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Let's Go Leaf Peeping in New England!

One of the issues which gets the alt-right all nuts and crazy is the Green New Deal. And the argument erupted again this past week when Joe cancelled oil leases that Trump-o had approved in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. This is a tricky point right now because we are all paying more for gasoline at the pump, and you can be sure the GOP will rev this one up at the appropriate time.

This also happens to be just a couple of weeks away from the annual leaf peeping season in New England, which starts on October 1st and injects serious tourist money into states like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. I mean, who’s going to argue with vistas which look like the picture above?

But for all the talk and exclaiming about global warming and the need to restrict the use of oil and natural gas, the fact is that we wouldn’t have a single leaf to look at if we hadn’t figured out how to create an energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels.

When the first Europeans arrived at Plymouth in 1620 and were quickly followed by lots more settlers from England and then the European continent, they found themselves facing a solid mass of forests which had to be cut back or cut down in order to create the open spaces needed to graze their animals and plant their food.

These forests, of course, happened to be the home of what we now politely refer to as ‘indigenous peoples,’ but when it came to making over the landscape to meet the needs of European settlers, to hell with them too.

And the requirement for permanent human settlement in New England wasn’t only turning forests into pastures and arable fields, but also using all those lovely trees as fuel to heat every home.

It took about one acre of mature, hardwood trees to provide heat for a single home in New England during the Winter months, which means that if ten early colonial families created a small farming community away from the coast, every year they would have to clear at least ten acres of forestland in order to survive the winter months.

Once a forest zone no longer provided fuel for household use, either the land stayed clear and could be used for grazing of animals or planting and harvesting crops, or it had no value at all. And this issue of increasing the value of one’s landed holding was perhaps even more important in terms of denuding the forest landscape than keeping a family warm in the winter months.

In his brilliant book (Changes in the Land, Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England) William Cronon points out a fundamental difference between the ecological approach of the native populations to the approach of the colonial settlers, namely, that the former moved from place, their transience reflecting the natural changes which occurred as the seasons changed over the course of the year, whereas the latter lived permanently on a specific piece of land, and therefore had to reshape the ecological balance of that parcel to enable them to stay in the same place all year long.

Additionally, the natives in New England did not think of land as a commodity which they would own and increase its financial value over time. The Europeans, on the other hand, not only brought tools and domesticated animals with them to be used as devices that would increase the land’s output, but more important, also introduced the concept and practice of private property, which created more incentives to change and increase the value of their land.

Indeed, the colonists considered the native peoples to be ‘savages’ and ‘uncivilized’ precisely because the indigenous populations made no effort to fulfill what God said in Genesis 1:28Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

How did a pioneer family ‘subdue’ the earth? They cleared it, set up stone fences to mark the piece they owned, and then registered this property with a deed that would prove the provenance of this landed holding from earliest times of settlement right down to now.

Don’t believe me? Take a ride to Greenfield, MA, walk into the Franklin County Registry of Deeds and take a look at the earliest documents, which date from – ready? – 1633! And it is estimated that within several decades after this date, the forests in Franklin County, which is 100 miles from Plymouth, had been reduced by as much as – ready? – 60 percent!

In other words, the beautiful scenery which brings hordes of sightseers to New England every October, only exists now because we found other natural resources to use for heating and air-conditioning our homes, driving all those factory turbines and let’s not forget replacing the horse-drawn carriage with the truck and the car.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should throw out the baby with the bathwater and ignore how the burning of fossil fuels creates environmental issues which need to be overcome. But anybody who thinks that a positive response to environmental changes need only involve replacing the ‘bad’ with the ‘good,’ knows as much about how humans interact with the environment as Donald Trump knows about how the 2020 election was ‘fixed.’

Later this year I hope to publish a book which will explain these issues in more detail.

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