CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Winter 2009
CRM Journal

Book Reviews


Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

By David R. Montgomery. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007; ix + 295 pp; illustrations, maps; cloth $24.95.

We are running out of good dirt, and when we are out, civilization as we know it will be over. Geomorphologist David R. Montgomery makes an urgent and compelling case for the modern world to pay attention to its dirt resources. Montgomery takes a historical view to observe the patterns of past civilizations and argues for sustainability and conservation, intergenerational land stewardship, and awareness that technological advances can cause disaster in the long-term.

The message of Dirt is: that which we take for granted in the lives of civilizations, we stand to lose if not taken seriously. Dirt, good, fertile dirt, has been foundational to the health of civilizations throughout the history of humankind. The taking of dirt for granted time and time again has proven disastrous.

How societies treat dirt is of fundamental importance to secure the future of civilizations on a global scale. Montgomery begins Dirt by laying out his concern that study of past civilizations reveals lessons in the implications of dirt abuse for contemporary civilizations. In Chapter 2, Montgomery provides an overview of the processes of soil accumulation, deposition, and erosion. He outlines the ways that natural processes form new dirt, the ways nutrients get into soil to make it healthy, and the impact of conventional agriculture on natural soil systems. Chapter 3 discusses climate change and its effect on land, water, and humans. Climate change instigated human migration around the globe and affected cultures through the development of agriculture and animal domestication. Populations became larger and more sedentary which, in turn, created more demand on the soil. Soil degradation over hundreds of years, however, contributed to the fall of Mesopotamian civilizations.

Chapter 4 compares ancient and modern agricultural uses of soil in Mexico and Peru to argue that agricultural practices do not have to undermine societies. Modern families in these places use ancient methods that still work and provide sustainable approaches to cultivation. Chapter 5 investigates soil in Europe in terms of the effect of soil erosion on population density and movement, first in ancient societies then in the present day. Chapter 6 addresses developments in agriculture such as fertilization and slavery. It demonstrates the problem-solving approaches taken by cultures to build awareness of soil issues and remedy challenges. Chapter 7 outlines the significance of machinery and its dirt-moving capabilities in soil erosion. It also makes a case for government to coordinate and prioritize soil conservation activities.

Chapter 8 investigates society’s poor keeping of the soil and the ways that companies and farmers degrade it. Montgomery makes the point that the difference between conflict and peace relates to how social systems dealt with agricultural productivity without new land. Chapter 9 looks at islands like Haiti, Cuba, and Iceland. Chapter 10 concludes the study. Montgomery reiterates the key issues, such as the reform of agriculture for industrialized and developing countries, the impact of soil-destroying practices on local economies, the need for government intervention before it is too late, a reigning-in of the free market in order to support sustainable approaches, and the need to prioritize agriculture over other markets like oil. Montgomery also offers hope for the future through a series of recommendations to shift contemporary thinking about dirt in order to alter our current course.

Montgomery’s book is a data-rich and fascinating discussion of an issue that clearly applies to everyone on the planet. The book should appeal to a range of disciplines ranging from history to archeology to geography to soil conservation, partly because it reconfigures analyses of labor, technology, politics and other aspects around something that seems so fundamental as to be forgotten.

Questions for the public, professionals, and students alike include: What mistakes in soil have past civilizations made that hastened their demise? How do the lessons for the past provide reason to change direction and slow the consumption of soil faster than it forms? How can mapping erosion, farming, or development play a role in the global management of dirt resources? Can we offer predictive models that will help nations strategize for the long-term health of their dirt for future generations? From more abstract angles, how does soil contribute to peace, social justice, the rights of humankind?

As cultures across the globe face food shortages, social stress, political unrest, and disharmony, Montgomery’s book provides a reasoned program for the future.

Teresa S. Moyer
National Park Service