This review of Topsoil and Civilization, a book by Tom Dale and Vernon Gill Carter, is the first review of three I will post about books focusing on the effect of soil erosion on societal collapse through history.
Reviewed Here: Topsoil and Civilization By Tom Dale and Vernon Gill Carter Published by University of Oklahoma Press in 1955 (2nd edition published in 1974)
One experience common to many of the books I read and the discourses in which I participate is that they tend to downplay, distort, or ignore agricultural history. Or at least, the history that occurred before 1900. I have noticed that these distortions often create a false dichotomy between today's degenerative farming practices and our forebears' flawless ones. Or at least, I've had a vague sense that this has been the case. Not having read much agricultural history, I have found it difficult to grapple with others' claims about how it used to be.
With the three books I will review in this series, starting with Topsoil and Civilization, my grasp of agricultural history has improved significantly. All three of take the entire history of world agriculture as a focus, with particular attention paid to the relationship between soil erosion and the collapse of just about every once-thriving civilization in the last six thousand years. Each makes the case that our current civilization differs from past ones only in the increasingly destructive capacity of our farming technologies, and the lack of any more virgin land to exploit. Yet each book is unique in its treatment of the subject, which is why I want to review each one in turn.
Topsoil and Civilizations, by Tom Dale and Vernon Gill Carter, was published in 1955 with a second edition issued in 1974. They begin the book with a reference to the natural order of things before the earliest agricultural settlements:
"The laws of 'natural selection' forced practically all plants and animals to support the soil-building process. No species of plant could long survive on sloping hillsides unless it helped check soil erosion...If a species of plant or animals did evolve that tended to destroy the soil, it usually destroyed itself instead by destroying its primary source of food."
What follows is an exhaustive survey of how just about every once-thriving agricultural society in history has violated this law of ecology, collapsed as a result, and left behind devastated soils that require hundreds or thousands of years unmolested to regenerate. As historians, the pair carefully stress that many other factors contributed to the rise and fall of civilizations, but that productive agricultural land producing a surplus of food is the only absolute one. War or Pestilence can easily bring down a Civilization in a given locality, but if the land is still productive, another takes its place. None remains, however, once the soil's productive capacity is destroyed.
Dale and Carter take us around the world as they demonstrate a unerring pattern: societies become increasingly complex as agricultural advances free more and more people from the obligation to farm. Population grows with food supply, forcing the use of increasingly steep and marginal land for farming purposes. Degradation rapidly advances as sloping territory is deforested and later denuded by erosion. Runoff clogs once complex irrigation systems; food supply dwindles, weakening the society's ability to combat environmental destruction. Inevitably, societal collapse ensues. From start to finish, civilizations lasted, on average, 1000 to 1500 years.
The survey is so thorough that it tested my patience at times. The authors leave no field unplowed, taking their readers around the world to examine how one civilization after another has taken its soil for granted, and collapsed. Extenuating circumstances among civilizations such as climate or topography tended only to affect length of supremacy before an inevitable demise. The central thesis is fascinating, but the middle third of the book becomes a lecture your parents have given you a hundred times.
I found myself most interested in the authors' survey of the post-Roman agriculture of Western Europe, which, by way of a combination of climactic factors, isolation from previous land abuse, conservative farming practices such as crop rotation and fallowing, and the advent of private property, leads them to ponder whether it was the only example of a--potentially--sustainable agriculture. They conclude that a sustainable agriculture, and thus, civilization, is possible, but only if society is able to introduce significant agricultural reforms. The authors do not end their book with a prophecy, though there is one apparent throughout.
At this point I should mention that I read the 1955 edition of this book. The 1974 edition no doubt allowed Dale and Carter to reflect more effectively on the effects of recent agriculture on a modern civilization that has relied heavily on the last virgin soils that the planet has to offer.
Topsoil and Civilization is a fascinating, well researched look at our species' terrible record of soil conservation throughout history. Of the three books reviewed in this series, it is the most comprehensive in its survey of civilizations and the agriculture they practiced. It also makes for dry reading, and the 1955 edition that I read contains little analysis of modern agriculture. But I enjoyed it all the same, and it makes a good complement to the other two books I will review in this series.
Next up: Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David R. Montgomery.