Wood is a material fundamental to world history, which is important to examine, and of which everybody has their own discoveries and experiences. ‘Ötzi’ the ice-man needed it when he was climbing his Alpine glacier; so did medieval cathedral-builders; so does today’s growing green economy.
From time immemorial, the skill of the human hand has developed by working on wood, so much that we might say that the handling of wood is a part of human nature: a basic element in the history of the human body. ‘Wood is one of the greatest and most necessary things in the world’, Martin Luther said in a talk on 30 August 1532, ‘I marvel how our god has given so many uses to wood for all men in the whole wide world.’
Four hundred years later, Lewis Mumford, a grandfather of American environmentalism said ‘Take away wood and one takes away literally the props of modern technics.’
Since Werner Sombart, the pre-industrial era has been called a ‘Wooden Age’. Wood, however, is not only a typical pre-modern material, but a requirement for industrial development, whether in North America, in Central Europe or in Japan. We often forget that role.
The worry of a future wood famine caused a panic in the 18th century, which marked the roots of modern environmentalism; this fear has returned in recent times. ‘Sustainable development’, set as the goal for the whole world economy at the 1992 environmental Rio summit, was first applied – though it seems to have been forgotten in Rio – to the forest, and especially the montane and saline forests of Central Europe.
My own debut in the matter was in 1981, at an international conference in Essen on ‘Energy in History’, where I questioned the thesis of a catastrophic shortage of wood in the 18th century. This triggered a controversy that rumbles on even today, thirty years later, more lasting than most other controversies among German historians. For it has been the sacred myth of the proud German forestry culture that, ever since Germany began to revive after 1800, it has protected its homeland more than any other countries from the threat of a supply disaster.
But the Wooden Age did not end because of a shortage of wood, any more than the Stone Age ended because a shortage of stone. A broad overview demonstrates this fact more clearly than a plethora of special studies could ever do. Growing scarcity of wood was not the time bomb of the Wooden Age, as Sombart believed it to be, but rather the emergency brake of an economy which was not fit for permanent growth.
In pre-modern time, the ‘limits to growth’ were self-evidently natural and no title for a bestseller. Today, these limits have been rediscovered. Now, wood could become the epitome of sustainability. If the old Age of Wood did not collapse because of a wood shortage, a new Age of Wood may be possible, to at least some degree.
The histoire totale of wood and woodlands, which goes beyond the traditional boundaries of forest history, demonstrates what many discussions, even at an international level, have continued to ignore until now: that the solution of many wood supply problems will not be found in the forests alone. Forest history is intimately connected with the great mainstreams of history. The sustainable use of forests is not solely a question of forestry.
Wood traces the environmental, cultural and technological history of wood. It demonstrates that wood offers a secret key for a better understanding of world history, of certain peculiarities and of varieties of cultures, moreover of the rise and fall of great powers. It also reveals a co-evolution of nature and culture which offers hope for our future.
If we look only at the mass of complaints about forest destruction and wood shortage that reached a peak in the late 18th century, one is tempted to argue – as many have done before – that the rise of the West based on coal and steel was a response to the growing scarcity of wood. But that seems to be wrong (though the discussion continues).
In most regions, industrialization proceeded on the basis of wood along with animal and water power. A global comparison clearly shows that, in the 18th century, Europe was still relatively rich in timber with no exceptional shortages.
Wood is a key to historical microcosms, but at the same time to questions of big theories on world history. In the ‘modern world system’ described by Immanuel Wallerstein, does the timber trade further widen the gulf between core and periphery – Wallerstein’s central concept – or do the forests on the contrary give the periphery a special opportunity?
Is Garrett Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’ decisively confirmed by the history of the forest, or are on the contrary forest communities the best example for the rehabilitation of local commons, as Elinor Ostrom suggested in the work that won her the 2009 Nobel Prize for economics?
‘America’s Wooden Age was a wonderful era, specifically because of the nature of the prevailing technology which depended so heavily upon wood’; so begins the anthology America’s Wooden Age, published in 1975 by the National Museum of History and Technology.
So, we might ask, if the Wooden Age was so wonderful, why didn’t America stick with wood until today? If one writes a history of wood filled with enthusiasm for the material, one finds oneself asking why it no longer rules the world, but often has been driven out by other materials.
A critical approach is needed in order to avoid succumbing to illusion. If wood is to win back some ground, an explanation is needed as to how it lost that ground in the first place. Many advantages of wood have become evident only in retrospect. And the narrow horizons of the timber industry have prevented many an opportunity from being seized. The trio of forestry, the timber industry and environmental movement are still filled with deep tensions. We are a long way from a grand Green Trinity which could become pioneering for a future Age of Ecology. Wood’s history is an unfinished story.
Joachim Radkau is professor of modern history at Bielefeld University.