Wes Jackson, Localism, and the Carbon-Based Community

by Russell Arben Fox on March 8, 2012 · 7 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Philosophers & Saints,Writers & Poets

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[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

A couple of days ago, I had the lucky opportunity to listen up close to Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute here in Kansas, give a lecture at Newman University (just across the road from my home here at Friends University).  It was one of the most intellectually stimulating and inspiring lecture-performances I’ve ever heard. The title was “The Prairie as a Measure for a Sustainable Agriculture,” but what he was really talking about, as I thought about his particular approach to “sustainable agriculture,” was what it means to be part of what might be called a “carbon-based community.” The point being, of course, that all of human life–all biological life on this planet, period–is carbon-based, and that therefore a concern over the use (and misuse) of that chemical bedrock of our existence as living, eating, growing, interacting beings should be central to how we arrange our lives. For Jackson, as it is with his old friend Wendell Berry (who I’ve taken students up to The Land Institute to listen to before, as I’ve done other times), this kind of concern mandates some attention to, as Alexander Pope put it long ago, “the genius of the place.”

Wes Jackson’s place is the prairie, and to understand–really, to come at things from his perspective, to “re-appropriate”–the carbon-based genius of the prairie is to confront what he and others have famously called the “10,000-year-old problem”: agriculture, and all the ways it has both made humanity what it is and can be, for both good and bad. Jackson happily took us listeners back to the Paleolithic, and asks how much 10 millennia have changed human beings. We still mostly eat grass–the #1 grass in the human diet worldwide being rice, with #2 being wheat, and #3 corn; add together all the grass, throw in the seeds and legumes, and you have 70% of all the nutrients the human race consumes. The question of how we consume this stuff which sunlight and water makes out of hydrocarbons is thus inseparable, in Jackson’s view, from almost any debate about human civilization–including, most centrally, how we arrange ourselves in relation to these consumables. Jackson sketched out his argument visually, suggesting that throughout the history of our species there have been occasional discoveries that have changed how we arrange ourselves in relation to the range of carbon energy sources available in the ecosphere: first came human innovations in soil use and the development of settled agriculture, providing us with regular sugars for our bodies to burn, but after that came using forests as a regular fuel to burn in forges that melted copper and iron, then came burning coal (and later oil and natural gas) to power turbines and regularly generate electricity. Through it all, human institutions and forms of knowledge adapted to and shaped the consequences of this carbon-based relationship, with all sorts of unforeseen consequences.

Which adaptation does Jackson think most crucial for explaining our present condition? On the basis of his lecture, perhaps it was the separate, early 20th-century discoveries by Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch which led, through their use of natural gas, to nitrogen fixation, and thus to the creation of industrial ammonia. Such industrial ammonia has made possible a revolution in agriculture, so much so that over half the protein nutrients consumed by all the human race–whether they come in the form of grasses or meat from animals which eat those grasses–have this industrially fixed nitrogen somewhere within their chemical make-up. It (along with the many other industrial transformations of the century which preceded the rise of chemical fertilizers and industrial agriculture, though perhaps none of them have had as much impact as those laboratory realizations nearly a century ago) has made it possible for millions–no, billions–of people to leave behind the farms and communities which, at one time, existed in an organic relationship with the naturally available carbon in the countryside. The power to energize the people in those cities (through food) could be trucked in from elsewhere; the power to move those trucks (though oil) could be shipped in from elsewhere; the power to open up those oil fields and protect those shipping lanes (though the U.S. Air Force) could be delivered from elsewhere; and so it goes.

Jackson delivered this argument–and, to be clear, I am adding on to and elaborating some of his points here–through some remarkable visuals: for example, drawing on the work of Howard T. Odum, Jackson paralleled the relationship between “photosynthesizers” (the organic structures which reflect and make available the energy possibilities within carbon resources–agricultural crops, for example) and “concentrators” (the organisms which gather and concentrate that realized energy–like human beings) which exists on a microscopic level, within a rain forest, or within a Kansas prairie. Through every discovery and technological appropriation of each carbon pool, his pictures made clear, we have enabled the creation of a new relationship–a new distance–between the concentrators (us) and the most fundamental sources of energy (the sun, the soil, and the prairies where the grasses we consume grow) upon which we carbon-based life forms need to flourish. And with that distance, there is loss. Jackson’s most arresting visual made this clear:

Norman Rockwell painted “The County Agent” in 1948, and used as his model an actual county agent, doing rounds on the farms of Jay County, Indiana. It is fairly easy for most audiences to look at this painting and see in it a nostalgic invocation of white America’s agrarian past–the red-paneled farmhouse, the horse and calf and chickens, the kids with the 4-H projects and a presumably intact, multi-generational family looking on. Jackson sees that, but he also sees more: “What is clear, with a little study [of the painting], is that expertise and youth are central while tradition and experience are peripheral.” The county agent has the knowledge and authority, and is educating the youth into this mode of thinking; the received knowledge of the family is becoming somewhat irrelevant to agriculture as it was being practiced (measured, assessed) in 1948, and would be into the future. And how that has been born out! As the industrial-fertilizer-fueled Green Revolution (which surely improved the nutrition and extended the lifespans of tens of millions of people, but which also, Jackson argued, presumed that 1) bigger yields were always a sign of success, 2) traditional technologies and ways of life and relationships to the land were always an obstacle, and 3) agriculture was a industrial science, and not necessarily, much less fundamentally, related to our carbon-based ecosystem) extended its reign, from the decades following World War II until our present Monsanto-dominated moment, and resulted in ever-more specialization, ever-more technical expertise, and ever-less actual connection, through a family or locally sustained community, with the land from which we fed ourselves. The land-grant universities, which had been designed to be aids to development of learning amongst those people who tended to the land, actually hastened this development, spreading a gospel of specialization that hurried students off in distant directions, away from the food and energy that makes human civilization–and networks of healthy communities–possible in the first place.

Jackson ended on a realistic, yet hopeful note. Clearly, we are not going–we shouldn’t want to–turn back the clock entirely, if only because that would result in a vicious, radical de-population of our race (though he was willing to argue, strongly, for a “no-growth, even de-growth, economic model”). But what we can hope to do–and this is central to The Land Institute’s mission–is push for an intellectual sea-change, a “sustainable Green Revolution,” this one based on perennial crops (which do far less damage to the soil, and are far less dependent upon industrial fertilizers, because they–duh–grow back year after year, and thus don’t have to be replanted in ground which is re-tilled by the latest oil-consuming tractors again and again and again). The Land Institute has had its successes with Kernza, a perennial wheatgrass, and they are working in China on the perennialization of upland rice. For now, though, the idea of shifting our planning for food away from annuals dependent upon both the tastes of carbon-concentrating populations and the desperate attempt to stave off final depletion of the earth’s carbon pools, and towards perennialization and localization is hard going. Jackson, and others at The Land Institute, have gone to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to audiences around the country, preaching the gospel of thinking small (local) and long (time-wise), rather than big (farm-size and yields) and short (only until the next budget cycle!). They push the idea of a “50-Year Farm Bill” which would move this country from putting 80% of its acreage into annual crops–which invariably privileges the large producers who can buy oil barrels and industrial fertilizers by the ton, and which therefore of course contributes to concentrations of expertise and financial resources, continuing to kill off mid-size operators and small towns–to a model which they project by 2050 would double the percentage of farmland given over to annual vegetable crops–the market for which, as competitive as it is, being still better for small and mid-size producers than is the case for rice, wheat, or corn–and reduce the reliance on annual grains to only 20% of this nation’s farmland, with the rest used of perennial grains or forage crops for animals. And, as you might expect, neither Democrats nor Republicans are exactly lining up at The Land Institute’s door.

The breakthrough will probably not be political, though one can and should keep trying. The real moment for change, Jackson said hopefully, will come when the land-grant institutions start embrace the idea of “marrying ecology with a vision of perennial agriculture.” Then, perhaps, we’ll see all the ecologists, botanists, entomologists, plant breeders and others which The Land Institute helps to train–training them to be anything but “county agents,” but instead people committed to bringing the knowledge of the carbon relationship to life in the hands of all of us who are living off and from the land–start finding jobs that will connect them with a carbon-based community (whether in Kansas or in Kazakhstan) which can be locally sustainable, as life on earth is supposed to be. To create an army of people committed to the carbon-based communities which we all must sustain, and to sustaining them justly, is for Jackson a 30-year mission, one almost certainly won’t live to see (he’s 75), but we could all hear the passion in his voice; shaking his head in disbelief, he pointed out that paying for the education of such an army of young gardeners and local innovators would probably cost, at current tuition rates, about one-third of the ethanol subsidy offered to corn farmers in 2012 alone. “We’ve got to quit treating soil like dirt!” was his conclusion; we need to treat as not a disposable commodity, in other words, but an essential partner, as I would put it, in the carbon-based communities wherein we become the humans we may be.

Or at least that was almost his conclusion–but not quite. I asked him one question: what can small colleges–like Newman University, where he was speaking, or Friends University, where I poke about with my own small efforts to get students and others thinking about community and sustainability–do? His eyes sparkled a bit, and he said that the most important thing is to get out of our usual silos of thought; to break down categories, for us and our students, because only then will the truth that “history and philosophy are the most practical of the liberal arts” be realized. There is a need for connection, for affection (and here he gave us a sneak peak of Wendell Berry’s upcoming Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, an address which Jackson has read through as a rough draft), and for teaching students the value of sticking around a place long enough to learn something of its “genius.” The prairie can teach us stuff, as it has Jackson, assuming one recognizes the value, as he did, of sticking with the prairie long enough, and thinking hard enough about what all those relationships under its surface and around its inhabitants (human and otherwise) might have to offer. I would guess that he might say that any place where things grow, one can find genius. But you need may need to break away from the usual academic and professional trajectories, and their of gospel of booming ever outward, and instead look down and around, if you want to see it.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jason Peters March 9, 2012 at 8:49 am

Thanks for posting this, Russell. I’ve heard Jackson give this talk, and all I can say is: anyone who has the opportunity to hear it should do so. Much of it appears in his new book, Consulting the Genius of the Place, briefly discussed here by Katherine Dalton.

avatar TJ Lawson March 9, 2012 at 11:51 am

I have nothing to add, but rather just a heart felt thank you for sharing this. Great piece.

avatar Josh Papsdorf March 9, 2012 at 11:58 am

Thanks for writing about this Russell, and it was nice to meet you, briefly, at the talk. (I’m a long-time reader of FPR who teaches theology at Newman across the street from Friends in Wichita.)

I think you did a nice job of capturing the key points of the talk, and I also tend to agree with him on a great deal. I was a bit taken aback though by some of his passing comments about depopulation and the unborn. I may have been a bit sensitive on those points after sitting in on a pre-lecture discussion where Jackson approvingly described the views of some other scholars who called for a return to hunter-gatherer populations levels or the prediction that total population would be about half a billion above the Arctic Circle in 2100 due to global warming. I wasn’t able to follow up with him about those points before the lecture began, and due to the late hour I wasn’t able to stay afterward for further discussion. So, I will acknowledge that he might nuance those positions if he were asked.

At the same time, I didn’t get the sense in his talk that he saw depopulation as something to be avoided, but rather a necessary step that we should begin to undertake once the agricultural system is reformed. Two other comments in the talk compounded my discomfort. The first was his reference to the unborn child in the mother’s womb being dependent on high-density carbon and how that gave a new meaning to being “born in sin.” The second was a joke he made in his discussion of hybrid plant embryos to the effect that the Land Institute work on them was “pro-life” and “saved more embryos than anyone in Kansas.” (A fairly crass joke to make at a Catholic college in Wichita.) Overall, I got the distinct impression that he saw children in the womb as a threat to the environment, at least those above some level that he would see as sustainable.

Now, it’s been about 5 years sense I read any of Jackson’s books, so if I am wrong on this point I would be happy to be corrected. I should also note that the comments weren’t central to his talk. Nonetheless, they did reveal an apparent aspect of his thought that I found quite problematic.

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Josh, hello! I wish we would have had time to talk. We’ll have to get together at some point.

I was a bit taken aback though by some of his passing comments about depopulation and the unborn….At the same time, I didn’t get the sense in his talk that he saw depopulation as something to be avoided, but rather a necessary step that we should begin to undertake once the agricultural system is reformed.

I also heard those jokes also, though I didn’t highlight their implications in my presentation on his lecture, because I don’t see them as really central to his argument. But sure, it was there, all the same: his comment, for example, about striving for a “no-growth or de-growth economy,” with the subtle follow-up reference to a “de-growth population” as well. He might well nuance those points in various ways, but I think he is clearly at least a little touched by the stereotypical environmentalist preoccupation with population.

I’ve occasionally wondered about the relationship between the ideas expressed by people like Jackson and Wendell Berry, and those expressed Edward Abbey. They’ve both written respectively of his legacy before, but I never liked Abbey, because I find his idolization of the solitude of the desert frankly misanthropic, even inhuman. I don’t see anything inhuman in Berry’s approach to these questions, but it’s possible there is some of that in Jackson’s. It’s worth pondering.

avatar Anymouse March 9, 2012 at 6:38 pm

A genuinely agrarian approach must be made, and that will require that many of these environmentalist types to change their thinking. Sustainability must also include sustaining human life.

avatar Josh Papsdorf March 9, 2012 at 10:33 pm

Russell, the comments weren’t a central part of the talk, and I would echo your praise of what he did focus on. I suppose I was just disheartened by that sub-text since I recalled agreeing with Jackson wholeheartedly when I had read him before. As you and “Anymouse” note, he’s far from unique on that point. My estimation of Gene Logsdon took a similar hit when I came across a positive appraisal of China’s one-child policy in one of his books.

I haven’t read Abbey, but I would agree that Berry’s approach really seems ideal. In general, I find the reform arguments based on quality of life more persuasive than ominous warnings of an environmental doomsday or peak-oil catastrophe. Berry’s portrayal of meaningful communities and connections with the land played a significant role in my decision to come back to Wichita and put down some roots.

And yes, we should try to arrange a Front Porch meeting here in the heartland at some point.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 14, 2012 at 7:01 pm

The “Carbon Economy” is one hell-bent upon exploiting reservoirs of decay and building an economy on them which animates an overall atmosphere of decay…ie the picturesquely termed “planned obsolescence”.

We possess now a financial and energy system of an elaborate cemetery and spend our time wondering why our chattering birds twittering upon the cable news networks are so funereal.

There is a furrow to reconnect with.

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