Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil. Daniel Hillel. 1992. A book review

I first read Out of the Earth during 2007. Sharon, my wife, was taking Soils from Dr. David Miller at the University of Arkansas at the time. Dr. Miller assigned Out of the Earth as required reading for the class. The book looked interesting, so I read it too.

Daniel Hillel was a professor of soil and water science at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University, New York. Out of the Earth is the story of mankind’s relationship to the soil and how our abuse, or respect, of the soil has ruined, or nurtured civilizations.

The book is written in five parts: For Soil Thou Art; The Nature of Soil and Water; The Lessons of the Past; The Problems of the Present and Unto the Soil Thou Shall Return. One might surmise from the title of the book and the different sections that Dr. Hillel was also a student of the Bible and the near East. You would be correct. Dr. Hillel grew up in Israel where he learned the old stories and how to apply those stories to his science. That background comes through loud and clear in Out of the Earth.

The first section, ‘For the Soil Thou Art’, sets the stage for humankind’s relationship to the soil by invoking the second chapter of Genesis, “God, Yahweh, formed man out of the soil of the earth and blew into his nostrils the breath of life …. God then took man and put him in the Garden of Eden to serve and preserve it.” This made man the steward of the earth. Hillel then relates how man abused God’s trust for short-term profit. Consequentially, man was expelled from the garden and cursed to work the earth.

‘The Nature of Soil and Water’, part 2, is a technical, but very readable primer on soil and water science. Hillel describes soil as:

“our earth’s primary cleansing and recycling medium, in effect a ‘living filter’ wherein pathogens and toxins that might other wise focus our environment are rendered harmless and transmuted into nutrient”

Water is described as, “the Vital Fluid” i.e. the primal constituent of all living organisms”. ‘The Dynamic Cycle’ gives a detailed description of the different components of the hydrologic cycle. Hillel then goes on to discuss how plants capture the energy of the sun and become the base of the earth’s food web in ‘The Primary Producers”. To wrap the section up, ‘The Tenuous Balance’ discusses the science of ecology.

Part 3, ‘The Lessons of the Past’ is the story of the agricultural revolution. Hillel guides the reader from the evolution of man (Homo sapiens sapiens) into man’s domestication of plants and animals and the introduction of agriculture. Then he goes on into the birth of civilizations. Along the way, Hillel goes into the farming methods developed by early farmers both in the Middle East as well as in Mesoamerica. More particularly, he looks into the development of irrigation and how early farmers enhanced fertility. Numerous examples of the ingenious farming systems employed by the ancient farmers are explored. Hillel then turns to the impact of those farming methods on the soil and water resources of the regions where they were employed. Mostly, early farmers understood neither the impact of rising water tables from excess irrigation waterlogging the soil, nor the build up of salt on soil where minerals are brought to the surface from ground water are left behind by evaporation. Eventually, fields then whole regions lost fertility. As a consequence, civilizations hat to reach out further and further for food and other resources. This reaching out lead to empire building. Eventually empires collapsed under the weight of bureaucracy and limited resources.

Part 4, ‘The Problems of the Present’ begins with a depressing statement:

“Each and every one of the insidious man-induced scourges that played a role in the deaths of past civilizations has its mirror image in our contemporary world. Salinization, erosion, denudation of watersheds, degradation of arid lands, depletion and pollution of water resources, abuse of wetlands and population pressure are still with us, but at an even larger scale. Added to the old problems are new ones undreamed of in the past centuries: pesticide and fertilizer residues; domestic and industrial waste including toxic chemicals; air pollution and acid rain; global climate change; and the wholesale extinction of species”.

From that start, Hillel gives examples of each problem with explanation of the processes in play.

Part 4 is the longest section of the book at 123 pages. It is not entirely without hope. Hillel does point out certain systems that have attained sustainability. An interesting example is China’s system of polyculture wetland utilization:

“These systems are based on the husbandry of livestock, flow, and freshwater fish in comp=bination with perennial and seasonally rotated crops…. Pigs and ducks, together with fish, provide each household with annual protein, and a small cash income; while aquatic plants, crop residues, and kitchen leftovers feed the livestock, the manure of which fertilize the fish ponds and promote growth of plankton – the principle food of carp” …. In these systems nutrients and energy are cycled continuously and little waste results”.

Another example is the micro irrigation system that has been implemented in Israel.

The final section, ‘Unto the Soil Shalt Thou Return’ starts with ‘A Global Accounting’. To be blunt, Hillel says we are in trouble bigtime:

“The environmental transformations we are witnessing are driven by a continuous and accelerating increase in population and land exploration. More people exploit more land, so it may then support more people, who must exploit more land, and so ad destructionem”.

Here, as opposed to the rest of the book, Hillel places blame, not on individuals nor even a sector, but on an economy where “development receives first priority and environmental considerations are subordinated components of economic endeavors”.

The book ends with a short chapter expressing conditional optimism. The path forward, he says, is there for us if only we, as a species, chose to follow. Out of the Earth is now 27 years old. Recent work by Hans Rosling (Factfulness) and Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now) do present data that show trends toward better conditions both socially as well as environmentally. Possibly we have turned the corner.

Dr. Hillel has been one of my heroes for a decade now. I find Out of the Earth’ as relevant today as when it was written in 1991. It should be required reading for anyone who considers themselves educated.

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