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The dirt on community cinema, farming, and the ecosystem

March 30, 2010

I’ve mentioned once before the Independent Lens Community Cinema series at the Midwest Theater. It’s really a well-put-together program.

For the Garbage Dreams screening, community speakers included representatives from Keep Scottsbluff-Gering Beautiful and the Gering landfill, and there was a giveaway of a handmade card from the Egyptian subjects of the movie. For The Eyes of Me, invited speakers included a representative of the local Lions Club and a Nebraska social worker who assists visually impaired people in the panhandle. I’m looking forward to next month’s screening of The Horse Boy.

The most recent screening of Dirt! The Movie — the subject of my post today — was empaneled by the owner/manager of Scottsbluff Landscaping/The Village Garden Center and a soil scientist from the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center, and there was a giveaway of a canvas tote bag printed with the movie logo (a “dirt bag” haha) and gourmet cupcakes from a local baker, the one whose cupcakes beat my cookie entry in the cookie category of a bake-off.

Husband had to see this film, because every time the movie title was mentioned, he twitched. You see, he learned early on in his ag-related career that if you are to be taken seriously in agriculture, you need to get your terminology straight. Plants do not grow in dirt; they grow in soil. (Ask someone who raises porcine livestock about their “pigs” or an entomologist about “bugs”, or mix up the terms “hypothesis” and “theory” around many scientists, and you’ll get similar twitchy responses.)

Most folks don’t differentiate “dirt” from “soil”, but as a commenter on a dirt vs. soil blog post noted:

A lake and a soil are both ecosystems. If part of a lake splashes on me, I say I have water on me, not I have a lake on me. Likewise, if part on the soil lands on me, I say I have dirt on me, not I have soil on me.

Dirt! The Movie drove home the point that the earth is covered by a “living skin” that’s an important part of the ecosystem, but it never really addressed the dirt/soil terminology issue, which I think was a major oversight. The thesis of the movie is that we’re treating our soil like dirt. Why not condition people to use the words properly, and therefore get them to recognize with their choice of words that the ground beneath our feet is a living, breathing community of organisms that must be cared for in order for us to survive?

Aside from the terminology problem, there are other reasons why this movie will not be popular in agriculture-dependent areas of the United States. Dirt! The Movie is pro-organic and anti-corporate-agriculture. It was pretty harsh in its treatment of mainstream agricultural practices, linking them to Gulf of Mexico hypoxia, global warming, famine, and farmer suicide. I’m not saying that these accusations are untrue. But because the movie presents these topics in an accusatory, politically-charged manner, viewers who aren’t already on the bandwagon will be turned off. This is the same problem husband and I have with An Inconvenient Truth and the Michael Moore movies. They make excellent points about societal problems that need to be heard, but the filmmakers can’t seem to resist the political digs that inflame the opposition and cause the people who most need to hear the message to close their ears.

A quotation from an anthology I’ve been reading aptly describes as the us-versus-them antagonism of the organic-versus-chemical-farming conflict. The anthology is The Big Empty: Contemporary Nebraska Nonfiction Writers (pages 62-63), and the specific text I’m quoting is from “Organic Vertegration”, excerpted from Bryan Jones’ The Farming Game.

Basic organic practices, such as crop rotation, green-manure plowdown, and composting, are proven superior farming techniques and should not be controversial. The total abstinence from the use of chemicals, herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, as practiced by some organic zealots, is the issue that has generated most of the heat and very little of the light between pro- and antichemical farmers. Farmers who have mastered the use of Treflan and 2,4-D generally view organic farmers as left-wing weirdos who want to turn back the clock and cut yields for everyone. Organic farmers tend to perceive chemical farmers as backward sinners who, if they would only see the light, could grow bountiful crops without poisoning their farms or using a lot of high-cost petrochemicals. University researchers, who might be expected to resolve the fuss with some timely research, have only poured gasoline on the fire. Organic farmers believe that chemical companies have an undue influence on university research results and do not believe tests that reflect badly on organic practices. Prochemical farmers tend to believe university test results that reflect favorably on chemical methodology and to ignore evidence of organic superiority.

In the movie, Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai related a fable that I think points up the problem of a closed-ear audience nicely, though it’s probably not what she intended (here’s her telling the whole story). She described a raging forest fire that drove out all the resident animals. All the animals, including the elephant with his capacious trunk, stood helpless by a river, save for the hummingbird. The hummingbird attempted to put out the fire, drop by drop, by carrying small amounts of water in his beak. My takeaway from this story is that while we can all contribute a little bit to the solution as individual hummingbirds, if we are to make global changes fast enough to avoid disaster, we need to get the elephant (corporations, large-scale farming operations) in on the action, not annoy them and cause them to close their ears.

I could write for pages more on this topic, and how ethics and economics are key to the debate, but long-winded rants do not a successful blog post make. Therefore, I will link instead to an excellent essay by Aldo Leopold, the original land ethicist, who I don’t think was mentioned in the movie, and to a description of the complicated topic of environmental economics and how free markets get messed up where the environment is concerned.

Also, since the point of the community cinema project is to get discussion started, how about continuing the conversation by commenting on this post?

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff permalink
    March 30, 2010 8:56 am

    A more level-headed approach to the problem of sustainability, in my opinion, can be found here []. Interesting quote from “The Farming Game” (is this a play on “The Crying Game”?). The quote also highlights a problem, oversimplification. The list of “basic organic practices” are not sustainable for every system. For example, green-manure would not be advisable in western Nebraska because of the demands on water. A fallow period is typically practiced in western Nebraska for some systems, but that is not the same as green manure. However, this might work well in eastern Nebraska where water resources are less limiting.

  2. March 30, 2010 2:25 pm

    This is a magnificent statement of your superb mind! Thanks!
    You are a gift!

  3. Katie Bradshaw permalink
    April 1, 2010 7:00 am

    A friend made me aware of this story:

    Awesome idea to get students digging in the soil and learning what I consider to be important life knowledge: where food comes from, and how to nurture green things. So sad that they can’t incorporate it into school lunches.

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