That’s Not Dirt, That’s Earth

Set the scene: It’s sometime in the middle of the 1970s. We are in a rather well known vegetarian restaurant in a town in Central New York.  There are hanging fern plants, dream catchers and wind chimes.  An irate customer, perhaps an unusually uptight hippie, is complaining to the waitress about something he’s found in his salad.  The waitress, a young woman dressed like Stevie Nicks, feather earrings and all, is not rattled by his tirade.  With eyes wide (she never seems to blink) she tells the customer: “That’s, like, not dirt, man, that’s Earth”.

Thank you, I’ll be here all week.

But seriously, soil does get treated like dirt.

Even in agronomy, soil science not getting the attention it deserves.  In an article entitled “Soil Science in Transition: Soil Awareness and Soil Care Research Strategies”, Dan H. Yaalon notes a decline in soil science in the industrial world, and suggests that shift in academic paradigm from a focus on soil productivity in the context of large-scale agriculture to a focus on soil in an earth systems context.  He describes soil crucial link between the Biogeochemical System and the Physical Climate System. On that foundation he proposes soil care and sustainability as a unifying concept (Yaalon, D., 1996).

Yaalon’s model meshes very nicely with the model proposed by Juma, which describes the Pedosphere as the area of overlap of the Atmosphere, Lithosphere, Hydrosphere, and Biosphere (Juma, N., 1999).  In a very real sense the soil is the living community that emerges from the interactions of the other Earth Systems.

So, how do we get some respect for dirt?  There is a conscious effort underway in Europe to figure that out.  In a presentation in 2008 to the Eurosoil 2008 conference, G. Mielich points out that:

  • Soils are largely ignored by the public because they are basically invisible; all one ever sees is the surface.
  • Soils have no definite shape; they are quasi-continua in time and in space.
  • The complexity of soil formation and structure does not lend itself to easy explanation to the public.
  • In our urban world people simply do not have direct contact with soil. They are not aware of how it looks or feels or smells.
  • There may not even be a sense that soils are the basis of the source of all of our food.
  • Soils don’t move much.  They don’t make interesting nature films on the National Geographic Channel.

In short, soils have no snuggle factor (Meilich, G, 2008).

Meilich stresses the need for specifically tailored information targeting specific groups. We need to get different messages out to farmers, to land developers, to architects, to gardeners, to educators, and to the general public. “Every target group needs specific information on soils and soil protection measures, prepared in a way that reaches and binds the target groups” (Ibid., p. 30).

It is noteworthy that there does not seem to be a similar effort at public education taking place on this side of the Atlantic.  I would argue that for businesses and organizations to become aware that “it’s not dirt, it’s earth” we need to see a cultural change, and this will take a considerable education and marketing program. The time may be right, there is a general sense that green is good.  Now, if soil were only more visible…


Juma, N. G. (1999). The Pedosphere and Its Dynamics, In A Systems Approach to Soil Science.  Volume 1: Introduction  to Soil Science and Soil Resources. Salman Productions Inc.

Miehlich, G. (2008) Raising soil awareness – a hard job but worth to “go for it”. Paper presented at EUROSOIL 2008 symposium S22: Education in soil science and raising public awareness.

Yaalon, D. H. (1996) Soil science in transition: Soil awareness and soil care research strategies. Soil Science, (161)1, 3-6.


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