Sunday, August 16, 2020

Wild Free and Happy Sample 45


[Note: This is the forty-fifth sample from the rough draft of my far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.]

SACRED WATER

Like soil, water is essential for all life — no water, no life.  Access to wetness determines the essence of every ecosystem, from rainforests to deserts.  The plant and animal communities that inhabit them are species attuned to surviving in local conditions.  Wherever our wild ancestors wandered, they simply ate the healthy wild foods the land provided.  Until fairly recently, it never occurred to them to play the game of stewardship, and assume the role of owner and master.  They had no need to.  They were wild, free, and happy.  Life was good.

Everyone who reads these words has spent their entire life in a fossil-powered era of super-insanity, a temporary catastrophic blip in the human saga.  Many believe that oil is also essential — far more so than soil or water.  But in the coming decades, we’ll have no choice but to abandon our addiction to fossil energy — cold turkey — and migrate to a more traditional path that is much slower, simpler, saner, and far less crowded.  Joy!  It was a crazy-making bad habit.  It turned much of the mob into full-bore lunatics who lost all common sense and lived like they were the final generation.  I can assure you that we’ll always need water.  Water is good stuff.

J. R. McNeill wrote that salt water is 97 percent of all H2O.  About 69 percent of all fresh water is frozen, mostly in Antarctica.  Of the 31 percent that is not frozen, about 98 percent is stored in underground aquifers, many of which are too deep to be molested by tropical primates and their boring gizmos.  The water in all lakes and streams is about a quarter of one percent of all freshwater.  An essential benefit of incoming sunbeams is desalination.  As salt water evaporates, water vapor is released into the atmosphere, where it can travel the world and become dew, rain, frost, or snow.

McNeill wrote that for almost the entire human saga, water was mostly used for little more than drinking and bathing.  Today, we use far more, waste far more, and pollute far more.  Three major guzzlers are agriculture (70%), industry (20%), and cities and towns (10%).  In 1990, we were using 40 times more water than in 1700.  In the twentieth century alone, water consumption increased 900 percent.

Similar to their abusive relationship with soil, clever control freaks are working like crazy to exploit water in every unsustainable way they can imagine.  Their objective is to keep the unsinkable Titanic, with its seven-point-something billion passengers, afloat for as long as humanly possible, by any means necessary (as long as it’s profitable). 

Irrigation

Water-guzzling agriculture began in places like southern Mesopotamia.  James Scott wrote a new and improved version of the story about the dawn of plant and animal domestication, and the eventual emergence of civilization.  He focused on southern Mesopotamia, where wild folks originally wandered into a region of thriving wetlands loaded with wild wheat, barley, and many other wonderful things to eat.  It was delicious paradise, full of wild game, and nobody owned it, so they decided quit wandering, build luxurious huts, and enjoy a life of prosperity.

By and by, the growing number of bambinos began to strain the party.  Their unfortunate solution was to increase food production by transforming desert into productive cropland.  In the following pages, we’ll examine some of the downsides of irrigation.  This was a daunting fork in the path.  Once again, some folks who, for centuries, were well adapted to prospering in a wild ecosystem, eventually became possessed by an urge to control and exploit it.  One lesson that environmental history teaches us, over and over and over again, is that some cultures can lurch out-of-balance, and develop an obsessive compulsion for cleverly controlling people, places, plants, and animals. 

Unfortunately, this devilish cleverness is not kept tightly caged by knowledge, understanding, wisdom, respect, or acute foresight.  (Hey, we’re just happy horny hungry savannah primates!  We didn’t know any better!)  Sometimes, it can make you wonder if Big Mama Nature deliberately conjured the dark juju of cleverness, because overseeing millions of years of ongoing sustainability was getting really monotonous and boring.  Bring in the clowns?

Sandra Postel is fascinated by a dirty and destructive habit called irrigation.  Today, about 17 percent of global cropland is irrigated, and it produces 40 percent of our food.  Crops can be grown in lands too dry for rain-fed agriculture, and they can produce higher yields.  Irrigation fans the flames of population growth, which is usually the opposite of helpful.  Since 1800, irrigated cropland has grown 30 times in area, and global population has soared from one billion to nearly eight.

In the early days, irrigation was a game of moving surface water into fields using low tech methods.  Keeping the irrigation channels from silting up was a major and never-ending job that gave legions of slaves and peons satisfying work to enrich their lives.  When enemies came to visit, a cruelly enjoyable way of destroying your society was to deliberately rubbish your irrigation system. 

After the Second World War, powerful electric and diesel powered pumps became affordable and popular.  So did drilling rigs, which were used to bore tube wells for the extraction of groundwater.  Cheap and abundant energy allowed far more water to be produced, compared to old fashioned muscle power or windmills.  This spurred a massive expansion of the area of irrigated land, which tripled between 1950 and 2000.

Today, the mining of underground aquifers makes possible about a tenth of world grain production.  Huge fossil aquifers are being drained in the U.S. Great Plains, the North China Plain, and under Saudi Arabia.  Ancient water is being extracted far faster than the aquifers can naturally recharge — a one-time reckless joyride. 

Walter Youngquist was no fan of aquifer mining, because it created “food bubbles,” where crops could be raised in locations where highly productive agriculture was otherwise impossible.  In 2011, the World Bank estimated that these temporary bubbles were feeding 175 million in India, and 130 in China.  The bubbles will inevitably burst.  Then what?

In the U.S., the huge Ogallala Aquifer lies beneath eight states in the Great Plains.  It now provides the water for about 27 percent of the irrigated land in the U.S.  The aquifer contains water that may be 25,000 years old.  After the Second World War, folks started using automotive engines to pump wells.  Rotating motorized center pivot irrigation systems sprayed water over large circular patches of land.  Irrigation transformed marginal grassland into a highly productive environment for ranching, and growing soybeans, corn, and wheat.

The Ogallala is mysterious, and humankind has yet to develop X-ray vision.  Writing in 2007, Clive Ponting reported that the aquifer could be depleted as early as 2010.  More recently, experts predict it could fail as soon as 2028.  What is measurable is that in some regions, since the 1940s, the water table has dropped more than 300 feet (90 m).  Youngquist noted that “in north Texas, some 15,000 square miles (39,000 km2) of agricultural land has had to be abandoned as the Ogallala aquifer is totally depleted.”  Luckily, what gets pumped out today will be replenished by nature in a mere 6,000 years, maybe.  Others say hundreds of thousands of years.

And so, as topsoil is taking a beating, aquifers and surface water are being overpumped, and population keeps zooming upward (oh-oh!).  Joel Bourne noted that agriculture guzzles most of the water used by humans.  Irrigated fields have yields that are two to three times higher than rain fed fields.  Demand for water is projected to increase 70 to 90 percent by 2050, but water consumption today is already unsustainable.  The solution is easy, all we have to do is “double grain, meat, and biofuel production on fewer acres with fewer farmers, less water, higher temperatures, and more frequent droughts, floods, and heat waves” (and rising energy costs).  No worries!

Draining Rivers

Irrigation is draining major rivers.  For example, Erling Hoh described the Yellow River in China, which is 3,400 miles (5,472 km) long.  Its waters have been intensively overdrawn for irrigating cropland.  In 1972, for the first time in history, the flowing river never made it to its normal outlet in the Yellow Sea.  In 1997, lower sections of the river were dry for 227 days, reducing the harvest by an estimated 8.5 million tons.  Some sections have been so polluted by cities and industries that the water is unfit for both irrigation and human consumption.  Fish no longer survive in some regions.

Sandra Postel noted that a growing number of major rivers are, for months at a time, discharging little or no water into the sea.  They include the Colorado, Rio Grande, Yellow, Indus, Ganges, Amu Darya, and Murray.  Rivers deliver both life-giving water, and death-bringing pollution.  As the volume of flow diminishes, there is less water to dilute the crud.

The Ganges is getting sucked dry.  Old fashioned irrigation, which moved river water to fields via canals, worked for centuries, when there were fewer people, and more forests.  As demand increased, the water level of the river dropped lower and lower, until the old canal distribution system could no longer work.  Luckily, our hero technology came to the rescue.  Tube wells were drilled, and motorized pumps began extracting water like crazy, and the crops prospered. 

Naturally, with this increased demand, underground water tables dropped.  Consequently, less groundwater naturally flowed back into the river.  So, to an increasing degree, the Ganges is looking less like a mighty river, and more like a big mudflat.  [LOOK]  Breezes drifting over the mountain from the future have the pungent aroma of food shortages.  Progress!

Subsidence

Clive Ponting noted that many folks today are still able to snatch as much water as they want, pay nothing for it, and not worry about waste.  Irrigating cropland with state of the art, maximum efficiency technology is prohibitively expensive.  It’s far more practical and affordable to continue using highly wasteful methods.  In India and China, two-thirds of irrigation water never reaches the plants, because of losses due to evaporation, or seepage from delivery canals.  U.S. farmers merely waste half of their water.

Postel wrote that water tables are dropping beneath large regions of northern China, India, Pakistan, Iran, the Middle East, Mexico, and the western United States.  Ground water is being pumped out faster than the aquifers are naturally replenished.  When a well begins to wheeze, they keep drilling it deeper and deeper, until it finally goes dry.  Up to 10 percent of the global food harvest is made possible by aquifer mining.  This path does not have a happy ending.

Subsidence is a common but unintended consequence of aquifer mining.  It affects locations where the geology is not sufficiently rigid.  Underground, as the water is removed, it leaves behind an empty void that the land sinks to fill.  Aquifer compaction can be irreversible — nature may never again be able to recharge the aquifer.  Game over.

J. R. McNeill reported that in 1990, Mexico City was using 35 times more water than it did in 1900.  The land surface subsided.  On the streets, some locations have unevenly sank up to 23 feet (7 m), which damaged sewer pipes, streets, and buildings.  Walter Youngquist wrote that the entire San Joaquin Valley is sinking.  In some areas, the water table has dropped up to 500 feet (152 m).  Near Mendota, the land surface has sunk more than 28 feet (8.5 m).  [LOOK] 

Subsidence is an issue in many places, including Osaka, Tokyo, Bangkok, Beijing, Alexandria, New Orleans, Houston, Las Vegas, and southern Arizona.  Jakarta, Indonesia is the fastest sinking major city in the world.  It gets 300 days of rain per year, and it sits on a big freshwater aquifer, which its huge population is guzzling faster than it can recharge.  Because so much of the city is paved, not enough rain can soak into the ground to keep the aquifer full.

Around the world, farmers, industries, and cities engage in aquifer mining.  Subsidence is the shadow of overpumping.  The problem will increase as long as irrigation and extreme overpopulation continues.  While population continues growing, water mining makes it harder for food production to keep up with growing need.

Salinization

Big Mama Nature often presents prestigious awards to honor the great achievements of human cleverness.  One of her golden awards for the invention of irrigation is called salinization.  By around 6,000 years ago, irrigation was cleverly transforming the deserts of southern Mesopotamia into a (temporary) utopia of highly productive fields of wheat, barley, peas, and lentils.  The long and winding soap opera in this region could fill 100 pages.  Let’s boil it down to a quickie.

Southern Mesopotamia is a flat, hot, nearly rainless desert covered with fertile soil that has above average salt content.  The Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow through the region.  To the north, a higher and wetter region, there is an annual rainy season.  When the rains arrive, both surging rivers move heavy loads of silt downstream.  Something odd happens here. 

Over the centuries, as silt dropped out of the water flow, layer upon layer accumulated in the flood plains, deeper and deeper.  Eventually, both rivers were travelling through channels that were elevated above the surrounding land.  Clever folks recognized the possibility that life-giving water could be diverted from the rivers into irrigation canals, via a labor saving magic called gravity.  So they did. 

Now, all they had to do was dig miles and miles of irrigation canals to deliver the water across the desert and start growing crops — good healthy exercise.  Unfortunately, year after year, the rivers continued to deliver more and more silt, which took great delight in repeatedly plugging up the tidy canal systems.  Keeping the canals clear was a never ending challenge. 

Big Mama Nature thinks this is hilarious.  She laughs until the tears flow.  Technology and progress always bites us on the ass.  It’s so much easier to simply adapt to elegantly sustainable wild ecosystems, like the rest of the family of life does.

Anyway, irrigation made it possible for folks to produce lots of food, and feed lots of people, which enabled the emergence of the first states, cities, and empires — and the endless bloody clashes between super ambitious, testosterone powered, glory-seeking control freaks.  Meanwhile, out in the fields, dissolved salt ions were deeply involved in a project to teach the too-clever critters important lessons about agriculture, irrigation, and unintended consequences.

Several types of mineral salts, at varying levels of concentration, are natural components of soils and water.  Even rain drops can contain traces of dissolved salts.  All irrigation water contains some salt.  Salinization is a process in which the accumulation of salt in the soil can reach levels that affect plant health, or even prohibit plant life.  When cropland is not well drained (as in Mesopotamia), irrigation can make the water table rise.  When this happens, water containing dissolved salts moves upward, closer to the root zone of the crops above. 

When salty moisture migrates close to the ground surface, the water evaporates, and the salt is left behind.  When plants are thirsty, their roots take in water, and leave the salt behind.  As salt levels intensify near the soil surface, eventually not even weeds can survive.  At the end of the road, evaporation of saline water can leave the ground surface covered with a white layer of salt crystals, looking a bit like fresh snow.  Coroners would issue these lands a death certificate.  They remain useless to this day.

Clive Ponting indicated that salinization can be a slow motion catastrophe that may remain largely invisible to multiple generations.  In Mesopotamia, wheat and barley were grown in equal amounts in 3500 B.C.  Barley is more salt-tolerant than wheat.  By 2500 B.C., wheat was just 15 percent of the grain grown, indicating salt problems.  By 1700 B.C., wheat growing had gone extinct.  Around 2000 B.C., there were some reports that “the earth turned white.”  At its peak, Mesopotamia maybe had a population of 1.5 million.  By A.D. 1500, just 150,000 lived there.

Now, let’s fast forward to modern times, an era when folks built lots of big dams — a subject that fascinated Marc Reisner.  Many were built in the Colorado River basin, for flood control, hydroelectricity generation, recreational fishing and boating, and to store water for irrigation and municipal water systems.  Historically, salinization has been a tireless serial killer of civilizations.  In the big dam era, human cleverness achieved new levels of brilliant incompetence.  Irrigation grew explosively.

As water in the Colorado moves downstream, it is diverted multiple times to irrigate the land it passes on its long journey from the Rockies to Mexico.  The water is dumped on a field, where it keeps crops on life support, dissolves salts in the soil, and eventually finds its way back into the river.  The salty water flows down to the next irrigation project… and then the next, and the next.  Along its journey, the water takes rest stops in reservoirs, where about a tenth of it evaporates, concentrating what is left behind.  By the time it reaches trendy restaurants in southern California, the water is so salty that it’s sometimes served with a lemon slice.

Reisner noted that in the Grand Valley, when Colorado River water is diverted for irrigation, it contains 200 parts per million (ppm) of salt.  When it returns to the river, it has 6,500 ppm.  On rivers like the Colorado and Platte, the water may be used up to 18 times.  Eventually, the Colorado flows across the border into Mexico, where the water has become “liquid death.”  At the end of its journey, the river used to empty into the Gulf of California.  Today, it dries up before it can reach the finish line.

The salt problems could be reduced by installing state of the art drip irrigation systems, in which far more water actually makes contact with plant roots, but this option is insanely expensive.  Another option is installing drainage systems in irrigated fields, so dissolved salts can be leached out of the soil.  This is also insanely expensive, and it produces very salty dreck that should then be disposed of in a thoughtful mature manner.

Regions of salt damaged soils are found in Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas.  Writing in 2015, Pooja Shrivastava summed it up like this:  “It has been estimated that worldwide 20% of total cultivated and 33% of irrigated agricultural lands are afflicted by high salinity.  Furthermore, the salinized areas are increasing at a rate of 10% annually for various reasons, including low precipitation, high surface evaporation, weathering of native rocks, irrigation with saline water, and poor cultural practices.  It has been estimated that more than 50% of the arable land would be salinized by the year 2050.”  Hmmm…  Maybe we won’t be having ten billion for dinner after all.

Siltation

On the day you squirted out of the womb, you took your first breath, and began a fun-filled journey that will inevitably conclude with your final breath.  Likewise, the working life of every dam is also finite.  Brilliant engineers design them to survive earthquakes, landslides, and intense floods — and they usually do.  Most will peacefully die from a natural cause, siltation.  Rivers transport both water and silt.  When the water flows into reservoirs, it slows down, and the silt is dropped.  Year after year, the silt accumulates, displacing space for water storage — the purpose of the dam.

The Advisory Committee on Water Information (ACWI) is an organization within the U.S. Department of Interior.  One of their areas of concern is dam sedimentation, and they have created an excellent document that addresses FAQs (frequently asked questions).

Every dam that doesn’t experience a catastrophic failure will eventually fill with silt, and become a concrete waterfall — as useful at the tits on a bull.  Engineers understand this.  Typically, dam project plans are calculated to have a sediment design life of 50 or 100 years — planned obsolescence.  So, mommy and daddy get to enjoy the wonderful benefits from their hard earned tax dollars, and the grandkids inherit a collection of concrete waterfalls that are obscenely expensive to properly dispose of, and increasingly prone to failure as they deteriorate with age. 

More than 5,000 large dams in the U.S. are over 50 years old, approaching the end of their designed lifespans.  Some are already goofy bull’s tit waterfalls, enduring monuments to shortsighted pork barrel politics — idiotic projects demanded by slick-talking legislators to delight their donors, and enrich the rich.  The folks who get most of the financial benefits are entrepreneurs who adore the golden benefits of socialism, but hate government, and are hysterically allergic to taxes. 

Marc Reisner wrote that President Jimmy Carter detested dam projects because the national debt was in the stratosphere, there was double-digit inflation, and dams made little or no economic sense.  He was cursed to frequently suffer from painful mental impulses known as principles.  “He began to wonder what future generations would think of all the dams we had built.  What right did we have, in the span of his lifetime, to dam nearly all of the world’s rivers?  What would happen when the dams silted up?  What if the climate changed?”  This didn’t win him many friends in the arid west.  He didn’t get reelected.

Anyway, the ACWI FAQs note that “proper maintenance” is required to provide dams with eternal life.  Proper maintenance involves periodically dredging out many tons of polluted sediment, hauling it somewhere, and disposing it in a thoughtful mature manner.  Proper maintenance is massively expensive.  This begs a follow-up FAQ:  “Is reservoir sediment managed in the USA?”  Answer: “With only a few exceptions, the answer is no.”  It is done at just two reservoirs that fill rapidly.  There is no dredging.  The dam gates are opened, and the sediment is flushed downstream, which blindsides the riparian ecosystem.  This proper maintenance is highly destructive.

An extreme example of “proper maintenance” is the Xiaolangdi Dam on the Yellow River in China.  Its reservoir accumulates an estimated 30 million tons of sediment each and every year!  So, every year, a team of maintenance professionals open the base drains, and allow 30 million tons of muck to ooze downstream.  It’s much cheaper than dredging.

In 1950, there were about 5,000 large dams in the world.  Today, there are more than 45,000.  Big dams are enormously expensive, and the cost of decommissioning a hydropower dam can exceed the cost of building it.  Corporations have no interest in building them, because the odds for making meaningful profits are slim at best.  So legislators order them, and taxpayers enjoy getting the huge bills

Of course, dams can also be very exciting.  Reisner shared some thrilling stories.  In the summer of 1975, typhoon Nina blasted Asia.  In the vicinity of China’s Banqiao Dam, a massive flood resulted from 64 inches (163 cm) of rain, half of which fell in just six hours.  The dam collapsed, and the outflow blew out a number of smaller dams downstream.  Floods killed 171,000 people, and 11 million lost their homes.  Today, everyone in the Southwest prays several times a day that there will not be a similar chain reaction failure on the Colorado River. 

In the 1960s, the Bureau of Reclamation was running out of ideal sites for new dams.  For maybe 40 years, Idaho farmers had begged for a dam on the Teton River.  Conservatives who detested socialism were eager to have U.S. taxpayers buy them a dam, despite the fact that the costs would far exceed the expected benefits.  This was earthquake country, and the proposed site had highly porous bedrock, an unbelievably stupid place to build a dam.  It was OK’d in 1973, and built in 1976.  The Teton Dam did a spectacular blowout two days after it was filled.

The reckless and idiotic impulses that conjured the Teton Dam into existence, and non-existence, strongly resemble the impulses that have brought the twenty-first century global economy into existence.  It too was built on a dodgy foundation, and is now springing more and more leaks.

Damn Dams

Oh-oh!  I feel a rant coming on.  What right did we have to build the dams?  Who is going to pay to remove the ever growing number of useless concrete waterfalls?  Where are we supposed to put millions of tons of polluted silt where it will not poison life?  The dam building binge was an atrocious insult to younger generations of all species.  Why are we promoting sprawling cities in bone dry blast furnace climates, regions that import most of their food, and depend for survival on snowmelt water from faraway places?  Perpetual growth is not the purpose of life.  It isn’t even fun.

In my perception of reality, salmon lives matter.  Eel lives matter.  Sturgeon lives matter.  Vast regions of land are now used to grow corn and soybeans to feed cattle who are far happier eating the natural food they evolved to enjoy, grass.  Is the Extinction Rebellion complaining that the climate is being destroyed by salmon farts and belches?  Salmon need no ranchers or herders.  They feed themselves.  They don’t overgraze public lands, or rubbish riparian areas.  They don’t fill huge sewage lagoons.  They don’t need to be treated with antibiotics or pesticides. 

They are sacred wild and free beings, not enslaved feedlot meat machines.  Their flesh is highly nutritious, and organic.  When they return to the place of their origin to spawn and die, they leave behind enormous amounts of precious nutrients from the sea, not synthetic fertilizers from chemical plants.  Salmon carcasses enrich ecosystems, rather than running off into waterways, stimulating algal blooms, and creating sprawling oxygen-free dead zones where nothing can live.  Salmon rock!  Dams don’t.  Long live the salmon!

There!  I feel better now.  Sorry!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Wild Free and Happy Sample 44


[Note: This is the forty-fourth sample from the rough draft of my far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.]

SACRED SOIL

Life Giving Sunbeams

All animals, including humans, run on sunbeam energy.  We can’t absorb it directly, via exposure to the sunlight, but plants can.  They use the sunbeam energy to create carbohydrates, the building blocks of life.  Animals that eat plants can then absorb those nutrients.  Animals that eat animals can acquire the sunbeams from their prey. 

If there were no plants, there could be no animals.  Grazing animals are able to survive because they can digest grasses and forbs.  Many other animals can’t, including carnivores and humans.  Humans are omnivores, meaning that we can digest nutrients produced by a wide variety of plants and animals.  To oversimplify, when more food is available, human communities can expand.  The availability of food is affected by variables including temperature, precipitation, soil fertility, and daylight hours.

In the good old days, the plants and animals in wild ecosystems coevolved over time, which helped them adapt to stable long-term survival in local conditions.  With the transition to plant and animal domestication, humans could produce greater quantities of food.  But the artificial ecosystems they created (cropland and pasture) had less natural diversity and stability.  By increasing food production, agriculture could free some people from manual labor, allowing them to pursue specialized knowledge and technological innovation.  More recently, with the transition to mechanized, high-tech, fossil powered, industrial agriculture, both harvests and impacts sharply increased, as did the population of humankind. 

Both food production and population have experienced catastrophic growth in the last century.  The next 50 years are going to be very different from the last 50 years.  A number of factors are now increasing the risks for food production as we know it, and for life as we know it.  We’re getting closer to peak global food production, peak population, and the end of economic growth.  On the following pages, I’m going to briefly discuss some of these food-related factors, while paying more attention to farming than herding.

Soil Creation

David Montgomery is fascinated by soil, and extremely disturbed by humankind’s intensifying war on it.  Dirt begins as mineral particles that become detached from solid rock.  This can happen because of temperature shifts, frost action, abrasion, water, bacteria, fungi, penetrating plant roots, and so on.  At first this dirt is lifeless, like sand.  If not disturbed, it builds up over the centuries.

At the ground surface, where sunbeam energy arrives, the dirt is exploding with life, especially in wetter and warmer climates.  This big magic layer is called topsoil.  A shovelful can contain more organisms than the population of humankind — worms, insects, burrowing animals, and microbes.  Under ideal conditions, it builds up over thousands of years, and provides a good home for green solar collectors called plants. 

Topsoil is nourished by biomass — dead vegetation, discarded leaves, rotting wood, carcasses, poop, and so on.  The composting team turns this organic matter into a treasure called humus.  Humus retains moisture, keeps the soil loose, improves soil fertility, and provides a home for the legions of wee organisms that are necessary for plant growth.

The roots of plants penetrate into the soil, where they retrieve water and nutrients.  Up above, the carpet of vegetation in the sunlight helps hold the soil in place, so it isn’t carried away by wind or water.  Topsoil is the foundation of the family of life.  It nourishes the beings that are alive, and composts the biomass they leave behind.  This complicated process of big magic has worked wonderfully for several billion years — without human managers, if you can imagine that.

Unfortunately, the powerful and relentless enemy of topsoil is human cleverness.  Some cultures became dissatisfied with simply adapting to conditions in their wild ecosystems.  They were irritated by the persistent itch of population pressure, an itch that can turn people into blithering idiots.  Spencer Wells lamented the transition to agriculture, when we began shifting from foraging to producing food.  “Instead of being along for the ride, we climbed into the driver’s seat.”  We had no idea of what we were doing, or where we were going.  Richard Manning agreed.  He said that in the good old days, “we didn't grow food; food grew.”

Soil Destruction

Walter Youngquist wrote that the average depth of topsoil, around the world, is less than one foot (30 cm).  He added that almost all modern folks consider oil to be a vital strategic resource, but few have a similar appreciation for soil.  We can live without oil, and some day we will, once again, return to good old-fashioned, slower and simpler, oil-free living.  But soil is far more important to humankind, and to the rest of the family of life — yesterday, today, and forever after.

He warned that, from a human timeframe, topsoil is a nonrenewable resource, because new topsoil is created over the passage of centuries, on a geological timeframe.  “Overall, one-third of the topsoil on U.S. cropland has been lost over the past 200 years.”  Humans are destroying it far faster than nature creates it.  Some say 10 times faster, others say 20 or 40.  He mentioned the work of Peter Salonius, a soil scientist who performed 44 years of research.  Salonius came to the conclusion that all extractive agriculture, from ancient times to the present, is unsustainable.

It’s common to see the wishful label “sustainable agriculture” used to describe methods and products claimed to have miraculous qualities.  The folks who use it depend on a blindfolded, gagged, handcuffed, and castrated definition of sustainability (or a lively imagination).  A genuinely sustainable way of life is one that can survive for many thousands of years without self-destructing, or diminishing the wild ecosystem.  Sustainable agriculture strategies imply a never-ending need for unimaginably dedicated, principled, and knowledgeable human management. 

Big Mama Nature’s wild ecosystems are brilliant living masterpieces.  They require no active management from tropical primates.  The healthy verb is “adapt,” like our wild ancestors did for most of the human saga.  The toxic verb is “control,” an approach with a time-proven record of smashing apart ecosystems, harder and faster with each passing year.  Human cleverness could never create a system so complex, which worked so well, over enormous spans of time.  Nature thrives in absolute freedom, and takes great pleasure in sabotaging the plans of ambitious control freaks, who seem fantastically incapable of learning from their repeated mistakes.

Wild is a holy word.  “Wilderness” means “disorder,” a place that is out of control — in other words, “free.”  The emergence of agriculture, herding, patriarchy, and civilization was a tragic shift into an unfree culture of intense control.  Wilderness is a place without paths or roads that lead to a destination, a place with no speed limits or law enforcement, a place where you are free to move as your spirit inspires you.  Robert Harrison asserted that bewilderment (be wilder) is about being fully alive.  He wrote, “When one is fully alive, the entire world is alive.”

The culture of control, on the other hand, is diabolically destructive.  Joel Bourne reported that every year, a million hectares (2.4 million acres) of world cropland are taken out of production because of erosion, desertification, or development.  Writing in 2000, J. R. McNeill wrote that the U.S. was currently losing 1.7 billion tons of topsoil per year to erosion.  In 2000, there were 281 million Americans.  So, the loss would have been six tons per person. 

Where is this heading?  Writing in 2012, John Crawford, a risk analysis expert, wrote that “A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left.  Some 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded — the latter means that 70% of the topsoil, the layer allowing plants to grow, is gone.”  [LOOK]

In some locations, visible evidence of this loss is obvious, in large clouds of dust, erosion gullies, or runoff that looks like chocolate milk.  In other places, the loss may not be readily visible during a lifetime.  When you gaze at a large field, decade after decade, you might not notice tons of gradual soil loss.  Youngquist mentioned a study finding that when one hectare of land lost six metric tons of soil, the surface of the soil dropped just one millimeter.  He thought that erosion was similar to cancer, a persistent intensifying destroyer.

Soils with less humus absorb less water, which increases runoff and soil loss.  Light soils like loess are more likely to disappear than dense heavy soils.  Sloped land is most prone to erosion.  Some regions of Europe typically receive gentle rains, while some locations in the U.S. often receive heavy cloudbursts that cause rapid runoff.  Of course, wild grasslands and forests excel at absorbing moisture, building humus, and retaining soil. 

When forest is cleared, or grassland is plowed, the soil is exposed to incoming sunlight.  As the soil warms up, microbial activity is stimulated, which accelerates the oxidation of the carbon-rich humus.  Precious carbon built up over the passage of years is dispersed into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.  Soil fertility declines, and will not be promptly restored, if ever. 

All tilling, to varying degrees, degrades or destroys soil.  The healthy green blanket of natural vegetation that protects the precious topsoil is entirely stripped off the face of the land.  This leaves the defenseless, viciously pulverized, bare naked soil exposed to the merciless abuse of dangerous control freaks.  The soil dries out, hardens, and absorbs less precipitation, which accelerates runoff.  This increases the chances of sheet erosion, gullying, landslides, and flooding.  It can sometimes take centuries for nature to replace the unprotected topsoil lost in a stormy hour. 

Long ago, the Mediterranean basin became a hotbed of civilizations as agriculture spread westward out of Mesopotamia.  The Mediterranean climate provided heavy winter rains, making it a suitable place to grow wheat and barley.  Much of the basin was sloped land, which was extensively deforested over time, driven by growing demand for lumber and firewood. 

Flocks of sheep and goats roaming on the clear-cut hillsides overgrazed, encouraged erosion, and prevented forest recovery.  By and by, the rains leached out the nutrients, and washed much of the fertile soil off the hillsides.  In many locations, bare bedrock now basks in the warm sunshine, where ancient forests once thrived in ancient soils.

Vernon Gill Carter noted that, in the good old days, the Mediterranean used to be among the most prosperous and progressive regions in the world.  But when he wrote in 1955, most of the formerly successful civilizations had become backward.  Many had just a half or a third of their former populations.  Most of their citizens were reduced to a low standard of living, compared to affluent societies.

Montgomery noted that these ancient civilizations often enjoyed a few centuries of prosperity, as they nuked their ecosystems.  Sadly, the soils of the Mediterranean basin were largely destroyed by 2,000 years ago, and they remain wrecked today.  They are quite likely to remain wrecked for many, many thousands of years.  Much of the region that once fed millions is a desert today.

I never learned any of this in school.  Instead, this region was celebrated as the glorious birthplace of civilization, democracy, and science.  It had incredible architecture and dazzling artwork.  It was home to brilliant writers and philosophers (no mention of slaves).  Many of our public buildings today, with their ornate marble columns, pay homage to this era when we first got really good at living way too hard.

Of course, progress never sleeps.  J. R. McNeill wrote a fascinating (and sobering) book on the environmental history of the twentieth century, when cultures blind drunk on gushers of cheap oil spurred a population explosion that probably caused the most destruction to Earth since the Chicxulub asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs.  (Will the twenty-first century be even worse?)

For example, he noted that in the world, about 430 million hectares (seven times the size of Texas) has been irreversibly destroyed by accelerated erosion.  “Between 1945 and 1975, farmland area equivalent to Nebraska or the United Kingdom was paved over.”  By 1978, erosion had caused the abandonment of 31 percent of all arable land in China.  His book is 360 pages of relentless full dose reality that is guaranteed to bring bliss ninnies and hope fiends down from their fluffy clouds in dreamland.  It will inspire adults who are still capable to critical thinking to reexamine our culture’s myths of wondrous progress and technological brilliance.

Organic Fertilizer

Our lives are dependent on plant life.  Plant life is dependent on sunbeams, air, water, and soil nutrients.  In healthy wild ecosystems, these nutrients are continuously recycled, century after century.  Plants acquire nutrients from the soil, which are passed on to the deer, maybe passed on to the mountain lion, and finally returned to the soil again — a happy living merry go round that never stops. 

It’s a different story with agriculture.  The crops absorb the soil nutrients, their edible parts are harvested, and hauled away.  The nutrients in the exported food are never returned to the soil.  Harvest by harvest, soil fertility is depleted, and the nutrient content in the harvested food declines.  Attentive farmers in ancient Greece and Rome were pained to observe that with each passing year, crop growth was less robust, and the harvests were smaller.  This was not a path with a future.

For several thousand years, this hemorrhage of nutrients was slowed a bit by holding livestock in confined pastures, collecting their manure, and spreading it on the tilled fields.  Critical thinkers will instantly recognize that moving the nutrient-rich poop from the pasture to the field depletes the nutrients in the pasture’s soil — a downward spiral.  No free lunch.  Farmers in many regions tried many different ways of keeping soil fertility on life support, by applying sewage, manure, ashes, lime, bone meal, seaweed, compost, peat moss, and other stuff.  In China, human wastes have been used as fertilizers for 5,000 years.

There are three absolutely must-have nutrients for all plant and animal life (including us), for which there are no substitutes — nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).  Modern synthetic fertilizers include portions of each in their NPK products.  Humans acquire these three nutrients by eating animal foods and/or plants. 

Phosphorus and potassium are elements in mineral compounds that plant roots extract from the topsoil they grow in.  Nitrogen is 78 percent of the air we breathe, but it is not in a form that living things can use.  Atmospheric nitrogen consists of pairs of nitrogen atoms (N2).  Luckily, in the soil are nitrogen-fixing bacteria that convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia (NH3), which can be used by living things.  These bacteria grow on the roots of leguminous plants, which include peas, beans, clover, and vetch. 

While livestock acquire nitrogen from the grass they eat, they retain a third of it.  So, their manure did not replace all of the nitrogen extracted from the soil by the grass.  To maintain the nitrogen content in the soil, farmers had to invest time and labor to regularly plant cover crops of legumes.  Please take a moment to appreciate how wild ecosystems automatically and elegantly recycle nitrogen, while the process in control freak cultures requires an investment of time and labor.

For the corn-growing civilizations of Mesoamerica, livestock was not an option, so they carefully gathered the precious nutrients excreted by humans, and returned them to the cropland from whence they originated.  This must have been an endlessly fun-filled process in the city of Tenochtitl├ín (now Mexico City), home to 200,000 folks who had no wheeled carts or (nonhuman) beasts of burden. 

In 1909, Franklin Hiram King visited Kyoto, Japan.  One morning, he observed several processions of carts, each bearing six 10-gallon (38 l) receptacles of city wastes out to farms.  In the five hour period he watched, these caravans moved at least 90 tons of waste — and this was just on one road.  Other roads had similar traffic — day after day.  Humans did not evolve for city living.

The waters off the coast of Peru are home to lots of phytoplankton (wee plants), which are consumed by lots of anchovies, which are consumed by lots birds, who excrete a magnificent fertilizer called guano.  It is exceptionally rich in nitrogen, containing from 8 to 21 percent by mass.  Farmers used it during the Incan Empire to fertilize their fields.  Over the course of thousands of years, seabirds deposited guano on offshore desert islands.  Guano deposits in wetter climates are far less potent, because rain leaches out the precious nutrients.  Some Peruvian deposits were over 200 feet (61 m) high. 

By the 1840s, agricultural productivity in North America and Europe was wheezing, due to declining soil fertility.  Traditional farming methods were setting limits on the number of people who could be fed.  Guano was a potent nitrogen-rich medicine, and a guano gold rush commenced, which led to the War of the Pacific (1879-1884).  Farmers who used guano no longer had to regularly recharge their soil by planting cover crops of nitrogen-fixing legumes.  This enabled them to produce more food.  Guano production peaked around 1870, as attention was shifting to the saltpeter (sodium nitrate) deposits in the deserts of Chile.

Inorganic Fertilizer

While fertilizers like guano and saltpeter provided nitrogen, phosphorus was more challenging.  Applying ground up bones was not especially effective.  The need for a potent source of phosphate inspired the development of a synthetic fertilizer — superphosphate.  Beginning in 1848, crushed phosphate-bearing minerals were treated with sulfuric acid, and a star was born.  Of the three most essential nutrients (NPK), phosphorus is the most worrisome.  Some say that the production of phosphate minerals peaked in 1989.  It can be recycled from sources like compost, urine, bones, and sewage, but not on an industrial scale.  Eventually, shortages can be expected to retard the human juggernaut.

The potassium component of NPK is provided by a variety of minerals rich in potash (K2O) that are found in the salt beds of ancient seas and lakes.  These minerals are fairly abundant, so far, but not forever.

J. R. McNeill noted that by 1900, German farmers were highly dependent on imported guano.  Without it, they would not be able to successfully feed Germany.  In 1909, chemist Fritz Haber discovered a process that could extract nitrogen from the air (N2), mix it with methane (CH4), and embed it in ammonia (NH3), via an energy-guzzling process of high heat and pressure.  Then, Karl Bosch figured out how to perform this process on an industrial scale. 

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 reducing agriculture’s addiction to livestock manure.  The Haber-Bosch process also provided nitrates used to make high explosives, as the world was moving toward the First World War.  Today, about 80 percent of synthetic ammonia is made using a natural gas feedstock — a finite nonrenewable resource.

Writing in 2001, when the population was a mere six billion humans, nitrogen expert Vaclav Smil estimated that 40 percent of the people alive in 2000 existed only because of the intensive use of synthetic ammonia fertilizer.  It had (temporarily) pushed back the limits on population size.  The population explosion was also accelerated by the Green Revolution, discussed later.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the production of various synthetic NPK fertilizers skyrocketed: 4 million tons in 1940, 40 million tons in 1965, and 150 million tons in 1990.  Far more food was produced, and the human population soared.  Today, the benefits of these fertilizers are maxing out — applying more of it to a field no longer increases the size of the harvest.

Richard Manning noted that when farmers apply synthetic fertilizer on a field, less than half of it reaches its intended target, the crop plants.  Some of it dissolves and moves into groundwater, and lots of it runs off into waterways.  Much of the U.S. Corn Belt drains into the Mississippi River, which is an ecological catastrophe.  Nitrogen stimulates algae blooms that deplete the oxygen content of the water (anoxia), which can cause everything to die (eutrophication).  The river flows into the Gulf of Mexico, where it has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey.  About half of U.S. lakes have low oxygen content, and the number of dead zones in the world continues growing (over 400 in 2008).

And so, dear reader, this is a brief peek at how agriculture has impacted the planet, from the perspective of soils.  The full story is much longer, more complex, and far worse.  Human cleverness is like a wildfire in a bone dry forest on a very windy day — nothing can stop it, it just keeps destroying.  This provides a profound lesson on the incredible elegance of the healthy wild ecosystems that Big Mama Nature nurtured for eons, prior to domestication.  Natural time-proven wild sustainability is essentially perfect, a masterpiece.  Honor it with respect and reverence.