Where agriculture meets empire: An interview with Wes Jackson

By Robert Jensen

Published in Alternet · July, 2003

Wes Jackson and his colleagues at the Land Institute are working on a 10,000 year-old problem — agriculture. Not simply problems in agriculture, but the problem of agriculture.

That fundamental problem is that no one has come up with a sustainable system for perpetuating agricultural productivity. High yields mask what Jackson has called “the failure of success”: Production remains high while the health of the soil continues to decline dramatically — primarily because of erosion and chemical contamination of land and water. That kind of success guarantees the inevitable collapse of the system.

Agriculture isn’t the only system we live with that is unsustainable — empire and capitalism also come to mind quickly. How are these systems connected to each other? How long can such systems continue before they give way to something new? Can they be replaced before they take the planet down with them? Who and what will suffer in the meantime? And, what can movements do to change all this? Jackson has some provocative ideas about — though he’d be the first to admit, no definitive answers to — these questions.

Twenty-seven years ago, Jackson — then a professor of environmental studies at California State University-Sacramento with degrees in botany and genetics — co-founded the Land Institute to pursue a long-term solution to the problem of agriculture, delving into both the scientific and cultural aspects. The goal, articulated in the Land Institute’s mission statement, is agriculture that will allow people, communities, and the land to prosper in sustainable fashion.

The research into what they call “natural systems agriculture” (NSA) investigates ways that monoculture annual grains (such as corn and wheat) can be replaced by polyculture (grown in combinations) perennial grains. NSA attempts to mimic nature instead of subduing it. Jackson points out that when left alone, a natural ecosystem such as a prairie recycles materials, sponsors its own fertility, runs on contemporary sunlight, and increases biodiversity. The question NSA poses is whether agriculture can be designed to increase ecological wealth in such fashion rather than degrade it.

Jackson, who currently serves as the president of the Land Institute, is the author of several books, including “New Roots for Agriculture,” “Altars of Unhewn Stone” and “Becoming Native to This Place.” In his writing and frequent lectures, Jackson explores the intersection of science and society, agronomy and ecology, culture and politics. His talks are a lively mix of styles — country preacher, old-time storyteller, hard-nosed scientist, and political organizer. Jackson is blunt about the problems of the culture and agriculture but hopeful about the possibilities of change, and his folksy style allows him to launch fairly radical ideas in ways that don’t seem threatening. I began my interview with him by asking him to expand on several slogans he had tossed out at Prairie Festival, the annual celebration of the Land Institute, in 2001.

Robert Jensen: At the 25th anniversary celebration you offered three aphorisms that seem to turn conventional political wisdom on its head — “If we walk our talk, we won’t get there,” “We need to spend more time preaching to the choir,” and “We’ve got to quit meeting people where they are.” Explain what you meant.

Wes Jackson: “If we walk our talk, we won’t get there” is the easy one. Look, I ride jet planes. I drive. My household is tied into the grid. We’re all dependent on the extractive economy. If we were to “walk the talk” — if we were to really live within the limits of a renewal life-support system with no subsidies from coal or portable liquid fuels or the poison of nuclear power — we would have trouble making our voices heard in the culture.

Another way to put it is that there’s no life outside the system. So, I think we should ask two questions about endeavors that involve us in the extractive economy. One is, “How can I use this nonrenewable resource in a strategic way?” Two, “Is it so much fun that you can’t say no to it?” That second one is just a way of not taking ourselves too seriously.

What about the people who say that it’s important to create alternatives that are, to the degree possible, outside the system? Should people sacrifice involvement in a political movement to create a model of something else?

We do need those good examples, and people have to work in the area of their passion. When I look at people I start with the question, “Have they joined the fight?” If they have, then you have to be careful in critique, because we don’t know enough about what’s going to be most effective in the long run. If someone wants to be the good example, then fine. But I think they should be doing it out of intrinsic interest, not out of sense of nobility.

What about, “We need to spend more time preaching to the choir”?

That’s meant to suggest we need to deepen the discussion. The modern environmental movement really began in 1962 with Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Before that, environmentalism was mostly about wilderness advocacy, with some focus on soil erosion and water conservation. With those roots in saving wilderness, this new environmental movement lacked the intellectual basis necessary to understand the kinds of problems we face as a consequence of consumerism. Today we have to fight the idea that nature is to be subdued or ignored. In that older view, wilderness was seen as the sacred, and we could afford to allow other parts of the world that served human needs and desires to be profane. Now we realize the planet is seamless and that wilderness is really an artifact of civilization. So, we haven’t had a long enough time to deepen the discussion, and that deepening is best done with members of the choir, rather than with people who are just catching on that the planet is in trouble.

What about the argument that we have to broaden the movement so that we have the political power to make the changes that are so crucial?

Yes, but by making a movement’s ideas too readily accessible, you can make them meaningless. Ultimately, you have to have depth to your argument or people will find themselves being self-satisfied by hauling their cans to be recycled in their SUV. To even be talking about recycling when the parking lots are full is kind of absurd.

There’s a lot of work for the choir to do, too. For example, we have to learn to be better numbersmiths, to understand science and statistics. I’m going to be 67 this month, and in my lifetime people have burned 97.5 percent of all the oil that has ever been burned. That’s an important statistic. We have to face the fact that we are not going to find a technological substitute for the high-density energy that comes out of a gas or oil well. It is thermodynamically implausible. We have not attended to these numbers and realities. So, we have people running around rather glibly saying that, “We have alternatives. We just need to get solar and wind and thermal insulation and this, that and the other.”

What do you say to those who contend that there are energy alternatives that will allow Americans to continue to consume at the current level?

I say that’s nuts. That’s where the discussion needs to deepen. Take the example of a photovoltaic array and look at the energy that the array will produce in its lifetime and the energy it takes to make it. It’s a ratio that ranges from 4:1 to 8:1. Or a wind machine, which is about the same. Thermal insulation is pretty good, close to 100:1. But all that still isn’t enough. It’s assumed, because scarcity is always said to be the mother of invention, that when things get scarce we will find the alternative. Well, I’m saying there simply is no alternative to the density of high-energy carbon coming out of an oil well.

Do you think there is a need to preach to the choir in other movements, such as the antiwar or anti-corporate globalization movements?

I think so. It’s clear that war and racism, poverty, sexism, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, are all connected. And when we hit a brick wall, it turns out that brick wall is capitalism. We’re going to have to face that. But people want to believe it is possible to design around capitalism, through regulation and progressive legislation. But that won’t work, and we need some consciousness-raising on that.

What about the argument that the reactionary right and the Bush administration are so dangerous, such a threat to the planet, that all our efforts should be directed to defeating Bush in 2004?

I think that’s pretty naïve. The Bush folks are going to go to the fat cats who made out so well on the tax cuts and say, “OK boys, give us 10 percent.” And they’ll get it, and that will put billons in their coffers, and they’ll use that to buy media and control the discussion. It’s whistling in the dark to presume those guys don’t have a plan to keep this thing alive.

What if the Democrats had a realistic chance to beat Bush? Would that change anything for you?

Given the behavior of the Democrats, who have tried to become more like the Republicans, what evidence do we have that they would have a spirited about-face? I’m pretty sure they would be better in some ways, that fewer of our civil liberties would be violated. But the Democrats are not trying to change our dependence on an extractive economy. What did Clinton do for us?

The Democrats turn the dial a little to the left, and the Republicans turn it to the right, but they’re both on the wrong channel. I don’t see any fine-tuning that is going to make a big difference.

What about the third slogan, “We’ve got to quit meeting people where they are”?

If you meet people where they are, you’re going to meet them in Wal-Mart, where things are cheap and things don’t last. We keep trying to meet people on the grounds of economics: Are they going to be able to keep their 401Ks intact? Are they going to have more money so they can eat out more often and buy more breakables? In that framework, the ecology message is reduced to hoping that the EPA does a better job of enforcing the Clean Water Act and the Clear Air Act. But the planet could still go down the tubes with clean water and clean water, and with wind generators in place. We’ve not talked about a society that, at the rate it’s going, is going to require four planets to keep up with consumption.

Here’s where we have to be thinking deeply. Agriculture had its beginning 10,000 years ago. What were the ecosystems like 10,000 years ago, after the retreat of the ice? Those ecosystems featured material recycling and they ran on contemporary sunlight. Humans have yet to build societies like that. Is it possible that embedded in nature’s economy are suggestions for a human economy in which conservation is a consequence of production? Let’s open that up. The day after 9/11, I wrote a piece suggesting that what George Bush should say is, “My fellow Americans, from this day forward we will evaluate our progress by how independent of the extractive economy we have become.” I think that kind of speech would resonate with a lot of people. But if it resonates, then they have to roll up their sleeves and say, “What does that mean for me, for us?” That would not be meeting people where they are. George Bush is meeting people where they are.

One possible conclusion from all this is that, given where the culture and most people are, a mass movement around sustainability isn’t possible today. Is that your view?

Let me be more positive. A mass intellectual engagement on these issues is possible and is necessary. I don’t know if is possible right now. My hope is that when the resource base declines and we are caught — and it will appear to be unawares — there will have been going on in smaller circles an adequate deepening of the conversation that has the potential to spread among the larger population.

Any thoughts on how to go forward with that?

One thing to avoid is getting too overloaded with abstractions, without any of the particulars. This struggle that we’re involved in is not going to be won with the bumper sticker. It’s going to be won across the ecological mosaic of the country; it’s going to be the particularities. I’m worried about our willingness to so readily embrace the abstractions without the particularities.

Here’s an example, which will sound like whining, but it’s not. Here at the Land Institute people are out there breeding crops, doing the experiments, evaluating germ plasm, because we think that in the 25 to 50 year time frame it’s possible to build an agriculture based on the way natural ecosystems work. Those are particularities. Now, some of the people in the environmental movement, some who are my friends, think that they are change agents and are out there networking, going off to another conference. I don’t object to people doing those kinds of things — I do some of that myself — but what I do object to is the marginalization of an organization like ours because we say it will take 25 to 50 years before we have something to offer the farmer. My question for almost any group is, “What does this translate into in a material way?”

Even though we are marginal, one reason that we are still alive as a viable organization is not only that we have an alternative paradigm, in the Kuhnian sense, but there is pollen being transferred on behalf of that paradigm. In other words, I think values dictate genotype. I think we’re here because our project resonates at a deep level with the Friends of the Land and the foundation world.

What effect on public policy have you had?

We’ve been to Washington, and we’ve hit the brick walls. So, we’re avoiding the brick walls. Instead, we are supporting 19 graduate students from around the country. They will go back to their universities, and we hope the institute’s intellectual “virus” will infect these major universities and eventually overcome their institutional “immune systems.” It’s change from the bottom up. In that sense, we’re looking at public policy for the long term. We are trying to develop the compelling alternative for the future.

What is your assessment of the anti-corporate globalization movement, especially the tactic of street protests?

We need to confront, but we also need these particularities. The good thing about this movement is the realization that we’re all caught within a kind of structural immorality. But, the bad thing is that we tend to stop with that, as if there’s nothing I can do except protest about it, and hope that the overall structure changes so that my behavior will be more environmentally benign. Street protests — in combination with other tactics — have worked in the past, in other movements. But I think that the environmental movement is, in many ways, more complicated than the anti-Vietnam war or civil rights movement. We have to deal with the aspect of human nature that wants stuff, wants comfort and security. For some time I think we were naïve and thought these problems could be solved easily.

This is one area where I think we need to sit back and do some more thinking. What has worked? Take a look at CSAs, community-supported agriculture. I’m all for those, but they don’t really speak to the vast majority of 350 million acres of farmland, most of which is eroding and being chemically contaminated. CSA farms are donuts around the cities. I don’t object to doing that, but we shouldn’t presume that’s a movement.

We need to be saying, “Listen folks, capitalism is inherently destructive.” How do we get from where we are to where we need to be, keeping in mind that we can’t just try to tame that son of a bitch. We have got to get rid of capitalism.

What are the most effective vehicles for that, if it’s not just protests in the streets, not faith in the Democrats?

That isn’t easy. We need to be drawing attention to the brick wall of capitalism every time we hit it, acknowledging that we don’t just need to find a way over it but how to knock it down. But what about while we are blocked by the brick wall? Well, it is worthwhile when we are making a pollination or designing our experiments that we design it for some future farmer, rather than for something that can be readily adopted today by a corporate bookkeeper. In our breeding work here we could try to come up with perennial monocultures, and that would make the seed companies happy. Our work on perennial polycultures doesn’t knock the wall of capitalism down, but at least while you are behind the wall you can imagine life on the other side of the wall. That may sound like a poor and hollow substitute for something that will get at knocking down the wall. But at least we can plan for the other side.

Do you have any thoughts on what an alternative to capitalism would look like?

Just to get discussion going, I’ve been putting forward the hypothesis that since the Stone Age there has not been a single technological product or process, including the domestication of crops and livestock, that hasn’t come at the cost of drawing down the capital stock of the planet. I call that the “utterly dismal hypothesis.” I’m advancing it not because it’s necessarily right, but to suggest that life forms have got it as good as it gets. Whether you are talking about the cell, the tissue, the organ, the organ system or the organism, up that hierarchy to the ecosystem and the ecosphere — at all levels in that hierarchy of structure, life has had to work it out, given the constraints of the second law of thermodynamics. To presume that we can have a technological array that beats that is somewhat arrogant. Life would have done that long ago. Why should we constantly be looking for technological solutions? I don’t think we have spent enough time looking at the rules of nature’s economy, which are systems that have featured material recycling and run on contemporary sunlight. That’s the kind of alternative economics I’m interested in. And I think that if we don’t get sustainability in agriculture first, it’s not going to happen. We have some disciplines standing behind and, potentially, helping agriculture — ecology, evolutionary biology. So that is where it seems to me where the discussion has to start.