Project Bridging TIME Theory & Practice ESRC (R000222946):
A pilot to a large Europe-wide project that explores processes and barriers involved in translating into practice academic knowledge about pertinent TIME issues in the food system. The aim is to enlist the help of key players in the food system in order to make transparent what at present is an implicit and taken-for-granted dimension of the food system, that is, TIME in its multiple functions, dimensions and uses. Project Leader: Barbara Adam
School of Social Science, Cardiff University,
50 Park Place, Cardiff CF1 3AT
Tel: 01222-875565 FAX 01222-874436
E-mail: Adamtime@Cardiff.AC.UK

The TIMES of Soil and Water

Industrial agriculture is present-oriented and places emphasis on intensity of production. Its TIME frames of concern, therefore, are extremely restricted and made worse still by the economic discounting of the future.
The TIME scales of effects of industrial agriculture, however, are vastly more extensive than those of any other agricultural system, its chemical legacy accumulating in soil and water for unknowable periods into the future.
The unbridgeable gap between TIME scale of concern and effect is worsened by the fact that most of the regeneration of soil and water at the deeper level is possible only in geological TIME scales, that is, it too is outside the TIMESCAPE of industrial production.

Soil is the TIME-SPACE where biosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere interact in a continuous interchange of

  • nutrients,
  • water
  • oxygen
  • vegetation,
  • organisms and micro-organisms.
Soils are generated and they age in an ongoing dynamic of de- and regeneration. At some level, therefore, soil is a renewable resource. The issue gets more complicated, however, when we take into consideration that soil is regenerated at vastly different time scales.
  • While some top soil can regenerate within 100 years,
  • the clay subsoil takes some 10,000 years
  • and the layer below that -- even at the mere depth of one meter -- takes 100,000 years to reach its optimum nutrient quality.
So we can say that it takes between 10,000 and 100,000 years to re/generate one cubic meter of soil. This TIMESCALE of re/generation clearly places soil outside the human TIMESCALE of action and thus beyond the range of what meaningfully could be called a renewable resource.
With a gap of that order of TIME between soil loss and renewal, this primary source of livelihood and survival must be of crucial concern now and for the future.
The first thing to note is that there is no viable long-term alternative to the soil and its nutrients as a basis for plant life as well as animal and human survival.
  • The soil provides food and raw materials;
  • it is a converter of energy and minerals;
  • it is a store for nutrients and water
  • and, by the same token, a store for pollutants.
The second thing to take account of is that the health and stability of the soil can be damaged.
  • It is susceptible to damage by movement from water and wind;
  • by structural changes, such as compression or waterlogging;
  • by changes in soil chemistry, i.e. salination from irrigation or non-biodegradable pollution.
Human activity contributes to soil degradation at all these levels.
Much of the damage, however, is occurring below the surface. From salination, desertification, erosion, structural damage, degradation to pollution and toxification, the destruction takes place in the invisible world of processes. This temporal world of processes is thus not as accessible to our senses as is the world of phenomena and products.
Consequently, the out-of-sight nature of the damage makes it difficult to have soil issues at the forefront of the public's mind.
Moreover, we are unlikely to encounter in our LIFETIME the bulk of the symptoms of soil degradation arising from contemporary industrial activity, since action and impact are dispersed across TIME and space and marked by multiple TIME-LAGS.
  • Pollution, toxification and damage to organisms occur into the open-ended, long-term FUTURE.
  • The gap between destruction from unsustainable use and soil regeneration extends to hundreds and even thousands of years.
Industrial societies thus externalise the problem temporally to future generations.


Even less visible and accessible is the effect of the industrial way of life on the elementary resource water.

Of course, we can see when the river in the valley below is turning yellow or purple-blue as a result of up-stream pollution. Very little of the long-term damage to the 'elixir of life', however, is visible.
We think of water as a renewable resource, one that replenishes itself from season to season. When winter rainfall is below average we may find that the reservoirs have not been fully replenished which means drought conditions are likely during a dry and hot summer.
On balance, however, Northern Europeans, and people of the Northern Hemisphere more generally, expect water to be available all the year round: the water companies are not doing their jobs properly if water is running short during the summer.
We are so used to smoothing out seasonal variation -- through work practices, global food supply, electricity to light the hours of darkness, and fossil fuel energy to heat houses in the winter -- that we make no exception for water.
On the contrary, during the periods of lowest 'stocks' we expect as a 'consumer right' to have enough water for extra high usage - for the swimming pool, the garden and to keep sports greens in top condition.
This habit and the associated expectancies in conjunction with industrial pollution have grave consequences.
  • Governments and water companies in their wisdom have decided that the answer to any water shortage is to bore deeper. When the supply in reservoirs, dams, rivers and canals is running short, water is to be brought up from the depth of the earth.
  • This strategy of boring deeper is very worrying since, unlike the surface water which is a renewable resource, the ground water and the very ancient sources of water below regenerate so extremely slowly that, from the perspective of human action, they have to be considered non-renewable. As with the soil, we are talking of thousands of years of regeneration TIME and even then we cannot be sure that the water would regenerate to anything like its current pure and pristine state.
  • There is no way of knowing whether or not these ancient fossil waters will irredeemably be contaminated with the chemical and heavy metal pollution of the industrial way of life.
  • As a second measure water authorities have imposed annual limits based on averages. This tactic, however, is useless since averages a) do not take account of seasonal variation and b) ignore long-term changes such as global warming. They serve no other function than to secure the status quo and to ensure that water companies do not need to engage in LONG-TERM precautionary measures.
This means, as we draw from these ancient sources of clean water, we deplete what is in terms of the human TIME scale a non-renewable resource and we replace this ancient clean water not just with younger but with potentially polluted water.

In Germany's main industrial area, the Ruhrgebiet, for example, chemical and metal pollution has reached groundwater to a depth of 150 meters which is well below the level of most mineral water extraction.

Effects of the industrial way of life on the TIMESCAPE of water:

  • long-term degradation, pollution, loss of clean drinking water and reduction of available fossil water;
  • ancient waters contaminated with chemical and other industrial pollutants (currently) up to a depth of 150 meters;
  • accumulation of non-degradable pollutants;
  • a TIME gap of thousands of years between unsustainable use and re/generation (current ignorance in this field means the figures could be immeasurably larger or indeed smaller);
Water pollution of this kind is likely to be non-retractable. As such, the problems of resource depletion and irredeemable pollution are temporally externalised to future generations of beings.


  • Of central importance are contextual differences: the 'where' and 'when' matters and so does the intensity and extent of human activity. Equally important are temporal variations: seasonal, from year to year, and long term.
  • Much of the non-biodegradable pollution is non-retractable.
  • Moreover, most of the damage occurs in the invisible process world below the surface, at TIME scales that are outside the range of economic and (most) political concern.
  • The TIME gap between overuse and re/generation is unbridgeable.
  • The problem is externalised into the future and imposed on successor generations.
  • TIME-lags between action and symptom constitute conditions of irreducible indeterminacy and therefore unpredictability.
  • Both of these elementary sources of life are dynamic: soil and water change. They age. They re/generate and they are degradable. They are simultaneously resilient and vulnerable.
Soil and water therefore have to be understood and regulated not just with reference to space but TIME. TIME has to be placed on the public agenda if their long-term sustainability is to be ensured and if intergenerational equity is to be a credible goal.
Cardiff School of Social Sciences