Review of: Topsoil and Civilization by Vernon Gill Carter and Tom Dale. University of Oklahoma Press Revised Edition, 1974.
This book deals with the most important problem which man has had to face since the Neolithic Revolution, and the one which has attracted the least attention: soil erosion. It tells the tragic tale of how succeeding urban civilizations have systematically deprived their land of its topsoil by deforestation, over-cropping and over-grazing with armies of sheep and goats; how they waged an unequal struggle against the silt accumulating in their waterways, their harbours and their irrigation canals, and how once the land was deprived of its fertility they moved away to greener pastures.
Carter and Dale relate how, in this manner, the inhabited areas of the world have been and are being transformed into deserts.
The historical records of the last six thousand years show that civilized man “. . . was never able to continue a progressive civilization in one locality for more than thirty to seventy generations (800 – 2,000 years).” There are three notable exceptions:—the Nile Valley, Mesopotamia, and the valley of the Indus. The average life span of civilizations was forty to sixty generations (1,000 to 1,500 years).
“In most cases, however, the more brilliant the civilization, the shorter was its progressive existence. These civilizations declined in the same geographical areas that had nurtured them, mainly because man himself despoiled or ruined the environments that helped him to develop his civilizations.”
The civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley lasted a bit longer as conditions were more favourable. Nevertheless, today, where there were once the various cities of Sumeria and Babylon, Ninevah, Mohenjo, Daro and Harappa, there are now deserts. Egypt was the most fortunate, since every year the Nile flooded and spread out over the adjoining land vast quantities of silt brought down from the highlands of Ethiopia.
The greatest tragedy of all, however, is that we have not learnt from the experience of the past. Modern agriculture is incredibly destructive and the modern world is losing its topsoil at a terrifying rate.
What does the future hold in store for the United States which is fast becoming the granary of the world?
According to the 1970 Year Book of Agriculture, almost two thirds of the U.S.’s present arable and privately-owned grazing land, and more than three fifths of private forest and woodland, needs conservation treatment.
According to Carter and Dale, fifty million acres of arable land are eroding at a “highly accelerated rate”. Within twenty five years they will have been lost to agriculture. Another fifty million acres will have been taken over for urban uses. This represents a quarter of America’s agricultural potential. How does one react to these terrifying facts?
If one considers that by that time, the population of the U.S. will have increased by fifty per cent, it doesn’t appear that there will be very much grain available for export. This is particularly serious since seventy-five per cent of the world’s grain imports at present come from the U.S. It is indeed frightening to consider that our leaders still have no qualms in allowing us to remain dependent, for our sustenance, on imported food supplies.
If one looks a little further, a hundred years or so, then the U.S. will be in the same situation as all other previous civilizations once they had completely wiped out their topsoil. They will have to seek greener pastures elsewhere. This time, however, they will have to rely on NASA to locate them, and on a miracle to provide them with fuel to transport them there.
This is an excellent book, it is the first I have come across which really describes the impact of early civilizations on the environment; thus it fulfils a much felt need and should certainly be read by everyone concerned with the problems we deal with in this journal.
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