Comment: Peak Soil: Does civilization have a future?

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First there was Peak Oil, the idea that there’s only so much oil out there and we may have reached or even passed a turning point in global oil production. In his 2007 book “Peak Everything,” author Richard Heinberg said it’s not just fossil fuels: Everything from population to food production to freshwater availability has its own point of no return.

So that must include Peak Soil. Of all the assorted peaks that loom over our future, Peak Soil has to be the most important. We are no longer hunter-gatherers. Cultivating the soil is the basis of the human food supply, and the very foundation of civilized society. Without it, civilization could not survive.

Agriculture is contingent on natural geological goods, such as soil, and services, including water, weathering and nutrient cycles. These cycles, together with the cycle of erosion, are responsible for the origin and development of soil in the first place. Paradoxically, they are also responsible for soil’s ultimate degradation and destruction. Unfortunately for farmers, agriculture has a tendency to reinforce the destructive aspects, especially erosion.

The inherent fertility of soil used to be an important factor in food production. Now it’s more or less irrelevant. Modern industrial agriculture now depends on the use of high inputs of nonrenewable resources, particularly oil, gas and fertilizer raw materials, to keep crops growing. Our future is so heavily mortgaged to the exploitation of such agricultural inputs that we have overshot the ability of the planet to support us in a sustainable way. The World Wildlife Fund estimates the overshoot at about 25 percent. In other words, modern society is living off global principal. Anybody with a bank account knows that living off principal rather than just the interest is an unsustainable option.

Farming has produced a scar ("anthrobleme") on the planet: We have imparted some measure of damage to about two-thirds of the world’s arable soils. But this didn’t start in modern times. The Neolithic Revolution — that is, the start of farming and our agricultural experiment with the biosphere — began just over 10,000 years ago. We have been degrading soils at an average rate of about 55,000 hectares per year ever since, according to research by David Pimentel, an agricultural ecologist at Cornell University. This rate of degradation appears to be between one and two orders of magnitude faster than the average rate at which soils form — a recipe for unsustainability. Thus, 10,000 years ago, there was more soil than there is now: Peak Soil happened at least 10 millennia ago.

Agriculture leaves an ecological footprint on the world's soils
Ward Chesworth, 2008

Agriculture is by its very nature destructive, and modern industrial agriculture acts like an army waging war on the soil. Even where careful techniques of husbandry are employed under the best of intentions, the inexorable path of a farmer’s digging is toward the degeneration and even the destruction of soil. It’s no more than the second law of thermodynamics in action. It is a system that has been flawed since the beginning.

In the 21st century we continue to slide down the nether slope of Peak Soil. By 2050, the planet may have another 3 billion or 4 billion people to support and the slope can only get steeper. Can we feed 10 billion or more? Probably, but only if we still have the help of oil and gas, which have allowed industrial agriculture to take over throughout most of the Western world. The problem is that by that time, we will likely have fallen so far down Peak Oil that it will cost more than a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil. That’s not a system that will continue to work.

Obviously, if we are to sustain the type of human society we call civilized, two things will be required: a smaller human population and sustainable agriculture not dependent on fossil fuels. Sadly, I’m not optimistic about either of these things happening. Regarding the first requirement, there are strong social forces — popes and ayatollahs among them — that work to ensure we keep making babies. And if social strictures falter, our Darwinian hard-wiring to eat, survive and reproduce will probably kick in and keep our numbers unsustainably high.

As for the second requirement, we talk a good game, especially in academia, but the fact is that in spite of our big brains, a sustainable system of farming has eluded us for 10,000 years. The problem is, when the fashion is to couple sustainability with development, it will be impossible ever to achieve true sustainability. Nonetheless, sustainable agriculture would undoubtedly be a good thing, if we could find a way to achieve it.

Ecologist William Rees, inventor of the concept of the ecological footprint, has said that “sustainability is the greatest collective exercise the human race will ever have to undertake.” I’d say that it’s either the greatest collective exercise or the last forlorn hope.

Ward Chesworth
Thursday, April 15, 2010 - 13:30