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Soils and leftist struggles

Knowledge of and about soils can contribute to leftist political projects in unexpected ways by exposing otherwise understated processes or clarifying otherwise opaque ones, such as heavy metal contamination pathways and the importance of ecological context. There are many ways of describing, defining, or knowing soils, but if one understands soils as irreducible to the social, then even capitalism-friendly technocratic approaches enable an understanding useful to leftist projects with respect to determining what soils are, what processes characterise them, and how they relate to us. Examples from urban food production are discussed to illustrate some potential political repercussions of soils knowledge production. 

Salvadore is an Associate Professor at the Deparment of Geography, SUNY New Paltz



Territorial Turns and Ontological Openings: Ethnography at the Interfaces of Soil Science.

What some may call a "territorial turn" has emerged among agrarian movements throughout Latin America and beyond. Small farmers are accompanying historical demands for access to land and rights to property with a broader defense of life and territory that is reconfiguring their relationship to a natural body that scientists call "soil."  Simultaneously, soil scientists have renewed commitments to counter what they perceive to be the soil’s troubling anonymity within environmental legislation and policy, and to a larger extent, national and international public spheres and social imaginations. After more than a decade of ethnographic research among a heterogeneous network of soil scientists and alternative agricultural collectives across the Andean-Amazonian foothills of Colombia, I pose questions about the possibilities and limits of decolonizing versus democratizing soil science. 

Kristina Lyons is Assistant Professor of Feminist Science Studies and Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.




What soil, what social science? The case of the Critical Zones Observatories.

The CZO network as well as that of the LTER offer unique opportunities to help social sciences approach in a new way the old question of the soil conceived not only as a social or juridical territory but also as a pedosphere of immense complexity. It also provides an entry into the question of facing Gaia that is more manageable and a very practical field site for the disputed notion of the Anthropocene.
Bruno Latour is professor at Sciences Po Paris (site





Soil Functions - the heart of Earth’s Critical Zone.

Soils lie at the heart of Earth’s critical zone – the thin planetary layer that extends from the bottom of drinking water aquifers to the top of the vegetation canopy that supplies most life-sustaining resources for humans; critical for human survival and in a critical state under human pressure. Growth in population and wealth places huge demands on soil and its vital functions for human use; to deliver ever greater supplies of biomass for food, fuel and fibre, greater capacity to filter out chemical pollution that enters the land surface and can be transported to surface waters and aquifers, greater capacity to transform nutrients and supply them to plants and terrestrial ecosystems, greater storage of carbon and nitrogen in soil organic matter rather than their release into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases, greater capacity to both store water to reduce flooding and to transmit water for availability to plants and capture water for groundwater recharge, and greater resilience to maintain habitat and genetic diversity of soil organisms under these multiple pressures. Because of the central role of soil functions in the flows and transformations of mass, energy and genetic information throughout the critical zone, the study and quantification of soil functions sheds light on how the many physical layers of Earth’s critical zone connect, communicate and support human life.  New approaches to observing Earth’s critical zone rely strongly on measuring systems for the soil layer and how the flows and transformations that establish soil functions are connected and interact with the larger above- and below-ground environments of Earth’s surface. New mathematical and computational approaches combined with physical-chemical-biological observing systems create a new capability to quantify and track soil functions and their wider impacts with time. Soils are a major point of interaction of Earth’s critical zone with humans; through our personal interventions to dig, plant and build with soil. Thus soils, together with new capabilities to observe and calculate soil functions, also provide an important point of designed intervention by humans to beneficially influence not only soil functions but also the wider critical zone environment.

Steve is a Integrating Chair in Soil / Water / Agriculture Research at the University of Leeds.


co-author Jonathan Leake

Managing soils for sustainable agriculture.


“Soil ecosystems remain firmly but un-charismatically at the foundations of human life”.  Despite their critical roles in the provision of most of the ecosystem services upon which humans depend, soils are among the least understood and the most degraded of terrestrial ecosystems.  Globally, soil erosion losses, largely as a result of agricultural intensification, have been estimated to have badly affected over 30% of cultivable land in the past 40 years, and these areas will take centuries to recover from this damage.  At the same time, human populations continue to grow rapidly so that the soil resource has become an increasingly critical constraint on food production.  Sustainable soil management is thus one of the most crucial components of future food security.  Current agricultural practices have arguably placed too little value on soils and the ecosystem services they provide, so that modern intensive farming methods have contributed to the breakdown of many soil ecosystems due to physical disturbance from ploughing coupled with an increasing reliance on inorganic fertilisers, leading to loss of soil carbon and soil structure. The net result of agricultural intensification has been a loss of diversity and function of soil ecosystems, impaired nutrient cycling and loss of soil aggregate stability increasing the risks of erosion, flash-flooding and nutrient losses to rivers and lakes.  As a consequence, a spiralling and costly feedback is in place where increasingly degraded soils require greater in-puts to secure yields, ultimately leading to further ecosystem degradation.       Recognition of the inherent value of soils and the services they provide, together with an increasing awareness of the need to integrate ecology, economics and society into sustainable agro-ecosystem management is providing a new model for sustainable soil management.  We advocate a scientifically and ecologically based approach grounded in the needs of stakeholders and practitioners. This talk will identify some of the major challenges that need to be addressed in developing truly sustainable soil and agro-ecosystem management, and highlights the potential for greater harnessing of beneficial soil microbes (especially fungi) to enhance crop yields while reducing dependence on fertilizer inputs and protecting soils from degradation.

Duncan is the director of The P 3 Centre of Excellence for Translational Plant and Soil Biology, University of Sheffield.




Developing (in)effective policies: the case of soil erosion problem in Switzerland.

Despite twenty years of scientific research and policy implementation, Swiss federal experts agree that arable soil erosion continues to be one of Switzerland’s major agri-environmental problems. Somewhat confused, some of them state that everything is scientifically known though, and ask social scientists how to make farmers apply the agri-environmental measures. What a recurrent and symptomatic expectation! Indeed, inertia and resistance obstruct the successful conduct of the schemes, not only among farmers but at each stage of the implementation (silo effects in the administration, no support by the local politics, limited skills among of the field advisers, etc.). However, few soil experts seem to question the framing/problematization of instruments and tools, the limits of the public policy construction and the ability of Science to define and manage soil degradation . Yet, a) the decision-making process, based and a hard-won consensus, have led to inconsistencies. b) Soil erosion has been considered mostly as an on-site rather than an off-site problem, and c) Several scientific blind spots remain. This top-down approach, starting from the knowledge production to the recipients of public policies, reveals the effects of the multiple translations of soil erosion, the influence of uncertainties and shows that the problem is deeply rooted in social, economic and political issues.

Nicolas is a PhD candidate in anthropology and biology, at the University of Neuchâtel.



Degradation nightmare or development dream: Recalcitrant peat soil and postcolonial science in Southeast Asia.

For many Western scientists, conservationists, and government officials, tropical peat soil degradation in Indonesia and Malaysia is at the center of a global ecological crisis. Extensive soil drainage for agriculture has caused physical and chemical breakdown, leading to subsidence, widespread sub-surface fires, and extensive carbon emissions. The effects of this crisis—frequently described in terms of carbon flux and planetary carbon pools—are often depicted at regional and global scales, expanding the locus of concern for tropical peat to broad international communities. In Malaysia, however, scientists have advocated for an ontologically different way of seeing the country’s peat soil in which it is not undergoing irreversible breakdown but is a renewable resource that scientists and agribusiness actors are actively caring for. Such ways of seeing peat soil’s biophysical properties are, I argue, tied inextricably to the country’s national development and to aspirations to produce non, and even anti, Western scientific knowledge. In this paper, I draw on postcolonial science studies and political ecology to analyze the paradoxes of this de-centered scientific knowledge about peat soil and what it means for soil degradation under Southeast Asian capitalism.

Jenny Goldstein is an Assistant Professor in Development Sociology at Cornell University and holds a PhD in Geography from the University of California, Los Angeles.




Urban pedogeneses: an ethnography of the co-constitution of urbanites and city soils.

This presentation proposes an anthropology of city soils, and poses the question of what it would mean if  we thought of urban surfaces as soils. Most soil scientists or contemporary urbanites tend to consider soil  as something that occurs outside of cities. Since the 1990s however, some soil scientists have detached  from agricultural or so-called natural soils to study ‘urban soils’ – including not just the brown soils of parks  and gardens, but also roofs, streets and the façade of buildings. After building on ethnographic fieldwork to  describe the trial that these soils pose to scientific practices, I argue that these scientist’s concept of ‘urban  pedogenesis’ can be diffracted to be used within social theory, a technique for thinking local entanglements  between soils and humans. I use the example of waterproofing and ‘soil construction’ to argue that in urban  pedogeneses, both soils and humans are constituted, each time in a different mode that can be more or  less solidified. Urban pedogenesis allows to ‘feel’ (more than to define) a world in which urban soils are no  longer an inert surface, a backdrop for human histories, but evolve and change us depending on the ways  in which we care for them or not.

Germain is a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen and University of Liège.




Gut and Soil: Multispecies Belonging and Specter of Nativism in Zero Budget Natural Farming.

The Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) movement in South India is one among several  alternative agriculture communities that see themselves as part of an epic onto-epistemological struggle between mechanistic and vitalist ways of doing agriculture. Their 'biophilic turn' is most evident in a reorientation towards the microscopic. Reconceiving soil as Annapurna, as living,  abundant and holy soil, hinges on an appreciation of microbial activity in soils, in fermented preparations and in the guts of native cows. Based on fieldwork in Wayanad (Kerala), I trace the emergence of new affective relations and new idioms of critique in farming. Natural farming, I  argue, speaks on one hand to tentacular (Haraway), affective (Myers) or symbiopoetic (Margulis)  ways of rethinking agriculture, currently gaining traction in the environmental humanities, but also to bio-nativist critiques of Western conspiracies. Gut and Soil traces ideas of multispecies belonging (biologies that belong and to not belong to a place) among cultivators committed to relational, biological and symbiotic forms of soil care. I probe the line at which the revived appreciation of native Indian (Zebu) cattle, Indian earthworms, and Indian ferments meet xenophobic, nativist and chauvinist ideologies of Hindu supremacy.

Daniel is a Lecturer at Heildelberg University.




Soil science: Changing perspectives from the inside and the outside

I shall briefly outline the changes in the attitudes of Soil Scientists in the last four decades, both to the subject of Soil Science and to the links and collaboration other scientists. Initially Soil Science was a small inward looking scientific community with its roots in Chemistry and Physics, frequently shunning contact with other scientists, particularly from what were perceived as the ‘soft’ sciences. In this context activity in Soil Science declined and the subject began to lose its identity. In the latter part of the twentieth Century there was a recognition amongst the younger members of the community that the subject needed to broaden the contacts and scope of the subject if Soil Science and indeed soils were not to be ignored. This has resulted in a much greater awareness of the roles played by soils in many aspects of our lives and a more open and inclusive Soil Science community who now have a more diverse background and work with scientists from many sciences including from the physical, biological, social and environmental sciences.
Stephen Nortcliff is an Emeritus Professor of Soil Science, University of Reading



Instrumental reason and care for soil in regenerative land stewardship.


I am interested in the interplay between instrumental reason and care when it comes to land stewards’ orientations to soil in regenerating soil ecologies. Using several examples from fieldwork in Australia, I will discuss how this relationship has unfolded in each case. Instrumental motivations, particularly the financial bottom line, are often cited as the main factor prompting a shift in production methods towards harbouring soil biodiversity. Yet the experience in itself of participating in interspecies productive partnerships can generate wonder and curiosity, opening practitioners’ eyes to new matters of concern. The needs of the biodiversity in the soil are increasingly considered, as land stewards take note of the condition of soils by observing plant appearance, species of weeds, texture of land surface, number of soil microorganisms in a microscopic field of view, or measuring variables such as rates of respiration. Such additional concerns have the effect of reorienting goals to the extent that a more open stance of care and receptivity becomes possible, alongside a more creative phronesis of everyday work.

Anne O'Brien recently completed her PhD at the Australian Catholic University.




Cultural patterns of soil understanding.


Different branches of contemporary agriculture rely on different cultural patterns of soil  understanding; and they are supported by different schools of thought in agronomy and soil  science with each having their specific values and perspectives. From a psychologic point of  view, cultural patterns can be regarded as “archetypal”, if they are linked with inner  experiences (e.g., dreams, visions, or forms of consciousness) the structures of which appear  all over humanity and over large time scales, even though variating in different cultural areas,  with different (religious or “secular”) God-images, and also with different individual humans.  When focusing on spiritual and psychological aspects of human-nature relation, we may draw  the working hypothesis that archetypal patterns of human imagination and behaviour are to  be found to be effective in humanity’s soil relation, also. If so, we can argue and observe that  not only past, but also present and probably also future cultural patterns of soil understanding  are co-framed by psychic and spiritual structures. It’s not only about history, it is about us and  it is about present, as well.

Nikola patzel is a psychologist, and the chair of a working group 'Cultural patterns of soil understanding' within the Division 4 of the International Union of Sciences




Life underground; how the other half lives.


Soil is alive and also habitat for an enormous diversity of microorganisms.  Humans count on soils' life forces to grow food, purify water, regulate our atmosphere, suppress disease, and clean up what we discard. Despite that, humans treat soil as an inanimate resource, a substrate to build on, anchor plants in, extract nutrients from.   Life in soil is complex and difficult to wrap one’s head around and this presents a serious challenge; individual taxa can be classified but it is more fruitful to consider the tightly coupled, interdependent, multi-species communities so important to the functioning of soils. As is the case for our  bodies, the concept of the “individual” has been eroded by knowledge that we do not live alone, but  host multiple microbiomes (gut, skin, hands). The same is true for plants and their roots, soil aggregates, animals.  The evidence mounts that relationships with microbes are not optional but required for survival of plants and animals. Remembering and maintaining, or rediscovering, or developing mutually beneficial relationships with soil life is essential for humans too. Patterns of interrelationships with microbes, be they in soil or in guts, share much in common. Examples of specific relationships, science involved in developing understanding, and how relationships may be strengthened for mutual benefit are  discussed.

Kate is a Professor of soil science and soil microbial ecology at the University of California Davies.




What have the earthworms ever done for us?

Earthworms are the most abundant animal, by biomass, in most soils and benefit manged environments by providing several ecosystem functions and services.  Therefore, strategies to increase earthworm abundance and activity in degraded agricultural soils should be identified, and encouraged. The addition of organic matter provides energy for earthworm populations, increases their abundance, and may encourage earthworms to re-arrange the structure of soils to the benefit of plant root establishment, among other ecosystem services. However, there is a financial cost that farmers must bear to provide earthworms with the energy to deliver this service and while the cost is relatively predictable, the magnitude of the service provided year-on-year is not. Innovative farmers and early adopters of new technology are often happy to take short term financial risks to increase earthworm abundance and improve the health of soils in order to reap rewards in the long term. However, others (particularly those who do not own the land they farm) are unwilling or unable. This presentation will explore the role of scientific uncertainty in the willingness of farmers to adopt new research that promotes long term sustainable soil management.

Tom is a Lecturer in Environmental Chemistry the University of Reading



Will measuring soil health lead to healthier soils on UK farms?

Innovation to create locally-adapted crop and soil management by farmers and land managers in the UK  is common and leads to complex multi-factorial operating systems. This range of innovative approaches to site-specific soil management therefore often leapfrogs the emergence of detailed underpinning understanding of the physical, chemical and biological processes in the plant-soil system and the interactions with the environmental and management drivers. The inability of researchers to answer farmers’ questions can be a source of frustration on both sides. As a consequence farmers may adopt practices based on partial evidence or the attribution of observed indirect effects directly to management change. Researchers are often isolated from a detailed understanding of farm practice and they may engage in costly and time-consuming research into un-implementable management options.  A particular concern of the science, policy and practitioner communities is the lack of robust measures of soil health that can be used to describe the current state of soil, to underpin decision-making and support better management. In this paper, I will draw from series of qualitative workshops carried out with farmers implementing innovative soil management across the UK in 2011 and a very recently-completed survey carried out by Innovation for Agriculture.  I will consider the value of measures and indicators for soil health (especially in the context of improving soil management)  and suggest that in most situation better quantification is not needed. What is missing is not a better measurement of soil health, but better tools to support the best soil husbandry.

Elizabeth is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at the Unviersity of Newcastle




Are you alive? Testing and tasting soils’ toxic vitalities in a Chilean lab

The claim that soils might be vital – entities endowed with a certain agency of their own – represents no novelty for most technical actors involved on regulatory schemes such as Environmental Risk Assessments. However, and in clear contrast with the celebratory tone of most conceptual analyses of material vitalism, such vitality is usually seen in negative, even fearful, terms. Being vital, from this perspective, means soils that are toxically alive; entities whose vitality would end up affecting in a negative way other components of their environment. Using the conceptual apparatus of science and technology studies (STS), this presentation will analyze ethnographically the main practices through which soils’ toxic vitalities are produced on a Chilean lab. By following the daily work a group of environmental chemists, such vitality will be seen as emerging through the intermingling of two sets of practices: testing and tasting. On the one hand, testing involves the technical processes through which a delimited set of soil samples are subjected to a standardized set of “trials of strength” (Latour), on which the existence of different kinds of toxic vitalities are tested. On the other hand, tasting involves all the fleeting practices through which the toxic qualities of the soils under analysis are established or discarded, a process on which the senses occupy a prominent position. Seeing toxic vitalities as emerging in the continual interplay between testing and tasting, the presentation concludes, lead us speculate whether a more “positive” kind of soil vitality could be used in pollution regulation, leading to more proactive notions of toxicity.

Sebastián Ureta is an associate professor at Departamento de Sociología, Universidad Alberto Hurtado (Santiago, Chile)



 “The Long-Time Requirements of the Nation”:   US Soil Surveys and the Political Ecology of White Supremacy


 Soil surveys are one of the most powerful synoptic tools of modern statecraft, yet they have received little critical scrutiny. This paper examines the 1899 founding of the US cooperative soil survey in the context of “post-frontier” anxieties about the reproduction of the white nation, and argues that it was not merely an effort to make territory legible, but also to produce particular kinds of life - both cultural and agricultural. Over the next several decades soil surveying grew increasingly central to the execution of state power and arguably formed the basemap for New Deal conservation and planning efforts. Examining the role of soil surveys in this era reveals the ways that even the New Deal’s decentralized and democratizing soil conservation projects reproduced white supremacy.
Levi is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Georgia Southern University


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