[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Wichita, KS. The cabin pictured to the right, both with its original inhabitant and with some of my students and I standing in front of it, is a relatively new feature at The Land Institute in Salina, KS, a research center for sustainable agriculture and a source of inspiration to localists, agrarians, and the left-wing rural counter-culture everywhere. Wes Jackson, who founded TLI in 1976, describes himself as a radical in terms of his approach to wealth and power, and a conservative in terms of his approach to living; that description probably fits well most of the scientists, farmers, and activists associated with the Institute, especially those who gather for its annual Prairie Festival in late September (this year was its first in-person Festival since 2019, and you could feel the joy many felt at gathering together once again). Certainly that odd mix of the radical and the conservative, the apocalyptic and the practical, is well embodied in the tiny cabin of Leland Lorenzen, an “indispensable” friend of Jackson’s who passed away 17 years ago, and whose relocated shack was recently opened as a TLI exhibit.
There was much else to see and hear during the Prairie Festival this year, to be sure. Besides taking place in a beautiful and inspiring natural and agricultural space, the Festival has been an opportunity, over the years, for my students and I to listen to, learn from, and be challenged by writers and thinkers such as Wendell Berry, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Loka Ashwood, and Jackson himself. This year, Eric Schlosser, he of the game-changing book Fast Food Nation and a member of TLI’s Board of Directors, was one of the headliners. Having had the chance to meet and talk with him 17 years ago, before I came to Kansas, it was great to ask him now about the tensions I perceived in his writings back then about America’s food system. Did he believe then, or does he believe now, that the enormous health, environmental, and economic problems which the fast food revolution and the industrial agricultural model it depends upon (one example Schlosser mentioned in his data-packed presentation: thanks to groundwater contamination, probably as many of 80% of Americans already have traces of carcinogenic chemical fertilizer in their blood) can best be responded to by more and better progressive liberal regulations, or are more extreme, anti-capitalist, even “anti-liberal,” responses called for? Schlosser chuckled at my question, admitting that back then he knew almost nothing about the larger currents forcing humanity along its current socio-economic and technological trajectory, and acknowledging the radical need to return to the land; “like it or not,” he added, “all of us will go back to the soil someday,” so why resist its call now?
That sense of radicalness stayed with me as, later in the afternoon, my students and I peered into Lorenzen’s cramped, 6 ft. by 16 ft. living space, which had been moved from his one-acre plot some 30 miles from Salina, and in which he had lived for the last 29 years of his life, surviving mostly off soaked wheat, scavenged greens, and milk from his goat (at one time Lorenzen had maintained a fairly impressive garden, complete with greenhouse, but in time he abandoned it, feeling that intentionally shaping the land around him in accordance with his appetites and needs was a matter of “projecting an image” onto the world, and thus always an invitation to manipulation, conflict, and violence). Looking at the simple bed and small wood-burning stove, I was put in mind of the apocalyptism of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the mystics in the early centuries of the Christian movement who fled to the deserts of Egypt and elsewhere because they saw God’s creation as a hard, demanding gift, something given to us to be endured and to be purified by, something which directs our attention to deeper and more transcendent truths, and which we fail to understand when see in it mere resources for material accumulation, social accomplishment, or even just plain physical security. Lorenzen wasn’t at all a spiritual person, in the same way his friend Jackson isn’t, despite the latter knowing his Bible and Christian history very well, something Jackson revealed when talking about his friend in a recent memoir, Hogs Are Up:
A major effort for Leland was to stop the internal dialogue….This was a source of worry. He said the only out of it was to be alone; after a while, his image of himself would fade, and then he would have the “awareness of a squirrel.” A squirrel’s awareness is of the “effective,” immediate environment surrounding him. One can then be out of the environment where the buds of violence would grow.
He took me once a couple of miles from his shack to an abandoned pasture with prairie and trees all around where there were some large protruding rocks. Using those rocks and a minimum of building materials, Leland had built a small shelter just large enough to sleep in. It was really spare. The pillowcase was stuffed with prairie grasses. Here the deer and other wild animals would come to lie down outside, within a few feet of where he was sitting or sleeping, undisturbed by his present. As I surveyed the surroundings and inspected his handiwork, he explained, “Here is where Leland goes to get away from Leland.” I didn’t ask what he meant and still think it would have been improper to do so, but I have wondered. My first question was “Why isn’t life back at his shack enough?” I thought of Francis of Assisi, some of the mystics, some monks, Elijah, and other examples. . . .
Once….[Leland] took me around to visit some drop-out communities in the Missouri Ozarks. Most of the people [there] had been antiwar protesters, civil rights activists, and the like who had thrown themselves out on the land, taking their advanced degrees from places such as the University of California, Berkeley with them. It was near-subsistence living. . . . Leland and I talked about that trip many times, noting how difficult it is to try to become a satellite of sustainability orbiting the extractive economy. Over the years, most of these idealistic, strong individuals found themselves increasingly pulled into the orbit of the dominant culture. . . . [Leland’s shack] now stands as a monument to the most bottom-line person I have ever known (pp. 162-164).
It is unsurprising, perhaps, that the admirable ”bottom line” for someone like Jackson runs right up to—if not entirely embracing—a fairly extreme and apocalyptic rejection of the technologies and accoutrements of modernity, seeing them all as ultimately a kind of Titanic deck-chair shuffling in the face of complete ecological breakdown, or worse. (Lorenzen, it’s worth noting, may have been profoundly inspired by Thoreau, but apparently began his retreat to the land specifically because he was convinced nuclear war was imminent.) While Jackson has long been associated with Wendell Berry, Joel Salatin, Bill Vitek, and others who have challenged all the environmental and social devastations wrought by industrial agriculture, for him agriculture itself has always been humankind’s “10,000 year problem,” a choice that committed our species to following our “human-carbon nature” (that is, the biological instinct to obtain energy-giving food, and to obtain the resources that enable us to obtain ever more energy-giving food) in the direction of economic centralization, political corporatism, territorial expansion, and natural exploitation. As Jackson’s memoir makes clear, growing up on a farm, tending to livestock and a huge vegetable garden, in the Kansas of the 1940s and 1950s (he was born in 1936) left him with habits and perspectives he deeply appreciates. But when the opportunity to work for a summer on a farm in South Dakota introduced him to a different natural topography and thus a different perspective on how human beings live on the earth, the choice for him was clear: “[S]o during my youth were two experiences with land. One, which became known to me later as the Jeffersonian ideal, was where culture dictated that ground be plowed, worked, and planted. The other, rangeland life, was where the plow had no place and was even anathema. I preferred the glassland” (p. 64). His agrarianism, then, is not Berryesque, whatever their many other agreements. Berry’s agrarian sensibility is fundamentally about tending to and partnering with the fruitfulness of our places, while Jackson is far more keyed to our biologically necessary submission to the geological and evolutionary time-frame of Creation (despite his secularism, Jackson regularly speaks of the natural world in such terms), and the long-term consequences of our refusal of such.
Perhaps we could call this vision “catastrophic agrarianism,” in the sense that Jackson is convinced the only kind of life that awaits the human species in the long run is a return to a non-industrial one, and that eventually our carbon-seeking nature will someday be forced by “multiple cascading crises” to express itself—unfortunately, probably at great social and human cost—in entirely decentralized, technologically limited, and far less complex social and dietary contexts. The short book he authored with Robert Jensen this year, An Inconvenient Apocalypse, lays out this perspective in bracing, efficient detail. So far as they are concerned—and, to be clear, a huge number of ecologists, agronomists, and climate scientists essentially agree with them—the time is long past to admit that “[t]he coming decades are likely to be marked by dramatic dislocations as a result of our social and ecological crises,” including global warming, species extinction, food insecurity, water depletion, universal pollution, and more.
The root cause of these multiple crises is a “crisis of consumption,” specifically that “the human population has too much stuff,” and people are by and large ignorant of the “ecological costs of the extraction, processing, and waste disposal to produce all that stuff.” Jackson and Jensen, who regularly acknowledge the deep racial injustices which the imperialist and corporate overdevelopment of much of the planet has involved, tip their hat to their preferred economic and social justice arrangements—“we support egalitarian principles that are central to socialism”—but also conclude firmly: “there’s no reason to believe . . . that a more egalitarian system today would be able to limit ecological destruction in significant ways, unless it embraced a collective rejection of the contemporary high-energy ‘lifestyle.’ . . . The more democratic decision-making possible in a well-designed socialist system offers a path for rational planning. But it is naïve to believe that such a system will make it easy to impose limits, especially when the techno-optimists tell us that we can have it all.” (pp. 5-6, 38-39, 40). Our “carbon-human nature,” in other words, has forced us—just like, as Jackson and Jensen remind us, many other species throughout the evolutionary history of life on Earth—out of our own natural “context.” We have spent the past 10,000 years, perhaps a mere 5% of the whole history of homo sapiens as a species (but especially just the past century, “when new forms of mass media made it frighteningly easy for concentrated power to shape the public mind and transform our carbon-seeking instincts into the madness of consumer capitalism”), consuming and expanding and imposing at a size and scope and scale and speed utterly incompatible with the planet’s ecosphere. They conclude: “We are starting too late to prevent billions of people from enduring incalculable suffering. We are starting too late to prevent the permanent loss of millions of species and huge tracts of habitat. We are starting to late, but we have to start. . . . We believe that we start by telling ourselves and each other the truth” (p. 74).
For Jackson and Jensen, despite their avowed secularism, the truth they believe must be told has a strong religious character to it. Not for them are various individualistic responses to consumerism, whether survivalist (while both live highly frugal lives, neither are Lorenzen-style, off-the-grid types) or minimalist (though they allow that “the current bourgeois bent of consumer minimalism is better than nothing”). What they believe is necessary is to seek out, or to experiment with establishing, in our own places and neighborhoods, a “saving remnant,” a model of community which, whatever its particular geographic and environmental conditions, will “manage to survive on the other side of collapse,” primarily by adopting a sense of humility and relative powerlessness before the “ecospheric grace” expressed through the hard rhythms of the natural world, and by cultivating new (or recovering old) skills, buildings, liturgies, and routines, and thereby telling new stories “born of resistance to the Consumer.” Because they are certain that, ultimately, our ruinous drive to consume ever more energy and resources and land and food can only consume itself:
[A]t some point, “fewer and less” will not be a matter of choice but will be reality, whether we like it or not. We will have to manage collectively the choices we make within new limits. We see no reason to believe that, in the time frame available, human societies will embrace public policies that significantly change the collapse trajectory. But once we are faced with new limits, societies will need to work out strategies for the democratic self-management of resources at the local level, allowing people to hold each other accountable without centralized power. . . In the ten thousand years of agriculture and empires, we’ve made “progress” that leaves us in dire straits. But we can remember that not only is there another way, but that for most of human history our species lived in other ways, and some still do today. . . . There’s a saying in the minimalist movement that less is more; a good life is not only possible but also more likely when one reduces consumption. Fair enough, but it’s perhaps more accurate to say, “Less is less, but less is okay.” Whatever we may want, our future will be marked by less consumption. The pleasures of consuming will have to be offset by other activities that provide satisfaction. The more people there are embracing a mill-around [that is, focusing on tending to one’s particular places and resources, rather than always trying to “build greater” (see Luke 12:18)] theory of life, the more we will be able to accept less (pp. 102, 112-113).
The dismissal by Jackson and Jensen of any dream of building greater (better technological solutions, larger system changes, more comprehensive regulations, etc.) isn’t a dismissal of any kind of building, period; as they write: “There is nothing wrong with individuals or communities taking action that might enhance short-term survival in crises. . . . Being more self-reliant is a good thing” (p. 90). But the building they have in mind is a local, neighborly, collective sort of remnant-building. And so it isn’t surprising to find, standing right alongside more apocalyptic thinkers, local farmers—in this case, a panel of African-American farmers and food producers from across the region, from Common Ground in Wichita to Sankara Farm in Kansas City–talking about their attempts to move the needle when it comes to food policy. This obviously means a strong systems awareness, and their presentations reflected that (lots of praise for the ecologically minded food-related proposals of Senator Cory Booker or the USDA’s support for Healthy Corner Store initiatives across the country, lots of frustration with PETA’s distracting obsession with the science of fake meat or the overall leadership of Tom Vilsack, President Biden’s corporate agriculture-friendly choice to lead the Department of Agriculture). But the systems-change they surely recognize as necessary does not dictate their local experimentation, in the same way that the concerns about climate change do not primarily dictate the genetic research into perennial grains conducted by TLI’s geneticists. Rather, the goal is to act practically, to lean into whatever practices and innovations might enable the local accomplishment of their particular vocations, whether that be improving the nutritional intake of the poor without contributing to the ecological footprint or enabling greater access to food markets by Black farmers without forcing a homogenizing abandonment of local adaptations.
None of this may seem to have much of anything to do with investing our talk about the environment with a fierce, bottom-line apocalyptism, a rejection of any false hopes in some kind of techno-providence, and a harsh, Lorenzen-like return to the land to await the end. On the contrary, there is a self-deprecating good humor to Jackson and Jensen’s screed (though perhaps that is more Jackson than Jensen; in Hogs Are Up, he has a great line about stopping by Lorenzen’s shack where his friend was somewhat distraught over receiving Social Security payments which he did not want, then mentions that he had to leave Leland to his struggles because he had to go and catch a plane and further increase atmospheric carbon). In my experience, this same good humor is manifest by many of the hippies and hard workers who populate The Land Institute. To my mind, such attitudes reflect different takes on “milling about”–or put another way, attending to whatever humble efforts present themselves in one’s local environment and one’s everyday life which might contribute to more just and more sustainable local practices, all in the shadow of the apocalypse. Because if you accept the diagnosis of Jackson and others at TLI—or even if you don’t entirely, but at least acknowledge its sobering plausibility, which is the camp in which I count myself—then one should also accept that in the long-term, patient local work which eschews the grand solution is the only work that can ultimately be sustained through and beyond the systems-level consequences that our own socio-economic choices and carbon-addicted natures are bringing about. Wendell Berry has written endlessly about the goodness of local work; if, for Berry, the goodness of such work is connected to agrarian virtue, while for Jackson it is connected to ecological necessity, does that make much practical difference? In the end (which may be closer than we know!), perhaps not that much.