The Political Environment

Wood Scarcity and Empire

This article is part of HWO’s series on The Political Environment. The series explores how environmental change has been created and contested in the past, and asks how this history might widen the scope of our political imagination in response to global ecological crisis today. You can read an introduction to the series here.

Defining scarcity is rarely simply a question about absolute quantities, nor is it purely a result of supply and demand. A scathing Bloomberg report on shortages and logistical collapse in Brexit Britain frames these issues in explicitly political terms: ‘The promise of self-determination has given way to a sense of economic isolation.’ Questions about trade, sovereignty, scarcity, and Britain’s place in the world are nothing new, nor are they purely a product of the end of empire. Concerns about scarcity also shaped England’s colonial expansion across the Atlantic in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In 1611, the agricultural writer Arthur Standish warned, ‘No wood, no kingdom.’ Deforestation, he claimed, threatened to undermine English agriculture, impoverish the poor, and provoke rebellions. In contrast, his contemporary Dudley Digges – a politician and investor in commercial and colonial ventures – took the opposite position. He argued that fears of wood scarcity were unfounded; a ploy by ‘beggars’ dwelling in forests and the greedy, feckless landlords who profited from these desperate tenants, both of whom wished to protect forests from conversion to more profitable uses. A third perspective was offered by the London merchant and deputy treasurer of the Virginia Company, Robert Johnson. Wood scarcity was real and incurable, and the only solution was to exploit abundant woods in the new English colony of Virginia.

Woodcut from the frontispiece of William Lawson, A new orchard, and garden; or, The best way for planting, grafting, and to make any ground good, for a rich orchard (1648). Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

How should we think through these contradictory claims about England’s forests? Wood scarcity fears were widespread in early modern Europe. Recent scholarship has shown that scarcity was often the product of new, intensified state regulation of woodlands rather than an absolute lack of trees. My work extends the frame of analysis across the Atlantic to look at how English fears about wood scarcity propelled early efforts at colonial expansion in Ireland, North America, and the Caribbean. As the differing visions of Standish, Digges, and Johnson show, however, neither absolute scarcity nor fears of it created an uncontested push to exploit colonial wood. Instead, competition between multiple domestic and colonial projects meant that there was no single vision or programme for defining, regulating, and exploiting woods in the early modern Atlantic. Despite claims that infinite colonial woods would provide liberation from regulation or concerns about deforestation in England, scarcity fears and efforts to combat them followed colonists around the Atlantic World.

The inability of colonies to provide easily harvested, cheap wood for England or to allow colonists to exploit woods without limit became apparent quickly in Ireland. By 1611, Arthur Chichester, Lord Deputy of Ireland, lamented that the island had no wood left to offer England. The idea that Irish woods could alleviate English shortages and supply its navy had been promoted since the late sixteenth century, as an argument for ‘plantations’: programmes to seize large quantities of Irish land and grant it to English or Scottish planters and tenants. But by the time the English government looked to Ireland for wood, none was apparently to be found. The issue was not rapid deforestation by careless planters, but rather complex questions of ownership and access. No woodlands had been reserved for the crown during the wave of land grants for the first plantations in the 1580s, in part because the architects of the project believed that woods held little value and would be handed to the Crown at minimal cost. Planters, however, recognised the value of Irish woods. They created profitable woodland enterprises to produce iron, build ships, and cut staves for barrels, gaining investment from the East India Company and creating connections with Dutch merchants. These enterprises depended on the careful management of trees as potentially scarce resources, not on the presence of an endless supply. They represented a political vision that defined plantations’ success through the prosperity of planters, not their ability to provide cheap resources on demand to the state. If the crown wanted Irish woods, it could pay for them like any other buyer.

The response from other colonial promoters was not to question the nature of wood scarcity or the ability of expansion to address it. Instead, they proclaimed that even greater abundance across the Atlantic would provide relief. Proponents of the embattled Virginia Company colony in North America sought to capitalise on these conditions, adding Irish deforestation to concerns about catastrophic wood scarcity in England. Like Johnson, they emphasised that scarcity could not be reversed: only the purportedly infinite woods of Virginia could meet England’s need. These sensationalist claims did little to sway the Crown. Despite periodic words of encouragement, the crown failed to provide monopoly rights, incentives or protections for Virginia’s woodland industries as they struggled to establish supply or secure a market in the colony’s early years. Abundance meant little without the political support required to exploit it.

As these examples show, for much of the seventeenth century, colonial promoters, investors, and settlers were unable to transform fears of domestic scarcity into concrete plans to manage colonial woods or establish wood-dependent enterprises. Meanwhile, domestic forestry reformers showed only fleeting interest in colonies. Writing over 50 years after Arthur Standish’s warnings, John Evelyn again raised an alarm that England faced catastrophic wood scarcity. In his Sylva (1664) – a defining work for early modern English forestry and later environmentalism – Evelyn depicted wood scarcity as a domestic problem with mostly domestic solutions. Although he wondered briefly whether wood-guzzling iron industries should be relocated to New England, this scheme was as much a plan to support colonial expansion as a programme to protect English forests. Evelyn claimed that the colonists of New England were ‘hindered in their advance and prospect of the continent by their surfeit of woods’. Exploitation of North American forests was not just an extractive project to serve the imperial centre but a mutually beneficial plan to ‘render both our Countries habitable’.

Evelyn’s claim that woods were mere hindrances bore little relationship to the patterns of management and exploitation that emerged in English colonies around the Atlantic. In New England, colonial authorities treated woods as resources to be managed not nuisances to be cleared, setting portions aside as common resources for colonial settlements. In Ireland, even as English authorities in Dublin lamented waste and scarcity, planters aggressively managed their wood resources through restrictive lease conditions and employing individuals to monitor and restrict unlicensed cutting. In Bermuda, colonial authorities regularly enacted measures to preserve or replant trees. In Barbados, landholders used lease restrictions to manage tree-felling, even as sugar plantations began to dominate the island. Across all of these places, we can find conflicts between managing woods to meet local needs and regulating them to supply commercial ends.

Linking these divergent visions were plans to preserve certain trees or woods as resources for ‘posterity’. These practices could and did lead to significant changes in landscapes. Moreover, conservation was compatible with colonial land seizures, and, in the case of Bermuda and Barbados, was also deeply entangled with the use of enslaved labour. Nonetheless, rather than carelessly clearing woods, colonists did so deliberately as part of diverse and often conflicting plans to define, measure, value, and manage resources.

In the present, we again face warnings that climate change threatens dystopian collapse and escalating wars unless we take rapid action immediately. Echoing the rhetoric of Virginia Company promoters, some promote settlements on the moon or Mars, arguing that colonisation in space provides the only solution to our environmental crises. The complex fate of early modern efforts to solve domestic scarcity through colonial expansion should give us pause before adopting this attitude. But we must also bring caution to plans for present-day sustainability. It is not simply enough to call for more careful use of resources with an eye to the future, since careful management and social injustice have long been compatible. Majorities within advanced economies are willing to change the way they live and work in response to climate change. The task ahead will be to create processes that recognise that the definition and management of resources has always been a political question, and to create democratic and just processes rather than repeating old patterns of exploitation.

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