© 2007 Peter R. Montgomery
Civilizations rise or crumble on the soundness of their dirt, says David Montgomery. The life of a people is tied to the life of its soil, in its ability to manage it well. In dirt: the erosion of civilizations he delivers a history of societal collapses. Humanity is not a species known for moderation, and the pages of history are checkered with fallen empires whose demand for food has strangled the golden goose. After opening with a few chapters on science (beginning with Charles Darwin’s discovery that worms are responsible for reducing organic matter to humus) that explain why soil works the way it does, subsequent chapters trace human agriculture and soil management from Egypt to modern times. It is largely a history of failure, as great empires and minor chiefdoms alike exhaust their ground – from Rome to Easter Island. We have not fared better in our age of scientific and technological mastery, either, as the Dust Bowl proved and as the rapidly diminishing returns of the Green Revolution bear out. Ultimately, Montgomery writes, the story of soil demonstrates that there are limits to growth and ambition; we must learn to adapt our agricultural approaches to the land that is ours, not force one convenient style of farming on every place we discover. dirt is fascinating if a bit esoteric.