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Absolutely, cleared-forest topsoil is extremely fertile, until it's exhausted by cash-crop monocultures. In linca's diary I mentioned the exhaustion of North American soils, wonderfully fertile at first after forest clearing, by tobacco and cotton from the 17th to the 19th century.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 03:39:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
it's notable that some ancient peasanty methods of farming, which we "superior" Westerners look down on, managed to sustain human life and advanced civilisations on the same land footprint for thousands of years -- F H King's book Farmers of Forty Centuries describes in some detail the practises of Chinese peasant farmers which prevented soil depletion and ensured continuous, multi-century survival on the same land.  King notes along the way that Asian peasant farmers understood the importance of composting fpr centuries -- maybe millennia -- before the Western wheat/beef culture had a clue.  [it is perhaps noteworthy that the wheat/beef culture is consistently associated with wars of conquest to acquire more land to replace what has been exhausted by that inefficient and destructive farming pattern (here R Manning in Against the Grain provides a good big-picture guide).  hence expansionism is a fundamental myth of the wheat/beef culture and requires myths of Manifest Destiny, Westward Ho and so on to justify its endless hunger for new farmland to ruin...]

King was writing at that critical juncture in the 30's when there was a meme war in agriculture.  several eminent scientists and public thinkers -- King for one, Albert Howard for another -- were skeptical about the whole Liebig school of Reductionist Chemistry Triumphant, but they lost the war.  the winners were the "futurists", in love with industrial Taylorism and a reductionist/technomanagerial approach to food, nutrition, and agriculture that became a nearly mystical cult and has had the most grotesque effects on our culture... the end state is well described by e.g. Pollan in his recent works, especially In Defence of Food...

at the same time, the symbiologists were losing the meme war over biotic systems (to the fanatical crypto-Darwinist "all is competition red in tooth and claw" school which not coincidentally very well suited the emerging ideologies of free market capitalism).  so on all fronts reductionism, compartmentalisation, and narrow mechanistic control fantasies were the triumphant ideology (or religion) du jour.  mix in the century-and-a-half-long drunken binge on nearly-free fossil energy, and the result was several decades of ruthless, reckless vandalism and resource liquidation.  the industrialists partied hearty, had a real good time -- and now we (and even more so our children and our grandchildren and their grandchildren) get to live on in the trashed house and clean up the vomit (and worse).

the "productivity" of this brief fossil-fuelled binge of extraction, liquidation, and exterminism further seemed to substantiate the fantasy of compound interest -- liquidation providing enormous quick returns not achievable by any sustainable activity.  so here we are, with a set of ironclad beliefs firmly based in an incredibly fleeting, temporary and disastrous period in human history:  the brief blazing arc of the Age of Kleptocracy and the Industrial Fossil Frat Party...

which, amazingly, is still going on.  just like one of those soused fratboy bashes where some of the hardcore party animals simply will not admit that it's dawn and the party's over... and the reality police have been called...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 09:28:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Very powerful. I have to get the book now.
by Asinus Asinum Fricat (patric.juillet@gmail.com) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 10:29:43 PM EST
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European agriculture was quite sustainable until the appearance of fossil fuels and mined fertilizers in the middle of the 19th century... French population had been more-or-less constant since the Celtic era, at that point, with rises due to more efficient use of the soil's productivity, and two population dips due to systemic (but not necessarily caused by agriculture) crises.

And wars of conquest aren't exactly unknown in China, either.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Sat Apr 19th, 2008 at 04:37:15 AM EST
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European agriculture was quite sustainable until the appearance of fossil fuels and mined fertilizers in the middle of the 19th century... French population had been more-or-less constant since the Celtic era, at that point, with rises due to more efficient use of the soil's productivity, and two population dips due to systemic (but not necessarily caused by agriculture) crises.

I presume you meant from late medieval times to the end of the seventeenth century? France actually had very slow population growth by western standards in the second half of the nineteenth century (the withdrawal method - more effective then you'd think ;)In any case I don't believe fossil fuels were used in French farming in serious amounts until the twentieth century though I'd have to check to see if my memory is correct.

by MarekNYC on Mon Apr 21st, 2008 at 02:01:19 PM EST
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My reference to the middle of the 19th century is because it marks the arrival of trains, and thus the use of mined fertilizers which aren't all that sustainable.

As to population growth in the 18th century, indeed it was smaller than in other European countries, but that is also because more land had already been filled by agriculture than in, say, Germany.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Apr 21st, 2008 at 04:28:04 PM EST
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No, population growth was faster in France during the eighteenth century, and much slower in the second half of the nineteenth. That's in spite of significant immigration and very low emigration rates. I'm not sure what it has to do with density - France has far more arable land than Britain, and I believe a bit more than imperial Germany (same land area, but IIRC a smaller percentage is arable), both of which had higher populations by the 1900, much higher in the case of Germany. It has to do with the Napoleonic laws governing inheritance and an earlier onset of a cultural norm of small families.  
by MarekNYC on Mon Apr 21st, 2008 at 06:31:51 PM EST
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I don't know which audience King was addressing but the period of WWII rationing had a powerful effect on British attitudes to agriculture. After that, anything that increased productivity was a good thing.

Of course, this led to widespread poisoning of land with pesticides and the ruination of soils with excessive fertilization which means that they are effectively incapable of supporting vegetation without human intervention.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sat Apr 19th, 2008 at 05:20:21 AM EST
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