5 January 2011

Dirt: the Erosion of Civilizations, by David Montgomery

Posted by Callan Bentley

The final book I read over the break was Dirt: the Erosion of Civilizations, by David Montgomery.

Montgomery got a MacArthur “Genius” Award for his soil work, and I use an article he wrote for GSA Today (2007) as one of the assigned readings for my Environmental Geology course. In Dirt, he lays out the case for protecting civilization by protecting soils. Attention is given to soil-forming processes, and rates of soil generation versus rates of denudation. He makes a compelling argument that when soil fertility declines, conflict ensues. He follows Jared Diamond’s argument from Collapse that insufficient land (soil) to feed oneself resulted in the Rwanda genocide, and makes a similar argument for the economic roots of the U.S. Civil War. The Dust Bowl, of course, gets a proper discussion. Montgomery tickles history with curiosity, probing for soil stories of the past: it’s one of the things about the book that I wasn’t expecting, and I really enjoyed it.

One thing I was definitely expecting from the book was for him to make the environmental case for sustainable soil practices, and he definitely does that. He lays out the case for terracing, no till farming, and composting with many examples, including his own yard in Seattle, full of “coffee-colored earthworms.” I was inspired to put a significant amount of energy into improving my own little plot of earth, if only I had one. (I live in a condo in the middle of a very urban area, with no yard.) Someday, though, I will enhance some lucky plot of soil with my banana peels and espresso grounds.

You should read Dirt. It’s fundamental to our nature as Earthlings that we are made of Earth, but this fact is unappreciated by many. Reading this book made me appreciate how essential this fact is, and how much of our civilization’s supporting fuel we have already squandered through carelessness and thoughtlessness. By putting some thought towards dirt, we may be inspired to care about it more.