Driving north from Wichita, Kansas, toward Salina on a warm day last October, I saw an oil-well pump sitting in the middle of a sorghum field. And not just one. As I drove, I saw hundreds more, maybe thousands, all surrounded by amber waves of grain. Like giant, insatiable gulls, they bobbed their heads up and down, up and down, gulping black crude from the earth’s depths. Oil wells in farm fields. Here was a symbol for modern agriculture, dependent on petroleum-based fertilizer to produce high yields.
I had come to Kansas to meet one of its native sons, a man who has dedicated his life to changing the way we grow food. Wes Jackson is a plant geneticist, president of the Land Institute, and, at age seventy-four, one of the godfathers — along with farmer and author Wendell Berry — of the sustainable-agriculture movement. Thanks to bestsellers like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, that movement has gone mainstream. We’ve been told that our food system is broken, and the fix is to grow food organically and procure it locally. The organic farmer eschews pesticides, spreads compost instead of nitrogen-based fertilizer, and sells her Hakurei turnips at the Saturday-morning market. All big improvements, says Jackson, but ones that stop short of a solution. They are answers to problems in agriculture, when we have yet to address the problem of agriculture itself, a ten-thousand-year-old bad habit that Jackson believes is humanity’s original sin.
When our ancestors in the Zagros Mountains of Iran first tilled the ground to plant wheat, they set in motion the ongoing depletion of the topsoil, which Jackson calls the “capital stock of the planet.” Unless labor-intensive steps are taken to prevent it, every time the earth is plowed to plant an annual crop, some topsoil is washed away by rain or carried off by the wind. According to Jackson, we’re plowing through our soil bank account and sending those riches downstream to the ocean, never to be seen again. He believes the loss of topsoil is the single greatest threat to our food supply and to the continued existence of civilization.
Jackson’s life’s work is based on a question: Is it possible to avoid erosion by mimicking nature instead of imposing flawed human design on it? Kansas’s native prairie was a self-sustaining ecosystem fueled by nothing more than soil, water, and sunlight for millions of years before modern farming came along. That prairie has been replaced with huge fields devoted to single crops — called “monocultures” — that can be planted only by tilling the soil and kept alive only by applying petroleum-based, nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Those amber waves of grain form the base of our diet: the wide bottom level of the food pyramid. For the past thirty-three years Jackson and his fellows at the Land Institute have been crossbreeding such annual grains with their wild perennial relatives, which grow back season after season on their own without tilling and excessive fertilizer, can be planted in mixtures called “polycultures,” and have deep roots that actually prevent soil erosion. The only thing these perennials don’t do is produce the edible seed that provides some 70 percent of our food. Jackson hopes to change that by breeding an edible perennial grain to replace our monoculture crops of annuals, part of a revolutionary farming method he calls “natural-systems agriculture.” The Land Institute is also domesticating wild perennials, mostly close relatives of current annual crops.
Jackson was born in 1936, toward the end of the Dust Bowl era, a time when farmers’ failure to prevent soil erosion — combined with an extended drought — allowed the topsoil of northern Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and other Great Plains states to be blown thousands of miles by the wind. “The heart of our continent,” Jackson writes in Becoming Native to This Place (Counterpoint), “sent its finest soil particles far overhead to Washington and even to ships at sea.”
Jackson holds a PhD in genetics from North Carolina State University and established one of the country’s first environmental-studies programs at California State University, Sacramento. Dissatisfied with the confines of academia, he returned to Kansas in 1976 to found the Land Institute. His other books include New Roots for Agriculture (University of Nebraska Press) and Altars of Unhewn Stone: Science and the Earth (Wooster Book Co.). His latest book, published in September by Counterpoint, is Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture. In 2000 Jackson received the Right Livelihood Award, known as the “alternative Nobel prize.”
After having passed the oil-well pumps, I turned off the interstate and onto a dirt road. When I saw a field of native grasses with a sign reading “Prairie Restoration in Process,” I knew I had arrived at the Land, a six-hundred-acre spread on the Smoky Hill River. Jackson, his wife Joan, and the Land’s staff gave me a warm welcome, and I spent the next two days there. On the first afternoon Jackson and I strolled around his yard and admired the fall colors. He pointed to a particularly vibrant shrub the locals call “burning bush” and quoted Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God.”
Though his subject is dire — the question of our survival as a species — Jackson is full of charm, wit, and mischief. He delivers his message with a mixture of scientific acumen, biting social commentary, and theological reflection.
Even when his voice rises in anger at the way we’ve squandered our soil and water, it is tempered by an underlying mercy for those he chastises and a hope for the land’s resilience. We began the interview on a bluff of unplowed prairie, the sort of landscape the explorer Zebulon Pike might have seen when he arrived just south of there in 1806. The bluff overlooked fields of Kernza™, a perennial wheat grass that will become the Land’s first commercially available crop sometime in the next ten to twelve years.
“This tall-grass prairie we’re standing on,” Jackson said, “is nature’s wisdom. Those research plots of ours” — he pointed down the hill — “represent human cleverness.” Whatever agricultural breakthroughs they might achieve down there, he wanted me to know, the unplowed prairie up here would always be the lofty, unattainable standard. With enough cleverness we can learn how to live less-extractive lives and perhaps even meet the expectations of the land, but we’d be fools to think we could ever master it.
Bahnson: Who or what started you thinking about agriculture and soil erosion?
Jackson: I first got a fix on nature’s landscapes the summer I turned sixteen. I went to White River, South Dakota, to work on a ranch with an eccentric cousin of mine and her equally eccentric Swedish-immigrant husband. The ranch was more than four thousand acres of grassland paradise, a natural system that was more or less taking care of itself. There were fences to keep in the cattle and horses, but still it was a relationship between the people and the land that required minimal input from the industrial world.
I was coming to this from a truck farm in the Kansas River valley, where we had lots of hoeing and stoop labor. It was sweat-of-the-brow farming. But riding over that range and fixing fences and putting up hay — that was paradise. On that ranch the landscape hadn’t changed much since the Native Americans had walked over it. I rode horses on Sundays with half-Indian kids who told me about their ancestors’ life on that landscape. It wasn’t all paradise: In the town of White River I witnessed racism far worse than any I’d seen growing up near Topeka. In Kansas it had been directed toward blacks and Mexicans; here it was toward Native Americans. But that ranch was where I got a fix on the prairie, the summer I turned sixteen.
Ten years later I read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. His essay “Odyssey,” in which he compares the modern agricultural system to the Native American system, left an impression on me. Then, when I was in graduate school in genetics at North Carolina State, my professor and his wife were working to protect a park that was under siege by developers. He walked into the lab one night and gave me a thirteen-word sentence: “We need wilderness as a standard against which to judge our agricultural practices.” Then he walked out.
Bahnson: How did you come to found the Land Institute?
Jackson: I’d been teaching in and chairing the environmental-studies department in California. I came back to Kansas on leave for a couple of years, and when the university said I had to either return or resign, I decided to stay here. This was in 1976. I had the idea of founding a school in which students would spend half their time reading, thinking, and discussing and the other half doing physical work. We had wind machines, solar collectors, a big garden, a butcher hog, a milk cow, a steer, and some chickens. The school building burned down six weeks after we’d opened up, so we had to start over with recycled materials. At that point my first wife, Dana, who had been taking classes at Kansas State University, joined the effort, later codirecting it.
Bahnson: Did you have much funding starting out?
Jackson: No, not really. Dana and I had three children, and all of them were hard workers. We grew a lot of our own food. Dana was a good gardener and beekeeper. The students paid a little tuition. It was a small operation.
About a year after starting the Land, I read Congress’s General Accounting Office study, which revealed that soil erosion was as bad as it had been in the 1930s. Shortly after that, I took my students to the Konza prairie. Seeing the contrast between that prairie and a cornfield inspired me to write a piece for Friends of the Earth’s Not Man Apart entitled “Toward a Sustainable Agriculture.” That led to New Roots for Agriculture, which came out in 1980.
One day I got a call from Wendell Berry, who wanted to come out and interview me for New Farm magazine. It was the beginning of an indispensable friendship. Wendell sets such a high standard that it makes humility easy for the rest of us. His thinking has had a profound influence on me and still does.
I also read a paper by Arnold Schultz at the University of California, Berkeley, about “the ecosystem as the conceptual tool for managing our resources.” Schultz cited another paper, by Stan Rowe at the University of Saskatchewan. In his book Home Place Rowe describes the ecosystem as a slab of space and time. Both Schultz and Rowe saw the ecosystem as more than a mere container; it’s a structure with emergent properties of its own. For example, the tropical rain forest is helping regulate the hydrological cycle of the planet. This helped me think about the problem of agriculture at the system level, which runs counter to the old Western philosophies of Francis Bacon and René Descartes, who thought that the way to deal with nature is to break it down. Now, there’s nothing wrong with reductive thinking, as long as it does not lead us to believe that the world resembles the method. That’s where we got into trouble.
Bahnson: How so?
Jackson: Let’s say our goal is getting the most bushels per acre — that was the goal of the Green Revolution. And we accomplished that mission. But what have been the consequences? A serious problem with nitrogen, for one. We improved plants’ ability to take up nitrogen fertilizer, which increased yields, but that came at a huge energy cost. Now roughly twice as many fossil calories are spent on nitrogen fixation as are used for tractors, combines, and so on. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to make industrial fertilizer. Biological processes can produce nitrogen with little energy input, but not at the volume our current agricultural methods require.
Add to that our declining aquifers, the dead zones in our oceans, the pesticides in 100 percent of our groundwater in agricultural zones, and you’ll see the cost of a reductive approach as promoted by intellectuals in the early 1600s.
Bahnson: So we can get a hundred bushels of wheat per acre, but only at vast ecological costs.
Jackson: Right. Worst of all, our topsoil gets eroded, and the time needed to restore it can be measured in thousands of years.
We’ve used technology to prolong life and increase our own comfort, but we’ve also created our own vulnerability. Technological fundamentalism, like all fundamentalism, has a way of taking over where thought leaves off.
Bahnson: What exactly is “natural-systems agriculture”?
Jackson: At the Land Institute we’re trying to build an agriculture based on the natural ecosystem. We start with the question of what was here. In our case it’s prairie. Then we ask: What’s required of us? What is nature going to help us do here? We’re looking to bring wild processes to a system that will give us our food. We’re acknowledging that agriculture comes ultimately out of nature. The prairie is a grassland ecosystem, which is perfect for modern humans, since we are primarily grass-seed eaters. So we’ve used it as a template. It’s important to be mindful of the wild context and to ask what is missing from our attempts to mimic it.
If you look at the way ecosystems have worked over millions of years — whether in alpine meadows or rain forests or prairies or deciduous forests — nature tends to feature perennials grown in mixtures. Perennials have deep roots that survive the winter, so they don’t have to reseed themselves every year. Agriculture reversed that model by growing annuals in monocultures. The advent of agriculture was the beginning of the loss of the topsoil: the irreplaceable ecological capital that has made our current way of life possible. The “young pulverized coal” of the soil, as environmentalist Amory Lovins calls it, was the first pool of energy humanity began using and wasting, long before the industrial era.
Bahnson: What’s wrong with monocultures of annuals?
Jackson: You have to plow the soil and replant them every year. In areas growing annual monocultures the water in streams is muddy from soil erosion. You’ll also see heavy fossil-fuel inputs, nitrogen runoff, and pesticide use. The only way one can preserve the soil with annual monocultures is if the scale is small and the farmer has a high “eyes-to-acres” ratio.
Bahnson: You mean where the farmer can walk his or her land instead of ride around on it in a machine?
Jackson: Yes, and take the necessary steps to prevent erosion using his or her labor. On the scale of a family vegetable garden, monocultures are acceptable. The calories that really sustain us, however, do not come from the vegetable garden. They come from rice, wheat, corn, beans, and such. Those crops make up about 70 percent of our food calories and occupy about the same percentage of our agricultural acreage.
Bahnson: What if we started growing rice, wheat, and corn in small-scale, intensive gardens?
Jackson: It could be done, of course, but grains grow best in the Midwest and the Great Plains and a few other places. Most of the U.S. population is on the coasts. I was just in California, where they have a large Slow Food movement and organic movement. They have community-supported agriculture [CSA] and schoolyard gardens. These are all necessary as we transition to a more sustainable food system. We need vegetables, fruits, and so on to balance the diet. But I’m willing to bet that 60 to 70 percent of the calories my California friends consume come from across the Sierra Nevada and from Mexico. Those folks have the right attitude and are setting good examples, but we need to take the idea of agricultural sustainability to the next level by becoming more aware of where most of our calories come from. We must turn our attention to the water and the soil and ask, “How do we insure that the bread we eat does not come from grains that are grown in eroding soil and that load our water with nitrogen and pesticides?” Soon people will realize that annuals are poor managers of soil nutrients and water, and that agriculture will need to turn to perennials to better manage those resources.
I want to draw attention to the middle part of the continent. Too few voices are expressing concern about the soil erosion in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, and Kansas. We need the support of people on the coasts to protect the soil and water behind the grains they eat. Perhaps we need people from the coasts to come here, the way that people from everywhere came to the South during the civil-rights era of the 1960s.
Bahnson: You went to Washington, D.C., last summer.
Jackson: Yes, Wendell Berry, Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and I went to Washington to advance what we’re calling the “Fifty-Year Farm Bill.” We’re arguing for a gradual increase in the acreage of perennials. Right now only 20 percent of agricultural land is used to grow perennials. We want that reversed by 2059. And we’re not the only ones calling for this. There’s also the Green Lands, Blue Waters initiative, a coalition of nonprofits and university professors from the headwaters of the Mississippi down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Bahnson: What were the results of your talks with the politicians last summer?
Jackson: We simply asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] to spend $50 million per year to hire eighty PhD-level plant breeders and thirty ecologists. That’s not much money compared to the bailouts they’ve given Wall Street. Recently we saw some language, which came from Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, mentioning perennial crops and the Land Institute. We assume it will go to President Obama for his budget and then go to Congress, but the dollar amounts were modest.
Bahnson: Let’s say the USDA does put its weight behind perennial grains: when will these grains be ready?
Jackson: Right now perennial grains will be available in ten to twenty years. If the USDA gets on board, it will allow a broader spectrum of crops to be perennialized and will shorten that time frame by 10 to 20 percent.
Bahnson: Do you think consumers will buy perennial grains? Will there be much difference in the end product — the rice and corn and bread?
Jackson: Yes, I think they will embrace them. They will not find much difference in taste from what humans have been used to for millennia.
Bahnson: How does your work breeding perennial grains differ from GMO-type breeding?
Jackson: Land Institute geneticists just transfer pollen; the biotech firms transfer individual genes. We can and will use molecular markers as a way of identifying places on the chromosome where the genes we’re interested in are, but we’re not gene jockeys, and there’s not much chance of producing a perennial grain using genetic modification. Stan Cox, who directs our research, says there likely is no single gene in any species that will flip a plant from annual to perennial.
Bahnson: You often contrast “human cleverness” with nature’s wisdom, saying that the coming culture wars will not be fought between conservatives and liberals but between those who think that human ingenuity will get us out of our current binds and those who instead try to “meet the expectations of the land.” What’s wrong with human cleverness?
Jackson: Well, look at what our cleverness has brought us: nuclear arsenals, suburbs, the interstate highway system, disappearing rain forests, global warming. Human cleverness has put nitrogen in our waters and released chemicals into the environment with which our tissues have no evolutionary experience. Sure, we’ve used technology to prolong life and increase our own comfort, but we’ve also created our own vulnerability. Technological fundamentalism, like all fundamentalism, has a way of taking over where thought leaves off.
Bahnson: You’ve said that the plow has been more destructive than the sword in the past ten thousand years. Are you saying that, because they plow their fields, even the organic farmers are bad guys?
Jackson: First off, I don’t think farmers are bad guys. I think this is a problem of agriculture itself. If the organic farmers have fields that are small enough that they can prevent erosion, more power to them. But even organically farmed grains are annuals, which have shorter roots than perennials and are not there year-round. So those farmers have a kind of Sisyphean task when it comes to preserving soil. And over the course of a hundred years, especially if it’s a large farm on a hill, some soil will be lost by accident or human error.
Bahnson: So conceivably you could have annual-grain crops that don’t erode the soil, but the chances are against it?
Jackson: Right. Sometime over the course of a century, somebody is going to slip up and not properly alternate crops or let a field lie fallow, and that topsoil is going to slide seaward, never to return. And replacing it is a geologic process that requires millennia.
Hans Jenny, the father of American soil science, was another thinker I admire. From him I learned the extensive role that geologic processes play in ecosystem structure — for example, how the Coastal Ranges of California have helped create the Central Valley, where much of America’s food is grown. There’s a lot of precipitation in those mountains, and the runoff provides carbon-rich soil to the valleys between them. Since the Coastal Ranges are young, geologically speaking, they still have carbon to give. Australia, on the other hand, is a poor continent in terms of soil because its last geologic activity was 65 million years ago.
So we can see the soil as a consequence of geologic and atmospheric activity. The creativity of the artist at the easel or the inventor at the workbench is nothing compared to the creative powers of the ecosphere.
If you’re a hunter-gatherer, it’s pretty hard to cause serious ecological trouble, but once you start tilling the soil, you have become a troublemaker. Agriculture is dependent on the depletion of the earth’s capital stock.
Bahnson: Could you define ecosphere?
Jackson: It’s basically the surface of the planet and the portion of the atmosphere and the subsurface that is capable of supporting life. It gave rise to us; we did not give rise to it.
As living organisms we humans are biocentric. We say, “The earth is our life-support system.” In my view that’s not the best way to look at it. We need to think hard about our embeddedness within the ecosphere and move ourselves down in the hierarchy. If we pay more attention to individual organisms like ourselves than we do to the ecosphere, we’re in trouble.
Bahnson: Should we ever try to manage the ecosphere?
Jackson: There are people who think we can sometimes do better than nature, but I’d argue that we can never do better than nature. Humans draw on an array of technologies, and we sometimes must use them out of necessity, but anything we do of a technological nature, because of the scaffolding of civilization itself, draws down the ecological capital of the planet. To the extent that we use human cleverness, the net primary production of the earth’s ecosystems will be reduced.
Bahnson: You’re talking about entropy: we’re slowly dying.
Jackson: Yes, but we’re accelerating the entropic process by causing a decline in the net primary production of the earth’s ecosphere.
Bahnson: And that can’t be avoided.
Jackson: If civilization went away, then the earth would restore itself. An asteroid hit 65 million years ago in Yucatán and wiped out the dinosaurs, but the ecosphere continued to create new organisms. The ecosphere itself is alive. Our “bio” bias tells us that only organisms are living, but the ecosphere is a supraorganism.
Here’s a mental exercise that Stan Rowe came up with: Imagine we are small enough to go inside a cell — so small, in fact, that, once inside, we need binoculars to look around. We see something moving and squirming, and we say, “That’s living,” and we see something that’s inert, like a crystal, and we say, “That’s not living.” But when we place ourselves outside the cell, we say that the whole thing is alive. It’s the same with the ecosphere.
Once we accept that the ecosphere is alive and stop playing fast and loose with its parts, then we will do all right. This includes not poking holes in the earth to bring up toxins. Industrial humans are hole pokers; we poke holes through this miraculous skin that gave rise to all organisms, including us.
Bahnson: How does this theory differ from the Gaia hypothesis, which initially proposed that the entire earth is a single organism?
Jackson: Jim Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis, is a friend of mine and one of the most creative thinkers of our time. He and Lynn Margulis have done much to advance our thinking. But Jim thinks of the earth more as a superorganism rather than a supraorganism. Supra means it transcends normal organisms, whereas super is just “bigger than normal.” He and I had an argument about this in Italy several years ago. I also don’t like his word biosphere.
Bahnson: Why not?
Jackson: It’s that “bio” bias creeping in. When we talk about “biology,” we’re talking solely about organisms. The ecosphere is a supraorganism in which biological organisms are embedded. Indigenous cultures have long seen the earth as a mother, as a womb. In a pregnant woman the developing fetus is not more important than the mother. Biosphere ignores what is necessary for the “bio” to exist: the matter coming up from below that created these mountains and made these nutrients available. Nobel laureate biologist George Wald pointed out that the ancient seas set the pattern of ions in our blood, and the ancient atmospheres molded our metabolism. Think of the phenomena on which we are dependent: light from our star; elements that were cooked in a dying star; heat at the earth’s core lifting up mountains and moving land masses and redistributing organisms, allowing speciation to head off in different directions. The earth is a whole, is holy.
Bahnson: All organisms are carbon based. You’ve said that carbon is also the foundation on which civilization is built, and when the last of the great carbon pools — soil, forests, coal, oil, and natural gas — runs out, the foundation will crumble.
Jackson: It all starts with what I call the “3.45-billion-year imperative.” Carbon-based organisms first appeared 3.45 billion years ago, and ever since, we have gone after the energy-rich carbon that’s found in all forms of life. We need that carbon to live. When we started growing wheat ten thousand years ago somewhere in western Iran, we unwittingly began to tap into the first of the great carbon pools: the soil. Agriculture in the Fertile Crescent jump-started civilization. Since the opening of this continent to the Europeans just five hundred years ago, we’ve reduced the available North American soil by half. Much of that was wasted, but most of it did work from which we benefited.
Civilization is possible because the genetic variation found in the mountains gets brought to the valley. In the Nile River valley in Egypt monsoons that come across the Ethiopian mountains chip nutrients off and send them down the Blue Nile to meet the organic matter coming in on the White Nile. It is a renewable system as long as the mountains and the monsoons last. I like to say that the ecosphere, using material from the mountains and the organic matter from the steamy jungles of Africa, built the pyramids. Humans were just the agents.
So the soil was the first great carbon pool that made civilization run. About five thousand years ago we began to tap into a second great carbon pool: the upland forests of the Mediterranean. The onslaught against the forests is not given enough attention in history books. The carbon from those trees was used to smelt metals, advancing civilization to the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age. You can read about it in the Bible: Solomon struck a deal with the King of Tyre to buy the cedars of Lebanon to build the temple. Go to that area now and see how many cedars are left. By the time of Charlemagne in 800 AD, the destruction of the European forests was well underway. So you see, it’s been a nonrenewable economy for a long time.
Just 250 years ago came the third carbon pool, coal, which fueled the Industrial Revolution. And the fourth pool arrived in 1859, when Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well in Pennsylvania. Natural gas, a fifth pool, had already been in use for lighting and such, but it soon was employed in electricity production.
Without those first two pools of energy-rich carbon — soil and forests — we wouldn’t have had the civilization to support the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. Without coal being added to this stream, we wouldn’t have had Darwin, because he wouldn’t have had the leisure to pore over his specimens and think and write. The coal-powered Industrial Revolution allowed the British to send ships around the world. It’s also been said that to rule the waves for three hundred years, England had to cut down its forests.
Here’s the irony: the knowledge accumulated from all this burning of carbon has allowed us to know where we are in time and space and what kind of creature we are. Without the drawing down of energy-rich carbon, we would not have had Einstein’s theory of relativity. We would not know about plate tectonics and continental drift. We wouldn’t know that organisms have a single origin. Perhaps if our appreciation is sufficient, we will realize our fragility and maybe work harder to continue to live on this planet in a healthy and productive way.
Bahnson: So despite all the problems our zeal for carbon has brought us, you’re grateful for the knowledge these carbon pools have given us.
Jackson: Right. T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” is a telling piece of poetry: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” We face a challenge. We must leave growth and extraction behind and focus on renewability. We’re in the early stages of that effort now, but in a stiff-legged sort of way. We’re not balanced yet. Change will come if we have the will to make it happen.
Bahnson: Let’s talk about the fourth and fifth carbon pools: oil and natural gas. Oil powers not only our automobiles but our food system, and natural gas is needed to make synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Can we feed the world without fossil fuels?
Jackson: We’ve got to. And that means we’re going to have to figure out how to live with less. It’s also going to mean fewer people.
We’ve got a systemic problem. It matters little how much I eat at McDonald’s, given that I have electricity on somewhere almost all the time. There is coal being burned on my behalf as we speak. There’s no life outside the system. We’re all sinners.
Bahnson: You’re not advocating “culling the herd,” I assume.
Jackson: No, we need education, birth control, and so on. There is some good news: the population-growth rate is slowing in Latin America. But the problem is not just human populations. The population of material things needs to be addressed as well.
My friend Herman Daly the economist likes to ask what mice, deer, humans, cars, houses, pop-up toasters, and deep freezers all have in common. The answer is that they are all members of populations. There’s a population of toasters, a population of deep freezers, a population of houses, and so on. We do have a population problem in the U.S.: our population of objects is the greatest in the world. All these things occupy space, and they are all dissipative structures: they take high-quality energy and degrade it. So when people say, “We’ve got too many people,” you can say, “Well, we’ve also got too many toasters.” When we talk about the need to decrease the human population, we also need to talk about the need to reduce the populations of stuff. India has more people than the U.S., but when you include toasters and deep freezers and houses and cars and so on, we’ve got the bigger population problem. A person in India may use one-fiftieth of the resources an American uses.
We need to power down. We need “resilience thinking” instead of growth thinking. Resilience thinking is basically learning to live within your means. The concept comes out of ecology, not economics. The economists have got it mostly wrong. If you watch a petri dish full of bacteria, they will keep multiplying exponentially until they hit the edge and run out of food. What the economists have done is given us a highly sophisticated set of abstractions to enable us to reach the edge of the petri dish as fast as possible. The economists are capitalizing on the 3.45-billion-year imperative, telling the rest of us how we can get more and more carbon. It’s an extractive mind-set.
Bahnson: We need fewer economists and more ecologists.
Jackson: We need more people who have the courage to do the hard thinking, more grown-ups who are willing to acknowledge that capitalism is just an advanced form of petri-dish culture.
Bahnson: How do you avoid thinking that we’re a blight on the planet, that the earth would be better off without us?
Jackson: Self-hatred won’t get us anywhere. We are organisms and, like other organisms, require certain necessities to live. But we must restrain ourselves. We need to look for places where humanity has avoided what ecologist Garrett Hardin called the “tragedy of the commons” — a situation where a group of people, each acting out of self-interest, deplete a shared resource. We don’t have to look far. There have been numerous cultural arrangements in which some kind of social order is imposed to keep individuals from doing whatever they want. We have laws already: you run a red light and you pay a fine. We need to extend those laws to constrain our consumption.
I don’t like the idea of rewarding people with money for preserving resources, because unless they are forced to invest their profit into renewables, they will likely use that money to deplete resources elsewhere. Our entire economy is based on extracting resources from the forests, soils, mines, wellheads, and so on. We can’t keep on like this forever. It’s all a big ecological Ponzi scheme much worse than anything Bernie Madoff ever dreamed up.
When I was a kid I used to play Monopoly with my great-uncle John. He would land on high-priced real estate like Pennsylvania Avenue, and I’d say to him, “You want to buy this, Uncle John?” And he’d count his money and say, “No, I think I’ll pass.” When he needed money, I’d say, “You can mortgage properties, you know,” and he’d say, “Nah, I ain’t gonna mortgage. I saw what happened in the thirties when people mortgaged.” Of course I beat him every time. The game is rigged to favor those who borrow and spend big.
Bahnson: You were a good capitalist.
Jackson: [Laughs.] I was. Poor Uncle John was of the old school, when our Ponzi scheme was less developed. He was living according to poet John Milton’s “holy dictate of spare temperance.” We need to be more like Uncle John and less like I was.
Bahnson: Maybe we need an ecosphere game that teaches us how to live within our limits.
Jackson: They sold games like that at the co-ops in the seventies. My first wife, Dana, bought our kids a game for Christmas in which you had to cooperate in order to save the whales. But those games were pretty drab. I remember my son opening his present one Christmas and saying, “This looks like something from the co-op.” [Laughs.] My kids would say, “No competition — no fun.”
Bahnson: You’ve written that “the pattern of simply taking from our environment without thinking is a behavior rooted deep within us,” and that “this pattern of behavior may not be mitigated without internalized pressure from a very strong ethic.” What kind of ethic is up to such a task?
Jackson: I start with Aldo Leopold on this. He said no ethic is ever written; rather it evolves in the mind of a thinking community. Only the most naive student of history believes that Moses wrote the Ten Commandments. What he did was write down an already existing ethic. I think we’re in the midst of making a new ethic now. The conceptual work is being done and tested, but it has yet to be adequately codified.
Religions are one method of codifying the community’s ethic. Ecologist Howard T. Odum said that religion is the encoded language of behavior that serves to facilitate the transfer of energy through systems. I remember people saying that hungry people in India ought to eat their sacred cows. But those cows provide dung to cook rice and enable farmers to plow in the monsoon season. If the Indians ate their cows, they’d be eating their tractors. As Gandhi once said, cattle in India are sacred because they’re necessary. We need an ethic that forbids us from “eating” the resources we need to survive.
Bahnson: You’ve compared the advent of agriculture to the biblical Fall. In Genesis, God expels Adam and Eve from the garden and condemns Adam to till the soil.
Jackson: Our first task, according to Genesis, is to care for the garden. It’s pretty unequivocal. I don’t think we should ignore our history. The moment we started agriculture was the moment in which we became active participants in creation. We insisted on having that knowledge. That, to me, was the Fall. But it was an act arising from innocence and a simple desire for more energy-rich carbon and food.
Bahnson: Has a mistaken reading of Genesis affected the way we think of nature?
Jackson: You cannot lay all the blame at the feet of Christianity. We’ve got too many examples of other religions and cultures doing the same thing. Misbehavior is inevitable and has to be reined in through culture and the law. If you’re a hunter-gatherer, it’s pretty hard to cause serious ecological trouble, but once you start tilling the soil, you have become a troublemaker. Agriculture is dependent on the depletion of the earth’s capital stock. That is what it means to be “born in sin.”
Bahnson: When you’re out on the road talking about how we need to fix our broken food system, do you ever sneak into McDonald’s for a Big Mac?
Jackson: [Laughs.] I’m not what you’d call an “absolute fanatic.” I’ll eat a McDonald’s hamburger every now and then under pressure. It’s no worse than driving to town for groceries. We’ve got a systemic problem. It matters little how much I eat at McDonald’s, given that I have electricity on somewhere almost all the time. There is coal being burned on my behalf as we speak. There’s no life outside the system. We’re all sinners.
Bahnson: Say we pass that fifty-year farm bill and perennialize the landscape. Can we ever escape that original sin?
Jackson: Probably not, but we can reduce the consequences and greatly slow down the rush to the edge of the petri dish. There is the large structural immorality that must end, but we will always have the small human immorality and must live with it as best we can. I had a friend named Leland who used to live down the road in a six-by-sixteen-foot shack and got by on five hundred dollars a year for twenty-nine years before he died. He estimated that he spent 350 of those annual dollars on gasoline and tobacco and the rest on food. There’s nothing wrong with the experience of pleasure, he said; it’s seeking after it that gets us into trouble. He couldn’t get rid of that seeking, but at least he acknowledged that seeking after pleasure is where the problem begins.
Bahnson: Most of us are trying to do the best we can within a system and a culture that is often at odds with our convictions. What do you recommend we do as individuals to change our behavior?
Jackson: I’m of a divided mind on this. I sometimes wonder if growing our own food or living a responsible life drains energy from the effort to bring about political change. On the other hand, if we don’t set good examples for others, there’s little hope a new political policy will catch on. I mostly believe that you have to work in the area of your passion, whether that’s gardening or activism.
What we need most is more plant breeders and ecologists. One reason our perennial idea hasn’t caught on is that it will take a long time and requires training to do the breeding and the agronomic work. You can’t just get an heirloom-seed catalog and start doing it; you have to go to Iowa State or Kansas State and get a PhD in genetics. But then who will hire you? Where is the political will to make these jobs available?
Bahnson: The biblical prophets spoke of peace as a time when swords would be beaten into plowshares. You’d like to see us beat our plowshares into perennial-wheat harvesters. Do you think we’ll get to that promised land in your lifetime, or will you be a Moses who only gets to stand at the edge and look into that far country?
Jackson: [Chuckles.] I don’t think anyone ought to count themselves as a Moses. I certainly won’t. Besides, I don’t like his manifest-destiny idea any more than I do our own. The story of Moses was about the making of a people. I think we are making a transition, the most important in the history of Homo sapiens — more important than our long walk out of Africa and across Europe and Asia. This is our moment. Anyone who died before 1930 never lived through a doubling of the human population. Anyone born after 2050 likely won’t either. We are in a 120-year period of transition that will require an emerging consciousness if we’re going to make it through. At this very moment there are thousands of conversations going on just like the one we’re having. This conversation started in 1962 with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. There is a growing concern that we’ve gone too far, too fast, too heedlessly. When I travel I see that more and more people are catching on to it — still not enough to reduce the traffic on the freeways, though: zip, zip, zip! And I’m in my rental car zipping along with them.
My friend Angus Wright talks about movements in terms of waves: A wave hits a wall, and the wall doesn’t give. But then another wave hits, and another, and another until finally the wall comes down. If there is a calling, that’s it: to be part of a wave.