EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 5. Natural Systems Under Stress: Introduction

In 1938, Walter Lowdermilk, a senior official in the Soil Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), traveled abroad to look at lands that had been cultivated for thousands of years, seeking to learn how these older civilizations had coped with soil erosion. He found that some had managed their land well, maintaining its fertility over long stretches of history, and were thriving. Others had failed to do so and left only remnants of their illustrious pasts. 1

In a section of his report entitled “The Hundred Dead Cities,” he described a site in northern Syria, near Aleppo, where ancient buildings were still standing in stark isolated relief, but they were on bare rock. During the seventh century, the thriving region had been invaded, initially by a Persian army and later by nomads out of the Arabian Desert. In the process, soil and water conservation practices used for centuries were abandoned. Lowdermilk noted, “Here erosion had done its worst....if the soils had remained, even though the cities were destroyed and the populations dispersed, the area might be re-peopled again and the cities rebuilt, but now that the soils are gone, all is gone.” 2

Now fast-forward to a trip in 2002 by a U.N. team to assess the food situation in Lesotho, a small country of 2 million people embedded within South Africa. Their finding was straightforward: “Agriculture in Lesotho faces a catastrophic future; crop production is declining and could cease altogether over large tracts of the country if steps are not taken to reverse soil erosion, degradation, and the decline in soil fertility.” Michael Grunwald reported in the Washington Post that nearly half of the children under five in Lesotho are stunted physically. “Many,” he wrote, “are too weak to walk to school.” 3

Whether the land is in northern Syria, Lesotho, or elsewhere, the health of the people living on it cannot be separated from the health of the land itself. A large share of the world’s 862 million hungry people live on land with soils worn thin by erosion. 4

Mercilessly expanding human demands are putting stresses on forests, rangelands, and fisheries that they cannot withstand. We are also destroying many of the plant and animal species with which we share the planet. Worldwide, species are now disappearing at 1,000 times the rate at which new species evolve. We have put the extinction clock on fast-forward. 5

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1. Walter C. Lowdermilk, Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years, USDA Bulletin No. 99 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Natural Resources Conservation Service, 1939).

2. Ibid., p. 10.

3. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “FAO/WFP Crop and Food Assessment Mission to Lesotho Special Report,” at www.fao.org, viewed 29 May 2002; Michael Grunwald, “Bizarre Weather Ravages Africans’ Crops,” Washington Post, 7 January 2003.

4. FAO, Number of Undernourished Persons, at www.fao.org/faostat/ foodsecurity, updated 30 June 2006.

5. Species Survival Commission, 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Gland, Switzerland, and Cambridge, U.K.: World Conservation Union–IUCN, 2000), p. 1.


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