The signs that our civilization is in trouble are multiplying. During most of the 6,000 years since civilization began, we lived on the sustainable yield of the Earth's natural systems. In recent decades, however, humanity has overshot the level that those systems can sustain.
We are liquidating the Earth's natural assets to fuel our consumption. Half of us live in countries where water tables are falling and wells are going dry. Soil erosion exceeds soil formation on one-third of the world's cropland, draining the land of its fertility. The world's ever-growing herds of cattle, sheep, and goats are converting vast stretches of grassland to desert. Forests are shrinking by 13 million acres per year as we clear land for agriculture and cut trees for lumber and paper. Four-fifths of oceanic fisheries are being fished at capacity or over-fished and headed for collapse. In system after system, demand is overshooting supply.
For past civilizations, it was sometimes a single environmental trend that was primarily responsible for their decline. Sometimes it was multiple trends. For ancient Sumer, decline could be attributed to rising salt concentrations in the soil as a result of an environmental flaw in the design of their otherwise extraordinary irrigation system. After a point, the salts accumulating in the soil led to a decline in wheat yields. The Sumerians then shifted to barley, a more salt-tolerant crop, but eventually barley yields also began to decline. The collapse of the civilization followed.
Although we live in a highly urbanized, technologically advanced society, we are as dependent on the Earth's natural support systems as the Sumerians and Mayans were. If we continue with business as usual, civilizational collapse is no longer a matter of whether but when. We now have an economy that is destroying its natural support systems and has put us on a decline and collapse path. We are dangerously close to the edge. Among other actions, we need a worldwide effort to conserve soil, similar to the U.S. response to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
On March 20, 2010, a suffocating dust storm enveloped Beijing. The city's weather bureau took the unusual step of describing the air quality as hazardous, urging people to stay inside or to cover their faces when they were outdoors. Visibility was low, forcing motorists to drive with their lights on in daytime.
Beijing was not the only area affected. This particular dust storm engulfed scores of cities in five provinces, directly affecting more than 250 million people. It was not an isolated incident. Every spring, residents of eastern Chinese cities, including Beijing and Tianjin, hunker down as the dust storms begin. Along with the difficulty in breathing and the stinging eyes, there is a constant struggle to keep dust out of homes and to clear doorways and sidewalks of dust and sand. The farmers and herders whose livelihoods are blowing away are paying an even higher price.
These annual dust storms affect not only China, but neighboring countries as well. The March 20 dust storm arrived in South Korea soon after leaving Beijing. It was described by the Korean Meteorological Administration as the worst dust storm on record. In a similar event in 2002, South Korea was engulfed by so much dust from China that people in Seoul were literally gasping for breath, reported Howard French for The New York Times. Schools were closed, airline flights were canceled, retail sales fell, and clinics were overrun with patients having difficulty breathing. Koreans have come to dread the arrival of what they call "the fifth season"--the dust storms of late winter and early spring.
While people living in China and South Korea are all too familiar with dust storms, the rest of the world typically learns about this fast-growing ecological catastrophe when the massive soil-laden storms leave the region. In April 2010, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite tracked a dust storm from China as it journeyed to the east coast of the United States. Originating in the Taklimakan and Gobi deserts, it ultimately covered an area stretching from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. Such huge dust storms carry off millions of tons of topsoil, a resource that will take centuries to replace.
Civilization's Earthy Foundation
The thin layer of topsoil that covers much of the planet's land surface and is typically measured in inches is the foundation of civilization. Soil is "the skin of the earth--the frontier between geology and biology," writes geomorphologist David Montgomery in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. After the Earth was created, soil formed slowly over geological time from the weathering of rocks. This soil supported early …