A Dirty Story

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Years ago I happened upon a 1953 pamphlet called Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years. Written by renowned soil expert Walter Lowdermilk, it describes how care of the soil has determined the fate of some of the most powerful civilizations in history. Most of the stories don’t end well. The collapse of societies in Greece, Rome, Maya and the Middle East can be traced in large part to rampant soil erosion and degradation. Lowdermilk’s writings were a “modernized” version of what George Perkins Marsh had written about almost a century before in his seminal, and all too often ignored, Man and Nature. Now, our generation has a report from the soil erosion vs. civilization battle. In Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David Montgomery builds on Lowdermilk and Perkins’ evidence and lays out in clear language what is at stake: “The history of dirt suggests that how people treat their soil can impose a life span on civilizations.”

Like global climate change, our destruction of soil is in general a long, drawn-out process, one that’s hard to observe on a daily basis. The lack of a visible, immediate threat makes action on the part of society even harder.

Today’s society certainly has the tools needed to choose agroecological success. First of all, we have historical perspective, thanks to people like Lowdermilk, Marsh, and now, Montgomery. And other researchers are using cutting-edge science to provide accurate predictions of what the future holds if current trends continue, as well as what positive outcomes will result if we make some adjustments toward a more sustainable use of land.

Finally, we have a growing group of farmers who are combining the best of organics, conservation tillage, perennialism and biodiversity to protect and build our soil. They are working to make history a lesson, not a rerun.

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