Against Soil-Less Life
Architecturally speaking, the term ‘greenhouse’ refers to buildings designed to optimally protect, cultivate and multiply plants under conditions that artificially reproduce their environments of origin. Employed successfully throughout the centuries, these transparent microcosms have allowed some nations to improve their scientific knowledge, provide botanical education to the masses and develop horticultural innovations. Parallel to the benefits they brought with them, however, greenhouses have also had – and keep having – a series of harmful consequences on the way we relate to others (both humans and other-than-humans) and the environments we co-inhabit with them.
Offsprings of the industrial revolution and assets of European imperialism, the first greenhouses were made of cast iron and glass, and embodied the technological, social, and scientific progress of the Western world of the 19th century. Ground-breaking with their transparent architectures, they disorientated even the most travelled explorers thanks to their ability to mimic the atmospheres of faraway lands for the pleasure of the elites. The illusion made people’s heads spin, and soon, greenhouses also became “an integral part of numerous 19th century utopian schemes,” as historian Deborah Ascher-Barnstone wrote in her 1997 paper, “Democracy and Glass Construction. Such schemes saw in greenhouses the possibility of creating retreats where city dwellers could escape from the polluted air of urban settlements and reconnect with the vegetal world.
Nowadays industrial greenhouses – in all their different shapes and functions – are praised for their efficiency by governments and companies all around the world. They’ve come to constitute one of the backbones of our globalised economy. From nurseries attempting to meet the international thirst for exotic houseplants to vast complexes producing year-round summer vegetables, cultivation under permanently built greenhouses is expanding across the globe.
Monitored in real-time with hardware devices that manage heating, irrigation, air conditioning, plant growth and pest prevention, the most high-tech of them often spread over several hectares and offer a divine control over all kinds of crops. As such, they guarantee the full reliability required by an agrifood system driven by productivity and eager to avoid ‘obstacles’ and delays.
The trojan horses of the upcoming ‘agricultural revolution’ – which foresees the full robotisation of the farming world – industrial greenhouses are also endorsed by agronomists and scientists as assets in the fight against the climate crisis and the exponential growth of human population. Embraced by countries with little to no arable land (like the Netherlands and Singapore) or by those with harsher environments (such as Qatar or Iceland), they are presented as a solution to food insecurity. At a time of global distress, repetitive droughts, rising sea levels, wars and diseases, industrial greenhouses promise never-ending physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.
Defying thousands of years of soil-based agriculture in the name of progress, however, these plant-factories are quickly accustoming us to questionable relationships with the land and its other living communities. Denying more and more the right for plants to spread their roots in earth soils – forcing them instead to grow into human-made substrates such as hydrogel sheets, or water-based nutrient solutions, in the case of hydroponic systems – industrial greenhouses are increasingly participating in the definition of futures in which we, humans, are completely cut off from the rhythms and the elements of so-called Nature.
Using the term hors-sol (literally ‘off the ground’), contemporary thinkers such as Malcom Ferdinand, Baptiste Morizot, and the late Bruno Latour warn us that over the past decades, many humans of the Global North have become ungrounded. We live out of touch with the soil and the other beings that co-inhabit it with us.
And yet, soil is “where food begins” (Soils: Where food begins was the slogan of the campaign World Soil Day 2022). By foreseeing an agriculture fully emancipated from it – with the total containment and control of the Living – the currently endorsed productivist approaches leave no space for disturbances and the possibility for us to react and adapt. Nor do they allow mutations and collaborations between living communities to take place. What is at stake is our own relationship with the soil and the richness it provides.
According to the Status of the World’s Soil Resources report published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2015, “we know more about soil than ever before, yet perhaps a smaller percentage of people than at any point in human history would understand the truth of this statement. The proportion of human labour devoted to working the soil has steadily decreased through the past century, and hence the experience of direct contact with the soil has lessened in most regions.” While today 95% of the food we eat still comes directly or indirectly from soils, by encouraging our disconnection from the Earth’s seasonality and agrodiversity, it could be argued that industrial greenhouses are actively cultivating the emancipation of our own human bodies from the soil in the name of productivity and profitability.
In his book, Quand les plantes n’en font qu’à leur tête (literally, When plants do as they please), anthropologist Dusan Kasic explains that the term production “places humans ‘above ground’, on a pedestal and ‘outside of the world’, which has the consequence […] of reinforcing human exceptionalism.” The notion of production, he argues, “disengages us from the more than human world.” Calling for a semantic shift, Kasic suggests that we should stop seeing the non-human world simply as a resource and consider it instead for what it is: an animated world.
The soil is where we come from and where we all end up at the end of our tour on Earth. In the frame of the ongoing Climate Crisis, taking care of it – and staying grounded to it – is our responsibility. It should be our priority to nourish diverse and multi-specific relationships with it.
NOTES / FURTHER READING
This short essay was written by d-o-t-s (Laura Drouet, Olivier Lacrouts) as part of their ongoing investigations on the identity and history of greenhouses as controversial [horti]cultural production tools. Greenhouse Stories. A Critical Re-examination of Transparent Microcosms (Onomatopee: The Netherlands, 2023) is the title of an upcoming book d-o-t-s edited inviting philosophers, scientists, artists and growers to examine greenhouses from social, historical, philosophical, and creative perspectives.
For an understanding of the role that greenhouses played in the appropriation of foreign flora by European colonial empires, see: Kate Teltscher, Palace of Palms. Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew, London: Picador, 2020; Luke Keogh, The Wardian Case. How a Simple Box Moved Plants and Changed the World, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2020.
On the debated use of the term ‘Nature’, see: Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Concerning the notion of hors-sol: Ferdinand argues that humans have become “soilless” (Ferdinand, 2019, p. 139); Morizot affirms that “There is no interdependence hors sol” (Morizot, 2020, p. 266); for Bruno Latour, see: “Avoir enfin les pieds sur Terre”, Sciences Po, Paris. Supplément climat, hors série, Le Monde, novembre 2015.