Human survival depends on the invisible and largely unknown world below our feet. Yet, planet Earth has reached “peak soil”, the point at which we are destroying soils faster than they can recover naturally. The project Anthropogenic Soils responds to a global crisis of soils with an innovative focus on possibilities of repairing and recuperating soils. While fertile soil disappears from our planet at alarming rates, our multidisciplinary team – led by the environmental humanities – studies the ways people in different parts of the world have invented, practiced, and imagined ways of restoring soil health. Our project conceptualizes soil not as a natural resource to be exploited, but as “anthropogenic” – as lively and dynamic natural-cultural composition responsive to human care and healing.
We have three objectives:
1. Develop knowledge about technologies and practices of soil repair in landscapes damaged by industrial agriculture, or radioactive and toxic substances
2. Explore the role of emerging soil imaginaries in technoscience, agriculture, literature, and the arts for building more sustainable futures
3. Create awareness of soils as living multispecies ecologies responsive to human care, both within academia and in the public sphere
Understanding soils as anthropogenic nature-culture requires radical multidisciplinary. We aim to integrate perspectives from environmental humanities, medical anthropology, science and technology studies, science fiction studies, and microbiology, with knowledge produced by practitioners, artists, writers, and citizen scientists.
The project’s empirical studies include experiments of repairing contaminated, toxic, and depleted soils in different parts of the globe – from South Asia to Norway and the Arctic –a well ways in which Indigenous writers and artists offer alternative modes of relating to soils, and for building possible futures of earthly survival.
Anthropogenic Soils responds to a global crisis of soils (FAO 2020) with a multidisciplinary study on soil recuperation. The project combines empirical studies (ethnography, praxiography) with speculative and artistic studies to promote radically new forms of knowledge production about human-soil relations. The empirical studies of soil damage and recuperation will be conducted at four different sites representing a range of regional (Global South, Global North, post-Soviet East) and economic (agriculture, industry) soil-related hotspots: (1) rural landscapes of South Asia where farmers rebuild soil and human health with microbial technologies in response to agrarian crisis; (2) Southern Norway where farmers, entrepreneurs and gardeners are experimenting with organic methods to recuperate soils from industrial agriculture and work toward a more sustainable economy; (3) areas of Central Asia exposed to radioactive fallout and heavy metals and where technoscientific experiments are underway to metabolise hazardous substances; and (4) Northern Arctic regions where soils are being recuperated after contamination by emissions from nearby smelters. These case studies generate new knowledge about multispecies technologies of restoring soil health in relation to specific ecological challenges. Our project understands the environmental crisis of soil also as a “crisis of imagination”, rendering complex soil ecologies into empty substrate, resource and even “dirt”. The speculative and artistic studies will draw on art and fiction/futurism in a range of genres, including science fiction literature, video games and Indigenous futurisms. They examine strategies offered by science fiction, art and culture for rethinking extractive human-soil relationships. The project will culminate in publications, an art exhibition and a festival that showcase material, practical and aesthetic conceptions of sustainable soil relations, seeking to both cross disciplines and reach a wider public.