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The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis Hardcover – September 9, 2014

ISBN-13: 978-0465044979 ISBN-10: 0465044972 Edition: 1St Edition

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1St Edition edition (September 9, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465044972
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465044979
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #83,825 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review


PRAISE FOR THE BIG RATCHET

“[A] lucid and intelligent book.... There is something satisfyingly stark and elemental about DeFries’ focus on food, which, she notes, is ‘our most fundamental connection with nature’.”—Financial Times

"Engaging and optimistic." —Wall Street Journal

“DeFries unpicks the historical patterns to parse the uneasy equation of people and food — our most powerful link with nature.”
Nature

“At its heart, The Big Ratchet is a food book, deserving a place on the shelf alongside work by the likes of Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Marion Nestle that criticize our modern system of industrial agriculture.”
Johns Hopkins Magazine


“An admirable history of human ingenuity that does not claim it will overcome such looming crises as overpopulation and global warming.”
Kirkus Reviews

“DeFries places her faith in human creativity as a primary means to our survival, an appealing point of view for the hopeful but concerned reader.”
PublishersWeekly

"Timely... Clearly demonstrates the role of science in converting calamities into opportunities. The Big Ratchet provides a message of hope in the midst of the sea of despair we see in the areas of sustainable development and environmental protection. Ruth DeFries has rendered an invaluable service.”
--M. S. Swaminathan, Founder and Chairman, M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation

“A page turner and an eye opener, clearly written and well told. If you are alive today, especially if you live in a city, this is the story of how you got here and why you eat what you eat. Defries deftly guides us through our species' unending quest to squeeze more food out of the earth, introducing us along the way to buffalo bone pickers, ancient plant breeders, guano wars, the extinction of the Rocky Mountain Locust, medieval human poop tradesmen, Arctic "doomsday" seed vaults and the Nobel Prizes awarded to the inventors of DDT and trans fats. A fascinating history of human innovation.”
--Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden

“Is there a tale more astonishing and improbable than the human story? Lurching between triumph and catastrophe, humankind has transformed itself from a run-of-the-mill forager on the African savanna into a species that dominates every corner of the planet. Now, as our numbers surpass 7 billion, Ruth DeFries shows how our remarkable past can serve as a guide to thinking about our uncertain future. Neither a hymn to optimism nor an invocation of catastrophe, The Big Ratchet is an essential account of how we got to be where we are.”
—Charles C. Mann, author of 1491

“[The Big Ratchet] survey[s] the technological innovations that transformed humans from nomadic hunter-gatherers threatened with starvation into farmers and then into urban-dwelling specialists whose sustenance is usually produced far away by a relative few.... DeFries sums up the cycle in the pithy catchphrase ‘ratchet, hatchet, pivot.’”
Science News

About the Author

Ruth DeFries is Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development and Chair of the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University. A recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, she lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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This is a very interesting book.
N4AK
Highly recommended for its positive outlook on where we are today and how we can go forward in terms of human perseverance and ability to solve its problems.
TAMAR LIEBERMAN
Well written, easy to read and very interesting.
Rekha Misra

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Paul Moskowitz TOP 1000 REVIEWER on August 25, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Ruth DeFries, the author of The Big Ratchet, brings us primarily a history of innovations in agriculture that have made it possible for our planet to support seven billion people.

The history starts with the switch from hunting and gathering to farming, which then made gains in productivity through the introduction of the plow, crop rotation, fertilization, selective breeding, the replacement of human energy with that of animals and mechanization. All of this has brought us a world in which an ever larger population can enjoy an adequate diet through the efforts of a smaller percentage of the population. The age of exploration has also brought the introduction of plant species from other continents. How many French-fry fans realize that potatoes originated in South America?

However, as the author points out, all the progress that we have made is not without its downside. By not recycling nitrogen and phosphorous, we are polluting our lakes, streams and water supplies. The easy conversion of corn into sugar has created an obese population. The use of fossil fuels and fertilizers for farming, and beef production has added to the pollution of our atmosphere with greenhouse gases.

Finally, DeFries acknowledges that there will continue to be ups and downs, ratchets and hatchets, and that the result of our technical achievement is in doubt, but expresses a confidence that our ingenuity will continue.

The book is well researched with over fifty pages of references at the end of the book. The writing style makes for easy reading. I found the history to be fascinating. Whether you think that we will ultimately solve our problems or think that we are doomed, anyone with an interest in food should find this book to be a good read.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Erik Anderson on September 18, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The Big Ratchet is a fascinating history of human's relationship with food and the environment. Ruth DeFries writes in an accessible and engaging manner that explores that varies solutions and then problems that we have run into with food production. She writes that "nature finds a way to ensure that no solution is permanent." With this in mind she provides a thoughtful and thorough analysis of the various issues that humans have run into with food production and writes it a refreshingly unbiased and objective manner. She leads the reader through time up to our current circumstances of a majority urban population fed by a minority of the population, and clearly explains the social, economic, and environmental struggles to achieve this goal. This book is not only timely, informative and reflects on a topic critically important to our daily lives, but is also entertaining and very well written!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By TAMAR LIEBERMAN on October 17, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
THE BIG RACHET is a fascinating story of how civilization has creatively met the challenges of life from the earliest times up to the present. Ruth DeFries uses food production as the example of human innovation. The book is extremely well written in laymen language so that it is completely accessible.
Highly recommended for its positive outlook on where we are today and how we can go forward in terms of human perseverance and ability to solve its problems.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Erik Peterson on October 19, 2014
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderfully informative and coherent book which succinctly describes the ongoing saga of humankind's evolving relationship with planet Earth, especially as respects our needs for food production and energy usage.

The author illustrates these relationships by distilling down a great deal of complex scientific information into an accurate, user-friendly format designed for the intelligent general reader. She makes it very clear what a unique and wonderful home we have here on Earth, and why we need to treat it with great care.

This book will provide you with lots of valuable scientific information - information which any person who is interested in ecological, environmental or sustainability issues should know. It is a great educational tool.

Ruth presents these ideas in an accessible, well-reasoned, and nuanced manner. The storytelling texture of the book is rich, interwoven as it is with metaphor and personal anecdote. She comes off as a writer who is both fun and knowledgeable, and one to whom we should all pay attention.

I highly recommend this book!
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Eliza McEvoy on August 29, 2014
Format: Hardcover
A fascinating and lively account of some of mankind's most remarkable innovations. DeFries offers a long lens perspective of how humans have managed to become the dominant species on the planet by manipulating the environment. As the author asserts, it's all about food - specifically, figuring out how to yield more from the earth just when it seems we've exhausted our resources to our peril. This book has everything I look for in a good popular science read, and I especially appreciated DeFries's balanced perspective.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Rekha Misra on October 19, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Well written, easy to read and very interesting. A very good science read for the lay person. Throughout the book, Dr Defries offers a clear and optimistic insight into human ingenuity as opposed to a mere attempt to offer a glimmer of hope at the very end of the book.
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