Renewing Soil and Society

This is an essay for my Food Culture and Agriculture Course. It’s not my best writing ever; however, it has given me opportunity to coalesce some prior thoughts (avid readers will note some hints of material from earlier weblog posts).
There are any number of criticisms one can raise concerning agriculture; there are also arguments that we have larger issues at hand to consider. However, I would propose the primary concern of any society is agricultural. Without the production of food; society ceases to exist; agriculture and its corollary components are the base of human existence. Until the Industrial Revolution, the world was based on agrarian societies. We planned our years based on agricultural cycles; we lived near the soil. Now we think of soil as something dirty. It is something dead and dusty that gets tracked into the house and must be vacuumed up and disposed of. At best, we look upon soil as an inert medium in which we grow plants (and will at least deign to have some inside for houseplants). As our societies and religions evolved in close connexion with agriculture, they have an innate link to the soil. If this connexion is dismissed or severed, the base substance of societal cohesion and faith will suffer. Without the regeneration of soil, agriculture is impossible; arguably, without the human-soil connexion, our connexion to the earth and each other is diminished. In order to find a truly sustainable agriculture and society, all these elements must be considered.

This essay will briefly discuss our larger societal relation with soil from a religious and cultural viewpoint; then we will move to a more personal level concerning individual responsibility. Finally, we will consider the practical implications of re-working agriculture on a planet that may not be necessarily suited for it. (Note that I am making a general comment on Christian thought as I am a product of Western Christian society; however, many remarks below are applicable to human nature no matter what creed or culture. There could be, of course, a far larger commentary made on the relation between belief and the environment; but that is beyond the scope of this essay.)

First, a widely held supposition and a premise: we consider ourselves the benefactor of the agricultural cycle. However, we are not the end product of agriculture; plants and produce are not the final product either. Soil is the product of agriculture. The difference between vegetable produce and soil as end products, at first, seems subtle; however, the implications of this difference and the aims of agriculture based on one or the other are significant. Broadly, If produce is the end result and all manner of supplementary resources are allowed into the system to ‘maximise production’, soil health becomes a secondary consideration. If soil is the primary factor, the supplementary resources that may seemingly benefit plant growth are more carefully evaluated based on their effect on soil health.

The premise and supposition mentioned above are basis for metaphor. We all live by metaphors; societies function by the consensus of ideas (or, to be harsher, often we live by the consensus of delusion). The primary metaphor of western society is that humankind is cursed and in need of redemption; we’ve been developing the components of this metaphor for the past several thousand years and its influence and consequences have now spread over all the Earth. We are a fallen race; the consequence of the fall is this:

And unto Adam He said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

—Genesis 3:17-19 KJV

This has been the basis for social custom and cohesion for millennia; the primary activity of humankind has been to toil in the fields. Yet, suddenly, within a few generations, we have surpassed this original curse (and burdened ourselves with a new one). These verses tend to get read through quickly, as if they are of secondary importance to the Christian mandate to strive against the powers of evil. But, what we fight against is dust. The felt consequence of the curse are not primarily the fight against cosmic forces or the fact that we have to wear clothing; it’s that we will forever struggle against dust. And we are made of dust; we face an intractable situation. We are bound to tend the soil till we return to it; or, at least, we were until we unleashed the powers of industry on the world.

Arguably, the environmental and societal issues we face now are rooted in a grand attempt to abandon the metaphor of dust. What greater power could our species show than to gain the upper hand on God and his feeble curse? What greater expression of pride could we display? Humankind has a penchant for establishing societal rules then expending a great deal of effort to subvert them; what greater initiative can a society display than to overturn the gods that created it?

Yet, in this attempt, we drain life from soil. We have replaced life with chemistry and killed the mystery. The substance of our lives is humus; but it is this substance we seem to disdain and distance ourselves from. I propose that, unless we return to a closer understanding of soil and the consequences of its loss, we can never have a healthy respect for others (or for ourselves, for the future, for the environment). If we do not consider or respect the base substance of life, there can be no respect of any living thing. This situation embodies our general relationship with the environment: our medical system is broadly based on treating symptoms with pharmaceuticals rather than the holistic needs of the patient; anything that touches on the realm of science (and this becomes nearly everything) is categorised and treated mechanistically. This mechanistic understanding begins with our disconnection with the soil.

As mentioned above, our culture is based on the creation and maintenance of metaphor. Humans hold a paradoxical view of culture (by ‘culture’ I mean the encompassing sphere of human thought: the arts, political systems, religion, economics, and so on). On one hand, we tend to view both history and the future through the eyes of our current culture; as if culture has not changed for some very long time and is unlikely to change for some time more. Such a myopic view robs us of history’s wisdom and binds us to a pre-packaged determined future. Concurrently, we also view past and future culture as something vastly different than the current human experience. Our forebearers (noting even the separation of one generation to the next) lived lives so different from our own that their experiences and accumulated knowledge are invalid for the present. Future generations will encounter a world so changed from this one that we may not even speculate their circumstances. Of course, neither of these views is entirely satisfactory; but both are necessary to address our current situation and plan for the future.

Each of us is part of a cultural environment and, though we tend to deny this with a thousand decaying whispers, part of the natural world. One person cannot take responsibility for the Earth’s actions; she is, of herself, a most responsible organism. One can (and must) take responsibility for one’s own action. Without recognition of this personal responsibility, there can be no health. No health of persons. No health of society. No health of the larger whole we call The Environment. The Earth will attempt to maintain what we call The Environment till all recourse flows out into oblivion. It is up to the individual to see the context of past and future for the maintenance of the whole.

Whereas western society, within living memory, once had a generally symbiotic relationship with the earth, we have now become parasites. Where once we were ‘connected’ to the land in a significant way (a way in which one’s actions or neglect would have an immediate and apparent effect on one’s life and economy) we’ve now lost our sense of connection to the earth. Wes Jackson, in the compilation A Future for the Land, quotes former Czech President Vaclav Havel:

For centuries, the basic component of European agriculture has been the family farm. In Czech, the older term was grunt, which itself is not without its etymological interest. The word, taken from the German Grund, actually means ground or foundation and, in Czech, acquired a particular semantic colouring. As the colloquial synonym for ‘foundation’, it points to the ‘groundedness’ of the ground, its indubitable, traditional and perspectively given authenticity and veridicality. (Conford, 1992, 106)

This, in the very roots of a language, acknowledges the significance of humankind’s connection to the soil; it is the foundational element of human existence; Havel continues: farmer made it (the farm) the topic of a scientific study. Nevertheless, it constituted a generally satisfactory economic and ecological system, within which everything was bound together by a thousand threads of mutual and meaningful connection, guaranteeing its stability as well as the stability of the product of the farmer’s husbandry. (ibid.)

The stability of the soil encouraged the stability of the farm as a whole and the stability of the food economy. Havel goes on to acknowledge there were always, of course, calamities and conflict outside the farmer’s realm that could upset this system. However, the point is that the farmer himself was not doing anything to undercut the health of his land. Contrast this to our current system which has removed itself from basic consideration for the soil (has lost it’s ‘groundedness’) which does direct and knowing harm to the land in order to increase the “product of the farmer’s husbandry”.

How does one find a grunt to stand on now; is it imperative to “return to the land” in order to legitimately live in harmony with the earth? First, it’s necessary to evaluate one’s place in the larger scope of society. One’s societal role is largely influenced by culture. What does culture say about an individual’s responsibility to the larger whole? This has obvious political and economic implications; however, we will, in short order, begin to move past these structures (a future we cannot fully speculate). We’ve done too much damage to both the cultural and natural environments to sustain our past and current systems of governance and economy. Humankind, though we have had many thousands of years to consider this, has not yet found the way by which we should live and relate to one another. We have, at various times, nearly discovered how to relate to the Earth; but this search has, for too long, been abandoned in favour of self-absorption (both in the sense of anthropocentrism and, considering the more recent focus on consumerism, complete solipsism).

One could argue that the normative culture is too far entrenched–that there is no plausible exit. However, culture is no more or less than a collective decision by a group of people to live and continue to live a certain way in a certain place (and people can only take responsibility if they are ‘in a place’. One cannot take responsibility for an abstraction or ‘nowhere’).

Culture is not immutable; the history of ideas does not necessarily determine the future of human thought. We have yet the opportunity to recover wisdom from the past and take knowledge from the present to determine a future that will benefit all. This is, in fact, the only choice we have that does not end terminally for everyone. If we do not take on this individual responsibility, the cultures will splinter. The Earth, no matter her best efforts, cannot maintain the prolonged negligence of so many irresponsible people. She has provided the necessary components to sustain life. We’ve had an unwritten but obvious agreement that she will continue operating as with such designs as long as we do no harm to the process. If, from the neglect of stewardship, we lay waste to life it will be our decision that breaks the deal.

A culture is as alive as the people who live it; it will continue on till a collective decision is made to cease (or till such time as it is no longer sustainable). Culture can change. It does evolve for the betterment of those living it. The culture of Germany today is far different that what presented itself in the 1930’s. Though we now consume the foundations of life and the lives of those after us, there is nothing keeping us from positive change. Culture is not wholly a language, religion, music, or dress; these things change and grow over time. Changing culture does not mean abandonment of these things; it should mean the enrichment of our better parts. We should not fear the oncoming change (even drastic change) if that change means the resolution of these current ills and the maintenance of life itself.

Finally, culture was never one thing and can never be tomorrow what it was yesterday any more than our children will live the life of our grandparents. We return to the paradox. The present is the future; we cannot put the future off till tomorrow. We must reshape culture to become what it must be beyond this day. If we do not, the opportunities for a common future of life and good humanity will fade; the trust we pass on to the future will be spent. We have no other future than one made now.

What would be the impetus to make potentially massive changes to the character and structure of our societies? For the balance of human history (or, ‘civilised’ human history, if you like) the most disappointing thing one could do would be to shame one’s ancestors. To break family honour or lose face in society was (and still generally is) a terrible matter. To have a parent or close relative say, “You have shamed us all” could send a person into a downward turn for the rest of his or her life (which may be spent in psychological or physical exile depending on the severity of the transgression).

One’s family has a certain amount of honour built up over generations; to shame it is seen as a theft. The call for honour (and the prospect of exile) are both bound to the land; to say that one’s family has lived honourably on a piece of land for some time was the greatest of compliments and pedigrees. An act of shame may draw down heavily on the account and cause it all to collapse. I think, to some extent, the responsibility (or the burden, if one considers the extreme expectations of some families) of holding up the family name has diminished. We are, in ‘the West’ at least, so focused on the individual’s accomplishments and failings that past glories (or downfalls) are of little importance. This is, of course, both liberating and damming. If my forefathers were scoundrels, I’ll probably not be held to attest for their misdeeds; but we also tend to neglect the history of goodwill and actions of many who have passed on (this is particularly emphasised by the loss of extended families and the mobility of society in general; we are no longer of a place—neither bound to its history or its future).

It is the future we have to address. Whereas we once took care not to shame our fathers and grandfathers, we now take even less care to honour our children and grandchildren. Our focus, as a society, seems to be entirely on the present; in this, we shame both past and future generations. This is not a shame belonging to any one family or lineage; my shame spreads to your family and yours to mine. It is like a cancer than begins in one cell and spreads to another till, system by system, it consumes everything.

We are consumers of all (often we are collectively referred to as such as in the somewhat telling economic term ‘consumer confidence’). Our idealised frontiersmen forefathers might be forgiven for believing the Earth was an inexhaustible resource—we can have no such delusion. We are now openly stealing the fortunes of all who follow for our own temporary benefit. We never hear someone openly wish a life of deprivation and despair for future generations; yet this is what we curse them with at almost every step. What greater shame or selfishness is there than this to lay upon the human family?

Unfortunately, ‘collective shame’ seems to have little effect on the momentum of society. It is always someone else’s doing that is so shameful; we bear little individual shame for the misdeeds committed by us all.

Is there, then, a ready solution to the situation we find ourselves in? There are attempts to remedy the ills of the land through technological means–either altering the operations of agribusiness to take the needs of the soil into account or, alternately, abandoning soil altogether and focusing solely on the product by growing hydroponically. On the other hand, some propose a complete abandonment of mechanistic farming; they favour, instead, small-scale organic agriculture based on hand-worked soil. Considering the human population of the Earth, our urbanisation, varying climates, and the scope of regional diets, no one solution will fit all people and places. It is up to individuals and communities to devise ways to co-operate with the Earth and heal the earth of which it is composed. Wendell Berry (2005, 109), in his essay Agriculture from the Roots Up, states:

If we cannot establish an enduring or even humanly bearable economy by our attempt to defeat nature, then we will have to try living in harmony and co-operation with her.

Berry, W. (2005) The Way of Ignorance. Shoemaker & Hoard, Berkeley.

Jackson, W. (1992) ‘Towards the Marriage of Ecology and Economics’ in Conford, P. (ed.) A Future for the Land: Organic Practice from a Global Perspective. Green Books, Devon. 103-113

Scripture reference taken from the King James Version of the Bible