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Sowing the World with Salt

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While the historicity of the practice of sowing a vanquished enemy’s fields with salt is the subject of considerable dispute, there is no disputing the fact that it exists as a symbol. Beyond the canonical examples (such as the biblical account of the Israelite judge Abimelech sowing the mutinous city of Shechem with salt in the second millennium BC, or the more well-known story of the Roman general Scipio Africanus’ sowing conquered Carthage with salt in the second century BC), spreading salt over the fields of a defeated adversary has come to signify thorough, undisputed conquest.

As such, one may be forgiven for wondering why the new Rome, with its Senates and its Capitols, and its world-spanning empire, has not sought to emulate the old Rome by pursuing just such a practice. Aside from the various territorial and economic problems this consideration raises, however, the fact of the matter is that the present political-economic order is already considerably far along in sowing the fields of the world with salt. In addition to the salinization of the world’s fields resulting from rising oceans attending climate change, much of the world’s land is being salinized by industrial fertilizers and other forms of pollution, not to mention the far more quotidian practice of irrigation farming.

The historical irony, of course, is that these ecological injuries are not the contemporary political-economic order (global capitalism)’s specific aim. They are the consequence of a number of short-sighted, market-based, technology-oriented factors. Nor do they symbolize the end of a war. Unlike in ancient times, by further diminishing access to water, limiting crop yields, and threatening biodiversity, among other harms, sowing the world with salt has little to do with ending wars. Instead, it creates them.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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