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Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations Hardcover – May 14, 2007
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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)
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Top customer reviews
As the author argues and documents, if we wait until food prices double and triple because our topsoil has all been eroded due to short-sighted expediency priorities and perserve government policies, it will be too late to save humanity from an apocalyptic fate that has befallen countless 'advanced' societies in the past several thousand years. Dr. Montgomery provides numerous examples lf soil mismanagement and good management through the ages, and often provides reasons for these differences. He marshals evidence that present agricultural practices that minimize soil erosion and build the organic matter content of soils are not necessarily a short term economic liability for the practitioners. He holds out the possibility that further understanding of how the extinct Amazonians made their unique remarkably resilient and fertile terra preta soils may provide an additional tool for achieving sustainable fertile soils without massive applications of nonrenewable inorganic fertilizers.
The contemporary book 'Collapse' covers much the same territory, but is much longer, is broader in scope in some respets, but with generally less depth on the subject of soil itself. The 2 books should be considered largely complementary, and among the most important books for everyone to read and understand. I do wish the author had chosen a better title. In our introductory course in soils, it was quickly made clear that 'dirt' is any rather granular or powdery material that is out of place, according to our interests. This book is about soil management and mismanagement, not dirt!
This book corroborates everything I've learned the hard way.
No words need be spoken, the evidence speaks for itself.
"It's like the earth's skin" he keeps saying. And as a non-scientist, the analogy is appealing.
When he deals with the past, the pattern he lays out is simple: a civilization uses up its soil, and moves on to other soil to use up; or a civilization uses up its soil, and the civilization declines.
Problem: we don't have much new soil to move on to, all the best stuff is in the temperate zone (the soil in the tropics is not as good and gets depleted much more quickly), and we don't really want to decline.
He makes the case for farming in different ways, smaller farms, less monoculture, drastic reduction in pesticide and fertilizer, more labor intensive farming, mulching/manure, contoured plowing, etc. etc. It is both radical, and reasonable.
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Units! Units are the worst part of the book.
He's only got four things to measure, but he makes it so hard to follow. We have depth of soil. That one he handles ok. He uses inches, and he uses feet. Reasonable.
Time. He uses years. Tens of years. Hundreds of years. Thousands of years. And generations. He should dump those generations. Unnecessarily confusing. But I'm being picky.
Areas. Acres. Hectares. Square miles. Size of ________ (fill in the country). This drove me nuts. Pick a small measure (acre or ha.) and stick with it. For larger areas, pick one familiar area, and compare all others against it. I like France. "An area one tenth the area of France" "an area half as large as France" "a bit larger than France" - If France is the wrong unit, pick another. But pick one, and stay with it. Otherwise the reader just gets confused. Most people do not offhand have the ability to compare lots of areas.
How fast does soil erode? Montgomery uses inches per century. Or years per inch. Or inches per year. Or inches per thousand years. The concept itself, that soil disappears, is foreign. Shifting units on top of this is confusing for no reason. I should have converted each figure to inches per century. Instead I just got frustrated as I read.
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Soil erosion is important. Soil is a resource that is disappearing like oil. We should know more.
Montgomery makes this information accessible. He emphasizes the importance, at a level technical enough for the science-interested layman. Aside from the units (just convert to inches per century) it is a relatively easy read.
It is worth knowing more about this topic, and Dirt is an excellent intro.