Through the ages: Is soil conservation a new problem?

Soil erosion is one of the biggest land degradation issues plaguing the current world. I’ve touched on this topic in the land degradation series. However, a recap is warranted:

  • Today, we are losing 30-40% of the world’s arable soil due to erosion every year, according to FOA.
  • That is equivalent to 3 football (soccer) fields worth of topsoil every minute.
  • At this rate, we will be able to practice agriculture only for 60 more years, according to a Scientific American article.

You would think that this has been a problem only since we have started changing age-old agricultural practices by using chemicals and mass producing grains to feed the growing population. However, that is not true…

Civilizations of the past have all faced the problems of soil erosion and have actually fallen because of this. That’s right: civilizations have fallen because of soil erosion. Not war, not disease but lack of soil.

The old days

Image results for soil erosion in the past

The middle eastern civilizations of the past have been prolific in their advancements in war, law and order and science. However, they have fallen prey to the problems of deforestation, soil erosion and salt buildup. Simeria, in 2700 BC., was a successful and prosperous community. But, by 2100 BC., the civilization had fallen prey to poor land management. As these civilization continued to move north towards Assyria and Babylonia, they didn’t seem to learn and continued to make the same mistakes.

In the year 1200 BC., Troy (popularly known for the Trojan Horse) faced a similar problem. Deforestation and erosion resulted in the shifting of the coastline continuously, throughout the Trojan regime. Only when this buildup was accounted for, the city was rediscovered in 1870.

Simultaneously, the Greek coastal cities just east of Troy were becoming land locked due to increasing soil erosion and sedimentation.

Across the world, Central American city states continued the wonderful tradition of degrading soils. Civilizations rose and fell constantly from 1700-1500 BC.

In fact, the problems of soil erosion seems to have affected those civilizations that had developed advanced methods of agriculture coupled with rampant deforestation. Both have been a direct consequence of growing population, and has resulted in the eventual fall of that civilization.

Did someone see the dangers of soil erosion?

Soil erosion was first recognized in the modern world by Jared Elliot in 1685. He recorded his observations in a series of essays, and was deeply concerned about water running down bare hillslopes. He was one of the earliest in his time to conduct experiments on conserving soil. He planted green crops to make the soil firm and enriched, and planted grasses and legumes for livestock management.

Image results for terrace farming in china

In fact, he wasn’t the only one. While the West continued poor soil practices, human settlements in the East, most notable China and India, understood the importance of soil preservation and practiced a lot of the current conservation techniques like terracing, crop rotation and the use of natural fertilizers. Early British settlers have recorded their first impressions of hill slopes lined in the form of terraces for agriculture in these regions.

However, western influences coupled with the need to feed the increasing number of mouths has forced these countries to forget their historic practices and resort to the short-term gains of the modern practices today.

What about today?

The biggest reason why history will continue to be relevant as long as humans live is to prevent the same mistakes being made over and over and over again. For some reason, however, humans tend to make them in new and more profound ways!

Soil erosion and deforestation has claimed countless civilizations, some well-known ones as well. It’s latest victim, however, looks like it will be it’s biggest victim of all. If the agricultural system of the current world fails, it is not one or two isolated civilizations that will fall. It is the entire world. Our interconnectedness, in this case, will be a bane.

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