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"Hubris" and the Soil

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

I'm talking about Suckerberg, Gates, Bezos, Pichal, Musk and most of the set at the World Economic Forum. The ancient Greeks regarded their kind of cockiness (hubris) as a fatal shortcoming – invariably leading to disaster. But in my garden yesterday I realised my burgeoning rosemary bush was actually laughing at them. You see rosemary has been around much longer than these modern wonders – and it will still be around long after they are gone.

So why was the rosemary laughing? In 1952 Edward Hyams wrote his seminal book – everyone should read it - “Soil and Civilisation”. I was reminded of this (I read the book many years ago) when a good friend sent me a link to “The Symphony of the Soil” .

Of course, for the luminaries and cocky executives of the mega-corporate world, soil is a very boring topic. After all, why should anyone who thinks of themselves as rich and important spend time worrying about plain dirt? It's unlikely that any of these “big fish” would devote time to reading even more up-to-date books (like the excellent, if somewhat long-winded, “Dirt: the Erosion of Civilisation” by David Montgomery). My rosemary bush was laughing because, for all their pomp and bluster, our great corporate leaders have not yet realised that they are on a sinking ship. It will not be very long before the remorseless erosion of Earth's soils brings their greedy game to an end. Our living planet, Gaia, will certainly have the last laugh!

There is a wonderful perspective provided on all this by the biologist Elisabet Sahtouris (Gaia: From Chaos to Cosmos). You can read my summary of the book now in the body of this website HERE. Our living Earth (Gaia) has already had to process many earlier “successful” life forms whose burgeoning growth gobbled up available resources and produced toxic waste products. Each time even more beautiful and complex life forms appeared to exploit the new circumstances. In the past, the transitions have arisen from genetic mutations in DNA. Humans are really the first species whose development must now come from cultural rather than genetic evolution. The ants, bees, termites and whales have managed to do this and survive in beneficial relationships to their environments for millions of years. No doubt the human species will do the same – but it does not seem likely to be an easy or comfortable process. Our world desperately needs new cultural models with new institutions. We are one of life's more interesting experiments and we already have all the science and technology we need to live well if only we (somebody!) can find the wisdom to use it more sensibly.

Our self-satisfied corporate leaders have always been delighted that national governments take primary responsibility for such things as health, pensions, welfare, education, policing (especially protecting private property), waste disposal, food and security. The great mass of consumers, whose addiction to buying stuff finances the moguls' wealth, are “looked after” by the state at the same time as they continue their efforts to pay off their debts by “wage slavery”. But when the huge majority of the population live in a bubble of “Walt Disney” make-believe worlds (where power comes down wire, water out of taps, food from super-markets and “Nature`' from TV documentaries) their leaders are cut off from the (often brutal) realities of real nature. The health of Earth's soils is a long way from the minds of those shopping in the “magical” malls of Marks and Spencer or drinking their coffee from ecologically OK paper mugs in a sweet smelling Starbucks.

When the rains come down here I can look out of my window onto a brown North Sea. It is brown because our fast-food farmers have big tractors which can plough up hundreds of acres of bare soil between harvest and winter. Without plant roots to hold the water, healthy soils are being washed away, or in some cases blown away, to the tune of (present estimates) 23 billion tons each year! Most of this erosion (and the flooding that comes with it) has taken place over the last 60 years. The rate equates to something of the order of 1 millimetre of top soil lost each year. It will not take many years for these losses to make food production increasingly difficult until finally a crisis point (of war, revolution or famine) is reached.

In researching for this newsletter I was surprised and interested to discover that the last great work produced by Darwin (he of “survival of the fittest” fame) was about the earthworm. Darwin had been amazed to notice that a field next to his home had been ploughed 30 years earlier, leaving stones showing all over the field. Left to pasture ever since, Darwin saw that all the stones had disappeared – simply swallowed up by the living soil. I noticed exactly the same process myself during the time I worked on my organic golf course. Every day we had to go out early (before golfers appeared) to “switch” the greens – sweeping the over-night worm castes into the tight turf surface. When we applied a new top dressing (perhaps crushed shells or black peat) we could see the layers clearly becoming deeper when we cut new holes in the greens year after year. Obviously it must be the worms – producing about one tenth of an inch of new top soil every year. This was almost exactly what Darwin found when he took earth worms into his laboratory and measured their output and behaviour. So if you leave a large stone (say 1 foot square) on a piece of healthy organic grassland – go back in 120 years and it will have disappeared.

Healthy soil needs a high content of organic material (carbon based humus). This holds air and water and provides the nutrients for the billions of microscopic life forms (including earth worms) which give soil life. Modern “chemical” farming ignores this imperative as you can see from the unpleasant piles of used animal bedding (potentially manure) which farmers now dump in obscure corners of their land. Of course, it takes time and effort to compost this “waste” so why bother when chemical fertilisers provide easy profits. The farmer is not concerned about (and does not have to pay for) the constant release of carbon dioxide which results. Remember that the process of photosynthesis supported by soil growing plants makes our soil a massive reservoir of carbon. Here again research shows that modern “humus free” agriculture releases about 7 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year.

As organic gardeners we know how vital it is to build up our soils. Indeed a deep humus rich soil is THE essential feature of effective organic growing. Even with my small compost bins each year I can put more than 2 tons of humus onto my 600 or so square metres of garden – barely half an inch over the whole surface. My topsoil is at least 2 feet deep now – easy to work in wet or dry and home to billions of helpful beasties. The plants love it – it makes them drought and disease resistant – tasty too!

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