Review of The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis

The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis (subtitled ‘A biography of an ingenious species’) is a popular science book authored by Ruth DeFries (Columbia University), which takes a “long lens” view of humanity’s journey from the perspective of food production and consumption. The inside book cover notes that “for much of its history the human species has lived on the edge of starvation, but today we produce enough food so that all seven billion of us could eat more than 2,800 calories every day”. It tells the stories of various key innovations that enabled humanity to ratchet up its food production capacity and ‘sustain’ larger populations, the problems such food production solutions later created (which DeFries terms “hatchets”) such as the problem of maintaining or improving soil fertility, and subsequent “pivots” that addressed such problems and the often unintended consequences of earlier innovations and ‘ratchets’. DeFries terms this pattern ‘ratchet, hatchet, pivot cycles’.

A striking feature of the story is the many unexpected twists and turns and the serendipity which often strongly shaped outcomes. This reminded me of much STS research on technological innovation and change which has documented the same processes in technological change, more broadly, which routinely defies prediction and causes surprise. At the book launch DeFries noted that:

Today we hear a lot of neo-Malthusian predictions that we’re heading towards calamity, and if you take a “short” view from the current place where we are now and linearly extrapolate out then it’s easy to come to conclusions about [future] calamity and collapse. We often do that when we face problems and it’s often quite petrifying to think about the future. But when we look at this, and when we step back and look at the long arc of history, we see something very different, much more complex and much more nuanced than linear extrapolation.

Elsewhere DeFries similarly asserts that:

It’s human nature to extrapolate into the future from what you see around you, without taking into account human ingenuity. The predictions seem logical, but history tells a different story.

The stories in The Big Ratchet suggest that few of the key innovations that emerged could have reasonably been foreseen ahead of time, along with how they spread (which varied from influential friendships among scientists, to frontier areas of entrepreneurship and profit-driven industrial activity, to espionage), or how they were used and appropriated. The history of plant breeding and genetics is especially fascinating, and has moved into a new phase with biotech and synthetic biology.

A further key message is that efforts to sustainably feed humanity have been a series of experiments, and this experimentation continues today. From the book I got a vivid sense of the inherent uncertainty in the interplay between human ingenuity and nature. We are far from the first generation to experience this, and future generations will also experience such uncertainties (no matter what we do). The way DeFries puts it is to argue that there is no endpoint to the complex interplay between human ingenuity and nature, and that visions of a “static, unchanging harmony” (p. xi) are a fantasy.

The broader argument is that today we’re facing multiples “hatchets” caused by recent ratcheting up of food production (especially from the ‘The Big Ratchet’ that was in full swing from the early 1980s onwards), and DeFries doesn’t shirk the issues. She emphasises the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture (about 1/4 of global emissions) and meat-intensive diets, the environmental impacts of nitrogen use and runoff, and the health consequences of recent social changes (e.g. increasing obesity). In this respect, the book is also a call to action. She argues we’re currently at the crest of The Big Ratchet, but also seeks to promote confidence that we’ll be able to muddle through.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Big Ratchet. It’s a beautifully written and, above all, a balanced book. DeFries challenges both techno-optimists and those forecasting imminent collapse.  She is clearly frustrated by many aspects of sustainability debates, and laments the ideologically-laden nature of debates about genetic engineering, yet she’s aware of the unexpected and often unintended consequences of such innovation. It’s a bit of a tight-rope, but I think she succeeds in walking it and encouraging the long view.

For an interesting interview with DeFries see OnPoint with Tom Ashbrook.

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