Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization

Dirt, the Erosion of Civilization, by UW professor and 2008 MacArthur Foundation Fellow David R. Montgomery is a wonderful read. I highly recommend it.

Previously, I thought, “dirt, who cares”. I should have known better, I’ld seen a beautiful photo essay in Scientific American (August 1996, pg 62-67) showing the amazing diversity of grains of sand. I should have known that soil has different levels of fertility, or not, as may be the case with my lawn.

Montgomery is a good author, and evidently noted geologist. It was an enjoyable read, and I think would make a decent companion book to Jarred Diamond’s Collapse (my review here). Montgomery believes that a civilization is only as good as the soil on which it grows its crops, and previous civilizations would fall apart when the soil fertility dropped.

He starts with Darwin’s worms. Darwin’s last work, how worms create dirt.

He talks a lot about sediment core samples, and also the faults of land laws that lead to soil depletion.

Before this book, the libertarian side of me would wondered by what right does the government have to encourage land management. The Dust Bowl provides a good reason. Even if you practice good soil management techniques, if your neighbor doesn’t and his dirt gets blown away and in the process buries your crops, then your property has been damaged by his actions. Take at this USDA photo from Dallas, South Dakota, 13 May, 1936.

Dallas_South_Dakota_1936A Congressional report from 1936 identified the problem, “When the price [of wheat] collapsed during the post-war period Great Plains farmers continued to plant large wheat acreages in a desperate endeavor to get money with which to pay debt….they were obliged to extend farming practices which were collectively ruinous.” (pg154-155). Many times I’ve seen that come up, crop prices fall, so farmers grow more food to make more money, causing crop prices to fall.

More from the “we knew this long ago file”, Sir Albert Howard, in the 1930s was preaching the virtues of composting (pg 202).

Another problem, is absentee landlord. If you have a short term lease on the land, especially at high rent, you want to make profit quickly, and don’t care about the future soil value.

We told, a 1989, US National Research Council report, Alternative Agriculture, “Well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms. Reduced use of these inputs lowers production costs and lessens agriculture’s potential for adverse environmental and health effects without decreasing-and in some cases increasing-per acre crop yields.(above quote from pg 9) So why huge mono-culture mega farms…because they work best for heavy machinery (pg159).  I suspect that the small farm is a lot more labor intensive. See also 1974 study by Washington University’s Barry Commoner (pg 207), or mid-80s research by WSU’s John Reganold.  “…many currently profitable conventional farming methods would become uneconomical if their true costs were incorporated into market pricing. Direct financial subsidies, and failure to include costs of depleting soil fertility and exporting pollutants, continue to encourage practices that degrade the land” (pg 209-210). Subsidies such as ~$10 billion a year for wheat, corn, soybeans, rice & cotton. Hmmm…what is the worth of a worm, especially if it makes it so less fertilizer, less subsidy is needed?

I was happy to find, a source for what I claim, the world has enough food, people are starving because of politics. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization “farmers already grow enough to provide 3,500 calories a day to every person on the planet” (pg 200).

One very worrisome example that Montgomery uses, Tikopia. “This tiny island offers a model for sustainable agriculture and an encouraging example of cultural adaptation t limited resources” (pg 223). Montgomery describes their island as a “a giant garden…a system of multistory orchards an fields” (pg 223). Sounds great, an island paradise, what do we need to do, Dave? Easy, the “Tikopians practiced draconian population control based on celibacy, contraception, abortion and infanticide, as well as forced (and almost certainly suicidal) emigration.” (pg 223). Gee, Dave, you ever wonder why a large percentage of people refuse to listen to you? Poor delivery, and probably not even an example that is valid, since you pointed out, we have enough food!

Still…a good book. Don’t worry, the Soviets had their own Dust Bowl, but after USA, so they REALLY should have known better.

Montgomery, for me personally, is the first shot in the “don’t need chemicals to grow food” debate. And, since he’s an actual geologist, I’ll give his voice more credence than “HippyFarm-dot-net”.

Now here’s a crazy question…if, all the good dirt is blown away, or washed away…and eventually ends up in the ocean. Couldn’t we just dredge the ocean for some fertile dirt?

And, 20 page bibliography, cool!

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One Response to “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization”

  1. Opportunities in Basic Soil Science Research « Getting Better All the Time 4.0 Says:

    […] been giving it recently. I don’t know if it started because of David R Montgomery’s Dirt, which I purchased on a whim with a gift card. Or because I’ve been getting my hands all […]

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