Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

David R. Montgomery

Language: English

Pages: 296

ISBN: 0520272900

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Dirt, soil, call it what you want—it's everywhere we go. It is the root of our existence, supporting our feet, our farms, our cities. This fascinating yet disquieting book finds, however, that we are running out of dirt, and it's no laughing matter. An engaging natural and cultural history of soil that sweeps from ancient civilizations to modern times, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations explores the compelling idea that we are—and have long been—using up Earth's soil. Once bare of protective vegetation and exposed to wind and rain, cultivated soils erode bit by bit, slowly enough to be ignored in a single lifetime but fast enough over centuries to limit the lifespan of civilizations. 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. David R. Montgomery sees in the recent rise of organic and no-till farming the hope for a new agricultural revolution that might help us avoid the fate of previous civilizations.

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could be kept in continuous production without compromising soil fertility. But the population was still subject to the whims of the climate. A few bad years, or even a single disastrous one, could be catastrophic. Extended drought severely reduced crop yields; a peasant revolt during one from about 2250 to 1950 BC toppled the Old Kingdom. Still, the generally reliable Nile sustained a remarkably successful agricultural endeavor. Unlike in Mesopotamia, regulating the distribution of the river's

blazing tropical sun. Suddenly I sank in to my ankles, then my knees, before settling waist deep in hot sand. While my waders began steaming, my graduate students went for their cameras. After properly documenting my predicament, and then negotiating a bit, they pulled me from the mire. Few things can make you feel as helpless as when the earth gives way beneath your feet. The more you struggle, the deeper you sink. You're going down and there's nothing you can do about it. Even the loose

Peter…to be obtain'd in Plenty, we should need but little other Composts to meliorate our Ground.”4 Well ahead of his time, Evelyn anticipated the value of chemical fertilizers for propping up—and pumping up—agricultural production. By the start of the eighteenth century, improving farmland was seen as possible only through enclosing under private ownership enough pasture to keep livestock capable of fertilizing the plowed fields. Simply letting the family cow poop on the commons would not do.

nutrients and impurities to seeping water, leaving behind a deeply weathered iron crust. Aluminum and iron ore can form naturally through this slow weathering process. Over geologic time, the ample rainfall and hot temperatures of the tropics can concentrate aluminum and iron as chemical weathering leaches away almost everything else from the original rock. Although it may take a hundred million years, it is far more cost-effective to let geologic processes do the work than to industrially

frost and freezing. Soil thickens until it reaches a balance between soil erosion and the rate at which soil-forming processes transform fresh rock into new dirt. This time Darwin got it right. Soil is a dynamic system that responds to changes in the environment. If more soil is produced than erodes, the soil thickens. As Darwin envisioned, accumulating soil eventually reduces the rate at which new soil forms by burying fresh rock beyond the reach of soil-forming processes. Conversely, stripping

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