Humanity’s Relationship with Trees: A History of Climate Change

Article By Florimond Krins

posted by UK, September 8, 2023

Humanity's Relationship with treesThe notion of climate change is not as recent as it may seem. We can find its roots way back in the 15th century, a time of European explorers and ocean travels, opening new routes of communications with the Far East as well as discovering the so-called “New World”: the American continent. This continent, even though it was inhabited, was discovered for the first time by men with a very different way of life and mindset from those of its indigenous inhabitants.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, new European settlements sprouted all along the African coast and the west coast of North and South America. At the same time Europe was not only going through religious turmoil, but also a scientific shift. It was then that the cycle of water, deforestation and climate was at the forefront of colonisation. New theories regarding the importance of trees being responsible for rainfall and heat and humidity were used as an excuse to occupy and work the land, in the belief that cutting down trees and establishing farmlands would bring a better climate, similar to Western Europe. Here we have the first theory of man-made climate change. The colonisers justified their occupation and taking the land from the indigenous people on the grounds that they would be using and transforming it, while the native people, allegedly, were not.

The 17th and 18th centuries saw a series of trial and error experiments regarding the transformation of those lands and the impact of mankind. As the scientific method become more and more current and measuring equipment improved, scientists were able to record the temperatures, precipitation and humidity levels. They were able to see the direct and indirect effects of man’s modification of his environment on the local climate, but also on neighbouring regions. The notion of climate spread to larger areas and by the end of the 18th century people started talking about a global climate.

At that time, trees were still a crucial element in a country’s economy and climate. Regulations were implemented to monitor and maintain the health and size of forests in order to have enough rainfall and avoid droughts and famines. But for economies to grow, more and more wood was needed to fuel the furnaces and build pretty much everything, whereas in the 19th century, coal became the new charcoal and gradually became used in the furnaces and steam boilers instead of wood.

With new modes of transportation using fossil fuels, the once deadly local famines caused by droughts could be helped by the supply of food from elsewhere. Little by little, the once crucial roles of forests to bring rain was pushed aside, to the point where certain European countries, such as the UK and Ireland, were left almost without any primal forests. With the discovery of greenhouse gases in the early 19th century and a better understanding of their consequences in the 20th century, we are now experiencing another level of man-made climate change.

Today the tree is having a renaissance and many are being planted, although nowhere near enough. It is estimated that close to a trillion trees are needed in order to capture a large enough part of the carbon released into the atmosphere. But such new trees must also be chosen wisely for the preservation and restoration of the land and its wildlife. And last but not least, trees are essential in our lives, if only for the shade, the scent and the beauty they bring: they are simply a bridge between Mankind and Nature.

Image Credits: By Felix Mittermeier | Pxhere | CC0

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By Felix Mittermeier | Pxhere | CC0

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