How can we do this? The history of the development of the technical battery over time has been one of experimentation with various substances to sustain the longest charge and promote the most powerful chemical reaction needed to create the flow of electrons; to reduce the size and cost of the battery while optimizing the duration of its energy output; and to create specific batteries for specific products and needs.
To translate this to the earth battery: We might create farming techniques that sustain the longest period of productivity, augment the soil for optimal plant growth, utilize soil in the most compact way, and diversify the design of that growth for different locations.
Right now in human history, we have designed and implemented a system that puts us in danger of expending our earth battery. Carbon is not treated as a valued asset by human industry. People do not feed the soil. Since the founding of the United States, the country has by some accounts depleted 75 percent of its topsoil. Most of this loss is caused by now questionable modern agricultural techniques—monoculture (growing one kind of crop year after year, so the same nutrients are siphoned out), overtilling (which encourages topsoil to become airborne and erode), and salinization of soil caused by overwatering and overuse.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the Iowa prairie had 12 to 16 inches of topsoil, as well as the carbon stored in the deep roots of prairie plants, which were as much as 15 feet deep. Now the topsoil is down to 6 to 8 inches. Soil production takes significant time; it can require from 100 to 500 years to create one inch of topsoil. With those kinds of numbers, human beings have little to no hope of catching up.
We are frittering away our future food. Some estimates for the United States show that 6 percent of wheat and corn production is lost for every inch of topsoil that disperses into the air or water. Or to put it in other terms, the United States is said to lose $125 billion worth of topsoil a year.
The problem is occurring around the world. The United States loses topsoil 10 percent faster than it can replenish; China and India are at rates of 30 to 40 times faster.
The quantity of loss isn’t the only problem. People are also depleting the richness of the soil that remains.
Norman Borlaug, the agronomist known as “the father of the green revolution” who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, came up with revolutionary ideas about hybridization to optimize grains for higher yields. The Nobel selectors credited him with saving more than a billion people from starvation. But those green revolution concepts have now inspired industrial farming to escalate hybridization and genetic modification to the point that they are selling an herbicide to kill weeds and then crop seed that can resist the herbicide. The farmer is buying at least two different products—seed and herbicide—from the same corporation. Farmers have also become more dependent on soil additives, such as phosphate, which are customarily mined, requiring the farmers to go far afield—and certainly far from the field, even to distant lands—to maintain high local yields.
The green revolution has been enormously productive, but its focus has essentially been on gleaning energy from the battery without considering the optimized design of the organic battery, for how to maintain the charge. We think that human beings can be doing more to recharge their local earth.
Soiling the Planet: Give Back
The second thing we can do for our earth battery is optimize the soil to encourage electron exchanges. We can improve plant life’s access to needed nutrients in soil.
We are extremely interested in the alternate green revolution launched when Sir Albert Howard published his seminal An Agricultural Testament in 1940. He was an agronomist sent by Britain to India to inform the farmers about Western farming techniques. To his surprise, he found the Indian farmers functioning quite well. Their agricultural systems were focused not just on optimizing specific plants but on maintaining soil health—and, more specifically, on devising systems to sustain the microbacterial matter in the soil. One example: The Indian farmers were able to return difficult-to-break-down straw to their soil by putting it on their roads, crushing it with farm wheels, and mixing it with manure. Howard’s insights introduced the idea of modern composting and led to the beginning of the organic agriculture movement.