Soils(3) - The Soils of Place, Our Inner Landscapes, Our Social Fields

By Steffen Schneider

“Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”
– Edward O. Wilson, 2012

“Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.”
– Thomas Nagel, 2010

Edward O. Wilson, left. Thomas Nagel, right.

Edward O. Wilson, left. Thomas Nagel, right.


The quotes chosen above describe and characterize succinctly many aspects of the dramatic, confusing and in many ways paradoxical reality of the Anthropocene. This term was first coined by the ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer and then popularized in 2000 by the Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen. It denotes our current age, viewed from a geological point of view as the period during which human activity has emerged as the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Humankind’s influence on the makeup and life of planet Earth has reached geological dimensions and effects. We can argue when exactly we entered into this age out of the Holocene, but there seems little doubt in my mind that we are now in a phase of evolution where humans play a unique role. Unfortunately we are waking up to this new reality primarily by recognizing and recoiling from our destructive capacity indicated by climate change, global erosion of valuable topsoil, desertification, dramatic loss of biodiversity, urban slums, destruction of rural communities, hunger, obesity, poverty, excessive wealth, AIDS, Zika, violence and terrorism. Clearly, the foundations of our ecological, social, economic, and spiritual well-being are under tremendous attack; we, as a human community, are creating results that nobody wants.

At the same time slowly (and hopefully not too slowly) we are coming to grips with our huge responsibility towards our “Common Home”, the planet Earth. More and more individuals are increasingly wondering what to do about the reality of our one earth on one hand and a growing world population on the other hand. It is clear that the times are calling for a new consciousness and new collective action capacity. U.S. advisor on climate change and president of the World Resources Institute James Gustave Speth expressed this need as follows: 

"I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation."

What Speth indicates so clearly here is the connection of outer global challenges to inner human conditions. The awakening awareness of this relationship as one key for finding positive solutions is occurring in many places and in many people.  We can find promising signs from the Papal Encyclical “Laudatio Si”, to the emerging field of “Spiritual Ecology”, to the awakening around food and agriculture (animal welfare, organic food), and generally in a growing awareness and unease around the tremendous economic inequities across the globe and within our communities. Embracing our role in the Anthropocene means to consciously recognize, cultivate and act in the three foundational domains of our human existence. They are our relationship to our own self, to others and to place.  These fundamental domains or “areas of interface” between the world and us are already described in a historic text like the Bhagavad Gita as “Yagna” (the human-nature connection), “Tapas” (the human-divine connection), and “Dama” (the human to human connection). Our times are calling for each one of us to perceive these domains as ONE WHOLE and to conduct our lives in conscious awareness of and harmony with all of three of these conditions. Depending on one’s work the emphasis within this whole will be different but never can we leave one of the aspects out of consideration and engagement.

Agriculture as an Agent of Change

At the Institute for Mindful Agriculture we continue to believe strongly in the unique task of a renewed agriculture in this work. In 2008 a global UN report on the state of agriculture called for a major paradigm shift that would result in an increased importance of the multiple functions of agriculture and its adaptability to local environment and social contexts. The report then coined the term “multi-functionality of agriculture”, which can only be achieved by developing new conceptual tools that take the complexity of agricultural systems into account and placing agriculture fully back into its socio-economic and ecological context.

These calls for action are more relevant today than ever, on a planet that is suffering under the greed and exploitation of a growing global population.  To consider agriculture first and foremost in looking towards the future of our planet seems both logical and counter-intuitive. There is a reason that we call our Earth the “blue planet.”  70% of its surface is covered by water, which leaves 30% as landmass. Of this area almost half (40%) is land devoted to agriculture. We rely on agriculture for the majority of our sustenance. This area measures roughly 50 million square kilometers. 68% of that land is permanent pasture, 29% is cropland and permanent crops in orchards and vineyards cover the remaining 3%. So the activity of agriculture stretches over the majority of our landmass. It’s surprising that hardly anyone is even aware of agriculture’s existence and that farmers will be aging off their farms in the next 10 to 20 years, unless we see a major shift in attitudes towards food and agriculture and towards farmers and gardeners. We believe that concern for and interest in the status of those acres is the responsibility of every single human being - in many ways it could actually be considered a basic human right. Put another way, political stability, environmental quality, hunger, and poverty all have the same root; it lies in the health of our soils. And maybe that’s the core realization and challenge of the Anthropocene!

The importance of soils and also their forgotten nature has been known for quite a while. Leonardo da Vinci already observed, “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” Closer to home Franklin D. Roosevelt couldn’t have said it any clearer. “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.” And the great farmer-poet Wendell Berry reiterates, “What we do to our land, we do to ourselves.”

Soils(3) - The Soils of Place, Our Inner Landscapes, Our Social Fields

Why is it that to this day soil, or dirt as we often call it, is stuck in a huge societal blind spot?

At IMA we’ve come to see that at least a partial answer to this question lies in a disregard of the aforementioned “threefold nature” of our existence today. But how do “self” and “other play” into this challenge around place, soil and agriculture? Here we believe our “Soils3” approach can provide a pathway forward. Its essential elements are the interconnectedness, interdependence, and wholeness of self, other, and place. Rudolf Steiner might have been one of the first western spiritual ecologists to be very clear about that, stating in 1911: 

“People continually embrace illusions. They fancy themselves separate by virtue of what is enclosed within their skins. This they are, however, just as little as is the finger without the whole organism. The source of the illusion is the fact that the human being can wander about and the finger cannot. We are in the same situation on earth as is the finger on our organism…. We definitely belong to this earth organism. We form a part of the whole living being that is the earth.”

Even with our consciousness today increasingly recognizing and embracing this reality - soil and more generally agriculture - still lead a “forgotten life” on the margins of society. This needs to and can change into a new reality of agriculture becoming a major force for societal renewal. Its presence determines much of the landscapes that we live in, its products are universally necessary and by its nature it connects us with the sacred and with each other. 

Connecting our individual striving with care for soil and compassion for our fellow beings can be observed and practiced within an agricultural context better than almost anywhere. By learning to see and appreciate the essential qualities and characteristics of soil we almost by default are being awakened to our “inner soils.” Enjoying and sharing food can become a natural starting point for a new, fair, and collaborative economy. "The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible." (Sir Albert Howard).  In its obsession with compartmentalization, modern science has failed to see that the health of each of the earth’s organisms is deeply interconnected. Against the specialists who thought they had “solved” the fertility problem by isolating a few elements, Howard viewed the “whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject.” We suggest that a new appreciation and understanding of soils in nature can be the foundation upon which we build a knowledge of our own inner landscape – our “inner soils” as well as the “social soils” we cultivate with one another. Such realizations can lead to a deep and profound new view of the future. There is little doubt that soils hold the key to the future of agriculture and all that is connected with this. 

Another, more subtle quality can emerge while we work with this threefold whole. We begin to see how in each area time takes on new aspects of tremendous potential. Is the future simply going to arise by working out of the past or will we be able to open ourselves up for it to arrive from the intuitively felt needs of what our world is demanding of us? The quality of the medium where the future can enter determines largely how this will unfold. On the land, on farms in particular the “medium” is the actual soil. Depending on the presence, the fertility, the health of the soil, plants will be able in differing degrees to become the embodiment of future potential, in their symbiotic relationship with the soil, through their vibrancy as food and also as seed producers for the next generation of plants. On any farm not only is the soil the keeper of the past; it is essentially the pathway for the future to arrive on.

Just as the land, each of us individually also holds a key in regards to the future, something akin to “inner soil”. Our inner capacity to digest, conduct, hold, listen, transform, enable, create could be called “soil like”. Regular care and attention and practice are needed in order to develop these “soul-soil” qualities in such a way to help us be aware and alert in the moments when the future beckons. Finally, as human population continues to grow the third domain of “other”, of our relationships, which are also the basis of our economy, increases in importance. The many global challenges facing us can only to be solved collaboratively. Our ability or inability to work and problem solve together, to find ways to invite truly future bearing solutions into the world becomes more and more critical. And here also we find something akin to soil, “social-soil”, which while invisible to the eye nevertheless makes up the social fabric in any relationship, any group, and any enterprise. The quality of this fabric determines to a large degree whether or not deliberations, conversations or discussions show results that are truly of the future and not simply different versions of past results.

In the three years of the existence of IMA we continue to see the tremendous potential for a renewed agriculture as a foundation for social and spiritual renewal, if we can discover its new narrative and begin to support and practice it widely. But we have inversed our viewpoint and approach in how to reach that goal. We now suggest that a “Soils3” framework can become a helpful and essential ingredient for everybody that shares our planet and is in need of wholesome food. The “reinvention” of agriculture has to begin from the outside in. In the late 1960’s we began to wake up to the beauty and fragility of our planet as we saw the first pictures of it from space and heard the first reports from astronauts and cosmonauts; many of them were experiencing a profound inner shift in their own view of life and the cosmos. This phenomenon has been chronicled as the so-called “Overview effect”. We now need to find ways that will result in a similarly profound change of heart and behavior by creating an “Underground effect”.  Can we wake up and become aware of the existence and importance of soil of place, inner soil and social soil? 


In the Anthropocene it seems completely counter-intuitive to turn to agriculture as maybe the critical factor in addressing the urgent issues we are facing as a global community, ecologically, socio-economically, and culturally. Farmers have disappeared from the Census and their average age is hovering close to 60. And urbanization continues to empty out the rural communities. By many accounts farming is a dying occupation. Nevertheless we suggest that agriculture stands at a singularly important point as we struggle to find a way into the future. And isn’t it amazing what one sees when one focuses one’s gaze through a particular lens, agriculture in our case! Almost half of the earth’s landmass is agriculturally used land, more and more young people take up an interest and work in food and agriculture and worldwide the need for nutritious food will only increase with the growing population. In light of these facts it’s surprising that generally we do not concern ourselves more with issues central to agriculture. 

We propose that the investigation of agriculture and its role in our history all the way to our present time, the Anthropocene, will reveal a “blueprint” into the future for our global community. We suggest that the Soils3 framework, which ties together the realms and disciplines of Spiritual Ecology, Associative Economy, and Mindful Agriculture can enable us to find ways to heal the damaging disconnects that are the root causes of our modern challenges and crises. This framework, or these three dimensions of reality already exist on all farms and gardens, mostly though unrecognized and in a “weedy” and fallow state. Becoming aware of them, cultivating them, recognizes agriculture’s potential as a societal learning lab. On farms practicing holistic, regenerative methods we can experience and participate in some of the most important and fundamental dynamics of our human existence on earth. This helps re-connect us with others and the living world, creating a solid and healthy foundation to discover one’s purpose in life. This process also allows for a new relationship regarding the future to emerge. In agriculture this dynamic revolves around seeds and soil. A seed needs fertile soil, water and care to grow and thrive, and so allow the future into the farm or the garden. In one’s own being and in social constellations we can also identify “soil like” mediums. For a farm to live healthily into the future it needs vibrant, fertile soil, the relationship to the future in one’s own life and in group, staff, or team settings also develop differing relationships vis-a-vie the future depending on the “fertility condition” of their respective “soils”.