Author David Montgomery accomplishes quite a feat with his 2007 work, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. He takes a potentially mundane topic, dirt, and transforms it into an entertainingly educational trip through history.
As the name implies, societies throughout history rely on little more than their land’s ability to produce food. In fact, as the author shows, civilizations have been destroyed so many times in the past due to eroded and depleted soil that it is essentially predictable in any society. And after all, according to Wendell Berry, “what we do to the land, we do to ourselves” (1).
Certainly today we face enormous challenges with respect to our soil. Around the globe the earth faced abusive agriculture for hundreds or thousands of years, and with our current population, this pressure will only increase. We have undoubtedly increased crop yields using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but this high output, monocrop agriculture is clearly taking faster than it replenishes. Further, those impressive yields are no longer increasing and may even be declining. This inevitably leads to the usage of marginal lands to grow food. Unfortunately, history holds that this “fencerow to fencerow” and beyond system of agriculture only serves to erode a civilization until it is just a memory. This memory, of course, will also stand as a warning for all other civilizations willing to listen before it is too late.
You might also like: Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Costs of Civilization by Spencer Wells