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ReThink Review: DIRT! The Movie -- Love the Earth, Literally

06/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Earth Day has come and gone, and while many of us took time to think about our planet, we were probably focused on the things that happen on its surface. But the documentary DIRT! The Movie reminds us that what really matters on this planet is what happens in the first 6-8 inches of soil, the layer that makes much of life on earth possible. Because as far as we know, no other planet has the kind of living skin that earth does, full of organisms that can digest organic materials to make nutrients accessible to other forms of life. Combine that with energy from the sun and all forms of land-based life become possible -- remove one of those components and the system (and life) collapses.

That's why we need to be concerned. Humans are doing grievous damage to our soil through strip mining, mountaintop removal, pollution, bad agricultural practices and other activities that promote erosion. Humans are killing the soil and letting it be carried away by the wind or washed into the sea. It takes approximately 100 years to naturally create just one inch of topsoil, and the world is losing 25 billion tons of topsoil a year due to erosion, with the US letting its soil be eroded at a rate 10-17 times faster than it can be replaced. As DIRT! points out, much of human history has been a struggle over who has productive soil. If humans allow this most precious resource to be destroyed or lost, we can't mine more or travel to another planet to get some. The planet as we know it will truly be dead.

Watch my ReThink Review of DIRT! The Movie and my discussion with Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks about soil damage, the Dust Bowl and mountaintop removal below.

In the interview, Cenk brought up the gains mankind has enjoyed as a result of modern farming techniques. I don't feel like I addressed that as well as I could've, so I thought I'd do it now.

With the help of mechanization and science, fewer people are able to create more food than at any other time in history. However, I see this as akin to buying everything you want with a credit card and claiming you're rich, even though you have no way to eventually pay your bill. As much as some of us have benefited in the short term from modern agriculture, it's a system that simply isn't sustainable, just like charging shopping sprees to credit cards when you have no money. For a short time, you'll enjoy abundance -- much more than you've earned -- but when the bills start coming, you'll have to pay back what you owe. Plus interest.

In many parts of the world, those bills are coming due in the form of skyrocketing food prices, desertification, food riots, starvation and environmental degradation. As one expert in DIRT! points out, the food crises being experienced in many parts of the world are proof of the failure of modern agriculture, which has moved us from a system where communities largely produced their own food in a sustainable way to one where most of the world's peoples are now forced to buy food that has been produced and processed unsustainably someplace far away using large amounts of fossil fuels. That means that feeding yourself is no longer reliant on how well you tend and manage the soil that grows your food, but on how much money you have and the volatile price of fossil fuels.

So while fossil fuels and arable land were cheap and plentiful, mankind was able to make a dent in world hunger during the 1980s and early 1990s. But as both of those resources became scarce and the world economy tanked, hunger made a comeback, to the point where one in six of the world's population now goes hungry. With numbers like that, we can't legitimately say that we've made a dent in world hunger any more than someone can say they've improved their financial situation by overcharging their credit card -- the good times aren't real if they can't last.

Far from alleviating world hunger, modern agriculture and mistreatment of the soil actually exacerbates it. To find out how, I'd recommend reading read part one (and the rest) of the Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture, which describes how world hunger is not created by lack of food, but an increase in poverty and subsistence farmers losing their land to big agribusiness.

But we don't need to reduce our population or return to Stone Age farming methods to feed the world sustainably. Through science, we have a much better understanding of what it takes to create and maintain healthy soil and get the most out of it without destroying it. The myths about the benefits of industrial agriculture are slowly being dismantled. For our own good, we need to transition to more dirt-friendly methods of agriculture -- while we still have the choice.

For more ReThink Reviews, the only (therefore best) political movie reviews anywhere, go to ReThinkReviews.net.