Wes Jackson — The Progressive Interview

‘There’s no single environmental problem that anybody is too heroic or important for.’

by Erik Ness

(The Progressive, September 1996)

The road to The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, seems to have been designed to enrage Wes Jackson, a founding father of sustainable agriculture and reluctant prophet of the prairie. To get to The Land, as it’s called, go south from the interstate and turn left at the pump house, which mines water from the deep Ogalala aquifer faster than it can be replaced. Drive until you cross the Smoky Hill River, muddy with eroded topsoil, and you’re there. For hundreds of miles in every direction, the corduroy green and brown of row crops drape the landscape, sucking up the accumulated biological wealth of the long-dead native prairie.

Wheat defines the area, and Jackson believes wheat will be its undoing. Watching tons of Kansas topsoil tumbling into oblivion has driven Jackson to take the radical position that not only is agriculture beset with problems, agriculture is the problem. Farming can be ecologically sensitive, he admits. But it almost never is. And like civilizations before us in Mesopotamia and Mexico, we will fail when our topsoil gives out.

It would be merely another doomsday refrain except for the fact that Wes Jackson has a plan. He wants to model agriculture in the Great Plains on the prairies that once rolled unbroken for millions of acres. While wheat has to be planted every year, leaving the soil a continual open wound, prairies are made up of perennials, which bloom year after year. An underground tapestry of roots protects the soil and even builds it. The prairie of Jackson’s dreams—what he calls a perennial polyculture will provide a continual bounty of natural grains, all the while enriching the land.

It’s not likely to happen in your lifetime. Over the last two decades, scientists at The Land Institute have been laying the foundation, finding out which plants grow well together, and which produce enough seeds to rival the wheat king. Many obstacles must be overcome, including the logistics of harvesting and the vagaries of the human taste bud. Jackson thinks these labors will bear fruit some time in the next 200 years.

A scientist first, Jackson was trained as a plant geneticist. He sprinkles his conversation with references to other scientists, poets, and the Bible. One footnote turns up frequently: the Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry, who has collaborated with Jackson on many projects. “Wendell is the one who makes it possible, mainly because Wendell is the complete gentleman, and always proper. He has a sense of propriety, and I find him absolutely indispensable,” says Jackson, sipping beer in the grass beside his garden. “Neither one of us feels the need to use any sort of esoteric or specialist language. We just go at it like there’s something that needs to be thought about and resolved. And I think we get things done.”

Q: You’re a geneticist by training, yet you’ve called for a moratorium on biotechnology. What is your rationale?

Jackson: I think what most people are worried about is the movement of a gene out of a hog into a corn plant or from bacterium into soybeans. I am bothered by that gee-whiz genetics stuff. Not because some cut-loose gene is going to wipe out the human population. And I don’t consider it to be the ultimate pollution, as some of my friends do. My problem with it is it’s painfully old. It’s just ratcheting up human cleverness rather than looking to nature’s wisdom. I would like to sober people up and to think about what the consequences are of this “knowledge-is-adequate” world view. We are billions of times more ignorant than knowledgeable, which is why we’ve got an ozone hole and Chernobyl and global warming.

Biotechnology also comes tied to the idea that we can improve on nature. We’ve got to be more mindful of the original materials of the creation. It’s a way to start thinking about arresting hubris. That has to be our work: How do you get at humility? How do you develop humility and a culture that allows us to function, instead of the industrial heroism that we constantly embrace?

Q: The national mood these days is in part defined by a deep sense of economic unease. But while people are talking about corporate downsizing, there has been little talk of problems in agriculture. Is the public missing an agricultural crisis?

Jackson: I think so. Start with Wendell’s great book The Unsettling of America, where he talks about a crisis in culture and an ecological crisis. That warning—and it’s been over twenty years now—has not been heeded. What’s happening to farmers is a validation of Wendell’s warning: the chemical contamination of the countryside, the fact that rural people are buying bottled water, that farmers are going out of business right and left, that farmers are actually on food stamps, some of them.

What this means in the longer run is a shortage of food. It’s very hard to imagine, but in bringing the oil epoch to agriculture we’ve destroyed the old social and cultural arrangements of food production. I wish we could put on glasses where we could see only the flow of carbon. Then we would get a better appreciation of what it is that subsidizes the food production.

Q: While most people talk about an information explosion, you argue we’re in the midst of an information implosion. What do you mean by that?

Jackson: Think about the guy out plowing and looking at the red-winged blackbirds in the sky and making a decision about whether or not he’s got time to make one more turn around the field. That brings to mind George Bernard Shaw’s line about perfect memories, perfect forgetfulness. You know something so well you don’t know how you know it. But if you are not in a context where you learn that, you would be as helpless as I would be on a basketball court with the Chicago Bulls. They’re doing all sorts of things without thought, whether it is a blind pass, or when there’s a ball going out of bounds rushing to the edge and getting it back. They don’t even know how they know to do all those things, but it’s contextual. In a similar manner, we’ve got this circumstance of having been raised on a farm, which forces us to do lots of things. If we aren’t in that context, that cultural information disappears.

Q: You’ve suggested that one way to reverse that trend is for large numbers of Americans to move back to the country. What kind of life do you envision for these people?

Jackson: The people who return to those places will probably have to make some serious sacrifices, and therefore their vision will have to be pretty clear about what it is they’re doing. In a relative sense, they’ll be worse off than the original pioneers, in that they’ll have all this affluence around them. But in a real sense, they’ll be better off than the original pioneers. If we’ve got new pioneers trying to reinhabit the countryside, grow their gardens, and eventually acquire land and farms, with a different set of assumptions than the original settlers, they’re going to have to carry with them a pretty thorough understanding of ecological systems.

They’re also going to have to see that there is another economy that comes from neighborliness. That economy carries with it something very different from the money economy. Contrast life in an American town with life in a town in Tuscany, where people are in the streets, hugging one another, with fierce conversations going on. We’re just dead. We’re inside our own little places. We’re lonely, we’re isolated, and we’re non-interactive, because the television is. I think the malls are the consequence of an awful lot of unhappy people.

Q: You’ve written that “there will not be one individual that leads to a safe and sustainable future. It will be a culture that decides.” Seeing that it’s an election year, what is the best way politically that people can move toward developing that culture?

Jackson: When you say the best way, and then add politically, that has to modify my answer.

The best way is to focus on the nature of an extractive economy versus a renewable economy and then start asking how long are the ingredients that are essential for our livelihoods in that extractive economy—the oil and the topsoil—going to last? We need to begin to measure our progress by how independent of the extractive economy we’ve become.

You’re not going to get one politician to discuss extractive versus renewable economies in a stump speech, or anywhere. That’s one reason why I don’t care much about most of the discussion.

Whether you have abortion or whether you have a death penalty, in a way it doesn’t matter. What’s going to define the future is a social arrangement and therefore economic arrangement that rewards renewability over extraction.

How do we bring that about? I don’t think it is the kind of thing that we can make happen instantly. There are some people who criticize the likes of Wendell and me for going around preaching to the choir, but I think the choir needs preaching to, because we deepen the discussion. Just look at the history of environmentalism, where there was the wilderness advocate that didn’t give a rip about the poor or see the connection between poverty and wilderness. I think we’ve gone beyond that, and know that environmentalists can and should talk about poverty and wilderness.

Q: You’ve predicted that the fruits of your research may be harvested in a century or two. How do you sustain your vision so far into the future?

Jackson: Well, by having a long time frame that won’t be proven out until after I’m dead, I don’t have to take the heat. But seriously, almost any short-term vision is incomplete, and intellectually unsatisfying. If you’re only worried about the next five years or ten years, you probably have a solution that is temporary.

Q: You’re talking about environmentalism that is a life’s hard labor, not the occasional $30 magazine subscription or membership fee. With so much work to be done, how should people set their activist priorities?

Jackson: The people that have made a difference are just doing what’s right in front of them, without shopping around for whether this is the most relevant thing to do or not. I think about Catherine Sneed, who technically works for the sheriff of San Francisco County. She takes prisoners out to plant gardens. She just did what was right in front of her.

I think that’s the kind of activism that we need, rather than to stop and think, “Now is this heroic enough for me? Does this problem deserve my attention?” There’s no single environmental problem that anybody is too heroic or important for. It’s like the difference between getting out of a car and walking. Once you start walking, the world gets bigger. You have slowed down and you’re then dealing with what Blake talked about: being attentive to the minute particular.

What that does is to force you to quit living with the abstractions about saving the planet. Nobody, no species can save the planet. You can only love a planet, and then act responsibly in a particular place. You can’t even think globally unless you’re thinking statistically, or thinking at a level that doesn’t do any good.

All our side has to do is just keep making sense—that’s all. I don’t think we have to have any other responsibility. I don’t think we have to be strategic in an aggressive sense. I don’t think we have to cajole or try to scare the pants off of everybody. Ask ourselves the question in our own lives, with our families and children: Where does a sense of oughtness come from? It comes from trying to make sense of the world. You go over there and look at that river with all that topsoil going down that doesn’t make sense.

Q: Do we even have an appropriate language for talking about how we deal with the land?

Jackson: It’s interesting if you just trace the history of the use of the word “sustainable.” Before “sustainable,” in the thirties and forties, we were talking about a “permanent agriculture.” Well, everybody knew that you couldn’t talk about a “permanent agriculture,” because you may have radishes one year and cabbage the next in the same spot. Then the term “sustainable” came along. I’ve been accused of being the first one to use that but I don’t believe it. I’m pretty sure that it was in the culture, and that it wouldn’t take much looking to find people who used it long before I did.

Now it’s a buzzword. We go along and use the term, then we get kind of tired of it, then we recognize the need to protect it because there isn’t anything better out there waiting in the wings. I think it’s a fine term now. It’s a term that’s come out of the people, and it rolls around the mouth. Bob Rodale tried to peddle that term “regenerative,” and he called me up and lobbied me. He says, “Well, Wes, why don’t you want to use it?” I said, “Well, it doesn’t roll around the mouth right, Bob.”

Q: I’ve often wondered if “environmentalism” suffers just because it has too many syllables.

Jackson: Now “environment” is an unfortunate term. It’s a vague term. Stan Rowe was an ecologist at the University of Saskatchewan, and he contends that the use of the term “environment” is the consequence of an inside-out look, rather than an outside-in look. In other words, if you start with the planet, and look inwards, you’ll never come up with the term “environment.” It’s an anthropocentric view.

Q: If you had a choice between buying vegetables from a small farmer using chemicals and a large commercial organic farm, which would you choose?

Jackson: The small chemical farmer. You stand a better chance of getting the small chemical grower to give up chemicals than you do the large guy to give up his land. Stewardship of the land requires lots of people. In other words, what you have with the big operations is the sufficiency of capital versus the sufficiency of people. I don’t think you can save a farm where capital is what you depend on primarily.

You don’t stop soil erosion primarily through capital. You stop it by people who have affection for a place. The farm family using chemicals is more likely to love their place. You can’t love huge acreage. You can’t get your affection wrapped around that any more than you could get it wrapped around a whole bunch of women. You can’t love them all and love them well.

Q: Do we need land reform in this country?

Jackson: The rights that currently attend a deed will lead to ecological destruction. Let’s say that I’m on my property, and over on somebody else’s property is a farmer’s child. I decide to fire my gun in that direction, and I hit that child and kill her. Now I’m on my own property; I’ll do what I want. Now everybody will acknowledge because of the speed of the transaction, that that is wrong. But I dump chemicals on my property that are known carcinogens, and it is my business, and that daughter ends up dying years later of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—that’s a killer just as sure as the bullet. This is just a nutty presumption that you can do on your property what you want to do and that your neighbors have to go get bottled water.

Q: What do you think of the discussion that ensued with the capture of the Unabomber? People looked with some derision at even his typewriter and bicycle.

Jackson: A lot of us have been in agreement with what’s in that manifesto, but we’ve not been violent. What’s the message? Violence got some attention to the topic. I’m still not going to buy into that, but I’m irritated—greatly irritated—that the issues that he raised would not have been aired if there had not been violence. Why can’t we have a discussion about those issues, about that bike? Look at the way they’re treating Cuba. We say, “Aha! They’re all riding bicycles, therefore the revolution failed.” But the Cubans are saying, “We’re now riding bicycles, the revolution has just begun.” I’ve got a friend who lives thirty-two miles south of here in a shack and gets by on $500 a year. Leland’s a smart guy, but a lot of people see Leland and totally dismiss him. He eats greens out of his yard, and wheat, and Leland believes you start doing violence to both people and the earth when you start seeking pleasure. He says there is nothing wrong with experiencing pleasure, but when you start seeking pleasure, that’s when you start rearranging the world and do violence. To me, that’s a valid thing for us to be thinking about.

Q: You talk about scripture a lot.

Jackson: What I am not talking about is focusing on that part of the scripture that has to do with saving your ass for eternity. This would be an interesting test: How many Christians would be faithful if suddenly they learned, beyond all doubt, that there ain’t no hereafter? That they’re just flat-ass dead. How many would be faithful to the Christian calling? I hope I would.

Q: How does your faith relate to your ecological vision?

Jackson: The idea of redemption is an ecological idea, not a religious one. Take an eroded hillside. With loving care, that hillside can be redeemed. That’s an ecological reality and a Christian idea. That’s the kind of thing that gives me heart.

The absolute beauty of the creation, the wonder of it, is a great source. You can just feel some psalmists loaded with joy. They sat in a place not unlike this place in which I sit and had feelings not unlike the feelings I have. This sort of spirit is constantly coming at us from the source that caused it to be codified in the language of the scriptures. That source didn’t just go away one day, and say all right, from now on you got to read it. That source is constantly moving through me.

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Copyright 2005 by Erik Ness

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