Parallel Erosions: Soil & Civilization

Parallel Erosions: Soil and Civilization

What would Frédéric Bastiat say, when facing a gully?

Both soil and human economies are missing their lifeblood.

“There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.”

John Maynard Keynes, father of modern economic theory

Introduction

The vast majority of economic commentary offered on TV, popular financial websites, and college classrooms is underlined by a single, erroneous premise: that consumption is the driving force of thriving economies. Mentions of GDP, home sales, and auto sales are recited as assurance that “things are good,” and “the economy is healthy,” as if the use of credit to buy liabilities is an indication of growth.

No business grows rich by taking on debt to finance non-income-producing widgets, yet the accepted logic of consumption-equals-growth is exactly the sort of premise required to lay the groundwork for the functional corruption and destruction of a country’s economy—the destruction of a country.

Everyone knows we’re not thriving, but we can’t quite reconcile that with all the wealth we see around us. After all, poor people have cell phones!

 

“The Nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

 

Similar to economics, the status quo in crop production is based on erroneous assumptions about what soil is and how it functions.

Chief among these assumptions are, 1) that soil is inert media with a reserve of elements and mineral compounds; 2) that producing (substantial) crop yields year after year requires soils to be “fertilized” in order to replace the nutrients have been removed with each crop (To not apply inorganic fertilizers is disparaged as “mining” or worse); 3) that tillage, among other reasons, is necessary to incorporate fertilizers and crop residues (residues to be turned into what?).

Farmers see problems first-hand—erosion, drought stress, input cost increase—as well as problems at distance—the hypoxia zone in the Gulf and polluted waters closer to home. It’s about time we checked our assumptions about soil.

Very few of the world’s soils are likely to have been inert at the dawn of agriculture. It took many years and a lot of work in order to make Earth’s farmlands as “dead” as they are today.

Dead compared to what?

A single teaspoon of healthy soil can contain more living organisms than humans on Earth today. Protozoa, bacteria, nematodes, fungi, arthropods, archaea, and—of course—earthworms! This last is a conspicuous indicator: soils devoid of earthworms are inevitably so because they are devoid of the biological activity which supports them and, in turn, provides natural soil fertility.

However, such abundance of life in soil is disrupted and eventually diminished by tillage, fertilizers, and pesticides that interfere with soil organisms and plant nutrient availability.

In the soil economy (microbiome), as in modern economies, capital accumulation and investment has been replaced by debt (synthetic inputs) and consumption.

The consumption, or true “mining” of soil organic matter (carbon) signals the approaching desertification of that entire ecosystem.

What happened in the Fertile Crescent? Did rain simply shut off on a civilization?

Money vs. Non-money.

Our unbelievable global economy—imagine the trust once required to do business across oceans—runs on unchecked credit. Global debt is so immense as to be meaningless a number; it is incomprehensible. It is difficult to understand what keeps this juggling act cycling.

Keynes: “[A]ll permanent relations between debtors and creditors… become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless…”

Modern farms largely substitute photosynthesis and nutrient cycling with ancient sunlight in the form of fossil fuels. That is, fertilizers supplant the soil money supply, as well as outsource the jobs of plants and microbes. And fertilizers are simply blank checks which do not provide the capital necessary to produce. We’re left without functioning soil or nutritious food. Year after year, this dynamic spirals more topsoil into rivers and lakes, and farm margins narrow.

What are the missing lifeblood? On what do sound economies of soil and men run? What must be pumped from organism to organism, from person to firm to person?

Healthy, biologically fertile soils run on carbon. Thriving, agile, class-mobile, anti-fragile economies run on gold (read: gold and silver).

These are the moneys which time and Nature have chosen. Modernity has not outsmarted time and Nature.

In farming and in money, we suffer the same: we’ve forgotten that there’s any other way.

Soil Money

In exchange for nutrients, plants supply carbohydrates to soil microbes, which rely on carbon compounds for food, water, and shelter. Carbon is the most-sought good in the soil economy. The more carbon available, the healthier the microbial community, the more carbon is captured in soil.

As a result of various microbial processes, including digestion and decay, soils are aggregated, or stuck together (carbon involved). Aggregation is the physical aspect of a properly functioning soil: with penetration of air, water, and roots. Healthy plants and soils purify water and mitigate flood risk. Soil organic matter, much of which is carbon, holds ten times its weight in water.

The soil eco(nomy)system revolves around carbon. A carbon-rich soil is a wealthy soil, capable of producing far beyond our current agricultural performance.

Quantities of nitrogen, that other all-important element, move in conjunction with carbon levels in soils. They form amino acids and other compounds, finding stability together. If microbes are present in substantial amount, a continuous cycle of living and decaying plants (including cover crops) provide a steady flow (cash flow, anyone?) of nutrients available to plants.

“Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” – Francis Bacon**

In eschewing the natural system, gargantuan sums of currency are spent each year to purchase nitrogen fertilizer. Most of it does not reach crop plants, instead making its way to nearby water bodies. These flushes of nitrogen are like Quantitative Easing (bankster euphemism for illicit credit scheme) in our economy.

As QE channels capital to inefficient firms and capital destruction, so too do fertilizers (and tillage) cause perverse behavior in soil economy. For example, sudden nitrogen excesses prompt booming bacterial populations. Instead of living off the “profits,” or active carbon flows, the booming bacteria must sell off the infrastructure in order to eat, devouring stored carbon wherever they may find it—in the walls of the house. Boom, then bust. Goodbye, aggregation. And goodbye, soil. A similar scenario is caused by tillage, our most common farming practice. (This process is mirrored too closely by global markets due to falling interest rates.)

In a “carbon standard” soil economy, soil sticks together through the weather (with biotic glues).

Hidden Forces

What would Bastiat, the French economist, say of contemporary cropping methods? I suggest that he would point out, in his style, what is seen and what is unseen.

He would say, from the roadside. “Look at these dark green corn plants—they are flush with nitrogen!” Walking into the field and inspecting leaves, he notes stripes which indicate micro-nutrient deficiency. After taking in the sight of a smooth sheet bare of soil without earthworm castings, he resumes, “That is what is seen. The corn plant looks enriched, but it will struggle to produce one tenth of its capacity!” Gesturing toward to ground, he says, “You see a uniform seedbed; what is unseen is that all the underground creatures which once would have worked with the corn are now mostly gone. This soil is a ghost town!”

Largely due to the marauding gangs of tillage implements (they’re actually called gangs), the soil microbe community are unable to save money. As humans, they are the struggling class waiting to cash checks in order to write them. The plants that could employ soil microbes are like businesses finding that hiring, instead of using cheap credit (to purchase robots), would be counter-profitable.

Keynes again: “The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security but [also] at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth.”

Sound familiar?

Money Before 1913

In logic, soundness is a qualification of an argument’s relationship to reality. Even cogentarguments can be make-believe. Adherence to truth is what makes them sound. So, it’s no surprise that proponents of a gold standard often use the phrase “sound money,” even if they don’t know what they mean. What they mean is honest money.

Sadly, were there no reason to write on the topic, then “honest money” would be obviously redundant. The corollary understanding is that “dishonest money” is not money.

Honest money simply is. It is spontaneous, organic, un-messed-around-with. Money is money precisely because no one has to watch over and explain it.

Dishonest money requires boardrooms of tinkerers. Dishonest money is forcibly imposed. Dishonest money is trying to get away with something.

“Open Markets” are not “Federal” and they don’t have “Committees.”

Contrast this with the world of gold: a world in which character, honor, and trust were paramount in business—in which honesty was evident upon delivery of the most-marketable good in history.

Money in the Mind

What portion of a money’s (alleged) moneyness derives from its psychological meaning(knowledge, history, trust, tradition, passivity)? If we’re talking about a Federal Reserve Note (not money), the answer is 99.99%; it’s physical nature lends nothing.

But observe that the physical aspect is not separate from the meaning. Were it, all the attributes of gold, or any currency, could be mentally cut-and-pasted from one to another. On the surface this might appear to be the case, but our behavior disagrees.

This article began with noting that our fallacious measure of “production,” GDP, counts how many dollars are spent! What price do we pay for that, in our conceptions of prosperity? Are you certain that these “worthless slips of paper” are not, in aggregate, treated as such? What is the trajectory of this so-called money?

The physical properties of gold and silver suggest at how they came to be money. Gold is the most stable element on the planet. What measure of stability did the central bankers think they could provide? Gold was superseded, not by choice but by diktat.

My Jordan Peterson Voice

Gold, like the dragons that hoard it, has a psychological legacy not easily killed. And perhaps that’s in the purpose of the legend: to remind us—that the purpose of money is to store time, so true wealth is saved and invested, not spent—that dragons lurk—or that if a dragon has already desolated the land (hmm), stolen the wealth of generations, and left the people living hand-to-mouth, then a trip to hell might be the price to regain it all.

Erosion

Every ounce of gold (and silver) born into economy depends on synchronously performed work. US dollars are born by the billion, and depend on the future work of the unborn.

The U.S. national debt is to remain unpaid, not merely because it’s too great, but because it’s impossible by two-fold design: (1) We cannot consume what has not been produced; (2) Every dollar in circulation is locked in a loop: from offset of a bond purchase, to bank, to debtor, to merchant, to bank deposit used to purchase… a bond. We are all perpetual lenders to the Fed.

In the quotation opening this article, Keynes was speaking of inflation. The word is usually understood with dual meaning: the phenomena of rising prices, and/or “money printing.” Thanks to an astute economist, I finally see that neither meaning describes our situation.

Inflation, carried out on the invisible level Keynes spoke of, is expansion of counterfeit credit, whereby the borrower has no means or no intent to repay.

A point of clarification: I’m not to saying that any and all debt is bad. Instead, that a viable chain of credit requires honest money. There is no way to have an honest credit system built upon irredeemable currency (again: counterfeit credit).

We stepped out of a world in which wealth was created and debt extinguished, into one where wealth means rising asset prices(!) and debts settled with more debt—where the governments charged with upholding the rights of citizens are pathologically and covertly stealing citizens’ wealth.

Should we wonder at the perishing of character in politics, of honor in lending, and of trust in our institutions?

“[N]o surer means of overturning the existing basis of society…” said Keynes.

“Whenever destroyers appear among men, they start by destroying money, for money is men’s protection and the base of a moral existence. Destroyers seize gold . . .

and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper. This kills all objective standards and delivers men into the arbitrary power of an arbitrary setter of values. Gold was an objective value, an equivalent of wealth produced. Paper is a mortgage on wealth that does not exist, backed by a gun aimed at those who are expected to produce it. Paper is a check drawn by legal looters upon an account which is not theirs: upon the virtue of the victims. Watch for the day when it bounces, marked, ‘Account overdrawn.’” – Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

Avoiding Bankruptcy

Depleting soil carbon and microbes is to soil, as demonetized gold and controlled interest rates are to markets. What’s left is dirt and cronyism, not soil or “free markets.”

A bare, tilled, heavily fertilized soil is a soil that requires more fertilizer to produce the next crop. We’ve been tilling for millennia, and fertilizers of the “Green Revolution” only “worked” because the microbiome was cash-strapped and fatigued. Remember how Bastiatpointed out how hollow all the greenness is? It’s like a stock market pumped up by margin debt.

We’re in a bank-breaking cycle: using tillage and inputs, which kill or displace beneficial microbes and invite pest species to flourish, followed by the solution of doing more of the same. But we’re not trapped in this loop.

"Dad, aren't you trying to out-produce our environment?"

In my recent article, I suggested that we farmers have an understanding crisis. This is not exceptional—we are increasingly a country of people without history, tradition, responsibility, or meaning. I suggested that we need to “stand in the midst of” our farm environment. There is nothing more important than a farmer standing in his field, but perhaps there’s a more precise place to stand: in the past of that field. What could time and Nature teach us?

Dismal Sciences

For similar reasons that economics is called “soft” science, so are soil fertility and plant health: ceteris paribus, “all else equal,” is not achievable. The objects of study must be observed in their dynamic, uncontrollable ecosystems in order to make meaningful observations.

As we’ll never know the bounds of their systemic dynamism, so our goal should not be to maximize specific variables, but to dance with the chaos.

Short men make better plumbers. Tall men make better electricians.

If your work involves getting into tight spaces, then it’s better to be small. If your work involves a lot of reaching overhead, you’ll benefit from long arms. Tall men are less-efficient coal miners.

What about farmers?

Gabe Brown shares brilliant insights from biological farming on his operation. One tremendous piece came from his son, Paul, who once asked, “Dad, aren’t you trying to out-produce our environment?” From that question grew a sort of via negativa operating principle in the Brown family: Don’t angle for more than Nature allows, then reap the bounty (my own summation). They keep getting more from nature by interfering less. They treat their North Dakota land more like the way it was developed: by perennial grasses and migrating herds.

“No one is fertilizing the rain forest.” – David C. Johnson

The “secret” to success that regenerative farmers share is simple: ‘I grow stuff.’ In our modern context, that secret is far more profound than the science of plants injecting carbon (MONEEEEY!) into the ground. We must remember what our work is.

Dare to be the person at whom you are supposed to scoff.

We spend so much time and resource trying to kill—kill nematodes, kill fungi, kill insects, kill weeds. Killing is the work of assassins, so why are farmers doing it? Tall coal miners have more back pain.

If your livelihood, peace of mind, and health depend on growing things, then you’re better off growing things. Small men make better plumbers.

How to Stop Eating Soil

Estimates are that, at our current rates of topsoil loss, the world has an average of 60 years of topsoil left. That’s scary (I hope), but there’s plenty of hope.

Hope comes in the form of “regenerative agriculture,” “holistic management,” “adaptive grazing,” “soil health principles,” (YouTube!) and the immediate gateway is to simply stop tilling and grow stuff year-round. Hope lies in the continued growth of truly consumer-driven markets. Thoughtful and persistent consumers demanded the grass-fed market, they can demand regenerative-grown foods.

Regenerative agriculture systems dramatically reduce or eliminate the need for various herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, fertilizers, and even manures. Just as honest, productive credit can speed along business for the long-term, so can some forms of farm inputs. However, many of them are soil antagonists, so the key to soil health and profit is carefully weighing near-term additions against potential long-term subtractions to soil life and carbon.

Do not be deceived: Most agricultural soils can produce outstanding yields and quality by utilizing the natural mineral bank. Yes, regenerative systems can feed the world.

A Market for Money

We cannot understate the sickness of our (non-)monetary system and world economy. Once focused on our inability to consume what has not been produced, we see clearly the consequence: trying to float humanity on counterfeit credit means eating the future.

The Federal Reserve regime is turning 105 years old next month. That means 105 years of distorted interest rates that bolster bottomless debt. In the early ’80s, the U.S. national debt, which is inextricable from the Fed, began its exponential growth phase. There is no way this phase can last 40 more years. And there is no way to quash the debt on the system’s own terms. Congress does not even try. We are running out of future.

As Keith Weiner has made clear, currency pegs fail, and “gold-backing” is a very similar nonsense. Governments—were they interested—could not viably declare a gold standard. But there is an option.

Weiner and his company, Monetary Metals, are pioneering the way back. For the first time in 105 years in the U.S., there is a free market in interest rates. That is, Monetary Metals offers a return on gold, paid in gold. You read that correctly—gold as a productive asset.

Their model of gold bond presents the opportunity for state and federal governments to extinguish debt, stop the wealth transfer, and restore money—lifeblood—to economy. This is our way out of the doom loop inflicted upon us by—frankly—a degenerate-but-esteemed class of bankers, politicians, and academics. We need to face it: they’re racketeers.

We have much to face, beginning with ourselves.

“Our lakes and rivers are filled with conservation plans, and not crystal-clear withunderstanding.” – Ray Archuleta

Begin at the Beginning

Who wants to consider that what they’re doing is wrong?

As I’ve suggested, a trip to hell might be cost of fixing the wrong. That’s why we often choose not to know.

Keith Weiner mentioned this choice recently:

“People think if they have a Federal Reserve Note (i.e. a dollar bill) that they have money. In fact, they do not. They have extended credit—lent—to the Federal Reserve. The Fed further lends it on to the US government or to the banking system. As an aside, this is a very aggressive kind of not-knowing. People seem to want not to know. Even after one explains it, they still don’t.” [emphasis mine]

Keith’s observation comes from world travel and his experience closely matches my own. One parent of two small children told me he hoped the current monetary system would last another 100 years. As in, he would be long dead and wouldn’t have to deal with the consequences (of his own default).

It is tempting to say that we make the choice to not know that which would disrupt our relative quiescence, but that is not the essence of this type of evasion. Truly, we don’t want to know that which we would be responsible for acting to change, especially when we would face a leviathan.

The greatest dragon we face is within us.

Honest money is for honest people.

Money has died out mostly by default of good men. Paper persists as virtue is vacuumed. Whatever legalities have been dodged or fudged to establish the world fiat credit system, it was the passive, the apathetic, and the heedless every-man who permitted it. That is the true depth of the dragon legend. That is the legacy we have inherited.

When we are ready to face our dragons, we will be ready for a gold standard once again.

Mere adoption of gold and carbon-centric farming may alter our path, but not our destination. Our challenge is to rise to understanding and integrity with Nature—within and without.

If you’re willing to admit that what we’ve been calling money is actually a sham—if you’re willing to reconsider your conceptions of soil—if you want to deal with the causes of our anemia and literally save civilization, then…

Get Thee Out of Thy Country*

There is no comfortable path forward. Armed with the knowledge that what we’re doing is a definite terminal course, leave the Comfort Zone and change direction.

We live in an age of cynicism, so take that for granted and deflect. Dare to be the person at whom you are supposed to scoff.

Dare to be the hippy with well-founded concerns about our food system.

Dare to be, not a gold bug, but a gold standard fighter.

Dare to leave the conceptual place where your wealth, your country, and your family’s future was secure.

Dare to go into the unknown.

Dare to forget what you know for sure. Dare to remember that there was another way.

***

Part II: Marginal Productivity of Debt

Cary Yates wrote this article between tending sheep and planting cover crops. He is a potential pen-for-hire and proponent of #SkinInTheGame, a la Nassim Taleb. He couldn’t publish this article without doing something, so he made calls to legislators first and will eventually lease to Monetary Metals. Sign up for his occasional soil health newsletter here. Get weekly insight from Monetary Metals by pressing the red subscribe button there.

Acknowledgments:

As the inquisitive reader will find in the links, I rely heavily on the work of Keith Weiner and Monetary Metals for my growing understanding of the economic ideas put forth here. I alone am responsible for any mistaken ideas. I do not have a financial relationship with Monetary Metals, though I should.

A host of farmers, teachers, and true scientists are leading the regenerative agriculture movement. I learn from them. I can credit Keith Berns and his discussion of “carbonomics,” with initiating my thoughts about carbon as soil money.

Sediment Runoff (Postscript & Footnotes)

-I couldn’t avoid the irony of including the F.D.R. quote. Not only is he an icon in the American trilogy of killing money, but his farm programs also laid the groundwork for the government-sponsored death of soils. The Federal Reserve, too, played a leading role in pummeling the farm.

The Federal Reserve Bank has the enormous power over the price of interest rates. The Fed-driven Great Depression later gave F.D.R. the elbow room to forbid the hoarding of gold. Nixon struck the death blow to money when he decreed the dollar divorced from gold, thus money divorced from economy—lifeblood divorced from life.

When Volcker’s Fed decided that the way to prosperity was through bludgeoning interest rates, leveraged farms were crushed. With farm operations then shrinking in number and expanding in scale, a new model of agriculture developed. . . .

Finally, the roots of Roosevelt’s crop insurance took hold in the ’80s. The devastated farm economy clung to security. With that security (and not much of it) gradually came the idea that the farm which once produced six or more goods could now produce only two or three, with little financial downside. (What doesn’t make it onto the balance sheet are the tons and tons of soil lost every year. When is the last time an accountant asked about soil organic matter reserves and carbon flow?) The result is a Midwest dominated by two crops, corn and soybeans, with occasional profitability and virtually no livestock on the land. Large-acreage farms are subsidized to continue using detrimental methods to grow inefficient crops. Kill soil life, and what is left is not soil, but dirt. Dirt is a growing media that requires today’s input-intensive cropping systems and a “safety net.”

The above happens before a backdrop of capital consumption, also known as “eating the seed corn,” or “liquidating civilization.” Though the land resource has degraded significantly in the last 40 years alone, land prices have mostly risen as people (buy and) sell land in order to live from the sale proceeds (or speculate elsewhere). This perverse behavior is incentivized by “pathologically” falling interest rates.

-The key difference between nutrient cycling and conventional cropping scenarios, is lack of living roots feeding sugars into the soil ecosystem. For half the year, bacteria are like a de-stocked cowherd eating poor hay. When we try to “pull-start” soils in spring, the living web that’s supposed to provide nutrients is severely diminished.

It’s not as if the soil microbe community is organizing a strike in protest of poor working conditions, but the outcome is the same as if they were disaffected with their plant life “management.” They disassociate from one another. Both parties, having ceded their responsibility and autonomy, become like companies looking for tax-breaks and workers fighting for fifteen—they don’t trust one another, because they’ve forgotten how to deal with one another directly.

-When I receive dismissal, or even disdain, for espousing biological farming concepts, it comes not from a place of even footing—of mutual understanding of opposing systems—but from knowledge of x versus unknowledge of y. ‘That won’t work (that’s untrue), because it doesn’t fit my farming paradigm.’

Properly managed compost appears to be the most powerful soil amendment in existence.

**We know this statement. We take it very seriously in architecture and automobiles, but not so much in food and economy. Even when (properly) viewing human-kind as natural existents, like rabbits or butterflies, we uphold a rough idea that our aims are apart from the rest of nature (Nature is trying to kill us.) Therefore, nature must be thwarting our efforts to feed ourselves, so we must thwart nature in order to feed ourselves. Largely, we maintain this attitude without asking what our hereditary nature asks for our diets, nor whether nature provides us a model for producing.

*Genesis 12:1 expounded by Jordan Peterson, from whose brilliance I draw extensively.

***

Additional References:

Moneyness of gold: see Store of Value Fallacy or Money is Gold, Gold is Money;

Falling wages;

Keith Weiner’s recent speech on the moral nature of inflation.

The Gabe Brown quote/graphic is from one of Ray Archuleta’s presentations.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: