D'forest for d'trees

Image credit: 

One of our favorite blogs, Treehugger.com, has a fascinating post on eco-smart Chinese, who are now carrying their own chopsticks to their favorite restaurants when they eat out, doing what they can to help fight deforestation in a country that throws away 45 billion disposable pairs every year.

Elsewhere, Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Prize in 2004 for the 30 million trees she planted in Africa to help counter forest loss, is busy working with Spain's Basque Government in an effort to plant 232,000 trees to neutralize carbon monoxide emissions in what they're calling a re-afforestation project.

It seems people all over the globe are finally waking up to the serious threat deforestation presents. In 6000 BC, when humans couldn't do much harm to the world ecosystem, trees covered two-fifths of the land. Since then, about half of the original forestland has disappeared.

But many people, such as British historian, Clive Ponting, point out that the problem is actually thousands of years old and are surprised we haven't learned our lesson yet, considering how many previous civilizations have collapsed as they've abused their natural resources.

As Ponting describes in his book, A Green History of the World, when populations expand and settlements grow, more and more trees are cut down to provide clearings for agriculture, fire for heating and cooking, and construction materials for homes and household goods. As a result, a series of ecological breakdowns occur as animals overgrazed, topsoil erodes and flooding becomes common in a cyclical pattern that has affected even the most formidable civilizations. Follow the jump and check out the details of a few "for instances" that affected biggies like the Greeks, the Romans, and the natives of Easter Island.

plato.jpgFor instance #1: in Greece, around 650 BC, hillsides once covered with vegetation and rich olive trees became barren, seriously affecting the Greek's economy and political power. Plato would write about the deforestation problem in one of his late dialogues, Critias:

What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man"¦ there are some mountains which now have nothing but food for bees, but they had trees not very long ago"¦

caesar-m.jpg

For instance #2: Similar problems cropped up, if you'll excuse the pun, during the 4th and 5th centuries in Italy. Ponting argues that, along with the well-documented Roman political decay, serious deforestation and the abuse of other natural resources greatly contributed to the fall of the empire, as well. But the seeds were already being sewn during Caesar's rule. When the Gauls or Britains would escape his mighty legions and take to the forests, many Roman generals simply burned them to the ground.

moai_trees.jpg For instance #3: The Easter Islanders, famous for their moai statues, not only felled their forests for all the usual reasons, but used up enormous quantities of tree trunks to roll and erect their giant stone statues. As a result, by 1600, the island was almost completely deforested, with many moai left stranded at the quarry. Stranded, too, were the inhabitants, who couldn't build canoes and venture of the island. As a result, the population, like the trees, fell into near extinction.

Jared Diamond, the evolutionary biologist, adds this extreme-factoid, which I found on Wiki to support Ponting's theories:

The fact that oral traditions of the islanders are obsessed with cannibalism is evidence supporting a rapid collapse. For example, to severely insult an enemy one would say: "The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth." This suggests that the food supply of the people ultimately ran out.

Yes, it's the classic "your mother" insult, something as universal as the tree itself. Here's hoping the two never disappear completely.

More from mental_floss...

September 25, 2006 - 2:00am
submit to reddit