Europe was for centuries a deforested continent. The fault was the nails

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The lack of natural resources has been inherent to civilization. For this reason, we have often suffered from a shortage of some natural resource. Thus, the search for substitute resources or techniques to multiply the efficiency of existing ones has also been part of our history and has allowed us to get here.

Good proof of this happened when we learned to forge iron. To reach the necessary high temperatures, a large amount of fuel was required in the form of wood, a type of fuel whose energy density is very low (that is, we need a large quantity to obtain a relevant energy return).

For this reason, the consumption of wood for the manufacture of iron based on charcoal was so rampant that, already in the middle of the 16th century, the British communities surrounded by iron forges, which cut down trees relentlessly to feed this new industry, they feared that the wood might soon run out. Many were, in fact, those who asked the king that the forges be closed forever in order to save the world from the scarcity of the rest of the objects that were made of wood.

The insatiable mouth of a wood oven

“More wood, it’s war” we hear from the mouth of Groucho Marx in the movie The Marx Brothers in the West (in reality it said “bring wood”, but the phrase that has remained for posterity is the other). And that could have been the watchword of the furnaces used to forge iron, because they were voracious and insatiable consumers of wood, destroying entire forests.

In fact, a single oven could annually consume up to 12,000 tons of wood. An extraordinary consumption that highlights how inefficient wood is as an energy source. In fact, as Lewis Dartnell explains in his book Open in case of apocalypseif to light our flat for a year we consume 14,000 kWh, by substituting fossil fuels as an energy source for wood, then we would need 3 tons of wood (1.7 tons in the case of charcoal).


In other words, lighting a single story for a year would require about a quarter of a hectare of forest area:

That’s assuming it were possible to convert 100 percent of the energy contained in a log into electricity that would flow from my outlets. In fact, the (multi-stage) process of burning fuel to generate electricity is inherently inefficient, and even modern power plants can only convert about 30-50 percent of the energy stored in their fuel into electricity.

To forge iron, not even wood was used, but charcoal, a more compact and transportable type of wood that burns at a higher temperature than the wood from which it comes because it has lost all its moisture and only carbon fuel remains. Without the help of charcoal, in fact, the production of ceramics, bricks, glass and, of course, metal, which require a lot of heat energy, could not have been developed.

Thus, the calorific power of charcoal ranges between 29,000 and 35,000 kJ/kg, and that of wood, between 12,000 and 21,000 kJ/kg. In other words: since iron melts at 1,535ºC, the smelting of this metal was necessarily linked to the production of charcoal on a large scale (coal reaches 900ºC, but a supply of forced air with bellows can raise temperature up to 2,000 ºC).

objects made of iron

Although fuel consumption was gradually reduced thanks to the improvement of the shape of the furnaces and the increase in the height of the chimneys (European blast furnaces probably originated in the lower Rhine valley shortly before 1400), the arrival of the first objects made of iron skyrocketed the demand for fuel to levels never suspected.

Until the advent of much more efficient smelting furnaces in the late 19th century, which consumed a tenth of the energy of their medieval counterpart, the supply of trees required by the furnaces began to cause concern. And it is that, as explained by the expert in environmental sciences Vaclav Smil in his book energy and civilizationthe consumption of charcoal in England at the beginning of the 18th century for the manufacture of iron required the annual felling of 1,100 km2 of groves:

As long as wood consumption lasted, the communities surrounded by mills and traditional iron forges had a very hard time. As early as 1548, distraught Sussexes wondered how many villages might disappear if the kilns continued to work: they would have no wood to build houses, watermills, wheels, barrels, docks, and hundreds of other things.

The greed for iron was depleting the world of other things made of wood, so many felt that many forges should be closed. However, the protests were useless. Although a single furnace was capable of consuming a circle of forest with a radius of 4 kilometers per year, the furnaces proliferated everywhere, wreaking havoc.


The inevitable environmental price for making nails, axes, horseshoes, chain mail, spears, guns and cannonballs was deforestation. Even America’s abundant forests became unsustainable for ever-increasing production, but in Britain the energy crisis was catastrophic during the 17th century.

A crisis aggravated, moreover, by the strong demand for wood for the naval building, which was then in full bloom. A good part of the regions that today we assume to be forested, such as Cantabria, were absolutely fleeced of forests to make boats (the Invincible Armada arose from there, so that between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Royal Navy was the greatest transforming agent of the original landscape, leaving the land bare). mounts today bald like the Ventoux, in Provence, suffered the same fate. Elizabeth’s England had to turn to North American colonies like Virginia to satisfy the demand for her.

Search for alternatives: move forward or backward

The greed for iron, added to shipbuilding, was not only going to extinguish the forests, but also the houses, the wheels, the barrels and hundreds of things made of wood. What was the solution? Of course, it was not about stopping consumption and going back to a time when iron should no longer be needed, but about finding alternatives: from more efficient furnaces to other energy sources more efficient than wood or charcoal, such as fuels fossils.

Plant wood to avoid cutting down trees: an MIT laboratory manages to produce it without soil or sunlight

Because the depletion of natural resources is not only a matter of actual physical depletion, but rather the burden that can be caused by an increase in cost that is ultimately unbearable. For example, between 1840 and 1880, guano nitrogen made a big difference to European agriculture, acting as a kind of magic fertilizer, but when getting enough guano became too expensive, there was a strong incentive to look for an alternative (in this case, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch they invented a system to manufacture large quantities of inorganic nitrogen fertilizer).

Aluminum was also one of the rarest metals for humans for most of their history. Until the 19th century, in fact, due to its scarcity, it was considered the most valuable metal in the world. Until, in 1886, the American chemist Charles Martin Hall and, also simultaneously, the Frenchman Paul Héroult discovered the process to obtain it in large quantities: electrolysis.

Mont Ventoux

The Ventoux is bald for a reason.

As Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler explain in their book Abundance, scarce resources become abundances thanks to innovation, to new ideas; that emerge in greater quantity when there are powerful incentives for it. In short, there is a lot of mythologizing Europe’s “natural” past. Sustainability was far from being taken into account. And the per capita pollution of our ancestors would make us blush. Faced with the threat of wood shortages, denser energy sources were chosen, and enough wood was released for them to start to grow more trees of those who were felled.

Due to this period of reforestation, partly because we no longer need them at an industrial level, the area covered by forests has increased by more than a third from 1900 to 2010 across Europe, according to the findings of A study carried out by researchers at the University of Waningen, in the Netherlands. According to Richard Fuchs, a researcher at Waningen University and lead author of the study, the main reason for this reforestation is that we are less dependent on wood:

Wood back then, around 1900 and much earlier, was needed for almost everything: for furniture, to shore up mines, for train rails, for construction, in the trenches of wars, as fuel, for ships. .. This meant that at the beginning of the century there were hardly any forests left in Europe.

Wood was important, but now we have made it less important, allowing other resources to become more important. Because, without a doubt, as Diamandis and Kotler write: “Technology is a mechanism for releasing resources. It can turn what was once scarce into abundant.”

The lack of natural resources has been inherent to civilization. For this reason, we have often suffered from a shortage…

The lack of natural resources has been inherent to civilization. For this reason, we have often suffered from a shortage…

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