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Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

3.95  ·  Rating Details ·  805 Ratings  ·  117 Reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 295 pages
Published May 14th 2007 by University of California Press (first published January 1st 2007)
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I've been interested in history, ancient and modern, since my early childhood. Back then, that meant cool armor, swordfights, and dogfighting jet fighters. Now, it's more to do with deforestation and climate cycles. In either case however, and in a host of other realms besides, at some point I grew to notice a conspicuous omission in the narratives: no one seemed to be appropriately concerned with the material facts that drove historical changes. Too much was attributed to forces I had a hard ti ...more
Apr 02, 2010 Joe rated it really liked it
If you read one book about dirt this year, make it this one!!!

A more accurate, but perhaps less striking, title for this book would have been "Erosion: A History of Agriculture". It talks about how agriculture started and changed over time, in turn affecting and being changed by politics and the civilizations with which it has been intertwined.

It starts off with a scientific description of what soil is made of, how it is created and lost. The book next talks about a early history of agriculture,
Colby Moorberg
I will preface this review by saying that I am an assistant professor of soil science in a department of agronomy at a land grant institution in the US, and happen to teach several classes on soil science and soil conservation.

I loved the first two thirds of the book. The summaries of the history of erosion and civilization were both interesting, and accurate to the best of my knowledge. I greatly enjoyed it. However, from that point on, Montgomery delves into problems with erosion in modern agr
Jul 17, 2014 Julie rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I don't read that much non-fiction. I read this on the recommendation of one of the farmers from whom we get vegetables in the summer. It's really quite fascinating. There are really two levels on which I really enjoyed it. First, there are lots of those little facts that just seem interesting and often counter-intuitive. (The subject of Charles Darwin's last work? Earthworms, on which he did really extensive research.) Second, there's the big pictures. Over and over again civilizations have exh ...more
Ron Khare
Nov 28, 2012 Ron Khare rated it it was amazing
Shelves: required-reading
There are three books I've read in the past year that have changed my life: Endgame (Derek Jensen), The Vegetarian Myth (Lierre Keith), and now Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.

Simply put, this book shows the mechanisms behind the philosophies of the other two. While never delving much into value judgments, and light on alternatives, this book's main strength is the clear, scientifically sound history of humans, agriculture, and environmental degradation. It ends with a powerful message - tha
Richard Reese
Mar 22, 2015 Richard Reese rated it it was amazing
Professor David Montgomery’s book Dirt provides a fascinating discussion about an extremely precious substance that we can’t live without, but treat like dirt. He begins with an intimate explanation of what dirt is, how it’s formed, and how it’s destroyed — in plain, simple English.

Then, he proceeds to lead us on an around-the-world tour, spanning many centuries, to examine the various methods that societies have devised for mining their soils, and diminishing their future via agriculture.

The b
Jon Cimuchowski
Oct 06, 2009 Jon Cimuchowski rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 24, 2016 Natasha rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
This book was a recommended read in honor of the International Year of Soils (2015). It shows how important the soil is to the rise and fall of civilizations. We tend to take dirt for granted, but it is critically important. I like how this book raised my consciousness of this fact.

My dad was a soil scientist. I regret I was not able to discuss this book with him.

This is a link to the first few pages of the book:

I read the audio version and felt it was w
Apr 12, 2009 Lindsey rated it it was amazing
I selected Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations because I am very interested in sustainable agriculture and the interplay between culture and ecology. Reading Dirt offered me the opportunity to explore the history of agriculture and how different societies interacted with soil, one of our most basic and sustaining elements of nature.

“Soil is our most underappreciated, least valued and yet essential natural resource.” (3) Soil plays a fundamental role in the history of civilization. Dirt’s main pr
I read this mostly because the author's parents are friends and college classmates of mine, and they were rightly very proud that he got a MacArthur Genius Grant for his work. I see why - it's an important book and I'm very glad I read it!

He looks at the lifespan and downfall of civilizations in terms of exhaustion of their resources, topsoil in particular. When a society can no longer feed itself, it falls apart, and it's easy to exhaust topsoil, especially in hilly terrain that promotes erosi
Bob Stocker
Sep 18, 2011 Bob Stocker rated it really liked it
This review contains summaries that some people may consider to be “spoilers.”

The story goes something like this. A group of hunter-gatherers discovers agriculture. It plants fertile valleys and settles down. Population grows. Soil becomes depleted. Because this happens over multiple generations, no one notices the change. Eventually, more land on erosion-prone slopes is planted to avoid famine. The sloping land erodes. The society crumbles, relocates, or becomes dependent on imported food. In D
Basically, almost every society with agriculture has caused soil erosion. Typically, if one excludes agriculture along the Nile (before the Aswan dam) and the origins of agriculture in the middle east, people typically start by cultivating the flat land beside a river, and then population growth results in a shortage of land, causing people to start cultivating hillsides. Then erosion occurs, covering up the land beside the river with the soil from the hillsides and creating swamps in the previo ...more
John Breker
Apr 19, 2014 John Breker rated it it was ok
Shelves: agriculture
Montgomery uses numerous, worthy accounts of soil erosion and degradation throughout the course of civilized human existence to build a strong case for soil conservation. He includes examples of soil degradation ranging from Ancient Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica to contemporary America. The book tends to become monotonous as each account is just another variation on a theme of soil erosion that has played out countless times. This repetition highlights the effect of soil erosion on our history; ho ...more
Jan 13, 2008 Bart rated it it was ok
"Cuba's conversion from conventional agriculture to large-scale semi-organic farming demonstrates that such a transformation is possible--in a dictatorship isolated from global market forces. But the results are not entirely enviable; after almost two decades of this inadvertent experiment, meat and milk remain in short supply" (232).
Illustrated in this passage, Dirt at points lacks critical analysis of issues - is a bountiful supply of animal flesh and milk really viable for human societies, wh
Mar 17, 2014 Nadia rated it it was amazing
Brilliant book. A must-read, I believe, for all those interested in the history of civilizations, sustainability, agriculture (organic or not) and, last but not least, a philosophical pondering on the human folly. The folly of consuming today the resources of generations to come (something by no means specific to today's people). The folly of behaving as if there is no tomorrow (and by that making tomorrow harder and harder to exist at all). Yet a moderately optimistic book, looking at history a ...more
Jun 28, 2011 Thomas rated it really liked it
One of the most important topics when studying any ancient culture is the reason or reasons for its collapse. We believe that we know that cultures like the Mesopotamians in the Fertile Crescent, Harappans in the Indus Valley, and the Maya in the Americas simply grew too large for their food supplies, but only after their existing farming methods had depleted the land. This book presents the compelling argument that similar circumstances applied to more modern periods like the American Civil War ...more
Nov 19, 2013 Lynne rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: gardeners, politicians, home owners, agricultural producers
A book about soil might interest gardeners. But this isn't a book about soil. It's about our ability to survive as a country and as the human race. As Henry Cantwell Wallace wisely observed "Nations endure only as long as their topsoil." This book proves illustrates his point.

Throughout history, each major civilization has ultimately faltered and faded away. Montgomery shows how soil conservation (or lack of it) has been a deciding factor in nearly every case.

We can't treat our soil like dirt
Taylor Dykes
Oct 26, 2012 Taylor Dykes rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book. I think David Montgomery does a fantastic job weaving the narrative or history in with the pragmatism of science. He makes a convincing case for environmental determinism in historical societies which faltered (Romans, Greeks, etc.) but stops well short of saying it is the only reason. Once making his case historically, he uses these parables to create a narrative of modern time, mostly America, backed up by a lot of interesting Geological data.
This is a very interes
Feb 13, 2010 Jaimee rated it it was ok
I'm a soil scientist and my soil scientist friends highly recommended this book. The concepts behind this book are very important and I wanted to love this book. However, it was extremely repetitive! It took me forever to read it because it just seem to drag on and on. If you want to read a book about this subject: how we have have mistreated our land, created severe erosion problems and destroyed our topsoil--read The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Du ...more
Mar 28, 2014 Elizabeth rated it it was amazing
This is a surprisingly enjoyable and excellent historical account of the loss of soil via unsustainable farming methods and subsequent decline in civilization. Not to be too pessimistic, the author concludes his work by examining newer methods of farming which build soil and/or aim to greatly reduce or mitigate its erosion, which, if implemented, may curtail the bleak and difficult future projected with the continuation of industrial food production.
Nov 05, 2009 Patty rated it it was ok
I just could not get into this one and skimmed most of it. The idea is interesting--how geography and our use of the land contributed to the rise and fall of civilizations over time--but the execution is quite dry and not as engaging as I would have hoped.
Treating something like dirt is an idiom meaning to look down upon or treat with contempt, but if you treat dirt like dirt, ha, joke's on you, for the soil will have its revenge. It make take decades (or centuries if you have particularly tolerant dirt) but eventually it will fail to grow your crops in the quantities you need, it will take off with the rain and leave you with some dead rocky plains and rivers full of debris, or in the case of the United States, kick up catastrophic dust storms. ...more
Hunter McCleary
May 11, 2017 Hunter McCleary rated it really liked it
The problem of dirt is akin to the problem of climate change. Humans have such a minuscule attention span (shorter than a goldfish for many of us; shorter than an amoeba for Republicans) that we can't accept it as a threat. These are long-term problems but with a huge impact. Montgomery makes a great case that erosion has been around for thousands of years and it's only getting worse because of industrial farming practices. We ignore this problem at our own peril.
Dec 31, 2016 Troy rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Very interesting and thought provoking book on our soil and the future of civilization. Lots to think about and learned some things that I was unaware of.
Nikki White
Mar 11, 2017 Nikki White rated it really liked it
Very interesting overview of the science and social history of human interaction with agricultural soil, with lots of examples from different historical and contemporary societies. Fascinating from the points of view of history, environmentalism, and farm/food/land use policy.
Mar 19, 2009 Mike rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: geologists, gentlemen farmers, people who need something else to worry about
This is an enormously important book which has to do with dirt and soil, including how soil is formed (and how slowly it is formed), the layers within the soil, how soil formation and erosion have to be carefully balanced lest it is lost, and how quickly humans have wasted so much of this resource which is only formed over very long time periods.

Basically, everything you've ever wanted to know about soil is in this book. But the main message of the book, which is so important and which was reall
Jan 01, 2017 Becky rated it liked it
Wow. I had no idea soil conservation was such an ancient problem. I am amazed that even when people have known about the issue, they continue to make the same mistakes! I was tremendously appalled at the companies MIXING TOXIC WASTE INTO "FERTILIZER" so that it would be spread out and not their problem!!
Mar 01, 2017 Jay rated it it was amazing
Bruce Sanders
Dec 31, 2007 Bruce Sanders rated it really liked it
"Many factors may contribute to ending a civilization, but an adequate supply of fertile soil is necessary to sustain one. Using up the soil and moving on to new land will not be a viable option for future generations. Will modern soil conservation prove too little and too late, like those of ancient societies?"

So begins the concluding paragraph of this book. But previous pages don’t provide reason for optimism regarding the answer.

The book begins by showing how loss of soil fertility contribut
May 04, 2012 Justin rated it it was amazing
Shelves: environment
A comprehensive understanding of the relationship between sustainable agricultural practices and complexity and longevity of societies is essential knowledge. This book hammers that relationship home by taking an in-depth look at agricultural practices in a wide variety of societies most Westerners are familiar with from all continents. I knew on an intuitive level that what we have been taught about the fall of the Roman empire, for example - institutionalized corruption, external threats, poli ...more
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David R. Montgomery is a MacArthur Fellow and professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington. He is an internationally recognized geologist who studies landscape evolution and the effects of geological processes on ecological systems and human societies. An author of award-winning popular-science books, he has been featured in documentary films, network and cable news, and on a wide va ...more
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“Small societies are particularly vulnerable to disruption of key lifelines, such as trading relations, or to large perturbations like wars or natural disasters. Larger societies, with more diverse and extensive resources, can rush aid to disaster victims. But the complexity that brings resilience may also impede adaptation and change, producing social inertia that maintains collectively destructive behavior. Consequently, large societies have difficulty adapting to slow change and remain vulnerable to problems that eat away their foundation, such as soil erosion. In contrast, small systems are adaptable to shifting baselines but are acutely vulnerable to large perturbations. But unlike the first farmer-hunter-gatherers who could move around when their soil was used up, a global civilization cannot.” 2 likes
“One of the more interesting things I learned from my first job as a foundation inspector was that preparing a building site means carting the topsoil off to a landfill. Sometimes the fine topsoil was sold as fill for use in other projects. Completely paved, Silicon Valley won't feed anyone again for the foreseeable future.” 1 likes
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