The very belief that soil is non-renewable is impeding stewardship efforts. A comparison of renewable and non-renewable resources in an adjacent industry – energy – provides perspective; according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), from 1990 to 2013, renewable energy grew as a share of all domestic energy by over 14%, as did nuclear, natural gas grew by 17% while petroleum and coal contracted by 10 and 22%, respectively.
Further, EIA projects, within the Annual Energy Outlook 2015 (AEO2015), that renewables will grow by 25% between 2013 and 2040, natural gas will grow 7%, while nuclear, liquid biofuels and coal remain flat. Petroleum and other liquids are projected to contract by 9% as a share of total energy consumption by primary fuel.
The AEO2015 cases do not include the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which if implemented would likely have a substantial impact on coal use for power generation and coal markets more generally. Through 2040, we see fossil fuels remaining flat or contracting, except for natural gas, potentially due to its branding as a clean and green (aka renewable) resource, while renewables expand.
What has caused the long term positive outlook of renewable energy compared to the increasingly regulated fossil fuel industry? Is a moral obligation driving renewable investments?
Does any of this matter and what does it have to do with soil anyway? People are unlikely to invest time, money or another tangible resource in a losing proposition. That’s why perception matters. That’s why natural gas is labeled as “clean and green” and why labeling soil as non-renewable is not resulting in the positive action that advocates desire.
Soil building just can’t keep up with erosion and degradation, or so the common belief goes. Some estimates put the soil accumulation rates between one inch per 100 years, such as this presentation from University of Wisconsin Extension, up to one inch per 1,000 years. Referring to soil as non-renewable is not only uninformed, it’s alarmist, but it’s also unnecessary. Why not tout its renewability? Because it is renewable, in the truest sense, more so than wind or solar.
There are many soil health proponents that argue that the accumulation rates are dramatically faster than the rates above. Rates that would characterize soil as rapidly renewable resource, an inch of topsoil or more in one growing season.
Just a few of the examples from managingwholes.com, a knowledge sharing platform for holistic land management.
According to Dr. Christine Jones, founder of Amazing Carbon, several centimeters of topsoil per year can form under favorable conditions, which good management can create.
The late P.A. Yeomans, developer of the Keyline system of land management, was able to produce 10 cm of friable black soil within three years, on what was previously bare weathered red shale on his North Richmond farm (Hill 2002).
Bennett (1939) calculated a rate of topsoil formation of just over 11 t/ha/yr for soils in which organic material was intermixed into surface layers. In situations where plant root mass is high, rates of topsoil formation of 15-20 t/ha have been indicated (Brady 1984).
Would investment flow into soil-building initiatives, as it has with renewable energy, if it was widely accepted that soil could be rapidly built? Can the mindset of society-at-large influence our stewardship efforts? Can the framing of a resource as finite, non-renewable, result in it being more rapidly consumed? Alternatively, will framing soil as renewable and providing a cornucopian view of the long-term sustainability of said resource result in more successful stewardship? I believe so. Framing directly impacts our collective stewardship of the resource.
I write this as someone who leans toward Malthusian rather than cornucopian thinking on issues of resource consumption and society’s future state. Malthus be damned. Soil is renewable, infinitely so, if properly stewarded. Become an advocate for soil’s renewability today.
Bennett H. H. (1939). Soil Conservation. McGraw-Hill, New York.
Brady N.C. (1984). The Nature and Properties of Soils. Ninth Edition. Macmillan.
Hill, S. B. (2002). ‘Redesign’ for soil, habitat and biodiversity conservation: Lessons from Ecological Agriculture and Social Ecology’.
Jones, C.E. (2000). Grazing management for healthy soils. Stipa Inaugural National Grasslands Conference ‘Better Pastures Naturally’, Mudgee, NSW, pp. 68-75.