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Book Review: “dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” by David Montgomery

by Yogesh Pathak

We know Darwin for his work on evolution. But he also spent a significant amount of time analyzing the soil in his fields, the role of worms in the recycling of soil, and estimating how much soil formed in the British countryside every year. “dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations”, written by geomorphologist David Montgomery, starts by noting Darwin’s intriguing observations on soil. The book highlights the central role occupied by soil in the sustenance of human cultures.

The study of soil is the study of geology, rainfall and climate, agriculture, irrigation, and human land use. The author describes the role played by soil in the growth and decay of ancient cultures like Egypt, Mesopotamia, Rome, Mayans, and China. He observes that most cultures have lived harvest-to-harvest with little hedge against crop failure. Our population expanded or got squeezed in tandem with agricultural surpluses.

During the colonial era, Europeans outsourced food production as they built industrial economies. The author describes the interesting history of tobacco farming in USA and how the soil was getting degraded fast. Edmund Ruffin’s practices to improve soil fertility saved American agriculture. The book mentions the interesting history of guano as a soil nutrient and competition among nations for this strategic resource. In India, we know the role played by hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides in improving yields (the “green revolution”) while we dealt with an exploding population. There is a pattern here: When faced with the crisis of unproductive soil, nations look for short-term solutions based on resource grab or technology.

But in the end, we continue to be vulnerable to the gradually accumulating effects of soil degradation. Organic farming is making a comeback as a response to this. Soil needs to be seen as an “ecological system where microbes provide a living bridge from soil humus to living plants”. Urban farming also needs to be encouraged.

The book makes an interesting read for anyone looking for a deeper dive in the history of soil and agriculture.

(This review was originally published in the Newsletter of the Ecological Society)

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