Deforestation: 3 Early Cases

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You'd have to be living in the center of a really thick forest not to know by now that the world's forests are disappearing little by little. And while it's true that they still cover about 30 percent of the earth's land area, swaths the size of Panama are lost each and every year. At the current rate of deforestation, the world's rain forests could completely vanish in a hundred years.

So that's the future, which looks pretty grim. But what about the past? Here are three other grim moments in history that might pale by comparison, but are still worth knowing:

1. Way too Platonic

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"¦

2. Your Mother!

moai_trees.jpg 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:

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.

3. When in Rome

Similar problems cropped up, if you'll excuse the pun, during the 4th and 5th centuries in Italy. 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 sown during Caesar's rule. When the Gauls or Britains would escape his mighty legions and take to the woods, many Roman generals simply burned the forests to the ground.

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July 20, 2009 - 3:24am
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