The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson


Our climate change book club is going strong, and recently we finished reading Kristin Ohlson’s The Soil Will Save Us. This book is about agricultural practices and how they can impact climate and the environment, and our group chose it because we were interested in understanding what’s going on with agriculture.

Pluses: There’s lots of great info in here on the complex ecosystem of microbes and root fungi under the soil that interact with the plants, and how practices like no-till farming and use of cover crops can make a big difference in soil health and carbon sequestration.

Minuses: I think my biggest issue with the book is that a lot of the writing and reporting feels a bit uncritical, kind of focused on storytelling at the expense of rigorous vetting and analysis. As a result, our group lost some confidence in the author’s credibility and we sometimes found ourselves fact-checking claims that seemed surprising or unsupported.

Ohlson seemed to sometimes drop interesting or surprising facts, savor in the surprise of the statement for a bit, and then just move on without further discussion. I think significant or surprising statements often need justification, context, and explanation to feel credible, and this sometimes felt lacking. Sometimes, this resulted in really interesting things being mentioned and then just left behind, e.g., the fact that likely a significant (30-40%) amount of sea level rise comes from the transfer of groundwater into oceans as runoff. This is super crazy – I had no idea that groundwater could be such a big component of sea level rise! – but she barely discusses it.

The bigger consequence of this is that the central argument of the book – that “the soil will save us” because it has massive and overlooked carbon sequestration potential, and so we can mitigate and reverse climate change just by altering our agricultural practices – ultimately feels unconvincing and unsupported. As far as we can tell, the claim is either outdated or exaggerated and not quite true. While agricultural practices are impactful and an important part of the work that needs to be done on climate, I finished the book feeling not very convinced that “the soil [alone] will save us” from climate change. Ultimately, I’m not sure I would recommend this book.