Troubling Soils: Unruly Matter and Subterranean Politics

Type: Paper
Sponsor Groups: Cultural and Political Ecology Specialty Group, Geomorphology Specialty Group, Socialist and Critical Geography Specialty Group
Poster #:
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM (MDT)
Room: Nottoway, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Organizers: Greta Marchesi, Julie Guthman, Salvatore Engel-DiMauro
Chairs: Julie Guthman


Long an afterthought in common sense conversations about environment, soils are increasingly the subject of mainstream institutional attention. From the United Nations’ 2015 International Year of Soils to new World Bank ecosystem services metrics to Monsanto’s billion-dollar investment in digital soil monitoring technologies and the USDA’s Healthy Soil Initiative, heightened attention to soil function has meant a myriad of new models and measures for assessing soil health. Predictably, these strategies are themselves freighted with assumptions about the relative value of particular environmental functions. Moreover, soil’s materiality frequently exceeds these models in ways that trouble both social and ecological function. In particular, soil’s spatial heterogeneity and site-specific diversity make for a high degree of unpredictability in processes like the release and capture of atmospheric carbon; the retention and circulation of potentially toxic chemical agents; unplanned interactions between crops and soil biota; and the movement of soil particles within and beyond the farm field, all functions critical to human and planetary health.  

As concerns over the world’s soil health and agricultural capacity continue to heighten, actors at multiple scales struggle to re-imagine human-soil interactions to contend with unpredictable or troublesome soil natures. In the face of widespread soil toxicity, erosion, desertification, and loss of soil fertility, calls for healthy soils continue to emerge from multiple spheres. But what is healthy soil and how is it achieved? What other values are promoted or forsaken in the name of healthy soil? What and whose lives are valued or degraded in the name of healthy soil?  What are the limits of managing soil for cultivation and ecological health?  And what are the implications of assessing soils solely in reference to human objectives? Drawing on both physical and human geography, the papers in this session grapple with soil as both material and discourse, past and present, to reflect on current threats and possibilities.


Type Details Minutes Start Time
Presenter Stephen Wood*, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies; The Nature Conservancy, The conceptual and empirical limitations of the soil health metaphor 20 10:00 AM
Presenter Julie Guthman*, Univ of California Santa Cruz, Soil threats: organic hydroponics, fungal pathogens, and the materiality of land in California’s strawberry industry 20 10:20 AM
Presenter Salvatore Engel-DiMauro*, SUNY New Paltz, Politics from the underground: Soils and leftist projects 20 10:40 AM
Presenter Marissa Matsler*, Cary Institute, Melanie Malone, The Oregon Extension, Erin Looper, Portland State University, "Designer" Soils: a critical physical geography analysis of engineered soils for stormwater management 20 11:00 AM

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