Resistance Radio: Lierre Keith on Agriculture, Part 1

Editor’s note: This is an edited transcript of Derrick Jensen’s  February 23, 2014 Resistance Radio interview with Lierre Keith.

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Jensen: Today’s guest is Lierre Keith, the author of multiple books including The Vegetarian Myth and Deep Green Resistance.

Jared Diamond has said that agriculture is the biggest mistake that humans ever made, and Dick Manning had some things to say about it too. Can you talk about what’s wrong with agriculture?

Keith: Yes, and I would like to  first explain why that’s important. The reason it’s important is because agriculture is the basis of civilization, and I think the whole point of this show is to make people understand that this is a living arrangement that had no future. So the end was written into the beginning.

And the reason is, primarily, because agriculture is an inherently destructive activity. So you have to understand what agriculture is.

In very brute terms, you take a piece of land, you clear every living thing off it—and I mean down to the bacteria— then you plant it to human use. So it’s biotic cleansing. All those other millions of creatures who should be living there have nowhere to go. That’s a long way of saying mass extinction. Because that’s what agriculture is.

There are a few problems. The first is that it lets the human population grow to some rather large numbers because instead of sharing that land with all those other creatures, you’re only growing humans on it. So we had this catastrophic rise in human numbers which we’ve seen over the last 10,000 years.

The second problem is that you’re destroying the topsoil, and topsoil is the basis of  terrestrial life. We owe our entire existence to six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains. Right now 80 percent of the food calories that are used to support the current human population come from those agricultural foods.

It’s only possible to support this number of people by taking over vast swaths of the planet from all these other creatures  and then using it to support human beings.

So, except for the last 46 remaining tribes of hunter-gatherers, the human race has made itself dependent on this inherently destructive activity, on agriculture, and it’s killing the planet.

This is not a plan with a future. It’s draw-down. The end was written into the beginning. What you’re mostly drawing down is fossil soil. We’ve all heard of fossil fuel, probably fossil water, but fossil soil is another really basic concept that we should all be familiar with.

It takes many, many centuries to grow an inch of soil, and in a very brief period of time agriculture destroys that. In one season of planting your basic row crop—wheat or corn or soy or whatever—you can destroy 2000 years of soil.

And if you don’t believe me, you can go to Google Images and type in “Dust Bowl first day.” You can see pictures of these farms in South Dakota that literally lost all their topsoil, all of it, in a 12-hour period, on the first day of the Dust Bowl. That’s draw-down and it’s draw-down in a really big way.

J: How does agriculture actually actually work? How does it actually, first, commit the biotic cleansing? And second, how does it destroy the soil? What happens?

K: I want all the listeners to think about what’s outside their bedroom window or their back door or even their front door. Probably it’s a little piece of land, ten feet by ten feet. Maybe you live in the country, but if you live anywhere urban or suburban, you’re going to see a tiny little patch of land, and it’s mostly going to be grass, probably Kentucky blue grass or something like that, that was put there as a decoration.

If you want to grow a garden, you have to dig up that grass. You can’t just throw lettuce seeds on top of it and hope for the best. I can tell you what will happen, and it’s exactly nothing. There is no way that the annual seeds of those domesticated vegetables are ever going to out-compete that grass. Grass is fabulous stuff. It does not die; it’s pretty much invincible.

To remove it you have to apply a whole bunch of labor. Then, with the soil bared, you can plant whatever annual crop you were thinking of planting. To have a garden, it would be lettuce or tomatoes or squash or whatever. But those are annual crops. They only come once. They’re not going to be here again next year. That’s what an annual means, that they only grow for an annum, one year.

That’s in contrast to perennials, which grow many years. Trees are perennials, clearly. They can grow 2000 years out here in the redwoods. Grasses are perennials. There are annual grasses, but most grasses are perennials. Then there are lots of things in between that are also perennials, like shrubs and vines and whatnot. But then there’s another category of plants that are annuals, and they only grow for one year, or maybe two or three seasons, then they’re done.

These two different categories of plants have very different functions in nature. Everything of terrestrial life depends on those perennials being in place. They do a couple of really basic things, one of which is, because they live a long time, they have the capacity to have a really deep root system. Their roots go down really far, because they have many years to get there. Once they’re there, they can  break up rock, the substrata that our planet is made from, and by breaking up that rock they make the minerals available to every other living creature on the planet. They are the ones who recirculate those minerals and keep them coming up to the surface, so that other plants and soil creatures and ultimately animals can eat them. Without those minerals we’re all dead.

J: Like iron.

K: Yes, like iron.

J: Calcium.

K: Like zinc, manganese, anything, you name it. Selenium. It’s the plants that do that, and they’re the only ones that can do that.

Annuals do not have deep root systems. This is really important for people to understand. They don’t live long enough to develop root systems. It’s not part of their genetic code to make deep root systems. They have one purpose, and that’s to create a giant seed head. That’s what annuals do. They have a really short period of time. They’re only going to live two or three seasons, and everything is about the continuation of the species. Their one shot at a future is to have a great big seed head. It’s to produce that baby and wrap it in as many nutrients and as many defenses as it can. And that gives you a great big seed. That’s why annual seeds tend to be way bigger than perennial seeds. It’s got to last. It’s got to make sure that that plant baby survives when the time comes.

Not only do those perennial plants break up the rock and do the mineral thing, but also those really deep root systems are what let the water table recharge because every little tiny filament of root helps water. Every time it rains, the water can now enter the soil down through that channel of the root system. When the community needs that water again, later in the summer, say, when it’s dry, it’s like a great big sponge. Those perennial plants can pull on that water as they need it and keep the whole community alive. That’s what perennials do.

The third really important thing is they keep the soil covered at all times. If you think about a forest, or a prairie, you do not see bare soil. You’ll see duff in a forest, which is decaying plant matter. And of course in a real prairie, you’re not going to see any bare soil. You’re just going to see plants for as far as the eye can see. It will just be perennial grasses.

That’s really important because without being protected, the soil, just like the rest of us, it dies when it’s exposed. The sun bakes it, the wind blows it away, the rain compacts it, and you just end up with dust essentially instead of living matter. So that’s what perennials do.

There are opportunities in nature for annual plants. If there’s an emergency situation, some kind of disaster like a fire or a flood, an earthquake, a landslide when the ground might be bared for some reason—that’s an emergency in nature because that’s the basis of life now being degraded. So immediately the annuals spring to life. It’s because the perennials have been cleared away by this disaster.

You can picture the bank of a river that’s been wiped clean by a flood. It’s just mud. The first thing that happens is all those annual seeds, they’ve been waiting in the soil for their moment. There’s no competition now from the perennials and the perennial root systems, so now they can spring to life, . They will cover that bare soil for a year or two.

It’s like if you cut yourself, you would put a Band-Aid on it. That’s what those annuals do. They provide that Band-Aid. Eventually your skin is going to knit back together, and that’s the perennial grasses or the forest trees coming back in and and you don’t need the Band-Aid anymore. In the same way, the annuals—you won’t see them anymore in the landscape. And their seeds again lie buried until they’re needed for an emergency.

So it’s not like annuals are bad and perennials are good, it’s just that most of the plant matter, the cellulose matter on the planet is going to be perennials. But the annuals have their moment. And it’s when those emergencies happen.

The problem with agriculture is it’s that emergency over and over and over. In order to plant those giant seed heads, in order for them to have a chance, you’ve got to clear the land. You have to remove the grasses or pull down the forests and then you can plant those seeds—corn or wheat or whatever it’s going to be. That’s the only way that you can do it. You cannot simply sprinkle them in the grass and hope for the best or sprinkle them in a forest. Nothing will happen. We all know this as gardeners.

So just extend that across the planet. That’s where all of those annual monocrops come from, by destroying the grasslands of the world and ultimately pulling down a lot of forests as well. These are the demands of agriculture. You can’t just do it once. It has to be done over and over. It is a war against the living world. Because the world doesn’t want to be a monocrop. This is a living planet, and it wants to stay alive. That means protecting that topsoil. It also means that all those plants and animals really want their homes. So you’re going to be fighting a war against all those plants and animals that want to come back, all the perennial grasses, all the trees. Anybody who’s gardened knows that you’re forever fighting the grasses that want to be there.

If you let it go for a few years, what will eventually come back is of course is the succession of either the forest or the prairie, which in one way is ultimately the hope. If we just get out of the way, this planet will repair. That drive, that life wants to live, it’s such a profound impulse in every living creature, that they would take their homes back if we simply stopped fighting that war.

But that’s what agriculture is. A lot of people don’t understand this. I think it’s because we’ve been living in an agricultural society for really 10,000 years now. Ultimately this started way back in ancient Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, and all that, but it’s a direct line. Eventually it conquers Europe. Then the Europeans bring it to North and South America, and they do a bunch of conquering as well, and eventually this is what you end up with; the whole world is just covered with these annual monocrops, as much of it as could be.

We’ve reached the end. By 1950 the world was out of topsoil. Since that point we’ve actually been eating fossil fuel instead of soil. Because the soil’s gone. We’ve skinned the planet alive. So fossil fuel took over instead, which certainly brings with it another whole set of horrors, which are frankly worse.

J: I want to mention a book I  recently read, which was pretty fabulous, and pretty heartbreaking. It was called A Country So Full of Gain. It was early European explorers’ accounts of Iowa.

I know for most of us that when we think of Iowa, we think of nothing but cornfields, but Iowa was one of the most wildlife-rich regions of the country, with the sort of interplay between the eastern forests and the Great Plains. When I think of Iowa, I don’t actually think of a place that’s rich in wildlife. That’s a great example of what agriculture does.

K: Yes, and of course another example is Indiana, which, again, we don’t think of as being a place filled with wetlands, but there was the Limberlost, which was a swamp essentially, just a great big wetland. It was made famous by a series of books. The Girl of the Limberlost was the first one of these novels that were written, in the 1930s and 40s. Many, many people still go there. There’s a state park that memorializes the place where these books took place. And everyone wants to see the Limberlost. It’s not there. So over and over these park rangers have to say, “It’s gone. It’s completely eradicated. It was drained and turned into a cornfield. You can’t see it because it’s not here anymore.”

The girl in that book—it’s a novel, but you can imagine that some of this might be true—is living in terrible poverty, with a really abusive situation with her family, but she’s very determined to get herself to school. She does this by being essentially a naturalist because she knows the place so well and loves, particularly, the butterflies and the moths. This is how she’s able to provide for her school fees.

In that way, they are amazing books, because the woman who wrote them, Jean Stratton Porter, really loved that swampy area, that wetland. It’s gone. It’s all been turned into corn.

J: I just read last night that this year has been a complete catastrophe for monarch butterflies, that even recently where they would still have a few we are seeing none. In this case it’s because of milkweed, because Roundup has been killing all the milkweed.

K: And that’s so we can all have soybeans, right? And there are descriptions not even from that long ago, a hundred years ago, of swarms of butterflies miles long. If you can imagine ― a cloud of butterflies miles long on the horizon. And this was just a regular sight that people would see everywhere across the Americas.

J: Can we talk for just a moment about the Fertile Crescent?

K: Everybody has seen pictures of the Iraq War at this point. It’s been going on for ten years or whatever. You picture that region, and you picture rock and sand. Nobody on the planet would call that place the Fertile Crescent, but it was once upon a time quite fertile. You can go to all the places where agriculture first started, in seven places around the globe, and pretty much all of them look like that now.

That is the inevitable endpoint. That’s what happens when you clear away the forests and the grasslands and you drain the wetlands. You remove the life that wants to be there.

You can keep that going for somewhere between 800 and 2000 years. That’s the length of every civilization. They last as long as their topsoil. When their topsoil is gone, they collapse.

Look at ancient Rome, or at any of these giant power centers from history, and it’s the same pattern over and over. By the end, Rome was so desperate that Egypt, with the wonderful fertility of the Nile River, was a personal possession of the emperor of Rome. Anybody who interfered with the off-loading of grain into the Roman ports along the coastline—summary execution. Because that’s where they were getting all their food from at that point. If you did anything to interfere with the off-loading of that food, you would be killed on sight. Everybody got that this was the end.

So the whole thing collapses. Then it starts over somewhere else.

But that entire region around the Mediterranean was destroyed piece by piece by those successive empires—the Phoenicians and the Egyptians and then the Greeks and finally the Romans. Then it collapsed. And the only thing that saved Northern Europe from the Romans was the Alps, mountains that they simply couldn’t cross. Eventually, though, agriculture pushed its way up through there as well. There are only four freely flowing rivers left in Europe now. The rest have been dammed.

J: You’re talking about this not being sustainable. But I don’t know how you can say that it’s not sustainable when there are seven billion humans on the planet, and clearly humans are continuing to multiply, so doesn’t that mean that this way of living works? I’m thinking about a New York Times op-ed I just read about a week ago, that said that ecology doesn’t actually matter to humans because human survival is based on technology and innovation, as opposed to the world. The guy who wrote it is a scientist, so he must know.

K: [laughs] I would say that human survival depends on having a livable planet and recognizing its limits. If you don’t start there, you’re going to end where we ended. 98 percent of the forests are gone and 99 percent of the prairies, and we are looking at complete biotic collapse. It’s just insanity. To not recognize basic physical limits just seems so out of touch with reality.

J: But there’s still a lot of humans. There’s like seven billion humans on the planet, so obviously we’re doing really well.

K: Yeah, and counting. What we are doing, what we have been doing for 10,000 years, is what’s called draw-down. This is when some—we can call it a resource, but maybe there are better words—a living community, and that community is being dismantled piece by piece and used. While that dismantling is happening, while the soil is being destroyed, while the rivers are being drained, while all the fish are being killed, while the topsoil is sliding off the mountain, clogging the harbors around the Roman Empire—or take your pick of empires—and the trees are going, and everything is being pulled down, yes, there’s a temporary blip, where the population gets larger.

But of course you’re not letting the world replenish, you’re not taking from it in an actually sustainable way. That’s why it’s called draw-down, because you’re drawing down the capacity of the world to replenish itself. You’re taking the soil. You’re taking the trees, whatever. Eventually you hit zero, and that’s when the thing collapses.

I referenced fossil fuel. What’s been happening since 1950—that’s the beginning of what’s called the Green Revolution.  Scientists figured out through the Haber-Bosch process how to take oil and gas and turn it into usable nitrogen.

Originally that was used for making bombs, for killing people.  Scientists were well aware of the fact that we were going to run out of nitrogen and that was one of the basic things plants need. If you’re a gardener you know this. There wasn’t going to be enough nitrogen left on the planet to keep doing agriculture. So they thought they hit a bonanza when they figured out they could use this Haber-Bosch process. By 1950 they’d taken all these munitions plants and turned them into fertilizer factories for farming. Then all of a sudden . . .

J: Which is one reason you can end up with a fertilizer factory exploding in Texas.

K: Yes, it’s explosive. It’s exactly the same process, so it’s, very dense energy essentially. They also did a lot of plant breeding and made the plants shrink, so less plant energy has to go to things like stems and leaves, and more can go to that giant seed head to make it even bigger with less input. They’re very clever. They do these things. But of course the ultimate problem is that it’s still draw-down. Except we’ve moved on from soil, since that’s all gone, and now we’re drawing down fossil fuel.

Fertilizer plant explosion in the town of West, Texas.

As long as oil and gas are cheap enough, we can keep eating oil on a stalk, but again this is not a plan with a future. I think everybody listening probably knows that oil doesn’t reproduce. The little drops of oil don’t get a birds-and-bees talk from the big drops of oil. It’s not going to come again once those resources are gone, so it’s still draw-down, only it’s an even more destructive kind of draw-down because with fossil fuels, of course, you’ve got the oil spills, the global warming and all the rest of it.

So having blown through the topsoil of the planet, they’re now using what’s under the earth as well. There’s no happy ending here. The only way this can end is with total collapse. You can’t keep drawing down resources that are going to come to an end and think there’s any kind of future. This was not a way of life that was ever going to last.

J: A couple of other problems with agriculture are if you are drawing down your own land base, that’s going to lead you to militarism. It leads you to conquest because if you don’t conquer somebody else you’re going to starve. So basically once you’ve drawn down your own land base, then you have a choice. You can either collapse or you can expand. So can you talk about the relationship between agriculture and expansion, and also the fact that agriculture is really hard work, so agriculture and slavery?

K: That’s the pattern of civilization everywhere. There is no exception. There can’t be an exception, because once you’ve used up your own resources, you have to go out and get them somewhere else.

J:  Let’s just use an example of the local Tolowa Indians, who lived here for at least 12,500 years. Their lifestyle was based—their food, a lot of their caloric input, came from salmon. If they ate all the salmon, if they killed off the salmon somehow, then that means they would have to conquer someone else, or starve to death, right? Is that basically what you’re saying?

K: Yes. Or take the example of, it doesn’t even matter, any civilization. They’re generally going to be based on one of seven or eight crops—corn or wheat or barley or whatever. Every year there’s less and less of it because every year the soil is more and more degraded, there’s more salinization taking place, more salt, literally, in the soil. You will see this throughout history where both the archaeological record of things like the strata that they can just dig through, and then what’s actually in the cooking pots, and then if there are written records of history, you can see how one crop shrinks and shrinks and shrinks, so they try another one that’s more salt-hardy, and eventually that will collapse too. You even have written descriptions of how the surface of the land is glistening white with salt, and “What are we going to do?” They destroyed their land, doing agriculture.

You can pick your power center, but it’s always the same process. You’re using up what you’ve got, and in this process you’re also destroying the rivers and you’re pulling down more trees, and of course you need all those things to survive. Your population is too high to survive on what’s there.

That’s the problem with cities. Eight million people cannot live sustainably on the island called Manhattan. It just can’t be done. Resources have to come from somewhere else, the food, the water, the energy. And the problem is that nobody willingly gives up those things.

The people who live in the watershed next to you, they don’t want to give you what they need. Why would they willingly just die so you can have their trees, their water and their fish? They’re not going to do that. So you’re going to come into conflict. This is why agricultural societies end up militarized. And they do, always.

It doesn’t matter what beautiful, peaceful values those people might hold in their hearts. It doesn’t matter—their lovely art, their music, their paintings, their frescoes, what religion they might be—it doesn’t matter, materially speaking. They have used up their resources. They will starve to death without food. They’re going to have to go out and get it from somewhere else.

Ed.: Part 2 of this interview will be published tomorrow.

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