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Soil gives us life and dirt takes it away

Published on 7/9/2022
In the opening scenes of the documentary “Kiss the Ground,” actor Woody Harrelson says he’s “given up” on climate change solutions. As he narrates this, we are shown all too familiar scenes of belching factory pipes, oil refineries, and melting glaciers. As one climate disaster after another hits the news, he says he feels despair. Harrison is not alone. Climate anxiety especially among children and young people has been growing significantly. In a study of 10,000 youth (ages 16-25) from 10 different countries, the highly respected British journal Lancet reports that 75% of youth report that they think the future is frightening and 83% said that they think people have failed to take care of the planet. They also report that they think current actions taken by governments are inadequate.

About 25 community members came to view “Kiss the Ground,” the first film in the eleventh season of Green Issues Films. Based on those opening images, it looked as if the audience was in for more gloom and doom. And that’s not a good thing. When people feel despair or simply ignore problems by pretending they don’t exist, that is in and of itself a problem. We can’t mitigate problems or solve them without knowledgeable and committed people who provide direction and hope. Harrelson soon learns that there are plenty of reasons for hope and that they are beneath our feet. Those solutions encourage every individual to face reality and take action. The trajectory for the whole world can change if millions of those who own land — farmers, landowners, nations — participate in bringing soil back to health.

“Kiss the Ground” looks at using regenerative agricultural solutions (most of them based on ancient practices) to combat climate change. What exactly does that mean and what can it mean for us?

Currently agricultural land the world over has been punished by over-tilling practices. Frequent plowing and the excessive use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers have eroded our land and at the same time have destroyed much of our soil, turning it to dirt. These standard practices for farming during the last 70 years have led to the desertification of hundreds of thousands of once fertile acres around the world. The soil becomes dry, packed, and loses the essential structure and soil organisms that enable plants to flourish. The beneficial microbes that live in the soil die off from the disturbance and absence of soil cover for part of the year. Once this happens, the soil (originally full of microbes, fungi, and other organic materials) becomes dirt that can no longer grow crops without huge, expensive chemical inputs. On a global scale, this all leads over time to greater poverty, mass starvation, and increased global warming.

As scary as that scenario sounds, and it’s all been verified again and again, this documentary asserts that this soil situation is not insurmountable and can even be reversed in 60 or so years by reintroducing regenerative agriculture around the planet. In short, land needs to return to being farmed or used in a regenerative manner. This means it must have a mix of many kinds of plants, trees, various food crops, and animals on it. Versions of this practice help soils sequester carbon rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

The main contributor to global warming is excess carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. Healthy soil sequesters carbon. Life relies on plants: they absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale, converting it to oxygen for us to breathe and around and around the cycle goes — or did for millions of years. In the last 200 years of our Industrial Age, however, fossil fuels — which makes your car go and fuels our global economy — have made this engine possible by, in essence, taking millions of years worth of sequestered carbon from underground (in the form of peat, coal, natural gas, etc.), using it to power machines, and then sending it up into the atmosphere.

“Kiss the Ground” spotlights the unsung and unlikely superhero — soil. Soil can hold more carbon within it than all plants and the atmosphere combined. We have to start letting it do that again on a global scale. If all our ground were healthy soil, we could draw down the carbon from the atmosphere into the ground, relocating the greenhouse gasses from air to soil and reversing the current pattern that fuels global warming.

To do this we need to change dirt back to soil. “Kiss the Ground” spotlights a few American farmers who have successfully transformed their farms — and in so doing, saved them. Gabe Brown out in Kansas converted his land from stagnant, dry dirt into rich, nutrient-filled (and more profitable) soil where diverse crops and animals now thrive. Ray Archuleta, a professional soil scientist who worked for the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) for decades, is another national voice for this project. Google them to learn more. Some very large-scale projects with strongly positive results are also taking place in China and in Africa as well as on individual farms across the planet.

Although this film is pitched toward a large-scale, world-wide solution, we learn how each of us can contribute in small ways. We can be attentive to soil and what it does. We can compost, eat more plants, buy local fruits and vegetables, and reduce the use of pesticides in our own gardens and yards.

In the end, this is a hopeful documentary that offers a viable solution — not by employing new technology—but by becoming aware of the miraculous gift of our soils. Soil gave us life in the first place and we need to help it do so again. We live on this planet together and together we can heal it. Though this may be no easy task, it is possible if we act in concert with care toward future generations.

Please join the LWVMC on July 13 for the showing of “Built to Burn,” the next in the Green Issues film series. It focuses on wildfires and how to curb them in the American West. The film is free and will be shown in Room 104, Hays Hall on the Wabash College Campus. Free parking is available in the Center Parking lot with access from Grant Avenue.