Our Forests & Our Civilization: Interview Series With John Perlin – Part I

Some of you may know John Perlin, author of “Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year History of Solar Energy.”  A physics professor at University of California Santa Barbara, Mr. Perlin’s expertise in renewable solar energy and photovoltaics was fundamental in writing CleanTechnica’s miniseries on the evolution of photovoltaics.

Forests 1 Perlin shutterstock_217816897

Perlin has written about more than solar. His book, “A Forest Journey: the Story of Wood and Civilization,” is an enduring classic that has just come out in a third edition. The book details the place of forests and wood in our civilization’s evolution.

Concerning the conception of “A Forest Journey,” Perlin­­­­ wrote to me, “While doing research for what became my latest book, “Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year History of Solar Energy,” I found that reliance on the sun for house and water heating throughout time occurred when people began to run short of wood. Wood was the principal fuel and building material for civilization, from ancient Mesopotamia to nineteenth century America. Its abundance or scarcity shaped, in large part, the culture, demographics, economy, internal and external politics, and science and technology, which no one had ever before considered. To fill this void, I decided to write the first comprehensive account of the principle role played by forests in the development of civilization.”

As a former carpenter and cabinetmaker, I have long had great respect, even a love affair with the woods I used and the trees that bore them. There is nothing quite comparable to the smells of cherry when it is milled, or of pine being sawn – odors that seem intoxicating. Forests stand out for providing us with their beauty, in addition to their many sustainable products. This blessing won’t be around for long, however, if we continue forward with how rapidly we are eliminating them.

The relevance of the book has only increased over time since our survival hinges on the world’s trees’ ability to store ever greater quantities of carbon and maintain watersheds. Here is where our interview commences.

Meyers: Your book chronicles a time in our civilization’s ancient history when our planet was largely forested, when wood was highly valued as a primary building material. Can you briefly describe this era and where it occurred?

Perlin: About four thousand years ago, in the mountains of China and above Mesopotamia – now known as Iraq – all had big trees, rivaling the size of today’s trees in the Amazon, as did almost everywhere in Europe, the western hemisphere, even North Africa. It was a forested world, populated by forest people.

Meyers: It is difficult imaging these present-day countries as ever being forested. You have provided us with a remarkable perspective from ancient times. What happened?

Perlin: Ancient writers from China, the Middle East, Europe, and much later in North America observed a simple act – forests always recede as civilization develops and grows. All the great observers of humankind – Mencius, the unknown author[s] of the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” Isaiah, Homer, Plato, Lucretius, Ibn Khaldun, John Evelyn, John Muir – attest to this fact.

Meyers: You have provided us with a powerful work of research about which many people are completely unaware. What was your reasoning for taking on such a daunting research project as this?

Let it Shine author imagePerlin: To quote Bob Dylan, most students found themselves, when studying the past, just “memorizing politics of ancient history,” totally irrelevant to current life. Suddenly, I discovered the key to the development and growth of all societies, past and present, as well as their decline and demise, as attested by the participants in each time period. Despite great hardships – living outside for three years – I felt compelled to venture where no one else had hitherto tread, to show the underpinning of societal evolution from the time of the Fertile Crescent to the Semiconductor age.

Meyers: Today you write about tremendously exciting technologies taking place with solar photovoltaic’s, only to see the dismantling of rainforests. Please elaborate.

Perlin: It’s not just rainforests, it’s all forests. Installing solar and wind will be in vain, if we continue to destroy our remaining woodlands. According to Scientific American, “Deforestation in tropical rainforests adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the sum total of cars and trucks on the world’s roads.”

And so “A Forest Journey” continues as our survival today is inexorably linked to the trees.

Next: The tree’s effect on earth

Image: Jungle landscape via Shutterstock

“When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.”

– John Muir










About the Author

is a writer, producer, and director. Meyers is editor and site director of Green Building Elements, a contributor to CleanTechnica, and founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.