Don Sanderson: Mining the Earth


I found the October 11 blog article Soils and Souls: The Promise of the Land by Robert Jensen on target, as could be expected. Still, this stimulated some thoughts that have long been at the back of my mind on related topics that seldom seem to be mentioned by any of these individuals, yet appear to me to be as crucial for our consideration, likely our human survival, as theirs.

Wendell Berry speaks elsewhere about the soil of his home farm as having been wrung of its fertility in the nineteenth century by tobacco cropping, even though this was surely done prior to cheap oil, without chemical fertilizers or artificial pesticides, and with horse and human power. When tobacco was harvested, the entire plants were cut off and removed from the field together with all the mineral nutrients they contained. In effect, since none of these minerals were returned nor the rotting organic matter required for the soil’s tilth, the land was in effect mined to death. Unlike the coal miners, mountains may not have been removed, but this had similar economic effects on surrounding communities.

When the pioneers first encountered the several feet deep soils of the Great Plains in the middle nineteenth century, they couldn’t have imagined that in only a few decades, mostly using oxen and horse power and those big plows, it would be mined until only a few inches remained. Much of that blew away in the early thirties. This was a replay of what happened thousands of years earlier in what was then the Fertile Crescent, at least that part that stretched across Palestine north and then east through Mesopotamia, and in nearby areas in what is now Turkey and Greece.

In fact, all modern farming and gardening practices are versions of mining, although most are not as intensive as that as raising tobacco – haying is surely so as is raking mown lawns. To maintain productivity, minerals must be returned to the land, usually as inorganic fertilizers by non-organic farmers. Organic farmers somehow or another are required to return the minerals with composed organic materials. The plant sources of these organic fertilizers must have been raised organically, so mining is going on there as well, probably by removing all green growth as was done in the tobacco fields. But wait, those fields also had to be fertilized by organic materials originating elsewhere on fields that must have been themselves organically fertilized. Where does this end? I guess if we shove it back far enough, we’ll forget about it.

An aside: Industrial organics, most of those certified organic groceries, are nearly as dependent upon oil as the non-organics – for processing, packaging, transport, and handling wastes as well as mechanical cultivation. Many of them are also dependent upon cheap and abused illegal alien labor, which is another negative energy aspect of intensive industrial agriculture, organic or not. We love our Fair Trade imported chocolates and coffees; imagine insisting that our foods produced in the United States be Fair Trade as well. Commercial organic foods may be marginally healthier for you to consume, but that is only a small distracting corner of the whole picture.

On the Great Plains, before European farming methods arrived, all the minerals that were removed from the soil by growing plants were returned when the plants died or in the manure of consuming and bodies of dying animals. Everything was recycled close to its origin in true organic style. Further, while buffaloes certainly plowed the soil surface with their hoofs and rodents stirred it up more deeply in certain spots, this wasn’t the rule as it was to become with the arrival of plows. Indeed, when the soil surface was broken up by these native animals, good places for seed germination were exposed, especially since manure was also in abundance.

As described in F.H. King’s 1911, “Farmers of Forty Centuries: Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan”,  those Asians maintained the health of their farm soils for millennia by recycling all wastes including human manure, just as was done on the earlier Great Plains. The Asians have now all gone to modern sanitary systems and must depend upon mineral fertilizers. A few here have thought of recycling sewage today, but since our commercial foods originate on the average from 1,500 to 2,000 miles away, it is unimaginable how this would be economically accomplished. Anyhow, our feces and urine are so overloaded with the chemical stuff we consume – pharmaceuticals are leading examples – that can’t be removed by composting, this would likely poison any receiving soil. As another hurdle, sewage contains the chemical remains of laundries and other cleaning activities as well as of personal care concoctions, so much derived from, you guessed it, oil.

So, it seems we’re stuck with mineral fertilizers, even at some point in organic production, carried by oil guzzlers. These include the essential plant nutrients potassium (from potash) and phosphorus (from phosphates). Locations at which these may be extensively mined are few, so significant transportation is nearly always involved. Further, as is true for many of our other non-renewable resources, including of course oil, both potash and phosphates are in increasingly short supply. The third essential plant nutrient, nitrogen, is normally manufactured from natural gas. Yes, I know about legumes, but this way would interfere with production of economically valuable crops. It’s not efficient and efficiency drives this economy, so drop it.

Soil tilth is accomplished by sequestering carbonaceous materials from rotting vegetation. Don’t you love that word sequester; in my thesaurus, confiscate, appropriate, impound, and seize are synonyms. We’re going to solve global climate change by seizing carbon dioxide and impounding it in the ground. In fact, we have no idea how much agricultural soil tilth destruction has contributed to global warming, but likely a significant percentage, particularly increasingly in this era of oil-soaked agriculture.

There are other chapters in this story: Soil tilth slows the flow of water and holds vital minerals in suspension near plants roots. When soil has little tilth, as in most intensively farmed areas, water carrying mineral and nitrogen fertilizers passes quickly through to pollute the ground water, then on to streams, rivers, and finally the ocean. On arriving at their destination, the fertilizers promote algal blooms that drain the water of oxygen and so kill all other oxygen-breathing organisms. This has likely caused more damaged to a wide area beyond the Mississippi’s mouth than BP’s oil geyser.

Our ever increasing population, another result of the fossil fuel glut and intensive agriculture, is faced with a dilemma. The only long term, maybe short term, way out appears to be to return to the simplicity of the pre-agricultural Great Plains as far as we are able, in particular to learn to recycle all our shit close to it’s origins while carefully keeping it clean of modern chemical corruption. This would be true organic permaculture. Hey, the Plains Indians lived there just fine for perhaps ten thousand years and pre-agricultural human species have been wandering the Earth for over two million, not only surviving but out-competing all the competition. Of course, for almost all of us that such a lifestyle surely wouldn’t be tolerable or even possible, would it? Need I say that those few of us left may have no choice.

Ok, we don’t want to go there. Anyway, the buffalo, other game, and native vegetation are almost all gone. What do we do? Install solar panels and pat ourselves on the back, even though solar panel manufacture is heavily fossil fuel-dependent and polluting? Pray that the engineers save us with a wonderful new energy source, one that won’t burn up the Earth – if it isn’t already too late? Maybe hydrogen is the answer, but can enough hydrogen be produced to fuel the production and distribution of hydrogen and the manufacture of all the vehicles and other equipment to make use of it? Remember the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The same oil-reliance conundrum hangs over nuclear energy, but we want to stay positive and believe. Still, if a clean energy miracle happens, what about all the other non-renewable resources that are being exhausted, shoved away in land fills or poured in the oceans? All those essential plant nutrients as examples? Mine the Moon, Mars? Yes, this civilization may take a century or so to wind down and we personally won’t be there. Or, maybe not? Maybe economic collapse and/or climate change are coming roaring down upon us like a mad grizzly and will solve this soil demineralization problem for us in just a little while.

Clearly, it seems to me, a way to slow all this down a bit is to get off the industrial agricultural nipple, to stop buying all those processed, packaged, and especially frozen groceries delivered from God knows where, and to cook using local seasonally fresh ingredients from small farmers or, better yet, your own garden and poultry flock. Aw, but you say, we work for ole massa so many hours to pay our mortgage or rent payments to ole massa, our vehicle upkeep and loan payments to ole massa, our credit card payments to ole massa, and on and on. So, we have no choice by to rely on ole massa for convenience groceries. To escape, we submerge ourselves in television, movies, radio, computer games, facebook, and other electronic gizmos brought to us by, you guessed it, ole massa.

There is so much Pollyanna stuff out there that only tends to sooth our worries without really addressing the depths of our dilemma – let’s go to the tea party or dive into some other distraction. Enjoy the festivity while it lasts. Yah, yah, I’m so negative. We must have hope, don’t we? I disagree. We need to be realistic. We’ve pretty much blown it. We’ve been given too many brains and not enough heart. But, that’s the way it is. Most of us are trying to do the best we can. No use crying over the past.

My answer is to live as simply as I can get away with, which isn’t nearly enough. We are scratch cooks, actually Marlene is, and get all of our food locally, much from our own garden, orchard, and chicken flock – except for some grains, nuts, chocolate, and tea. In fact, tea plants grow quite well here and we have a small one in front of our house, our corn crop provides great cornmeal, our almond, walnut, and pecan trees show promise, and the local grain CSA may provide some answers. We are also fortunate to be able to add a lot of composted grape pulp to our garden, which I know is cheating. Alas, there are no local origin sources for our clothing, shoes, fencing, building materials, or metal tools, we’re still stuck on electricity for many purposes, and we must drive to town a couple times a week because even local sources aren’t close by.

Still, I conclude the world would be a quite different place with more promising prospects if Marlene and I were the average. But, there is no way such a lifestyle could succeed in metropolitan areas and the capitalist economy wouldn’t survive. A crash is surely coming, or maybe just a fade away. I have little expectation that our grandchildren or great grandchildren will have long happy lives, nor those of yours. Please show me where I’m mistaken.