Book of the Week: The Commons of Soil

* Book: Patrick Noble. The Commons of Soil. Feasta, Ireland, 2010.

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Author Patrick Noble introduces the theme of the book:

“We have picked up our fossils and minerals because they have been lying around. We have done so more and sometimes less judiciously. They have been sources of wealth, power and injustice. They have received no valuation beyond cost of extraction and competitive bidding for degrees of scarcity.

However soil is provident as a consequence of behaviour. If the night soils of London are not returned to the fields which have fed her, she will not be fed in return. Soil is not lying around (like coal and oil) to be shared out. It breeds consequence. Soil is provident by the virtuous actions of the community it feeds and so it follows that civic communities are the cultures of soil. It also follows that we are tied in virtue to soil-bound laws of physics and biology. The biology is particularly significant, because soil is alive and is variably vivacious. Soil can also die. Dying soil is a complexity of many symbiotic deaths.

We note that such virtue is traditionally found in labour, craft, dwelling and suffering supported, not by an abstract earth, environment or energy system, but by the particular soil these very actions have enriched with their traces, says Ivan Illich (Declaration on Soil 1990). He continues: Yet, in spite of this ultimate bond between soil and being, soil and the good, philosophy has not brought forth the concepts that would allow us to relate virtue to common soil, something vastly different from managing behaviour on a shared planet.

Modernism has transcended soil by oil and oil’s technologies. Now she must descend through the veils of transcendence like a falling St Teresa; through the veils of Maya; those Clouds of Unknowing; through all the retail parks of all the retail heavens and back to laws of physics and the rule of return (dust to dust). She’ll find herself as living protein seeking nervous and metabolic connection to other living proteins. Her days of levitation by the powers of fossil protein have passed. The metaphysics of oil has passed. Now we shall have the physics of soil and the enlivening curiosity that comes with it.

A tentative calculation is that one litre of oil may be replaced by ten days of toil. Since civilization is a method and not a state, the above defines the shift we must make in devising methods of living together. Without fossil life we are bonded to life and so to soil. Soil can feed only if fed in return. And so it becomes the foundation of virtue. How much money do we pay for two weeks of hard labour (even slave labour) and how much for a litre of oil?

The fossilised proteins of millions of summers have provided for us to live as Ivan Ilich says, by simply managing behaviour on a shared planet. We have allotted our fossil shares sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly, but that distribution has been the focus of virtue. Now Europeans have shared the fruits of not only one planet but three (two composed of fossilised creatures and forests). Their ignition and gaseous release through the last few decades has disrupted the balancing of living respirations. So, even if we continue modernist behaviour and methods of distribution (and virtue), our primary pot must be a third of the accustomed size. Modernist virtue faces a world of confusing austerities. It can guess at (and measure components of) anthropogenic climate change, but the unchanged focus of its virtue remains the re-distribution of a diminished pot.

However as Ivan Illich suggests, if we shift our focus from the virtues of distribution (the management of scarcity) to the virtues (in skill, husbandry and study) of soil, we will find a world more rich in possibility. We move from passive acceptance of space to a dynamic symbiosis with life (soil) and the unpredictable movements of biological time. What we do becomes both socially and ecologically significant and so an identified self-worth and its resultant happiness can grow. Civilisation is not an achieved state, but is a method of settlement. Or rather it is a complexity of methods, since we civilize citizen by citizen. Since towns and villages are emergent properties of agricultural efficiency, civic virtue remains tied to soil.”

An excerpt from Chapter 2, by Patrick Noble:

“Having lived anachronistically by the fossilised product of ancient soils, we have simultaneously lost the skills and virtues which had historically been cultured from living soils. While coal and oil describe commodities about which we have no need to be specific, soil is always specific in quality, topography and culture.

It is specific to this gardener at a turn of his spade, or to that farmer’s footsteps across her particular field. It stimulates the personal through sensuality, curiosity and ingenuity, and also by pleasure in its fruits and suffering for their scarcity. Soil cannot be owned. It is the source (since it is our provider) for commons of rights and responsibilities. After all, rights and responsibilities have evolved within the cultures of settlement. It is historical and so can overrule transient hierarchies. It is contemporary and follows laws of physics and biology as they change with time. It grows spirits of place and gods of harvest. It buries prime ministers with farm workers in the commons of decomposition! And the composition of the complex proteins of prime ministers and farm workers is given (in minerals and salts) by her providence.

We can think of soil as the mother of commons. And we can think of commons as the heart of social systems.

Individuals within social systems have stolen a goose or two from the Common. Others have stolen Commons from the geese. Modernism is unique in stealing the idea of Commons from the social system. Moreover, because ingenuities rise from solitary heads, if we lose the idea of the Common, we also lose the ingenious heart of society. We’ve been goosed by the bread and circuses of consumer choosing (the sharing of circus seats).

A farmer whose rights of ownership have him restlessly and rightfully pacing fenced borders has little time for the measure of virtue, which is his soil. Soil, which he cannot own provides crops for his community and therefore his honourable function within the community. It feeds trees, hedges and the air we commonly breathe. Distribution of responsibilities for distribution of produce and the nature of that distribution combine as the primary dynamics of society. Since cities are emergent properties of the efficiencies of agriculture, the ethics of the citizen must be founded in the enduring qualities of soil and in the just distribution of its produce. I am not suggesting soil worship, but acknowledgment of our umbilical connection to soil biology. We’ve grown fat on the fossil proteins of ancient soils. Now we must live in our own time, responsible for and responsive to our mutating spaces and by living soil. Particular soils are particularly cultural dynamos.

A renewed perception of comparative advantage leads to a renewed perception (and so valuation) of skill and resource. Adam’s valuation of both resource and labour capital frees dexterity and allows physical laws their true economic effects. Such valued capital is considered protectionist and anti-capitalist by Twenty-First Century neo capitalist hierarchies. They have been freed, by oil, from the finity of capital and have fostered the cult of a “scientific” transcendence. Their science has been reduced to a simplistic physics of oil.

Skill and resource share common soil. It is a once and future soil, beyond ownership. I hope that future soil becomes a civic hope. As Ivan Illich suggests we can enrich or deplete it with our traces and so fluctuations in the health of the soil which grows the city, become measures of chosen paths to and from civic virtue and so civilization.”

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