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Forests, Farms and Materials

Eight thousand years ago, when humans played only bit parts in the world ecosystem, trees covered two-fifths of the land. Since then, humans have grown in number while thinning and shaving the forests to cook, keep warm, grow crops, plank ships, frame houses, and make paper.  Fires, saws, and axes have cleared about half of the original forestland, and some forest, though not all, has been replaced.  Some analysts warn that within decades, the remaining natural forests will disappear altogether.  A good deal of the planet's biological diversity lives in forests (mostly in the tropics), and this diversity diminishes as trees fall.  Healthy forests protect watersheds and generate clean drinking water; they remove carbon dioxide from the air and thus help maintain the climate.  The twentieth century witnessed the start of a "Great Restoration" of the world's forests. Efficient farmers and foresters are learning to spare forestland by growing more food and fiber in ever-smaller areas. 

Is a similar "dematerialization" of human societies is under way?  Can we identify a decline over time in the weight of industrial materials used to produce the end products consumed in the Human Environment? More broadly, are there signs of an absolute or relative reduction in the quantity of materials required to serve economic functions?   Dematerialization matters enormously for the human environment as a lower materials intensity of the economy could reduce the volume of wastes generated, limit human exposures to hazardous materials, and conserve landscapes.  

The PHE studies changes in land use and examines trends, scales, and relations of resource consumption within and across national economies to expose opportunities to improve the quality of human environment.

About the icon – Rendering of satellite-to-tractor data transmission 

For Forests, Farms and Materials news relating to PHE, see

1 March 2017

The Shrinking Footprint of American Meat” by Iddo Wernick and Jesse Ausubel is published by The Breakthrough Institute.   We estimate that between 1969 and 2014 the amount of cropland used for raising land meat for Americans fell by nearly a third: around 9 million acres, about the size of Maryland.  The data used for the calculation can be found here.

Publications about Forests, Farms and Materials

1165 JH Ausubel, IK Wernick. The Shrinking Footprint of American Meat. The Breakthrough Journal 2017 The Shrinking Footprint of American Meat,

1150 Ausubel, JH. Peak Farmland and Potatoes (PDF). insert to Spudman 52(8): November-December, 2014 Peak Farmland and Potatoes,

1139 Ausubel JH, Wernick IK, Waggoner, PE. Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing (PDF). Population and Development Review 38(Supplement): 217-238, 2012 Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing,

1129 A Rautiainen, I Wernick, PE Waggoner, JH Ausubel, PE Kauppi. A National and International Analysis of Changing Forest Density [external link]. PLoS ONE 6(5): 2011 A National and International Analysis of Changing Forest Density, timber volume, forest density, carbon sequestration

0113 JH Ausubel. Rethinking the inedible [external link]. Martha's Vineyard Gazette 2010 Rethinking the inedible, Fisheries, marine life, food

0107 JH Ausubel, PE Waggoner. Dematerialization: variety, caution, and persistence [external link]. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 105(35): 12774-12779, 2008 10.1073/pnas.0806099105 DDematerialization: variety, caution, and persistence, Dematerialization, Consumption, carbon, cropland, energy, fertilizer, impact

0104 JH Ausubel, PE Waggoner. Quandaries of forest area, volume, biomass, and carbon explored with the forest identity [external link]. Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 1011: 1-3, 2007 Quandaries of forest area, volume, biomass, and carbon explored with the forest identity, Forest, tree volume, carbon sequestration, allometry

0101 PE Kauppi, JH Ausubel, J-Y Fang, AS Mather, RA Sedjo, PE Waggoner. Returning forests analyzed with forest identity [external link]. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 103: 17574-17579, 2006 10.1073/pnas.0608343103Returning forests analyzed with forest identity, Forest, tree volume, carbon sequestration, forest identity, allometry

0100 JH Ausubel, PE Waggoner, IK Wernick. Foresters and DNA (PDF). Chapter 2 in Landscapes, Genomics and Transgenic Forests pp. 13-31, 2006 CG Williams (ed), Published by Kluwer, DordrechtForesters and DNA, Forests, innovation, DNA

0099 JH Ausubel, IK Wernick, AM Barret, PE Waggoner. Industrial ecology for leverage to let loose less cadmium  (PDF). Prog Ind Ecol 3(6): 522-537, 2006 Industrial ecology for leverage to let loose less cadmium , Industrial ecology, cd, cadmium, zn, zinc, recycling, materials flow analysis, ImPACT identity

0093 JH Ausubel. On sparing farmland and spreading forest. Forestry at the Great Divide: Proceedings of the Society of American Foresters 2001 Convention, Society of American Foresters, Bethesda MD 127-138, 2002 On sparing farmland and spreading forest, land use, intensive agriculture, precision forestry

0085 PE Waggoner, JH Ausubel. How much will feeding more and wealthier people encroach on forests? (PDF). Population and Development Review 27(2): 239-257, 2001 How much will feeding more and wealthier people encroach on forests?, Forests, land use, agriculture

0083 CR Frink, PE Waggoner, JH Ausubel. Nitrogen on the land: overcoming the worries - lifting fertilizer efficiency and preserving land for nonfarming uses. Pollution Prevention Review 11(3): 77-82, 2001 Nitrogen on the land: overcoming the worries - lifting fertilizer efficiency and preserving land for nonfarming uses, agriculture, nitrogen fertilizer, land use

0080 DG Victor, JH Ausubel. Restoring the forests. Foreign Affairs 79(6): 127-144, 2000 Restoring the forests, Forests, land use, agriculture

0077 IK Wernick, PE Waggoner, JH Ausubel. The forester's lever: Industrial ecology and wood products. J For 98(10): 8-14, 2000 The forester's lever: Industrial ecology and wood products, Forests, land use, agriculture, wood products, forestry

0073 CR Frink, PE Waggoner, JH Ausubel. Nitrogen fertilizer: Retrospect and prospect [external link]. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 96: 1175-1180, 1999 Nitrogen fertilizer: Retrospect and prospect, agriculture, fertilizer, nitrogen, industrial ecology, population

0056 IK Wernick, PE Waggoner, JH Ausubel. Searching for leverage to conserve forests: The industrial ecology of wood products in the U.S.. J Ind Ecol 1(3): 125-145, 1997 Searching for leverage to conserve forests: The industrial ecology of wood products in the U.S., Forests, land use, agriculture, wood products, forestry

0054 IK Wernick, R Herman, S Govind, JH Ausubel. Materialization and dematerialization: Measures and trends (PDF). Pp 135-156 in Technological Trajectories and the Human Environment, JH Ausubel and HD Langford (eds) 1997 Materialization and dematerialization: Measures and trends, dematerialization, material substitution, materials, life cycle

0049 IK Wernick. Consuming materials: the American way (PDF). Technological Forecasting and Social Change 53: 111-122, 1996 Consuming materials: the American way, dematerialization, material substitution, materials, life cycle, recycling

0047 PE Waggoner, JH Ausubel, IK Wernick. Lightening the tread of population on the land: American examples (PDF). Population and Development Review 22(3): 531-545, 1996 Lightening the tread of population on the land: American examples, population, land use, forestry, agriculture

0043 IK Wernick, JH Ausubel. National material metrics for industrial ecology. Resour Policy 21(3): 189-198, 1995 National material metrics for industrial ecology, dematerialization, material substitution, materials, life cycle, metrics

0042 IK Wernick, JH Ausubel. National materials flows and the environment (PDF). Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 20: 463-492, 1995 Republished in Measures of Environmental Performance and Ecosystem Condition, P. Schulze (ed.), National Academy, Washington, D.C., 1999, pp. 157-174. National materials flows and the environment, dematerialization, material substitution, materials, life cycle, metrics, recycling

0038 PE Waggoner. How much land can ten billion people spare for nature? [external link]. Task Force Report #121, Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, Ames IA 1994 How much land can ten billion people spare for nature?, agriculture, forestry, land use, fertilizer

0036 IK Wernick. Dematerialization and secondary materials recovery in the U.S. (PDF). Journal of the Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society 46(4): 39-42, 1994 Dematerialization and secondary materials recovery in the U.S., dematerialization, material substitution, materials, life cycle, recycling

0014 R Herman, SA Ardekani, JH Ausubel. Dematerialization (PDF). Pp 50-69 in Technology and Environment, National Academy, Washington DC 1989 Also in Technological Forecasting and Social Change 37(4):333-348, 1990.Dematerialization, dematerialization, material substitution, materials, life cycle, metrics, recycling