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Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

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Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. By David R. Montgomery. (University of California Press, Berkeley: 2007. Pg. 295. 10 b/w photographs, 13 line illustrations, 5 maps.) ISBN 10: 0-520-24870-8. ISBN 13: 978-0-520-24870-0.

Reviewed by Herbert White - May 7, 2007

Dirt, or more aptly soil, is so commonplace that most people never even think about it, let alone wonder about its history - and its future. In David R. Montgomery's unsettling new book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations the author provides an overview of the history of soil and the impact that it has had on the rise, and fall, of various civilizations. Most disturbing of all, Montgomery takes a hard look at the future of the Earth's soil, and what he finds is that we are losing an unprecedented amount of soil and if we don't take steps, now, to preserve what remains, we will soon find ourselves unable to grow enough food to sustain ourselves.

Montgomery is a Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, and within the pages of this book he has interwoven a wealth of information garnered from history, archaeology, soil science, and geology, to present this compelling history of soil. In addition to presenting a general overview of how soil is formed and used, Montgomery also presents in-depth analysis of how soil was used in several different civilizations including Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece and Rome, China, and Colonial America. He also illustrates how erosion, environmental damage and poor agricultural practices have led to the depletion, and at times, total loss of an area's top soil - and the impact that such a loss has had on the people touched by the disaster. Most important, he examines how political and economic factors have contributed to soil-degradation throughout time. Modern abuses and soil loses are also touched on, including the Dust Bowl and the rapid encroachment of sand into once fertile areas in the Sub-Saharan. To round-out the book, Montgomery also provides insights into current practices, such as no-till farming and composting that can be used to protect the remaining top-soil, and to help restore its fertility and quantity.

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations is suited for readers of all levels with an interest in history, geology, or soil science. It will also find ready place as a supplemental text in a variety of university-level classes ranging from history to geology courses.

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