The Asia Institute Seminar

The Fight to preserve our soil and our future: “Culture is our greatest asset”

 

December 20, 2012

 

With David Montgomery

Professor

Department of Earth and Space Sciences

University of Washington

Professor Montgomery, professor of geomorphology and topography at University of Washington and recipient of the MacArthur fellowship, has researched the impact of soil and water on civilizations over the last several thousand years. He has uncovered disturbing long-term implications of our current use of land that should cause everyone to stop and think. His book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations has garnered international attention for its succinct description of the value and fragility of soil, and argues that soil should be considered as a geostrategic resource. Once soil is gone, he suggests, it cannot be easily replaced, and the rate of the increase in the demand for food in the coming century will force us to consider the sustainability of agriculture to our lives.

Emanuel Pastreich

Why is it that desertification and the loss of soil does not get the attention it deserves at high-level discussions concerning the environment?

David Montgomery

Well, desertification does tend to be the forgotten issue. If we look at the areas of the world that are most venerable to climate change, there are three that immediately come to mind. One is coastal regions that are immediately impacted by rising sea levels. The second is the boreal regions where the frozen tundra that is now heating up and profoundly effecting the environment. That trend, combined with the melting of the icecaps will have deep implications for our climate. Both of these trends have received substantial attention. The third is the semi-arid regions around the world that get less attention but have the broadest impact for human settlements. Semi-arid regions are quite sensitive to climate shifts and also to even small changes in land management. Misuse can result in desertification. Vegetation is essential to maintaining the ecosystems in semi-arid regions. Overgrazing and poor land use, especially when combined with climate change, can be extremely threatening to the ecosystem.

Emanuel Pastreich

So how should we understand the relationship between CO2 emissions and simple misuse of land when it comes to desertification? Are increasing deserts a result of CO2 emissions, or a result of poor farming, overgrazing and cutting down trees?

David Montgomery

The answer depends on which region you are talking about and during which period. As I explain in my book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, during a drought in the 1970s satellites picked up a remarkable little postage stamp square of green in the midst of the parched land of the Sahel. When people followed up on the ground, it turned out that there was simply a barbed wire fence that blocked of that area and that meant there could be no overgrazing in that territory. So we can see that climate is a problem, but those areas with better land use can better respond to the climate shift. The question is one of resilience and also of multiple stresses.

Let us look at the American dustbowl. The problem in the Midwest during the 1930s was not that there was a drought. There had been dozens of droughts before. The problem was that over time the misuse of land for agriculture had fundamentally altered so that the soil was not protected. Today, the real danger is the confluence of how we misuse land and make it less resilient with unprecedented climatic shifts. That issue will become more serious as a result of systematic climate change.

Emanuel Pastreich

But today’s climate change goes beyond the Dust Bowl. Of course that was quite serious, but now experts are anticipating climatic change that is not so easily reversed.

David Montgomery

In the Sahel in the 1970s, or the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, we were facing periodic climatic changes that could be undone in a relatively short period of time. We are facing now the prospect of fundamental shifts in the climate that may last for centuries. In such a case, what was previously periodic will become regular, that can be a game changer. The earth itself is not worried about this problem. The earth will eventually get over people. The question is how many people will be around to enjoy that moment.

I tend to frame desertification in this manner: the areas that are suffering from the threat of desertification today serve as the canary in the global coal mine in terms of soil. Where we see deserts expanding we see a warning about things to come.

Why is that the case? Well those areas are already dry and they have marginal vegetation. Semi-arid lands are most vulnerable and they are the places where the forecasted shifts in climate will have the biggest impact. If you take a place like Seattle and you reduce the rainfall by a few inches a year and raise the temperature by one degree, you will still have evergreen forests. But if you take an arid grass region and reduce the rain by a few inches a year, it already was not getting that much rain. The decline in vegetation, the erosion by wind and the resulting depletion of the soil is what we mean by desertification. But I would like to stress that we are seeing soil degradation around the world, but we see the manifestations most clearly in these vulnerable regions.

Emanuel Pastreich

So will we see developments similar to what we observe in these semi-arid regions even in places that we consider quite secure?

David Montgomery

We need to make an essential distinction here. Desertification refers to landscape degradation because of soil abuse as mediated by climate. The semi-arid grasslands of the world are the most vulnerable to such a state. But any region of the world is vulnerable to long-term soil loss. The marginal lands where we see desertification are the vanguard for a global trend of soil loss. We can expect different symptoms in different places. The most common result of soil loss is declining crop yields. But the result will not be deserts in all cases. Places like Seattle are unlikely to become deserts, although agricultural productivity may decline significantly. The central issue in climate change is alterations in the intensity of processes like droughts within climate zones, and semi-arid zones are first in line to be hammered.

Emanuel Pastreich

What about the state of agriculture in the United States?

David Montgomery

The Southwest is projected to become even hotter and dryer. That is an unfortunate, but expected result of climate change.

But the most worrisome trend is the Midwest. The Midwest was originally the grasslands and woodlands of North America and has been transformed through human effort into the breadbasket for the nation, and the world. This is a region that we should be concerned about how we will maintain intense agriculture for the next hundred years. This problem will be quite serious for everyone, knowing or not, who depends on the Midwest for food. And if overuse depletes the aquifers of the Western regions that provide for the whole region, the results will likely be catastrophic.

Emanuel Pastreich

So the crisis of soil, or of water, cannot be measured in days or months, but it is critical. Why is it so hard for us to think in long time frames? How can we get back to thinking about security in terms of decades or centuries?

David Montgomery

That is the trillion dollar question. This problem we can identify in one society after another throughout history. Native Americans argue that we should think about our actions in terms of their implications for the seventh generation after us. That sounds about right. Of course I like to think in a longer timeframe as a geologist, but there is not much meaning in thinking too far out.

So what led us to think in such a short-term time frame? Biologically, humans are very good at short-term problem solving. That is what homo sapiens excels at and that ability has served us well. But now we are the dominant species on the planet so we have to shift our prospective; we must consider long-term issues.

We must face the fact that sometimes those choices that are good for individuals come at the detriment of society over the long term. That is a fundamental tension for our species. How do you get people to do things that do not necessarily optimize their short term returns, but are crucial for maintaining society over the long-term?

Emanuel Pastreich

Is not commodity culture, which we have so dangerously confused with individualism and freedom, one of the greatest threats in this respect.

David Montgomery

I can’t help but endorse that perspective. Think about the global impact of all the things that we use up on the environment, if we take the most severe manifestations of modern commodity culture and imagine that spreading to emerging consumers, essentially everyone in the world, we are going to use up everything in a couple of generations. That is not speculation. That is straightforward math.

Emanuel Pastreich

So what can we do at this point?

David Montgomery

How do you get people to think long term? The answer has to lie with culture. There is no other option. But that task, changing human culture, is so daunting that many just give up.

We can be certain we are not going to change the physical structure of the earth and the laws which govern it. If you look at the history of our evolution as a species, you can see that the most malleable aspect of us is our culture. We have a rich diversity of cultures. If we took people from 10,000 years ago and gave them a shave, a bath and a haircut, then dressed them up in modern clothing, you would not detect any physical difference. We have not evolved much in terms of our morphology and our physiology. But culturally we are completely different. Culture is our greatest asset. We have managed, through small changes over a long period of time to create a global culture that is literally consuming the world. Just look at the problem of soil erosion. The choice is stark: either we will find a way to modify our culture in such a way as to allow us to exist, or we will fail.

Emanuel Pastreich

We will learn, but the question is whether we will do so in the midst of apocalyptic change, or whether we can make changes before then.

David Montgomery

Yes, the big question is what it will take to make us wake up.

Emanuel Pastreich

Large regions of the Middle East have become deserts over the last few thousand years. Can you describe what happened and what lessons we can learn?

David Montgomery

Well some places like Saudi Arabia have been desert for a long time. But Iraq, the former Mesopotamia and the birthplace of culture, is the true tragedy. That region was called Eden in the Book of Genesis. But it does not look like an oasis today.

The agricultural transformation started in Biblical times. The mountains were cleared, the valleys were developed for agriculture and the region was farmed intensely for thousands of years. As a result that productive estuary and floodplain ecosystem became extremely productive farmland, but over time the soil gradually salinized as a result of hydrologic problems the farmers did not understand. The key factor was people. Lebanon followed a similar path, but through soil erosion.

Emanuel Pastreich

Is what happened then parallel to what we see now in Northern China or in the Midwest of the United States?

David Montgomery

I think the parallels are striking. The advantage of looking at what happened in the Middle East is that we can learn about the long-term consequences of our actions. Lebanon is an example of what the consequences of deforestation can be and Mesopotamia of what intensive agriculture lead to.

The practices that resulted in disaster back then are essentially the same as what we are doing now, but this time we are doing it on a larger scale. It is hard to argue on a day-to-day basis that this is a crisis. But these slow changes do tremendous damage. Consider the hills of Lebanon that were praised in the Bible. The hills are now denuded and there is no soil left. The Lebanese would be delighted if they still had the forests that were cut down to send wood to Egypt to build the pharaoh’s barges.

Is that the future we would want to wish on future generations?

Emanuel Pastreich

There are those who think that these problems can be solved through the use of new technologies like biotechnology. What do you think?

David Montgomery

From my understanding of the research in the ecological and biological sciences, you simply cannot build a new ecosystem from scratch in the laboratory. We only now are starting to appreciate the complex interdependencies that make up ecosystems. And we cannot engineer our way out of a fundamental problem like not having soil. In terms of the energy required, it will not work. Of course, if someone invented a completely clean, cheap energy source it could change everything. But do not have any sign that such an energy miracle is coming.

Emanuel Pastreich

Is there a chance that we will be able to manufacture topsoil in a factory?

David Montgomery

Leonardo da Vinci once said, ““We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” He had it exactly right.

Emanuel Pastreich

That is a great line.

David Montgomery

We still understand so little about soil. My wife and I are writing a book right now about the complex nature of soil and its connections to the ecosystem. In the book we put forth some ideas about how to bring the soil back, but the answers are not technological answers.

Emanuel Pastreich

To some degree the question is what the word “technology” means. That word is misunderstood. We need to say both that high tech will not solve the problem, but at the same time we need to expand the meaning of the term “technology” to cover a wider range of skills and practices.

David Montgomery

Maybe we should say “applied human cleverness.” We are clever and we can keep coming up with innovations and responses to the problems. We need understand that technologies that work with nature, rather than against nature, are going to be more successful in the long run. Many of those “technologies” are quite old.

Emanuel Pastreich

You identify soil as a “geostrategic resource” in your book. Why is it that we are having so much trouble identifying the issue of soil as “security?” Why do we spend more than a trillion dollars on security but so little on issues like soil loss?

David Montgomery

That question is at the center of the problem. The United States seems to have the priorities of “security” inverted. I can offer you two partial explanations as to why that happened in the United States. I do not claim to have a full explanation.

To start out, we are addicted to oil as a nation, and a lot of that oil comes from other places. The simple geopolitical reality of trying to ensure a steady supply of that critical material can shape the entire discussion of what security means. Oil becomes the geostrategic resource, not soil or water.

The other challenge is American culture itself. We Americans have not thought much about soil as a limited resource. In part we do not think about this matter because of our short history and the assumption in our early years that there was unlimited land available for exploitation. If you were to ask the Lebanese about soil, now at a later point in that history of agricultural exploitation, they might well have a different perspective.

If you have a lot of resources, and the United States is well endowed, you get complacent. If we look at the global distribution for mollisols, the best topsoil, the Midwest has an overwhelming amount and the United States is overrepresented with much of the best agricultural land in the world.

When you have abundance of a resource, you do not think of that as something to protect. But the entire world should view that soil as a global trust, for the benefit of humanity—to feed future generations around the world.

Emanuel Pastreich

As Albert Einstein once said, “You pay the most for the things you get for free.”

David Montgomery

Einstein summed the problem up quite perfectly in that line.

Emanuel Pastreich

Dr. Franklin H. King  of the University of Wisconsin published the book Farmers of forty Centuries in 1911 . The book was based on Dr. King’s 1907 visit to Asia. Most Westerners at the time saw China, Japan and Korea as old nations in decline. But King saw how systematic and complete the sustainable farming practice in Asia was and praised it as a model for the world.

David Montgomery

Many of those traditional practices worked quite well. We need to bring much of the wisdom embodied in those ancient practices into the modern world.

Emanuel Pastreich

So in that process, I imagine we need to use the tools of modern science to confirm what works in those traditional practices.

David Montgomery

Yes, we need a certain degree of fusion. I am not saying we can just go back to medieval practices, but we need to get at the essence of why some ancient practices worked over the long run. We need to update traditional knowledge and technologies to help achieve our long-term goals.

Emanuel Pastreich

What is your feeling about trade and its relationship to agricultural security? What is the proper balance of trade?

David Montgomery

The issue of trade is quite complex.  But if you think about the issue of food and energy, one of the best things we can do is to re-localize food production. At the same time we must recognize that not every part of the world can grow everything. There must be regional specialties. Trade is a way to broaden and enhance our quality of life and as such it should continue, but we must have a system that will work long into the future.

But if we run farms in the developing world in an intense manner that diminishes the future potential of the land, and we ship that food out as a commodity crop, we are sacrificing the future of the people who have not been born yet in those countries. The responsibility is heavy. That is the big challenge of this century: how do we set up, in this globalized world, a system that encourages and allows trade and communication between people around the world, but does not short change anyone in particular. This part of globalization is still a work in progress. We are certainly not there yet.