To Tree or Not to Tree: Cultural Views from Ancient Romans to Modern Ecologists

Milena Holmgren*, Marten Scheffer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Few things are more defining in a landscape compared to the absence or presence of trees, both in aesthetic and in functional terms. At the same time, tree cover has been profoundly affected by humans since ancient times. It is therefore not surprising that opinions about deforestation and colonization of landscapes by trees have always been strong. Although loss of forests is often lamented, there is also profound cultural affection for open landscapes including some that have been deforested in the past. Here we take a historical view on perceptions of changing tree cover, and subsequently argue that the current ecological literature on forest-savanna-grassland transitions is not immune to value-laden perspectives. So far, ecosystem science has not done enough to analyze the effects of tree cover changes on ecosystem services and indicators of human well-being. Until these analyses are done, debates about forested versus open landscapes will be clashes of values rather than scientific evaluations. We discuss how ecosystem science may contribute to developing this field.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)62-68
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • ecosystem services
  • forest
  • grassland
  • land degradation
  • savanna
  • tree encroachment
  • visions of nature


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