Our Soils are Being Damaged and Our Air & Water are Being Impacted Rapidly

by S. Tom Bond on March 1, 2015

We Care about Life Down on the Farm

Let us count the ways energy production causes damages

Commentary by S. Tom Bond, Retired Chemistry Professor & Resident Farmer, Lewis County, WV

I remember a Soil Conservation pamphlet I saw as a child called “6,000 years of civilization.” The thesis was that most of the civilizations before the Romans, and the Romans, too, had destroyed the soils in their areas of the Middle East by ignoring soil depletion. Each generation looked out for itself, extracted the yield without thought of the future. Eventually there was not enough food production (transportation was crude and slow) and eventually there was not enough that the armies could hold the empires together. The principal exception was Egypt, which had the renewing soil deposits from the annual Nile flood. It held on for 3,000 years, when the average empire lasted about 250 years.

I thought of this when I read the editorial in the 13 February Science, the Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science which is the world’s largest scientific organization, and the most prestigious place to publish science.  It was titled “Give soils their due.” Being keen on that sort of thing, since I am a life-long farmer, I realize that at any time the earth has a “carrying capacity.” Just like my pasture can only carry so many cows without being degraded, the earth can only support so many people.

I also remember reading about what caused the 1977 revolution in modern Egypt – high price of food got the hungry people out on the street. There was a riot because of food prices in Argentina in 1989 and in one in Italy not many years ago. Nothing gets people stirred up like having hungry kids. I also remember a graph in Science of the population of China on the vertical scale and time on the horizontal scale. Each bump up was labeled with a new food stuff which caused the increase. Millet, very early, dry land rice, wet land rice and toward the present, corn and then potatoes.

The authors of “Give soils their due” also talk about how properly managed soils hold water and purify it, remove carbon from the air and incorporate it in soil organic matter. It reintroduces nutrients from dead plants and unused plant parts, and prevents wind loss in dust storms. All this is linked to human and animal health, as well as food supply.

These authors recognize paving land over for cities, expansion of farming to marginal soils in deserts and far North regions, and cut down the tropical forests. Unfortunately, nothing is said about modern methods of extracting hydrocarbons for energy.

Now let us count the ways present day energy causes damage to the earth and its inhabitants. Drilling in deep ocean water, like the BP disaster, risks spilling very large quantities of oil into the ocean. The biggest fear of that event was that the leak was around the outside of the drill pipe, and the entire oil reservoir would drain out with no way to stop it, a disaster tens or hundreds of times more serious. Seafood and wildlife were damaged as was the productive capacity of the Gulf. The dispersants, used to break up the oil mass were offenders, too. BP pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter, two misdemeanors, and a felony count of lying to Congress. BP also agreed to four years of government monitoring of its safety practices and ethics, and the Environmental Protection Agency announced that BP would be temporarily banned from new contracts with the US government. As of February 2013, criminal and civil settlements and payments to a trust fund had cost the company $42.2 billion. Drilling in the Arctic, being pushed by the oil companies, would be even worse, since the platforms would be subject to the surging ice, and spill cleanup would, too.

Fracking destroys the surface by pushing aside top soil and covering the spot with crushed stone for the drilling pad and roads, and preventing forest growth along the numerous pipelines. Also by emitting hazardous chemicals into the air from drilling pads and compressor stations, by contaminating aquifers and streams with waterborne chemicals, all of which degrades farming or forestry, and living in the area where fracking is done. Disposal of fracking water causes earthquakes. Storm water is diverted from the natural channels, and it carries contaminates. The huge area that can be subject to fracking is easily recognizable by looking at a map of the shale beds believed to have gas potential. It even affects the area outside of that due to sand mining in the Upper Midwest and waste water disposal in other places.

Shale oil and tar sands have very low Energy Return on Energy Invested. Tar sands need to be diluted with a light oil supplied from somewhere else, other drilling.

Coal is dirty. In addition to the carbon, it contains a wide variety of elements that contaminate the air: sulfur (as much as 5 percent) and heavy metals, which are bad because the body has no mechanism to eliminate them once inhaled or ingested. I remember reading decades ago that coal contains enough uranium and thorium to generate as much power as the coal itself does. It poisons water with selenium, and if it is strip mined, destroys top soil and drainage.

And then there is the product of burning carbon in air. Few articles remind us that one ton of carbon takes two and two-third tons of oxygen out of the air to make three and two-thirds third tons of carbon dioxide. The kicker, though, is that 400 parts by volume in the atmosphere means carbon dioxide is diluted by 2500 more volumes of pure air to reach the concentration of carbon dioxide the atmosphere. Said in another way, one volume of carbon dioxide will pollute 2500 parts of air. The volume of the atmosphere is huge, but our present way of getting energy, now well over 150 years old is now obsolete.

All the different ways to obtain energy above hurt the earth and its people, the poorest first. There is no moral charity in advocating, or for anyone of any faith to advocate, anything other than reducing burning carbon for energy as quickly as rationally possible.

>> Tom Bond is active with the Guardians of the West Fork and other West Virginia citizens concerned about the impacts of proposed large diameter natural gas pipelines.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Writer's Almanac March 1, 2015 at 4:15 pm

“Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry

How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy

In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security;
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

“Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry from Leavings. Counterpoint, 2010.


S. Thomas Bond March 2, 2015 at 12:21 am

This is a little confusing on a quick read. Careful thinking about it shows Wendell Berry, one of America’s foremost poets and authors is ‘way ahead of the game.

He is asking, “When do the escalating costs of energy development become too much?”

Tom Bond


John March 2, 2015 at 11:48 am

All this talk is fine. But is it mostly talk? I dislike fallacy with a vengeance! That poster up there, with the Wendell Berry quote from his “questionnaire” commits the fallacy of associating “free markets” with poisoning our lands, waterways, lands, etc.

Free markets? What free markets? Where do you, in the world, have anything that gets even close to a “free market”? Yes, we have global trade and it’s a scourge in many ways, but it is not supported by free markets; no, it is supported by crony capitalism, which is a perversion of true capitalism, true free markets and everything related to liberty, and shames any individual who does not want to live the life of a slave. There is nothing wrong with carbon; carbon is the stuff of life. But there is everything wrong with the way crony capitalists and the (not free!, but rather) slave markets supported by tyrannical fascist, communist, socialist regimes (the US of A included!) exploit, market and profit from the available resources the earth invites us to use without abuse. I am not a greeny, tree hugger or even environmentalist (the word has been pimped for far too long to mean anything decent these days); “sane ecologist” would define me best.

I own farm land and I want it preserved for my children, grandchildren, and their children. I want it managed and maintained and protected – by myself, not some government agency or regulatory body or inane law drafted by some ignorant albeit maybe well intentioned politician who never got his boots muddy or his hands dirty, bathed in a creek, milked a cow or collected poop covered eggs! I can do a better job than anyone else, because it is my land. I worked all my life to be able to own it. I want it free of chemicals and contaminants of any and all kinds. I want the springs to stay clean and the wells too. I have been fighting pipelines to keep them off my property for a long time, so I have a vested interest in protecting my land, not only because I have invested in it financially all I had, but because it’s my posterity’s inheritance and because I believe in good, solid stewardshiping principles. Not because the DEP, EPA, or NY city half naked green paint covered crazy “sensitive” tree hugger says so or thinks they know better.

Now, the Questionnaire that Mr. Wendell Berry drafted falls short. It is missing the million dollar questions, so that the fallacy and hypocrisy may be called out.

So, here are my question to the greenies and the tree huggers who bark up all the trees, regardless of them being the right or wrong trees and who claim for more laws and more control from above when all we need is less of all that and more personal, individual responsibility: Where do you live? How do you get to work and how do you get home? How do you get your food? How do you cook it? How do you warm your home? How do you get on the internet and post your comments on this and every other website? Do you drive a car? Do you ride a bus? The underground? Do you open a water tap to shower? Do you flip the switch to turn on the lights? Do you enjoy any of the conveniences of modern life that are in any way dependent, in any form – any form at all! – on energy that is harvested, produced and distributed by conventional means, i.e, coming from fossil fuels? If you answered yes, then you either are a hypocrite or haven’t got a clue! If, however, you have given up all these things, moved to your own piece of land, live off it, grow your own food, never set foot in [youNameIt]MART or never hit the gas to go to the next green protest meeting, you may complain and have that right because you are already part of the solution. If however you do support, by our demand, any of this, then you are sponsoring the problem. We simply can’t have it both ways.

Don’t forget that even solar panels are produced in factories that use energy that’s fossil fuel based; same with any recycled product or material, etc. It is a fact there is no such thing as 0% footprint in anyone’s life. All things are interdependent. If you are here, you leave a footprint on the planet, and that’s ok.

We all have been changing the planet since we first started to walk on it. But then again, so do all other things and animals and plants. “How do we balance it all out?” is the million dollar question, and the right answers are priceless. I have a few, stop cronyism. Stop manipulating the markets. Cut big oil, big gas, big pharma’s (and etc., the list is endless,) access to politicians and lobbying. Stop passing inane laws that control people but do not provide solutions to any problems.

Respect the inalienable rights of each individual on this planet to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and respect private property rights, and things will take care of themselves, because Life has a way of its own, and human beings are amazingly creative. Our ingenuity, free from constraints, will come up with the solutions. Free markets (TRUE free markets, not the pimping and whoring imitations that abound these days, supported by corruption at all levels,) will get rid of everything that is not viable, healthy and solid. Utopia? I don’t think so!


Tom Bond March 3, 2015 at 7:23 pm

Notice, the last paragraph of Wendell Berry’s poem tells us that it is hyperbole, and the rhythm of ideas should warned us that it is blank poetry:

“State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security;
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.”

Initially, it was a challenge to understand the context. Unfortunately, the “education” we get now is job training, thanks to the forces we decry. A classical education would have left us better prepared.

“Free market?” If Mr. Berry had chosen to talk about neo-feudalism, few would have made the connection. Those are in some other country aren’t they? Again this is a defect in education which we must correct without official help.

These vast forces of trade agreements, international corporations, “economic necessity,” and news adapted to entertain and make money, rather than inform, threaten to subvert the nation states presently making the rules we call government. “Big business” wants to make them.

Finally, we don’t need burning hydrocarbons for our life style. We need energy. Some hydrocarbons are needed for synthetic chemicals, but most is burned. One ton of carbon burned pulls enough oxygen from the air to make near three and two-thirds ton of carbon dioxide.

Market forces should be used to encourage the change-over. The existing U.S. energy industries — oil, coal, gas and nuclear — have received during their lifetime an estimated $630 billion in subsidies from the U.S. government, i.e., from taxpayers. This kind of money should be spent investigating something better: solar, wind and fusion (not fission), which will produce the energy we need at far less cost to the surface and atmosphere.

Thanks for your consideration, Tom Bond


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