Could there ever be an alternative stock exchange dedicated to slow, small and local? Could a million American families get their food from CSAs? What if you had to invest 50 percent of your assets within 50 miles of where you live? Such questions — at the heart of “Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money” — represent the first steps on our path to a new economy.
We need small ideas. Beautiful ideas. Beautiful because they lead to a large number of beautiful, small actions — the kind alluded to by Wendell Berry: “Soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of acres by careless acts of millions of people. It cannot be solved by heroic feats of gigantic technology, but only by millions of small acts and restraints.”
There is another kind of erosion at work, just as surely, here: erosion of social capital, erosion of community, erosion of an understanding of our place in the scheme of things.
It takes roughly a millennium to build an inch or two of soil. It takes less than 40 years, on average, to strip an inch of soil by farming in ways that are more focused on current yield than on sustaining fertility. A third of America’s topsoil has eroded since 1776. In the 1970s, the United States lost 4 billion tons of soil per year.
Roughly a third of all farmland in the world has been degraded since World War II, with annual soil erosion worldwide equivalent to the loss of 12 million hectares of arable land, or 1 percent of total arable land. About a third of China’s 130 million hectares of farmland is seriously eroded, and Chinese crop yields fell by more than 10 percent from 1999 to 2003, despite increasing application of synthetic fertilizers.
Awareness of the centrality of soil health is nothing new. Aristotle laid the foundation for the humus theory of plant nutrition, and his student, Theophrastus, is often called “the father of botany.” The homo of Homo sapiens is derived from the Latin, humus, for living soil. Leonardo da Vinci observed, “We know more about the movement of the celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” Darwin spent the last years of his life studying the role of earthworms in soil fertility.
After World War I, Sir Albert Howard, perhaps the father of 20th-century organic agriculture, heralded the problems that would follow the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers by munitions factories looking for new postwar markets for nitrates: Fertilizers offered farmers boosts in yield but had deleterious effects on the health of microorganisms and the processes of growth and decay that are vital to the preservation of humus.
In the first decade of the 21st century, despite beyond-explosive growth in our knowledge of everything from atomic energy to galactic motion, our ignorance with respect to life teeming in the soil remains humbling: It is estimated that in a gram of soil, there are billions of single-celled organisms and millions more multicelled ones, as well as more than 4,000 species, most of them not yet named or studied by scientists.