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How Fossil Fuels Saved Our Forests

Recently in Britain, we have seen a spate of disruptive climate activism. Extinction Rebellion has returned: this time abseiling off the sides of Tower Bridge, with a banner telling all to “End fossil fuels now.” One fanatic marked the seventh consecutive day of protests by tying himself to an oil tanker. Offshoot group, Just Stop Oil, has taken to zip-tying themselves to goalposts during football matches. Like Insulate Britain, the group has taken to blockading roads — this time, outside oil terminals, causing shortages for consumers at petrol pumps. But what the low-resolution narratives of these protesters fail to account for is the role that fossil fuels played in the rejuvenation and conservation of the great British outdoors.

>>>READ: How Technology is Helping Rebuild Global Forests

Abandoning charcoal was a key step in eliminating absolute poverty and lowering mortality in the industrialised world. Deforestation preceded civilisation: with clearing the dense underbrush of lurking predators being the prerequisite for building permanent human settlements. Biblical dominion over wilderness thus became doctrinaire for early European Christians. By the eighteenth century, wood-burning for light, heat, and cooking became the leading cause of deforestation in Britain. Forestry coverage declined from over ninety percent in 2,000BCE, to four percent by 1760.

Only after the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions facilitated regular crop rotations and rapid urbanisation did deforestation slow and our woods regrow. Discovering oil and coal caused a seventy-two percent drop in wood burning for fuel, between 1860 and 1920. That remarkable trend continues today. Global annual slash-and-burn agriculture saw a twenty-five percent decrease between 1998 and 2015. New tree growth exceeding tree loss for the last thirty-seven years. 

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Ninety-five percent of deforestation today occurs in the tropics, where the Amazon is subjected to a Tragedy of the Commons problem of exploitation and mismanagement. This is a product of the abdication of enforcing the rule of law: with environment officials in government caught accepting bribes to overlook various instances of illegal logging worth between $30 million and $500 million. With these perverse incentives baked into the governance structure, it’s no wonder the region is seeing record levels of deforestation

As Roger Scruton once said: the beauty of British landscapes is the consequence of a thousand years of protecting private property ownership. Should property rights be extended, in a similar fashion, to Brazil and Indonesia’s rainforests, we would see a steep decline in this planet-polluting problem. When contrasted with communist China: Frank Dikoöter’s account of the cultural revolution documented how up to eighty percent of forests in multiple provinces were felled for food and warmth during the Great Famine. (In fact, China was funding the aforementioned $30 million Amazon logging scandal.) The socialism XR suggests will ameliorate a climate crisis that continues to be untenable.

>>>Read: Socialism Cannot Solve Climate Change

But we also have fossil fuels to thank for our love of nature in the first place.

Following the Industrial and French Revolutions, British Romantics like John Keats articulated an intuitive link between moral “truth” and the rejuvenated natural “beauty” of the reforested English countryside. When compared with William Blake’s London, we see the smog-filled streets now centralised the suffering which was once inhaled in every home. Miasma became known as the cause of respiratory illnesses — with some countries still suffering from a thousand-fold rate of higher indoor air pollution deaths today. A cultural reverence was cultivated for nature as an escape from the trials and tribulations of human adaptation, by virtue of its recovering and existing in contrast to cities.

The most grandiose expression of this newfound love of nature was the Sublime: the way one feels when witnessing the awesome power, scale, and lifespan of natural landscapes, like mountains and waterfalls. Philosophers Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke defined Sublime as a ‘momentary inhibition of the vital powers’ of egocentricity, excited by understanding one’s insignificance compared to the magnitude of natural beauty. But many neglect to consider that only thanks to the Industrial Revolution was travel abroad to these sites of wonder, and the wider circulation of literature written about them, made possible. As England harnessed the power of fossil fuels, nature at home and abroad recovered and was rendered beautiful. It became a deontological virtue to steward this beauty, and bequeath it to subsequent generations in a covenant to conserve the fruits of one’s ancestors for the unborn.

This kept religiosity alive in the age of reason and industry. Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emmerson argued observing nature’s ‘immortal beauty’ repeals the ‘mean egotism’ which obstructs mankind’s connectivity to the ‘currents of the Universal Being’. Victorians believed sight had a newfound tactility, and that time spent in green spaces abluted the soul of its contact with polluted cities. This produced our present policymaking framework dichotomy; with precursors to eco-modernism, like John Ruskin, arguing the expansion, interconnectivity, and accessibility of transport and industry must be mediated by the conservation of natural beauty in places like the Lake District.

These literary and philosophical traditions found nature to be a source of existential meaning and spiritual re-connectivity. But these schools of thought were only made possible by the technological uphill struggle endured as mankind sought — and continues to seek — available, dependable, and ever-cleaner energy sources. Adopting fossil fuels, and eventually renewables, is the reason that Earth has increasing canopy coverage — and technology, like satellite imaging, is assisting conservationists in planting more.

The Industrial Revolution was not, as Greta Thunberg put it, the UK’s “Original Sin”, foisted on the world. Industrialisation constituted a necessary stage in human development. Now that the pain of privation has subsided, we must work on strategies to reduce the pollution resulting from human activity. But these efforts should not be done at the expense of economic stability — which has a human cost. Lives and livelihoods must not, and need not, be on the line to conserve the environment. And history need not be revised to fit the revolutionary narratives of those insistent on renewables-only societies. 

If Extinction Rebellion want us to “tell the truth”, then here it is: we needed, and still need, fossil fuels. When the day comes that we don’t, we should be thankful for what their discovery did for human prosperity, and nature’s recovery. 

Connor Tomlinson is the Head of Research for the British Conservation Alliance and a political commentator for Young Voices UK. He appears regularly in American Spectator and on talkRadio. Follow him on Twitter: @Con_Tomlinson

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

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