Dr. David Montgomery - Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations - The Crisis and How This Can Be Solved

Expert Panel Host: David Montgomery

• Dirt, soil, call it what you want—it's everywhere we go. It is the root of our existence, supporting our feet, our farms, our cities. David R. Montgomery finds, however, that we are running out of dirt, and it's no laughing matter. An engaging natural and cultural history of soil that sweeps from ancient civilizations to modern times, David R. Montgomery tells us that the compelling idea we are—and have long been—using up Earth's soil. Once bare of protective vegetation and exposed to wind and rain, cultivated soils erode bit by bit, slowly enough to be ignored in a single lifetime but fast enough over centuries to limit the lifespan of civilizations. A rich mix of history, archaeology and geology, David Montgomery traces the role of soil use and abuse in the history of Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, China, European colonialism, Central America, and the American push westward. We see how soil has shaped us and we have shaped soil—as society after society has risen, prospered, and plowed through a natural endowment of fertile dirt. David R. Montgomery sees in the recent rise of organic and no-till farming the hope for a new agricultural revolution that might help us avoid the fate of previous civilizations.

David R. Montgomery is a Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he leads the Geomorphological Research Group and is a member of the Quaternary Research Center. Montgomery received his B.S. in geology from Stanford University in 1984, and his Ph.D. in geomorphology from University of California, Berkeley in 1991. His research addresses the evolution of topography and the influence of geomorphological processes on ecological systems and human societies. His published work includes studies of the role of topsoil in human civilization, the evolution and near-extirpation of salmon, morphological processes in mountain drainage basins, the evolution of mountain ranges, and the use of digital topography. He has conducted field research in eastern Tibet and the American Pacific Northwest. In 2008 Montgomery received a MacArthur Fellowship. His book, “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” won the 2008 Washington State Book Award in General Nonfiction.[1] Montgomery’s 2012 book, “The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood” explores the relationship between catastrophic floods in the distant past, flood legends, “Noachian flood geology”, and geologic discovery over the past several hundred years. After the catastrophic Oso mudslide in Washington State in March, 2014, Montgomery appeared on various news segments to discuss the science behind landslides. He appears in DamNation the 2014 documentary film about dam removal in the United States.Montgomery (King of Fish), a geomorphologist who studies how landscapes change through time, argues persuasively that soil is humanity’s most essential natural resource and essentially linked to modern civilization’s survival. He traces the history of agriculture, showing that when humans exhausted the soil in the past, their societies collapsed, or they moved on. But moving on is not an option for future generations, he warns: there isn’t enough land. In the U.S., mechanized agriculture has eroded an alarming amount of agricultural land, and in the developing world, degraded soil is a principal cause of poverty. We are running out of soil, and agriculture will soon be unable to support the world’s growing population. Chemical fertilizers, which are made with lots of cheap oil, are not the solution. Nor are genetically modified seeds, which have not produced larger harvests or reduced the need for pesticides. Montgomery proposes an agricultural revolution based on soil conservation. Instead of tilling the land and making it vulnerable to erosion, we should put organic matter back into the ground, simulating natural conditions.

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2 Responses

  1. I think a significant part of effective composting efforts would include recycling human waste as well. So much energy is spent and so many chemicals are used & spread by treating our waste with current sewage treatment plants. We could use individual composting toilets or perhaps centralized composting facilities to turn an expensive, inefficient, and dirty process into one that's much cleaner and lower cost that would not only return precious nutrients to our soil, but also break down many of the synthetic contaminants like he mentioned, avoid the creation and release of new ones, and save tons of money/ energy/ resources.

  2. I enjoy listening to Mr. Montgomery and am dismayed that Ted and Harvard University disable comments on his Noah-geology linkage. While he rightly explores and connects Noah's Flood to the Black Sea or the Tigris-Euphrates as points of origin by way of Sumerian scrolls transcribed by Jewish Scribes whilst in captivity in Babylon, he stops there. However, while Israeli research looks to Lepinski Vir, and the wealthy metal smelting communities of what is today Bulgaria and Serbia, he does not. These areas fit within his 8,000-year cultural memory that can keep a story intact. Even though there are theories that the book of Enoch originates here (the God Željezo happens to be the Slavic word for iron), and there are plenty of tall mountain ranges from where glacial lakes could have burst, he completely missed this theory. It is the incessant American ignoring of texts and histories that its researchers continue to ignore. Mind you, Lepinski Vir was uncovered over 20 years ago. The metal works are over 1000 years earlier than evidence of such work in present day Iran or Turkey. The discoveries are already being taught by leading archaeologists in the U.S., Russia and the U.K. Why not dig up these early Serb legends and texts and evaluate the legends of this region? At least 1 ancient Greek city was destroyed by flood, probably caused by land erosion linked to deforestation. In the Balkans, both topics that he explores need further study.

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