The Big Ratchet

The Big Ratchet

How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis: A Biography of an Ingenious Species

Basic Books, 2014 more...

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative


In this fair, thorough look at how modern agriculture changed the world, Columbia University professor Ruth DeFries explains the “ratchet-pivot-hatchet” mechanisms behind the Green Revolution and the human ingenuity driving each step. Her descriptions prove simple enough for the uninitiated; her exhaustive notes and references should satisfy the pickiest academic. DeFries neither issues a call for returning to subsistence farming nor champions modern agriculture. She strikes a balance while explaining the pros and cons of chemical fertilizers and modern, selectively bred crops. The second chapter is sometimes tedious, but provides valuable background and resources. DeFries – for better or worse – falls short of suggesting paths for the future. getAbstract recommends her history and analysis to anyone concerned about food production, agriculture, global hunger and environmental issues.


Natural Cycles

Human beings leave their mark on every corner of the globe. People have made changes to the Earth to feed themselves by hunting, fishing, gathering and farming in increasingly efficient ways. Other species hunt, but people do it better. Human ingenuity allows people to “twist food from nature.” This twisting separates them from every other animal.

Studies often represent populations in terms of simple cycles: Abundant food leads to population growth. Big populations eventually mean less food. Less food means a population crash. A crashed population allows food species to regrow, and so on. A closer view shows that human ingenuity grants people a unique ability to “pivot” – to shift course and escape the “hatchet.” In this cycle, society “ratchets” up after exploiting a new resource, pivots to solve a problem associated with the new resource or finds another resource to exploit in order to escape the hatchet. The second half of the 20th century saw worldwide movement from farmer to urbanite. Now, a few people produce sufficient food to feed the entire world.


The years from 1950 to 2000, the “Big Ratchet,” saw a dramatic...

About the Author

Ruth DeFries, a professor of ecology, evolution and environmental biology at Columbia University in New York, studies how people transform the world around them.

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