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Book Report: The Soil Will Save Us

As I was reading Kristin Ohlson’s The Soil Will Save Us (Rodale Books, 2014), I kept having flashbacks to a famous scene in the 1967 film The Graduate. In the scene, Mr. McGuire, a family friend of the recently graduated and somewhat adrift Benjamin, played by Dustin Hoffman, offers candid career advice to the young man. “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word…” says Mr. McGuire. “Plastics.”

I found myself wondering: what if Mr. McGuire’s one word had been “soil” instead?

What if soil had been seen as a major economic opportunity, the next big thing in investments that any savvy graduate would be thrilled to be tipped off about? How might global industry have evolved if more cunning business people had been thinking about soil?

Alas, soil wasn’t seen as an opportunity by most business people back in 1967, and most still don’t think about it that way today either.

Yet here’s the truth: soil was, is, and will be for the foreseeable future, a big thing whether we realize it or not, and we ignore the importance of soil at our peril. We are dependent on soil for most of our food, not to mention much of our clothing, toilet paper, wood products, breathable air and a few other rather crucial necessities.

Ohlson’s book combines a highly readable, journalistic style with a sense of awe. Her vivid prose explores soil at a fundamental level, taking us on a journey with experts in the emergent soil health movement. Ohlson also provides a window into the underground world of soil – a world teaming with life, comprising newly understood properties that support life both below and above ground.

In addition to condensing complex soil research into 258 pages that non-scientists can easily grasp, The Soil Will Save Us also channels the common sense of those who work the soil for a living, such as rancher Greg Judy. Mr. Judy is quoted (in the aptly named chapter, “Why Don’t We Know This Stuff?”) as saying: “Nature did it right for millions of years until we came and boogered things up.”

I will humbly confess that after more than 15 years of work in the field of sustainability – in addition to years of tree-planting, gardening, worm-composting and/or growing stuff on window sills, I was stopped in my figurative tracks by this book. I was astonished by how much there is to know about soil, and the incredible potential this knowledge has to help us make better decisions for our well-being. Since reading The Soil Will Save Us I have course-corrected aspects of my professional work, guiding discussions about climate action in ways that don’t simply focus on emission reductions, but also include a serious look at the role of carbon in soil.

And in my personal life, thanks to this book, I’ve recognized that all the labels in the world – from dietary monikers such as “vegetarian” to certifications like “organic” – don’t give us a hint about what’s happening with soil, which is a gap that urgently needs closing if we’re going to have any hope of getting on a viable climate trajectory in my teen-aged stepdaughters’ lifetimes.

Here are just a few of the many highlights Ohlson brought to my attention, and which are largely absent from environmental conversations, whether among business people or consumers.

- Up to the 1950s, most of the excess carbon dioxide in the air resulted from the ways humans used their land and forests; this excess did not come primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels, but rather from a far earlier inflection point – i.e. when humans shifted from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural one 13,000 years ago. In other words, excess greenhouse gas emissions are not new – they’re just newly accelerating. Our focus on the detrimental effects of the energy industry and on emissions reductions, while important, is only one part of the conversation.

- There is a rich, complex “carbon trading scheme” taking place in most healthy soils, where the photosynthesis conducted by plants creates carbon that is exchanged through a network of fungi which in turn provides a wealth of minerals and nutrients – anywhere from one to seven billion organisms per teaspoon of soil. (For a great animation clip of this activity, see this BBC link).

- According to research cited in the chapter “Heroes of the Underground,” if only 11 percent of the world’s cropland – land that is typically not in agricultural use – improved its community of soil microorganisms as much some are suggesting is entirely feasible – the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil would offset all our current emissions of CO2!

Ohlson provides extensive details relating to the research on this possibility, and notes with understandable awe: “It’s a rather staggering assertion.”

Yes, it is. And as the soil health movement gains ground (no pun intended), through regenerative agriculture and other carbon-farming practices, there are more and more examples of vast progress in soil health to bear this assertion out.

If you are looking for viable solutions to global warming, solutions that relate to every individual and to many businesses, or even if you just enjoy a rare but potent dose of common sense, you will love this book. And though plastics, steel and other worthy industrial innovations represent exciting discoveries with important roles in our lives, healthy soil is one innovation – resulting from billions of years of biological evolution, at our disposal should we choose to stop boogering it up – that has the potential to save us from the negative effects of the others.

(Above photo: Castings from my kitchen worm composter with sprouting orca beans about to be planted.)

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