Question Of The Week: "Topsoil And Civilization"

by Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

History as taught in school emphasized war, conquest, and political leaders; industry and architecture; and, sometimes, religion and art. I became bored with it or, at least, I couldn't put each of these critical elements of civilization in a context that engaged me. Though I didn't really understand it at the time, what I was missing was the natural and cultural history of what was real around our farm in Iowa: land, air, water, and soil; domesticated seed and livestock; tractors, weed control, harvest, and storage; farm-to-market roads, towns, railroads, and barges; hard work, a bountiful crop, and a table filled with food. Farm work, biology classes, and a visit to the State Fair seemed to offer more a sense of reality than these history books.

Then I read Topsoil and Civilization.

Carter and Dale's thesis is that civilization is a function of how we use the resources of the natural world to, first and foremost, feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. A sustainable agricultural system is a prerequisite to civilization. Likewise, an agriculture which depletes the soil and other productive resources will weaken a civilization making it vulnerable to collapse. It's pretty simple, really. People who don't eat don't exist to fight wars, lead nations, build buildings, and worship their god.

Gregor Mendel or Wang Zhen are clearly more pertinent to my life than Alexander or Kant. The cultural legacy embedded in a seed of corn is more valuable than gunpowder or the arch. Local hero Norman Borlaug has likely saved more lives than Hitler destroyed, several times over. And, no, I am not dismissing Alexander, gunpowder, and Hitler as unimportant. Just not as important as agriculture and natural resource conservation. And most historians missed this truth.

Though I would decide that this book is flawed by culturally bigoted analysis and inadequate citations of facts, the truth that the sustainable production of food and fiber is a foundation of all I care about and love has stuck with me. It is why I have chosen agriculture and natural resource conservation as my vocation.