Imagine a time-lapse film of the Earth taken from space. Play back the last 10,000 years sped up so that a millennium passes by every minute.
For more than seven of the ten minutes, the screen displays what looks like a still photograph: the blue planet Eartha, its land swathed in a mantle of trees. Forests cover 34 percent of the land. Aside from the occasional flash of a wildfire, none of the natural changes in the forest coat are perceptible.
This is the flowering of classical Greece. Little else changes. At nine minutes (1,000 years ago) the mantle grows threadbare in scattered parts of Europe, Central America, China and India. Then 12 seconds from the end, two centuries ago, the thinning spreads, leaving parts of Europe and China bare.
Six seconds from the end, one century ago, eastern North America is deforested. This is the Industrial Revolution. Little else appears to have changed.
Forests cover 32 percent of the land.
In the last three seconds — after 1950 — the change accelerates explosively. Vast tracts of forest vanish from Japan, the Philippines, and the mainland of Southeast Asia, from most of Central America and the horn of Africa, from western North America and eastern South America, from the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa. Fires rage in the Amazon basin where they never did before, set by ranchers and peasants.
Central Europe’s forests die, poisoned by the air and the rain. Southeast Asia resembles a dog with the mange. Malaysian Borneo is shaved. In the final fractions of a second, the clearing spreads to Siberia and the Canadian north. Forests disappear so suddenly from so many places that it looks like a plague of locusts has descended on the planet.
– Excerpted from Redesigning the Forest Economy in the State of the World 1994, Worldwatch Institute