27 Jul 2009

Don't Cut the Trees -- 1878 Edition

AM sent me this interesting tidbit* from the April 20, 1878 issue of The Graphic (London, England)

It's true that there's a connection between watershed health and water flow. A pity that nobody paid attention for the next 100+ years!

Bottom Line: Take care of your environment and it will take care of you. Kill it and...
* You can find it here by searching for document number BA3201425556.


  1. My reading of this is that someone is always saying our ways are unsustainable but we somehow manage not only to sustain it, but expand it. The US population is roughly 6x as much as it was in 1878, but no water catastrophe (yet). CA's population is up almost 40x but CA is still 33% forest land.

  2. That's one way to say it. OTOH, we've been mining resources to sustain that (unsustainable) pace :(

  3. But that's my point. It's not necessarily unsustainable in some broad sense. Necessity is the mother of invention. If resources _appear_ to be growing scarcer, we will innovate in both technology and organizations.

    In fact, I think one of the most likely paths towards market-oriented water reforms is perceived scarcity. But once we put those reforms in place, we'll have all sorts of headroom for growth.

  4. The connection between watershed health and water flow is more like: cut down trees, increase flow - not decrease. The excerpt is an instance of an all-too-persistent hydrological myth.

  5. This line of thinking was consistent with the common view expressed at the time that "rain follows the plow." Western boosters insisted that the West was not really a desert and if settlers would cultivate the land (with crops or trees) rainfall would increase and bounty would result. But this is the first time I've seen the converse expressed - cut down the trees and rainfall will decrease. Interesting.

  6. @KD -- growth, as in sustainable growth? yes.

    @DC -- I've heard that as well, but the amazon basin (and changes in rainfall patterns after deforestation) is a good counter example.

  7. The Amazon isn't actually such a good example (though you could also mention the Sahel). That issue relates to "moisture recycling", which doesn't create water, it just keeps it in circulation locally longer. Farley et al. 2005, Global Change Biology should suffice on the data front.

  8. I was trying to make the point that sustainability is not a well-defined concept going forward because we don't know what future levels of innovation will make "sustainable".

    In fact, I think we can pretty much bet that there are vast variety of resources that we will consume in the future at levels that are _not_ sustainable at the current level of technology.

    That's why we need markets not command and control regulation. Markets can effectively price in expected levels of technological development.

  9. Technology can't and won't always solve everything. Eventually you do in fact use up all the resources and there is nothing left to manipulate.

    Watershed health is good for water supply because healthy watersheds filter and store water (groundwater) - in times of low water this increases water supply and in times of high water this protects from floods. Win, win!

  10. @DC -- Anonymous has my answer :)

    @KD -- I agree, bu I also agree with the comment after yours (wrt technology). Markets are BEST at integrating information (on ecosystems AND technology) to deliver a price that's probably the best estimate of how sustainable the resource is being used. (For more, read Hayek.)

  11. Daniel Collins31 Jul 2009, 04:56:00

    @ Anon: To beat what I'd like to think is a dead horse, more trees more commonly translates to less groundwater. And useful effects on flooding are not at all clear cut.


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