Book Review – Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

Book Review - Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations David Montgomery, a professor of Geology at the University of Washington, knows his topsoil. In 2007 he published Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, which achieved wide readership. From the University of California Press: “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.” Montgomery has found his speaking engagements with farm groups increasing. Chris Clayton, the Progressive Farmer Ag Policy Editor, recently reported on the interest in Montgomery’s work in agricultural communities: Excerpt: “In the last year or two, I have been asked a lot more to talk to agricultural groups about ‘dirt,’ ” [Montgomery] says, speaking recently to a group of growers at a “No-Till on the Plains” conference in Kansas. “The first time I was asked to give a talk to a farming community, I was a little worried about how it was going to be received." Clearly farmers are interested and for good reason. The soil is a key to their livelihood. Farmers are at the front lines; they know their soils intimately. Some also know what can happen when soil is mismanaged on the farm.

Montgomery’s book is so interesting in part because it’s heavy on the history; he’s telling the story (to be cautious, perhaps we should say, a story), that helps to answer the question: why have so few societies managed to conserve their soil over the long term? But, the book also offers some practical ideas and solutions to problems of agriculturally-induced soil erosion. Montgomery thinks that although the seeds of destruction of our ability to feed ourselves can be sown by agriculture (through, in part, soil erosion caused by poor land management on the farm), agriculture is not inherently a destructive force. Rather, he posits, there are agricultural solutions to agricultural problems, such as the use of no-till methods. Moreover, Montgomery maintains that erosion need not be eliminated; rather, it must be reduced to the level at which soil is built (which is usually much slower than that at which it can be destroyed). For a critique and review of Montgomery’s work, more thorough than I can offer here, consider reading Gregory Cushman’s book review, published in the History of Science Society, a journal of the University of Chicago Press.  

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