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Book Review


David R. Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.  Pp. ix + 285. $17.95 (paper)


     The humanly caused environmental issues of our current world present us with an imperative. Scientists on the one hand, and those trained in the social sciences and humanities on the other, must begin to not only talk to each other and read each other’s work, but to synthesize their knowledge together into a single coherent body which can make observations and recommendations relevant to the world at large and its pressing problems. Dirt is just such a synthetic attempt, bringing the environmental concerns of a soil scientist to the understanding of history and to the public at large, in the hope of addressing human sustainability. Written in an approachable style and aimed at an educated general audience, this book reminds us that, so far, many scientists have made valiant efforts to popularize their disciplines and to offer up to citizens what insight their fields have, while environmental historians have lagged behind.

     The author, David R. Montgomery, is a geomorphologist, a geologist who specializes in landscapes and topography. His book reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of that training.

     On the positive side for students of history, who often are ill at ease with the sciences, Montgomery’s relaxed presentation of soil science gives the reader the necessary background of geology, chemistry, and biology in a substantial but non-threatening, digestible way. He assumes, correctly, that to understand agricultural history we need to know some science, and he also assumes that any reader can understand that science if it is properly presented. An additional benefit to Montgomery’s scientific background is that scientists seem, on the whole, far more open (than American historians, anyway) about searching for contemporary policy lessons from examples of environmental destructiveness in the past. Montgomery’s assumption that he has valuable policy insights drawn from history and science to put before his readers, and his willingness to do so, is both refreshing and an instructive model for us in the social and human fields.

     However, the negative side of Montgomery’s scientific background is, to a historian at least, substantial. A quick perusal of his roughly 300 references showed fewer than ten that were written by historians of the last century or so. Most of the entries provided came from other scientists (geologists, biologists, etc.), while a sprinkling of more scientifically oriented geographers and anthropologists were also present. The blurbs on the back of the book come from Nature, New Scientist, Bioscience, and Geotimes. The publisher’s offered bookshelf categories are natural history, ecology, and conservation. Even the Library of Congress agrees that this is a science book, listing as the three subject headings:  Soil science—History, Soils, and Soil erosion.

     What is striking, then, is that despite the lack of consultation of historical research and discourse, the vast majority of this work is in fact clearly about human history and not about soil science at all. The topics Montgomery covers range from the history of the Soil Conservation Service to the causes of the domestication of crops, from the capital costs of agricultural mechanization to the politics of banana exports in Guatemala. His interdisciplinarity is commendable; only someone willing to tackle the human and social history of farming as well as the sciences of soil and agronomy can create the kind of picture of agriculture that is called for to understand our bleak modern scenario. Such a synthesized picture, however, calls not just for mastery of soil science and its literature, but also for a social scientist’s or humanist’s attention to analyzing, dissecting, and understanding societies and their dynamics, rather than merely reporting on their activities, and here Montgomery fails. The lack of historical references seems in this case to reflect, or at least accompany, a lack of historical theory.

     While historians do not dismiss ‘facts,’ they also know that historical content is not clearly separated from the form of an argument, that choice and decision create a narrative, and that history is an interpretive activity. Montgomery’s presentation of the course of history resembles a traditional, superficially empirical, history textbook of the kind that most historians try to avoid using: debates, disagreements, alternative understandings, and competing interpretations are largely invisible on these pages, which instead follow a single, unchallenged narrative. And as that narrative is also one which historians are particularly unlikely to find convincing, the lack of any other presented option is even more unhappy.

     Montgomery’s basic theses are close to pure environmental determinism. For him, not only does soil fertility and health drive the rise and, especially, fall of civilizations, but some combination of climate, inexorable (and presumably ‘natural’ or biologically derived) population growth, and soil is what accounts for many of the important events of human history. Even the European colonization of the Americas, he asserts in his Chapter Five, entitled “Let Them Eat Colonies,” was heavily inspired by the need for more food, which was in short supply due to soil degradation in the Old World. Elsewhere he posits that the U.S. Civil War was triggered by soil erosion, and that the historical appearance of social classes occurred as a result of the fertile soil of the Mesopotamian river valleys. Montgomery is following a long tradition of thinking in these kinds of terms, from Soil and Civilization by Edward Hyams, published in 1952, to the more recent The Green History of the World by Cliff Ponting or David Hillel’s Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil, (all three of which he cites), but this is one theoretical tradition which is heavily suspect, or at least hotly contested, in environmental history today. We would have no inkling of this intellectual debate from this book’s pages, however.

     This book, which does provide a solid collection of relevant information, would in fact be perhaps best read in a history class exactly as an example of environmental determinism. Used side-by-side with, and in direct counterpoint to, a varied series of socially focused analyses on the self-same topics, it would provide the possibility of fascinating contrasting interpretations for class discussion and evaluation.  Possible simultaneous readings might include Blaikie and Brookfield’s Soil Degradation and Society on that topic, Leach and Fairhead’s Misreading the African Landscape on desertification, James Blaut’s Colonizer’s Model of the World on tropical agriculture and tropical soils, or James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State on modern agriculture. Other comparative possibilities include the widely available debates on the role of population growth in the origins of agriculture, and the interesting non-conforming case study of New Guinea as one of the earliest independent originators of agricultural domestication, where the invention of agriculture never correlated with cities or social stratification as it is frequently claimed that it must.

     Having disagreed with most of this book’s methodology and interpretation, I nevertheless applaud Montgomery’s missions of integrating scientific understanding into human history, of speaking to the larger community about issues we academics have knowledge of, and of advocating for policy based on whatever our best current understandings are. In closing, Montgomery appeals to our moral responsibility to the future in making a plea to treat soil as a communal inheritance rather than a commodity, and on this I couldn’t agree with him more.

Eva Swidler, an environmental and agricultural historian, teaches in the interdisciplinary bachelor’s program at Goddard College. She can be reached at


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