A Little Dirty History

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The United Nations-Food and Agriculture Organization has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. That’s fitting, given how reliant the entire world is on keeping our soil in place, as well as keeping it healthy.

But this isn’t exactly new information: 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’s basically a report of observations he made while traveling the world in 1938 and 1939. It provides graphic descriptions of 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. The turmoil that roils countries like Syria and Iraq today in some ways is rooted in the demise of lands that were once fertile enough to feed an entire region.

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. First published in 1864, Marsh, a polymath scholar and diplomat, made an argument that was all but unheard of at the time: we have the ability to damage nature to the point where it will threaten our own survival. Like Lowdermilk, he had plenty of evidence in the form of ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean that had brought about their own collapse via deforestation, soil abuse and other environmental degradation. Marsh felt the then young American republic might repeat these errors of the ancient world if it didn’t start viewing its resources as limited and worth conserving. Such talk fell mostly on ears made deaf by the cacophony of the industrial revolution.

Our generation has its own report from the soil erosion vs. civilization battle front. In Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, geologist 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,” he writes in the 2007 book.

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. It’s easy to look back on ancient civilizations and wonder what they were thinking as the resource that gave them life blew away or simply went biologically inert. But other than in the case of the Dust Bowl, seldom does soil degradation give us the kind of wake-up call that prompts a quick response.

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 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, perennial systems and biodiversity to protect and build our soil. They are working to make history a lesson, not a rerun. That’s an important point to keep in mind if we are to make the Year of Soils the call to action our very civilization’s survival requires.

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