Monday, November 13, 2006 - 10:45 AM

Why We Treat Soil like Dirt: Stigmatization of Soil and Dirt in the Western Cultural Tradition.

Claudia Hemphill Pine, Univ of Idaho, Environmental Science, Morrill Hall 216, Campus Zip 3006, Moscow, ID 83844

Soil is often pushed to the background in public commitment to environmental conservation. This is in large part due to the unaddressed problem that in the western cultural tradition, soil is widely--if mistakenly--considered to be dirt, and dirt symbolizes the disliked. Quantitative and qualitative analyses of current mass media, college textbooks, and professional literature show the extent and area of overlap between public perception of soil and ‘dirt,' and a long-standing stigma against both of them. Until this cultural disvalue is confronted and overcome, soil study and conservation will not be supported as necessary to address increasingly critical soil environmental concerns. The roots of the cultural disvalue of soil must be uncovered to bring about change. Historical and philosophical research shows four factors contributing to identification of soil as dirt, and dirt as bad: Greek idealist philosophy spurning the disorderly material world; Christian transcendence theology equating physicality with sin; Enlightenment-era mechanistic models of the natural world, supporting a dominionistic science and environmental ethics; and modern deployment of soil and dirtiness to stigmatize subordinate social groups and the environment. Since these cultural factors evolved contingently, intervention and change are possible. Two biological factors, however, may be universals less amenable to change: human aversion to soil health risks, and cognitive tendencies toward binary thought structures that position soil and dirt in the inferior, normatively "bad" position (e.g., up[right]/down, active/passive, light/dark, ordered/heterogenous, dry/sticky, live/decomposing). Overcoming both cultural and biological disvalues of soil is best begun through conscious consideration and education on these "human dimensions," such as is already taught in wildlife, forestry, and other natural resource disciplines. Several such new approaches in environmental ethics and human sciences are outlined, which offer potential for a richer, more broadly nuanced, and positive societal value of soil.