The Anthropocene is a time of great dying, and a time of impassioned living, a time of extinction and a time of survival. At a time when human life is shown to impact on the lives of all others with unprecedented power, it is also shown to depend on these lives in ways which had been ignored, negated, and indeed hitherto unknown. As Anna Tsing argues, what the Anthropocene makes clear is that ‘humans cannot survive by stomping on all the others’ (2015: vii); in order to live at all we need new modes of living together. No other life is more important here than that of soil biota, which makes inert ‘dirt’ into the biologically active skin of our planet, thus creating favourable conditions for terrestrial life. And yet soils globally are seen to have been degraded to such an extent that human survival is directly endangered.
The soil crisis can thus be added to the growing list of globally impactful human harms which characterise the Anthropocene. At the same time, the re-discovery of human dependence on soil life demands we ask again how to proceed in relation to soils. In this paper I engage with the work of Puig de la Bellacasa, who has been developing the conception of care as the ethic and process of maintaining life-sustaining webs of relations in which human life is inescapably entangled with non-human life. Care is seen as circulating as both the practical work of maintaining life and as an ethical obligation to attend to the Other ‘so that humans and non-humans can live in [the world] as well as possible in a complex life-sustaining web’ (2015: 97).
Drawing on situated interviews with British farmers who practice soil conservation methods, and participant observation at farming conferences and events, I identify an emerging probiotic ontology (Lorimer 2016) of soil life in British agriculture, in which soil life is cared for in so far as it aligns with the status quo of agricultural productivity. This ontology is problematic in two ways: it fails to address the fundamental practical question of what planetarily sustainable human-soil relations may need to entail, and it does little to displace the human as the only significant subject of care. Attending to the affective charge of care brought about by the necessary practice of attention to the object of care, I speculate on the possibility of unsettling the probiotic logic of soil care through its ethical overspill.