5- Reclaiming soil relations: notes towards decolonizing South Africa and de-financializing the web of life

By Lesley Green (Cape Town South Africa)

The word “human” derives from humus: the soil. The words “economy,” “ecology” and “ecumene” all derive from ecos, Greek for household. To “attend to” is to tend. The word “culture” comes from cultivation.

Our linguistic inheritance testifies to something that the knowledge economy has long forgotten, which is that people are not separate from planet; that nature is not separate from society. This separation, however, is hardwired into the global university system, leaving us without common ways to share knowledge about this planetary emergency.

Some academics, including myself, have found Critical Zone (CZ) research as a promising space for scholarship that attends to earthly flows rather than the territories defined by artificial borders. In following fluxes through air, life, soil, rock and water, CZ research has much in common with the Environmental Humanities, a field that is also interested in following flows of molecules, life, and commodities. Both fields offer a “big picture,” and very importantly, both work with imperfection instead of imposing an ideal system (since pure systems theory in life and earth sciences is problematic, as without society that system is often illusory). Both follow flows despite national borders and trade agreements. But nowhere in the current CZ models, are bodies. A question I am asking is how do we add human bodies to critical zone biogeosocial science?

A starting point for critical zone biogeosocial science is in the shift from studying things to studying relations. A biogeosocial approach to the critical zone traces the flows and relations that compose life: humans as humus. In this perspective a society is the totality of its relations of cultivation, it’s ecological partnerships, its capacity to cultivate and partner with life, its production of a technosphere.


The African concept of being “sons and daughters of soil” links the fecundity of soil to the wellbeing of people. Soil is part of families: the place where one’s placenta is buried is home. At death, the hope is that one returns to the soil that your placenta has joined, and there is a reverence for the place where ancestors become earth. Birth and death meet in soil.

Composting, tending seedlings, seed-sharing—these are activities that link people across generations. Seeds are the product of collectively composed fields: cow pats that nurture the soil, the work of planting and tending and harvesting, the work of families in seed saving and seed-sharing across generations. This kind of humus-making is low-cost, multi-species, kindship-based, and exchange-based. It is not financialized; it is relational. Activities and practices like these nurture a sense of kinship with soil that is its own form of environmentalism.

One of Africa’s most loved venerations of [a person] who has passed away is to say they were a son or daughter of the soil. Being a son or daughter of the soil is not some quaint indigenous knowledge but a powerful resource for unmaking the Anthropocene, in which the critical zone of life is under threat.


In response to the planetary emergency we have witnessed the rise of “climate-smart” agriculture that depends on patented drought-resistant seeds, an approach that attempts to make agriculture sustainable—particularly in Africa. However, genetically-modified (GM) seeds come with a legal regime of patents that assert ownership over pollens and seeds, inserting a whole new regime of relations and control into the critical zone.

To those who advocate for GM seed regimes for Africa’s climate future, I ask: Is food production sustainable if a farmer is in jail because she participated in traditional, non-financialized seed exchange? Does patented DNA have a greater right to life than unpatented DNA? When international aid stops and small-scale farmers have dust for soils because of using chemical fertilizers instead of manure, is that “climate-smart”? The relations surrounding GM seeds are a problem.

A drought resistant seed may be a wonder if it is demonstrated to produce more food under harsher conditions—but the legal regime, the relations that go with it; the curtailing of a seed’s reproductive capacity, constitutes an ecocide that reproduces the Anthropocene rather than overcoming it. It is the insertion of financialization into the web of life.


The critical political necessity in the Athropocene, to get action, is to relink the human body to the planet in people’s imaginations. Showing people how nutrients and toxins flow through ecologies and bodies may be more effective than showing them how money may move through their wallets. Taking trees out, deforesting the land, makes soil vulnerable to drought; more vulnerable to the new heavy rains such as the two cyclones that hit Mozambique in 2019.

Wangari Maathai, Kenyan Nobel Prize Winner, built her green belt movement by planting trees because she understood deforestation reduces water tables, dries up streams, and, affects women, for men go to the city in search of cash.

In protecting the critical zone, we are protecting not only flows but the fecundity that makes society possible. How society protects ecological fecundity is the basis of its wellbeing. That deep linking of home, humus and humanity, as it is told differently in different places around the world, may be the best protection the earth systems have.

These notes are based on a talk given by Lesley Green in San Francisco in December 2019 for the American Geophysical Union.


Lesley Green is a professor at the University of Cape Town, and deputy director of Environmental Humanities South. Her book “Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa” is forthcoming in 2020.

—–separate article by different writer below—

Join the Conversation on the Critical Zone (CZ): Webinar Series

By Hayley

Right now, we have a huge problem in the sciences because scientists are too narrowly focused on one thing. The scientists who study weather aren’t talking to the scientists who study soil. And the scientists who study animals aren’t talking to the scientists who study temperature. This overspecialization makes it harder for scientists to address complex problems that threaten the habitable part of this planet, also called “the critical zone.”

Critical Zone (CZ) research looks at the complex cycles and flows between water, rocks, soil and life. It allows big picture thinking, which empowers scientists to better address the most dire ecological problems of our time—problems that can only be understood if one is trained to look at everything, whether it’s the molecular structure of chemicals or the biology of the creatures whose bodies absorb them downstream.

CZ is an approach that allows scientists to connect the dots, and it’s a way to fight the dangerous siloing of knowledge that disempowers scientists from being able to address the full set of scientific systems that might be at play in a single ecosystem or watershed.

This February, you are invited to join in for a webinar series for anyone who would like to familiarize themselves with CZ research and join the network. This webinar series is called “Introduction to the Critical Zone: Growing the Critical Zone Research Network” and it will be held online every Wednesday from Feb. 5-26th, 2020 at 10am PST. These webinars are free and open to the public. To sign up, go to: www.cuahsi.org/education/cyberseminars/winter-cyberseminar-series