This article is part of a series of adapted excerpts from “Bitcoin Is Venice” by Allen Farrington and Sacha Meyers, which is available for purchase on Bitcoin Magazine’s store now.
“The first agricultural communities reached Europe’s doorstep in southern Bulgaria around 5300 BC. At first farmers grew wheat and barley in small fields surrounding a few timber-framed buildings. Agricultural expansion into marginal land lasted about two thousand years before the agricultural potential of the region was fully exploited and persistent cultivation began to exhaust the soil. With no evidence of a climate shift, local populations grew and then declined as agricultural settlement swept through the area. Evidence for extensive late Neolithic soil erosion shows that agriculture spread from small areas of arable soils on the valley bottoms into highly erodible forest soils on steeper slopes. Eventually, the landscape filled in with small communities of several hundred people farming the area within about a mile of their village.
“In these first European communities, population rose slowly before a rapid decline that emptied settlements out for five hundred to a thousand years, until the first traces of Bronze Age cultures then appeared. This pattern suggests a fundamental model of agricultural development in which prosperity increases the capacity of the land to support people, allowing the population to expand to use the available land. Then, having eroded soils from marginal land, the population contracts rapidly before soil rebuilds in a period of low population density.”
–David Montgomery, “Dirt: The Erosion Of Civilizations”
We find soil erosion to be the perfect example of an environmental issue for our purposes for a number of reasons: It is caused locally and can only be fixed locally, even though the consequences are global; it is entirely obviously a problem of time preference which results from an obsession with maximizing flows rather than nurturing, replenishing, and growing stocks; but most of all, it does not seem to us to be commonly appreciated or even understood to be a problem. In fact, many of its consequences are celebrated.
Hence, it is, to our minds, a more worthwhile problem to discuss in the context of being a problem, because contemporary society has been propagandized to not take it seriously, if it is even noticed at all. We think, therefore, that the terms of the following discussion can effectively be airdropped into any number of better-known and more widely appreciated environmental debates — emissions, pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, etc. — but that in doing so its effect, its sting, will be lessened ever-so-slightly. Soil erosion is our exemplar of high-time preference society strip mining environmental capital.[i]
Much like our commentary in “Client/Server Fiat Finance,” comparing Andrew Jackson and the Bank of the United States nearly 200 years ago to Tarek El Diwany and the Bank of England barely 10 years ago, soil erosion is by no means a temporally or geographically isolated phenomenon. Its specter has haunted every civilization in recorded history.
In “Rome’s Fall Reconsidered,” Vladimir Simkhovitch[ii] writes, first of all somewhat tongue-in-cheek:
“What is the cause of this moral corruption and degeneration of which all Roman writers of the period complain?
“In that very same ode Horace tells us why he takes so desperate a view of things. The great deeds of the Romans were the deeds of a sturdy farmer race … and these farmers’ sons existed no longer. If they could not maintain themselves on their farms, still worse were the chances for a respectable existence in Rome; there they lost what little they have and became demoralized, dependent paupers.”
Later, Simkhovitch more seriously identifies:
“The process of concentration followed many parallel routes. Indebtedness was undoubtedly the greatest factor in abolishing small holdings. Unproductivity of agriculture naturally led to cattle-ranches which required much larger holdings. Wealthy men acquired and accumulated vast domains rather for the pleasure of possession than as a paying investment. But the process of deterioration went on, and legislative interferences could neither stop the robbing of the soil nor the depreciation of land values.”
And finally, to link culture, finance and soil fertility so as to come full circle, Simkhovitch asks:
“Why then did the Roman farmers fail to improve their methods of agriculture even when pressed by necessity to do so, even when threatened with extermination? It was easier said than done. Behind our abstract agricultural reflections are concrete individual farms … the owners of the rundown farms are impoverished, and when a farmer is economically sinking, he is not in a position to improve his land.
“Only one with sufficient resources can improve his land. By improving land, we add to our capital, while by robbing land we add immediately to our income; in doing so, however, we diminish out of all proportion our capital as farmers, the productive value of our farm land. The individual farmer can therefore improve his land only when in an economically strong position. A farmer who is failing to make a living on his farm is more likely to exploit his farm to the utmost; and when there is no room for further exploitation, he is likely to meet the deficit by borrowing, and thus pledging the future productivity of his farm. Such is the process that as a rule leads to his losing possession of his homestead and his fields, and to his complete proletarisation.”
Montgomery likewise is not describing a purely historical curiosity, but rather a permanent feature of the struggle to sustain civilization, as dire an issue today as it has ever been in the past. He warns:
“Across the planet, moderate to extreme soil erosion has degraded 1.2 billion hectares of agricultural land since 1945 — an area the size of China and India combined. One estimate places the amount of agricultural land used and abandoned in the past fifty years as equal to the amount farmed today. The United Nations estimates that 38 percent of global cropland has been seriously degraded since the Second World War. Each year farms around the world lose 75 billion metric tons of soil. A 1995 review of the global effects of soil erosion reported the loss of twelve million hectares of arable land each year to soil erosion and land degradation. This would mean that the annual loss of arable land is almost 1 percent of the total available. Clearly this is not sustainable.
“Globally, average cropland erosion of ten to a hundred tons per hectare per year removes soil about ten to a hundred times faster than it forms. So far in the agricultural era, nearly a third of the world’ potentially farmable land has been lost to erosion, most of it in the past forty years. In the late 1980s a Dutch-led assessment of global soil erosion found that almost 2 billion hectares of former agricultural lands could no longer support crops. That much land could feed billions of people. We are running out of dirt we cannot afford to lose.”
Montgomery makes the connection here to the ultimate utility of healthy soil: feeding people. Global soil erosion threatens humanity’s collective ability to adequately feed itself: a dramatically necessary precondition of any other kinds of capital accumulation. Practitioners of hyper-degenerate hyper-fiat “yield farming” on so-called “cryptocurrencies” are living off the surplus of real yield a real farmer somewhere has harvested.
And yet the results of inadequate care for the capital stock of arable land go well beyond the sheer quantity of calorific output. There are problems in terms of quality potentially much deeper still. The levels of glyphosate, the chief ingredient in the most widely-used herbicide in the U.S., Roundup, in the breast milk of American women has been found to be around a thousand times the level allowed in European drinking water.
Glyphosate also impedes absorption and translocation of calcium, magnesium and selenium in soil, and overexposure is thought to be a leading cause of the recent unprecedented prevalence of celiac disease, breast, thyroid, liver, kidney and pancreatic cancer, and myeloid leukemia. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified Glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” In an article titled, “Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?” and even more tellingly subtitled, “Because of soil depletion, crops grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today,” Scientific American reported on a landmark study by Donald Davis from the University of Texas with the startling summary that Davis’s team:
“Studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits, finding ‘reliable declines’ in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorous, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century. Davis and his colleagues chalk up this declining nutritional content to the preponderance of agricultural practices designed to improve traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) other than nutrition.”
We are not only strip mining the land; we are strip mining human health.
The reader may well be wondering if this is all a hobby horse of the authors and be unsure where this is all going and what — if anything — it has to do with capital or capitalism. Just in case this is so, we repeat one of the first quoted extracts of “Bitcoin Is Venice” and this series which the reader may have forgotten by now; from Henri Pirenne’s “Medieval Cities”:
“Lombardy, where from Venice on the east and Pisa and Genoa on the west all the commercial movements of the Mediterranean flowed and were blended into one, flourished with an extraordinary exuberance. On the wonderful plain cities bloomed with the same vigor as the harvests. The fertility of the soil made possible for them an unlimited expansion, and at the same time the ease of obtaining markets favored both the importation of raw materials and the exportation of manufactured products. There, commerce gave rise to industry, and as it developed, Bergamo, Cremona, Lodi, Verona, and all the old towns, all the old Roman municipia, took on new life, far more vigorous than that which had animated them in antiquity.”
Soil was not sufficient to the Renaissance, but it was necessary, for the very simple reason that it underpins all capital formation. It is literally the original capital that must be nurtured, replenished and grown in order to sustain capital formation of any other kind.
Henry Kissinger is known for the rather menacing aphorism, “Who controls the food supply controls the people; who controls the energy can control continents; who controls money can control the world.”
We have covered how Bitcoin completely re-localizes the money, and goes to great lengths, if not total, to re-localize the energy, but the food supply is worth digging into a little further.
The food supply is the yield of the carrying capacity of arable land. This is why soil erosion matters, and matters greatly. It may often take the form of literal strip mining, but arguably more importantly it is capital strip mining. Entirely aside from it being a barely well-known or publicized problem, this is why we consider it to be the perfect example of environmental capital that ought to be nurtured, replenished and grown, yet is not. Unlike biodiversity loss, for example, soil erosion is a distinctly human and communal problem.
Soil literally is capital. It has a carrying capacity and a yield that has human utility. This is by no means to dismiss biodiversity loss, carbon emissions or other forms of environmental damage, and we absolutely insist that virtually every such problem is ultimately caused by short-termism and selfishness or stupidity in general, but more specifically that all are motivated by degenerate fiat finance and money. However, we make no apologies whatsoever for placing human beings above all other life forms and ecosystems, for two exceedingly simple reasons, one philosophical and one practical.
Philosophically, only humans care. Only humans can go out their way to protect other life forms. Many contemporary environmental activists,[iii] as opposed to real environmentalists or what might be more easily understood and appreciated by the label conservationists, would do well to remember that “the environment” is not a benign spirit of peace and harmony. In moral terms, it’s very nearly pure evil. Everything in “the environment,” including the environment itself, is either indifferent to your pain and suffering and willing to take advantage of it, or is actively trying to kill you.
Like Bitcoin, it doesn’t care, but unlike Bitcoin, that apathy is reflected in unrelenting violence. Humans and humans alone care and self-regulate their capacity for violence and use their surplus time and energy above subsistence to attempt to protect and conserve the environment that is constantly trying to kill them. Humans alone have advanced to civilization, or, personal sacrifice and interpersonal compromise in the pursuit of the fruits of voluntary cooperation rather than immediate-term selfish violence. While many plants and animals might appear to plan and act for the future, only humans have a time preference that they arrive at intellectually rather than merely instinctively. And, of course, in the very, very, very long run — the kind of time horizons over which Bitcoin makes one think and take seriously — life on earth will eventually be annihilated if humans cannot develop the technological means of grafting it onto an extra-terrestrial ecosystem.
Practically, the only rational hope for protecting non-human life forms and ecosystems is to first and foremost prevent human suffering. Desperate, suffering, and mal-incentivized humans will inevitably destroy things. They will consume capital — and more. They will consume resources that do not even have an economic carrying capacity in the first place, do not constitute capital, and hence do not damage human relations but damage only the environment. They will cause biodiversity loss, for example, without a second thought. Indisputably the most environmentally damaging governments have been communist — an ideology hardly known for its valuing of capital or its propensity to avoid suffering, desperation and mal-incentivization amongst the governed. Not just to avoid the never-ending disaster of communism, but to protect the environment from any form of collective human endeavor, the incentives must be fixed.
This all sheds high-modernist efforts to “protect” the environment by arrogantly engineering it beyond belief or recognition in a particularly hilarious light. There are too many examples to list anywhere near exhaustively, but let us consider just a few, from a range of times and places. “Seeing Like A State” begins with an extensive analysis of German “scientific” forestry in the early 19th century. The attempt to use “science” to “manage” forests and optimize the output of timber, with repeated scare quotes because, of course, it was anything but scientific, and the forests were not managed so much as destroyed. We won’t quote what runs for 20 or so pages, but we will offer a shorter, pithier summary of the fallout instead:
“A new term, Waldsterben (forest death), entered the German vocabulary to describe the worst cases. An exceptionally complex process involving soil building, nutrient uptake, and symbiotic relations among fungi, insects, mammals, and flora — which were, and still are, not entirely understood — was apparently disrupted, with serious consequences. Most of these consequences can be traced to the radical simplicity of the scientific forest.”
Or consider Allan Savory’s frustration at the modern treatment of livestock, both what bovine animals are and are not used for in modern agriculture, writing in “Holistic Management”:
“No other aspect of Holistic Management has caused such controversy as the suggested set of animal impact has. That trampling by livestock damages both plants and soils is a deeply held belief throughout the world… Some range scientists have for years rejected the one idea that has more promise of solving the riddle of desertification than any other. Meanwhile, they have supported the development of machines of extraordinary size and cost to break soil crusts and disturb vegetation through mechanical impact toward the same end. Because we have now lost most of the large herding wildlife species, and the predators that induced their movement, we are left only with livestock in most instances to stimulate that role, which we do by bunching them (there is no need to panic or stampede them), using herding or fencing, and planning their moves. There is no other tool than animal impact, I believe, that can do more to regenerate the world’s damaged soils and reverse desertification.
“Unfortunately, livestock — cattle and goats in particular — are generally seen as an enemy of the land and wildlife, rather than its savior. Recent concern over the methane released by ruminating cattle has reinforced this view. Yet, as far as we know, all ruminants — buffalo, bison, antelope, sheep, goats, pronghorn, deer, giraffe, and the like — produce methane as a by-product of rumination. Moreover, atmospheric methane levels did not increase between 1999 and 2008, even though livestock numbers increased seventy percent over the same period.”
Savory later adds:
“One of the greatest immediate benefits from animal impact can be seen in the restoration and maintenance of brittle environment water catchments, which store not only more water but also more carbon. While partial or total rest can sustain soil cover in the perennially moist nonbrittle environments, no technology exists that could replace animal impact on all the ranches, farms, pastoral lands, national parks, and forests that cover the bulk of most brittle environments, where either form of rest is so damaging to soil cover.
Those who remain opposed to livestock — and they are many, including scientists, environmental groups, vegetarians, governments, and international development agencies, remain unaware of the fact that no form of technology, nor burning, nor resting land can effectively address the desertification occurring in the world’s grasslands while feeding people at the same time.”
Or consider, finally, the modern fad of “fake meat.” A means of feeding people that many, if not all, of the groups cited above by Savory would likely heartily endorse over the evils of traditional agriculture; truly astonishing in social-historical terms; verging on a Poe’s law violation of the most risibly ignorant, arrogant, high-modernist imposition on local knowledge; not justified on the basis of an unobtrusive personal commitment to vegetarianism or as a protest against factory farming, to be clear — both perfectly reasonable causes — but rather as a mandated prescription for everybody, everywhere to “Save The World” from an apocalypse of cow farts.
As if Savory wouldn’t laugh (or possibly cry) at the absurdity of condemning the environmental impact of an animal uniquely suited to regenerating “the environment” following its destruction by humans, there is an added layer of comical hubris in that meat alternatives unequivocally require intense monocropping that accelerates soil erosion. This is degenerate fiat environmentalism in a nutshell: Passionately proposing what it fails to recognize is the cause of the problem and opposing its only realistic solution. Beyond meat indeed, and beyond civilization also.
[i] Always metaphorically but sometimes literally, too! It is also worth noting here that soil erosion plays a key role in each of emissions, pollution, deforestation and biodiversity loss, and so in some sense is the ur-example of an environmental problem.
[ii] The reader may be amused by this unintentionally hilarious assessment of Simkhovitch’s (lack of) contribution to academic economics in Eli Ginzberg’s “Economics At Columbia: Recollections Of The Early 1930s,” which, note, was a hotbed of early degenerate fiat economics:
“The hard core of the old department in addition to Seligman, Saeger, and Moore included Vladimir G. Simkhovitch who offered courses on socialism and economic history. Russian by birth and German by education, Simkhovitch, even with the perspective of time is not easy to characterize and even harder to evaluate. A collector of Chinese art and a grower of delphiniums in Perry, Maine, he was recognized as an expert in both fields. Most students, the bright as well as the dull, considered his lectures somewhat tedious distraction from serious work on contemporary economics; they had little interest in his exhaustion of the soil explanation for the decline of Rome or his Edward Bernstein-modified critique of Karl Marx.”
Of course, they did.
[iii] Who we may as well bucket as degenerate fiat environmentalists, given their cause is a degenerate-fiat-money-enabled anti-human LARP.
This is a guest post by Allen Farrington and Sacha Meyers. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.