SOILS Inaugural Lecture: Growing the Environment out of the Soil

How can personal engagement with planetary health restore human health and the well-being of more-than-human others? In this inaugural lecture of the Fellesløft project ‘Anthropogenic SOILS’, environmental historian Libby Robin, Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, will review the emergence of the idea of the environment in the wake of the ‘dirty thirties’, a time when topsoil blew away – in both Australia and in the United States, and the hope of ‘feeding the world’ was threatened.

Layers of soils between a road

Photo: Colourbox

About the event

Soil demands a practical science that works hand-in-hand with land management. Some of its important technical and practical insights in the 1930s came across from the vast grain-fields of Ukraine, where top soil loss had a long history. Soil is fundamental to feeding people. The geopolitics of famine has a history dating back to the beginnings of agriculture. Its implications are evident in the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.

As the Great Acceleration unfolded in the years of post-war reconstruction, soil science (pedology) worked hand in hand with emerging ‘environmental science’, a cross-disciplinary collaboration. Ecologists and soil scientists led the fray, but many other specialists (geomorphologists, physicists, chemists and microbiologists) shaped the emerging idea. 1962 was the year that people started describing themselves as ‘environmental scientists’. It was also the year that Rachel Carson intervened with Silent Spring, her parable from small town America that shook the world. This was a story about industrial pollutants that killed the birdsong of spring. Silent Spring made science urgent and personal. Ecology and activism were united. People were part of the environment.

In the decades that followed, the environment has come to include air pollution, waste management, energy conservation and urban planning. Global warming has changed the future for humans and for more-than-human others. Environmental managers now realise that they are not managing ‘nature’, but rather the human behaviours that cause ecosystem collapse, extinctions and diseases, that tear apart the very fabric of the tiny and precious layer of the Earth system where life can survive, the Biosphere. Soil feeds into and out of these big ideas. It works on a personal scale, enabling environmental action on a global scale, by encouraging ordinary people to notice, to listen and to care about their environment, whether it is a local bushland, a garden allotment, or a city park. We need to do as Rachel Carson did, to listen up to the silences, and to challenge behaviours that are damaging to ourselves and the planet.

Join us for this exciting start of a new project!

About the presenter

Picture of Libby Robin outdoors in front of trees.
Libby Robin. Photo: Private

Libby Robin is a Curator-at-Large, historian of science and writer. She has worked with museums in Australia, Germany, Sweden, Estonia and Norway, exploring the way museums and art can enable ordinary people to engage with big ideas like climate change and the Anthropocene. She is co-author (with Paul Warde and Sverker Sörlin) of The Environment: A History of the Idea and many other books, including Curating the Future (which she co-edited with Jenny Newell and Kirsten Wehner). Libby is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities and Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra. Her next book, ‘What Birdo is That?’, is about the role of ‘bird people’ in conservation in Australia. It will be published in 2023 by Melbourne University Publishing.

Photos from the launch:

Bildegalleri SOILS project inaugural lecture
Published Aug. 11, 2022 3:35 PM - Last modified Sep. 22, 2022 10:44 AM