Fritz Thyssen Helped Finance the Nazi Party
Later Thyssen Renounces the Party and Flees to Argentina
Mar 7, 2010 Kathy Warnes
. - German Archives
Fritz Thyssen helped finance the Nazi Party. - German Archives
As he fled to Switzerland when World War II began, Fritz Thyssen said "the Nazi
regime has ruined German industry." Some historians doubt his sincerity and his
For a time, German industrialist Fritz Thyssen thought that Nazism was the wave
of the future, and he was one of the earliest and largest contributors to ride
the Nazi party wave. He and many other German businessmen and industrialists
believed that if the Nazis destroyed organized labor that would enable
entrepreneurs to practice unregulated free enterprise and the German nation
would prosper. By 1939, the eve of the Second World War, Fritz Thyssen belatedly
recognized the Nazi threat to the survival of Germany. He suffered
disillusionment, imprisonment and prosecution for his errors in judgment. Later
he said, "What a fool (dummkofp) I was!"
A Profitable Family Business
Fritz's father, August Thyssen, headed up the Thyssen mining and steelmaking
company that his father, Friedrich Thyssen had founded. The city of Essen in the
Ruhr served as company headquarters and by the eve of World War One, the company
employed 50,000 workers and produced one million tons of iron and steel yearly.
August expected his son Fritz to follow in the founding father's footsteps, so
he sent Fritz to London and Berlin to study mining and metallurgy. After Fritz
served in the German Army for a short time, he went full time into the family
business. In 1900, Fritz married Amelie Zurhelle, the daughter of a factory
owner and their only child Anita was born in 1909. Fritz once again joined the
German Army in 1914, but was discharged with a lung condition.
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Fritz Thyssen Meets Adolf Hitler and Joins the Nazi Party
Fritz matured into a political conservative and a German nationalist. In 1923,
he met former General Erich Ludendorff who urged him to attend a Nazi Party
meeting that featured a speech by Adolf Hitler. Hitler's speech and his bitter
opposition to the Treaty of Versailles impressed Fritz, and he began to donate
large sums of money to the Nazi Party.
The Thyssen companies continued to expand through the 1920s, and when August
died in 1926, Fritz took over the family business. In 1928, he formed the United
Steelworks which controlled more than 75 percent of Germany's iron ore reserves
and employed 200,000 people. He shaped German commercial life as the head of the
German Iron and Steel Industry Association and the Reich Association of German
Industry, and as a board member of the Reichsbank. He donated 650,000 Reichmarks
primarily to the Nazi party, although he didn't join it until 1933.
Fellow industrialist Emil Kirdorf negotiated with Fritz Thyssen between
1930-1933 for more funding for the Nazi party. Thyssen arranged a 250,000 marks
credit at a subsidiary of the August Thyssen Bank of Germany. Fritz's father had
founded the bank in Rotterdam, Holland, and this Thyssen personal banking
operation also had affiliations with the W.A. Harriman financial interests in
New York. He also persuaded the Association of German Industrialists to donate
three million Reichmarks to the Nazi Party for the March 1933 Reichstag
election. The Nazi's rewarded him by electing him a Nazi member of the Reichstag
and appointing him to the Council of the State of Prussia, the largest German
Fritz Has Second Thoughts About the Nazis
As the Nazis gained control of Germany, Fritz Thyssen began to give them a
careful second look. He had welcomed their suppression of the Communists, the
Social Democrats and the trade unions, but he disliked Nazi violence and he
recoiled from their political murders. He went along with the Nazis when they
excluded Jews from German business and professional life, and he dismissed his
Jewish employees. He didn't share Hitler's violent anti-Semitism and objected to
the Nazi repression of the Catholic Church.
* Why Did Adolf Hitler and the Nazis Persecute Jehovah's Witnesses?
* Adolf Hitler, The Rise of Nazi Germany in Europe
* World War One and the Coming of the Next War
According to Thyssen, he reached his breaking point in November 1938, with the
Nazi pogrom called Kristallnacht, where Jewish businesses and synagogues were
burned and Jews were beaten and killed. He resigned from the Council of State
and by 1939, he bitterly criticized the Nazi economic policies that focused on
rearmament and war.
After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Fritz Thyssen sent Hermann Goering a
telegram saying that he opposed the war and he left for Switzerland with his
family. The Nazis expelled him from their party and the Reichstag, and they
briefly nationalized his company. Later they returned it to other members of his
Fritz is Imprisoned and Denazified
TheThyssens moved to France as a prelude to immigrating to Argentina, but they
were caught up in the German occupation of France. The Germans arrested Fritz
and took him back to Germany. First they confined him in a sanatorium near
Berlin, and then in Sachsenhausen concentration camp as an "honorable prisoner."
In February 1945, he was sent to Dachau concentration camp and he survived until
the Allied forces liberated him in May of 1945. Shortly after his liberation, he
was rearrested and in 1948, the Obertaunus Denazification Tribunal tried him for
being a supporter of the Nazi Party.
Fritz Thyssen did not deny that he had been a Nazi supporter until 1938, and he
accepted responsibility for his companies' mistreatment of Jewish employees in
the 1930s. He denied involvement in the employment of slave labor during the
war. Thyssen agreed to pay 500,000 Deutschemarks compensation to those who
suffered because of his actions, and he was acquitted of other charges. In
January 1950, he and his wife immigrated to Argentina. He died in Buenos Aires
on February 8, 1951.
In 1959 Thyssen's widow Amelie Thyssen and daughter Anita Zichy-Thyssen
established the Fritz Thyssen Foundation to advance science and the humanities.
Organizing Control: August Thyssen and the Construction of German Corporate
Management, Jeffrey R. Fear, Harvard University Press, 2005.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, William L.
Shirer, Simon & Schuster, 1990.
Read more at Suite101: Fritz Thyssen Helped Finance the Nazi Party: Later
Thyssen Renounces the Party and Flees to Argentina
FINAL EMPIRE: Part 1: THE HISTORY OF DISINTEGRATION
CHAPTER 1: PATTERN OF THE CRISIS
Collapse on the Periphery
Individual empires have suffered cyclical collapse since civilization
began. The Babylonian, Greek and Roman empires are classical examples.
These civilized empires initially expanded, funded by their base of
arable land, grazing areas and forests. As they reached out,
conquering new lands and peoples, their growth was fueled by slave
labor and appropriated resources. Their growth continued until the
ecological base of the empire was exhausted. At that point, the
empires imploded. Sumeria and Babylonia stripped their lands through
overgrazing and deforestation. This brought down huge amounts of
erosion material that threatened the irrigation works. They also
inexorably salinized their soil by irrigation. Early on, in the
history of the Greek Empire, Plato complained of the ecological
devastation in the area of Attica. By the end of that empire the
ecology of the whole of Greece was severely injured. Both the Greek
and Roman empires used North Africa as a "breadbasket" and by the
close of the Roman Empire it was ecologically destroyed along with
much of the rest of the Roman territories.
Though the standard political and social histories of these empires do
not stress an ecological view, there is certainly no question that at
the end of their cycles these empires had little ecological energy
Anywhere the culture of empire (a.k.a., civilization) has spread one
finds devastated ecologies. The life is literally "rubbed out," the
original life is gone. Much of the living flesh of the planet does not
now exist in those places. But, we know that it did exist. The life in
those areas has suffered a die-back. The forests are gone, the topsoil
is depleted and the land is eroded. The richness of the land has been
used up. The wealth of the earth's life has been spent by the
extortion of empire.
Empires implode. They collapse from within. This is beginning now on
the edges of world civilization where the ecology has been stripped,
the population is exploding and the resultant social turmoil insures
further decline. These implosions of the colonies will eventually
become general throughout the cultural system.
Islands such as Madagascar, the Canaries, the islands of the
Caribbean, many south sea islands and others have been ecologically
stripped. In areas like Peru, whole mountainsides fall off because of
the ecological devastation caused by deforestation and hillside
farming. In Brazil's Northeast, the coastal rain forest and the
fertile areas further inland have been replaced by desert. In some
areas of the former fertile southern interior of Brazil, coffee
plantations have reduced the land to such eroded conditions that cows
cannot even graze it for fear that they will fall into the canyons
created by soil erosion. In Central Asia, many bodies of water such as
the Azov, Caspian, Black Sea and Baikal are severely injured. The
supply of caviar there has almost ceased because the waters are so
polluted that the fish die. In Tibet where the Chinese Empire has
invaded, devastation is spreading as trees are cut, steep areas are
plowed and mines are begun.
The story of the brief empire of Venice is instructive as to how the
ecological base of empire injures the earth and how the culture of
empire uses up the life of the earth to generate its ephemeral power.
By the end of the fifteenth century the City of Venice was emerging as
a sea-power. Venice traded all the way from the eastern Mediterranean
to England. Galley ships were the power behind the merchant fleet. The
oar-powered galleys ultimately depended upon slave labor. They were
fast and could navigate where sailing ships could not. The whole
arrangement was based on wood for ships, and in turn depended upon
forests, which in the beginning were abundant near Venice. As the
power of Venice was coming to an end, the City was obtaining ships in
Barcelona built with lumber from the forests of northern Spain and
finally from the Baltic region of northern Europe, which had not yet
been stripped. By this time there were no forests anywhere in the
Mediterranean that could fund a sea-faring empire.
This phenomenon of implosion is occurring now in the present World
Empire. The country of Bangladesh shows us one type of implosion. In
the distant past the whole of the area was populated by
forager/hunters such as those threatened tribes who live now in the
Bangladeshi hills. As the waves of empire culture came, first with the
Indo-Aryans thousands of years ago, the life of the area was
progressively degraded. Bengal as it was formerly called, was
conquered by the English early in the colonial period. Prior to the
conquest it had been a fertile and self-sufficient area. When the
English moved in they began to put heavy pressure on the organic
fertility. They established the plantation system and mined the
agricultural land to ship valuables to the "mother country." Later, in
the Twentieth Century when England was severed from its colonies on
the Indian subcontinent, the region became part of Pakistan and
finally an independent country. In the later years, Bangladesh has
suffered flooding, a constant population explosion and periodic drought.
Bangladesh is located on the delta of the Ganges River that drains the
Himalayan range. With the Chinese now stripping Tibet, floods and
erosion material race down out of central Tibet borne by the
Bramaputra River that joins the Ganges and comes through countries
that are being stripped along the southern tier of the range: Bhutan,
India and in particular Nepal. Because the forests are being stripped,
the land no longer can absorb water and the floods grow larger. The
State of India's Environment: 1982, a report by non-governmental
groups, states: "From Kashmir (far west) to Assam (far east) the story
is the same. Below 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) there are literally no
forests left. In the middle Himalayan belt, which rises to an average
height of 3,000 meters (9,800 feet), the forest area, originally
estimated at being a third of the total area, has reduced to a mere
6-8 per cent."1
A global environmental study, Gaia: An Atlas Of Planet Management,
says that the erosion is so bad that an island of five million
hectares (12,355,000 acres) of erosion material is beginning to
surface in the Bay of Bengal. "Around one-quarter of a million tonnes
(255,325 U.S. tons) of topsoil are washed off the deforested mountain
slopes of Nepal each year, and a further sizable amount from the
Himalayan foothills in India's sector of the Ganges catchment zone."
The study notes that the countries of India and Bangladesh are geared
up to contest possession of the island when it surfaces.2
Due to the periodic catastrophes of flood and drought the society of
Bangladesh is beginning to disintegrate into a low-level warlord
society where even the central government cannot exert control much
distance from the capital city. One effort that the government is
making to alleviate its population crush is an attempt to settle a
relatively small "hill country" area with lowlanders. These hill areas
contain remnant tribes of non-civilized people. The Bangladesh
government has warred against these people for some years, attacking
them with modern armies and rounding up the survivors into
concentration camps. As the lowlanders invade into the vacuum, they
level the forest and attempt to raise crops.
On the lowlands, a large share of the population lives in the delta.
Here the impoverished people fight each other for small plots of land.
As the floods come and go, the islands and marshes change continually.
As the above-water areas dry out following a flood, the people rush in
to claim small plots on which they attempt to grow food before the
next flood or drought.
The combination of exploding population and ecologically based
disasters is causing the society to disintegrate. This process which
began years back in Bangladesh is one of the effects that we can
expect to see in the years ahead in other parts of civilization.
Writer Mohiuddin Alamgir, researching his report, Famine in South
Asia; Political Economy of Mass Starvation, asked villagers in
Bangladesh during a famine in 1974, about the reasons why people were
dying around them. He found that the villagers had only a vague notion
about the true cause. The villagers could see that people were dying
of disease and that they had various symptoms but few villagers could
see or admit that people were starving. The villagers were in a
weakened condition, which allowed them to die of the first disease
that came around. Death was the end result of the steady social
deterioration that they had experienced. "Once people ran out of
resources to buy food grains, they sold or mortgaged land, sold cattle
and agricultural implements, sold household utensils and other
valuables (such as ornaments), and, finally their homesteads," says
When there is nothing left and people are starving, they leave and
wander aimlessly about the country of Bangladesh. Many of the uprooted
households that Alamgir studied had begun to disintegrate, with
members of the same household wandering off in different directions
toward separate areas of the country. Deserted children, deserted
wives, deserted husbands and deserted elders are becoming commonplace.
Bangladesh society has gone over the brink. The centralized control by
the wealthy elite and the military has broken down. The population is
destined to continue as a wandering, increasingly hungry mass until,
sometime in the future, all coherent human society and culture dies
and human cooperation and optimistic effort disintegrates. It is this
condition, as shown by Bangladesh, which is the ultimate end of a
culture that eats up its survival systems.
We need keep in mind that forager/hunter populations lived in
stability in this area for hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions
of years because they did not destroy that which sustained them.
Alamgir states that after previous famines in Bangladesh, the society
returned to near normal social relationships, but he reports:
"Both separation of families and desertion represent a breakdown of
the system of security provided by family and kinship ties under
traditional social bonds. This is, of course, not unique in the 1974
Bangladesh famine, as reference to erosion of social ties can be found
in almost all preceding famines. However, two points should be noted:
First, a slow process of disintegration of traditional ties had
already set in and famine only accelerated it. Second, manifestations
of breakdown of kinship and family bonds were reversible in the past
in the sense that old relationships were restored through the normal
process of post famine societal adjustment. This is no longer true in
the Bangladesh scenario today where such processes seem to be
irreversible, which is reflected in the rate of permanent destitution."4
The horn of Africa region where the country of Ethiopia is located
represents another example of implosion. Ethiopia is hit with periodic
drought. If the region were in its primordial climax ecological
condition the droughts would likely have minimal impact but like
Bangladesh, the region's ecology is so ravaged that any perturbation
of climate becomes a disaster and the human created situation is
called an "act of God."
Ethiopia originally had a stable population of forager/hunter people
but it became one of the "cradles of civilization." The life of
Ethiopia is now almost gone. Almost all of Ethiopia is high,
mountainous country with good rainfall, but there is little vegetative
life left. The ancient empires were nourished on it and the vitality
has evaporated. It is estimated that three quarters of the country was
originally forested yet at present only four percent of the country
has forest. One study estimates that the volume of live trees now, is
800 million cubic meters and then goes on to say that the annual fuel
wood consumption is 20 million cubic meters and rising rapidly.5 Even
if the remaining forests were only used to heat houses and cook food
they would not last long.
Despite having one of the highest death rates in the world, the
country's population continues to rise. One would think it would
decline but unlike our former forager/hunter culture, which sought to
keep their population within the carrying capacity of the environment,
people of the culture of empire do not. The people of civilization
have many motives, other than simply lack of awareness that propels
population growth. One important reason is that civilized people work
at exploiting the land and the more hands the more production.
Agrarians, for example, traditionally have large families to help with
farm work and hard times call for more hands to force the land to
produce more. There is also motive for large families so that one will
be cared for in old age. There is the motive of the pride of the
patriarch in large families. Though there are a number of basic
motives, there is a functional reason also why population is not
responsive immediately to food supply. If there is a famine or
drought, the children already born will have children. Demographers
say that population responsiveness has a time lag of seventy years to
social/environmental events and even this responsiveness is only a
momentary blip on the over-all graph line of exponential growth.
One researcher highlights the continued drama of destruction in
Ethiopia partially attributed to population growth:
"A dramatic alteration in environmental quality has been visible
within a single lifetime in the hills surrounding Addis Ababa. When
the capital was founded in 1883 by the Emperor Memelik II, it was
still surrounded by remnants of rich cedar forests and reasonably
clear streams. Deforestation and erosion were immediately spurred by
the influx of humans. In the ensuing nine decades, virtually all the
available land in the region has been cultivated, while charcoal
producers cut trees within a 160-kilometer radius for sale in the
city. Now the waters of the nearby Awash River and its tributaries are
thick with mud, and waterways are shifting their courses more markedly
and frequently than in the past."6
Addis Ababa sits in the high mountains of central Ethiopia. It is near
the headwaters of the Awash River. From Addis Ababa, the river courses
northeast into a rapidly widening valley that eventually reaches the
coast at Djibouti on the Red Sea. UN researchers expect the whole
Awash Basin to soon become rocky desert; but the eye of civilization
sees only war, ideology and revolution. The problem is ecological but
the cultural attention and media-focus emphasize war. As civilization
fixates on war and violence in Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia, in the
Horn of Africa, the life of the earth dwindles in that area and
starvation spreads. Although the destruction of the life of the earth
is caused by civilization, civilized society is unable to see its own
problem because the organic life of the earth is below its threshold
El Salvador, in Central America, is another country that is imploding
on the periphery of the Empire of Civilization. The Spanish Empire
invaded the area that is now El Salvador early in the sixteenth
century. They immediately began to enslave the stable and sustainable
cultures of the region as factors of imperial production. At that
time, the western two-thirds of the country was inhabited by a Nahuatl
speaking culture. The Nahuatl language group includes Aztec, Hopi and
Ute. In the eastern one-third of the country, across the Lenca River
lived the tribes named Lenca, Jinca, Pokomám, Chortí and Matagalpa.
There are now some half-million "invisible" Indians in El Salvador, in
a country of five million. They are invisible because they have been
forced to abandon their native dress and language. The first census
from the years 1769-1798 listed 83,010 Indians in a population of
161,035. Initially, the native people of the lowlands were enslaved
into the Spanish estates. These original estates exported cacao and
balsam. By the end of that century, indigo plantations were spreading
out further into the last Indian communal lands in the higher
elevations. Soon cattle ranching moved into the northern tier of the
country and masses of Indian people, who were not among the indentured
workers, were wandering through the area in a detribalized condition.
The native people's habitat had been destroyed. Inasmuch as their
cultural knowledge and skills were related to the living world, the
native people became powerless and dependent upon the invading
culture. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, coffee began to be
the major export crop and this agriculture with its need for the last
available higher elevation land, began to finish the remaining
communal Indian lands as well as their forest habitat. By 1930, coffee
was more than ninety percent of El Salvador's exports.7
In 1932, in the midst of the world depression, Indians in the
highlands around Sonsonate revolted against both the imperial
conquerors and their latino subjects, the mestizos. The army of the
oligarchy was unleashed against the unarmed Indians. The virulent
anti-Indian racism of "latinos" was also unleashed as they, also,
began to participate. By the time the massacres were over, somewhere
variously estimated at between 15,000 and 50,000 children, women and
men had been murdered and the native land base was occupied by the
The story of El Salvador is of native tribes who lived stably with
their habitat, the forests and other ecosystems of the isthmus. The
events since that time have been created by the far different culture
of empire, which invaded, to extort valuables from the area. The
pattern displayed has been consistent since empire culture began. The
industrial revolution and markets have added a few new wrinkles. The
pattern is that of a small powerful elite taking land and labor from
the colony for free or at very low price. The extorted valuables are
then exported in exchange for currency that supports the elite of the
colony who, in return, keep the native populations in control. This is
the classic picture of third world colonies and is the picture of El
Salvador. This pattern has persisted in El Salvador and is largely the
reason for its environmental destruction. The oligarchy runs the
country on a feudal basis little changed from the days of the
conquistadors. This means that in the pursuit of their profits they
need observe no environmental laws. They may take any land they need,
they may use any type and amount of agricultural chemicals on their
crops and they may dump toxins in any manner that they please. One
group that researches Central America's environmental problems says
that as of 1990, "75 per cent of pesticides exported to Central
America from the U.S. are either banned or severely restricted for use
in the U.S."9 This elimination of the cost of environmental protection
controls makes El Salvador a high-profit enclave for its rulers and
for the transnational corporations located there. They are provided
with an impoverished and cheap labor pool, which is unable to organize
effectively because of military repression and death squads. They do
not have the expense of meeting environmental standards so this gives
them a decided competitive advantage over other countries.
Since the arrival of civilized culture, 95 per cent of the country's
original tropical, deciduous forest has disappeared. Twenty mammal
species and eighteen bird species are gone. Serious soil erosion
affects 77 per cent of the country. Following deforestation,
groundwater is disappearing, sediments are beginning to fill the dams
and stop the hydroelectric supply and the United Nations Food and
Agriculture Organization says the country is undergoing a process of
In the familiar pattern, particularly since World War II, the alliance
between the domestic oligarchy, U.S. aid agencies and transnational
corporations have increased exports which has led to the clearing of
the last viable stands of old-growth ebony, cedar, mahogany and
granadilla trees. Where the country was once food self-sufficient it
now exports cash crops of food items and even flowers to the
industrial countries (for the profit of the oligarchy) and imports food.
The Environmental Project On Central America (EPOCA) says that: "Today
unequal control of resources remains at the root of poverty and
environmental destruction in El Salvador. A small elite, referred to
as the `Fourteen Families,' comprises less than 2 per cent of the
population yet enriches itself from ownership of more than 60 per cent
of the country's arable land. The poorest 20 per cent of the
Salvadoran people own no land and receive only 2 per cent of the
national income." In the countryside, the report says that:
"two-fifths of the population cannot afford a basic diet of corn and
The EPOCA report says that one in ten have access to safe drinking
water. "Look at a body of water in El Salvador and you will see a
reflection of almost every major environmental problem in the country:
pesticide and fertilizer contamination; industrial pollution;
municipal waste and sewage; sedimentation from deforestation and soil
erosion; and waterborne diseases. All the major waterways in El
Salvador are contaminated by raw sewage and a variety of toxic
chemicals, according to a 1982 report by the U.S. Agency for
With the oligarchy occupying the land that an agriculturist would call
"arable," the poor are forced up onto the mountainsides where they use
slash and burn agriculture. Because the people are overcrowded and
there is not enough land, the fallow periods on the slash and burn
plots are too short. This quickly erodes the topsoil and leaves the
mountains denuded of all vegetation except for hardy brush. In 1974
there were 400 people for each square mile of El Salvador. The
population doubling time in El Salvador is now twenty-two years.13
These three countries, Bangladesh, El Salvador and Ethiopia, with
their varying histories and varying types of impact from civilization
characterize the periphery of what we may term the industrial empire.
These are the conquered and colonized resource and labor areas and
their societies are collapsing under the pressure of environmental
degradation, population explosion, and militarism and export
economies. If the oligarchy of El Salvador were to suddenly depart for
Miami, the country would still be in a state of disintegration. The
soil, water and air are poisoned. There are few natural resources left
and importantly for our analysis, the civilized culture of the people
of El Salvador would not be disposed to restore the land mass to the
climax ecosystem, even if that were possible.
This is the beginning of the end for the Final Empire of civilization.
Here we see in these examples that there is little remaining to take
out and the populations are exploding. When two people have five
children and then fifteen years later those five children have five
children the stage is being set for disintegration. As these factors
of soil and ecosystems work themselves out into social turmoil and
breakdown, the reports of the media refer to revolution, economics and
politics. The life of the earth is not within their consciousness.
As the regions on the periphery of the empire implode, the center is
also imploding, though in a qualitatively different way. The most
general statement to make on the system-wide implosion of the
industrial empire has to do also with the cultural consciousness.
Because of the nature of the culture, it lives and profits by
exhausting the life of the earth. Within the cultural bubble we tend
to measure our progress by our wealth. The more pressure that the
farmer puts on the soil, the more the farmer and the banker profit.
The more forests that are cut, the more the timber company and the
employees benefit. What this means is that as the life of the earth is
eradicated, the information feed-back system (bank accounts) reports
that things are getting better and betters. Progress is being made.
This is another major example of how the reality of life is below the
threshold of consciousness and also helps to explain why civilization
cannot extricate itself from the fall toward apocalypse.
As we approach the end of the Final Empire, societies become paralyzed
and disintegrate. There is nothing left with which the society can
regenerate itself. In El Salvador, even the "arable" soils are
exhausted and poisoned because they have been subjected to years of
industrial agriculture with its poisons and artificial fertilizers.
The other side of this grim equation is the population explosion. This
is compounded by the fact that a majority of the population now is
youthful and just beginning to come into their child bearing years.
This means that the already overbearing population has reached a
take-off point and will climb even more steeply.
The life of the earth dies out at varying speeds. So that we do not
lose contact with reality we must look at this. These examples show
swift destruction. It is possible to see the huge erosion canyons in
Ethiopia. It is possible to see the floods of Bangladesh and it is
possible to count the children in hospitals in El Salvador who have
been poisoned with agricultural chemicals.
Although not as dramatic, we must realize that our own backyard is
degraded and poisoned. If any of us walk out of our back door and
look, we will see gross injury to the life of the earth. We may view a
lawn that has been subjected to poisons and artificial fertilizers. At
some point in the history of that small area, toxins may have been
introduced such as motor oil, household cleansers or maybe air drift
or subsoil moisture seepage of some industrial dump. The point is that
if the climax ecosystem is not there then the earth is losing its
life. This is a difficult concept for modern people to deal with
mentally. The statement is that the life of the earth, the climax
ecosystem, must regain balance or the earth will become substantially
dead. The natural state of health and balance of the earth is to be
covered with climax ecosystems or ecosystems closely approximating them.
There are examples in the Mid-East of reg pavements (rock-hard soil)
where forests once stood. The reg pavement is a hard, virtually
impermeable, layer of clays and other dirt that covers wide areas. We
have the example of El Salvador proceeding toward desert status (and
there are other examples in other parts of the world of tropical
forests becoming deserts). With both of these examples we can trace
the historical devolution of these ecosystems and soils, which usually
begin with the cutting of the forest. When we travel about the earth
we don't always realize that where we are seeing a desert now, there
may have been a thriving semi-arid ecosystem. Where there is a
brushwood hillside, there was once a magnificent forest. In those
areas where we now see forest we will soon see deserts.
The life of civilization is only an eye-blink in the eons of time of
the life of the earth. We can see the killing of the life of the earth
in the rapid dramas as well as the long range spirals of descent. As
we continue to examine the condition of our earth we must maintain
contact with reality and realize that everywhere civilization has
spread the earth is hurting, injured and dying. Even if an area is
green with vegetation, it may only be the first aid crew of weeds
struggling to heal the earth and the chances are good that soon the
bulldozers will come to destroy even that, so that the "real estate"
can be "developed."
Collapse From the Center
Our generation is on the verge of the most profound catastrophe the
human species has ever faced. Death threats to the living earth are
coming from all sides. Water, sunlight, air and soil are all
threatened. When Eskimos of the far north begin to experience leukemia
from atomic radiation and Eskimo mothers' milk contains crisis levels
of PCB's, we must recognize that every organism on the planet is
Compounding this crisis is the fact that the prime forces in this
affair, the civilized humans, are unable to completely understand the
problem. The problem is beneath the threshold of consciousness because
humans within civilization (civilization comes from the Latin, civis,
referring to those who live in cities, towns and villages) no longer
have relationship with the living earth. Civilized people's lives are
focused within the social system itself. They do not perceive the
eroding soils and the vanishing forests. These matters do not have the
immediate interest of paychecks. The impulse of civilization in crisis
is to do what it has been doing, but do it more energetically in order
to extricate itself. If soaring population and starvation threaten,
often the impulse is to put more pressure on the agricultural soils
and cut the forests faster.
We face planetary disaster. The destruction of the planetary life
system has been ongoing for thousands of years and is now approaching
the final apocalypse which some of us will see in our own lifetimes.
Far from being a difficult and complex situation it is actually very
simple, if one can understand and accept a few simple and fundamental
The planetary disaster is traced to one simple fact. Civilization is
out of balance with the flow of planetary energy.
The consensus assumption of civilization is that an exponentially
expanding human population with exponentially expanding consumption of
material resources can continue, based on dwindling resources and a
dying ecosystem. This is simply absurd. Nonetheless, civilization
continues on with no memory of its history and no vision of its future.
Possibly the most important source of life on this planet is the thin
film of topsoil. The life of the planet is essentially a closed,
balanced system with elements of sun, water, soil and air as the basic
elements. These elements work in concert to produce life and they
function according to patterns that are based in the laws of physics,
which we refer to as Natural Law.
The soil depth and its richness are a basic standard of health of the
living planet. As a general statement we may say that when soil is
lost, imbalance and injury to the planet's life occurs. In the
geologic time-span of the planet's life, this is a swift progression
toward death. Even if only one per cent of the soil is lost per
thousand years, eventually the planet dies. If one per cent is gained,
then the living wealth, the richness, of the planet increases. The
central fact must be held in mind of how slowly soil builds up. Soil
scientists estimate that three hundred to one thousand years are
required for the build up of each inch of topsoil.
The nourishment of the soil depends upon the photosynthetic production
of the vegetative cover that it carries. There are wide differences in
the Net Photosynthetic Production of many possible vegetative covers.
As a rule it is the climax ecosystem of any particular region of the
earth that is the most productive in translating the energy of the sun
into the growth of plants and in turn into organic debris which
revitalizes the soil.
A climax ecosystem is the Equilibrium State of the "flesh" of the
earth. After a severe forest fire, or to recover from the injury of
clearcut logging, the forest organism slowly heals the wound by
inhabiting the area with a succession of plant communities. Each
succeeding community prepares the area for the next community. In
general terms, an evergreen forest wound will be covered by tough
small plants, popularly called "weeds" and the grasses which hold down
the topsoil and prepare the way for other grasses and woody shrubs to
grow up on the wound. ("Weeds" are the "first aid crew" on open
ground.) As a general rule, the "first aid crew" - the first community
of plants to get in and cover the bare soil and hold it down - is the
more simple plant community with the smallest number of species of
plants, animals, insects, micro-organisms and so forth. As the
succession proceeds, the diversity, the number of species, increases
as does the NPP, until the climax system is reached again, and
equilibrium is established. The system drives toward complexity of
form, maximum ability to translate incoming energy (NPP) and diversity
of energy pathways (food chains and other services that plants and
animals perform for one another). The plants will hold the soil so
that it may be built back up. They will shade the soil to prevent its
oxidation (the heating and drying of soil promotes chemical changes
that cause sterility) and conserve moisture. Each plant takes up
different combinations of nutrients from the soil so that specific
succession communities prepare specific soil nutrients for specific
plant communities that will succeed them. Following the preparation of
the site by these plants, larger plants, alders and other broadleaf
trees will come in and their lives and deaths will further prepare the
micro-climate and soil for the evergreens. These trees function as
"nurse" trees for the final climax community, which will be conifers.
Seedling Douglas Fir for example, cannot grow in sunlight and must
have shade provided by these forerunner communities.
The ecosystems of this earth receive injury from tornado, fire, or
other events and then cycle back to the balanced state, the climax
system. This is similar to the wound on a human arm that first bleeds,
scabs over and then begins to build new replacement skin to reach its
equilibrium state. The climax system then is a basic standard of
health of the living earth, its dynamic equilibrium state. The climax
system is the system that produces the greatest photosynthetic
production. Anything that detracts from this detracts from the health
of the ecosystem.
Climax ecosystems are the most productive because they are the most
diverse. Each organism feeds back some portion of energy to producers
of energy that support it (as well as providing energy to other
pathways) and as these support systems grow, the mass and variety of
green plants and animals increases, taking advantage of every possible
niche. What might be looked at as a whole unitary organ of the
planet's living body- a forest or grassland- experiences increased
health because of its diversity within.
On a large scale, the bioregions and continental soils substantially
support sea life by the wash-off (natural and unnatural) of organic
fertility into aquatic and ocean environments. This is a further
service that these whole ecosystems perform for other whole ecosystems.
A few basic principles of the earth's life in the cosmos have now been
established. Balance is cosmic law. The earth revolves around the sun
in a finely tuned balance. The heat budget of the planet is a finely
tuned balance. If the incoming heat declined, we would freeze or if
the planet did not dissipate heat properly we would burn up. The
climax ecosystem maintains a balance and stability century after
century as the diverse flows of energies constantly move and cycle
within it. In the same manner the human body maintains balance
(homeostasis) while motion of blood, digestion and cell creation, flow
The life of the earth is fundamentally predicated upon the soil. If
there is no soil, there is no life, as we know it. (Some
micro-organisms and some other forms might still exist). Its
vegetative cover maintains the soil and in optimal, balanced health,
this cover is the natural climax ecosystem.
If one can accept these few simple principles then we have established
a basis of communication upon which we may proceed. Anyone who cannot
accept these principles must demonstrate that the world works in some
other way. This must be done quickly because the life of the planet
earth hangs in the balance.
We speak to our basic condition of life on earth. We have heard of
many roads to salvation. We have heard that economic development will
save us, solar heating will save us, technology, the return of Jesus
Christ who will restore the heaven and the earth, the promulgation of
land reform, the recycling of materials, the establishment of
capitalism, communism, socialism, fascism, Muslimism, vegetarianism,
trilateralism, and even the birth of new Aquarian Age, we have been
told, will save us. But the principle of soil says that if the humans
cannot maintain the soil of the planet, they cannot live here. In
1988, the annual soil loss due to erosion was twenty-five billion tons
and rising rapidly. Erosion means that soil moves off the land. An
equally serious injury is that the soil's fertility is exhausted in
place. Soil exhaustion is happening in almost all places where
civilization has spread. This is a literal killing of the planet by
exhausting its fund of organic fertility that supports other
biological life. Fact: since civilization invaded the Great Plains of
North America one-half of the topsoil there has disappeared.
The Record of Empire
The eight thousand year record of crimes against nature committed by
civilization includes assaults on the topsoil of all continents.
Forests, the greatest generators of topsoil, covered roughly one-third
of the earth prior to civilization. By 1975 the forest cover was
one-fourth and by 1980 the forest had shrunk to one-fifth and the
rapidity of forest elimination continues to increase. Indeed, World
Wildlife Fund study released in 1998 states that between 1970 and 1995
the world's forests declined ten percent. This is a loss of forest
cover the size of England and Wales- each year. If the present trends
continue without interruption eighty percent of the vegetation of the
planet will be gone by 2040.
The simple fact is that civilization cannot maintain the soil. Eight
thousand years of its history demonstrate this. Civilization is
murdering the earth. The topsoil is the energy bank that has been
laboriously accumulated over millennia. Much of it is gone and the
remainder is going rapidly.
When civilized "development" of land occurs, the climax system is
stripped, vegetation is greatly simplified or cleared completely and
the NPP plummets. In the tropics, when pasture is created by clearing
forest, two-thirds of the original NPP is eliminated. In the
mid-latitudes one-half the NPP is lost when cropland is created from
previously forested land. The next step is, that humans take much of
even that impaired production off the land in the form of agricultural
products so that not even the full amount of that impaired production
returns to feed the soil.
This points out a simple principle: Human society must have as its
central value, a responsibility to maintain the soil. If we can create
culture that can maintain the soil then there is the possibility of
human culture regaining balance with the life of the earth.
The central problem is that civilization is out of balance with the
life of the earth. The solution to that problem is for human society
to regain balance with the earth.
We are now back to everyone's personal answer concerning how to
respond to the planetary crisis. Most proposals for salvation have
little to do with maintaining the soil. All of these seek to alleviate
the situation without making any uncomfortable change in the core
values or structure of existing society. They only try to "fix" the
symptoms. If we had a society whose core values were to preserve and
aid the earth, then all of the other values of society would flow
consistently from that.
The civilized people believe they have an obligation to bring
primitive and underdeveloped people up to their level. Civilization,
which is about to self-destruct, thinks of itself as the superior
culture that has an obligation to bring others "up" to its level.
Civilization, is a cultural/mental view that believes security is
based on instruments of coercion. The size of this delusion is such
that the combined military expenditure of all the world's governments
in only one year- 1987- were so large that all of the social programs
of the United Nations could be financed for three hundred years by
Looking back at the simple principle which says that humans cannot
live on this planet unless they can maintain the topsoil, demonstrates
the delusion. The delusion of military power does not lead to
security, it leads to death. The civilized denial of the imperative of
maintaining topsoil, and the addictive grasping to the delusion that
security can be provided by weapons of death, is akin to the
hallucination of a alcoholic suffering delirium tremens!
Civilization must come to see that its picture of reality is leading
it to suicide. It lives on topsoil and it is destroying that topsoil.
This is ultimately a self-destructive act.
Here we have the whole of it. The problem is imbalance and the
solution is to regain balance. Here we have the simple principle: if
human actions help to regain balance as judged by the condition of the
ecosystems and the soil beneath them, then we are on the path of
healing the earth. If the theory, plan, project, or whatever cannot be
justified by this standard, then we are back in the delusional system.
We of civilization have lost our way. We are now functioning in a
world of confusion and chaos. We must recognize that the delusional
system of civilization, the mass institutions and our personal lives
function on a self- destructive basis. We live in a culture that is
bleeding the earth to death, and we have been making long range
personal plans and developing careers within it. We strive toward
something that is not to be.
We must try to wake up and regain a vision of reality. We must begin
taking responsibility for our lives and for the soil. This is a tall
order. This will require study and forethought. That is what this book
is about. Humans have never dealt with anything like this before. This
generation is presented with a challenge that in its dimensions is
cosmic. A cosmic question: will tens of millions of years of the
proliferation of life on earth, die back to the microbes? This
challenge presents us with the possibility of supreme tragedy or the
Creating a utopian paradise, a new Garden of Eden is our only hope.
Nothing less will extricate us. We must create the positive,
cooperative culture dedicated to life restoration and then accomplish
that in perpetuity, or we, as a species cannot be on earth.
1 Natural Disasters: Acts of God or Acts of Man? Anders Wijkman &
Lloyd Timberlake. New Society pub. Santa Cruz, Ca. 1988. p.58.
2 Gaia: An Atlas Of Planet Management. Dr. Norman Meyers, General
Editor. Anchor Books. Garden City, New York. 1984. p. 41.
3 Famine In South Asia: Political Economy of Mass Starvation.
Mohiuddin Alamgir. Oelgeschlager, Gunn and Hain Pub. Sweden. 1980. P. 135.
4 ibid., p. 135.
5 Physical Environment & Its Significance For Economic Development
With Special Reference to Ethiopia. Sven Beltrens. C. W. R. Gleerup.
Lund. Sweden. 1971. p. 110.
6 Losing Ground: Environmental Stress and World Food Prospects. Erik
P. Eckholm. W.W. Norton & Co. New York. 1976. p. 94.
7 "The 500,000 Invisible Indians of El Salvador." by Mac Chapin.
Cultural Survival Quarterly. Vol. 13. #3. 1989. pp. 11-14.
8 ibid. p. 14.
9 EPOCA UPDATE. Pressure Mounts To Halt Pesticide Exports. Summer
1990. The Environmental Project on Central America. Earth Island
Institute, 300 Broadway suite 28, San Francisco, CA. 94133. p. 13.
10 El Salvador: Ecology of Conflict. Green Paper #4. The Environmental
Project On Central America. Earth Island Institute, 300 Broadway #28,
San Francisco, Ca. 94133. p. 2.
11 ibid. p.3.
12 ibid. p.3.
13 Margin of Life: Population and Poverty in the Americas. J. Mayone
Stycos. Grossman Pub. New York. 1974.
Losing Ground: Environmental Stress and World Food Prospects. Erik P.
Eckholm. W. W. Norton Co. New York. 1976.
CHAPTER 2: THE END OF CIVILIZATION
If the planet and the human species are to survive we must create
paradise. We must restore the life of the earth. The only way that the
planet can heal itself is for the soils of the earth to be restored
along with the ecosystems that will maintain those soils. To do this,
human culture must undergo transformation from a culture of suicide
and immediate gratification of immature impulses for material goods
into a culture focused on life and wisdom, a culture of paradise.
We must get below the threshold of consciousness of civilization and
examine the real basis of the life of the earth- the soil. All of us
have to struggle to throw off the mind conditioning that we have
received in civilization. Our reality molding would have us believe
that there are environmental problems such as toxic chemicals,
radiation and acid rain. The fact is that our life crisis began with
empire/civilization. The environmental crisis began thousands of years
ago, when the Han Chinese began to destroy the vast forests of China
and when the Indo-Europeans began to overgraze the vegetation and
exhaust the soils of central Asia. For two to three million years
humans lived on the planet in a stable condition; then suddenly with
the cultural inversion to civilization, the earth began to die.
Civilization is the environmental crisis and the loss of topsoil is
our measure of the etiology of the disease.
The materialistic values of civilization teach us that the
accumulation of wealth is progress. The material wealth of
civilization is derived from the death of the earth, the soils, the
forests, the fish stocks, the "free resources" of flora and fauna. The
ultimate end of this is for all of the human species to terminate in
giant parasitical cities of cement and metal while surrounded by
deserts of exhausted soils. The simple polar opposites are the
richness and wealth of the natural life of earth versus the material
wealth of people living out their lives in artificial environments.
In order to accurately assess the planetary condition, the ecological
survey that follows will first focus on the basic reality, the soil.
It will then examine the health of the planetary forests. Then will
follow an examination of the greatest ecological disaster,
agriculture. We will focus on these matters because these are the
basic and enduring damages and unless these are set right, there can
be no recovery. Then the focus will turn to the last phase of
civilization, the destruction caused by industrialization.
Industrialization poses dangers stretching from poisons to planet-wide
imbalances such as the greenhouse effect. Here we will see in detail
how the options are rapidly narrowing for the human family as soil
erosion, overgrazing and deforestation continue their inexorable
spread throughout civilization. In the past few centuries, industrial
society has provided a swift push toward the climax. The seminal
study, The Limits to Growth: Report For The Club Of Rome's Project On
The Predicament of Mankind, shows how the dynamics of industrial
society point us toward the final paroxysm.1
The Limits to Growth study was done in the early 1970's by an
international team of scholars at Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT). The team, which came from many diverse disciplines,
isolated the dynamic and interactive movements of the five basic
factors of industrial society: resources, food per capita, population,
pollution and industrial output per person.
The standard- model computer run of all of these factors show that
industrial society will begin its swift collapse sometime in the
2020's. Here we quote the authors statement concerning the "World
Model Standard Run:"
"The `standard' world model run assumes no major change in the
physical, economic, or social relationships that have historically
governed the development of the world system. All variables plotted
here follow historical values from 1900 to 1970. Food, industrial
output, and population grow exponentially until the rapidly
diminishing resource base forces a slowdown in industrial growth.
Because of natural delays in the system, both population and pollution
continue to increase for some time after the peak of
industrialization. Population growth is finally halted by a rise in
the death rate due to decreased food and medical services."2
The standard extrapolation of the growth curves since the 1900's can
easily be drawn out to the end, though chances are very good that war,
depression, nuclear disaster, or eco-catastrophe will occur sometime
before then. We live in a material civilization. We can count the
barrels of oil, we can count the acres of wheat fields, and we can
count the number of people. All the scholars who created the MIT study
did, was to put all of the numbers from all of the scholarly fields on
computers and extrapolate. The thing the computer cannot do is
anticipate unpredictable breakdowns in the world system.
The scholars did examine the possibilities of averting disaster (which
assumes a very unlikely world society, nimble enough to coordinate a
survival strategy). The scholars programmed the computers so as to
double the estimated resource base, they created a model that assumed
"unlimited" resources, pollution controls, increased agricultural
productivity and "perfect" birth control. None of these or other
aversion strategies could take the world system past 2100.
The reason that the world system cannot go on with unlimited growth is
because each of the five factors is interactive. If we assume
unlimited fuels such as a simple fusion process, this simply drives
the growth curves faster. There is more cheap fuel so the wheels of
industry churn faster and resource exhaustion comes more quickly,
population continues to climb and pollution climbs. If there is more
food production, then population climbs and resources are exhausted
more rapidly. If population is stabilized, resources still continue to
decline and pollution increases because of increased consumption. If
the factors of resources, food, and industrial output grow then
population grows but the resulting pollution creates the negative
feedback of having to maintain cancer hospitals and institutions for
the birth defected and mutations caused by pollution as well as
pollution damage to factors such as farm crops.
Growth had been the fundamental pattern of the culture of civilization
long before Alexander conquered the "known world." The difference now
is that the growth is approaching its outer limits and soon will have
nothing left to feed on. We have come to the final cycle in which
civilization will fall into entropy because it cannot any longer be
sustained. There are no more virgin continents to exploit. There are
few remaining forests to cut down so that new soils can be exploited
and exhausted. In addition to this, the world population is now
counted in the billions. The world has never before known this kind of
exponentially increasing volume of flow and consumption of food,
resources and industrial poisons.
Because of these interactive forces world society is trapped within a
system of cultural assumptions and patterns of behavior from which it
cannot extricate itself. There is no way out. There will be a collapse
of civilization. There is no question that there will be future
famines in the ecologically devastated and desertified region of
Ethiopia with its exploding human population, just as there is no
question that civilization which eats up its resources and poisons the
earth, will collapse. We are examining the process now in order to
gain knowledge, because we are the people who will be attempting to
live through the climax.
An Inheritance of Destruction
Life on earth has a long history. Bacterial microfossils have been
discovered associated with some of the oldest unmetamorphosed rocks,
which are 3.8 billion years old. We know that at least twice in this
history, life has faced ecological catastrophe roughly equal to the
one that we now are in. The first massive die-off was when
cyanobacteria evolved, exhaling oxygen, and poisoned vast numbers of
creatures. The second die-off, 65 million years ago, was the well
known period when dinosaurs became extinct.3 After immense periods of
time in which life proliferated, the human form appeared on earth. The
fossil record, as unearthed in the Oldavi Gorge in Africa by the
archeologist family, the Leakeys, goes back three million years.
According to anthropologists, for that period of time, 99 per cent of
human existence, we have been forager/hunters. Suddenly, and only an
eyeblink in time of approximately ten thousand years, a different
social form irrupted among the humans. This form is the monolithic and
hierarchic social form known as empire. We are now assembling
information on a third cataclysm to face life on earth, the age of
human empire and its final apocalypse.
The culture of empire, which also travels under the euphemism,
civilization, is the cause of the third event. The culture of empire
is characterized by ecological imbalance caused by cities,
centralization, hierarchy, patriarchy, militarism and materialism. We
find aspects of this cultural form among the Aztecs and Mayans of
Meso-America, the Incas of Peru, Certain African kingdoms, the
Egyptian dynasties and a few other locations. The most virulent
strains of this cultural pathology developed in China, the Indus River
valley and in Central Asia among the Indo-Europeans. It is the
inheritance of this cultural form that is destroying the earth.
J. Russell Smith, author of a classic permaculture text, Tree Crops: A
Permanent Agriculture; gives a characteristic picture of the land
occupied by the old Asian empires:
"I stood on the Great Wall of China high on a hill near the borders of
Mongolia. Below me in the valley, standing up square and high, was a
wall that had once surrounded a city. Of the city, only a few mud
houses remained, scarcely enough to lead one's mind back to the time
when people and household industry teemed within the protecting wall.
"The slope below the Great Wall was cut with gullies, some of which
were fifty feet deep. As far as the eye could see were gullies,
gullies, gullies-a gashed and gutted countryside. The little stream
that once ran past the city was now a wide waste of coarse sand and
gravels which the hillside gullies were bringing down faster than the
little stream had been able to carry them away. Hence, the whole
valley, once good farmland, had become a desert of sand and gravel,
alternately wet and dry, always fruitless. It was even more worthless
than the hills. Its sole harvest now is dust; picked up by the bitter
winds of winter that rips across its dry surface in this land of rainy
summers and dry winters.
"Beside me was a tree, one lone tree. That tree was locally famous
because it was the only tree anywhere in that vicinity; yet its
presence proved that once there had been a forest over most of that
land- now treeless and waste."4
At one time nearly half of China was forested. The famous agricultural
scholar, Georg Borgstrom estimates that 670 million acres of China
were once covered.5 This forest, with its complex ecosystem was gone
almost before written history. There is no doubt that it contained
many species that became extinct and of which we will never know. One
major consequence of the denudation of the vegetation of China is that
its major rivers now carry more silt than any other river system in
the world and the stories of the floods in China are as old as the
Indus River Valley
The Indus River valley of western India once hosted an empire. Some
one thousand years before the Chinese began the ecological destruction
of China an empire existed in this area that is dated between 2,500 BC
and 1,500 BC Evidence suggests that this was a forested region with an
ecology that among other things contained elephant, rhinoceros, water
buffalo, tiger, crocodile, bear, goose, lizard and tortoise.
Edward Hyams, in his study, Soil and Civilization; indicates that the
forest was cleared for agriculture, the fuel needed for the firing of
mud bricks and the smelting of metals. This plus soil exhaustion
created the destruction of the ecology and the implosion of the
empire. This means that much of the area of the former empire of the
Indus River valley was forest and it is now semi-arid desert. While
this seems at first like an unlikely change, Hyams points to examples
from Australia where that change has happened in the past hundred
years. He says:
"The present vegetation of Sind is tamarisk and scrub. In not
dissimilar climatic conditions in Australia in our own times, such a
vegetation has sprung up upon soils rendered semi-arid by forest
clearance, by overstocking with cattle, or by soil-fertility `mining'
The Indo-Europeans of Central Asia
Some seven thousand years before the present, the origin culture of
what we now call the Indo-European language group, domesticated wheat
and barley, which were wild plants of the region of the Caucasus
Mountains. They also domesticated sheep and goats. This was the
beginning of the culture of empire in Central Asia. The history of
this culture along with the culture of the Han Chinese leads right
down to the present day.
From Afghanistan, through northern Persia to central Turkey the
mountain areas have been deforested and eroded to the point that they
are now simply bare, arid ranges.7 Grazing, deforestation for
smelting, heating and cooking, and trees removed for agriculture are
the chief culprits that have destroyed the soils and the ecology. The
soils of Central Asia and the Mid-East have gone to the ocean. Massive
erosion of soils on the watersheds of the Tigris-Euphrates river
system was created by at least five thousand years of imperial abuse.
Scholars calculate that the erosion material from this watershed has
filled in the Persian Gulf for one hundred and eighty miles in the
last forty-five hundred years. An area of more than 2,000 square miles
has been filled. Prior to the empires, the Tigris and Euphrates had
separate mouths that emptied into the Persian Gulf.8 Throughout this
region we can see what will be the final stages of the whole of
After the forests are cut and the grasslands overgrazed, plant regimes
from drier environments move in. Spiny and thorny brush move in along
with the hardier, tougher grasses. As the region continues to be razed
for firewood and goat fodder, the harder layers of subsoil are
exposed. Finally, the hard surfaces of desert pavements form. As hard
subsoil and bedrock are reached a moonscape is created from which no
recovery is possible.
The Empires of Greece and Rome
As we follow the denudation of the Mediterranean area, we see that
Greece was well advanced toward ecological destruction early in that
country's imperial career. Many of the wars of conquest were simply to
gain new forests for use in building warships. Author David
Attenborough describes the type of effects caused by the denudation of
the Greek mainland:
"Thermopylae, on the Greek coast, was the site in 480 BC of one of the
most heroic battles in ancient history. A tiny detachment of Greek
soldiers, commanded by the king of Sparta, held a narrow pass between
the sea for three days against a huge Persian army. Today, that pass
no longer exists. The soil from the hills above has been washed down
by the rivers and deposited at the edge of the sea in such quantities
that the pass has been transformed into a wide plain."9
One of the colonies used to gain shipbuilding lumber was Ephesus on
the western coast of Turkey. By the fourth century, BC the harbor was
so silted because of deforestation and soil abuse in the uplands that
the harbor had to be moved farther along the coast. The new harbor
quickly filled in and the location now is three miles from the
Mediterranean.10 In Italy and Sicily soil destruction has been
epidemic. "The Italian coast from south of Ravenna; north and eastward
almost to Trieste has been extending itself into the Adriatic Sea for
at least twenty centuries," one scholar reports. The city of Ravenna,
once on the coastline is now six miles inland.11
The impact of the successive empires on the "breadbasket" of North
Africa has been to destroy it. Both Greece and Rome used the luxuriant
North Africa as a mainstay of empire. Finally the Arab, Ottoman Turks
and other minor empires destroyed the last shreds of the ecology. At
one time six hundred colonial cities stretched from Egypt to Morocco
and the area provided Rome with two-thirds of its wheat budget. Now
much of the area is barren, eroded and can hardly support goats.12
It is no accident that now the diet of these former empires is based
on goats, grapes and olives. This is ecological poverty food. As these
cultures have destroyed their lands, the plants and animals that
remain such as goats, grapes and olives are ones that can subsist on
denuded and dry soils.
This brief review of the original areas of civilization can help us
visualize what the earth will eventually look like in most areas where
that human culture has spread. But, because of our massive modern
population and technology, the destruction that took place over
thousands of years is now being accomplished in very brief time spans.
The ecological destruction has not stopped even now, but in the
present continues on, headed for bedrock.
1. The Limits to Growth: A Report For The Club Of Rome's Project On
The Predicament Of Mankind. Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows,
Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens III. New American Library. New
2. ibid. p. 129.
3. 1990 Catalog of Seeds. A.M. Kapular, PhD. Peace Seeds, A Planetary
Gene Pool Resource and Service. 2385 SE Thompson St., Corvallis,
Oregon 97333. P.1.
4. Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture. J. Russell Smith. Devin-Adair
Co., Old Greenwich. 1977. P.3.
5. The Hungry Planet: The Modern World at the Edge of Famine. Georg
Borgstrom. Collier Books. New York. 1972. P. 106.
6. Soil and Civilization. Edward Hyams. Harper & Row. New York. 1976.
7. ibid. pp. 55-64.
Man and the Mediterranean Forest: A History of Resource Depletion. J.
V. Thirgood. Academic Press. New York. 1981. P. 62.
Losing Ground: Environmental Stress and World Food Prospects. Erik P.
Eckholm. W. W. Norton & Co. New York. 1976. P. 94.
8. Man's Role In Changing The Face Of The Earth. William L. Thomas,
Jr., Ed. U of Chicago Press. Chicago, Ill. Vol. 2. P. 510.
9. The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man. David
Attenborough. Little, Brown & Co. Boston. 1987. P. 169.
10. ibid. p. 118.
11. Thomas, op. cit. P. 511.
12. Attenborough, op. cit. P. 116.
The Final Empire: Part Two: THE COLLAPSE OF THE ECOSYSTEM
CHAPTER 3: SOIL: THE BASIS OF LIFE
The Organic Rights
All beings of the earth, from microbes to elephants exist in a web of
organic energy flows. Everything in the material world is food and
everything is excrement. Everything is part of the energy flow. Even
edges of tectonic plates slide down into the magma, which is then
spouted out of volcanoes. When the flow of energy comes from the sun
to be consumed by the plant, this begins a succession of energy
transformations called the food chain. Beings eat each other. This
flow of solar energy undergoes many transformations. In addition to
these connections in the food chain there are many more energy
connections that are of a cooperative and contributory nature. Beings
provide many services for one another that have nothing to do with
eating each other. Bees pollinate flowers, birds transport and deposit
seeds. Fungi combine with the root hairs of plants and the ensemble
generates food for both plants and fungi that otherwise neither would
be able to absorb. Each being, because it lives according to its
nature, contributes to the smooth functioning of the whole.
There are beings such as elephants, tigers, humans and others whose
consciousness is such that the intellectual function is well developed
but the organic memory is not highly developed such as it is in
animals like the earthworm or frog. Earthworms and frogs do not need
to be taught what they are, their identity, they simply know what
their nature is. The elephant, tiger or human, on the other hand have
to be taught their culture by their parents or clan. This is shown by
the fact that these animals, if raised in captivity and turned loose
in their natural habitat, will starve, because they have not learned
their culture. Many civilized people have starved in the midst of
abundant food that native people utilize with ease. These beings,
deprived of knowledge, do not know their organic identity.
For two to three million year's humans lived in clans and tribes as
forager/hunters. In that culture we learned our personal identity
within the clan and we learned that we had an organic identity as one
among many beings of the earth. We learned of the other beings and
their habits of life. We learned of life and the conditions for the
growth of life.
This organic right, to know who and what we are and that we are
located within a web of living energies must be a birthright of all
humans. The earthworm conducts its life and contributes its excrement
to help create the valuable humus of the soil. The bird visits one
oasis in the desert and then transports seeds to another oasis. All
beings must act responsibly and do their part for the world to
function. For life to persist they must act according to their
natures. For a being such as the human who can be so constructive or
destructive this is important, important for the continuance of the
human species so that they do not ignorantly destroy that which feeds
them. All beings of earth have a vital interest in humans knowing
their organic place in nature, because when humans do not know, they
become organic psychotics and wantonly destroy other beings.
If the human species intends to exist in perpetuity, children must be
provided with these organic rights. Most people in civilization grow
up in boxes. Artificial environments and designer landscapes are most
children's' formative, environmental experience. Even farm children do
not have a sense of the beauty and complexity of a completely natural
and unaltered environment. In order to give the human species a chance
of survival, all children should have a right to the organic knowledge
that they are an integral part of the life of earth. They need this
knowledge in order to make rudimentary ethical and survival decisions.
Children should at least be taught fully what soil is. Soil is the
foundation of life of the planet, only the uninformed think of it as
dirt, they pave it over, they dump poisons on it and they strip the
vegetation so that the soil runs away without even realizing what they
Children should be told that soil must receive sustenance. This
factor, the decline of the soil's food, applies to all of the land
mass where civilization exists, not just farm fields but ballparks,
golf courses, wetlands that are drained, houses, yards, pastures and
any other place that has had the climax ecosystem removed. Anytime
biomass is removed from the land in the form of cattle, logs, corn,
vegetables or even grass clippings; the soil is deprived of that
amount of feed.
Because civilized people do not know what they are, they talk
politics, religion, and science and pursue material wealth while the
basis of their life on earth, the soil, slips away beneath their feet.
Soil is the gut of the earth, the principal digestive organ of
planetary life. Soil is partially composed of rock chips, clay, sand,
minerals and organic detritus, but it is also an interdependent living
community of micro-organisms, insects, worms, small animals, reptiles
and other organisms (even some birds) which live in, contribute to and
feed on components of the soil. Like the bacterial community in the
human gut that predigests the human food, the soil is a living
community of organisms which produces the necessary conditions for the
plant communities to exist. The excrement of the gut community feeds
the human, and the excrement of the soil community feeds the
vegetative community, which lives on the soil. Plants do not absorb
earth. Plants absorb nutrients that are in solution in the soil
moisture. These nutrient solutions are the result of many energy
transformations as they pass through a number of organisms.
The creation of soil begins with an inert and infertile subsoil of
clay, sand, rock chips and rocks. When the first pioneer or "first
aid" plant germinates it begins to thrust its roots down into the hard
compacted earth. It pumps moisture and minerals up from the earth to
its stems and leaves. It drops its leaves and stems on the surface.
The decomposers, small insects and microbes that live in the soil, eat
the organic material that the plant has dropped.
The organic material, by covering the raw earth begins to shade it
from the evaporative and oxidizing effect of direct sunlight. Moisture
retention improves the habitat for small creatures that burrow,
opening up the earth to more moisture and to oxygen that will allow
more microorganisms to exist.
Porousness and organic build-up on and in the soil help increase the
soil's fertility. The organic material on the surface feeds the soil
community and other beings eat primary soil ingredients such as rock
chips, roots and other micro beings, both dead and alive. As roots die
and leave micro tunnels and as earthworms and others create tunnels,
passageways are created for the infiltration of water and oxygen, two
vital needs of the soil community. As the soil increases its fertility
it becomes more porous, it retains more moisture and the temperature
extremes are moderated.
As the soil builds, the richness and diversity of the habitat
increases. More varieties of beings can find niches in the web of
life. As the soil is opened up a succession of plants follow the
pioneer species and find it easier to get their roots down into the
soil. Bill Mollison, in his definitive work on Permaculture,
Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, says of the living component in a
typical soil: "50 per cent is fungi, 20 per cent is bacteria, 20 per
cent yeast, algae, and protozoan, and only 10 per cent the larger
fauna such as earthworms, nematodes, arthropods and mollusk fauna (the
micro-and macro-fauna), and their larvae." He adds that, "Such classes
of organisms are found in soils everywhere, in different proportions."1
The activities of the fungi are especially interesting. The body of
the fungus stretches itself through the soil like a giant spider web.
When the time comes for sexual reproduction most varieties of these
fungi thrust up out of the soil, and produce what we call a mushroom.
This is the sexual organ of the underground body. The web strands
underground grow toward the root hairs of plants. As the threads of
the fungi touch the root hair, the cells of the fungi invade the cells
of the plant root. The fungus does not have the ability to translate
solar energy into biomass (photosynthesis) but it can receive foods
from the tree. The tree itself begins to absorb food from the cells of
the fungi. Sir Albert Howard who wrote the historic treatise on
organic agriculture, The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic
Agriculture; explains that:
"Here we have a simple arrangement on the part of Nature by which the
soil material on which these fungi feed can be joined up, as it were,
with the sap of the tree. These fungous threads are very rich in
protein and may contain as much as 10 per cent of organic nitrogen;
this protein is easily digested by the ferments (enzymes) in the cells
of the root; the resulting nitrogen complexes, which are readily
soluble, are then passed into the sap current and so into the green
leaf. An easy passage, as it were, has been provided for food material
to move from soil to plant in the form of proteins and their digestion
products, which latter in due course reach the green leaf. The
marriage of a fertile soil and the tree it nourishes is thus arranged.
Science calls these fungous threads mycelium..., the whole process is
known as the mycorrhizal association. This partnership is universal in
the forest and is general throughout the vegetable kingdom."2
The soil breathes through the sponge-like passages in it. One cause of
air movement is the lunar gravitational attraction. Just as the moon
causes tides, it also pulls on aquifers and soil water. This water
movement exhales and inhales air in the soil. Differentials of high
and low pressure zones in the atmosphere passing overhead also effect
the earth's breathing in the same way. As noted by Mollison, even such
things as the bodies of worms pushing through the tubes, effect earth
As the soil becomes what we might call "mature" or climax, it is
porous; it holds more water and air. As its diversity and richness
increase, the vegetative cover grows richer and more diverse, thus
feeding the soil more. Trees move in. They put out their feeder roots
horizontally in the soil and the taproots deep into the subsoil. From
the subsoil they bring up water that is transpired, improving the
local microclimate. Minerals are also brought up from the deep, which
go into leaf structure and finally end up on the soil surface. When
the trees die, their decaying root systems leave deeper cavities.
Within this enriching soil, the burrowing animals are working,
churning the soil/subsoil, as other plants are growing and dying to
deposit their dead bodies on the surface as food for the community. In
this way the soil circulates toward increased fertility.
Mollison points out the high value of soils by reminding us that the
only place that soils are conserved or increased are: in uncut
forests, in the muck under quiet ponds or lakes, in prairies and
meadows of permanent plants and where we grow plants with mulched or
The general rule of thumb used by ecologists is that three hundred to
one thousand years are required to build one inch of topsoil. This
means that thousands of years of production can easily be wiped out in
The Process of Soil Collapse
Soil injury and death is a severe health problem for the earth.
Natural processes that severely injure or destroy soil over large
areas are rare. They occur in geologic time spans such as the ice
ages, vast climatic changes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the
movement of tectonic plates. On a smaller scale, intense fires,
landslides, or floods can damage local soils. The history of "rapid"
and large-scale soil injury is actually the history of the activities
The process of soil collapse and destruction is essentially the
reverse of soil build-up. When soil builds, it opens up, breathes and
accumulates moisture. More and more niches are provided to expand the
diversity of the soil community. As soil deteriorates these factors
decline and soil degenerates toward a solid clay-like impervious mass
that inhibits life activities.
The soil is in a continuous cycle that must be fed organic detritus
continually. If this cycle is stopped, the primary food of the
community ceases. If the food ceases and the plants continue to feed
on the soil, as in a corn field, the soil will become exhausted. When
cattle graze, they remove essential elements from the cycle. A ton of
beef has depleted the soil of approximately 26 pounds of calcium, 54
pounds of nitrogen, 3 pounds of potassium, 15 pounds of phosphorus and
many other trace elements.
This same situation obtains in a forest where the biomass is hauled
away in the form of logs. Anything that detracts from the circulation
of essential elements injures the soil. Any decline in the climax
vegetation will cause a decline in the health of the soil community
because of the decline of flow in the nutrient cycles.
When a forest is cleared or a prairie is plowed, soil health is
impaired. The first growing season on this land may be highly
productive, but after several years even with manuring and fallow
periods, the soil can function only at a level considerably below its
optimum. Agricultural soils that can be maintained over centuries, are
generally heavy clay soils but even these erode, lose humus and become
compacted. These soils must be maintained with great care to maintain
sustainability at their greatly lowered level of health.
Unless large amounts of organic material are added each year, the soil
will decline, because the soil community continues to feed, consuming
the available organic and the biological nutrients until there is no
more. At this point we have what farmers call "farmed out" land.
On a small piece of land near Willits, California a group of
experimental gardeners called Ecology Action began to build soil on a
hillside that was considered of "intermediate" value for grazing. They
report that it was difficult to get a shovel into the original soil.
After seventeen years of intense work, they have created a soil that
will support luxurious plant growth through a method that they call
"biointensive gardening." To increase soil fertility, they leave
three-quarters of the soil in fallow crops of sunflowers, vetch, fava
beans, wheat and rye. This experiment is deliberately a closed system,
with no organic material being imported for compost (which would
deprive other soils). This experiment gives us a rough standard to
judge how much must be done to keep a soil sustainable and increasing
in fertility. It means that three-quarters of the soil must be planted
with plants that build up the soil while one-quarter are used by
plants that feed on the soil and are then removed.4
A test conducted for 41 years, between 1894 and 1935 by the Ohio
Agricultural Experiment Station at Wooster, Ohio, demonstrates the
soil loss and yield on three sets of experimental plots devoted to
continuous corn cultivation. This test shows the effect on the soil of
"normal" farming methods.
See Table at WWW.RAINBOWBODY.NET/Finalempire/FEchap3.htm or Page 29
"The Final Empire" by William Kotke
(10-5-10 is 10 nitrogen, 5 phosphate and 10-lbs. potassium per l00
lbs. total ingredients)
This study demonstrates that even with manuring, the soil suffers. In
order to complement the nutrient cycle fully; so that the soil does
not become depleted, even larger amounts of organic matter need to be
applied. This is part of the problem of civilized agriculture. Where
does the organic matter come from? In pre-industrial days, fallow
periods were used. Plants were grown on the fields and then plowed
into the soil. Manure from draft animals- cattle, pigs and chickens,
was also applied to the soil. This slowed the depletion of the soil.
Then came the tractor. The draft animal manure was lost. The land that
was used to grow feed for the draft animals was turned to other crops.
Vast fields of corn, wheat, soybeans or other monocrops were put in
and fertilized artificially.
In the above table, the greatest loss of organic matter occurred with
the use of artificial fertilizers. The artificially fertilized soil
lost even more than the plot with no treatment. This happens because
the artificial fertilizers do spur plant growth and this in turn draws
more energy out, thus causing the soil to lose even more organic matter.
This study points out a crucial, but seldom-noticed fact. Everywhere
in the world where the industrial agricultural system and the "green
revolution" have spread, this process is happening to the soil.
Farmers physically take biomass off the soil and this breaks the
nutrient cycle. But even though the soil health is declining, crops
continue to be raised because artificial fertilizer is injected into
the soil. To industrial agriculture the soil itself is irrelevant. In
fact, many modern farmers say that all they need the soil for is to
"prop up" the plants while they artificially inject the nutrients.
While this is true, it is equally true that this process is masking
the actual biological deterioration of the planet's soils. The
short-term gain might be large, but if artificial fertilizers become
too costly to purchase, or if easily extracted petroleum energy from
which artificial fertilizers and agricultural poisons are generated,
becomes exhausted, the world will face starvation because the soils
are dead. The final yield on the top line of the chart where no help
was given to the soil shows about where the world population will be
when the petroleum fueled fertilizer plants shut down. A billion and a
half people in the world are now fed simply because of the added
increase made possible with chemical fertilizers. If chemical
fertilizers were eliminated, world agricultural production would drop
by at least one-third.5
Compaction of soils is another common injury that occurs on and off
the farm. Anytime weight is put on soil; the pores tend to be crushed.
This causes the moisture holding ability to decline and decreases soil
breathing. This also inhibits plant growth because plants must expend
more effort in order to get their roots down into the soil. As
compaction increases, less water infiltrates and more water runs off,
which increases the erosion of the topsoil. Plowing causes compaction
because it requires heavy equipment. Trampling by confined livestock
also creates soil compaction.
The plow is probably the cause of more soil death than any other
factor. When the iron bottom plow was invented, a great change
occurred in agriculture. Light soils had earlier been worked with
wooden plows, but when the iron bottom plow was created, deep, heavy,
clay soils could be worked and this greatly expanded the area of
civilized agriculture. Finally the moldboard plow was created which
completely overturns the soil because of its increased curvature.
The plow historically has been associated with Indo-European field
agriculture. It is associated with the Indo-European cultural value of
increasing production and as such was used by the Roman Empire in
their vast agricultural enterprises. Digging stick and hoe, often in
slash and burn plots in forests had done prior planting. This method
had minimal interference with the soil and usually the cover
vegetation of small plants was not eliminated. With the plow it is
possible to completely clear the land and in this way much more land
can be worked. Plowing also has the result of burying the cover
vegetation. When the open fields are disced or harrowed after plowing,
which break up clods and level the soil, the planting can be much more
"efficient" and therefore much more land can be farmed.
Plowing breaks up and collapses the soil pores and water/air
passageways. When the soil is overturned the entire soil community and
their relationships are overturned. After a forest is cleared and the
land is first plowed, the soil still maintains its crumbly, granular
nature. It is soft and friable. After a few seasons the crumb
structure has broken down and the clay aspect of the soil begins to
predominate. The plowing, which creates chunks and clods, impairs the
soil's ability to receive soil moisture which "wicks" upward by
Edward H. Faulkner who wrote the classic treatise, Plowman's Folly,
has shown how plowing disturbs the capillary action and how the
moldboard plow by completely overturning the soil, reinforces this
After plowing, the layer of surface vegetation comes to lie upside
down in the soil. Thus, a layer of loosely pressed organic matter is
compressed under the soil surface. This breaks the capillary action.
The capillary action occurs when moisture evaporates from the surface
and draws moisture upward.6
The plowing of soil often results in the creation of a hardpan just
below the bottom of the plow. As the plow goes through the soil year
after year the layer created just below the foot of the plow becomes
more and more compacted until it becomes an impervious layer. This
allows water to accumulate and build-up to the level of the plant
roots where it can drown the plants and kill the soil community by
salinization. The layer of hardpan traps minerals held in the water so
that they concentrate as the water slowly evaporates. Eventually this
creates a dead soil that can only be reclaimed with great difficulty.
When the soil is plowed, the deeper layer that contains soil moisture
is overturned and exposed to wind and sun. This dries out the soil.
The effect of direct sunlight on raw soil is very destructive. The
sunlight oxidizes the soil. When the soil oxidizes, chemicals combine
with oxygen and decrease their use to the soil community. The effect
is to dry it out and lessen its fertility. All of this prepares the
soil to be carried away by the wind and water.
As the plowed soil deteriorates, its clayey nature begins to
predominate. The surface becomes more and more impermeable. Less
moisture infiltrates to the ailing soil community. Water running off
soil is the beginning of the end. As water runs off, it begins to
carry soil with it. As the more friable top layers go, lower layers
with less water absorbency are exposed so that the water runs off
faster. As this occurs even more soil is carried away. Even in an
undisturbed environment there is some erosion of soil off the land but
it is much less than the volume of soil build-up. The following
figures show the comparisons of erosion in the same area that has
different types of soil cover:
"In Ohio it was reckoned that 174,000 years would be required to
remove from 7 to 8 inches of top-soil by runoff in a forested area,
29,000 years in a meadow, 100 years if the soil is wisely planted with
crop rotation and 15 years if corn alone is planted " (Bennett, 1939).7
The phenomenon of leaching is a pivotal factor in soil conditioning.
Rainforest soils are leached constantly by the heavy rains. The large
volume of water carries minerals from the topsoil down into the
subsoil, but in desert environments, soil moisture evaporates more
rapidly than it can be leached downward. This results in a higher
level of nutrient/mineral buildup, which can be exploited by
irrigators. They can utilize the sandy soils, which have a relatively
low concentration of humus but nonetheless are nutrient rich and grow
substantial crops if water can be obtained. But buildup of nutrients
in desert soils happens over a long period of time and soil can be
exhausted quickly unless artificial fertilizers are applied. Organic
feed for the soil could be applied, but in a desert environment the
production of organic material is limited. In the formerly forested
areas of Lebanon, now degraded to a semi-arid desert environment,
people collect manure from the goats that graze the sparse brush in
the mountains and transport it to Beirut and the coastal city,
Tripoli, to the north, to fertilize orange and banana plantations.8
Soil can become exhausted in place and soil can be removed by erosion.
Plow agriculture leads to soil erosion but there are also other
civilized practices that create soil erosion. Grazing by livestock,
deforestation, mining, and many other human activities all lead to
There are three basic types of erosion; these are gully, sheet and
wind. Gully erosion results in the familiar "erosion canyons" that we
see on hillsides. Sheet erosion is a more camouflaged type in which
large areas of a hillside slowly creep downhill to a "slump" at the
foot of the slope. This type of erosion is sometimes only apparent
when closely examined or when a "slump" can be seen at the bottom of a
hill. Sheet erosion is generally found on inclined, plowed fields and
steeper grazed pastures. Wind erosion occurs when the soil simply
blows away. In some areas, especially flatlands, this type of erosion
can become the predominate source of deterioration.
Soil impermeability, the failure of rainwater to be absorbed and seep
into the soil is the beginning of erosion. Deforestation, overgrazing,
plowing, or other stripping of the vegetative cover lessens the
possibility that rain will be slowed down and stopped so that it may
seep into the soil, subsoil and the underground waterways. As more
soil is carried away, the more impermeable subsoil layers are exposed
which causes more volume of water to run off faster.
Because the less fertile subsoil is exposed, the vegetation that is
adapted to the topsoil has less chance to re-establish itself. This is
the reason that the downward spiral, once triggered, is
self-perpetuating. The rains continue to come, and continue to erode,
but once the plants can no longer get a foothold the process will
simply continue until it reaches bedrock or other impervious layer.
The failure of water to infiltrate to the level of the lower
groundwater effects the hydrology of the entire region. Even in a
semi-arid region, if the topsoil is intact and the vegetative cover
exists to absorb a large percentage of the rainfall, the water will
seep in to collect in the subsoil. There it will be held away from the
heat and evaporative effects of the sun for the deeper plant roots.
The water that drains further into the earth will come to reside in
underground aquifers. In many cases these aquifers will drain out in
springs in lower elevations, providing a slow dependable flow that
energizes local ecosystems and creates a slow dependable year around
stream flow in the area.
When soils are abused and the spiral of deterioration is triggered,
the familiar flood/drought cycle begins. When the water runs off
rapidly rather than infiltrating, floods are created. In the other
half of the cycle, because the water is not retained by absorbent
topsoil and as subsoil water, the springs dry up, the streams dry up
and there is less vegetation to transpire moisture. Transpiration of
moisture creates a more salubrious microclimate for small
micro-ecosystems under trees and in thicker patches of vegetation.
As the unnatural floods begin, and increase in severity, erosion
canyons are torn out of the earth. Narrow streambeds with
well-vegetated banks are torn out and stream courses are widened.
Anywhere that wide, primarily dry streambeds exist that are filled
with boulders, gravel and large, dry sandbars, severe erosion is
taking place. This is the image of a stream that has suffered flooding
because of upland abuse.
As the floodwaters rush down carrying sterile sand and gravel from an
abused watershed, the erosion material begins to bury fertile lower
elevation floodplains with this debris. The aquatic ecology of the
stream is impaired or destroyed along with the fertile riparian
(stream side, or canyon bottom) habitat. This is the history of
civilization from China, to India, to the Caucuses of Central Asia, to
Europe and now to the whole world. Civilization equals aridity.
The stark reality of this spiral of deterioration can be seen now in
areas of India and in Southern Mexico where areas that were formerly
rainforests are now desert in spite of occasional, heavy rains.
Researchers Anders Wijkman and Lloyd Timberlake in their study,
Natural Disasters: Acts of God or Acts of Man?; find that drought and
floods are the "natural" disasters that effect by far the largest
number of people around the planet. As the planet deteriorates, the
numbers rapidly increase. In the 1960's 18,500,000 people were
effected by drought: in the 1970's 24,400,000 were effected. In the
1960's, floods effected 5,200,000 people and in the 1970's floods
effected 15,400,000. 9
Soil erosion is not an esoteric matter. Anywhere one is, it can be
seen. It is possible to view any area and roughly conclude the erosion
rate. In an uninjured climax condition, most waterways of the earth
are, or were, clear. The discoloration of any stream or river means
that the watershed is being abused. If the color of a body of water is
green, it indicates that nutrients are eroding into the water causing
a population explosion of plant organisms. If the color of the water
tends toward brown, it is simply from gross movement of the soil and
subsoil into the water.
Soil erosion is not a "glamour" issue with the world media but it is
one of the most life- threatening problems on the planet. Erosion hot
spots are U.S. grain lands, Eastern Mexico, Northeast Brazil, North
Africa, Sahel, Botswana-Namibia, Middle East, Central Asia, Mongolia,
Yangtze River watershed of northern China, Himalayan foothills,
Baluchistan, Rajasthan and Australia. This listing is of regions with
present erosion emergencies, it does not list for example, regions
already lost to erosion such as the southeastern U.S. or most regions
which are experiencing, not emergency depletion, but serious and
steady erosion. In addition to exhaustion of the soil, half of all
arable land on the planet is experiencing erosion over and above any
build-up of soil.10
Erosion is a contributory mechanism in the loss of arable land on the
earth. Erosion, desertification, toxification, and non-agricultural
uses will eat up one fifth of the world's arable land between 1975 and
2000. Another one fifth will go by 2025. These figures are for arable
land and do not include the general erosion and degradation of lands
all over the earth from human activities such as deforestation,
overgrazing, fire, and other injudicious human occupancy.
Soil Abuse by Grazing: Herding the Hoofed Locusts
The herding of animals is the lowest possible productive use of the
land, yet it is done over much of the planet. If the purpose were to
feed people, rather than to pay off bank loans or make profits in the
money economy- or in the pastoral, nomadic cultures, to inflate herd
size and patriarchal egos- much better use of most lands could be
The authors of Forest Farming, a permaculture textbook, report that
herders can get an average of 200 pounds of meat from an acre of
optimum grazing land. That same area of land could produce one and
one-half tons of cereal grain, seven tons of apples, or 15-20 tons of
flour from the pods of honey locust trees. Although there is no
commercial market for it, honey locust flour is superior in
nutritional value to any cereal grain.11
Much of the grassland, savanna, steppe-type area of the earth has
evolved with wild grazing animals. The vegetation and the grazers
perform many services for each other. The grazing animals act as seed
transport and manuring agencies. When a herd of herbivores
occasionally comes over an area their hooves churn up the topsoil,
aerate it and press seeds into the soil so they can germinate. The
hooves create small pockmarks in the soil where organic debris and
water can collect- this is especially helpful in semi-arid areas.
Given this moisture and the water or wind-borne mulch in the pockmark
to retain water and to retard desiccation, the grass seed will have a
good chance of germination. It is said that one could follow the bison
herds of the Great Plains on their migration routes by tracking the
kinds of grasses that they preferred. As the bison would travel these
"highways of grass" each year they would also replant their preferred
Natural herbivores migrate, following the abundance of vegetation.
With free-roaming animals in a natural setting there is no danger of
overgrazing because when the vegetation is sparse in one area they
simply move to another. Though this migration might appear to be
casual, the life of the herbivore/vegetation association, evolving
through tens of thousands of years, is a natural, potentiative system
where all of the beings contribute to their collective survival.
The original herbivores in the Western U.S. were bison, elk,
pronghorn, bighorn sheep, mule deer, blacktail deer, some small
animals and some insects. Nancy and Denzel Ferguson, in their exposé
of overgrazing, Sacred Cows at the Public Trough, write:
"Originally, between 5 and 10 million bison roamed the plains of
Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and the intermountain valleys and
mountains of the West. Today the 11 western states (excluding Montana)
support 495 bison-less than one ten-thousandth of the original number.
Original pronghorn populations in the 11 western states numbered
between 10 and 15 million compared with about 271,000 today, which is
about 2 or 3 percent of the original number. Bighorn sheep have
dropped from an estimated 1 to 2 million to 20,400 (perhaps 1 percent
of the original number). Original populations of mule deer and
blacktail deer are estimated at about 5 million (which may be high) as
compared to about 3.6 million today. Finally, pristine populations of
elk, which probably numbered about 2 million, have dwindled to about
455,000, a decline of about 75 percent."12
Each of these herbivores ate different varieties of plants. As they
roamed, they cropped the land evenly. When these animals were replaced
with domesticated cows (and sheep), the ecosystem began to go
downhill, and the topsoil began to go down the river.
In Africa, it has been shown that when cows are inserted in grasslands
and the multiplicity of herbivores occurring naturally is eradicated,
the production of meat goes down. According to a recent study, "... an
untouched savanna is capable of an annual production of 24 to 37 tons
of meat per square kilometer in the form of wild animals, while the
best pasture-cattle systems in Africa can yield only eight tons of
beef per square kilometer per year. Yet in the name of agricultural
progress and the imperative of control, many ungulates are being
threatened with extinction, and other herd sizes are being
The above comparison underlines a basic point. The insertion of
civilized agriculture into natural systems always lowers the net
photosynthetic production, simplifies the environment and in many
cases the amount of food civilized systems realize is much lower than
could be realized by forager/hunters from the very same area.
The reason that the natural system is so much more productive in terms
of grazing animals is that the natural animals can migrate, sometimes
long distances, to crop the most abundant growths. They also crop
different types of plants in the same area. That is, the elk with its
wide mouth is primarily a grass grazer, the deer with it narrower
mouth pokes about in the brush and trees for food, the pronghorn is a
grass grazer though its preferred grasses are different than the
elk's. The mountain sheep prefers a different set of plants, as do the
rabbits, rodents and other herbivores. In the natural setting the
entire range of vegetation is grazed. In the cow-sheep operation, a
few species of annual grasses are the predominate target, and the
natural animals are killed off or driven away.
Livestock have species of plants that they prefer. These confined
animals will graze their preferred grasses until they are all gone,
after which they will then start on their second preference, and so
forth. As the annual and perennial grasses are grazed out, pioneer
plants, tough grasses, forbs and brush that are acclimated to more
arid conditions, move in to rescue the situation as soil erosion
The damaging characteristic of the cow, to graze its preferred grass
until it is gone, is one of the reasons that the natural mix of
grasses in an ecosystem is so severely altered by grazing of
domesticated animals. Even where there is an abundant stand of grass
it may be grass that has succeeded because it is not favored by the
cow. This is damaging to the ecosystem because this alters the food
availability of the natural herbivores (if any have survived) and
alters the ecology of the entire area.
The confined cattle alter the mix of native vegetation and eliminate
species. They trample vegetation and compact soil. Historically, the
cow and sheep have been used to graze land that has some ecological
health. Later when the land is driven to more arid conditions with
little grass and a predominance of woody forbs and brush, the goat
will be brought in to crop that vegetation. Finally the land can be
driven to the point that the goat can no longer benefit from it. There
are millions of acres of the planet that began as forests or
grasslands and are now in this condition of being so poor that they
cannot even support goats.
The United States government, which controls most of the rangeland in
the western United States, is standing by while the ranchers overgraze
and destroy the lands of the American west. Because of overgrazing,
millions of acres of the U.S. west have been invaded by exotic plants,
which colonize the bare ground where native grasses formerly grew. One
of these grasses is "cheat grass," also known as feathery brome.
Cheat grass is an annual that has invaded from Asia, possibly
transported in the gut of an imported animal or brought in by some
misguided herder. It has a peculiar strategy for preparing its
habitat. It is a fire- adapted plant; that is, it uses fire to spread
itself. With its fine lacy leaves and stems, it is considered to be
500 times more flammable than native grasses. The plant greens up
early in the spring for about six weeks, sets seed and dies, covering
the ranges with highly flammable material. Once it ignites, it burns
rapidly, eliminating any other grass and vegetation that is not fire
adapted. In this way other plants are burned off and new areas are
opened for the spread of cheat grass. As with the exotic grasses
planted by range management people such as crested wheat grass, few
natural beings in the ecosystem are able to utilize cheat grass. Cows
and domestic sheep can eat cheat grass for only about six weeks in the
spring, when the plants are green. The bristle- like, spear-pointed
covering of the seed of the cheat grass plant, called the awn, is
designed to stick to animals and birds for transportation. If an
animal grazes on the dried grass, there is danger of the seedheads of
this grass imbedding themselves in the jowls of the animals and even
in their ears and eyes. This causes infections and sometimes death.
Some of the damage caused by overgrazing in the U.S. west is readily
apparent. One can observe the differences in grasses between the
roadside right of ways and the grazed pastures. It is hard to miss the
huge erosion canyons throughout the west. It takes considerable study
however, to realize how many of the native and proper plants, which
fit the natural array of the ecosystem, have disappeared. Many of the
plants now covering western rangelands are either part of the pioneer
"first aid team" of native plants which has come in to save the area
or are exotics from other continents invading the greatly degraded
As overgrazing triggers erosion the familiar syndrome of drought/flood
begins as the entire hydrology of the area changes for the worse.
Today, domesticated animals are grazing 70 per cent of the landmass of
the 11 U.S. western states. Only 17 per cent of land that the U.S.
Bureau of Land Management manages in the west is described as being in
good to excellent condition- by the BLM's own "in house" study.14
Given the predilection of government agencies to inflate estimates of
their own good works, there is no doubt that the land is in even worse
shape that this dismal assessment indicates. Nonetheless, we may take
this as an indication of the condition of private lands and of other
public lands in the western U.S., including wildlife refuges, military
bases, wilderness areas, and national forests, all of which are grazed.
In Australia large herbivores never existed until Europeans imported
them. Recently, aborigines decided to get away from populated areas
and back to their lands in the outback near Ernabella and Papunya in
the semi-arid area of the continent. They found that 60 per cent of
the food plants for which they traditionally had foraged were extinct,
and the rest were greatly diminished in numbers. Overgrazing by
unnatural herbivores that have gone wild has caused this destruction.
Feral cattle, brumbies (wild horses), donkeys, camels, goats and
rabbits are destroying Australia's interior.15 Because these animals
and the domesticated herbivores such as sheep and cattle are exotic;
there are few pre-existing ecological relationships that they fit. For
example, in areas that naturally host large grazing animals there are
insects and microbes which inhabit and eat herbivore dung, break it
down, bringing it into the food chain and into the soil as nutrient.
In Australia none of this network has developed because there have
never been large grazing animals. Every year, the nitrogen and other
nutrients contained in many millions of tons of manure evaporate into
the Australian air instead of enriching the soil, due to this lack,
even though the introduction of these insects and micro lives has been
attempted a number of times.16
In the semi-arid region of the Middle East, the stock population,
consisting primarily of goats and camels, continues to eat up the
remaining life. In their study of desertification, Spreading Deserts -
The Hand of Man, Eric Eckholm and Lester Brown observe:
"The rangelands of northern Iraq, forage specialists figure, can
safely sustain only 250,000 sheep without degradation - a far cry from
the million or so that are currently eating away this resource base.
Likewise, Syria's ranges currently feed triple the number of grazing
animals they can safely support. In the initial stage of such
degradation, inferior plant species replace more useful varieties.
Then, sheep pastures become suitable only for the hardiest goats and
camels. Finally, in the words of Ibrahim Nahal, 'In the advanced stage
of deterioration the plant cover disappears as it is apparent in many
of the steppe zones in Syria, Jordan, Iraq and the United Arab
Emirates, etc., where the rangelands have turned into semi-arid
deserts covered with a layer of gravel or into semi-sand deserts."17
Eckholm, in Losing Ground, documents land deterioration in the
Rajastan, a semi-arid area of northwestern India, which has
experienced the severe pressure of the human population explosion
familiar throughout the world:
"The practical consequence of this pressure has been the extension of
cropping to sub-marginal lands fit only for forestry or range
management, helping to make this perhaps the world's dustiest area.
Meanwhile, as the land available for grazing shrinks, the number of
grazing animals swells-a sure-fire formula for overgrazing, wind
erosion, and desertification. The area available exclusively for
grazing in western Rajasthan dropped from thirteen million to eleven
million hectares between 1951 and 1961, while the population of goats,
sheep and cattle jumped from 9.4 million to 14.4 million. The
livestock population has since continued to grow, while during the
decade of the sixties the cropped area in western Rajasthan expanded
further from 26 per cent to 38 per cent of the total area, squeezing
the grazing even more."18
The experience of the Rajastan follows the basic pattern occurring on
the grazed lands of the Earth. Despite all of the ballyhoo in the
United States and other First World industrial nations about
professional range management, technical expertise and technical
solutions, grazed land everywhere is suffering. The overgrazing of the
earth has nothing to do with range management, but has everything to
do with money, political power and the values of empire culture.
Deforestation and overgrazing eventually produce desertification.
While the natural undisturbed deserts of the Earth are healthy,
thriving, diverse ecosystems with many types of plants and animals,
deserts created by poor land use are much more depleted of life. This
is because the ecosystem has been shredded, unlike a natural desert
where the organisms have mutually proliferated over tens of thousands
The desertification of the planet is proceeding rapidly. Each year
millions of new acres fall within the definition of "desert" to add to
those already created. Destroying the vegetation of formerly semi-arid
lands usually creates deserts but deserts are sometimes the result of
The total drylands of the world are 3.2 billion hectares (7.9 billion
acres). Of this area 61 per cent are desertified. This is defined as a
loss of more than 25 per cent soil nutrient and the consequent decline
of the productivity of biomass. In 1980 the percentage of some dryland
areas that had become desertified were; Mediterranean Europe-30 per
cent, N. America-40 per cent, S. America and Mexico-71 per cent,
Southern Africa-80 per cent, Mediterranean Africa-83 per cent, West
Asia-82 per cent, South Asia-70 per cent, (Asia) former U.S.S.R.
area-55 per cent, China and Mongolia-69 per cent. The UN Environment
Program estimates that desertification threatens one-third of the
earth's land surface.19
While deforestation and devegetation caused by clearing land for the
plow contribute to desertification, as does firewood gathering, the
chief culprit is overgrazing. In every area of the world where herding
is a significant industry, desertification is spreading. One thinks of
the goats of the Middle East and the devegetation of the Sahel in
Africa but in all semi-arid ecosystems on the planet, deserts are
A Council on Environmental Quality report, published by the U. S.
government in 1981 states:
"Desertification in the arid United States is flagrant. Groundwater
supplies beneath vast stretches of land are dropping precipitously.
Whole river systems have dried up; others are choked with sediment
washed from denuded land. Hundreds of thousands of acres of previously
irrigated cropland have been abandoned to wind or weeds. Salts are
building up steadily in some of the nation's most productive irrigated
soils. Several million acres of natural grassland are, as a result of
cultivation or overgrazing, eroding at unnaturally high rates. Soils
from the Great Plains are ending up in the Atlantic Ocean.
"All total, about 225 million acres of land in the United States are
undergoing severe desertification-an area roughly the size of the 13
In many areas of the world, firewood gathering is contributing greatly
to deforestation, devegetation and desertification. In many Third
World nations, most of the people must rely on wood as the source of
their heat and cooking. As the population explodes and urbanization
rises, huge bare spots spread out for many dozens of miles from the
cities as the country is gleaned of any combustibles. In many
countries now the purchase of firewood takes a large share of the
family income, in both rural and urban areas.
As a consequence of firewood shortage, people begin to use animal dung
for fires. In the Andes, llama dung is used and in other areas sheep
and cattle manure. As this dung is not returned to the soil, it
represents another deprivation of the soil's fertility. "Between three
hundred and four hundred million tons of wet dung-which shrink to
sixty to eighty million tons when dried-are annually burned for fuel
in India alone, robbing farmland of badly needed nutrients and organic
matter. The plant nutrients wasted annually in this fashion in India
equal more than a third of the country's chemical fertilizer use."21
Evapotranspiration is the phenomenon of moisture evaporation off the
land. This moisture evaporates from soil and plants also transpire it.
Bill Mollison, in his Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, says that
soil moisture varies from 2 per cent to 40 per cent of soil volume.22
It should be noted also that the tons-per-acre of micro-organisms in
soil, contain water in their bodies and this contributes to soil water
retention if the soil is healthy and has a high level of
micro-organisms. As the natural cycles proceed, this moisture rising
up from the land helps charge rain clouds by providing minute droplets
of water which atmospheric moisture can condense around in the colder,
higher altitudes. All of the fertile topsoil, worldwide, is a
tremendous reservoir of water. The loss of topsoil and the progress of
desertification lessens rainfall. As topsoil loss and desertification
proceed the land itself becomes drier and a more desert type of plant
regime becomes established. Civilization equals aridity.
Irrigation Projects: Green Today, Gone Tomorrow
Farmers, government bureaucrats and bankers love irrigation projects.
They usually appear to give everybody something for nothing except the
taxpayer who finances them and who often pays the subsidy to grow the
food on the irrigated land. Large dams, irrigation projects and the
modern industrial farming methods that have come with them have swept
Water loss caused by evaporation from dams in semi-arid regions
averages 50 per cent. As the water is impounded in a dam and then runs
for sometimes many miles through canals, the salts and minerals in the
water are continually being concentrated. More evaporation takes place
when the water is spread across the earth. As irrigation water is
spread over the fields, the water that is not taken up by the plants
sinks toward the subsoil. In many cases this excess water fills the
subsoil aquifers under the fields and the groundwater begins to rise
toward the plant roots. Once these saline water hits the plant roots,
they die. The rising water table evaporates through the surface of the
soil by capillary action in a kind of "wick effect," leaving the
characteristic snowy salt covering of the "alkali flats."
Another contributing factor in creating waterlogged, salinized soils
is the buildup of fine silt, which is brought into the fields by the
irrigation water. This clay- like material often collects into an
impervious layer well below the surface. When this "hard pan" effect
occurs water will build up on top of it and begin to drown the plant
Irrigators manage to keep the concentrated salts and minerals from
killing their cultivated plants by running enough water through the
system to "flush" the fields, draining the runoff into some
lower-elevation area. In modern irrigation projects this often
involves digging deep under the field to place perforated pipes that
drain the subsoil water out of the area. This expensive solution can
only be used in selected high-profit areas that can justify the cost,
or in areas where taxpayer subsidy is available. Where funds are not
available for drainage and the land is subject to waterlogging, the
land is eventually ruined. These problems effect tens of millions of
acres of the planet.
Irrigation runoff water from modern systems contains all of the
chemicals used in industrial agriculture including nitrates from
fertilizers as well as concentrations of heavy metals, in addition to
the salts and minerals concentrated from the soil. These poisoned
waters have been responsible for the epidemic deaths of many animals
and birds in wetlands where it collects. As irrigation water runoff
goes back into the streams and rivers it adds to the destruction of
the ecology of these bodies of water. It also adds to the problems of
other irrigators downstream who must try to irrigate with water that
is more saline than normal and contains unknown quantities of
fertilizer and poison. Runoff water from irrigated fields is often
drained into natural wetlands and into low-lying "waste" areas. In
these areas, the former life of the land tries to survive amid the
whole inventory of life-killing effluent of industrial agriculture.
The fish, frogs, birds and other life develop cancers, open sores,
mutations, and other deadly afflictions. A recently-publicized case in
point is the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin valley of
California where wildlife, especially waterfowl, have been dying from
concentrations of selenium and other poisons in the agricultural
runoff that drains into the adjoining wetland refuge. Game officials
have now closed the refuge and are trying to drive migrating waterfowl
away from the area.
The San Joaquin valley in central California produces a large share of
U.S. farm produce. A 1981 U.S. government publication states, "Today
about 400,000 acres of irrigated farmland in the San Joaquin are
affected by high, brackish water tables. Ultimately, by the year 2080,
1.1 million acres of San Joaquin farmland will become unproductive
unless subsurface drainage systems are installed."23 Many areas in the
U.S. are losing land to salinization. As salinization increases, the
land produces smaller and smaller crop yields over time. Eventually,
when the soil community is completely destroyed, all farming will
cease in these areas.
Irrigation projects are very expensive. In order to justify irrigating
a new area, the entire mass production, mass marketing system must be
brought in. In Third World countries, especially, this means
eliminating subsistence farmers and indigenous tribal people. The
industrial agriculture methods of the Green Revolution are inherently
centralizing. They need large areas of land to which machines and
industrial methods can be applied. This has the effect of
strengthening the national elites and the hold of the transnationals
in the countries where these methods are used.
The modern industrial practice of using wells for irrigation, which is
now spreading worldwide with the Green Revolution, is fraught with
problems. In the first place, most of these systems require motors
that use fossil fuel which is in short supply and due to run out.
Modern well irrigation salinizes the soil just as do other methods.
But the most serious problem is that in many cases the irrigation well
system is pumping the underlying aquifers dry. In some of these cases
the land is subsiding, that is, it is cracking open in huge chasm
rifts, or suddenly sinking a number of feet.
In the U.S., one fifth of the irrigated cropland is above the Ogallala
aquifer that runs down the east side of the Rocky Mountains from South
Dakota to Northwest Texas. The Ogallala contains water that was
accumulated during Pleistocene times, fossil water. Since that time
little additional accumulation has taken place. This aquifer is one
half-gone under 2,223,900 acres. It is calculated that it will be
substantially gone sometime early in the next century.
European countries currently use three times more water than returns
to natural sources. In North America the groundwater outtake is twice
the replenishment rate.24 In areas of Northern China, Tamil Nadu,
India, Israel, Arabian Gulf, Mexico City, Southwestern Soviet Union,
Europe, and in North America on the Great Plains, southern Arizona,
and California, the ground waters are dropping precipitously.25
While the underground waters decline, the soil on the surface suffers
from salinity and waterlogging.
In Pakistan, according to Georg Bergstrom:
"An estimated area of over two million hectares, a fifth of the
annually cultivated area of the Indus Plain was severely affected;
either yields were significantly cut by waterlogging and/or salinity,
or production had ceased altogether. As many as forty thousand
additional hectares were falling into that category each year, a good
share of them lost to cultivation altogether. And the productivity of
many more millions of hectares was well below its potential level due
to saline soils. Pakistan was losing a hectare of good agricultural
land every twenty minutes, but gaining a new claimant on that land by
birth every twenty-four seconds."26
Like the one-third of the arable land in Iraq that is still salinized
and unusable from the Sumerian Empire, many currently irrigated acres
will be permanently destroyed. Roughly one-third of the world's
irrigated land is presently in danger.27 Eckholm, quotes Soviet soil
scientist V. Kovda, who estimates:
"60 to 80 percent of all irrigated lands are, due to inadequate
drainage or canal lining, becoming gradually more saline and, hence,
infertile. By (Kovda's) calculations, twenty to twenty-five million
hectares of land have been laid waste over the centuries after the
introduction of improperly managed irrigation, and two hundred
thousand to three hundred thousand additional hectares-out of a total
worldwide irrigated area of nearly two hundred million hectares-pass
from cultivation each year due to waterlogging and salinity."28
Although touted as a "solution" to world food problems, irrigation has
only short-term benefits and many long-term problems. The large-scale
dams central to many irrigation projects are already causing some
The Damn Dams
No dam will last indefinitely. Sooner or later, they will all silt up.
The industrialists who profit by building them never mention this
fact. Some dams in eroding watersheds in Latin America have an
expected life of ten to fifteen years; others built in more
ecologically stable areas may be expected to last as long as several
hundred years. Silted up dams become wetlands or simply large banks of
earth. Since the present dams are now constructed in the most optimum
places on each river, there is little chance their benefit can be
replaced by building more dams in less desirable sites. As the dams
fill up with erosion material their use for hydroelectric generators
is lessened because the flow of water cannot be maintained.
Large dams are such a bonanza- such a massive physical (if temporary)
answer to immediate problems- that everybody recommends them, even
though the dams of the planet will eventually choke much of the
aquatic life flow system. Not only do dams feed the industrialist, the
banker, the politician and the temporary laborer, but they are also an
instrument of cultural transformation. The whole mass production
regime of industrial agriculture with its fuels, fertilizers, and
machines must be inserted with them. This means markets, profits, and
realization of political strategies, centralization of power, and the
continued marginalization of the poor. With enough money and guns,
industrialists can ignore any consideration of the people, earth or
cosmos -for awhile.
The water in freshwater lakes above the Panama Canal is used to
regulate the level of the locks in the canal. Deforestation and
destruction of the rainforest watershed above these lakes is causing
them to silt up so that there is not enough volume to even out the
wet/dry cycles. Eventually there will only be water during the rains.
Ultimately, there will not be enough water to fill the locks of the
canal during the dry season. This is an example of the types of
problems that develop with large-scale waterworks when large-scale
ecological destruction is occurring.
The Aswan Dam in Egypt shows other problems with large-scale
waterworks. For millennia the annual flooding of the Nile has
refertilized the fields of the Egyptians. Its biological circulation
is so rich that even after the ancient Egyptians destroyed the
watershed's incredibly rich natural wetland ecology; an empire has
been able to exist in this area for thousands of years. The huge Aswan
dam, built in modern times by engineers of the former U.S.S.R., is
finally succeeding in depleting and destroying what remains of Egypt's
survival systems. The engineers planned two results of the $1.3
billion dam that halted the flooding of the Nile: irrigation and
hydroelectric generation. Though the dam project is hailed for
producing half of the country's electrical "needs," the authors of
Gaia: An Atlas of Planet Management report on some of the problems it
"Over one hundred tons of silt, clay, and sand, which once fertilized
downstream fields during periods of flooding, are now silting up Lake
Nasser, forcing increased imports of fertilizers. This lock-up of silt
also hit downstream industries, starving Cairo brickmakers of a vital
raw material, while the offshore sardine fisheries, which depended on
the flow of nutrients from the Nile, were early casualties. The Nile
Delta itself is in retreat. Simultaneously, problems of soil salinity
and waterlogging have been accentuated. An FAO (Food and Agricultural
Organization) study concluded that 35 per cent of Egypt's cultivated
surface is afflicted by salinity and nearly 90 per cent by
waterlogging. To crown all this, the water-based parasitic disease
schistosomiasis has exploded among people living around Lake Nasser."29
An investigation revealed that the sandstone bottom of Lake Nasser,
the artificial lake created behind the dam, did not seal but allowed
considerable seepage through the lake floor. Evaporation from the
surface of the 200-mile long Lake Nasser, and from the extensive
system of irrigation ditches is high and there is less total water
available for use than before the dam was built.
Worldwide, an estimated 250 million people are infected by
schistosomiasis. The parasite that causes the disease, a blood/liver
fluke, lives in snails part of its life cycle but lays its eggs in
humans. The mature parasite, a fork-tailed worm, affixes itself to
humans when the people enter the water of irrigation ditches or the
river. The worm bores into the human and seeks out the liver where it
lays its eggs. The eggs pass from the person by excretion. As they
enter the waterways, they are ingested by the snails in the form of
larvae. The parasites drain their human hosts' physical energy.
Persons infected in these agricultural countries are able to work only
a few hours each day.
The alternate flooding and drying of the land near the Nile formerly
controlled snail populations who host part of the worms' life cycle.
The flooding washed them out to sea. Since the building of the dam,
the snails have multiplied. It is estimated that 70 per cent of the
population of Egypt is now infected with schistosomiasis.
Sharp declines in agricultural production among a population with one
of the worlds' low ranking, average annual incomes, already close to
starvation levels, forced the Egyptian government to use a part of the
electrical power produced by the new dam to operate fertilizer plants.
The application of chemical fertilizers has, to some extent,
temporarily offset the losses, but yield is still 20 per cent less
than in pre-Aswan days.
A result of the new industrial agricultural techniques has been to
inject herbicides, insecticides and chemical fertilizers into the now
nutrient-poor Nile, through irrigation runoff. This effluent plus the
lack of nutrient flow once provided by the river has damaged the five
shallow lakes in the Nile Delta. One of these lakes alone formerly
yielded 15,000 tons of fish annually for this protein-starved nation.
The lakes themselves were created when sediments carried by the
flooding river created sandbars in the delta, which in turn caused the
large shallow lakes behind them. Now that the annual deposition is
filling Lake Nasser rather than flowing downstream, the ocean is
eroding the sandbars and soon there will be no lakes. Nineteen
thousand people live in this area and are dependent upon the fishing
industry in those lakes.
For many years, a sizable fishing industry had existed off the
Mediterranean coast of Egypt. Nearly half of the 18,000-ton annual
catch consisted of sardines. When the nutrients of the Nile ceased to
be injected into the marine ecology, the Egyptian fish exportation
dropped by one-half and the sardine catch went down 500 tons.
Now that the waters of the Nile are either evaporating from Lake
Nasser or seeping into its sandstone floor, the Mediterranean is
deprived of an important fresh water supply. Because of this, the
salinity of the entire Mediterranean is rising and threatening all
fishing industries of the area.30
In this review of irrigation we see that in many areas it is only a
short-term gain. The long-term deficits will arrive in the next
decades for us to deal with just as the exploding human population is
overwhelming food supplies.
1 Permaculture: A Designers' Manual. Bill Mollison. Tagari Pub.
Tyalgum, Australia. 1988. p. 205.
2 The Soil and Health; A Study of Organic Agriculture. Sir Albert
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3 Mollison, op. cit. p. 183.
4 Mother Earth News. "John Jeavons: Digging Up The Future." Pat Stone.
Jan/Feb. 1990. #121. pp.45-51. (Seed Catalogues and books on
Biointensive methods may be ordered from: Bountiful Gardens, 19550
Ridgewood Road, Willits, California 95490.)
5 State of the World 1985. Lester R. Brown, et. al. W.W. Norton & Co.
New York. 1985. p. 29.
6 Plowman's Folly. Edward H. Faulkner. U. of Oklahoma Press. Norman,
7 Before Nature Dies. Jean Dorst. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston. 1970.
8 Man and the Mediterranean Forest; A History of Resource Depletion.
J.V. Thirgood. Academic Press. New York. 1981. p. 102. (sourced as
9 Natural Disasters; Acts of God or Acts of Man?. Anders Wijkman &
Lloyd Timberlake. New Society pub. Santa Cruz, CA. 1988. p.24.
10 Gaia: An Atlas Of Planet Management. Norman Myers, General Editor.
Anchor Books. Garden City, New York. 1984. p.40.
11 Forest Farming: Toward A Solution To Problems of World Hunger and
Conservation. J. Sholto Douglas & Robert A. de J. Hart. Rodale Press.
Emmaus, Pa. 1978. p. 5 (nutrition- p.37).
12 Sacred Cows at the Public Trough. Denzel & Nancy Ferguson. Maverick
Pub., Drawer 5007, Bend, Oregon 97708. p. 116.
13 Ecosystems, Energy, Population. Jonathan Turk, Janet T. Wittes,
Robert Wittes, Amos Turk. W.B. Saunders Co. pub. Toronto. 1975. p. 123.
14 Free Our Public Lands. Lynn Jacobs, P.O. Box 2203, Cottonwood,
Arizona 86326. pp.3,4.
15 Arid-Land Permaculture: Special reference to Central Australian
Aboriginal Outstations. Bill Mollison. Tagari Community, P.O. Box 96,
Stanley, Australia. 7331. November, 1978. pp.2,18.
16 The Hungry Planet; The Modern World at the Edge of Famine. Georg
Borgstrom. Collier Books. New York. 1972. p.196.
17 Worldwatch Paper #13. Worldwatch Institute. Washington, D.C. p.12.
18 Losing Ground: Environmental Stress and World Food Prospects. Erik
P. Eckholm. W.W. Norton & Co. New York. 1976. pp.63,64.
19 World Resources 1987: An Assessment of the Resource Base that
Supports the Global Economy. A Report by The International Institute
for Environment and Development and The World Resources Institute.
Basic Books. New York. 1987. p.289.
20 Desertification of the United States. David Sheridan. Council on
Environmental Quality. U.S. Government Printing Office. #334-983/8306.
21 Eckholm. Losing Ground. op. cit. p.105.
22 Permaculture: A Designers' Manual. Bill Mollison. Ta
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