Until the 1800s, wood fuel provided civilization’s energy needs
Across nearly 12,000 years of recorded human civilization, our need for energy could be met by wood fuel easily harvested from the earth’s plentiful forests, even as the human population grew. Many early great civilizations—Egypt, Greece, Rome, China—almost entirely relied on wood fuel. This was also true for America, at least until the early 1800s.
In America, the impact of the need for wood for fuel and timber and the clearing of land for agriculture is seen in the maps below. (It helps to focus on one state to see the transformation.)
The first map (1620) shows the extent of old growth forests when the first European settlers arrived. The continental U.S. had about one million sq. mi. of forests.
The second map (1850—ten generations later) shows the extent of land clearing just prior to the American Civil War and at the time when railroads were just starting their major expansion. By 1850, the growing population’s need for farmland, fuel, and sawn lumber/timber for construction (e.g., railroad ties) and fabrication (e.g., barrel staves) had denuded the forests in the parts of the country that were then populated. As little replanting was undertaken, a sizeable portion of America’s forest became either farmland, pasture, or denuded hillsides. By the 1920s, virtually all old growth forests had been cut. Fortunately, reforestation efforts, begun at the end of the 1800s, have returned much of America to forestland.