The most important place on earth

The most important place on earth is under your feet; namely the soil, though as the world rapidly urbanises this may be increasingly obscured. There are three features of this importance that go virtually unnoticed as we tramp along the highway of progress.

The first is how little we know about its life, how it all hangs together, builds up, lives and dies in spite of it being the very matrix of our lives. Matrixes would be more accurate because as we learn more about our 'environment', we find we live in complex, diverse ecologies where one set of understanding does not fit all. Not only the good must be done in minute particulars but our knowledge too must relearn the importance of place.

The second is that in spite of this unacknowledged ignorance we plough on in imagining and abusing it as an 'infinite resource'.

The third is that it is, in many places, for complex reasons, it is collapsing - eroding, compacting, dying.

The most important article I read this past year was this one:

Not the least of which was because it was written by the economics editor of the Daily Telegraph not a usual source of 'alarmist environmentalism'!

This may make this place: one of the most important places on earth. For it is here at the Land Institute, the geneticist Wes Jackson and his colleagues are seeking to resolve a 10,000 year old problem with agriculture. How to create an agriculture that mimics natural processes rather that cuts across them? How to persuade 'perennial' plants that require no ploughing to flourish abundantly as do our specialised annuals (like wheat or maize) and so build up soil, alongside feeding us, rather than degrade it? It is a long term project that makes steady progress and there could not be a more important one, anywhere, which is why, of course, it survives on charitable donation and winging prayers!

Its deepest lesson is that the knowledge we increasingly need is complex, interdisciplinary and pays careful attention to where we are, to particularities and moves forward with awareness of our significant ignorance, which perhaps could not be more different either from our over specialised branches of compartmentalised universities or the swinging certainties of our opinion makers. Change will come, it suggests, from the peripheries if it is to come.


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