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Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations Paperback – October 2, 2008
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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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
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.
One of the best explanations I have read on how the world got into the environmental mess we are now in. And how we can get out of it. This well written, eminently readable book explains the make up and importance of dirt (soil) in terms anyone can understand, and takes us through history from the beginning of civilization to today, showing how one civilization after another destroyed itself by exploiting and depleting their most valuable resource - their soil. And we are still doing this today and will surely destroy ourselves unless we change the way we handle the dirt beneath our feet. There are concrete reasons why planet Earth faces massive problems of food and land shortages and every person on earth should know these reasons and what needs to be done to solve the problems. Anyone interested in the future of humanity should read this book - and learn from it. It should be required reading for every farmer, industrialist, and politician in the world, but especially in the Unites States.