Forests & Civilization – John Perlin Interview Series Part III: Forests Change the World

December 22, 2015

Thanks for stopping by Part III of this interview series conducted with John Perlin, author of “A Forest Journey: the Story of Wood and Civilization.”

I believe this is an important book to read in understanding the history of deforestation and knowing the significant role forests have played in the survival of both our civilization and our environment. Perlin’s work, first published in 1989, was recently republished in a third edition. In the face of global climate change challenges, the timing of this reissue seems critically important, as we need our forests more than ever.

In our discussion Perlin details the place of forests and wood in our civilization’s evolution. Our previous interviews are as follows:

Perlin, a professor of physics at University of California Santa Barbara, is a solar energy specialist and author of “Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year History of Solar Energy.” He is also the world’s leading forestry historian. He contends our reliance on fossil fuels took place, in part, when communities began running out of wood. Our present era is no different as the majority of those living in today’s world still seek wood as their primary fuel source and clear vast swaths of land for agriculture.

Unfortunately, the forests which people harvest from and thoughtlessly destroy remain essential to the well-being of our planet. It is a subject about which Perlin has much more to say. Our interview picks up here.

Meyers: There seems to be some uncertainty concerning the historic atmospheric levels of CO2 on our planet. Please elaborate on this issue.

Perlin: Researchers are unsure of the contribution of past deforestation.

To the extent that deforestation has been significant, its contribution to airborne CO2 would be higher than previously estimated and the fraction of fossil fuel emissions retained in the atmosphere consequently lower. We do know that currently, half of the earth’s carbon remains in the forests still standing. We also know that between 1850 and 1890 83 gigatons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere as a consequence of deforestation. But what about the carbon released due to earlier massive deforestations chronicled in A Forest Journey? What makes this accounting so crucial is that most of this destruction occurred in temperate lands where much of the land subsequently fell to agriculture, which further degraded the soils where more carbon is stored than in the trees themselves.

Meyers: Can we prevent a greenhouse warming? You state our forests can mitigate some of that effect.

Perlin: Land use and deforestation actually are the single largest contributors to climate change. Only by ending humanity’s assault against the forest, began thousands of years ago, can we make a significant dent in the carbon emitted in the atmosphere.

Meyers: Our last interview concluded with discussing the history of deforestation, of the ancient Greeks establishing sacred groves that protected old growth. You finished by stating old-growth trees serve as some of our best carbon banks, and that it behooves us to emulate this ancient practice of the Greeks. Are we doing anything like this at all, and if so, who is pioneering such an effort?

Perlin:   One example is Brazil’s Soy Moratorium where major soybean traders pledged not to purchase soy grown on lands deforested after July 2006 in the Brazilian Amazon.  This agreement has recently been extended to May 2016. The agreement has significantly reduced the amount of forests cleared for soy planting. “Before the moratorium, 30% of soy expansion occurred through deforestation, and after the moratorium, almost none did; only about 1% of the new soy expansion came at the expense of forest,” writes the study’s lead researcher, Holly Gibbs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Between 2001 and 2006, prior to the moratorium, soybean fields in the Brazilian Amazon expanded by nearly 4,000 square miles, contributing to record deforestation rates. After nine years of the moratorium, almost no additional forest has been cleared to grow new soy.

Meyers: Does that mean we are making headway in saving the world’s remaining forests?

Perlin: Not according to high-resolution mapping of the 21stcentury changes in forest cover. The onslaught on the forests began in times past appears unabated. Over the last 14 years the world has lost almost a million square miles of forests.

Meyers: As I have often feared, this sounds absolutely dismal. Is there any hope?

Perlin: Perhaps yes, if we listen to and heed the advice of one reformed deforester, Henry Percy, the ninth earl of Northumberland. Percy wrote to his son, concerning the bitter legacy he had left by the wholesale destruction of his forest. Filled with regret over the consequences of his own destructive ways, he confessed to his son in the early part of the 16th century, “I cannot choose but note mine ignorance in this amongst the rest, and their carelessness in husbandry to be no less. In preserving of woods that mightily have been raised, the memory of good trees in rotten roots doth appear above ground this day; being forced now for the fuel relief of your house at Petworth to sow acorns, whereas I might have had plenty if either they had care or I knowledge.”

Coming Next: Leaves and Photons

Forest image via Shutterstock



Glenn Meyers

Writer, documentary producer, and director. Meyers is a contributor to CleanTechnica, and founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.