OUT OF THE EARTH: Civilization and the Life of the Soil by Daniel Hillel

OUT OF THE EARTH: Civilization and the Life of the Soil

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Soil physicist Hillel (Univ. of Mass.) has consulted around the world on issues of erosion, irrigation, and soil and water management. Here, he makes clear that abuse of the environment is nothing new. Exploitation, Hillel explains, has occurred since earliest prehistory and took a momentous leap with the development of agriculture: ""Contrary to the idealistic vision of prophet Isaiah, the plowshare bas been far more destructive than the sword."" The highly productive irrigated agriculture of the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile valleys led to the insidious problem of land degradation; environmental abuses such as deforestation, overcultivation, and overgrazing were important contributing factors to the fall of the Roman Empire; and intensification of agriculture, with its consequent leaching, erosion, and silting, might explain the Mayan collapse. Today, the old ""man-induced"" scourges are repeated on a larger scale along with new problems from pesticides and fertilizer residue; domestic and industrial wastes, including toxic chemicals; and practices causing global climate change and wholesale extinction of species. Among Hillel's examples of the ""unforseen yet fateful"" environmental consequences of human intervention are the saline seep phenomenon in Australia (the delayed result of land clearing a century earlier), the current crisis of irrigated fanning in California, the disastrous disappearance of the Aral Sea in Soviet Central Asia, the Great Plains ""Dust Bowl"" phenomenon of the 1930's and its current counterpart in sub-Saharan Africa, where an ecological catastrophe is in the making. Worldwide, reform is difficult when the reward of exploitation is cash in hand but the fatal consequences are distant and general. Worse, says Hillel, our economists have contributed to the mismanagement by placing financial considerations over environmental concerns. Yet sustainable agriculture is possible, he says, and he ends on a note of ""conditional optimism."" An enlightening overview from an interesting perspective.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1990
ISBN: 0520080807
Publisher: Free Press/Macmillan