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Hedy Reviews “Dirt”

By Library Staff

Having been a member of the River Action Environmental Book Club for several years now, I’ve read some of this before: that the root cause of famine is overcultivation of marginal land, that “agricultural methods that deplete soil faster than it’s replaced destroy societies”.  I always feel kind of helpless, but at least some in this book club had the gumption and wherewithal to attend the recent Environmental Protection Commission’s public hearing regarding Iowa’s 4″ topsoil rule–whether to keep it or not.

Near the end of the book was a section on something else in the news: Cuba.  After 1989 when Soviet support ended and the U.S. embargo was in full force, Cuba experienced a severe food crisis.  Calories and protein in the average diet dropped by almost a third and there was an almost 90 percent drop in Cuba’s external trade.  Cuba could not afford fertilizers and pesticides nor parts to repair farm machinery.  Remarkably, it began the “first nation-scale test of alternative agriculture.”  Montgomery goes into detail about how this was done, but the result was: “Within a decade, the Cuban diet rebounded to its former level without food imports or the use of agrochemicals.” Cuba proved that a conversion from conventional agriculture to large-scale semi-organic farming can be successful without social collapse, but Montgomery adds that there is the question of “whether something similar could be pulled off in a society other than a one-party police state” isolated from global market forces.

Montgomery’s book is historical and detailed, covering civilizations from ancient times to the modern day.  I was impressed with his thoroughness.  I enjoyed the line drawings of hand tools that headed each chapter along with a suitable quotation.  Chapter 5 was titled “Let Them Eat Colonies”.  The quotation heading was from Marie Antoinette: “There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.”

631.49 MO “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” by David R. Montgomery, 2012, 285 pages