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Synthesis/Regeneration 48   (Winter 2008)

Surviving Climate Change

From Extractive to Renewable Agriculture

by Wes Jackson

[Editor’s note: This is a transcription of the author’s June 28, 2008 presentation at the Surviving Climate Change roundtable.]

I played hooky this afternoon. I wanted to see the Mississippi River, at the highest it’s been since 1993. As I looked, my mind went to 1803 at the time of the Louisiana Purchase and wondered, if Thomas Jefferson had been standing where I was standing, in his time, what the light reflecting off the rushing turbulent river would be. Would it be as dark as it is now due to soil? The river may have been as high, but because the Mississippi was draining native prairie and forestland, nutrients headed toward the Gulf in 1803 would soon be replaced by nosing roots of the prairie and the forest. Recharge of the ecological capital from the rocks and the subsoil to sponsor growth would be more or less complete. Not so today.

We live on the most fortunate of all continents. Pleistocene ice from the Canadian shield scraped and ground and pulverized rocks to give us much of Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska. We have the richest soils in the world and the most favorable moisture regimes.

But, our good land has suffered for our ignorance. Wendell Berry once said that as we came across the continent, cutting the forests and plowing the prairies, we’ve never known what we were doing because we have never known what we were undoing. It has suffered from institutional causes, as well.

… we’ve never known what we were doing because we have never known what we were undoing.

Dan Luten, professor at UC-Berkeley, acknowledged the role of our institutions as derivatives of our early settlement when he noted that we came as a poor people to a seemingly empty land that was rich in resources. We built our institutions for that perception of reality: poor people, empty land, rich. Our educational institutions, our political institutions, our economic institutions, even our religious institutions, are largely predicated on that idea. Well, now we’ve become rich people in an increasingly poor land that is filling up. The institutions don’t hold. We patch them up here and there and as Professor Luten would have said, “give them a lick and a promise. But they don’t hold.”

Watch the Mississippi today under the Arch, the symbolic gateway to the west, with all those nutrients headed for New Orleans and the Gulf, and we are watching the stuff of which we are made headed toward a watery grave. The “stuff” of which I speak is the elements, the building blocks of nature represented on the periodic chart in our science classrooms. In the upper third of that chart are 20-some elements that go into organisms. Four are carried in the atmospheric commons: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen.

The rest are in the soil, but vulnerable to the forces of wind and rain. The speed of their loss is a recent phenomenon in the Americas, but not on a global scale. It began about 10,000 years ago at the eastern end of the Mediterranean where the greatest group of revolutionaries to ever live began to give us essentially all of our crops and livestock. It probably began with the discovery of wheat in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran. It was a big, new moment. Most of the ecosystems of the planet over most of the land, then and now, feature perennial plants growing in mixtures. Where tillage agriculture took hold there was a reversal as we featured annuals in monocultures.

… the plow has destroyed more options for future generations than has the sword.

Ten millennia later we see that the plow has destroyed more options for future generations than has the sword. Ten thousand years is a long time, but more change has come in the last century than in the 99 centuries before. The historical consequences due to soil erosion and declined natural quality have been erased with massive fossil fuel inputs, especially over the last 50 years. This cancerous situation is temporarily being offset by chemotherapy and obfuscates the reality of the lost natural fertility.

Speed of change is the primary characteristic of our moment in other, perhaps more obvious ways. The 10-year-old has lived through the burning of 25% of all the oil burned to date, the 22-year-old 54%. I am 72 now, but 50 years ago my cohorts and I had lived through 16% of that amount. Because the speed with which this is coming has no precedent for humans, we have little in the way of maps to chart a different course, especially given that the ecological capital we need is being lost at an all-time high.

Tomorrow I will go to Washington D.C. to take part in a discussion on a 50-year farm bill. We will recommend that each of the 5-year farm bills for the next 50 years be mileposts to move agriculture from an extractive to a renewable economy. Those assembled believe a new vision for agriculture is necessary and possible.

Our effort will require arresting language more difficult than what John F. Kennedy could say, over 50 years ago, when he said let’s go to the moon within 10 years. He could make a promise because rocket science is easy and the moon a visible reality to the entire world. But when we talk about a renewable agriculture, that’s ecology. Sustainable soil and wise use of the land involve more complexity than rocket science and most people are not in intimate contact with the soils that sustain them.

The 10-year-old has lived through the burning of 25% of all the oil burned to date …

Nevertheless, our vision is clear, our commitment firm. We want to move agriculture from an extractive to a renewable economy with no soil erosion beyond replacement levels, no fossil fuel dependency, no or minimal introduction of chemicals with which our tissues have no evolutionary experience. It is now possible to have an agriculture like that, every bit as sustainable as the nature we destroy. All we need is the political will, and that we hope to generate. For the past 30 years the Land Institute has been devoted to the idea of building an agriculture that yields most of our calories, one that, as much as possible, acts like the never-plowed native prairie. To make this happen, Stan Cox, our senior scientist and head of research, directs a “dream team” of young Ph.D.’s who are perennializing several major grain crops of wheat, sorghum and sunflowers, and domesticating some wild species. We are also helping support perennial rice research in China.

Our goal for this meeting and what follows is to develop a document for the desk of the next president. How to write it is a challenge, for we need to articulate a vision as powerful as Kennedy’s idea of a man on the moon. (That really was a cheap trick — I mean an expensive cheap trick at the height of technological gee-whizzery. Humans never really went to the moon. It is one of the biggest lies we are telling ourselves. We have encapsulated a few of us inside an earth environment to get in close proximity to the moon and were even held there by the moon’s gravity, but we have not been to the moon. If one thinks that’s a detail, then unzip the suit.)

The technological triumph involving the moon brings to mind the need to arrest the most serious kind of fundamentalism, worse than all the forms of religious fundamentalism. I’m speaking of technological fundamentalism. This belief in the idea that technology is our savior prevents us from acknowledging our embeddedness within the ecosphere and the extent of our dependence upon it. Our capitalistic way of doing business pays little attention to the degree we destroy in the interest of temporary wealth.

This mention of capitalism does require something of a reminder that we should not be too hard on ourselves. We are talking about something intrinsic, which is to say that much of our way of being began 3.45 billion years ago with our carbon-based ancestors. Little has changed. The bacterium on a petri dish, drosophila fly within a flask, a snowshoe rabbit and, yes, ourselves, like nearly all other organisms, go after energy-rich carbon and use it. It doesn’t have to be sugars or bananas, it can be to fuel our technology. We’ll do anything to get it. The curve illustrating the use of fossil carbon by human beings is somewhat parallel to the technological explosion as well as the growth of the human population. Looking at these two curves shows that humans have exercised no more restraint than bacteria or fruit flies. So, the big test for us is to run the experiment and see if we can learn to practice restraint in the use of energy. So far it has been the use of energy destroying our ecosphere. Perhaps a little history is necessary here.

We’ve been around with the big brain for 150 to 200,000 years, but 10,000 years ago we began to exploit the first pool of non-renewable carbon, the carbon of the soil. It is non-renewable at the rate at which we spend and waste it.

Agriculture made civilization possible but quickly led to draw-down in various ancient civilizations. Then we got into forestry and eventually used wood for smelting, which made possible the bronze and iron ages. And then only 250 years ago we developed technologies keyed to coal, and the industrial revolution was off and running. In 1859 Drake’s oil well was drilled, and then natural gas. So we’ve been going through these five pools as fast as our technology will allow.

… there is no technological substitute for soil.

A moment ago I said we should not be too hard on ourselves about capitalistic economics. We rail about it, but capitalism is simply a set of powerful abstractions created by us to codify getting at those non-renewable pools of energy and developing the accoutrements of civilization that energy makes possible. Exploitation of soil carbon and forest carbon devastated vast landscapes and supported high civilizations, but beginning with coal’s sponsorship of the industrial revolution, carbon availability and carbon hunger really kicked in. The language of modern economics, which apparently had its beginnings with the mercantile class in the Middle Ages, eventually developed a logic which says, “Here is production, and here is consumption.”

All capitalistic language involves rationale within the production/consumption cycle. Outside this cycle are forests and prairies and the atmosphere and more. The code for economic behavior does not include them until they are needed. So we discount them. The atmosphere has been a good place to externalize costs and now we see the consequences with climate change. The rule is that nature is ignored, subdued and abused. So here we are. We are clever, but we are not very wise. The abstractions we created as we created capitalism are abstractions of the pump; that’s cleverness. Being mindful of maintaining the well is the signature of wisdom.

This brings me to finally consider the role of activism. To open this discussion, let’s acknowledge our schizophrenia about morality and capitalism. Over the last several months, many of us protested and so far have managed to stop the construction of two 700-megawatt coal-fired power plants in western Kansas. Several of my environmentalist friends wanted to vilify the utilities. And I said, “Look, it is the wrong place for us to direct our protests. The utilities are operating rationally given their fiduciary obligations to stockholders. Don’t expect them to respond to our charges, anger or pleas. We have got to organize and get the policy to stop them.” We allowed their creation by allowing the abstractions of the pump. Petri dish economics has been with us from early on.

The important thing is we have got to get in front of the politicians. That’s not enough. Many of us need to say, “Here is the future we want for the American land.”

We should have learned our lessons. Thirty and 40 years ago, we were talking about energy and climate. Nothing happened, and we lost three decades and more. We may get the renewable energy just in time, and we may be able to do something about climate through technology and restraint. This brings us now to the need of a 50-year farm bill because there is no technological substitute for soil. If we can stay fed, we can get through this long, dark tunnel. It is worth considering that light we see at the end may be the light of a freight train headed our way. If we can’t stay fed because we have squandered our inheritance, our great soil made possible by nature’s forces, capitalistic economics, the formal version of life on the petri dish, has no role to play.

All that I have said will require that we change the way we think about our earth and our place in it. The vision will include carrying the processes of the wild to the farm. This is what our work is about at The Land Institute, where, like a prairie, we can then pay the ecological bills. Rather than the plow and toxic chemicals, fire and grazing will be our management tools.

All of this talk really is about rescuing ourselves from The Fall which began with agriculture, where the breach with nature began. It can have a happy ending because we are talking about finally coming home from our long, prodigal journey. It has been an exciting trip. We have learned a lot. Those extra depletable carbon pools have sponsored a huge understanding of where we are and how we got here: the Copernican revolution, Newton’s laws, Darwin’s and Einstein’s insights, plate tectonics, the Hubble telescope. We now have a coherent and better sense of who we are, where we are and how we got here.

What we have learned during this prodigal life, however, will be short-lived if our land and water become increasingly toxic, if the Mississippi continues to run so muddy and we continue to spread ourselves and our stuff over the petri dish of the planet, operating under the code of an economic system which needs to be arrested and given the death penalty. In its place we can then evolve an economy predicated on resilience, which means we’ll live within our means by acknowledging the limited carrying capacity of the ecosphere.

Wes Jackson is president and founder of The Land Institute and author of New Roots for Agriculture. He was a 1992 MacArthur Fellow and received the Right Livelihood Award (aka “the alternative Nobel Prize”) in 2000.

[17 dec 08]

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