“A scientific subject from a radical perspective. Well, I never. The important questions to ask though, are ‘what’s the scale of the problem?’ and ‘can we solve this problem as long as we have a capitalist economy?’ (This question is rarely asked, and never by scientists.) Dawson’s book provided answers to those two questions – see below (to summarise: ‘huge’, and ‘no’).

He taught me a few things – for example how empires fall because of environmental damage. The Sumerians diverted water from the Tigris and Euphrates with irrigation channels that were shallow enough for a lot of the water to evaporate, but leave behind salts, that accumulated in the soil and reduced yields year on year. Deforestation added to the problem by causing soil erosion and siltation of irrigation channels. Their empire fell when they couldn’t feed their people from the depleted soil any more. In contrast, the Egyptians relied on the annual flooding of the Nile to provide water and nutrients for their farmland. This has continued to build fertility until recently, when the building of dams has kept nutrients away from the soil, and the application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides has weakened soil structure and killed soil fauna, so that now, after thousands of years of natural soil management, their soil has started to lose fertility, structure and to wash away.”

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