‘Rediscovering soils: knowledge and care in the world of soil’

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When is the last time you thought about soil? And yet without soils, you could not exist. Without soils there is no terrestrial life. Soils surround you. Soils sustain you. They support your home, filter your water and air, feed the plants you eat, regulate the climate within which you live. Soils are omnipresent, and yet modernisation has made soils increasingly invisible and unnoticed. But things are changing. The invisible infrastructure of soils which sustains all terrestrial life is endangered, breaking, and indeed already broken in different parts of the world, and across the globe. Spectacular events such as flooding, landslides, dust-storms, desertification, erosion, or even algal blooms bring soils back into our awareness. As a result, soils are increasingly spoken about in terms of crisis: as a disappearing and endangered resource which we must urgently protect. IFAO’s proclamation of 2015 as the International Year of Soils is emblematic of this change. However, the proliferating calls for action open up more questions than they answer. Soils are an area of contestation – in terms of scientific knowledge, and in terms of land politics. The questions of what soils are, how are they to be managed, by whom, and in whose interest, are central, inter-connected, and only starting to be tackled. These kinds of questions also call for inter-disciplinary collaborations, as challenges of soil management demand both scientific and social scientific tools, knowledges, and sensitivities. Key emerging questions, such as what is soil health? can only be answered in relation to our societal expectations about what soils are used for. Inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary dialogue must therefore be fostered with the same sense of urgency.

The workshop held at the Department of Geography at the end of June – ‘Rediscovering soils: knowledge and care in the world of soil’ – was a starting point for the emerging inter-disciplinary dialogue and scholarship around soil challenges. Hosted by Dr Anna Krzywoszynska, with co-organisers Dr Greta Marchesi from Dartmouth College, USA, and Dr Puig de la Bellacasa from Leicester University, the workshop was a vibrant space in which talk never stopped. The workshop was made possible by the funding from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures and the Department of Geography, and it is a testament to the growing importance of inter-disciplinary scholarship at the University of Sheffield.

The workshop uniquely brought together scholars studying soils from social science, arts and humanities, and natural science perspectives, and created a vibrant environment for cross-learning and collaboration. The hands-on soil analysis exercise which started the workshop was an opportunity to note the very real significance of seemingly conceptual questions, such as where soils begin and end, and what constitutes appropriate soil use. It also uncovered the industrial origins of the anthropogenic soil of The University of Sheffield’s grounds! Over three days three keynote speakers and fourteen presenters engaged with soil challenges from a variety of disciplines without prioritising any one perspective, and with an unprecedented intellectual curiosity and generosity.

Anna Krzywoszynska - Rediscovering Soil Workshop (Gunnar Mallon)

You can find the full list of presenters, and soon presentation videos, on the workshop website: soilcarenetwork.com/agenda

Over fifty scholars, from Masters students to Professors, and from across the world from Australia to California (with a strong University of Sheffield presence) participated in the workshop activities. The facilitated debate space engaged participants and presenters with key questions pertaining to soil care, and made possible further discussion across disciplinary boundaries. The enthusiasm and involvement of all participants was overwhelming, and many expressed a hope that this event can be extended and repeated in the future.

Importantly, this successful workshop is a seed for an emerging inter-disciplinary scholarly community, the Soil Care Network, convened by Dr Anna Krzywoszynska. The aims of the network are fostering inter-disciplinary soil scholarship, and it welcomes new members.

Please see www.soilcarenetwork.com.

Testimonials:

A very intelligent workshop, both in content and in organisation. Prof. Bruno Latour, Sciences Po, France.

I learned a great deal from everyone at the conference. its great to realize what exciting things are happening just next door! Dr. Kamni Gill, University of Sheffield, UK.

Thank you for a most enjoyable, informative and at times challenging couple of days in Sheffield! Prof. Stephen Nortcliff, University of Reading, UK.

The “Rediscovering Soils” workshop was incredibly instructive and provocative! The organizers recruited a complementary group of attendees and facilitated an exemplary interdisciplinary gathering – which is no easy task. Dr. Levi van Sant, Georgia Southern University, USA.

This is one of the best workshops I have ever attended. Dr. Salvatore Engel di Mauro, The State University of New York, USA.

 I wish to thank you for the wonderful opportunity that you have given me through accepting me to be a part of the workshop. (…) It has helped me understand, question, clarify and look forward to continue working on concepts I had long pondered on around the matter. Amartya Deb, University of Sheffield, UK.

It was one of the best workshops I have ever been to, definitely worth the trip. Dr. Sebastian Ureta, Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Chile.

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