Losing Ground (Magill's Literary Annual 1977)
With the possible exception of a hermit or two, everyone in the Western world must know by now that we have an energy crisis. It is doubtful, however, that many of us understand the full extent, or even the true nature of the problem. We think of our energy crisis in terms of the long lines at service stations several years back, the rising price of fuel for home heating, the recent shortages in the supply of natural gas. But for the more heavily populated and less affluent areas of the world, the areas where there are few family cars and almost no gas stoves, there is another energy crisis. There is a firewood crisis, perhaps more prosaic, but potentially more far-reaching and serious.
We who live in the technically advanced part of the world have a greater dependence on wood than we realize. Our paper-operating governments, businesses, educational institutions, and communciations industry could not function without it. It is still the most-used material in home building. But though many of our forests have been eliminated, an early necessity as our population grew and moved westward, we have been lucky in developing—especially after the terrible Dust Bowl lesson of the 1930’s woke us up—a reasonably effective system of forest conservation. Most of our lumber companies plant trees to replace those they have cut, and so do many landowners. Though there is a constant fight to keep national forests out of the hands of exploiters, we have set aside a number of these areas not only for emergency lumber supplies should the situation ever get desperate, but also to give the harassed urban American a place to which he can escape and discover the delights of nature. So we are still in fair shape in regard to timber supply, and because of this, and our preoccupation with Arab oil and the Alaskan pipeline, we have not recognized the world’s predominant energy crisis—the world wood shortage—and its possible longterm effect on us.
It is Erik Eckholm’s intention in Losing Ground to bring this situation, along with other factors of environmental stress that are directly connected to world peace and world food prospects, to our attention. He does so with striking effect. This is an excellent book. It is well-written, well-organized, and thoroughly documented, both from academic research and the author’s own extensive travel as a researcher for the Worldwatch Institute, a private Washington, D.C. organization devoted to the analysis of emerging global problems.
Unlike Americans, more than a third of the world’s people still cook their dinner with wood, and many, especially in colder, less-developed mountain regions, depend on wood for home heating. Nine of ten people in the poor countries use firewood as their main source of fuel, averaging a ton per person per year. The result is a continuing spread of treeless land that is building an ecological disaster. The most serious shortages of firewood are now in the countries of the heavily populated Indian subcontinent, and the arid stretches of central Africa around the fringe of the continually spreading Sahara Desert. An Indian official asked Eckholm, “Even if we somehow grow enough food for our people in the year 2000, how in the world will they cook it?” Economist E. F. Schumacher, author of the popular book, Small Is Beautiful, has come to the conclusion that there is no salvation for India except through trees. In some towns in Pakistan the situation is now so bad that officials are fighting a losing battle in trying to keep people from stripping the bark off the trees that line the streets.
The myriad effects of a decreasing wood supply are being felt, and are increasing, in most of the rest of the world. Forests once covered one third of the total area of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. By the mid-twentieth century, that area had been reduced to perhaps eleven percent. Forty to fifty percent of Mexico was once timberland; that total was ten percent by 1950, and it is continuing to fall. A German forester who had worked for years in Afghanistan told Eckholm that the last forest in that country is now dying, and that dying with it is “the basis of life for an entire region.” In the small country of Nepal, which may be the worst example of me many deteriorating mountain environments of the world, the agricultural economy has almost completely collapsed because of soil erosion, which, in turn, has been caused by stripping the mountainsides of trees. In East Africa, the world’s most magnificent game reserves in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda are being endangered as pressure grows to clear land for farming. Tropical forests once covered ninety percent of El Salvador. They have been...
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