(Re)discovering (s)oil

It’s hard to learn much or do much about sustainability without getting your hands dirty.

True, global problems of resource depletion and climate change entail some high-level thinking. We need to understand some important numbers: 350 parts per million of CO2 (the atmospheric target necessary to avert catastrophic climate change); 5 per cent production decline rate in existing oilfields (what must be overcome each year to forestall the inevitable peak of global oil output). We need skills in analysis and persuasion.

Inevitably, all of this requires much time spent in front of computer screens. However, while we attend to these technologies and abstractions, we are much more likely to succeed in our ultimate goal of building sustainable culture if we are also grounded in the most basic of activities – obtaining food directly from the Earth.

Reading has taught me a lot. Gardening has taught me as much or more. Often, these lessons tend to be ones that sound trite when put in words: stay humble; don’t demand too much too fast; notice the interconnections; go slow, but always pay attention and be prepared for rapid-onset opportunities and problems. When you garden, however, you don’t simply learn these lessons verbally and mentally, you learn them with your whole body.

Leaving food production entirely to others is the essence of full-time division of labour, the origin and vulnerable taproot of civilisation. Only in agricultural civilisations has a rigid class system arisen in which the most important decisions are made by people who don’t need to spend any of their time directly contemplating our human dependence on nature.

Instead, the managers, accountants, soldiers and religious functionaries of state societies tend to enclose themselves ever more completely in the language-based social matrix that is the source of their power. They pay ever more attention to words, money and technology; ever less to weather, birds and insects. And this, ultimately, is why civilisations collapse: the people in charge simply don’t notice that the ecological basis of their society is being undermined.

Sound familiar?

There are lots of good reasons to garden these days – given that food prices are soaring and the nutritional quality of supermarket food diminishes by the year. Those of us who are working on sustainability issues have even more reasons to plant and hoe. We must teach our neighbours the survival skills they will need as fossil fuels dribble away; we must set an example, and help create the gardening networks that will provide food for our communities during the hard times ahead.

Perhaps the best of all reasons to garden, though, is simply our need to stay sane. Yes, the garden is a refuge from a world that often seems to be flying apart – turn off the television and pick up a trowel; you’ll feel better – but more importantly, if we garden we are more likely to be psychologically balanced people capable of making sane choices. And the world needs people like that at the moment.

Richard Heinberg is a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and author of Peak Everything

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2008

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