater land control led to the large scale clearing of forests across the sub-continent for agricultural expansion and timber extraction.

The third part of the book moves on to a study of deforestation during the twenty -first century. This time period brought with it an increasing awareness of growing timber scarcity across the world. While the Forest Service was established in the United States to manage forest cover, in other parts of the world such as the former Soviet Union, timber harvest actually increased, in order to promote economic and industrial growth. After 1945, deforestation increased vastly in magnitude, and Williams attempts to investigate the patterns and processes of forest clearing in later times in two chapters; chapter 13 'The great onslaught 1945-1995: Dimensions of change' and chapter 14 'Patterns of change'). The complexity of multiple causes, both proximate and underlying, and the cultural climates driving deforestation, however, make this a particularly challenging task, perhaps deserving an entire volume to it. Thus this section, while perhaps of interest to many contemporary scholars, may also be the least satisfying in terms of its capacity to explore the magnitude of change in enough depth.

Deforestation is a topic that is both essential and challenging to study at a large scale. As Williams says, it is made up of the '…uncoordinated and unrecorded individual actions of tens of millions of small -scale decision makers and land managers' (p. 458), making the search for larger patterns and processes particularly difficult. Williams documents the steady rise in deforestation across most parts of the world over time, but also provides hope for the future by discussing the development of forestry as an administrative and scientific endeavour, and chronicling its efforts to balance sustainable timber production with conservation goals. Perhaps wisely, he does not make an effort to provide prescriptive guidelines for the future, but instead states that he presents these contents as an invitation for reflection. This thought provoking book ends by pointing out that deforestation can no longer be viewed as a purely economic issue; it is clear that the impacts of forest clearing and change are being felt on human societies around the world, apart from its environmental and climatic impacts. The need for developing sustainable policies for forest protection and management has never been more urgent. Yet, in order to do this effectively, we need to first understand what has worked and what has failed in the past. This book is therefore essential reading for any serious scholar interested in the subject of forest change over time.


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