Sustainability through Massive abundance.

Episode 15: Building Soil

How nature and successful civilizations build soil, and how Edenicity will use these models to create a permanently wealthy civilization. If Episode 14 was like Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, today's episode is like The Return of the Jedi.

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What does it mean to be human?
Intro [music]
Green counter-revolution
Soil handling depends on scale and climate
Nature's tools
History's tools
Modern results
Edenicity's soil design
Close [music]

What does it mean to be human?

The word human comes from the Latin root Homo, which you find in words like humus, which is basically soil. The ancient Romans thought of us as soil beings.

In Episode 13 we talked about how the microbial life of soil constitutes Earth's highest technology and how substitutes are very unlikely to be found in the near future. In Episode 14 we discovered that the life span of civilizations is equal to the soil depth divided by the net rate of loss. And indeed, we're losing topsoil at a precarious rate worldwide.

We are bound to the soil, and we have lost so much: an area equal to India and China since World War II. If we want a permanently wealthy civilization, we need to ask: "What does the soil need from us?"

Intro [music]

Cities designed like modern Edens for economic and ecological abundance. I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity.

Welcome to Episode 15, our third installment in the soil trilogy. If the last episode was like The Empire Strikes Back, then this one is the Return of the Jedi.

Green counter-revolution

We'll be talking about nature's tools for creating soil, the green counter revolution, history's tools for creating soil, some modern results, and finally distilling this down to some guiding principles for edenic soil design.

When I first got involved in Permaculture, which is a design discipline that applies ecology to create a permanent agriculture, I visited a venerable inlaw aunt named Betty. She was an 84 year old retired home economics teacher who lived in Sandusky, Ohio, and when she found out that I was interested in organic gardening and possibly even opening a market garden, she said, "well, you can't really feed the world with that stuff."

I immediately knew what she was talking about. You see, in my home economics courses, growing up, I had seen movies about the Green Revolution. And these movies, on old Super 8 loops, showed giant machines and chemical fertilizers and pesticides ending starvation worldwide. What I didn't know at the time was that they did this by ignoring soil life and thereby increasing erosion, as we saw an Episode 14.

As I joined what amounted to the green counter-revolution, I was dismayed to discover how many of my fellow permaculturists badmouthed science. What was going on with them was that they looked at the scientific justifications for the Green Revolution and thought that it had made a terrible mistake. And they were right! But what my peers were doing was equating science with reductionism, which is the idea that all physical phenomena can be reduced to first principles—in other words, a fairly simple set of physical or chemical equations that could then predict all of their future behavior. But in systems that have even a modest amount of complexity, it turns out that you cannot predict the complexity of future behavior with a few simple equations. Even the motions of three planets or moons interacting gravitationally do not yield a very simple, closed form equation that predicts the future behavior. It's chaotic, and there are emergent behaviors, such as chaotic attractors, that are more useful than trying to describe the details of the motion at any given moment.

Now, when you get to soil, as we mentioned in Episode 13, you're dealing with up to a million different species of microorganisms in the living component of the soil, and so the emergent or holistic behavior of that system is really the only thing that we can deal with because even the math to describe what's going on between two or three different species would be too hard for us. And describing the interactions of millions of species would be nearly impossible. And so we have to look at emergent behavior like their overall ability to self regulate and to maintain an environment that is suitable for their continued survival.

Even my colleagues in physics and planetary science sometimes laughed at organic agriculture because in their minds, soil nutrition was just a matter of nitrates, phosphorus, potassium and a handful of other chemicals. The physical structure of soil reduced to a passive sponge. We all kind of had this attitude because it was fed deliberately by the Green Revolution filmstrips back in grade school. But this view of soil does not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Again, refer back to Episode 13 for details.

One of the ways to manage the actual complexity of the world and yet still be informed by science, is to use heuristics or rules of thumb. So let's examine the heuristics that govern soil creation in nature.

Soil handling depends on scale and climate

Now, when I went from backyard gardener to market gardener, I found that I had to completely change my soil strategy because of the huge volume of material required for commercial production. I couldn't simply sheet mulch on a large scale, though I tried. Now sheet mulches is where you lay down a weed barrier such as paper or cardboard and pile it with layers of carbon and nitrogen rich materials such as unfinished compost, straw or leaves. I especially like maple leaves, which rot down to excellent garden soil over winter.

Now, I'm kind of chuckling at this whole idea that I considered market gardening to be this vast enterprise, because by modern farming standards, my property, which was less than a hectare of cleared area, really doesn't count for much. Nevertheless, backyard gardening techniques did not scale very well to even the small scale market gardening techniques that I was engaged in. Instead, I had to tweak the contour of the land, subtly reworking the drainage and putting in terraces on contour, and I had to bring in truckloads of stable bedding from the fairgrounds and leaf mold from the city just to support the very modest output that I had. If I had a bit more space and equipment, I could have employed bio intensive methods at scale to grow mulch crops or graze animals to produce compost inputs. Like I said, it was a very small setup.

The point that I'm making is that the correct strategy will depend on the scale. It will also depend on the climate as the ecosystems in cool climates, drylands and the humid tropics have very different soil interactions.

Nature's tools

According to Geoff Lawton, the director of the Permaculture Research Institute in New South Wales, Australia, nature can produce soil in the following ways, from most to least productive:

First of all, there are the saltwater marshes, second: shallow lakes and ponds, third: leaf litter in deciduous forests, fourth: tight-packed grazing of grasslands, in other words, managed herd interactions, and fifth: garden mulch and compost.

So these are the five tools from nature to build soil. Let's take them one at a time.

The saltwater marshes include mangrove swamps, and the problem is that people like to settle on the coasts, so most of these vital environments are imperiled worldwide. Edenicity therefore needs to focus on inland development and coastal reclamation and restoration.

In Episode 11 we used shallow lakes and ponds in humid climates in Zone 1 aquaponics and in Zone 2 and 3 ponds.

The leaf litter from deciduous forests is good at holding in moisture, so native trees are integral to Edenicity Zones 2 to 5 in all climates.

We use managed herd interactions in the Zone 3 grassland as well as early restoration work in Zone 5 in dry, cool climates and in High Plains. And finally, of course, garden mulch and compost appear in Zone 2 only in Edenicity.

History's tools

Now let's take a trip through history and look at how people have grown soil successfully throughout the world.

In his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David Montgomery talks about ancient Rome. He says. "The earliest Roman farmers planted a multi story canopy of olives, grapes, cereals and fodder crops referred to as cultura promiscua. Interplanting of understory and overstory crops smothered weeds, saved labor and prevented erosion by shielding the ground all year. Roots of each crop reached to different depths and did not compete with each other. Instead, the multi crop system raised soil temperatures and extended the growing season. In the early republic, a Roman family could feed itself working the typical plot of land by hand."

This is one of the best descriptions I've ever read of a universally good food system design. So the ancient Romans had it right to begin with and eventually basically blew it by introducing large plantations and slavery.

In his book Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan, published in 1911, F. H. King writes about some of the practices that he saw in his tour of Asia. He writes about composting, cover crops, crop rotations, irrigation and dietary choices (which included fewer animal products: a very vegetable heavy diet that used far more succulents and aquatics than we do, including lotus plants). He also talked about terracing, natural building materials, fuel, fiber, perennials, silk, tea. It's quite an exhaustive list and is still available as a Dover addition to this day as a excellent tool for designers of permanent agriculture.

Montgomery writes about how the Dutch built dikes to hold land on their changing coastline starting 2,500 years ago. I'm not sure whether my former Dutch housemate from grad school said it, or whether I just use this phrase to tease him from time to time, but there's a very popular saying about the Dutch, which is that "God created the world. The Dutch created the Netherlands."

Now their soils were sandy and poor, as you can imagine being basically beach soils. But they were flat with basically no erosion. So, the Dutch added leaves, manure, anything organic, and gradually built dark rich soil up to a meter thick. Montgomery mentions that the Danes followed suit.

In the Amazon jungles, there were actually large settlements of people as early as 2,000 years ago. Now the thing you should know about tropical rainforests is that most of the fertility is in the trees or in the duff on the forest floor. There's very little that's mixed in with the topsoil. So to make long term agriculture possible, the Amazonians had to increase the ability of the soil to hold onto nutrients and also to soil microbes. And so they did this by adding charcoal, excrement, pot shards, bones, cremated human remains—and gradually managed to double the organic matter in the topsoil and increase its thickness from 30 cm to 2 meters in places. They may have even inoculated the soil with microorganisms from the healthiest soils they could find, according to Montgomery.

In the last episode, we talked about the nightmare of Easter Island. By contrast, though, there's the success story of Tikopia, an island in the Solomon Group that's just five square kilometers. It was settled 2,900 years ago and followed at first almost the same script as Easter Island: forest clearing and cultivation, which led to erosion predictably enough. And this depleted the stock of native birds, mollusks and fish to the point where, at about 700 years, the Islanders shifted their diet more toward pigs.

Now, at the close of their first millennium on the island, they had already clearly made a lot more good choices than the inhabitants of Rapa Nui had on Easter Island. What's the evidence? Well, they were still there, and they still had choices. So at about this point, they shifted to tree crops. The archaeological evidence shows that there was much less burning for agriculture, and they gradually began to grow multi layer gardens. These had coconut-breadfruit overstories, an understory of yam and taro, and by their 23rd century, they even got rid of the pigs, which had a terrible habit of tearing up their gardens. And Tikopia is still going strong today.

Meanwhile, in the Americas in Peru, the Culca Valley still thrives after 1,500 years of inter cropping, terracing, crop rotations with legumes that replaced the nitrogen in the soil, following adding manure and ash to the soil, and no till methods that involve seeding with the chisel-like implement, according to Montgomery. The top soil in their region is up to 1.3 meters thicker than the surrounding areas.

So these are just a few highlights of historical successes. What about the modern era?

Modern results

Well, in the United States, George Washington spent a lot of time in his youth experimenting with crop rotation, covers and manure, and he wrote about how miserably defective we are in the management of our lands, according to Montgomery. He realized that largest estates can't improve their soils, so he divided his land into smaller tracts and gave tenants more incentive to maintain the soil.

Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson became a huge advocate of plowing along the contours of his hilly estates. And what I mean by along the contours is that as you move along the hill, you are neither going uphill nor downhill, but you stay along a constant line of altitude, or contour. He even took pains to note that you had to be very careful not to deviate from this track, or you would cause erosion on your hillsides.

A couple minutes ago, I talked about how the Dutch built soils in Holland. Well, they brought some of this expertise with them to Pennsylvania when they and their German neighbors settled. And the soil among the Pennsylvania Dutch has prospered.

Meanwhile, back in the Old World in Paris in the mid 1800s, a sixth of the city was farmed using horse manure to produce all the fruits and vegetables and greens that were consumed in the city. And this gave rise to what is known today as the French Intensive gardening technique.

In 1843 John Burnett laws used his chemical fertilizer patents to bankroll his Rothamsted Farm, North of London. Here his farm ran tests of organic versus chemical methods continuously until 1975. The result? The manured plots held three times as much nitrogen in the soil as it had at the start of the experiment, while the super phosphate and nitrate treated fields lost it all to their crops and to runoff.

Why the huge difference? Well, bear in mind that the treated soils were essentially dead. Lacking the vast biodiversity that we discussed in Episode 13, they were at a huge disadvantage when it came to holding on to nutrients and making them available to plants.

In the 1920s, at the Institute of Plant Industry in Indore, India, Sir Albert Howard developed a composting method that worked at large scale. This started to catch on in northern Africa and Central America until the weapons plants that had supplied the various powers in World War I started cranking out fertilizers instead of the nitrates used in bombs. This worried Howard, who wrote, according to Montgomery, "the slow poisoning of the life of the soil by artificial matures, is one of the greatest calamities which has befallen agriculture and mankind."

During World War II, Edward Faulkner wrote Plowman's Folly, which was a searing critique of plowing. He went on to pioneer no-till techniques, which followed the dictum that we came away with in Episode 14 that there should be no bare soil.

When I was living in Athens ,Ohio, one of the ironies that I found was that the best no-till techniques were hard to implement on the very small scale. I have market gardening colleagues who found no-till elusive because they lacked the moderately heavy equipment that it took to make it work. By contrast, my barber in Athens, who owned 80 hectares of farmland, routinely used no-till to plant corn and soy. The basic idea of no-till is that you cut down your residues from your prior crop and use that as a mulch for your future crops. And the challenge is, how do you plant into a rolled down or cut down cover crop? It's hard to actually get the seeds into the soil. So in practice that takes rather specialized machinery or really, really laborious hand labor.

One of the questions that comes up with organic farming, especially when you look at the food prices for organic foods, is that it certainly can't be economically competitive with Green Revolution farming on its own right. But various studies at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania over the years have shown that organic intensive crops can have yields that are about the same as Green Revolution crops, with 1/3 higher yields, at least for corn in dry years, with 1/3 of the US energy inputs, 1/3 more labour inputs and overall costs 15% lower. So, in fact, the end result is that intensive organic methods are actually more profitable than chemical intensive methods.

Montgomery also cites several additional studies with similar results from coast to coast in the United States.

What about that Sahel drought in West Africa that we talked about in the last episode? Well, there's a little footnote to that. In satellite images in this land that was permanently damaged by that terrible drought, there was a green pentagon, and it turned out that there was a large ranch that had been fenced off in five sectors, and cattle had been allowed to graze one sector per year, allowing a very long fallow period for the vegetation to come back. Amazingly enough, this area was almost unaffected by the drought.

In 1989, the National Research Council in the United States noted that small alternative farms have lower costs, higher yields, fewer inputs and generally are better for the environment and public health than chemical farming. In 1992, the U. S. Agricultural census pointed out that small farms had yields that were 2 to 10 times more than big industrial farms, and that the very smallest farms had yields that were up to 100 times as much per hectare as the larger farms. That is a really huge difference that we're going to use in designing Edenicity.

In my 2007 book, Gaiome: Notes on Ecology, Space Travel and Becoming Cosmic Species, I wrote about what happened on Cuba during its special period in the 1990's. I'll just read to you straight from my book:

"Cuba, an island nation, with 11 million people, once depended on income from cash crops such as sugar, which it sold above market price to the Soviet Union. The country was far from self-sufficient, importing most of its rice and other food staples and buying its oil at below market prices from the USSR. Its huge, State-run sugar plantations were ultramodern using more machinery, chemical fertilizers and pesticides per capita than the United States.

"With the withdrawal of Soviet oil in 1991 and the subsequent embargoes that cut 80% of its exports and imports, Cuba suddenly became a gigantic experiment in self-sufficiency. Energy intensive farming came to an abrupt standstill and food rationing began. Before the food situation stabilized, the average Cuban had lost 13 kilograms.

"During this special period, Cuba decentralized its farms, allowing small cooperatives to grow and sell produce in farmers markets—maximizing connections and diversifying supply. Diets shifted away from energy intensive meat and dairy and toward more fresh produce, minimizing work and pollution. Permaculturirsts arrived from as far as Australia to provide educational assistance, especially in rebuilding the soils that had been depleted of soil microbes and other natural capital by chemical agriculture.

"In Havana, people began growing food on rooftops and any vacant parcel of land which applied the permaculture principle of stacking functions. Soon such Zone 1 gardening would provide half the vegetables consumed in the sprawling city of 2.2 million people.

"Today (that is to say, in 2007), Cuba is self-sufficient in food, 80% of it organic. The nation uses 21 times less pesticide per capita than the USA. And yields are improving as its soils recover from past abuse."

In Episode 14 I mentioned the Dust Bowl in the American and Russian loess deposits. Well, China also has a large loess region, that is to say, a region very fine grained soil, usually from glacial till moved around by the wind and deposited in giant heaps. The loess plateau in China, as mentioned in the previous episode, is the source of the Yellow River, which has sometimes been named in China as China's Sorrow. The area was absolutely desolate by the mid 1990s, when the World Bank and the Chinese government got involved in seeing if they could restore the landscape.

They made the very wise decision of hiring a filmmaker, John D. Liu, to document the process. Now perhaps another episode will go into a lot more detail, but basically you've got an area that's absolutely huge. It's about 3.2 million hectares: the size of Belgium. It looks like a desert. There were few, if any, trees at all, and what little plant life that was there barely hung on. It was overgrazed. The population was terribly impoverished. Yet over a period of about a decade, working very closely with the local people, the government of China and the hydrologists that they were able to bring in and various people from the World Bank were able to restore the ecology of the landscape at a large scale.

Their strategy was quite simple and drew straight from our playbook from the last episode: they got people and cattle off of the hilltops and hillsides, terraced the lower slopes of the hills, and planted the hillsides in Forest Reserve. So by basically taking a large percentage of the land out of production, they were able to increase the production of the rest of land at least threefold. And raise incomes by a similar amount over just a decade.

If you ever get a chance, have a look at the video that I've linked in the program notes, as well as Liu's continued work, which he documented in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Jordan applying the same principles there. By the way, Liu has also launched a global network of Ecosystem Restoration Camps that's well worth a visit, and on online course in ecosystem restoration that brings in experts from around the world. I've gone ahead and put the links in the program notes.

Now that green Pentagon in the Sahel is kind of an advertisement for a method called holistic grazing, which had been pioneered by a man named Allan Savory. In his TED talk, which I've linked in the program notes, he asserts that only his method could basically save the world from catastrophic climate change. He has many detractors and skeptics, but the success of that green Pentagon suggests that, at least in the right climate, grazing cattle holistically in a way that simulates the buffalo herds that graze the high plains in the United States and the other grazing herds that have grazed the loess throughout the planet and kept it stable for 200,000 years, may have a real role to play in large scale ecosystem restoration.

So these are the modern results that we can add to nature's tools to design better cities. So let's examine Edenicity's strategy for retaining its soils for permanent wealth.

Edenicity's soil design

First, there's the location: neither hills nor floodplains, and preferably if you can manage it, on the loess. Montgomery points out that the loess areas of the world have relatively low biodiversity but are excellent for agricultural uses.

Second, let's look at the scale. Most of the food, as mentioned in Episode 9, is grown right where people live: In Zone 1, it's right on the rooftop of your building, and in Zone 2, that's basically the block where you live. Consistent with local control and finding the proper scale, I figured that some 8% of the population would be involved in agriculture or land restoration. This compares to about 1 to 2% in the United States today. But it also compares favorably to the 10% who garden at home in the U.S. and the 70% who garden at home in places like Russia. The Aquaponics systems in the Zone 1 rooftop gardens would use 12 kilowatt hours per person per month, and this would be solar energy and I'm using sort of middling figures for the yields. So I'm not even using the highest possible yields for those systems. And although you do have to feed the fish for an aquaponics system, for every pound of feed, you get about 30 pounds of vegetables, so it leverages your resources very well. And when you think about it in terms of natural soil creation hierarchy, the Aquaponics tap into the highest fertility system available (or actually second highest).

For Zones 2 and 3, I've plugged in just four times the standard agricultural outputs. This is well below the National Research Council's findings and the Census figures that I mentioned from 1989 and 1992. So basically, I'm being quite conservative in estimating their capabilities. In Zone 3, we have cows on pasture manuring the fields, as they have in every successful European civilization, and these would yield a few ounces of cheese per week per person and maybe a few ounces of meat per month per person. So the yields are quite low and quite in line with the very healthy Asian diets that King documented in his Farmers of Forty Centuries book.

For the really hard core carnivores for quite some time, the restoration zones (Zone 5) would no doubt include some large scale animal grazing, perhaps by Buffalo. And although some people have made some claims that free-range beef has different omega 3 ratios and therefore different health effects than grain fed beef, the jury is still out. So we'll know before too long whether there are any negative health effects involved in that.

When it comes to nutrient recovery, which is to say, waste recovery, the techniques that are available today in sewage treatment plants are perfectly sufficient, and so this could happen in the industrial zones of Edenicity. Here in Columbus, there's this product called Com-Til, which has for 25 years been a mainstay garden product. And basically it uses some of the solid wastes from the local sewage treatment plants composted with yard wastes to become a garden amendment.

Ideally, I think it would be valuable in the long term to dedicate from 1 to 5% of the villages in Edenicity to testing highly promising new ecosystem restoration technologies. One that comes to mind is eco-machines, which was developed by John Todd, and it's currently operating out of Ocean Arcs International. And what an Eco-machine does basically is, it converts sewage into flowers and fresh water, and it does it in an environment that reportedly doesn't stink. So again, I'd like to see that tried with the traditional waste recovery systems available as a backup, at least in the first few Edenicity installations.

The final advantage of Edenicity, though, for agriculture is that it takes place in a city where it's easy to meet with other farmers, compare notes, get feedback, conduct research and have access to educational institutions with their archives and research tools. I mean, I know what it's like working on a farm half an hour from a university library. Can you imagine working on a farm 4 minutes from the biggest library in the city, and the biggest university as well?

Anyway, The Edenicity design incorporates best practices dating back to the earliest and most successful days of the Roman Republic and adds to them the no-till results of the modern era and perhaps some of the Terra Preta techniques pioneered in Mesoamerica to give us truly permanent agriculture.

Along the way, it would also cut carbon dioxide emissions by 100% by design, as well as sequestering carbon dioxide in the soil. When you also include the Zone 5 areas that I mentioned in Episode 11, the net effect of moving to an Edenicity style civilization is that we can sequester carbon 10 times faster than the world is currently producing it, or 4 times faster than we are here in the United States right now.

Let's close by talking about the Edenicity agricultural workforce. As I mentioned in Episode 11, Edenicity might employ 440,000 workers in agriculture and ecosystem repair. This is 8% of the population: a far higher number than the 1 to 2% that you find in these sectors in the United States today. But the relationship that we have with the land right now largely ignores and disregards the vast technology embodied in the soil. So compare that 8% to the 20% who worked the land in China, which in some regions has maintained soil fertility at high population density for 40 plus centuries, or to the Culca Valley in Peru, which has done so for 15 centuries, or to Tikopia in the Solomon Islands, which has maintained a successful civilization for 29 centuries.

With a deeper understanding of soil ecology, we realized that agricultural workers are actually working with the highest technology ever. Think about that: the gardeners of the future may get their hands just as dirty as they do today, but they will be the highest of high tech workers.

Close [music]

If you enjoyed episode 15 please be sure to subscribe so you don't miss a show. If you haven't done so already, please visit the news like that to download a copy of the Reference Design. Until next time, I'm Kev Polk, and this has been Edenicity.


Edenicity 15: Building Soil

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