Outside the entrance of the glorious Hall of Western History are the marble lions, colorful banners, and huge stone columns. Step inside, and the popular exhibits include ancient Egypt, classical Greece, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, Gutenberg, Magellan, Columbus, Galileo, and so on. If we cut a hole in the fence, and sneak around to the rear of the building, we find the dumpsters, derelicts, mangy dogs, and environmental history.
The Darwin of environmental history was George Perkins Marsh, who published Man and Nature in 1864 (free download). Few educated people today have ever heard of this visionary. Inspired by Marsh, Walter Lowdermilk, of the Soil Conservation Service, grabbed his camera and visited the sites of old civilizations in 1938 and 1939. He created a provocative 44-page report, Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years (free download). The government distributed over a million copies of it.
Lowdermilk helped inspire Tom Dale of the Soil Conservation Service, and Vernon Gill Carter of the National Wildlife Federation, to write Topsoil and Civilization, published in 1955 (free download). Both organizations cooperated in the production of this book. Following the horror show of the Dust Bowl, they were on a mission from God to promote soil conservation.
Dust Bowl photo gallery: Washington D.C. dust storm 1935. Approaching dust storm. Dust Bowl farm yard. The aftermath.
The book’s introduction gets directly to the point, “The very achievements of civilized man have been the most important factors in the downfall of civilizations.” Civilized man had the tools and intelligence needed “to domesticate or destroy a great part of the plant and animal life around him.” He excelled at exploiting nature. “His chief troubles came from his delusions that his temporary mastership was permanent. He thought of himself as ‘master of the world,’ while failing to understand fully the laws of nature.”
Readers are taken on a thrilling tour of the civilizations of antiquity. We learn how they developed new and innovative strategies for self-destruction. Stops include Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean basin, Greece, China, India, and others. No society collapses because of a single reason, but declining soil health is always prominent among the usual suspects — no food, no civ.
The civilization of Egypt was the oddball. It thrived longest because of the unique characteristics of the Nile Valley. Then, in the twentieth century, they strangled the golden goose by building dams, which ended the annual applications of fertile silt, led to soil destruction, and shifted the system into self-destruct mode.
Mesopotamia (Iraq) was home to a series of civilizations that depended on irrigation. Creating and maintaining irrigation canals required an immense amount of manual labor, which legions of slaves were unhappy to provide. At the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, deforestation and overgrazing led to growing soil erosion, which flowed downstream, regularly clogging the canals. Eroded soils have filled in 130 miles (209 km) of the Persian Gulf. Today, the population in this region is only a quarter of what it was 4,000 years ago.
Over the centuries, the region of Mesopotamia was conquered and lost many, many times. For the most part, replenishing soil fertility with manure and other fertilizers was a fairly recent invention. In the old days, an effective solution to soil depletion was to expand into less spoiled lands, and kill anyone who objected. Throughout the book, the number of wars is stunning. The tradition of farming is a bloody one. It always damages the soil, sooner or later, which makes long-term stability impossible, and guarantees conflict.
Rome, Greece, and other Mediterranean civilizations were all burnouts, trashed by a combination of heavy winter rains, sloping lands, overgrazing, deforestation, soil depletion, and malaria. The legendary cedars of Lebanon once covered more than a million acres (404,000 ha). Today, just four tiny groves survive. “Deforestation and the scavenger goats brought on most of the erosion which turned Lebanon into a well-rained-on desert.” Much of once-lush Palestine, “land of milk and honey,” has been reduced to a rocky desert.
Adria was an island in the Adriatic Sea, near the mouth of the Po River in Italy. Eroding soils from upstream eventually connected the island to the mainland. Today, Adria is a farm town, 15 miles (24 km) from the sea, and its ancient streets are buried under 15 feet (4.5 m) of eroded soil. In Syria, the palaces of Antioch were buried under 28 feet (8.5 m) of silt. In North Africa, the ruins of Utica were 30 feet (9 m) below.
Even now, in the twenty-first century, there are dreamers who purport that China provides a glowing example of sustainable agriculture — 4,000 years of farmers living in perfect harmony with the land. Chapter 11 provides a silver bullet cure for these fantastic illusions. “Erosion continues to ruin much of the land, reducing China, as a whole, to the status of a poor country with poor and undernourished people, mainly because the land has been misused for so long.”
The authors aim floodlights on the fundamental defects of civilization, and then heroically reveal the brilliant solution, soil conservation. Their kinky fantasy was permanent agriculture, which could feed a gradually growing crowd for the next 10,000 years — a billion well-fed Americans enjoying a continuously improving standard of living. Their vision went far beyond conservation, which merely slowed the destruction. Their vision was about harmless perpetual growth, fully developing all resources, bringing prosperity to one and all, forever. Oy!
At the same time, they were excruciatingly aware that humankind was ravaging the land. “The fact is that there has probably been more man-induced erosion over the world as a whole during the past century than during any preceding thousand-year period. There are many reasons for the recent rapid acceleration of erosion, but the principal reasons are that the world has more people and the people are more civilized and hence are capable of destroying the land faster.” The book is more than a little bit bipolar.
For readers who enjoy the delights of mind-altering experiences, I recommend reading Topsoil and Civilization, a discourse on soil mining. Also read its shadow, a discourse on forest mining, A Forest Journey, by John Perlin. Your belief system will go into convulsions, and then a beautiful healing process begins.
You will suddenly understand that the stuff you were taught about the wonders of civilization was an incredibly delusional fairy tale. The real story is one of thousands of years of accelerating population growth, ruthless greed, countless wars, enormous suffering, and catastrophic ecocide. Suddenly, the pain of baffling contradictions is cured, the world snaps into sharp focus, and the pain of being fully present in reality begins — useful pain that can inspire learning and change. Live well.
Soil erosion photo gallery: Gulley erosion. Alabama cotton field. Iowa sheepwreck. Iowa sheet erosion.
Carter, Vernon Gill and Dale, Tom, Topsoil and Civilization, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1974. [First ed. 1955]
Other reviews of books on soil and agriculture: Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, Against the Grain, Farmers of Forty Centuries, and Pillar of Sand.