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Dirt! The Movie

May 10, 2010

I’m a marine biologist: I like water, mud and muck. I love the smell of low tide. I am not a dirt-lover (or a dirt-hater). Dirt is, well, it’s dirt. It smells like dirt (which, most people would argue, smells a whole lot better than low tide) and it’s kinda boring.

I’d choose water over dirt any day, but as a scientist, I recognize that dirt is important—really, really important. But is it interesting enough to hold an audience’s attention for 90 minutes?

Yep.

Of course, dirt doesn’t keep the Dirt! The Movie audience entertained all by itself. It has help from animated microorganisms, an over-dramatic farmer, a wine connoisseur who tastes dirt and the fabulous narration skills of Jamie Lee Curtis (who’s even better at explaining the importance of dirt than she is at encouraging regularity). And while the film is technically about “soil,” the filmmakers chose to use the word “dirt” because—like s***, f***, b****, d*** and ass—dirt is a “word with flavor.” After all, kids don’t play in the soil. They play in the dirt.

The film examines the role that dirt plays in our everyday lives, but it really digs into the degradation of dirt and the threats confronting the real base of the food chain. Mountaintop mining destroys directly dirt to get at the underlying natural resources that we think are more valuable. Monoculture, on the other hand, destroys dirt indirectly by destroying the root culture and making it easier for pests to invade cropland. In fact, a single plant that’s planted for miles and miles is such an open invitation to pests, it creates a need for pesticides. The pesticides kill the pests, but also harm the soil, the surrounding wildlife and the animals (including humans) that eat the pesticide-laden crops. To make matters worse, the wimpy crops that grow in such degraded soil require nitrogen fertilizer to thrive. The plants only take up 20% of the fertilizer, however, which leaves the rest to seep into the watershed and eventually into the ocean.

Then there’s the problem of how we’re paving over way too much dirt, which just makes it useless. For example, Los Angeles gets all the water it needs from its annual rainfall, but the city’s lack of dirt causes the rain to wash away across pollutant-coated asphalt, and forces L.A. to use 20% of its electricity to bring in fresh water from other places.

There’s more to dirt, but it wouldn’t kill you to watch the movie yourself. Find out how/where/when by clicking here.

P.S. Scientia Pro Publica 29 is now up at Maniraptora, GrrlScientist’s new Nature Network blog. Check it out!

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