Dirt: truly the ground of our being

Will the loss of food-growing soil become part of a 'perfect storm' that destroys world civilization? UW scientist David Montgomery talks about a basic in providing sustainable lives and lifestyles.

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Skagit Valley field

Will the loss of food-growing soil become part of a 'perfect storm' that destroys world civilization? UW scientist David Montgomery talks about a basic in providing sustainable lives and lifestyles.

The Perfect Storm, by Sebastian Junger, revolved around the theme that once in a while Mother Nature conspires to produce a random set of circumstances so deadly that violent storms result. After a movie by the same name popularized the theme, "the perfect storm" found a place in the American lexicon. It described how the right combination of events could coincide to create monumental damage.

Through the ages there have been other tales about events that could have been perfect storms. The Bible described Armageddon, a place where a set of circumstances would put an end to life on earth. Whether it be written in the New Testament, the predictions of Nostradamus, or legends attributed to Mayan glyphs that forecast when life would be ending on earth, there has been speculation about how various disastrous environmental scenarios would play out.

Most folks take the legends with a grain of salt or believe a perfect storm is an invention of the movie industry. But when University of Washington scientist David Montgomery wrote a book called Dirt, its message made readers begin to think a perfect storm might actually be possible.

Why would a book called Dirt attract so much attention? After all, dirt is just the stuff we expect our vacuum cleaner to pick up and our food to grow in.

The book's success was helped by a huge thumbs-up by the respected newsmagazine The Economist, along with other less familiar science review publications like the Geotimes, Nature, Bioscience, and New Scientist magazines. No one was more surprised than the author that his book was finding readers.

Montgomery is a UW professor of geomorphology, a branch of geology whose research papers aren't written for a popular audience. His entire career has been about reading obscure historical manuscripts and gathering data and soil samples from sites around the world. His motivation was basic research, not a book for public consumption. But Montgomery can write exceptionally well. He has a knack of combining history with data to support conclusions that will surprise you page after page.

The mystery revealed in the book is the rather amazing connection between the loss of dirt and the reasons why some ancient civilizations and cities no longer exist. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (2007) is a highly documented history of how previous civilizations used the land to grow food for survival. The book covers centuries of time and cultures all over the planet. Recorded history affirms that there were civilizations that declined, if not disappeared, due in part to misuse of the land to grow food.

Al Gore's film, which also fits into the 'perfect storm' genre, imagined global warming as the cause of worldwide disaster. He painted a picture that polar ice caps would melt, causing the oceans to rise. Food wouldn't grow because the scorching sun would dry up fresh water, and entire ecosystems would vanish forever. The idea that the future of the earth was in jeopardy was reinforced by growing numbers of scientists and governments worldwide. Yes, we had a problem and could now measure changes in the earth's ecosystems, and those changes were accelerating.

But Gore is no scientist, and his reputation for reliability was affected by dangling chads and rumors that he claimed to have invented the internet. Montgomery, on the other hand, is a highly accredited researcher who brings into focus history which we have chosen to forget.

For many years scientists have been trying get the public and governments to better understand that the earth has a finite amount of everything. Including dirt. Lewis and Clark reported back to Thomas Jefferson that their journey revealed abundance beyond comprehension. Early settlers and land barons saw the land as an endless supply of timber, fish, oil, water, and soil for raising food. We couldn't conceive that we could actually run out of anything, especially the soil where our food grows. As a result we consumed with voracious appetite and often with greed. The earth's soil was considered expendable if money was to be made.

Dirt shows beyond question that the soil that grows the food of the world is rapidly disappearing and has been for centuries. Dirt is overused, washed away, blown away, or covered by the built environment. River valleys that contain our most fertile soils are where we are building warehouses, shopping centers, and massive housing units. Locally, Benaroya saw the cheap land in the Kent valley as the best place for South Center and industrial sites. The fact that small truck farms occupied this fertile land that fed Seattle wasn't, at the time, a significant issue.

To the uninformed the earth appears endlessly bountiful, but unfortunately only a small portion is fertile enough to grow food, and that's where we are destroying the most fertile soil. It is happening at this very moment in the Skagit and Puyallup valleys. The inability to grow food near the highest concentration of people was often a major contributor to an older civilization's decline.

Growing food requires water and the accumulated nutrients of mineral and biological processes. Large corporate farms mechanize cultivation and make heavy use of chemical fertilizers to increase food production. Yields increase, but current analysis suggests that corporate farming isn't sustainable over the long haul unless changes are made. The population is now growing more rapidly than the rate at which we can grow food. Artificially grown foods via hydroponics and other new techniques will help, but will still require necessary nutrients and can never reach the scale necessary to feed the third world.

Combined with soil loss and global warming, the third leg of the perfect storm is the exponential growth in world population. now approaching 7 billion. Montgomery is smart enough not to attempt to predict the future. He notes that 100-year predictions are seldom correct. Hervé Le Bras and Thomas Malthus tried and were wrong. Nor are 50-year predictions much better, but newer statistics on the number of births and longer life spans due to better medicine leave us with some serious questions.

With the world population growing by approximately 80 million each year, our current use of land and resources suggests that our standard of living may not be sustainable. It's not just because of global warming, or the buildup of CO2, or the declining amount of potable water, or a finite amount of oil. It's because the world population by most estimates will increase by another billion by 2050.

At that point human beings will require 70% more food worldwide than we now produce. By the time our population reaches 14 billion, even if every environmental policy now under consideration were in use, supplies of food, water, fuel, and natural resources will be nearly gone. Unless major changes are made in population control and in how we use the earth, a child born today might, theoretically, see mass starvation by the end of the century.

There are those who believe that global warming is a myth and that the world population will never reach these numbers. If true, we have nothing to worry about. But the movement of millions of the world's population from rural areas into the cities for jobs to make tennis shoes and new electronic games has meant that those same people would no longer grow their own food in those rural areas.

Similar migrations have occurred in the U.S. Cities demand that food be shipped to them. At some point in time the cost of fuel to ship from greater distances will eventually either cut the supply of food to dense cities or become so expensive only the affluent can afford the price. Relatively little of the food sold in Seattle's major food chains is grown locally.

In parts of the world today, many people are starving. Some estimates place the number at near 1 billion now. What will happen in two more decades when millions more will demand food? Corporations and the politicians they elect have suggested that science itself will solve the problem. There is little question that science and corporate solutions can slow global warming and maybe the loss of fertile soil, but will it be soon enough? The thoughtful scientists of the world may well be skeptical.

Science fiction writers, too, have imagined the potential of the perfect storm, in which our current population of almost 7 billion will double at a time when fertile soils have been lost and global warming will have made huge portions of our earth uninhabitable.

Highly informed political leadership will be required to examine vesting legislation and development rules in order to prevent the further paving and building on fertile soil. It will take political action to educate farmers into better farming practices, but just as important will be examining whether the theory of concentrating so many dependent people in cities with no means to feed themselves is sustainable. With nearby farms lost, cities depend on food, water, fuel, etc. to be shipped from longer and longer distances just to survive.

A growing movement supports the concept that p-patches and roof gardens and more sustainable living are the answer. But hard science and the reality of past behavior suggest that although these ideas will be very useful for those with the energy and commitment to invest the time, the larger population as a whole may not be able to provide the calories that will meet their nutritional requirements. Montgomery suggests owner-occupied smaller farms closer to big cities, using newer no-till farming and natural fertilizer, as part of a sustainable future. It is thought-provoking to recall that Thomas Jefferson envisioned an American culture of small rural towns that could sustain themselves, like his own experiments at Monticello.

Will the cities of today eventually become unsustainable or too expensive to live in? While Montgomery won't predict the future, his research does make it clear that we apparently haven't learned much from history. He leaves us to draw our own conclusions, but he does say that we must find ways to grow food much closer to where it is consumed. In any case, it isn't rocket science, You can't grow food on concrete.

Will we, at some point, make the connection that we are tiptoeing around the perfect storm? Is there an apocalypse in the making? Will the combination of the three factors of global warming, poor land use that destroys tillable land, and a population explosion result in our inability to feed ourselves? Will it ever be understood that everything on earth has limits, a finite capacity?

There are more questions now than answers, but it's hard to believe that we can continue on the same path we have been taking. To quote Montgomery, "Many factors may contribute to ending a civilization, but an adequate supply of fertile soil is necessary to sustain one.

"As odd as it may sound, civilization's survival depends on treating soil as an investment, as a valuable inheritance rather than a commodity — as something other than dirt." 


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