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Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (2007)

por David R. Montgomery

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359753,855 (4.02)16
Dirt, soil, call it what you want--it's everywhere we go. It is the root of our existence, supporting our feet, our farms, our cities. This fascinating yet disquieting book finds, however, that we are running out of dirt, and it's no laughing matter. An engaging natural and cultural history of soil that sweeps from ancient civilizations to modern times, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations explores the compelling idea that we are--and have long been--using up Earth's soil. Once bare of protective vegetation and exposed to wind and rain, cultivated soils erode bit by bit, slowly enough to be ignored in a single lifetime but fast enough over centuries to limit the lifespan of civilizations. A rich mix of history, archaeology and geology, Dirt traces the role of soil use and abuse in the history of Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, China, European colonialism, Central America, and the American push westward. We see how soil has shaped us and we have shaped soil--as society after society has risen, prospered, and plowed through a natural endowment of fertile dirt. David R. Montgomery sees in the recent rise of organic and no-till farming the hope for a new agricultural revolution that might help us avoid the fate of previous civilizations.… (mais)
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Very informative but a bit of a slog and the author gets over-excited about organic farming. I understand it's an important issue but going into such a maniacal frenzy is not going to help convince anyone as much as figures or studies (which thankfully the author supplies some of). ( )
  TeaTimeCoder | Dec 23, 2020 |
"Historians blame many culprits for the demise of once flourishing cultures: disease, deforestation, and climate change to name a few... Time and again, social and political conflicts undermined societies once there were more people to feed than the land could support. The history of dirt suggests that how people treat their soil can impose a life span on civilizations." (pg 3)

Add "soil abuse" to your list of societal ills that threaten civilization. David R. Montgomery has written a fascinating history of civilizations that have destroyed the soil they used to produce their food. From the ancient societies of the Middle East to Europe to South America to the American South and Midwest to islands in the South Pacific... it's a sobering history. It's also very detailed and comprehensive, and reminds me of more well-known books like [b:Guns, Germs, and Steel|1842|Guns, Germs, and Steel The Fates of Human Societies|Jared Diamond|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1453215833s/1842.jpg|2138852] and [b:1491|39020|1491 New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus|Charles C. Mann|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1545238592s/39020.jpg|38742] in how thoroughly it treats lengthy periods of history.

Soil is often seen erroneously as a commodity that cannot be used up. The problem is that the surface layer where food is able to grow takes a very long time to produce from weathering of rock below. When forest cover is removed and the ground is plowed, the soil is exposed to the elements and subject to erosion. When it is over-farmed for quick return "cash crops" and the nutrients are depleted, it no longer produces food. In the past, those societies either moved on to other farmable lands or died out. But occasionally societies developed methods of replenishing the nutrients and were able to last for 1,000 years or more on the same land.

This book has the feel of a textbook, but is still very readable and understandable rather than feeling dense. It's not for the home gardener who wishes to better care for the home soil, but rather a warning to societies and governments that there's a limit to our dirt.

"The underlying problem is confoundingly simple: agricultural methods that lose soil faster than it is replaced destroy societies." (pg 241-2) ( )
1 vote J.Green | Mar 15, 2019 |
Interesting, but it bogged down when the author described one civilization after another doing the same or almost the same thing to their soil and paying the consequence. The entire middle portion of the book could have been summarized into one chapter. ( )
  jjwilson61 | May 20, 2012 |
This is a truly dirty book - a book about dirt, in fact. This book traces the role that dirt, and the erosion of dirt (some of us would call it soil, but that would be pedantic) has played in the structure of our civilizations. A book that can teach a lot about a subject most people just sort of take for granted. ( )
  Devil_llama | May 10, 2011 |
Montgomery introduces us to the basic concepts of soil science, and then starts a tour of soil usage over the ages. He highlights ancient civilizations in the Old and New Worlds and what we know of their agricultural practices— and calls out erosion, soil depletion, salinization, and desertification as consequences that facilitated the downfall of their nations. (This is not a how-it-really-happened crank history book; he’s just asserting that a failure to conserve soil resources weakened them.) He also notes which ones figured out the right techniques of conservation and how they were able to persist much longer.

The problems extend to recent history as well: he calls out bad practices in the past few centuries all over the world and provides ample information about what went right and wrong. Under normal geological conditions, soil is created very slowly, and shortsighted agriculture can strip it away far faster than it can be created normally. But there are alternatives to just plowing up soil, planting a monoculture, and using industrial fertilizer to make up for using up the soil, and he explains them— including many techniques used in organic farming (though he also calls out industrial organic farming as just as unhealthy). Montgomery’s bottom line is that we need better mechanisms than short-term markets to provide proper incentives to take care of the soil (he believes this is a sensible place for government to intervene), and that the right techniques will vary with each patch of soil; there is no one-size-fits-all answer, but there is a big toolkit of agroecology that every farmer should have available. The alternative is using up in human time a resource that can only be replenished in geological time: a sure route to the downfall of our own global civilization. ( )
2 vote slothman | Aug 21, 2009 |
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Dirt, soil, call it what you want--it's everywhere we go. It is the root of our existence, supporting our feet, our farms, our cities. This fascinating yet disquieting book finds, however, that we are running out of dirt, and it's no laughing matter. An engaging natural and cultural history of soil that sweeps from ancient civilizations to modern times, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations explores the compelling idea that we are--and have long been--using up Earth's soil. Once bare of protective vegetation and exposed to wind and rain, cultivated soils erode bit by bit, slowly enough to be ignored in a single lifetime but fast enough over centuries to limit the lifespan of civilizations. A rich mix of history, archaeology and geology, Dirt traces the role of soil use and abuse in the history of Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, China, European colonialism, Central America, and the American push westward. We see how soil has shaped us and we have shaped soil--as society after society has risen, prospered, and plowed through a natural endowment of fertile dirt. David R. Montgomery sees in the recent rise of organic and no-till farming the hope for a new agricultural revolution that might help us avoid the fate of previous civilizations.

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