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The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis: A Biography of an Ingenious Species

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A MacArthur “Genius” and eminent scientist shows how an ordinary mammal manipulated nature to become a technologically sophisticated city-dweller—and why our history points to an optimistic future in the face of environmental crisis


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A MacArthur “Genius” and eminent scientist shows how an ordinary mammal manipulated nature to become a technologically sophisticated city-dweller—and why our history points to an optimistic future in the face of environmental crisis

30 review for The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis: A Biography of an Ingenious Species

  1. 4 out of 5

    Clif Hostetler

    The purpose of this book is described as follows in the book’s Prologue:This book is an attempt to reconstruct how we became extraordinary, how human civilization evolved to manipulate nature so much that most people live in cities. Our journey began by living off the plants and animals that nature made available. Now we are the only species with most of its members subsisting on food produced in some distant location. In telling this story this book uses the metaphor of a ratchet to describe th The purpose of this book is described as follows in the book’s Prologue:This book is an attempt to reconstruct how we became extraordinary, how human civilization evolved to manipulate nature so much that most people live in cities. Our journey began by living off the plants and animals that nature made available. Now we are the only species with most of its members subsisting on food produced in some distant location. In telling this story this book uses the metaphor of a ratchet to describe the problem solving done by humans throughout history in dealing with food shortages and other problems. Similar to the way a ratchet turns until it stops, then pivots positions, and proceeds to rotate again until forced to repeat, so also human civilization has been forced to "pivot" to new approaches to problems encountered throughout history. This book frequently uses the words ratchet, hatchet, and pivot to reference this sequence. The following example quotation is referencing the Irish potato famine:The story of the Great Famine is a microcosm of humanity’s journey through the ratchets, hatchets, and pivots that typify our history. An often repeated problem faced by humans has been food limitations caused by population growth. After many repeated "pivots" humans have managed to permit population numbers to reach levels that would have been impossible without the numerous ingenious solutions develop along the way. Some examples of historical pivots include the development of agriculture, industrial revolution, and exchange of Old and New World food plants. Some more recent pivots include the artificial fertilizers, Green Revolution, and genetically modified food. The scary part of this hatchet-ratchet-pivot procedure is that over time the whole system becomes increasingly complex. Complex systems can sometimes collapse due to the failure of a minor component, and the appearance of some negative consequences are delayed for many years (examples: climate change and obesity due to sweet/fatty foods). Another issue is that civilization as we know it today is powered by resources of finite quantity. With regard to hydrocarbons we generally assume that we'll figure out a way to live off of sun and wind energy. But this book reminded me of something else, fertilizer. If it weren't for synthetic fertilizers our earth could support only a fraction of the current human population. Nitrogen is not a problem as long as we have an energy source to take nitrogen from the air. However, phosphorus is another matter. It is mined as phosphate rock and there are only a few sources where that critical element can be mined. This book didn't try to estimate how many years of the resource are available, so I assume it won't become exhausted during my lifetime. However, it is a finite source so it will be used up sometime. (view spoiler)[ It's interesting to imagine what life will be like once all phosphate rock is gone. Recycling will become important, and it so happens that one of the most plentiful sources of phosphorus that could potentially be recycled is urine. (hide spoiler)] This is a well written book that combines wisdom, scientific discovery, and story-telling. It is generally optimistic, but the challenges are dealt with factually and are not trivialized.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Alexandre Normand

    The subject is interesting and the story of humanity does have some interesting bits that I hadn't fully grasped or pieced together before I read it. That said, I find the perspective very biased. A lot of the instances where the author proclaims "human ingenuity", one could easily say that it was an example of terrible foolishness. I found myself very annoyed with the tone that just claimed pivots as inevitable improvement when it arguably was quite the opposite. Tragedies caused by some pivots The subject is interesting and the story of humanity does have some interesting bits that I hadn't fully grasped or pieced together before I read it. That said, I find the perspective very biased. A lot of the instances where the author proclaims "human ingenuity", one could easily say that it was an example of terrible foolishness. I found myself very annoyed with the tone that just claimed pivots as inevitable improvement when it arguably was quite the opposite. Tragedies caused by some pivots are being brushed off in single sentences as being excusable for the things they enabled (which you could see as even more terrible things). I still think that reading The Big Ratchet was valuable because it made me realize quite a few things and I also learned some things. I'm not giving it a good review because I both disagree with the author's perspective and, more importantly, on her apparent confidence in this perspective.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Eric B. Kennedy

    The Big Ratchet is a 'short history of everything' style retelling of societal inventiveness in the face of environmental constraints. In it, Ruth DeFries suggests that human innovation follows a rough pattern throughout all of history: first a ratchet, then a hatchet, then a pivot. Some innovation leads to a positive outcome, such as the ability to produce more food through agriculture. This leads to a 'ratchet:' a growing population that must be fed. However, eventually a 'hatchet' falls: perh The Big Ratchet is a 'short history of everything' style retelling of societal inventiveness in the face of environmental constraints. In it, Ruth DeFries suggests that human innovation follows a rough pattern throughout all of history: first a ratchet, then a hatchet, then a pivot. Some innovation leads to a positive outcome, such as the ability to produce more food through agriculture. This leads to a 'ratchet:' a growing population that must be fed. However, eventually a 'hatchet' falls: perhaps a collapse of how nutrient rich the soil is, meaning that less can be produced. In the hatchet's wake, society must 'pivot' by inventing an alternative path, such as fertilizing soil. In turn, fertilization produces more food (and the population ratchets up), until shortages of guano cause a hatchet, whereafter synthetic fertilizers emerge. It's a seductively simple - and, frankly, accurate and astute - narrative... ratchet, hatchet, pivot; ratchet, hatchet, pivot. The trick with DeFries' book, though, is that it seems so darn descriptively true (at least from a 30 thousand foot view) - and yet, the telling is simplified to a point where it's difficult to empirically test, and even more limited in its predictive power. The problem with empirical testing arises from the effect of hindsight on the pivots. DeFries builds a very compelling case that humanity has indeed managed to pivot each time that it faces constraints. But, this is a little simplified. First, 'humanity' isn't as homogenous as the story suggests. Indeed, it's only /some/ of humanity that seems to benefit from the pivots (e.g., those with relative wealth have access to the benefits of the pivots, while those without tend to be stuck scraping by on the margins of old techniques). Second, successful pivots are only obvious in retrospect. Fifty years later, for instance, it's pretty easy to tell the story of how innovation proceeded in agriculture (e.g., which technologies replaced previous technologies post-hatchet), but those pivots weren't neat, clear moments. Rather, many pivots in many different directions occurred... and the 'winning' pivots rarely were obvious. This leads to another challenge, though. Because the book concentrates on the broader argument that ratchet/hatchet/pivots occurred, it doesn't spend much time/effort on the question of "what leads to a pivot." By contrast, the end of the book only offers a question: will we be able to pivot in the face of current environmental and societal challenges? DeFries puts significant effort into persuading us of the case that pivots /did/ occur, but I felt like I left the book with little more understanding of why some pivots work (and others fail), how to support pivots when we see the hatchet falling, or how to ensure that humanity benefits equitably from said pivots. In other words, I'm rather persuaded by her argument - that we see this pattern of ratchets, hatchets, and pivots. But, it's kind of like observing that there are meats, carbohydrate dishes, and desserts - it's a true observation, but it doesn't really tell us about the ingredients or recipes in order to help us make the dishes ourselves.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Michael Burnam-Fink

    The Big Ratchet is a decent, if breezy environmental history of agriculture. DeFries discusses human history in terms of energy, and especially available calories, in terms of a pattern of 'ratchet, hatchet, and pivot'. Some innovation increases the available food supply, a limit is reached, a new innovation moves around that limitation. The titular big ratchet, of course, is the combination of intensified agricultural techniques developed in the 20th century that increased the global population The Big Ratchet is a decent, if breezy environmental history of agriculture. DeFries discusses human history in terms of energy, and especially available calories, in terms of a pattern of 'ratchet, hatchet, and pivot'. Some innovation increases the available food supply, a limit is reached, a new innovation moves around that limitation. The titular big ratchet, of course, is the combination of intensified agricultural techniques developed in the 20th century that increased the global population from 1.6 billion to over 7 billion. Most animals live at the margins of survival. Agriculture allows the accumulation of surplus, and the support of a non-farming political, cultural, technological, and military elite. Agriculture advanced slowly in the centuries since the Mesopotamian breadbasket, limited by nutrients, pests, and imprecise breeding. Malthus, writing at the end of the 18th century, was correct from his local perspective. The fertility of the people always seemed to outstrip the fertility of the land. Hunger is mankind's constant companion. The 20th century Green Revolution banished hunger, at least for a time, through artifical nitrogen fertilizer from the Haber-Bosch process, mineral phosphorus, mechanized farm equipment, new breeds, and chemical best control. It also had numerous side effects: maritime dead zones from fertilizer run-off, ecocide from pesticide use, disruptions to ancient ways of living. In DeFries's telling, we're reaching another hatchet, as the limits of Green Revolution techniques become clearer. What comes next is unclear. This book is more focused and optimistic than Harari's Sapiens. Civilization is about agriculture, and even as problems arise, they are dealt with, if not to complete satisfaction. Yet I wish DeFries had written less of a general history, and perhaps brought in some of her specialized knowledge on land use change, deforestation, and the coexistence of heavy agriculture and natural cycles.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    This is a book that had good intentions but fell short of what could have been. Nothing less than the entire span of human history, from the stone age to the present, is covered, with the focus on key breakthroughs that upped the game and took us to the next level, or scale, of development. Fire, language, tool use, farming and the various technologies that improved agricultural production and therefore carrying capacity of the Earth for humans. There are no great insights into the human conditio This is a book that had good intentions but fell short of what could have been. Nothing less than the entire span of human history, from the stone age to the present, is covered, with the focus on key breakthroughs that upped the game and took us to the next level, or scale, of development. Fire, language, tool use, farming and the various technologies that improved agricultural production and therefore carrying capacity of the Earth for humans. There are no great insights into the human condition, or what to do with our present predicament of overshooting the limits to further growth and expansion. For anyone already familiar with the general progress made by humankind that led us to the present day of seeming abundance, this book is mere repetition. A few key inventions whose significance is under appreciated, like the Haber-bosch process of artificially fixing nitrogen to create fertilizer, and the use of fossil fuel inputs to literally create more food for ourselves through application of machinery and pesticides are dealt with in sufficient detail, but I suspect of more interest to those keen on agricultural science! The author does not take any position or comment on our ability to continue inventing our way out of existing physical limits, but offers a dispassionate view of events from a third party perspective, much as how an alien being might view us. The result is merely a statement of historical fact, making for somewhat dry reading. Those who are in a mood for reflection on how far we have come, or perhaps younger readers with no prior knowledge will find this book worthwhile. For the rest, I would hesitate to recommend.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Aaron

    Per FTC guidelines, I received this book as part of the GoodReads First Reads giveaway program. It's entirely possible that I've read a lot of books on this subject, the idea that humanity and its knowledge base and its ability to adapt will ultimately resurrect us from the brink of destruction as it has done so many times before. And, the reason I start with that is because the bulk of this not-so-big book seems to be a rehash of historical information that we've read before. We know about the i Per FTC guidelines, I received this book as part of the GoodReads First Reads giveaway program. It's entirely possible that I've read a lot of books on this subject, the idea that humanity and its knowledge base and its ability to adapt will ultimately resurrect us from the brink of destruction as it has done so many times before. And, the reason I start with that is because the bulk of this not-so-big book seems to be a rehash of historical information that we've read before. We know about the industrial revolution, we know about Norman Borlaug and his miracle seeds, we know about nitrogen-fixing soybeans...and yet, there it all is again in black and white. Now, the second half (maybe 1/3) of the book is dedicated to where we go from here, but aside from discussing possibilities, there seems to be an open-ended assumption that something will happen and when it does all will be well again until it isn't. I do appreciate the "ratchet, hatchet, pivot" concept as it certainly is an excellent tool for explaining how we move out of and back into adaptation, but I feel like this book could be so much more. As it is currently, it seems like mostly the start of a good book, but it's not quite there yet.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Shima Ghaheri

    This book vividly details the extraordinary history of the human quest for food as the world population grows and multiplies. Whenever in history it seems that humanity has reached its food production limit, human invention appears just in time to allow a productivity extension that allows a further respite. This resolutely optimistic account of humans' ability to solve what seems intractable problems does not come without its downside. Indeed, our inventions often create additional environmental This book vividly details the extraordinary history of the human quest for food as the world population grows and multiplies. Whenever in history it seems that humanity has reached its food production limit, human invention appears just in time to allow a productivity extension that allows a further respite. This resolutely optimistic account of humans' ability to solve what seems intractable problems does not come without its downside. Indeed, our inventions often create additional environmental problems that need solving. As our food supply chain becomes more complex, our ability to manage this complexity becomes even more challenging.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

    A short read, but I think oversimplified. The premise that solutions have arisen as we needed them, and therefore will continue to do so, is the philosophy of historical determinism in which I don't really believe. The proposition that we are now in a period of food surplus seems surprising, given more than 10% of humanity doesn't even have clean water... but water isn't addressed despite its huge role in making that food possible. The complexity of each ratchet-hatchet-pivot cycle, really anyth A short read, but I think oversimplified. The premise that solutions have arisen as we needed them, and therefore will continue to do so, is the philosophy of historical determinism in which I don't really believe. The proposition that we are now in a period of food surplus seems surprising, given more than 10% of humanity doesn't even have clean water... but water isn't addressed despite its huge role in making that food possible. The complexity of each ratchet-hatchet-pivot cycle, really anything beyond the population/food interaction, seems very much understated here.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Celest

    Interesting skim across the centuries of agricultural innovations. I wish the author had relied less on the words "ratchet" and "hatchet", that got really old really fast. Interesting skim across the centuries of agricultural innovations. I wish the author had relied less on the words "ratchet" and "hatchet", that got really old really fast.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Karen Cavalli

    DeFries' book crystallized something for me: the way "energy" is often used in contemporary works--fantasy and sci fi fiction and non-scientists exploring the anomalous in non-fiction--is accurate. That is, it is true to describe energy as something felt or moving around one or among others. I have often read or heard reviewers fault this kind of simplistic description as marking the writer as an amateur, someone ignorant of the science of energy. My understanding now is that energy moves from o DeFries' book crystallized something for me: the way "energy" is often used in contemporary works--fantasy and sci fi fiction and non-scientists exploring the anomalous in non-fiction--is accurate. That is, it is true to describe energy as something felt or moving around one or among others. I have often read or heard reviewers fault this kind of simplistic description as marking the writer as an amateur, someone ignorant of the science of energy. My understanding now is that energy moves from one source to another: energy from the sun moves to the soil to the deep layers of earth to the tiny critters on the earth’s surface to the edible plants that grow to the beings that eat those plants. It is that straightforward. The method by which energy gets from place to place is where the complexity arises. That is the gist of this book, describing how over millions of years our ancestors and now our current type of human has figured out how to adapt to this rhythm of feeding people: things aren’t working, cut it, try this, this seems to work, make it bigger, now the new thing isn’t working; pivot. And start the cycles all over again. “Hatchet, ratchet, pivot,” is DeFries’ pithier version. Pairs well with: Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Daniel

    A book about the evolution and development of human ingenuity, and how that ingenuity drives a ratcheting up of our standard of living, albeit with periodic retrogressions. If you've never studied college-level biology, anthropology, or ecology/environmental studies, you'll find this book helpful, although it's written in the style of a class reading assignment. Those already conv... [see the rest on my book review site.] A book about the evolution and development of human ingenuity, and how that ingenuity drives a ratcheting up of our standard of living, albeit with periodic retrogressions. If you've never studied college-level biology, anthropology, or ecology/environmental studies, you'll find this book helpful, although it's written in the style of a class reading assignment. Those already conv... [see the rest on my book review site.]

  12. 5 out of 5

    Nabil

    Wonderful book if you want to learn more about the interaction between human ingenuity and the natural world-- from planetary habitability to handling agricultural pests. I appreciated that DeFries makes sure to discuss what implications these advances have had on justice-- how crop yields and certain life-enhancing techniques have been inequitably distributed in society.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Bram

    A more fitting title would be ‘A Brief History Of Agriculture, Mostly Based On Books You’ve Already Read Or Stuff You Already Knew.’ Not recommended.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Celine Teh

    Informative.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    This book actually gives me some hope for the future of agriculture. Here are some of my favorite excerpts: Food is the ultimate energy source for every human endeavor. It is more essential than coal, gas, or any of the other sources that power our machines. Without food, there can be no cities, trade, cuisines, language, great artwork, symphonies, novels, theater, or any of the other hallmarks that set our species apart from others. Solutions will create new problems, and problems will generate This book actually gives me some hope for the future of agriculture. Here are some of my favorite excerpts: Food is the ultimate energy source for every human endeavor. It is more essential than coal, gas, or any of the other sources that power our machines. Without food, there can be no cities, trade, cuisines, language, great artwork, symphonies, novels, theater, or any of the other hallmarks that set our species apart from others. Solutions will create new problems, and problems will generate new solutions. Culture - shared knowledge accumulated from experience - takes time and builds over generations. If the cost in calories to feed, butcher, and carry the animals exceeds the payback in calories gained from eating the meat, it's a losing proposition from the standpoint of energy. Aztec and Mayan societies in the New World ate corn, beans, and squash. Incan societies ate potatoes and quinoa. In the Old World, medieval Europeans subsisted on wheat, barley, and rye. Africans on yams, banana, millet, and sorghum. East Asians on millet and rice. The ultimate expansion of wheat, corn, and soy across the North American plains would not have been possible without the subsidized labor from horses. One pound of grain can consume up to 5,000 pounds of water when temperatures are high. Four out of 10 people alive at the beginning of the third millennium were subsisting on foods that farmers would not have been able to produce without fertilizer made with the Haber-Bosch process. Including grains to feed meat- and dairy-producing animals. Nitrous oxide at room temp is just laughing gas, but in the atmosphere it acts as a greenhouse gas. One molecule of nitrous oxide warms the planet nearly 300 times as much as a molecule of carbon dioxide averaged over a hundred years. Burning fossil fuel spews the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the air to short-circuit the long grind of the planet's recycling machinery. Accounting for the full chain of farming, transporting, processing, and packaging, and then for household storage and prep, the energy costs today in terms of the calories needed to produce all the fruits, veggies, eggs, milk, meat, and other products in the US food system amount to 7 to 15 times more than the payback in calories consumed. In other words, every calorie on the dinner plate uses up 7 to 15 times more energy, in common units of calories, to produce and transport than it provides to the person who eats it. Despite differences in cuisines, religious taboos, and preferences, when people get wealthier, they eat fewer starchy foods and more meat, eggs, and dairy. Animals convert the sun's energy embedded in the food they eat into nitrogen-containing, essential protein. The downside is (animal ethics aside) that the protein bears the energy cost that cascades up the food chain from the animals; maintenance charges. Even with today's barrage of pesticides and other defenses, worldwide pests and plant diseases destroy nearly three out of every ten tons of crops before the harvest, and another one in every ten tons afterward. It's far too easy to over-romanticize the virtues of traditional agriculture as portrayed by these Guatemalan and African methods. Let's not fall in that trap. The yields are low, farmers are vulnerable to the vagaries of weather, and daily life is defined by the struggle to produce enough food so the family does not go hungry. There is no magic bullet to ward off pests. Americans, on average, consumed 222 more calories each day from beverages in 2002 than in 1965, mostly from sugary drinks. There's no point romanticizing the diet of the poor rural farmer whose back-breaking labor can scarcely feed a family. Their diets are monotonous and lack the diversity of nutrients that keep people healthy. While much of the world is upping its consumption of meat and other animal products, some people are moving toward more plant-based diets. The shift not only benefits their health but gives them a way to help recapture the disproportionate amounts of energy and water that animal-based diets consume. The authors concluded that if a customer's round-trip drive to purchase local organic vegetables is more than 6.7 kilometers (4.1 miles), then the emissions from the transportation are likely to amount to more than the emissions from use of a system of cold storage, packing, transport to a regional hub, and final transportation to the customer's doorstep. The general conclusion is that local food is not categorically superior in terms of fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The way the food is produced, stored, and distributed can override the emissions associated with transport.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Yofish

    Really more like 3.5 stars. The subtitles “How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis” and “A Biography of an Ingenious Species” are sort of false advertising. This is a book about the history of agriculture. It is an interesting book on the topic, and it does touch on how humanity thrives in the Face of Natural Crises, but only in the context of agriculture. That’s OK. Her editor must’ve told her it’d sell better if it sounded more general. Maybe it did, but I feel a little duped. Even t Really more like 3.5 stars. The subtitles “How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis” and “A Biography of an Ingenious Species” are sort of false advertising. This is a book about the history of agriculture. It is an interesting book on the topic, and it does touch on how humanity thrives in the Face of Natural Crises, but only in the context of agriculture. That’s OK. Her editor must’ve told her it’d sell better if it sounded more general. Maybe it did, but I feel a little duped. Even though the book was fine. She takes us through, from the beginning of agriculture through crop rotations, through slash-and-burn (describing it much better than the metaphor it has come to mean), through harvesting guano off the coast of South America (I hadn’t really though about it, but the reason that the guano islands are off South America, and really not anywhere else in the world is that it basically doesn’t rain there to wash away the bird poop), through artificial nitrogen fixing, through hybridization and gene manipulation. The writing does occasionally feel a little repetitive, or even patronizing, but it’s mostly good. She has good stuff at the beginning about the carbon cycle. Nitrogen and phosphorus, too. And about how urbanification means that we’re no longer recycling human feces into fertilizer, so we have to find ways of making up for that. Cool. Just remember: it’s agriculture.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Carissa

    It focused much on history, more as an overview than in depth, and mostly on agriculture. Interesting, but mostly a continuation of how each solution created another problem and how that cycle continues.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Charlene

    It took me a little bit to get into this book but once I did, I loved it. DeFries chose to look at innovation and food production to explain the history of life on Earth. This book is what would happen if the books Sapiens (Yuval Noah Harari), Life's Engines (Falkowski), A New History Of life (Ward) and Straw Dogs (Gray) all had a baby. While not as entertaining and charismatic as sapiens, this book was every bit as important. This book is Sapiens with a lot more science. DeFries brings the eart It took me a little bit to get into this book but once I did, I loved it. DeFries chose to look at innovation and food production to explain the history of life on Earth. This book is what would happen if the books Sapiens (Yuval Noah Harari), Life's Engines (Falkowski), A New History Of life (Ward) and Straw Dogs (Gray) all had a baby. While not as entertaining and charismatic as sapiens, this book was every bit as important. This book is Sapiens with a lot more science. DeFries brings the earth, its cells, and all our ancestors alive in this tale of how humans exerted as much control as they could over various processes that can only be controlled to a point. For example, humans cannot stop plate tectonics from shifting or weather from being chaotic and unpredictable. But, we could build various tools to help us capture rain to grow our crops atop the moving tectonic plates. Here are some things that might seem unrelated that you will read about in this book: - The carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles (really great!) - The history of sugar - The history of slavery and using people to do work - How using people to do work is thermodynamics in action - A challenge to our notions about the academic work of Malthus, Darwin's inspiration for coming to understand natural selection. DeFries weaves all of this together as she explains emergence, complexity, ecology, and the thermodynamics of life. This author is a MacArthur Genius, and this book shows why. According to DeFries, we cannot hope to understand our world and the life upon it without first understanding how things interact. It is not each individual system that must be broken down and understood, though understanding the various parts of a system are indeed necessary. DeFries wants her reader to understand that no system can every be understood unless we begin to understand how its neighboring system affects it, and how systems interacting with the neighboring system affect that, and so on. She does her best to make as many connections as she can. The result is a beautiful book.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Christina Dudley

    An ambitious overview of humanity's takeover of the planet, from when the planet was a gleam in the universe's eye (I'm not kidding--we get a lot of planetary backstory), to the very present time, where our population has reached an all-time high, and yet we are able, through ingenious means and fossil fuels, to continue to provide food for just about everyone. Author DeFries describes "ratchets," "hatchets" and "pivots." Ratchets are the great leaps forward where we discover agriculture or how t An ambitious overview of humanity's takeover of the planet, from when the planet was a gleam in the universe's eye (I'm not kidding--we get a lot of planetary backstory), to the very present time, where our population has reached an all-time high, and yet we are able, through ingenious means and fossil fuels, to continue to provide food for just about everyone. Author DeFries describes "ratchets," "hatchets" and "pivots." Ratchets are the great leaps forward where we discover agriculture or how to fix nitrogen without bacterial input or how to grow things in giant monocultures despite pests and soil exhaustion. Hatchets come when unintended consequences lead to big crises and die-outs--plagues, crop blights, climate issues. And pivots are moments of change, I think. Humans have used their ingenuity to avert past crises and solve unsolvable problems in the past (or what DeFries calls "conundrums of the settled life"), but the book ends on a pessimistic, have-we-finally-gone-too-far note. It was interesting to read this so soon after having read the optimistic THE SOIL WILL SAVE US, in which some farmers around the world are going back to agricultural methods that pre-date the big, recent ratchets, and discovering awesome things like carbon-storage, soil renewal, and drought- and pest-resistance. Meaning, the next Big Ratchet might be kinda retro! That would have been an good twist ending to THE BIG RATCHET, but sadly the twain didn't meet between these two books (except in my own head). Anyhow, a good read for those who liked Jared Diamond's books and reading about the environment and history of science. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy. This book comes out in Sept, 2014.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Martin Rowe

    Readable, informative, and with a persuasive thesis, THE BIG RATCHET takes us from the origins of life on this planet through to the last 50 years' transformation (via chemistry and genetics) of the natural world so that one species, ours, can proliferate and remain (mostly) fed. DeFries' thesis is that humankind comes up against a problem (the hatchet); finds a solution (the pivot); and then that solution leads inexorably (the ratchet) to another problem, for which another solution is found. Th Readable, informative, and with a persuasive thesis, THE BIG RATCHET takes us from the origins of life on this planet through to the last 50 years' transformation (via chemistry and genetics) of the natural world so that one species, ours, can proliferate and remain (mostly) fed. DeFries' thesis is that humankind comes up against a problem (the hatchet); finds a solution (the pivot); and then that solution leads inexorably (the ratchet) to another problem, for which another solution is found. The entire book leads us to our current situation: where the consequences to the planet of our attempts to find a solution to the loss of nitrogen and phosphorus because of agriculture; kill pests and stop plant diseases; and then provide food security for an exponential human population increase, have led to a situation where life systems on the planet are under threat. As she tells us at length at the beginning of the book, DeFries is not interested in blame or in prognostication: she merely wants to describe, she tells us, how we arrived at this situation. Nonetheless, as clearly someone who's impressed by human ingenuity and how we've avoided hatchets that could have buried us in the past, DeFries leads me to believe that she thinks we'll figure it out.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Amrita Neelakantan

    This book has gems of information that I never knew and is so thoroughly researched that it allows for the reader to contemplate each step in our journey through facets that show different reasons for the way things are - each step from hunter-gatherer to urban dwellers. I will re-read sections of the book to really hone in on the wealth of information there is in the pages. Unlike other books on similar topics the context for each ratchet, hatchet and pivot is not incomplete or simply an opinion This book has gems of information that I never knew and is so thoroughly researched that it allows for the reader to contemplate each step in our journey through facets that show different reasons for the way things are - each step from hunter-gatherer to urban dwellers. I will re-read sections of the book to really hone in on the wealth of information there is in the pages. Unlike other books on similar topics the context for each ratchet, hatchet and pivot is not incomplete or simply an opinion of how the world was / should be. Finally, the book without mincing any words provides compelling proof of how massively we are able to manipulate nature now (returning to the three main reasons our planet has life) and what could be the way forward for our species.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Dolly

    I won this on GoodReads. “The Big Ratchet” is a great read and gives you a lot to think about. Have you ever wondered how we can feed everyone on this planet? This is a concise, easy to understand book showing how throughout history how we have been saved on the brink of starvation over and over again. Ratchet: the next innovation; anything from the invention of agriculture to the newest in genetically engineered food. Hatchet: what goes wrong; nutritionally depleted soil, water pollution from ag I won this on GoodReads. “The Big Ratchet” is a great read and gives you a lot to think about. Have you ever wondered how we can feed everyone on this planet? This is a concise, easy to understand book showing how throughout history how we have been saved on the brink of starvation over and over again. Ratchet: the next innovation; anything from the invention of agriculture to the newest in genetically engineered food. Hatchet: what goes wrong; nutritionally depleted soil, water pollution from agricultural chemicals. Pivot: how we respond and overcome the problem. Repeat.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Peter

    great bi g picture review of Human kind and civilization. actually finished reading over a year ago. This book takes the readers through times in Human History when our species has been challenged with coming up with new ways to survive during, social, cultural and ecological choke points and how technologies seem to be invented or resources seem to be discovered and put to use in ways that allow humanity to continue its journey on Planet earth

  24. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    Interesting recasting of human development in terms of technology being a response to challenge ("necessity is the mother of invention"). For the most part, the "crises" of the title are not natural but rather human-induced as population again and again outstrips resources. DeFries focuses exclusively on humanity's collective stomach and never attempts to explain how or why any other human endeavor or cultural form came to be. Interesting recasting of human development in terms of technology being a response to challenge ("necessity is the mother of invention"). For the most part, the "crises" of the title are not natural but rather human-induced as population again and again outstrips resources. DeFries focuses exclusively on humanity's collective stomach and never attempts to explain how or why any other human endeavor or cultural form came to be.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Billy

    Like Pandora's Seed, the Big Ratchet is a combined theory of everything, with an emphasis on how, and whether, humanity will be able to feed itself as our population heads towards its peak. It succeeds where Pandora's Seed fails, while covering the same pitfalls and challenges. The Big Ratchet is the revolution in food production in the 20th century that enabled a huge increase in the human population. The multi-factorial details are clearly presented. Highly recommended. Like Pandora's Seed, the Big Ratchet is a combined theory of everything, with an emphasis on how, and whether, humanity will be able to feed itself as our population heads towards its peak. It succeeds where Pandora's Seed fails, while covering the same pitfalls and challenges. The Big Ratchet is the revolution in food production in the 20th century that enabled a huge increase in the human population. The multi-factorial details are clearly presented. Highly recommended.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Radiantflux

    32nd book for 2016. This book covers food production from the last Ice Age till today, but manages to do so so only in a superficial fashion. I have the feeling this might have been based on an undergraduate course the author gave at some point. The book is way too sanguine about the destruction of the ecosystems for food, and our ability to always find a technological fix to each new problem. Disappointing.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Marian

    Very readable and balanced summary of how humans have manipulated nature over millennia to feed ourselves. Her framing of "ratchets" (where new ideas and technologies allow humans to produce more) and "hatchets" (where unforeseen side-effects create new problems) is a clever and helpful way of thinking about how we use technology and the constant challenges we face in settled life. Very readable and balanced summary of how humans have manipulated nature over millennia to feed ourselves. Her framing of "ratchets" (where new ideas and technologies allow humans to produce more) and "hatchets" (where unforeseen side-effects create new problems) is a clever and helpful way of thinking about how we use technology and the constant challenges we face in settled life.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Justin

    I recieved this as part of the first read giveaways. This book is well written and contains good information. If you are not well read on the subjects and history of environmentalism and food production this would serve well as an introductory text. For me this was just a rehashing of information that has been read before with no new insights into the topic.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Josh

    A well researched yet eminently approachable look at the history of humanities "ratchets" (technological advances that allow us to grow) "hatchets" (natural limitations brought about through resource limitation or other forces) and "pivots" (a new way to use nature's resources) drives our development of agriculture. A great read for a wide range of audiences. I highly recommend it A well researched yet eminently approachable look at the history of humanities "ratchets" (technological advances that allow us to grow) "hatchets" (natural limitations brought about through resource limitation or other forces) and "pivots" (a new way to use nature's resources) drives our development of agriculture. A great read for a wide range of audiences. I highly recommend it

  30. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    While this book has an absolutely fascinating thesis and is well-argued, the author lost serious points for her writing style. By using short sentences and simple words, she seemingly insults the reader and leaves him/her ready for the book to end long before Ms. DeFries has concluded her arguments.

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