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Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations Hardcover – May 14, 2007

4.6 out of 5 stars 53 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Montgomery (King of Fish), a geomorphologist who studies how landscapes change through time, argues persuasively that soil is humanity's most essential natural resource and essentially linked to modern civilization's survival. He traces the history of agriculture, showing that when humans exhausted the soil in the past, their societies collapsed, or they moved on. But moving on is not an option for future generations, he warns: there isn't enough land. In the U.S., mechanized agriculture has eroded an alarming amount of agricultural land, and in the developing world, degraded soil is a principal cause of poverty. We are running out of soil, and agriculture will soon be unable to support the world's growing population. Chemical fertilizers, which are made with lots of cheap oil, are not the solution. Nor are genetically modified seeds, which have not produced larger harvests or reduced the need for pesticides. Montgomery proposes an agricultural revolution based on soil conservation. Instead of tilling the land and making it vulnerable to erosion, we should put organic matter back into the ground, simulating natural conditions. His book, though sometimes redundant, makes a convincing case for the need to respect and conserve the world's limited supply of soil. Illus. not seen by PW. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

“Anyone interested in environmental issues should read this book. . . . Entertains and stimulates thought.”
(Times Higher Ed Sup (Thes) 2007-08-03)

“Fascinating insights into what be our most precious natural resource and gives important pointers toward sustainable land management.”
(Bioscience 2008-04-01)

“How societies fare in the long run depends on how they treat their soils. Simple. Concise. You are your dirt.”
(Carol Ekarius Hobby Farms 2009-02-17)

“Sobering. . . . A timely text that will no doubt stimulate the discussion of this issue, and its potential solutions, for years to come.”
(Environment & History 2009-11-01)

“Strengthen[s] appreciation for how important the soil is to our existence.”
(Great Plains Research 2009-05-19)

“This book is a thorough and enlightening treatment of the topic.”
(The Perennial Bookworm 2011-03-07)

“Sounds an ever timely and necessary clarion call.”
(Vadose Zone Journal 2010-05-17)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 295 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; 1 edition (May 14, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520248708
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520248700
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #779,447 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Deborah on August 28, 2007
Format: Hardcover
While David R. Montgomery goes on a bit long and repetitively about how and why and where and how fast soils erode, the more interesting part of the book is the new look at history--why the Romans sought new lands to conquer, how Thomas Jefferson tried and failed to get widespread adoption of contour plowing, how the depletion of the southeast's agricultural soils provided yet more impetus for the Civil War, how even in ancient times writers urged soil husbandry, yet were largely ignored as they still are today, how monoculture, slavery and now industrialized agriculture speed up the process by which land will become unable to sustain growing human populations. It's a sobering message that we ignore at our children's peril.
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Format: Hardcover
Though the title says Dirt, it should actually say Soil, as this book is about how numerous civilizations destroyed themselves by adopting unsustainable farming practices that eventually destroyed their land. The author examines the histories of England, Roman Empire, ancient Greece, pre-colonial Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Pharaoic Egypt, continental Europe, Communist Russia, the antebellum South, Colonial New England, and China. The conclusions he draws from all are the same, agricultural practices driven by short-term profit led to long-term soil erosion and depletion. The latter created poverty, inducing emigrations, which led to civil strife, war, and gradual collapse. So this book does live up to its subtitle, it is a history of human civilization as told from the viewpoint of soil erosion.

As a work of nonfiction, its contents apply well to history, economics, geology, ecology, and anthropology, along with agriculture. As a commentary, it is quite objective and its points are well-conveyed. As reading material; it flows quite nicely and the chapters are easy to digest. A great book overall.
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Policy makers at all levels as well as concerned citizens should take Dave's lessons to heart. In addition, this is THE book for the layman wondering anything about dirt's role in human history and its fate.

With unrelenting precision, Dave builds the case-by-case history of civilizations misusing the dirt to their ultimate misfortune. As a top-flight scientist and admirable philosopher, he lays bare the storyline of people first using dirt modestly, then disturbing and losing their topsoil in dozens of cases spanning the globe and ranging from pre-history to the present.

The progression of dirt degradation becomes very familiar by the end - one wonders how many more times and on what grand scale the failures will again become apparent.

A caveat - Dave is a colleague of mine, as well as an entertaining pop-folk guitar, who leads with guitar and vocals the local band "Big Dirt".
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I'm probably more fascinated by the subject of soil in relation to civilization and society than most people are. That said, this is one of the most interesting, absorbing, well researched books that I've ever read. Professor Montgomery's book should be read by every high school and college student that is interested in a little known, but pertinent reason why civilizations fail...remember the Cedars of Lebanon? That area of Lebanon is desert now, why, because they cut down all the trees to build ships and the soil eroded...simple. Professor Montgomery makes a point that whenever economists are in charge of a society it goes downhill as they recommend unsustainable practices...and give numerous examples. In a perfect world this book would sell as many copies as a Harry Potter adventure does...however as the book points out, the world isn't perfect...but, in my opinion, this book is!
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This should be essential reading for any resource planner, all levels of elected policy makers and anyone that has read Jared Diamond, i. e. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
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This is information that needs to gain legs. It needs to be more common and influence the decisions we make as a society. Montgomery does an amazing job of covering all the bases. I will say that , for the average audience, it could possibly be a bit dry. Still, I highly recommend it.
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The metaphoric erosion of civilizations is of course much more complicated than just the fate of soil, but this book is an excellent means for comprehending the literal erosion and soil depletion that can undermine any society. There are obvious lessons for us today, what with the losses of prime agricultural land to suburban expansion, topsoil stripping by developers, the practices of factory farming that treat soil as a mere means of holding plants up, the uses of chemicals to artificially nurture crops and to hold back weeds, and much more.

I highly recommend this as an introduction to the importance of "dirt" - soil - to you, me, and us. Go get your feet dirty with this book in hand.
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Perhaps the 3 most important challenges to contemporary man are 1)How to reduce dependence on non-renewable fossil and nuclear fuels,through reduced energy needs/person and development of realistic alternative energy sources 2)How to reverse the ever growing medical costs/person , due largely to delayed chronic illnesses and their inappropriate treatment, largely caused by unhealthy diets and lifestyles.3)How to reverse the rampant degredation of agricultural and forest soils that humanity largely depends on for their bodily sustenance and other important products. Of the 3, the last is the most important and by far the least appreciated by the general public, news media and education establishments. Of course, to a substantial extent, these 3 challenges are interrelated.Conventional mechanized and feedlot farming consumes considerably more inanimate energy(as well as agricultural land) than no and low-till agriculture and largely vegetarian diets complemented by grass-fed ruminant products. Spread out, functionally segregated, urban communities necessitates much energy expenditure(animate or inanimate) to get people and materials around, besides often eating up much previous farm land. High consumption of processed and feedlot foods, combined with inadequate exercise, is generally recognized as the greatest threat to the long term health of modern people. Inappropriate plowing of agricultural and marginal land has much reduced its organic matter content, thus much contributing to the ongoing rise in greenhouse gases, which relates to excessive fossil fuel usage.Read more ›
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