Peppercorne’s predictions on deforestation and climate change

“Unless immediate steps are taken towards the conservation of large tracts of existing forests, and towards the re-planting” of forests “the climate, which is naturally dry, will become, year by year, more dry, until at length pastoral and agricultural pursuits … will become profitless, if not impossible.”

This was not written in 2008. Or 1988. Or even 1948. These concerns appeared in 1880, in a publication written by the colourfully-named New Zealand and Australian surveyor, Frederic Septimus Peppercorne.

Peppercorne’s words were just the tip of the iceberg of a widespread set of interlinked fears about the impact of imperialism and environmental change on everything from climate and human health, to racial development and urban planning.

Fears like these, the research of Senior Lecturer in History, Dr. James Beattie, reveals, reached New Zealand through international networks of science as early as the 1840s. By the 1870s, he shows, some politicians and scientists in New Zealand were predicting a terrifying future for the colony, and for its future as a primary producer.

Unrestricted deforestation, these scientists predicted, would bring alternating cycles of droughts and flooding. Already in certain parts of New Zealand, they warned, this was taking place. And for them it was only a matter of time before these devastating patterns were repeated across the whole of the country.

These commentators believed forests attracted rainfall, and on highland slopes, prevented flash flooding. They therefore urged government to protect what bush remained on the higher slops as a means of safeguarding the country’s agricultural future.

Despite on-going, rapid and large-scale environmental transformation, by 1889 parliament still reserved 1.3 million acres of forestland in New Zealand. This was classified as “climatal reserves”, and set aside ostensibly to prevent soil erosion, flash flooding and climate change. Many of these areas – such as Mt Taranaki – still remain for us to enjoy and appreciate.

These ideas, and more, are explored in Beattie’s new book, Empire and Environmental Anxiety: Health, Science, Art and Conservation in South Asia and Australasia, 1800-1920, published by Palgrave Macmillan. It provides a radical and fascinating new analysis of imperialism and environmental change that promises to re-write interpretations of the British Empire, but also shed new light on present environmental management problems. The book is available from Palgrave.

This article is adapted from one for the Waikato Times, 22 August 2011, p.7

See also: “This sacrifice will bring retribution” – deforestation and its consequences

Photo top left: Timber workers in the Kaitaki Ranges. A log hauler is on the left. On the right, horses are about to pull logs along a bush railway to the mill below. Photograph taken by the Northwood Brothers. Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library ref. ID 1/1-006214-G. Above right: Remains of a forest after a burn off, at Rip Station, Tapuwaeroa Valley, Gisborne, circa 1890s. Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library ref. ID PAColl-3047-1-01

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