Ethical Relationships to Soil in the Anthropocene


O'Brien, Anne Therese. (2017). Ethical Relationships to Soil in the Anthropocene [Thesis].
AuthorsO'Brien, Anne Therese
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

While soil is central to human life and the flourishing of countless nonhumans, its importance is rarely acknowledged. Soil is often represented as lifeless, invisible or a substrate: part of the background to more important things. Its value is only publicly expressed when its functions break down, and even then, this rarely prompts an adequate response. Now as life on earth faces the climate crisis and the other anthropogenic planetary and localised perturbations, there is growing recognition that healthy soil ecosystems may help wider ecosystems cope. How can modern humans better care for and regenerate soil? What relationships can be disclosed, cultivated and strengthened in order to do this? The Anthropocene, as far as the soil is concerned, is a product of particular land use practices, ideologies, and protagonists, with some damaging soil far more than others. Some indigenous societies have cared for soils for millennia, while a growing number of regenerative practitioners are likewise developing responsive, skilful and caring working relationships with soil organisms.
In this thesis, I examine contemporary practices of regenerative land stewardship that help build soil ecological integrity, using an interdisciplinary approach of interview and site based fieldwork, combined with theoretical reflection. Articulating principles of care for soil, I hope to contribute to the work of enabling transformative social change at the level of norms. The fieldwork examples ground the analysis in everyday realities of land stewards, who bear witness to both environmental devastation and ecologically robust relationships. After considering the meaning, science and practice of regenerative land stewardship, I use critical theory to consider how mechanistic science, instrumental reason, and technicity have contributed to the exploitation of soil. I consider the ways in which dominant management techniques and technologies have been naturalised, presupposing the ideal of control. I contrast this with more provisional, responsive approaches of pursuing plural ends such as Wendell Berry’s concept of kindly use. Using field work case studies, I examine how practitioners learn to care for soil, involving new ways of seeing, recognition, and receptivity, monitoring signs of soil health such as soil aggregate texture, and attempting to do justice to new matters of concern as they arise. Such work builds ecological relationship in the course of everyday work, rendering soil ecosystems not only means, but also ends in themselves, and also making for a less alienated form of work.

PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Research GroupInstitute for Social Justice
Final version
Publication dates01 Jan 2017
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