Our species long lived on the edge of starvation. Now we produce enough food for all 7 billion of us to eat nearly 3,000 calories every day. This is such an astonishing thing in the history of life as to verge on the miraculous.The Big Ratchet is the story of how it happened, of the ratchetsthe technologies and innovations, big and smallthat propelled our species from hunters and gatherers on the savannahs of Africa to shoppers in the aisles of the supermarket.
The Big Ratchet itself came in the twentieth century, when a range of technologiesfrom fossil fuels to scientific plant breeding to nitrogen fertilizerscombined to nearly quadruple our population in a century, and to grow our food supply even faster. To some, these technologies are a sign of our greatness; to others, of our hubris. MacArthur fellow and Columbia University professor Ruth DeFries argues that the debate is the wrong one to have. Limits do exist, but every limit that has confronted us, we have surpassed. That cycle of crisis and growth is the story of our history; indeed, it is the essence ofThe Big Ratchet. Understanding it will reveal not just how we reached this point in our history, but how we might survive it.
PRAISE FOR THE BIG RATCHET [A] lucid and intelligent book... There is something satisfyingly stark and elemental about DeFries' focus on food, which, she notes, is 'our most fundamental connection with nature'. --Financial Times Engaging and optimistic. --Wall Street Journal DeFries unpicks the historical patterns to parse the uneasy equation of people and food -- our most powerful link with nature. --Nature At its heart, The Big Ratchet is a food book, deserving a place on the shelf alongside work by the likes of Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Marion Nestle that criticize our modern system of industrial agriculture. --Johns Hopkins Magazine The Big Ratchet is a well-researched and highly readable account of how we came to be a 'world dominating urban species', and the opportunities and threats we will face in feeding a world of 9 billion people with only a small minority living in rural areas. For those who have deep concerns about our ability to meet future food needs, this book provides at least some reassurance that we have done it before. --Nature Geoscience [The Big Ratchet] is a fast-moving and information-packed history of human appetites... DeFries does environmentalism a favor by presenting this history as a dialectic that never ends. --Orion [A]n interesting and timely thesis... This is an environmental history, chockablock with examples from the past that might guide us in the future. --Toronto Star (Canada) [E]ye-opening and eminently readable. --Columbia College Today Ruth DeFries has written a brilliant book that starts with the origin of Earth and life on our planet, and goes through thousands of years of ecological history and one natural crisis after another... DeFries has a nuanced and sophisticated view of human history... [The Big Ratchet] is a beautifully written book that is unique in combining wisdom, scientific discovery, and story-telling. --Cool Green Science [A] fair, thorough look at how modern agriculture changed the world. --getAbstract An admirable history of human ingenuity that does not claim it will overcome such looming crises as overpopulation and global warming. --Kirkus Reviews DeFries places her faith in human creativity as a primary means to our survival, an appealing point of view for the hopeful but concerned reader. --PublishersWeekly Timely... Clearly demonstrates the role of science in converting calamities into opportunities. The Big Ratchet provides a message of hope in the midst of the sea of despair we see in the areas of sustainable development and environmental protection. Ruth DeFries has rendered an invaluable service. --M. S. Swaminathan, Founder and Chairman, M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation A page turner and an eye opener, clearly written and well told. If you are alive today, especially if you live in a city, this is the story of how you got here and why you eat what you eat. Defries deftly guides us through our species' unending quest to squeeze more food out of the earth, introducing us along the way to buffalo bone pickers, ancient plant breeders, guano wars, the extinction of the Rocky Mountain Locust, medieval human poop tradesmen, Arctic doomsday seed vaults and the Nobel Prizes awarded to the inventors of DDT and trans fats. A fascinating history of human innovation. --Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden Is there a tale more astonishing and improbable than the human story? Lurching between triumph and catastrophe, humankind has transformed itself from a run-of-the-mill forager on the African savanna into a species that dominates every corner of the planet. Now, as our numbers surpass 7 billion, Ruth DeFries shows how our remarkable past can serve as a guide to thinking about our uncertain future. Neither a hymn to optimism nor an invocation of catastrophe, The Big Ratchet is an essential account of how we got to be where we are. --Charles C. Mann, author of 1491 [The Big Ratchet] survey[s] the technological innovations that transformed humans from nomadic hunter-gatherers threatened with starvation into farmers and then into urban-dwelling specialists whose sustenance is usually produced far away by a relative few... DeFries sums up the cycle in the pithy catchphrase 'ratchet, hatchet, pivot.' --Science News