The Big Ratchet | Ruth DeFries

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


Embark on a fascinating journey exploring the human quest for survival through the lens of ingenuity and resourcefulness in ‘The Big Ratchet’ by Ruth DeFries. This book unveils the remarkable story of how the human species has harnessed nature to feed itself despite natural crises. As you delve into its pages, you will encounter intriguing examples of ‘ratchet, pivot, hatchet’ cycles that characterize our evolution and adaptive capacity. Discover how human innovation has allowed us to overcome challenges such as scarcity, pestilence, and environmental degradation, all while paving the way for future achievements. Be prepared to be enchanted by the never-ending cycle of progress in the face of adversity.

Human Ingenuity in Feeding the World

This book explores how humans have mastered the art of acquiring food, leading to population growth and the subsequent scarcity of resources. However, unlike other animals, people have the unique ability to pivot and escape the “hatchet” in this cycle. Through human ingenuity, we have managed to twist food from nature and pivot to solve any problems associated with resource exploitation. With the worldwide shift from farmer to urbanite, a few people can now produce enough food to feed the entire planet. This book offers a fascinating glimpse into the human quest for food and its impact on society.

The Ratchet-Pivot-Hatchet Cycle

Over the years between 1950 and 2000, there has been an increase in agricultural yields resulting in a triple increase in meat production. The Irish potato famine of 1845-1852 is a good example of ratchet-pivot-hatchet cycle where people ratchet with increased population, become vulnerable in the event of a disaster, pivot to innovate, and recover. These cycles will continue as long as human civilization exists.

The Lucky Planet

Earth’s unique combination of water, sunshine, and minerals make it the only planet known to sustain life. While complex life may exist elsewhere in the universe, humanity as we know it is currently unique. All life on Earth plays a vital role in the planetary cycles necessary for survival. While humanity has domesticated certain species for food, other non-edible species play a vital role in breaking down waste and cycling nutrients. This cycle defines life on Earth and has sustained it for billions of years. As our knowledge continues to grow, our ability to manipulate and sustain nature will only improve.

Evolution of Human Ingenuity

Humans have differentiated themselves from other species by their ability to mold the environment according to their needs. They have harnessed the power of fire, developed tools, and excelled at social learning, which has enabled them to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next. Unlike other species, humans have an ultimate resource in the form of their ingenuity, which has allowed them to thrive and conquer their surroundings. The transition from farmer to urbanite marks the next monumental phase in human evolution. However, the progress that humans have made in agriculture has its drawbacks, such as producing more food that might not necessarily be nutritious and accommodating a booming population. While humans continue to master their environment, they need to be mindful of the impact their actions have on the natural world.

The Double-Edged Sword of Farming

Farming disrupts planetary nutrient cycles, requiring farmers to replace lost nutrients with fertilizers, consuming large amounts of energy and causing imbalances in natural cycles. However, technology advancements have presented solutions that led to the agricultural revolution, surplus food, and the rise of cities.

Farming, while necessary for sustaining human life, has negative impacts on the planet. Settled cities and agriculture disrupt normal planetary nutrient cycles. This means that farmers must replace lost nutrients with fertilizers. Making artificial fertilizer consumes large amounts of energy, which derives largely from fossil fuels. The process of fertilizer production includes taking phosphorus from guano deposits, animal bones, and other mineral repositories. This mining changes landscapes and imbalances the planet’s natural cycles. Without soil enrichment, farmers can grow on plots of land for only a few cycles.

However, these challenges led to the development of solutions. The Chinese developed ways to collect and reuse human excrement as fertilizer, while new plow-and-harness technologies made animals work more efficiently. Increased crop yields led to more varied types of food, including food that could be stored and used to generate protein for human consumption. The refinement of crop rotation in the mid-18th century led to an agricultural revolution and surplus food. This helped to reduce the number of people involved in farming, setting the stage for the Industrial Revolution and the rise of cities. In essence, the growth of cities and farming represent a “double-edged sword.”

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