Soils have moulded humans. And humans have shaped soils by ploughing through a natural endowment of fertile dirt. In “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization” (2012), David Montgomery, Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, traces the use and abuse of soil in Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, China, European colonialism, and Central America.
Soil remains the largest terrestrial carbon sink. Soils store more carbon than the planet’s combined biomass and atmosphere. This includes soil organic carbon, which is essentially biodiversity: microorganisms, invertebrates, root matter and decomposing vegetation. Soil quality and function are rapidly declining in forests and farms due to unsustainable management practices. This impacts the ability of the biosphere to support food production and all of the processes and services that we get from healthy agricultural and natural ecosystems.
Mismanagement of land, and the effects of the climate crisis — including devastating droughts, dried-up rivers, storm surges, and torrents of water from melting glaciers inundating farmlands — have ominously limited soils from reconstructing their ecosystems. When land is degraded, soil carbon can be released, along with nitrous oxide, making land degradation one of the principal contributors to climate change. Loss of soil organic carbon is a leading indicator of land degradation, and land degradation is one of the principal challenges for biodiversity conservation, mitigating and adapting to climate change and sustainable development.
Fungi, microorganisms and bacteria are the natural batteries of soil. When soils are degraded faster than fertility can be restored then the batteries can’t recharge. Harvest Agri developed a microbiometer soil test kit and an App that allows farmers to gauge the health of soils. The tool scans a soil sample prepared in a solution and applied to paper to generate a numeric key that reveals the number of fungal and bacterial microbes present in the sample. Alongside unmindful use of chemicals and monoculture farming, a large contributing factor to soil degradation is an ancient technology that has propelled economic growth and the birth of cities — the plough.
The inescapable wreckage of modernity succeeds in obfuscating how a dull technology like the plough has led to the birth of metropolitan centres along the Old Silk Roads. But this technology did more than create the underpinnings of civilisation. Different types of ploughs also led to different types of civilisation. Technology diffusion of Early Middle Eastern scratch ploughs across Mediterranean cultures changed lives and livelihoods. The mouldboard plough was perfect for the wet clays in Northern Europe and improved drainage and killed deep-rooted weeds, converting them into compost. The plough has expanded scale, speed, and production and has resulted in more efficient cultivation of land. But the plough may not be the best support for plant and soil health.
SoilHealthDB is a database of soil health measurements from locations around the planet. In 2021, the EU established the EU Soil Observatory to gather and track soil data that will inform policy development and support soil research. John Deere has now introduced “no-till machinery” and new farm equipment designed to minimize any disturbance to the soil. From the Stone Age to the Silicon Age, the transition from one technological epoch to another occurs when minimum viable artefacts advance to a point where existing technology and tools displace their equivalents. The Iron Age is the final epoch of the three-age classification of the prehistory and protohistory of humanity.
Defined by archaeological convention, the Iron Age begins locally when the production of iron or steel advanced to the point where bronze technology in tools and weapons replace their iron or steel equivalents. Moreover, the concept of the Iron Age has been mostly applied to the societies of Iron Age Europe, the Ancient Near East and parts of the Old World. And so the Iron Age varies depending on the part of the world under consideration. What happened to those societies which lacked iron during the Iron Age? In the Silicone Age, the Network Readiness Index lists the world’s most network-ready economies.
In the Silicon Age, it is clear that Metaverse investments will take about a decade to bear fruit as cost headwinds remain a material challenge. Meta is investing $10 billion a year on experimental bets on metaverse hardware and software, including investments in costly AI-related servers, and data centres. It is historic work. The portfolio of projects is wide and includes social aspects, like the avatars that give a sense of presence in VR.
The new green silk roads already support the development of green power grids, bridges that take into account the migration patterns of birds and the lifecycle of snails and earthworms that thrive along river banks, and ocean ports that set reduction targets to achieve emission-free shipping by 2050. But more than that, along these new green silk roads there is digital infrastructure. Green finance is funding the construction of charging stations for electric vehicles at key points along motorways and broadband connectivity along highways that allow connected cars and autonomous vehicles to communicate. Framing the future must take into account the Network Readiness of the economy, soil health, critical biodiversity zones, and the people moulded by the soil.