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October, 2006


The Planet's Soil Is At Risk
We Take Soil for Granted, Says E - The Environmental Magazine,
and Our Indifference is Having Grave Consequences
By Environmental Magazine

In its September/October 2006 issue (now posted at, E - The Environmental Magazine gets its hands dirty with a cover story on, well, dirt. The issue, featuring soil-smeared model and eco-entrepreneur Summer Rayne Oakes on its cover, is a comprehensive and readable package on the global problems and challenges soil faces, from erosion, overuse of fertilizers, and topsoil loss to declining natural fertility and decertification.
We've long taken soil for granted. It is ubiquitous but unseen; humble but essential; surprisingly strong yet profoundly fragile. It nurtures life and death in vibrant harmony; undergirds cities, forests and oceans; and feeds all terrestrial life on Earth. It is a substance few people understand and most take for granted. Yet, it is arguably one of Earth's most critical natural resources -- and humans, quite literally, owe to it their very existence.

Unfortunately, even as our awareness of soil health as a factor in the collapse of civilizations has increased with time, we've continued our poor stewardship of this essential resource.

Even among the environmentally minded, soil sags well below the radar of important causes. But the relationship between soil quality and other aspects of environmental health is intricately entwined. What's more, it's a relationship that encompasses a vast swath of territory, from water pollution to degradation of terrestrial and aquatic habitats; from agricultural practices to global climate change; from the well being of oceans to the well being of people.

Despite humankind's long relationship with soil, the stuff remains a mystery. Even our language manages to malign the soil. Somehow, over the course of several centuries, "dirt" has acquired a bad reputation. And it's been codified in some of our most common idioms, with people described as "dirty rotten scoundrels," "poor as dirt," "dirt bags" or "mean as dirt." The modern word "dirt" itself descends from the less than complimentary Old English word "dirt," meaning "excrement." Instead of marveling at the mystery of soil, we have mocked it, by dredging and paving; desiccating and polluting; and working it to the point of exhaustion.

One heaping tablespoon of healthy soil may contain up to nine billion microorganisms, which is more than the human population on Earth. An acre of healthy topsoil can contain 900 pounds of earthworms, 2,400 pounds of fungi, 1,500 pounds of bacteria, 133 pounds of protozoa, 890 pounds of arthropods and algae, and in many cases, numerous small mammals. When this diverse soil community is disrupted or damaged, the consequences can be dire.

Now our poor husbandry of this essential resource is catching up with us, in the form of disconcertingly rapid erosion, widespread agricultural pollution, loss of topsoil and quality farmland, damage to fisheries, and alarming levels of pesticides and other chemicals building up in our bodies. The subject of soil is rarely billed as glamorous or sexy, but it should be. From its remarkable properties to its critical ecological importance, the dirt under our feet is a gold mine of scientific wonderment, and it's about time people got excited about soil -- excited enough to save it from the increasing perils of our current mismanagement.

Many countries, particularly poor nations in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, are especially vulnerable to the disastrous social and economic effects of soil degradation. Industrialized nations are not strangers to these ills, either. Australia, for instance, loses AU $2.5 billion annually because of soil degradation.

E's article package includes interviews with soil scientists, a history from Dust Bowl days to the present, and more, including why urban and suburban development and modern industrial agriculture are at the heart of many of the problems facing soils today. At the same time, solutions abound, from organic agriculture to smarter construction. The feature package also examines some innovative solutions other nations are adopting. Germany and the Netherlands, for instance, have set national goals for organic agriculture.

E - The Environmental Magazine distributes 50,000 copies six times per year to subscribers and bookstores. Single copies of E's September/October 2006 issue are available for $5 postpaid from: E Magazine, P.O. Box 2047, Marion, OH 43305. Subscriptions are $29.95 per year, available at the same address. E is also on the web at

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