Transformation Archetypes — Part 1

Last Wednesday, I was at the White Mountain School in Bethlehem, NH.  The invited lecturer in earth sciences was Mariko Yamasaki of the USDA Northern Research Station at Bartlett, NH.  She noted that all the forests in New England “from the notches south” have grown over the past 150 years.  Before that, from 1620 to 1860 or 1870 or so – people cleared the land for farming and harvested the trees for what she termed the “wood economy.”  The wood was used to construct buildings and ships, and was the primary source of energy.

Interestingly, only a few of the pre-colonization mammals, birds, and insects became extinct in the process.  The vast majority adapted to loss of habitat and, since the end of that period, have adapted to regaining their habitat, as the remnants of the wood economy have become quite small.  While we have not allowed the re-emergence of habitat renewal via forest fires, we have become much better at habitat management.

So, people transformed rural New England for 250 years, and then nature transformed it back – well, almost — for 150 years and northern New England is now heavily forested.  In the process, we went from a wood economy, to a fossil fuel economy, to an information economy.  Of course, we still are a fossil fuel economy.  We cannot use information for energy – bits cannot equal BTUs.

How did the wood economy transform.  I have not been able to find any august advisory committee that led the way, nor any government agency that provided stimulus funds.  How, then, did change happen?

My mother’s side of the family included many ship builders.  They built ships in southern Maine.  In the late 1800s, they found it increasingly difficult to get the wood they needed for their ships.  Being in Maine was no longer a competitive advantage.  So, they moved to Boston, more specifically Chelsea.

Other things were happening at the same time.  Railroads were replacing steamboats, which had replaced coaches and barges.  Iron was in widespread use and steel was in the ascendancy.  Oil had been discovered in western Pennsylvania.  So, how about iron or steel ships, with new hull designs, and new propulsion systems?  Why not, the old wood-based designs were unsustainable anyways?  A confluence of forces led to a new economy.

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