Wes Jackson, Localism, and the Carbon-Based Community

[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.

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