Following a severe Chinese famine in 1920-21, Walter Lowdermilk (1888-1974) was hired to study the situation, and provide famine prevention recommendations. He worked there from 1923 to 1927. Floods and famines had been hammering the Yellow River (Hwang Ho) basin for 4,000 years, sweeping away millions of lives. The basin is covered with a deep blanket of yellowish, nutrient-rich loess soil, dumped there by winds during the Ice Age.
Because loess is light, it could easily be tilled using primitive digging stick technology. This is why an early civilization began in the Yellow River region. Loess is also easily erodible. The long history of floods is related to the enormous loads of silt that the river regularly flushed down from the uplands following the summer rains. As the silt-loaded flow arrived in regions with minimal slope, it slowed down, dumped the silt, clogged the river channel, and spread out across the land. So, farmers built dikes along the both sides to confine the river channel. The dikes eventually fail, the land is flooded, the dikes are repaired… the cycle endlessly repeats.
Lowdermilk travelled to the source of the silt, the Loess Plateau, a region one and a half times the size of California. Prior to the expansion of agriculture and population, ancient forests held the upland loess in place. After the forests were eliminated, rain runoff increased, erosion increased, and the era of catastrophic floods was born. The Yellow River has long had a nickname: China’s Sorrow.
Up in the plateau, Lowdermilk discovered a surreal nightmare world of enormous erosion gullies up to 600 feet (183 m) deep. It was at this point that he realized his life’s calling, soil conservation. His utopian fantasy was to develop permanent agriculture, so that humankind could be fed in a manner that was ecologically harmless, perfectly sustainable, forever.
In the western U.S., the Dust Bowl began late in 1933. During a period of above average precipitation (most of 1900 to 1930), a swarm of farmers and ranchers had stripped the natural vegetation from much of the shortgrass prairie. Then came years of drought, which zapped the wheat, leaving the soil exposed. When the monster winds arrived, some farms lost half of their topsoil in several hours. In 1934, the skies in Washington D.C. were dark at noon. Lowdermilk was hired by the new Soil Erosion Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In 1938 and 1939, he was sent to Western Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, to make observations, and report on his findings. During his research, he drove more than 25,000 miles (40,000 km), until World War Two terminated the project. He learned how to read landscapes — agricultural archaeology. He saw many devastated wastelands, some reduced to bare bedrock, which had once been prosperous densely populated regions. This wasn’t about climate change. Common causes were deforestation, overgrazing, soil salinization, planting on sloped land, and failure to maintain irrigation canals and hillside terraces.
His findings echoed those of George Perkins Marsh — the granddaddy of environmental history — who had visited Old World disaster areas 80 years earlier. While Marsh went into great detail in his 300 page Man and Nature, Lowdermilk boiled the core story down to a booklet, Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years, available free online [HERE]. More than a million copies have been printed. Importantly, Lowdermilk took a camera with him. His photos are shocking testimonials to the unintended consequences of domestication and civilization. The booklet can be read in one sitting.
The text bounces from disaster to disaster, providing a brief description of each. In Tunisia, he observed the site of Cuicul, a magnificent city in Roman times, which had been entirely buried, except for three feet (1 m) of one column poking out of the soil. It took 20 years of digging to expose the remarkable ruins. Today, the land can support only a few inhabitants. Likewise, the Minoan city of Jerash, a village of 3,000 people, was once home to 250,000. Lebanon was once covered with 2,000 square miles (5,180 km2) of ancient cedar forests, now reduced to four small groves. In Syria, he observed a million acres (404,685 ha) of manmade desert, dotted with a hundred dead villages.
I don’t want to spoil the vivid excitement of your reading experience by summarizing most of the subjects. Keep in mind that the stories he tells are the result of good old-fashioned muscle-powered organic farming, and organic grass-fed herding. The harms were the result of human actions inspired by ignorance or tradition, not the fickle whims of nature. Compared to modern industrial agriculture, the early farmers and herders were childlike amateurs at ecocide. We have, unfortunately, become champions.
Lowdermilk provided recommendations for reducing soil loss, but not eliminating it. He had a blind faith that the wizards of science would eventually discover ways to make agriculture genuinely sustainable. Following World War Two, U.S. agricultural policies were somewhat progressive, for a while. Efforts were made to preserve small family farms. Farmers were paid to cease crop production on erosion-prone locations, and protect the vulnerable soil with grass. The government gave additional land to my uncle in North Dakota to reward him for planting shelterbelts of trees to reduce wind erosion.
Then came the Richard Nixon administration. In 1973, food prices spiked. So, Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz ordered farmers to get big or get out, plant from fencerow to fencerow, and let the magic of the marketplace select the winners. Subsidies ended, and shelterbelts vanished. Huge grain surpluses were harvested, prices tanked, and legions of farms went belly up.
Almost all university grads (and professors) know absolutely nothing about George Perkins Marsh or Walter Lowdermilk. Those two lads revealed that civilization has never been sustainable, and they deliberately gave their readers a loud dope slap — dudes, it’s still unsustainable. Wake up! When Marsh published in 1864, Earth was home to 1.4 billion. When Lowdermilk released his first version in 1948, there were 2.4 billion. Yesterday, it was 7.6 billion and still growing. Oh-oh! The two lads shared great wisdom with us, which we disregarded. It’s hard to get concerned about threats that are not immediate, and readily visible.
In the twentieth century, the scale of global agriculture grew explosively. All life requires nitrogen, but only in a special form that is produced by nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Plants cannot utilize the nitrogen in the air. In 1911, Germans began the commercial production of synthetic ammonia, which contained nitrogen in the plant-friendly form, bypassing the ancient dependence on soil bacteria, and ending agriculture’s addiction to livestock manure. Potent synthetic fertilizer is primarily made from natural gas, a fossil fuel.
Synthetic fertilizer greatly increased the volume of nitrogen available for plant growth, sidestepping nature’s limits. This accelerated food production, and shattered the glass ceiling on population size. Nitrogen expert Vaclav Smil speculated that 40 percent of the people alive in 2000 would not exist without synthetic ammonia fertilizer.* I wonder what percentage of humankind might survive in the post-petroleum world. In his essay, The Oil We Eat, Richard Manning wrote, “Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten.”
Later, the crop-breeding projects of the Green Revolution more than doubled farm productivity between 1950 and 2000. Consequently, population soared from 2.4 billion in 1950 to 6 billion in 2000. The Green Revolution was all about full scale industrial agriculture — irrigation, large farms, powerful machinery, monoculture cropping, proprietary seeds, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. To sum up the food story today, Paul Ehrlich wrote a five page summary [HERE].
Anyway, Lowdermilk gave me a sucker punch. When he was in Palestine in the late 1930s, he observed a brutally abused ecosystem. Much of the highlands had been stripped of soil, which had washed into the valleys, which continued to erode. This was the land that, 3,000 years earlier, Moses had described as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Moses could have never imagined what his descendants would eventually do to the vibrant vitality of the Promised Land — by faithfully following the divine instructions to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the Earth. Oy! Lowdermilk suggested an eleventh commandment, along the lines of live sustainably or go extinct.
This inspired me to contemplate the condition of our planet 3,000 years from now. My imagination sputtered, gasped, and suffered a total meltdown. Having read hundreds of books on environmental history, and observed 65 years of modern trends, my ability to engage in soaring flights of magical thinking is dead and gone. I’ll be happy if I can help a hundred people break the trance before I cross to the other side.
Lowdermilk, Walter Clay, Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years, 1948, Reprint, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington D.C., 1999.
*In 2001, when there were six billion humans, Smil wrote about the Haber-Bosch process for making synthetic ammonia. “Without this synthesis about two-fifths of the world’s population would not be around — and the dependence will only increase as the global count moves from 6 to 9 or 10 billion people.” Enriching the Earth, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, page xv.
Douglas Helms wrote Walter Lowdermilk’s Journey, an interesting five page paper describing the highlights of Lowdermilk’s professional life.