The fear of wood shortage and the reality of woodland in Europe c1450-1850

Paul Warde

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Across the early modern period actors at all levels of European society expressed fears of imminent ‘wood scarcity’ with potentially catastrophic social and economic consequences. Debates as to the ‘reality’ of this risk have subsequently been pursued in many national historiographies with little international comparison. This article provides a cross-national synthesis of this work, along with novel perspectives on the causes of such debates; an examination of the condition of European woodland and the regulation thereof; and reflections on whether Europe was approaching a state of ecological exhaustion around the time of the Industrial Revolution. It is argued that the framework for regulation and debate was set in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century with the widespread development of state oversight of woodlands. Quantitative evidence of the level of supply and demand for wood suggests however that a general, as opposed to a localized, shortage of wood was not plausible before the later eighteenth century. Earlier fears were generated by a combination of an emerging governmental sense of responsibility for resource management, local pressures exerted by urban growth and industry, and above all competition among different users of the woodland. Genuine shortages had emerged by the Napoleonic period but were largely remedied during the nineteenth century by the widespread application of scientific forestry, though at the cost of serious social conflict. This suggests that Europe was not close to an ecological frontier at this period.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-57
Number of pages29
JournalHistory Workshop Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2006

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