Not only subterranean forests: Wood consumption and economic development in Britain (1850–1938)
This paper analyzes wood consumption in Britain over the period 1850–1938. We calculate the apparent consumption of wood, taking into account both net imports of wood and the home harvest. We then develop some quantitative exercises that correlate wood consumption with GDP, with prices of wood and iron (as an alternative material to wood) and with other measures. The main conclusion is that, although wood had lost its economic centrality after the energy transition, wood consumption continued to grow in Britain both in absolute and relative terms, showing a positive elasticity to GDP superior to the unit. This result allows us to reach a more complete understanding of the socio-metabolic transition associated with the Industrial Revolution. Britain faced the increase in wood demand by relying almost entirely on imported wood, reinforcing the idea that the decoupling of economic growth from land use must to be handled with care, and should be observed not at the national level but on a global scale. Although British economic development was to a great extent focussed on what has been called the “subterranean forests” of coal, it simultaneously supported large tracts of surface foreign forest.
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