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Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  1,040 ratings  ·  155 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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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 am also a certified professional soil scientist.

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, Montgo
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 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
Ron Khare
Nov 28, 2012 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
Sep 08, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Historians blame many culprits for the demise of once flourishing cultures: disease, deforestation, and climate change to name a few... Time and again, social and political conflicts undermined societies once there were more people to feed than the land could support. The history of dirt suggests that how people treat their soil can impose a life span on civilizations." (pg 3)

Add "soil abuse" to your list of societal ills that threaten civilization. David R. Montgomery has written a fasc
Richard Reese
Mar 22, 2015 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.
Jul 17, 2014 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
Jan 24, 2016 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 well done.
Apr 12, 2009 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
Tom Elpel
Dec 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Are humans capable of learning from past mistakes? I consider myself more soil literate than most people, enough to recognize the process of desertification on the ground. I’ve long read about the rise and fall of civilizations based on the health of their soils. However, David Montgomery’s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations provided a deeper, more riveting account of the repeated rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall of civilizations due to failure to learn from the past.
Walking the reader through
Jon Cimuchowski
Oct 06, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Bob Stocker
Sep 18, 2011 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 importe
Taylor Dykes
Oct 26, 2012 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 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
Nov 05, 2009 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.
Craig Scharton
May 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I wish that I could somehow get everyone with any decision making ability to read this book. It is perhaps the most singly important subject on our planet.
Jun 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book is not just for soil geeks. This is for anyone interested in world history, looking for a way to wrap their mind around the intertwining forces, personalities, and flukes that have brought us to where we are today. “Dirt” shows how the arc of human activity over the past 10,000 years or so can be understood through the lens of how we have used and managed soil. The evolution of cultures and the rise and fall of civilizations are entwined with changes in the thin skin of the earth that ...more
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
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 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 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 societi
Mar 17, 2014 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
Jul 31, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: environmentalism
I've never seen an environmental problem that poses anywhere near as much of a threat to human civilisation as climate change does, or at least I hadn't until I read this book. But soil loss has finished off many an ancient civilisation, and is likely to do for ours too unless we sit up and take notice of the danger it poses. This important and well written book starts by cataloguing the many examples of where human societies have mismanaged and then lost the soils they need to feed themselves. ...more
Jul 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
Giving this book four stars simply because I learned so much about the history of the world, and who knew it would be through the lens of something as basic as DIRT! There are so many social and economic implications wrapped up in soil that it has literally caused the rise and fall of civilizations, over and over, throughout humanity. There are so many such examples that the book was repetitive and somewhat hard to get through in parts. It was all about agriculture and I would've liked to learn ...more
Jun 28, 2011 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
Feb 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating exploration of how fundamental the soil is to civilisation and how we ignore it's value at our peril. Montgomery explores how poor agricultural practices, particularly those that prioritise short term gain over soil health and longevity inevitably contribute to cultural decline if not outright civilisation failure.

From the cradle of civilisation to the conditions that precipitated the American Civil War, Montgomery covers the world and makes a very convincing case. The so
Nov 19, 2013 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
Mar 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
It's definitely dry in parts, and definitely terrifying in parts... but it's all pretty interesting. I enjoyed the chapters showing the effects of farming practices, erosion, and dirt in general on historical developments (including the Civil War). It was a nice new lens to view things through, even though it's something I think most educated people are sort of vaguely, peripherally, subconsciously aware of, it's nothing that ever really gets articulated and the book makes a pretty good case for ...more
Apr 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
A consideration of the importance of soil to all civilizations, and how its misuse and erosion limit the span of empires, past and present. Historians often overlook soil fertility and degradation in evaluating events, and the author discusses Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, medieval Europe, and the US from this perspective. Unfortunately, lessons on retaining and improving the soil learned in the past are forgotten and rediscovered, and in large farms, tenant farms and those run by overseers the eco ...more
David Buccola
Jun 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was a bit frustrating to read but it is full of great information. Montgomery does a good job of illustrating how civilizations ultimately depend on dirt to survive. What he fails at, however, is ever really getting into what dirt is and how it’s one of the most complex communities of life in the universe. He basically refers to as an industrial system throughout the book, which is to be expected in our culture. But then, at the end of the book he does reveal that he knows it’s more than th ...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
“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.” 3 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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