A Savanna Life in a Technological World

Soil Science Can Save Civilization. Twice

Soil Science Can Save Civilization. Twice

Soil Science can save civilization and it can do it twice. The first is the usual way; civilization is built on agriculture which is based on soil, etc. If you are unfamiliar with how this might be possible, check out this link from WAMU whic is a good discussion of this problem for the uninitiated. For the initiated, I must admit, talk of world soil week makes my eyes roll. For the last hundred years, we have been exhorting people to ‘save soils.’ Over that time, the only soils that were saved were those saved on accident. As soils disappeared and crop prices fell, marginal land could no longer be farmed profitably and was therefore blessedly ignored. In this way, soil conservation resembles problems like poverty, homelessness, addiction, abuse, war, problems that seem devilishly persistent despite all our exhorting. Soil science has something to say about how to exhort more effectively. But, unlike most problems, there is a product that you can buy right now that would almost completely absolve you of all responsibility for at least this one travesty of the modern world.

Soil Science Says That Two Practices Degrade Soil

First we have to understand the two practices that, almost by themselves, make soil degradation a thing. Number one, tillage, the act of ‘plowing’ a field. Number two, the application of synthetic fertilizer. Tillage uproots erosion preventing plant roots and sets soil microbes where they bake in the sun. Tillage is probably the single largest drain on biodiversity globally. As for synthetic nitrogen, you need rubber gloves when applying it because it burns your skin. Imagine what it does to the skin of an earthworm, skin so porous the worm breathes through it.

There are many other places where you can learn about how these practices degrade soil. In this blog, as always, I want to focus on why those practices degrade soil. The simple answer is that these practices have no evolutionary analog over the last several hundred million years. If dinosaurs had pulled plows over the soil for their whole existence, soil organisms would have evolved ways of living anywhere in the soil profile and plants would have figured out a way to hold onto valuable soil despite the plowing. If anhydrous ammonia had rained out of the sky for the past three hundred million years, earth worms would have evolved a different way to breathe. None of those things happened, therefore tillage and synthetic nitrogen degrade soils, purely because they are novel.

Grass-fed Meat and Milk Dispense with Tillage and Fertilizer

This makes me think of two things. One, for my money, if the meat and milk that you buy is both grassfed and organic, then you can wash your hands of any responsibility for this threat to civilization. Tillage and fertilizer are mostly used to grow the grains that feed our livestock*. Grass-fed organic systems dispense with tillage and Nitrogen fertilizer and as such are more in-line with the evolutionary history of every organism in that savanna system, whether above ground or below ground. Every organism, including the quintessential savanna organism, humans.

That is where soil science can save civilization twice. It offers a model for how to interact with the rest of the problems that come from agriculture, problems too numerous to count. Tillage creates biodiversity loss that is easy to see; it destroys so many organisms on the surface. But tillage also creates a whole universe of effects for soil organisms that are less apparent to us humans.

Agriculture degrades people no less, and its effects follow a similar pattern. Agriculture caused our ancestors to work, live, and relate differently. Those consequences are readily apparent. But all these consequences have repercussions that we could call ‘subterranean.’ To take one example, agriculture forces people to do work they did not evolve to do. This forced labor has damaged our lives and our world more than I can communicate.

I am a rancher and petty philosopher and so I don’t know what to do about war and abuse. But I suspect that the solutions to those problems will only come from understanding agriculture, our species greatest trauma. Another way that we are tied to soil biota.

*though I suppose I will have to address ethanol at some point.

[Editing note: In light of the fires in Ventura County over the last forty eight hours I am rethinking how I want to proceed with the discussion about fire and the tools used to mitigate its effects. In its place I am inserting this piece in honor of world soil week and will talk about how to disperse tillage and fertilizer.]


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