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Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

David R. Montgomery
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 2
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    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 Civilizationsexplores 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,Dirttraces 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95211-9
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. ONE Good Old Dirt
    (pp. 1-8)

    ON A SUNNY AUGUST DAY IN THE LATE 1990s, I led an expedition up the flank of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines to survey a river still filled with steaming sand from the massive 1991 eruption. The riverbed jiggled coyly as we trudged upriver under the 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...

  6. TWO Skin of the Earth
    (pp. 9-26)

    CHARLES DARWIN’S LAST AND LEAST-KNOWN BOOK was not particularly controversial. Published a year before he died in 1882, it focused on how earthworms transform dirt and rotting leaves into soil. In this final work Darwin documented a lifetime of what might appear to be trivial observations. Or had he discovered something fundamental about our world—something he felt compelled to spend his last days conveying to posterity? Dismissed by some critics as a curious work of a decaying mind, Darwin’s worm book explores how the ground beneath our feet cycles through the bodies of worms and how worms shaped the...

  7. THREE Rivers of Life
    (pp. 27-48)

    FOUNDATIONAL TEXTS OF WESTERN RELIGIONS acknowledge the fundamental relationship between humanity and the soil. The Hebrew name of the first man, Adam, is derived from the wordadama,which means earth, or soil. Because the name of Adam’s wife, Eve, is a translation ofhava,Hebrew for “living,” the union of the soil and life linguistically frames the biblical story of creation. God created the earth—Adam—and life—Eve—sprang from the soil—Adam’s rib. The Koran too alludes to humanity’s relation to the soil. “Do they not travel through the earth and see what was the end of...

  8. FOUR Graveyard of Empires
    (pp. 49-82)

    IN THE EARLY 1840S NEW YORK LAWYER, adventurer, and amateur archaeologist John Lloyd Stephens found the ruins of more than forty ancient cities in dense Central American jungle. After excavating at Copán in Guatemala, traveling north to Mexico’s ruined city of Pelenque, and returning to the Yucatán, Stephens realized that the jungle hid a lost civilization. His revelation shocked the American public. Native American civilizations rivaling those of the Middle East didn’t fit into the American vision of civilizing a primeval continent.

    A century and a half after Stephens’s discovery, I stood atop the Great Pyramid at Tikal and relived...

  9. FIVE Let Them Eat Colonies
    (pp. 83-114)

    GUATEMALANS GROW SOME OF THE BEST COFFEE in the world, but most can’t buy it at home. Neither can tourists. When I was there last I had to wake up on freeze-dried Mexican Nescafé, even though I can buy bags of freshly roasted Guatemalan coffee beans two blocks from my house in Seattle. Less well known than the story of how Europe carved out global empires is how the way Europeans treated their soil helped launch the exploration and history of the New World. Today’s globalized agriculture that ships local produce overseas to wealthier markets reflects the legacy of colonial...

  10. SIX Westward Hoe
    (pp. 115-144)

    SEVERAL YEARS AGO, ON A BREAKNECK research trip down rough dirt roads through a recently deforested part of the lower Amazon, I saw how topsoil loss could cripple a region’s economy and impoverish its people. I was there to study caves created over a hundred million years as water slowly dissolved iron-rich rocks that lay beneath soils resembling weathered frying pans. Walking through an iron cave impressed upon my imagination how long it must have taken for dripping water to carve them. Just as striking on this trip were the signs of catastrophic soil loss after forest clearing. Yet what...

  11. SEVEN Dust Blow
    (pp. 145-178)

    NORTHERN CANADA MESMERIZED ME THE FIRST TIME I flew over the pole from Seattle to London on a clear day. While the other passengers enjoyed some Hollywood epic, I drank in the vast plain of bare rock and shallow lakes crawling by six miles below. For tens of millions of years before the onset of the glacial era, deep soil and weathered rock covered northern Canada. Redwood trees grew in the Arctic. Then, as the planet cooled into a glacial deep freeze about two and a half million years ago, rivers of ice began stripping northern Canada down to hard...

  12. EIGHT Dirty Business
    (pp. 179-216)

    SEVERAL YEARS AFTER SEEING THE RAPID PACE of soil destruction in the lower Amazon I found the antithesis while leading an expedition in eastern Tibet. Driving the region’s rough dirt roads I saw a thousand-year-old agricultural system along the valley of the Tsangpo River. We were there to study an ancient ice-dammed lake that drained in a cataclysmic flood down the Himalayan gorge through which the river slices to join the Ganges. Looking for outcrops of ancient lakebeds we drove through villages full of chickens, yaks, and pigs. All around the towns, low silt walls trapped soil in fields of...

  13. NINE Islands in Time
    (pp. 217-232)

    ON HIS WAY TO INDONESIA AND THE SPICE ISLANDS, a Dutch admiral discovered a small volcanic island in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean on Easter Sunday 1722. Shocked by apparent cannibalism among the natives, Jakob Roggeveen and his crew barely paused and sailed on across the Pacific. Never attractive for colonization or trade because of its meager resource base, Easter Island was left alone until the Spanish annexed it half a century later. The most interesting thing about the place was a curious collection of hundreds of colossal stone heads littered across the island.

    Easter Island presented a...

  14. TEN Life Span of Civilizations
    (pp. 233-246)

    AFTER TWO HUNDRED YEARS, THE CONTRASTING VISIONS of Malthusian pessimism and Godwinian optimism still frame debate over whether technological innovation will keep meeting society’s growing agricultural needs. Preventing a substantial decline in food production once we exhaust fossil fuels will require radically restructuring agriculture to sustain soil fertility, or developing massive new sources of cheap energy if we continue to rely on chemical fertilizers. But the future is clear if we continue to erode the soil itself.

    Estimating how many people Earth can support involves assumptions about trade-offs between population size, quality of life, and environmental qualities such as biodiversity....

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 247-250)
    (pp. 251-270)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 271-285)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 286-288)