Division 4, The Role of Soils in Sustaining Society and the Environment

Commission 4.5 - History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Soil Science


Description of Commission 4.5

This commission deals with our past; it links the study of what has happened in history and how soils can be used to help explain the past changes. This commission is not just a record of the history but the use and understanding of soils information and it relationship to human development and history.

During the 2015 International Year of Soils, the IUSS Division 4 will illustrate its main topics through articles written by Division 4 officers or their colleagues. These will each be highlighted every week from October to December 2015.

For this eighth week, we are displaying an article from G. Jock Churchman the past Commission 4.5 chair concerning the book publications by this Commission.


Published books from commission 4.5

G. Jock Churchman
The University of Adelaide, School of Agriculture, Food & Wine, Australia

Soil message

Four substantial books since 1997 have been among the outputs of Commission 4.5 on the History, Philosophy and Sociology of Soil Science.
This Commission was the brainchild of Dan Yaalon (1924-2014), one of the giants of Soil Science and of its interface with society.
The commission has also been active by publishing a newsletter, also edited by Dan Yaalon for many issues, but in recent years produced with a similar group in the Soil Science Society of America; the combined newsletter being edited by Eric Brevik until quite recently.

The four books are:

There is a thread connecting all of the 4 books, even if none was planned to keep them in line. Indeed, the books are quite diverse in origin, with contributors over the whole set coming from 27 different countries in 5 continents and also assorted island nations.

History of Soil Science provides a good grounding in time, in place and in essential topics for our science. Its contributors to 23 chapters are mostly soil scientists. Together they cover such topics as the histories of humus, horizons, classification, mapping, soil pH, mineralogy and physics, and they also cover the history of soil science in several parts of the world and its organisation internationally.
In addition, they feature the lives and achievements of several of our science’s greats, including its only Nobel prizewinner, Selman A. Waksman.

Only three significant paradigm shifts can be identified:

Footprints in the Soil largely continues the theme of the history of our science and its component parts, but also introduces pre-historical and anthropological perspectives, together with modern concerns about soils. Furthermore, many of its 18 chapters have a strongly philosophical aspect to them. While most contributors are soil scientists, this book makes us aware that a lot of our colleagues have a world view that is much wider than just soil profiles and soil analyses. Topics traversed include Roman, Aztec and indigenous knowledge of soils world-wide, the debt we owe to our scientific pioneers, as well as up-to-date concerns like erosion and conservation, soil health, and environmental issues.

The future will place even more stresses upon the diminishing soil resource as we try to feed the expanding soil population. This coincides with the end of the era of cheap energy. There is the threat of climate change disrupting agricultural systems. Globally, water quality and quantity are declining. We will need to invest more in methods to manage soils more sustainably through improved knowledge, make greater use of renewable resources, and “tread lightly upon the earth” – Edward Gregorich, Graham Sparling and Joan Gregorich, Chapter 15 “Stewardship and Soil Health”.

Soil and Culture takes several steps sideways, often plumbing the knowledge, understanding and feelings about soils from outside of the scientific discipline, into the visual arts, literature, philosophy, religion, health, and even warfare, movies, postage stamps and cartoons. There is also history there, with an increased emphasis on indigenous and ancient view of soils. The 28 chapters in this book include a large number of contributions from others outside of our disciplinary walls. There is an aspect here of seeing “oursels as ithers see us”, to quote Scots poet Robbie Burns (1786), or rather, to see our subject, soils, as other see it. In soils, these others, and the thoughtful soil scientists who also contribute, see a rich, interesting, and attractive world within soil. Its 36 colour plates demonstrate the charm and beauty that the visual arts have seen in soils, never again to be treated like dirt.

You see with Fallou and Jenny the polarity between the emotional and feeling approach on one hand, and the fascination with rational order on the other hand…………….For example, in terms of scientific development and human society’s relationship with soil: what can happen when Fallou’s feeling that earth has aspects of a Goddess (“Isis and Ceres”), or Jenny’s “respect”, “wonder” and “reverence for soil” gets suppressed or lost? In fact, this had widely been the case, and one might argue that this contributes to the accelerated and ongoing soil deterioration and destruction in large parts of the world – Nikola Patzel, Chapter 13 “The Soil Scientist’s Hidden Beloved: Archetypal Images and Emotions in the Scientist’s Relationship with Soil”.

The Soil Underfoot makes its particular mark through a view into the future of soils and the world on which it is grounded while continuing the themes of soils as inherently valuable visually, religiously and for the services they provide. It is compiled within the context of the challenges that beset humanity, especially those of world hunger, climate change and pollution but also sets out to praise soils and their infinite fascination. It introduces some technologies and land uses involving soil properties. It also retains an historical perspective, including among its 30 chapters some on the effect of human history on soils and also on the use of soil studies to help decipher human history. Chapters include critical examinations of the contributions of some pioneers of our science. Ultimately, the book points to possibilities for an optimistic view of how soils can help us navigate into a sustainable future for a burgeoning human population.

Knowing that cropland expansion and increasing the withdrawals of blue water for irrigation are not major options for meeting future demands on global croplands places useful constraints on what priorities should obtain as the necessary fundamental science is developed over the coming decades. Knowing further that a major goal is instead to optimize the availability and productive flow of green water not only helps to focus research priorities, but also highlights the importance of methodologies that, unshackled by adherence to conventional disciplines, fully respect the complexity of soil ecosystems, which “remain firmly, but uncharismatically, at the foundations of human life” (citing J.R. McNeill and V. Winiwarter, Science, 2004) – Garrison Sposito, Chapter 30, ‘Sustaining “The Genius of Soils”.

Overall, these books have enabled us to see where we have come from as soil scientists, giving us a global understanding of the challenges of our work. They have introduced us to many of our pioneers as often very human. They have given us new perspectives from outside our scientific discipline on soil and soils as valued and interesting materials and as integral parts of the environment and human culture in ways that had hardly occurred to us before.

We learn that our sustenance requires the sustenance of the soil if a good future is to beckon. But these books hardly contain the last word on soil.

Perhaps, above all, they tell us about just how fascinating and multi –faceted is our topic of interest, the soil. They have introduced us to new and surprising possibilities to explore as we venture into the past, present and future of soil.

Information and contact

G. Jock Churchman

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Page created: 24.11.2015 | Page updated: 04.04.2021

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