Prior to the easy availability of coal, rail and ship transport in North America was powered largely by chopped wood. Up until 1870 most railway locomotives in the United States ran on wood. Sternwheelers also ran on wood when and where coal was not (yet) available. Sternwheelers on Kootenay lake for instance, burned wood until the B.C. Southern Railway was extended to Kootenay Landing, connecting the lake with the coalfields of Crowsnest Pass. The 19th century consumption of wood by steamboat was described vividly by Basil Hall in his 1828 “Travels in North America”:
“As the steam-boats on this river [the Mississippi], and indeed all over America, burn nothing but wood, and as their engines are mostly high pressure, the consumption of this bulky description of fuel is so considerable, that they are obliged to call at least twice a day at the wooding stations on the banks of the stream. The Philelphia [a sternwheeler] used about a cord of wood an hour, or 128 cubic feet. A cord consists of a pile eight feet long by four high, and four in thickness, each billet being four feet in length. Sometimes, when we were pushing hard, we burnt 30 cords in a day.” (Vol. 3 page 348)
At this rate of wood consumption, one can imagine that the impact on the forest by even one sternwheeler would be obvious to passengers. John H. White’s book on 19th century American Railroading cites a peak wood consumption by U.S. railroads of 3.6 million cords per year. Using the average “one cord per acre per year” rule, sustainable production of that amount of fuel would require more than 14 thousand square kilometres of forest. At a time when America had only 30,000 miles of trackage, whereas the current U.S. trackage is over 230,000 miles. Tonnage shipped has likely increased by a much greater ratio than that due to the increases in the power, weight and frequency of freight trains. Suffice it to say, it is unlikely that it would be possible to run the contemporary American rail network on wood powered steam locomotives today. In fact, we can probably attribute the continued growth of rail in the 19th century after the 1860s to developments in coal extraction – by 1880 trackage had increased to 90 thousand miles, while consumption of wood was cut to a third of the 1860s numbers.
The bitter truth, however, is that while superficially the forest powered infrastructure was much more environmentally destructive than the current coal and oil powered fleet, the current system is in reality worse by an order of magnitude. Deforestation is a real problem, but forests can grow back in the matter of a few generations, or at worst, centuries. Deforestation alone likely can not cause run away climate change. On the other hand, while the carbon spilled into the atmosphere by coal and oil based transportation systems has no obvious immediate effect, in the medium to long term it has the disastrous effects of climate change, and if not mitigated, run-away climate change.
The implication of this contrast to me is the following: environmentalism as appreciation for our life-world in lived experience is insufficient for the problem of fossil fuel caused climate change. If all U.S. forests had been cut down to run trains, this would be an environmental disaster – but one which would likely precipitate a populist environmental response out of people’s experience of seeing the forests retreat. Analogous experiences of climate change are comparatively rare and murky (i.e. observations of glacier retreat), and have not yet been sufficient to garner the political will necessary to stop climate change. The connection between an engine spewing CO2 and a retreating glacier is infinitely less obvious than the connection between a chugging train and a retreating forest.