Monday, July 6, 2015

The Big Ratchet

Book Review : The Big Ratchet
Author : Ruth DeFries
My Rating : 4 out of 5 stars

The complete title of the book is "The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis : A biography of an ingenious species".

It's often said that the kids born in this age would take a lot of technology for granted, unable to imagine life without touch screens. Although I agree with it, I think it's not only this generation, rather every generation takes some things for granted. In my view, it’s definitely true in every society that has seen the benefits of what the author calls as "The Big Ratchet".

For example, we do marvel at the wonders of technology, but how many of us who live in a developed country, especially US, marvel at the amount and variety of the food available at the local grocery stores, and how affordable it is? Intellectual progress rarely happens on empty stomach, so this availability and affordability of food has contributed a lot to our success in every other endeavor.

How did that happen? Producing food was not easy, even after humans transitioned from foraging to agriculture. Unpredictable yields, amount of physical labor, heavy dependence on weather, diminishing fertility of soil, plant diseases, pests who attack stored food are just few of the problems that we had to solve to get to this point. All this and more, is discussed at length in this superb book by Ruth DeFries, a professor at Columbia University.

She explains that this progress came with humanity going from one level of success to another, like a ratchet wheel, only to be followed by the problems associated with that success. Then another brilliant idea is needed to solve that, which acts as a pivot to move our species to the next ratchet, and then it’s again followed by a hatchet associated with the new solution. The cycle has been going on forever since we started agriculture.

It’s more common to hear extreme viewpoints which say the planet is doomed due to our over-indulgence, or the unapologetic optimism that proclaims our ingenuity will continue to solve future problems. This book, right at the beginning, announces that a more nuanced approach is needed that looks at a much broader history of the species. And the author delivers in spades. I will highlight a couple of examples.

About 50 years ago, India had a huge problem of generating food. Dire warnings of mass starvation were common. But no such thing happened. In fact, what happened was the “Green Revolution”. I vividly remember my father explaining to me how it happened - the building of dams, the modernization of agriculture (especially in the state of Punjab). What I didn’t know (or remember) was how the hybrid wheat played a major role in improving yields. Thanks to this book, now I know about Norman Borlaug who was crucial in this agricultural revolution, and not only in India, but worldwide. He was awarded Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize. No one is claiming, India doesn’t have people who go hungry to bed, but the impact of Green Revolution is as clear as daylight.

No such success comes without it’s problems. There is no better example of the hatchet-following-ratchet than the now infamous pesticide DDT. Paul Hermann Muller was awarded a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the properties of DDT. It eliminated many deadly diseases in 40s and 50s, and saved countless lives. But its use in agriculture ensured that the toxins went up the food chain, and caused myriad problems for all species, including humans. The battle against DDT was started by one lady, Rachel Carson, with the publication of the milestone book, “Silent Spring”. As a result, once heralded as miraculous, this chemical is now widely banned.

The study of this endless cycle of ratchets and hatchets is fascinating. There is so much more in this book. I vaguely remember studying the Nitrogen cycle in school, but I had forgotten all about the Phosphorous cycle. The kind of solutions that have been tried in history are simply astonishing. I am pretty sure most readers haven’t heard about bird poop being mined and hauled from Chile to Europe! 

If you are looking for vindication of your pessimistic or optimistic stand about what the future holds for us based on how we are treating our planet, then this is not a book for you. If you want to understand the history of how it all came to be, then this is a fabulous place to start. There are no predictions here. But the tone is generally optimistic, without belittling any challenges that face us.

I very highly recommend this book. I hesitated in giving five stars, because I found it a bit repetitive, and thought that it’s a bit dry than it should be. Of course it’s a scientific account, but in recent times, books like Omnivore’s Dilemma, have figured out a much smoother engaging style. It’s a minor quibble. Read this book.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...