The Big Ratchet
Reviewed by Adam Wright
In The Big Ratchet, MacArthur Genius Fellow Ruth DeFries explores the ramifications of humanity’s ever-growing monopoly on the natural world. Part textbook, part historical narrative, and part philosophical conjecture, the book traces the progression of agriculture and urbanization from prehistory into modern times. Unfortunately, the book can’t quite decide what it wants to be, and it suffers most when dwelling too long on scientific jargon about the likes of phosphorous depletion and leaf-cutter ants. However, though The Big Ratchet starts slow, its last few chapters conjure a poetic ode to the rapid evolution of our species. Here are five reasons to read:
“Ratchet, Hatchet, Pivot”: Throughout the book, DeFries uses this phrase as a metaphor for the social and scientific breakthroughs that have contributed to our modern lifestyle. The titular “Big Ratchet” refers to the Twentieth Century, an era of swift progress in which worldwide population rose from 2 billion to more than 6 billion. Though the sustained use of the metaphor can be grating, it often proves to be powerful, but perhaps a more apt title would have been…
The Secret History of Agriculture: This is really a narrative about humanity’s never-ending pursuit for food. The first-half of the book examines agriculture from a scientific perspective, while the second-half depicts the major agricultural milestones of the past 150 years: “Just as the pivot to chemical fertilizers would not have been possible without coal for factories and oil for machinery, the genetic twists to breed dwarf plants and vigorous hybrid seeds would not have been possible without chemical fertilizers and irrigated fields.”
Chemicals Kill: The brilliantly-named “Competition for the Bounty” serves as the book’s standout chapter. Covering the history of modern pesticides, DeFries weaves together tales of post-war America, locust plagues, and DDT. The author wisely pays homage to Rachel Carson’s influential classic, Silent Spring, providing interesting factoids such as that the president of Monsanto once called Carson “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.”
Pictures Aren’t Just for Children’s Books: Each of the book’s ten chapters is accompanied by a set of black and white illustrations. Some pictures highlight scientific facts in ways that the prose can’t — a chart depicting Gregor Mendel’s famous pea experiment is particularly effective. Though other images seem like superfluous add-ons, they still add a sense of wonder and whimsy to an otherwise serious text.
Our Unknown Future: For better or worse, DeFries offers no clear answer for what our future might look like. However, her ability to describe the consequences of modern agriculture is simultaneously beautiful and haunting: “What is clear is that the Big Ratchet is as transformative as any event our species has ever seen. From the vantage point of the far side of the Big Ratchet, we can see we are a fundamentally different species than we were before the pivots of the past century came into play. We are an urban species fed from a manipulated nature.”