The biosphere, our fragile and exquisite home, is changing abruptly and irrevocably, largely from human interference. Most or all of the coming stresses have links to the land, so finding hopeful outcomes depend on wide and deep understanding of soils. In this review, we pose eight urgent issues confronting humanity in coming decades: demands for food, water, nutrients, and energy; and challenges of climate change, biodiversity, “waste” reuse, and global equity. We then suggest some steps soil scientists might take to address these questions: a refocusing of research, a broadening of vision, a renewed enticement of emerging scientists, and more lucid telling of past successes and future prospects. The questions posed and responses posited are incomplete and not yet fully refined. But the conversations they elicit may help direct soil science toward greater relevance in preserving our fragile home on this changing planet.
Soil science has an image problem, in part perhaps because few outside our discipline appreciate the essential place of soil and the way it is enmeshed in the past and future of society. Few link the abundance of vegetables in their local grocery to healthy soils in California. Few stop to ponder that what they choose to eat might aff ect soil in a distant landscape. And fewer still see that maintaining soils is not just a question of food but also of broader societal aims: security, justice, peace (Lal, 2008).
Can we talk to others about soil science with more passion and clarity? We might start by celebrating more vigorously our past achievements. We have already made substantive gains in many of the questions enumerated above. For example, global land productivity has more than doubled in the past half century (Alston et al., 2009), in part through better management of soils. Although poverty and hunger persist, more people are now better fed than ever before. Freed from scrabbling daily for food, most people across the planet can enjoy social, emotional, intellectual, and economic pursuits that are the hallmarks of a civilized world. Another example: we have learned ways of conserving soils in the face of winds and water that once eroded the lands; one such practice—no-till—is now used eff ectively on farms worldwide (Hobbs et al., 2008). How many know of these achievements? We are a lucky lot, we who scratch about in the earth, trying to uncover its mysteries, searching for new hope in the face of ominous threats. Our good fortune and our simmering excitement, sadly, may not always erupt spontaneously from the papers we write and the text we fl ash on screens.
Our highest aim, then, may be to let our audiences in on the joys of our exploring. Our noblest task, and the most rewarding, may be to fi nd better ways of expressing our delight and wonder in the secrets we are slowly unearthing, and of how our renewed acquaintance with the land can off er hope for coming generations.