One measure of the state of balance in a human society is its treatment of soil. Topsoil is the fertile basis of land life. Without soil, there are essentially no creatures larger than lichens, mosses, and microorganisms.
The last 10,000 years, the length of agricultural civilization as a way of life, has been an unmitigated disaster for soil. In many regions, the soil has been completely eroded, compacted, denuded, salinized, or otherwise destroyed. This has been the fate of the “Fertile Crescent”, of North Africa, Ethiopia, the Mediterranean regions of Europe, much of Eastern Europe, and of much of the interior of China, Mongolia, and India.
Other regions have ‘merely’ suffered a massive decline in soil health and thickness – this includes all the major food-growing regions of the world: the Sahel, the American Great Plains, the Pampas, and a wide swathe of Central Europe and Eastern China.
Healthy soil is rich in organic matter, very well aerated, holds and captures water (humus), and rich in life forms (there are sometimes more than 1 billion living creatures in one teaspoon of healthy soil). The soil is the skin of living Earth.
In a natural state, the lands tends towards a climax ecosystem – a mature system that maximizes biodiversity, soil production, and complexity. When a disturbance occurs, such as a flood, a fire, or a civilization, bare soil is exposed. Exposed soil is a planetary emergency. It is an open wound on the skin of Earth.
Like our body responds with blood and clotting, Earth responds with a first aid crew – weeds, grasses, and other quick-growing annual plants. These plants quickly cover the soil and begin to heal the wound, preparing the soil for perennial grasses, shrubs, trees, or whoever else belongs there.
If you measure the balance of a society by its relationship with soil, the current globalized industrial civilization is drastically out of balance. Over the past 40 years, about 30% of the total agricultural land has been so degraded it is no longer usable. That land will take hundreds or thousands of years to recover, if it can ever do so.
A healthy human culture is one that cultivates relationship with climax communities and encourages their continued growth and flourishing, and does not destroy them.