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Wood and Civilization

• April 05, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Wood, as fuel and building material, is the unsung hero of the technological developments that brought humanity from a bone-and-stone culture to the Industrial Revolution.

The author of A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization, writes a series for Miller-McCune on the world’s first energy crisis: peak wood.

Part I: The Tree That Changed the World
Part II: Wood and Civilization
Part III: Peak Wood and the Bronze Age
Part IV: Peak Wood Brings on the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Fossil Fuels

From the first cave society to the end of the 18th century, the world lived in the Biomass Age with wood as its primary building material and fuel.

England was first to leave the Era of Wood, embracing the fossil fuel coal at the dawn of the 1800s. Across the Atlantic, America’s primary fuel and building material continued to be wood until the end of the Civil War in 1865. So the dominance of fossil fuels began only two centuries ago; reliance on wood, in contrast, lasted almost a million years.

Throughout this great span of time, trees have provided the material to make fire, the heat of which has allowed our species, unlike any other animal, to reshape the Earth for its own use. With heat from wood-fueled fires, relatively cold climates became habitable, allowing humanity to leave Africa to populate the globe and enhancing the survival of the species against any regional disaster.

Wood-fueled fires also turned otherwise inedible grains into a major source of food: Our diet became increasingly varied, enhancing the chances of survival and growth, and making possible the agricultural revolution that transformed human life from hunting-and-gathering groups to complex urban societies.

Wood, when reduced to charcoal, creates temperatures hot enough to extract metals from stone. Metals in turn revolutionized the implements for agriculture, construction and warfare. Compare a wooden plough with a metal one, or a stone axe with its metal counterpart, or firing artillery with stone throwing. Credit wood, then, as the unsung hero of the technological revolution that has brought us from a stone-and-bone culture to our present age.

In the Biomass Age, transportation would have been unthinkable without wood. Until the two ironclads went at it near Hampton Roads, Va., in the spring of 1862, every ship, from Bronze Age coaster to 19th-century frigate, was built of timber. Every cart, chariot and wagon was made of wood. Steamboats and railroad locomotives burnt wood fuel well into the 19th century. And railroad ties, of course, were wooden.

Timber beams propped up mine shafts. Wood provided the structural support for most buildings. Water wheels and windmills — all wood — were the major means of mechanical power before the steam engine was contrived. The peasant could not farm without wooden plow or tool handles. The soldier could not throw his spear or shoot his arrows without their wooden shafts or hold his gun lacking its wooden stock. What would the archer have done lacking wood for his bow; the brewer and vintner without wood for their barrels and casks; the wool industry without wood for its looms?

Wood was indeed our ancestor’s chief resource. In their writings, they recognized wood’s primacy. Lucretius, a Roman philosopher, for example, told of the emergence of civilization from forest fires. Such conflagrations “thoroughly heated the earth,” he wrote in On the Nature of the Universe, accidentally smelting metal from the embedded rock. The sight of metals being made and available for the taking did not escape the view of those observing nature’s metallurgical touch. “The thought then came to them,” the philosopher wrote, “that these pieces of metal could be re-liquefied by heat and cast into the form and shape of anything” they so desired.

In this manner people began to make tools, which created a civilized world. The Roman orator, Cicero, in his On the Nature of Gods, expanded on the importance of wood, explaining that with these tools, “We cut up trees to cook our food, for building to keep out the heat and cold and also to build ships, which sail in all directions to bring us all the needs of life.”

Another great Roman, Pliny the Elder, well summed up Lucretius and Cicero’s thoughts by writing that wood was “indispensable for carrying on life.” Hence, the word for wood in Latin and in Greek also meant primary matter (in Greek it’s hulae; Latin, materia), demonstrating that people living in the Biomass Age regarded timber as the basis from which everything else was derived.

The recognition of the primacy of wood endured for millennia as the Era of Wood persisted. When an Englishman of note deliberated whether wood or iron topped society’s list of material resources, he gave the nod to wood because, in his judgment, without wood fuel, “no iron could be provided.” With respect to trade and power, an English naval official came to a similar conclusion, observing, “As the navy hath no being without ships, so no ships without timber.”

Throughout the Biomass Age the same cycle repeated time and time again. Blessed by easy access to forests, material development proceeded with confidence that nature will always provide. Prosperity, power and population invariably increased. The faster demographic and economic growth occurred, greater became demands on the ever-shrinking woodlands. Military and commercial ventures as well as colonization ensued to procure new wood resources for the mother country to maintain and increase the material expectations of its citizenry. Clashes become inevitable when others want or hold the same sought-after lands.

Substitute wood for oil in today’s world and we gain from history a mirror to look forward by harking back to the past of what happens when supply of society’s primary resource peaks. The articles that follow will show the promise and the dangers that lie ahead with history as a guide.

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John Perlin
An international expert on solar energy and forestry, John Perlin has lectured extensively on these topics in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Perlin is the author of A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization as well as From Space to Earth: The Story of Solar Electricity. Perlin mentors those involved in realizing photovoltaic, solar hot-water, and energy-efficiency technologies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and coordinates the California Space Grant Consortium as a member of UCSB’s department of physics.

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