Topsoil and civilization

A book review in last week’s The Economist reminded me of the book Topsoil and Civilization by Tom Dale and Vernon Gill Carter and published in 1955.  These guys attempted to analyze the entire field of world history from the point of view of man’s relation to productive soil.

Their conclusion was that all previous civilizations have risen on virgin topsoil and have declined when the topsoil was depleted.  Their book was a plea for soil conservation in the United States because they feared to same was happening in North America.

This is a very  interesting book with what is probably a serious warning which we should heed.  It also points out a fundamental of economics that  to have civilization we need a surplus from primary producers..

You can get an electronic copy for free from The Soil and Health Library based in Australia.

This book was published 57 years ago and it appears history has proven them wrong.  It could also be “not yet.”

We have lived through the golden years of prosperity during which we put huge amounts of oil energy and technology into the topsoil.  Have these permanently restored the topsoil to its prime condition?  Also some parts of the world that depleted the topsoil have been able to exploit other energy and mineral resources untouched by earlier civilizations.

I urge you to read this book and then ask: Are we exempt?  Are things different this time?

Following are some quotes from Chapter one.

Civilized man was nearly always able to become master of his environment temporarily. 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.

Let us put it this way: civilization is a condition
of mankind coacting with an environment in such a way that progress results. Regardless
of the forces that stimulate cultural progress, both civilization and the enjoyment
of civilization rest on a surplus production by those who supply the necessities
of life. By surplus production, we mean a surplus above the actual needs of the primary
producers. A surplus production of food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities
by farmers, herders, fishers, loggers, miners, hunters, trappers, and other primary
producers is necessary before civilization can start. Furthermore, such surplus production
must continue on a relatively stable basis if civilization is to keep advancing.
The primary producers must supply a surplus before artisans, designers, engineers,
scientists, philosophers, writers, artists, and other civilizers can exist and function.
Few people ever advanced civilization while they had to produce their own food, clothing,
and shelter directly from the earth.

A common error has been to consider these resources
as static. The proponents of the standard formula, “capital plus labor plus
raw materials plus management multiplied by technology equals production,” have
nearly always considered raw materials as a constant. But they are not constant.
Soil fertility, usable water, forests, grasslands, beneficial wildlife, and other
resources have not remained a fixed item in any region. They have decreased in most
areas occupied by civilized man. In many of the older countries they have almost
disappeared. And with their decrease has nearly always come a decline in civilization.


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