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Book review of Dirt: the erosion of civilization

Book review of Dirt: the erosion of civilization

Preface.  On average civilizations collapsed between 800 to 2,000 years before ruining their soil. Industrial agriculture is doing this far faster – in most of the United States half of the original topsoil is gone and industrial farming techniques erode and compact the land much more than men and horses in the past, further aggravated by large monoculture crops and business owned farmland leased out to farmers who want to make money far more than preserving the land, since they can’t leave the farm to their children.

The bedrock of any civilization is food and water.  So you’d think the top priority of nations throughout history would be ensuring farmers were taking good care of the land right now because this history of erosion is well-known and has been for centuries.

The typical pattern is that at first, only be best soil in the valley bottomland is farmed, then population grows so the slopes are farmed, but the soil washes away into the valley.  Now the bottom land is even more intensely cultivated, which uses the soil up as it keeps growing thinner and depleted of nutrition from continuous farming. And in the end, civilization declines and fails.

Related article: “Peak soil: Industrial agriculture destroys ecosystems and civilizations. Biofuels make it worse“.


David R. Montgomery. 2007. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.  University of California Press.

Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson commented on how poorly American farmers treated their land.  Washington attributed it to ignorance, Jefferson to greed.  Since the principles of good land management were known for hundreds of years previously in Europe, Jefferson’s harsher view is no doubt the correct one.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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