Between us and collapse: Appreciating the soil beneath our feet

I grew up and still live in southwestern Ontario. My hometown, Kitchener, is surrounded by that quintessential Ontario countryside, where farms—both modern and Mennonite—idyllically dot the landscape but are increasingly under threat from urban sprawl and the new crop of McMansions (seriously, can someone please explain five-car garages to me?). It seems that the lament of the loss of prime farmland has been a constant refrain all my life. And even though I am instinctively angry when a new subdivision displaces farms and forests, I will admit that I hadn’t really given much thought to soil before I started my Anthropocene series.

Turns out, soil is a really big deal and we are messing things up in a very big and bad way. Just like with species, just like with the climate, just like with the oceans…see a pattern here? Just one more life support system that hangs in the balance because of our actions. 

A few basic things about soil: the layer of fertile topsoil—you know, the good stuff—is about 12-25 cm thick. And do you know how long it takes to make more? Upwards of 1,000 years to make just 3 cm. Basically we’re talking about a non-renewable resource here, at least on a human timescale.

The first thing you probably think of when you think of soil is agriculture. And that’s important, especially when you consider that it’s estimated that 95% of our food is directly or indirectly produced on our soils. But our soils give us so much more than that. They filter our water, they help us be more resilient in the face of both flood and drought, they support biodiversity, and they act as carbon sinks, among other things.  

But we are destroying the planet’s soils far faster than they can regenerate. In 2017 it was reported that about one third of the world’s land is severely degraded and that we’re losing about 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil every year. Another way to visualize that loss: we are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every minute. Decreasing productivity is plaguing not only our agricultural lands (which we use intensively and unsustainably until they are exhausted and then we move on and exploit others), but also our rangelands, forested lands, and grasslands. 

The threats to our soils—to both their quantity and their quality—are so multi-faceted and diverse that it’s almost easiest just to say: the way we live is basically what’s messing them up. A growing global population and rising levels of consumption put a strain on our soils, as we constantly demand that they produce a growing amount of food despite declining volume and health. Urbanization buries soil under layers of concrete and asphalt, and the runoff from our cities pollutes the surrounding soils. War and armed conflict leave behind undetonated landmines, compacted soil from armoured vehicles, and pollution from chemical spraying. Climate change is altering soil’s fundamental characteristics, like how much moisture it contains. Deforestation and agricultural tilling practices lead to erosion of precious topsoils (without those roots, there’s nothing to hold the soil). Industrial activity, intensive use of fertilizers, and, increasingly, microplastics pollute our soils. And the list goes on and on. To save our soils, we can’t just fix one thing. This is not just a case of adding compost. Like all the other big wicked problems facing our planet’s life support systems, we need to radically rethink how we structure our society and our economy and how we go about our daily lives.   

When I started planning the first crop (no pun intended) of pieces for this series (and, more specifically, the lineup for my solo show), I vaguely knew about the problem of soil degradation as a hallmark of the Anthropocene. But when it came time to do my research in order to actually conceptualize and execute this mosaic, I was stunned. I had no idea that the layer of soil that separates us from the collapse of our civilization is, on average, just 15 centimetres (6 inches) thick. I had no idea it took a millennium to rebuild the very thinnest layer of soil. I had no idea that under current trends, we basically have about 60 years of farming left. That is a distinctly human timescale. I won’t be alive then, but my niece and nephew will, and that is terrifying. 

I just could not get that 15 centimetre figure out of my head, so I knew it had to be the anchor for this piece. I wanted/needed to show, in a very tangible way, just how precarious our situation is. And so the top part of the piece—that brown band—is 15 centimetres (give or take…this is art after all). As you move down, things get drier and the orderly flowing lines give way to big chunks of cracked dry earth. Unlike climate change, where it can be hard to wrap your head around just how catastrophic warming of 1.5oC, 2oC, or 4oC can be, pretty much everyone can think about 15 centimetres (or look at it here in my art) and appreciate just how thin that is. And even if you only make the link between soils and food, you can still get a very concrete idea of just how bad things could be. I think working on a mosaic that is so concrete, staring at that 15-centimetre band every time I sat down at my work table, made this piece very real and very troubling for me.

“Inches From Famine” (2019), 23.5″ x 29″ — shale, litovi, mortar , tile, brick, terracotta

So what do we do about all of this? It’s a big question. And just like with some of the other big issues I’ve tackled through my work, there are no easy answers. This is a fight that will need to be fought on multiple fronts. On an individual level, I can do a better job of knowing where my food comes from and supporting farmers who practice good soil management (as a general rule, smaller-scale farmers have a more vested interest in keeping their soils healthy and productive, as opposed to Big Agriculture). I can become more active in my community, encouraging my city to make good land-use decisions that won’t put undue pressure on this finite resource. And very close to home, I can get up close and personal with the soil in my gardens. Learn about it. Take care of it. Build a relationship with it. Because without our soils, we’re nowhere.


Wow Julie, 60 years are nothing, I think we are like a cancer to our planet. Your mosaics and your descriptions are wonderful. Thank you for sharing your talent.

Thank you for creating and sharing such a timely and critical subject, it is wonderfully captured in your piece. Guiltily, I have just now started composting again after a long hiatus (and move), so I am trying to reconnect to my soil once again. I am also very impressed that you touched on the subject of war and its effect on our soil, the environmental destruction as a consequence of conflicts is so often overlooked. Along those lines, you should read up on “depleted” uranium weapons. These weapons radioactively contaminate the soil for thousands of years, they kill indiscriminately for generations, and they have been and are being used in many, many countries.

Let me know what you think!

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