The Soil and Our Common Home


“Nothing happens in living nature that is not in relation to the whole.”  – Goethe
“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” – Wendell Berry

After roughly two centuries of unprecedented technological revolution in agriculture and a half century of steady chemical, genetic, mechanical, and economic innovation in the farming industry, a still, small voice has emerged – or re-emerged– in the conversation about farming in an advanced modern age. These are the new agrarians, those farmers, workers, intellectuals and religious critics who insist that we consider the damage inflicted on our natural home by industrial farming practices and the further danger that lies inevitably before us if we do not reconsider and reform our practices and root them again in the local, the traditional, and the cultural.  Agrarian and local agricultural movements are challenging us to question the way that our industrial and consumerist lifestyles have become disconnected from the land and from the soil. Modern industrial visions of society, which prize efficiency, mastery of nature, and profit before all else often label small-scale, local agricultural endeavors as “utopian”: "No ordinary, modern person has time for this way of life," it is charged, or "This way of life will never feed the world's poor and hungry," or "Technological advance has shown us the only way to farm efficiently for maximum output is mono-cropping." In fact, the quality and care of our soil is an essential component of our human existence; it is not simply an optional, inert element to be manipulated and exploited. The soil is an integral building block of our families, our households, our cities, and our economies. It is the hyper-industrial vision that is utopian in fact, because it proposes that we build a bright, productive future without attention to the soil, the element that is the bedrock of our existence. We have simply lost sight of the reality of our integral relationship to soil because of our understandable dependence on large, corporate scale farming, a form of farming that is predominant because of the effective capture of technology, land and market share by what Wendell Berry terms “agribusiness”.

This term is itself prone to exaggeration and misunderstanding. Agribusiness has many defenders and detractors who often talk past each other, and so coming to agreement on what constitutes "agribusiness" can be difficult. Its defenders – prominently found among university teachers, scientists, farmers – argue that the debate is over before it begins: globalization is a fact, and if we are to feed the whole world as fast and efficiently as possible at the least expenditure possible, the forces of commercial markets, capitalist logic, and innovative technology must take precedence in our method. Its detractors insist that, as with any human endeavor, we must begin with the whole – humanity's relation to nature, the priority of natural stability before efficiency – and not with the parts – immediate output and profits. Furthermore, it is argued that there is little use in universalizing industrial farming if in the end it exhausts the globe of the very resources – soil, clean water, and organic matter, complex ecosystems – that are necessary to farming. To complicate this debate further, critics of agribusiness often miss their target by registering broad, alarmist warnings that cannot see the deeper cultural dynamics operative in the overtaking of sustainable farming by agribusiness. A deep critique of agribusiness must take into account culture in order to explain both the problematic reach of agribusiness and also the reasons for its appeal. Indeed, culture is already embedded in the word "agri-culture," which signals a need to go far beyond the admittedly necessary tasks of protest and legal revolt. As this essay progresses, I hope it will go some way towards a articulating a truly cultural critique of agribusiness' shortcomings. For now, we simply note that the prevalence of agribusiness is reflective of a certain cultural shift in Western, and especially American, thinking about the way humans engage in production and consumption. 

Our acceptance of agribusiness as the predominant system of food production is a prime example of late modern society’s inability to imagine alternatives: when told by experts, specialists, and politicians that things are they way they are as a matter of necessity and that they will never change, we simply acquiesce, punch in, punch out, and hope for just enough to sustain our ongoing rate of consumption. This is not to vilify the lives of most American laborers, or to engage in cheap criticism. Rather, it is to note a logic that underlies modern, capitalist society. This logic generates a practical ethic found on a  vision of the good life that isolates economic success and individual freedom as the highest goods. Though the history is a long one to recount, it has been convincingly argued that one creation of the modern age was the "possessive individual", that individual that exists in fundamental isolation from others, with its own independent and autonomous "interests," over against other's interests, and who flourishes to the extent that he or she can secure as many economic and proprietary assets as possible in a competitive, conflictual world. Our production and consumption is not a natural, peaceful activity, but rather a competitive one. Atop this competitive contest is a regime of "experts" (to invoke Wendell Berry) and "managers" (to invoke philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre) that direct our competitive energy into consumption. The expert and the manager are epitomized in the capitalist owner, who effectively diverts our production into capital and reduces the laborer down to consumer. Indeed, when our involvement in making and creating and working and eating is primarily relegated to the management of specialists, experts, and employers not much remains but "creative" consumption (and if we doubt this, consider the staggering amount of money spent by the marketing industry on subtle tactics to manipulate and condition consumer desire). Incidentally, behind this system is Marx's theory of the "alienation" of labor, a dynamic implicit in capitalist economies that demands that the intentional, cognitive, integrative activities of the intellect be usurped by managerial classes that regurgitate the duties of labor back to workers as "process," and "task." 

Given this culture of "total consumption," it should come as no surprise that our consumptive practices when it comes to food are no different. In a world driven by the imperative of consumption, our food’s beginnings, paths and destination are of little concern, simply because we have been told by the experts that we have food that is easy, cheap, and available on demand. Categorically, our involvement in the production of food and our attention to its cultivation in patience is severed. Meanwhile, our consumptive habits necessitate that we forget those things that matter most to our future, our soil and our land, which continue to be diluted, degraded, and destroyed. A pioneer of the “biointensive” model of farming, John Jeavons, writes:

“What are the dimensions of the challenge of raising food that sustains the soil? Current agricultural practices reportedly destroy approx. 6 pounds of soil for each pound of food produced. United States croplands are losing topsoil about 18 times faster than the soil formation rate. In fact, worldwide only about 33 to 49 years worth of farmable soil remains...
Why is this happening? Conventional agricultural practices often deplete the soil 18 to 80 times more rapidly than nature builds soil. This phenomenon happens when humus (cured organic matter) in the soil is used up and not replaced, when cropping patterns are used that tend to deplete the soil's structure, and when minerals are removed from the soil more rapidly than they are replaced. Even organic farming probably depletes the soil 9 to 67 times faster than nature builds it, by importing organic matter and minerals from other soils, which thereby becomes increasingly depleted. The planetary result is a net reduction in overall soil quality.” 

This way of life is simply unsustainable.

But there is another way, a way that prizes patience, faithfulness, and receptiveness, rather than profit, efficiency, and progress as the only aims and ends. It is the way of nature, and it is the Christian way, because it is rooted in the Christian idea of creation. If the entire universe is created by the hand of a loving God, then creation must first be received, contemplated, observed and listened to, before it can be acted upon and exploited. The gift of creation is not ours to define, manipulate or bend beyond all recognition. It has its rhythms, its harmonies, and its cycles that we must attend to, and only after attending to them can we faithfully act on nature and with it. This is why, though many Christians sometimes fret about terminology like “Mother Earth,” or “our common home,” etc, it can be said that we share a biological and even spiritual connection with the whole of nature.

The Dominican theologian and philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas used the word “participation” to describe how it is that creation relates to God. Participating in God is a kind of “sharing” in God’s perfections, a sharing that is common to all creatures and beings because of God’s indwelling presence. This means that all have a share in this same source and presence. God’s creation of the world is not a once-and-done action, with creation now in place and carrying on independently of God. Rather, God is the energy and presence  involved at every moment of creation’s unfolding. He is related to all of creation in the most intimate manner, and therefore, all of creation has a share in God’s being. God infuses creation with his presence and love, and so it can be said that every bit of creation shares a common bond with every other bit of creation – we are not one homogenous, undifferentiated whole, but a wonderfully dependent, interrelated unity-in-difference – indeed, a kind of spiritual organism. Therefore, to the extent the we neglect the profound spiritual dynamics of nature, we neglect our own well being and flourishing. With every attempt to manipulate and force nature’s hand, we violate and disrupt our shared spiritual connection, and we and our common home will suffer.