Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: So here we are at the beginning of episode 22, which is my conversation with Wes Jackson in Salina, Kansas.
Micah Saul: He’s the founder of the Land Institute, and I think probably for context, we should talk a bit about what the Land Institute does and what his project is, because we don’t really get into it much in the conversation itself but I think it’s good to know what he’s working on.
Anderson: What Wes Jackson and the folks of the Land Institute are doing is they’re rethinking the problem of agriculture. And they stated that way very deliberately. They’re trying to rethink ten thousand years of agricultural practice, and they’re trying to create a new type of agriculture in which sustainability is actually the result of the agriculture. So, they’re emulating natural models and they’re trying to create agricultural crops that work in ways that are very much like natural systems.
Saul: Right. So you’ll hear it in the conversation, but he talks about a niche in agriculture that just has never been filled in all of human history. So, they’re actually working, and have been for quite sometime on a perennial form of wheat. This is a wheat that survives year after year, but produces enough seed that it’s useful to harvest. And they’ve actually got one. All they have to do right now (“All they have to do.” I said make it sound so trivial.) is improve its ability to live in the hot plains environment.
Anderson: So that’s sort of the practical background to what’s happening at The Land Institute. But our conversation really does go on a lot of directions, and it connects to pretty much everything else in this project. It’s a huge, sprawling, multi-dimensional conversation, and editing it was absolutely painful because there is so much fascinating material. But if I was to tell you one person in the series thus far who you should keep front and center in your mind, it would actually be Timothy Morton. And he doesn’t come up in here. There are a lot of people who do who are much more directly related to what Wes is saying, But Timothy Morton’s ideas have a really fascinating resonance with Wes Jackson’s ideas, and I think with both of them, and also with David Korten as well, we have some enormous systems thinkers who are characterizing the world we live in, the world we are embedded in, in a really interesting way. And you’ll see commonalities in terms of thinking about the…I hesitate to use the word “natural,” but the natural world as encompassing a lot more than we think of when we think “the natural world.”
Saul: We will stop our blathering now, and give you Wes Jackson.
Wes Jackson: In 1977, the General Accounting Office put out a report. It looked to me like soil erosion was bad it the 70s as it was in the 1930s, and I thought you know, how can this be? We’ve had soil conservation service going back to 1935 devoted to the common task of saving our soils. And I started looking at the history of earth abuse through agriculture. Well, you can go back to the Greeks. Plato had lamented the demise of the mountains of Attica that were once prosperous but now only fit for bees, as he said. And also about the same time taking my students on a field trip to the Konza Prairie. Now the Konza Prairie is one of twenty-six long-term ecological research sites, and the Konza Prairie is just sixty, seventy miles from here.
Here was a prairie that’s been there probably since the retreat of the Kansan ice sheet, and there was no soil erosion there beyond replacement levels. There was species diversity, and of course with species diversity you have chemical diversity, which means it takes a tremendous enzyme system on the part of an insect or pathogen to give you the epidemic. And sponsoring its own nitrogen fertility. What it amounts to is that the prairie, like essentially all of nature’s land-based ecosystems, features perennials grown in mixtures.
Agriculture reversed that by featuring annuals grown in monocultures. That’s sort of what set me off. You know, I started looking at the various kinds of arrangements that humans take advantage of for food or fiber. And there are four dichotomies. There are woody plants that we use. There are herbaceous plants. We harvest polycultures and monocultures. We harvest perennials. And we harvest annuals. There are twelve combinations, and eleven of those total combinations are filled, except herbaceous perennial seed-producing polycultures.
Aengus Anderson: So, for people who don’t know some of those words, what is that thing that we’re looking at there?
Jackson: Alright. A herbaceous perennial would be like a prairie grass. Of course they produce seeds, but as far as the human is concerned for food, we don’t harvested the seed of any perennial grass or legume. And a polyculture means a mixture. So herbaceous perennial seed-producing polycultures, that is a blank. That’s been our work now, is to build an agriculture that is something of a mimic of a prairie or a grassland.
Anderson: With everyone I talk to, there’s an idea that there’s something that they’re concerned about that obviously motivates them to rethink things. What is wrong with our current system of agriculture that got you thinking about this?
Jackson: Well, let’s compare a wheat field, which is an annual monoculture, with a prairie, which is a perennial polyculture. That wheat field, you plant the seeds in September and you harvest your wheat in, well this year late May but usually in June and July. And then the rest of the time, there’s nothing there unless you double-crop or something. So it’s subject to the forces of nature, wind, and rain. Whereas that prairie is there year-round.
So, if you look at say the 1930s, the Dust Bowl years, the wheat plants died. The prairies come back. You have more elegant micromanagement of nutrients and water with that perennial root system. 80% of the agricultural landscape of the United States is devoted to the annual.
Anderson: And what happens to us in a long-term sense if we maintain the system?
Jackson: Well, you lose a lot of the stuff we’re made of. If you take a periodic chart of the elements (remembering your chemistry classroom or lab), and the upper third of that chart of the elements that go into life. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, are in the atmospheric commons. The other twenty-some are in the soil. It’s the stuff of which we’re made. The greater number of nutrients, the total weight, though, most of that weight comes out of the atmosphere.
Anderson: If we continue using these annual systems…
Jackson: We’ll go just like what happened in the Middle East, with the soil erosion. And what happened in Greece. What happened in Rome. What happened around Carthage.
Anderson: Can you paint a picture of that for me?
Jackson: Well, you have a desecrated landscape. I mean, you have soil erosion and then it’s abandoned. And right now, I think it’s United Nations says that we’re losing about thirty million acres a year worldwide. From 1700 to 2000, that three hundred-year period, we lost due to land degradation, on a global scale, we’ve lost three times the US total acreage. That’s huge.
Anderson: Can we get that back?
Jackson: Some of it, but it’ll take a long time. You’re dealing with timescales that are beyond humans’ interest. I mean, it’s sorta like global warming. The heat that we have now built up, that carbon was burned thirty years ago. It’s going to take a while for the correction process. So, if you have the elements of the phosphorus, the potassium, the manganese, and so on, it can be built back pretty fast. But a shorthand way of putting it is that soil is as much of a non-renewable resource as oil. And, more important than oil. I mean, we’re talking about stuff we’re made of. So that’s why I’ve said that the plowshare has destroyed more options for future generations than the sword.
Anderson: That’s a great quote. Very disturbing quote.
Jackson: Yeah, well take a swipe at Isaiah, you know.
Anderson: Yeah, why not.
Jackson: Well, think about it. I mean, I don’t want to minimize the importance of human anguish, but when say, for instance Native Americans would be in some battle, they’d kill one another but the potential wouldn’t be lost on the landscape because the reproductive pressure of humans is such that replacement would happen. But when that plowshare went through that prairie and, as one Native American put it back in the 1880 when he saw where it’d been plowed and he said, “Wrong side up,” that’s when the erosion is now possible in a big way.
Anderson: So, I’m going to connect the dots real quick. We have topsoil, a carbon-rich layer which is basically the engine for plant growth.
Jackson: Uh huh.
Anderson: And we have an agricultural system that is depleting topsoil at a rapid rate.
Anderson: And it can’t be replenished quickly.
Jackson: That’s right.
Anderson: Well, that raises a kind of big question about food security, doesn’t it.
Jackson: That’s right.
Anderson: So, what does this look like if we keep going on like this? Do we have a crisis down the road?
Jackson: Of course we got one on the road. We’ve got starvation facing you. The only reason it’s not as bad as it is now is because of the most important invention of the 20th century. 1909, two Germans, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch learned how to take atmospheric nitrogen and turn it into ammonia. In our time, we use natural gas as the feedstock to run the Haber-Bosch process. Vaclav Smil, the scholar in Winnipeg who studied energy as well nitrogen, Vaclav Smil says that without Haber-Bosch, 40% of humanity wouldn’t be here. Without natural gas for that feedstock so, you know…most people don’t think of that as the most important invention of the 20th century. I’ve asked a lot of college audiences, even in land-grant schools, And my golly it’s everything from indoor plumbing to usually the automobile, or whatever.
Anderson: It’s the things you see. And this seems like something that’s very invisible. I wouldn’t have been familiar about this if it wasn’t for actually a Radiolab episode. So we’re thinking about some really big systems here. If we’re talking about a future crisis, and that’s an idea that’s come up in a lot of conversations I’ve had, a lot of thinkers see this as a very crucial moment because they see us as heading towards a crisis. And then there’s another entire half of my interviewees who feel that science and technology are making the world progressively better, and a crisis is absolutely the last thing we need to worry about. Because of the work you’re doing, clearly you see a need for that work. What’s kind of the worst-case scenario, if we don’t address the sort of food security…
Jackson: First of all, I think we’re now experiencing the worst form of fundamentalism to ever arise on the planet. Far worse than any form of religious fundamentalism. It’s technological fundamentalism. The belief that we’re going to solve all of our problems through technology. To me that’s no different than people saying, “God is good. God is good. God will take care of us. Trust in God. God’ll do it.” I mean, that’s in my view mindless litany.
So, the technological fundamentalist to me is in some respects worse. Here you have a world in which, I think it started ten thousand years ago, the idea that nature’s to be subdued or ignored. And that came with the plow and the hoe. And we’ve had payoffs. But they’ve been for short-run kinda considerations. Empires have risen on their soils, soils have been depleted, down they go. It is interesting to me that Hannibal, and over on the south side there of the Mediterranean… I mean, that was a granary for the Roman Empire. You go there today, and if you want to photograph those soils you better be ready to go underwater.
But the technological fundamentalist says, “We’ll think of something. We’ll think of something. We’ll think of something.” Well, all of that thinking of something has happened during… I call it the period of the five pools of energy-rich carbon. The first pool of carbon was the young pulverized coal of the soil, and that made civilization possible. The second pool is about five thousand years ago, where we started using the forests to smelt the ore for the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. And then the next pool is coal, 1750, the Industry Revolution in England. Then a little over a hundred years later is Drake’s oil well in Western Pennsylvania. The year I was born, 1936, you know, of all the oil burned to date, only one percent of the oil had ever been burned. And then the next pool is natural gas. Now, we’d been using it for lighting, but the start of using it for power came after oil.
So, here we have what I call the 3.45 billion year-old imperative. That is all life forms are carbon-based; they go after carbon. So if you have a Petri dish with sugar on it, you put bacteria on it, the bacteria will consume the sugar and just divide toward the edge of the Petri dish and deplete it. We’ve developed an economic system that is just Petri dish economics. It’s called capitalism. Its growth. It’s the whole growth idea. That’s a fundamentalism. So, all of these solutions that we’ve had for dealing with disease, going to the moon, a lot of social problems, we’ve historically solved problems by expansion of land, like us appropriating this continent. Or, finding energy sources.
So here we are, and some are saying, “Well, we’ll go to new nukes,” because they’re not carbon-based. Well, if you’re going to go to nukes, then it’s going to require a lot of fossil fuel in order to make that transition, which effectively they’ll be cannibalizing the fossil fuels to get there. But we keep talking about our progress as a species. Yeah, there’s that spiral upward. But what about when the availability of that energy begins to go down? Now let’s see how good out technology can be.
And there’ll be some things. But my feeling is that until we acknowledge the reality of limits, we’re gonna keep destroying, well, until nature imposes the consequences of not having the stuff. And we’re all in addition to that filling up the sinks. I mean, the atmospheric sink being filled with CO2 So we’ve got a source problem, in energy and soil and water, and we’ve got a sink problem, which is more than landfills.
Anderson: It’s amazing to hear you say that. I’m thinking of some of the the conversations I’ve had recently, especially the one I had right before this in Denver, which is with a proponent of Mars colonization. He runs The Mars Society, but he also spends a lot of time talking and thinking about the environmental movement on Earth. And when I asked him about growth and progress, he said there are no resource limits. There are no resource limits on Earth because technology can always find new and creative ways to use resources. And even if there are limits here, it’s our mission to go into space and to grow. For him, that is his ultimate idea of good.
And I think that maybe the biggest divide in this project is people who feel that it is our destiny (And I use that word deliberately. It’s an arational feeling, when you boil it down to it.) to just grow. And there’s a very anthropocentric sense that the universe is essentially…only has value according to us. And then there are people who think maybe the universe has value in and of itself. Where do you come down on questions like that?
Anderson: Well, you know Blake said, “Man must and will have some religion.” That’s religious talk. Creativity, real creativity, in my view is the result of the acknowledgement of limits. To abandon yourself to no limits…I mean, it’s absurd. I used to be a track coach. And I think track records will continue to be broken. But they’re not gonna get broken by doubling. So we’re really talking about the rate in which the change will come about, and I think we’ll always have technology. But that technology will slow down, especially if you don’t have the energy.
We’re going to lose some things. I mean, I think we’ll be using draft animals by the end of the century, because we will want to be getting sun-powered energy and we don’t want to send our biomass off to some factory to get turned into a biofuel and have the embodied energy of that machine that’s going to eat it. Even though you can turn the machine off. You don’t have to pay it to stand around and be a machine. But you know, you won’t come out some morning and find a little baby tractor.
I’m amazed at the human mind and what potential it has. But I don’t like calling the Earth a planet. This is an Earth. Planets do not have anything close to the beauty that has been put here over millions of years of evolution. Why would we want to risk the demise of this planet through more technology? Because when we look out, what we see is it’s energy use that’s been destroying rain forests. It’s energy use that’s given us global warming.
In other words, we’ve lived through a period in which there’ve been essentially no limits in materials and energy, and look what we’ve done. Our job has got to be now, especially over the next century, the rest of this entry of sure, is that our job has to be devoted to acknowledging limits, and then allow a kind of flowering of creativity, and the science, and the arts, that is not predicated upon exploitation.
Anderson: You’ve carved a line here between a lot of different people I’ve spoken to. Creativity as a topic has come up in terms of generally the technophile interviewees. And they’re usually the ones who feel that creativity and no limits go together. The people I’ve spoken to about limits have maybe not engaged with the idea of creativity as much. And it seems interesting in that we’re talking about sustainable systems, but we’re still talking about creativity, and we’re still talking about technology.
Jackson: I think the only creative force comes from the ecosphere. And that the creativity of the scientists in the lab, or the artist at the easel, is really pipsqueak creativity. The Earth’s ecosphere is really a supraorganism. Not super, supra. And it has priority in scale, priority in time. Anyway you look at it it is superior, and it will claim us. I mean, we are embedded within it. This is one reason we ought to get rid of the word “environment.” Environment implies something out there instead of acknowledging that we are embedded within, and that we are a product of the creative process. But the ecosphere has given rise to life, it’s given rise to different kinds of lifeforms through evolution and natural selection.
So, this creativity that we talk about in humans, we ought to least recognize we do as a consequence of the larger creative force. To use our technology to compromise that creative tendency of the ecosphere is hubris.
Anderson: That is a great way of putting it. The idea characterizing the greater system as an entity seems like an interesting way to give it more moral weight. When you say it’s nature, when you say its the environment you can say, “Well, it is not of me,” and not give it moral weight.
Jackson: Well, let’s think about the hierarchy of structure. Let’s start at the atoms. And atoms are embedded within molecules, consist of them. And then there are cells. And then there are tissues. And then there are organs. And then there are organisms. And a man by the name of Feibelman wrote a paper in the early 50s on the laws of integrative levels. And he came to organisms, and biologists were saying, “What comes next?” And some said species. Some said populations.
But an ecologist in Canada, J. “Stan” Rowe, said, “Well, what do the others have in common?” He said they have contiguous volume. Species don’t have contiguous volume. Populations don’t have contiguous volume. Ecosystems do. Once ecosystems was there, those twelve laws of Feibelman fit.
So here’s the hierarchy: atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, ecosystems, and ecosphere. I think we ought to get rid of the word “biosphere” and call it ecosphere, because biosphere shows the bio-bias. And then as Stan Rowe says, Ignoring the physical you then play fast and loose with it. And now look at the atmosphere with the CO2.
So, as we go through this hierarchy, one thing we notice is that let’s say we’re at the cellular level. Above the cell is tissue, and that’s the ecology. Below the cell is physiology, its workings. You move up to the tissue level, and above the tissue is organ. That’s the ecology. And below is the physiology. Purpose lies above and mechanism below.
Anderson: Which gets us to a really interesting— I mean, when you extrapolate that, Purpose, for ecosphere, being then unknowable to us because we’re embedded in it?
Anderson: Does it then have an intrinsic source of value?
Jackson: Well, it has an intrinsic force of value because without it, we’re dead.
Anderson: If we drop the idea of nature, the environment is something else. Say we can completely change the environment in a way that has huge repercussions for all these other things, but maybe we engineer it in some way where we survive. Is that ultimately neither better nor worse?
Jackson: I think it’s impossible.
Jackson: We did a sunshine farm. Marty Bender was in charge of it. It was two hundred and ten acres. Fifty acres of crops, a hundred sixty acres of pasture for cattle. We had photovoltaic panels. We had chickens for meat and eggs. We had draft horses. We had a biodiesel tractor. We grew fuel. And the purpose is to cause that farm to pay all of the energy bills, and then to look to see how much could be exported through the farm gate.
Marty went all the way back to mining the ore in the Minnesota iron range to build the tractor. To processing in Gary, Indiana. To manufacture and the number of commute days per worker, to the commute miles, and so on. You go down through trying to determine what that total cost is in terms of energy and materials. Can’t do it. You can go through about three layers, because the scaffolding of civilization itself is behind it.
Anderson: We’re getting into really big systems thinking here. I find it fascinating. I also find it a little alarming sometimes, because when I try to start grappling with the idea of how big the systems are, especially when I’m thinking about social energy, they’re all interconnected so it’s hard to even parse them. Embarking on systems thinking as a form of thinking, as a mental structure, is extremely difficult for me, and it seems like it’s difficult for a lot of people. Because these things are…they’re huge, right. And we can see little manifestations of them. But it’s hard to conceptualize them as this total whole. And it’s funny that as we talk about this, and we talk about science as a religion as well, these ideas are sort of coming together for me. And I’m thinking that maybe one of the things that’s been interesting in some of the more technologist conversations I’ve had? is that there’s an assumption that we can know how all the systems work. Is that part of the ultimate—
Jackson: And the more those systems are the product of our making, the more they’re dependent upon us. In other words, a bacterium that is anaerobic (which means it had its origin before there was oxygen) will form a spore around it, attach itself to the root of a plant, which stimulates the root of the plant to grow around it. And as it’s growing around it, the spore opens. But the growth has taken the oxygen so that now, using twenty-one enzymes, at ambient temperature, that bacterium-plant interaction can capture atmospheric nitrogen.
The Haber-Bosch process that’s a result of our cleverness, requires three hundred and fifty atmospheres. Not 4⁄5 of one atmosphere, as the plant, but three hundred and fifty atmospheres at 400 degrees C. Millions of years of evolution have developed this abiotic interaction. It’s an information-rich system. In fact, I wrote an essay entitled “The Information Implosion,” that is as we destroy ecosystems, we’re destroying information. And the amount of information we destroy is far greater than the amount of information we’ve acquired.
Anderson: So, the information here is genetic information? It’s how all of these systems operate?
Jackson: Yeah, it’s real.
Anderson: It’s a very different way thinking about information, I think, for most people. That’s a challenging assumption. I’m going back here to our moment when we were talking about science as the silver bullet to get us out of crisis situations. And tying in our conversation right now about information. Is it fair to say the reason you think science can’t be the silver bullet to get us out of these situations, can’t create a new natural order, essentially, is that the existing one is so complicated there’s no possible way we can model it and sort of anticipate every problem that we would have with a man-created system?
Jackson: That’s right. And what we’ll be doing is destroying more in the interest of some short-term gain. See, why is it we don’t want to live within our means and think about a whole different social order?
Anderson: What are our fundamental assumptions that we have now that are letting us not think about that?
Jackson: The idea that growth is the way we solve problems. I mean, not a single politician is willing to say, “Gang, the problem is growth.”
Anderson: So, what is progress if not growth?
Jackson: Progress is to cease [reducing] options for future generations.
Anderson: So, progress is about creating choices, in a way?
Jackson: Well, progress is about the denial of anything that chisels away at the ecosphere’s capacity to nurture us. We live in a world in which the number of wounds that are now wounding us is on the increase. Just look at say, what corn syrup has done to obesity because we don’t want to restrict the use of sugar. It’s coming back. We’re going to have more people on dialysis. It’s the refusal to practice restraint. So, I see no way out of rationing.
Anderson: I think a lot of the people who are afraid of ideas like rationing, or the idea of any kind restraint, is that it’s socially-imposed. And they say, “Look at other systems where people have gone after the idea of collective well-being. Those systems have been draconian and they’ve limited people’s individual freedom.”
Jackson: I grew up during World War II. I remember going to town in the car. Gasoline was rationed. Sugar was rationed. And we were all in it together. And that was imposed as a result of mutual coercion mutually agreed upon through a collective, the people we voted in.
Anderson: And you don’t think it’s necessarily draconian?
Jackson: I don’t think it’s draconian. Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon. We still have a democracy. It’s a matter of a perception of necessity. Is it draconian to have a stop light and to get a ticket for running a stop light? I don’t consider that draconian. I consider it a practical necessity. I mean, people that say draconian, it likely comes from a childish impulse. Don’t want to be told no.
The problem of acknowledging limits, to me, is right at the core of where the debate has to go. We need a kind of another myth. The Hebrews, they had to develop a code for getting along, the Ten Commandments. As Aldo Leopold said, only the most naive student of history actually believes that Moses wrote the Decalogue. What he did is summarize an already-existing ethic for a seminar. Well, we’ve not begun the writing of the manifesto. And it’s your generation that’s going to have to do that.
Anderson: When I was talking to David Korten, he was talking about changing the story.
Jackson: Yeah. Well look, we’re on our way to changing that story. I mean, the Hubble Telescope has helped, actually.
Anderson: In terms of perspective?
Jackson: Perspective. I mean, no longer does Heaven have the kind of altitude that it formerly had. And carbon, which enters so importantly was cooked in the remote past of a dying star, and that we’ve been cycled through a supernova I guess at least twice. The ancient seas set the pattern of ions in our blood. That’s a different story.
Anderson: At the same time, science exists in this very physicalist world, which is a world of stuff. And these old systems of morality and behavior and belief are sort of based in a world of spirit. And I wonder if the very developments that allow us to sort of have our perspective in the universe also make us have some kind of crisis in terms of, are we just stuff? You can say we’re just stuff and it’s amazing that we’re made of the same material as these stars. But where do you get value there?
Jackson: We’re not just stuff. We’re the only species that’s matter and energy’s way of having gained self-recognition. We’re the only species that knows about the speed of light. That knows about plate tectonics. That knows about Darwin’s idea. That we’ve answered two of the old religious questions: Where do we come from, and what kind of a thing are we? The third religious question is hanging in the balance: What is to become of us? We aren’t just stuff.
Anderson: It seems like in our conversation we’ve certainly gotten to a sense that this is a historical moment that matters. There is stuff in the balance.
Jackson: I think it’s the most important moment, including our walk out of Africa.
Anderson: Really. That much hangs in the balance?
Jackson: That much hangs in the balance.
Anderson: Because of soil, energy…
Jackson: Soil…the stuff that is necessary to sustain us, and the fact that it has to end. See, as hunters and gatherers we didn’t have to worry about practicing restraint. So, it’s been a trajectory of exploitation, starting with agriculture. That’s why I think that if we don’t get sustainability in agriculture first, it’s not gonna happen.
The restraint from the past is what paradoxically has allowed civilization, and the exploitation of all those resources is what’s given us the knowledge. Now, the big question is can we start living within our means and retain the knowledge as TS Eliot put it, “and in the end know our place for the first time.”
Aengus Anderson: Well, if TS Eliot isn’t a classy ending I don’t know what is.
Micah Saul: Totally. We talked about it in the intro, but I’m still just amazed at how well Wes Jackson connects to almost everybody else in the project. In terms of those connections, I think one of the first ones I think we should talk about, because it was the last conversation, his response to Robert Zubrin. Jackson is very interested in the idea of constraints and limits, which is something that…well that Zubrin finds just absolutely abhorrent.
Anderson: Yeah. I mean, these are two guys that I can’t even imagine what it would be like if they spoke face to face. I don’t think you could have thinkers who would be more polar opposites. And yet, and yet, for both of them there’s this incredibly strong desire to have a good quality of life and long-term health for the species.
Saul: Right. Both Zubrin and Jackson talked about creativity. Zubrin says that the creativity of the human mind is limitless and therefore there are no limits. And Jackson responds and says, but there are limits, and it’s those limits that spark the creativity of the human mind. But then he goes on to say that creativity isn’t infinite. In fact, to think that humanity’s creativity could even remotely compare to the creativity of the ecosphere or the universe is just hubris. It’s an interesting way of reframing creativity.
Anderson: It absolutely is. Thinking of evolution, thinking of what is happening in the cosmos as a creative process, Jackson really pushes us to think about much larger things and our place in them. And in them is actually exactly it. We are embedded within them, and as such we cannot fully know and control them. He has an issue with the very premise of a lot of…well, he would call them technological fundamentalists.
Saul: Right. The idea that we could ever fully understand the systems in which we are embedded, he just doesn’t believe that it’s possible. As we said in the intro it, made me think a lot about Timothy Morton. And it made me think about his idea that the crisis right now is that we’re suddenly awakening to the fact that we are a part of this thing that is so large we can never understand it.
Anderson: And sort of that strange paradox of, you create these immensely complicated social and technical systems and they start changing your habitat in a way that may make you go extinct. And yet those very systems give you the tools to step back and see them.
Saul: I loved Jackson’s comment about Hubble and how Hubble allows us to get a better sense of our…of who we are, and how we fit into all of this. As he put it, where did we come from and what kind of a thing are we?
Anderson: So do you think he has excessive faith in the ability of science to help us realize that we are part of larger systems? I mean, it seems like the type of systems thought we’re getting from people like Jackson and Korten and Morton is really big, and it’s really hard to get your head around.
Saul: I mean, I would argue that they would suggest you can’t get your head around them. Because we are inside them, a part of us can’t contain their totality.
Anderson: And Korten says you create a new myth, and Jackson touches on that idea, but it seems like for him the new mythology is actually less important than actually just having a volume of scientific information to say, “Look, this is how massively complex the universe is.” And that should be in a way a sort of epiphany to make you realize that you’re facing something that is ultimately unmappable and uncontrollable in a way that say, an extreme technologist would want to map and control.
Saul: Well, and is that maybe the new mythology? Is the new idea here that complex systems are too large for us? There is a limit to what we can know.
Anderson: In which case I think actually the term “mythology” is almost dangerous here. Like, science can actually get you to this point, and you can actually realize without any sort of myth or value system these things are too big to be understood, and they are in fact so big that even if the most extreme transhumanist fantasy came true and you were able to become something far more intelligent and complicated than what you are now, you would never be complicated or intelligent enough to understand how all of your actions feed back to you.
Saul: It’s a really unsettling thought, isn’t it? So, we’ve gotten all sorts of new ways of thinking about things or they’re improving our ways of thinking about things. Something we didn’t get to was a notion of the good, or where values come from. Which is actually a little surprising to me because it is something that we talk about so much in The Conversation. I didn’t even realize until a little bit ago that we don’t hear that here.
Anderson: No, we really don’t. There’s an assumption, obviously, that survival is good. But everybody’s working toward survival.
Anderson: What we really talked about is what Wes considers a much more effective way of survival, and why. But that doesn’t really get you into how to live, necessarily. It doesn’t really get you into happiness or a satisfying life. And it also doesn’t get you away from the question of, are you just stuff?
Saul: Right. He had an answer to that.
Anderson: He did. And I wasn’t convinced by it.
Saul: I was struck by a similarity to Zubrin in his answer to why we are more than just stuff.
Anderson: Oh, you found a similarity.
Saul: Yes. So—
Anderson: I think you’re on to something.
Saul: So, Jackson says that we are matter and energy’s way of becoming self-aware. Which sounds a lot like, “We are the biosphere’s way of spreading itself across the universe.”
Anderson: And maybe in this case it’s not spreading, but there’s definitely a sense of higher-order consciousness. Or that consciousness is good. And that somehow we are that, and that takes us out of the realm of stuff. Or maybe it leaves us in the realm of stuff but it makes us more meaningful? One of the hardest parts of the sort of picturing people as a component in this really big system is then for us to find some sort of sense of good, or sense of meaning.
I mean, you can know that you’re part of this big system, but I think Zubrin really taps into something that’s very appealing to us. It’s like we are part of this big system, but the big system doesn’t care about us. We are interested in our story. We can only know things from our perspective. The meaning is self-generated. And I think with both Jackson and Zubrin, there’s an interesting sort of secular quality and like, where do you get meaning? Because both of them seem very scientifically-minded. Both of them seem very physicalist. And yet both of them also seem to have a really strong arational sense of some kind of good. Both of them feel like they have a religious or spiritual sense. And I don’t see that as being a good or a bad thing. you know. It’s just a thing. I mean, if you boil anyone’s beliefs down, they’re going to be arational.
Saul: Right. That’s one of the big takeaways from this project I think for me.
Anderson: So how do we move forward?
Saul: Well, actually the person you’re gonna talk to next gives us some idea of, if not how to move forward, at least how do exist within these systems we’re talking about, to work within them in a way that isn’t just completely daunting.
Anderson: And that person is Carolyn Raffensperger, and she’s the head of SEHN, The Science and Environmental Health Network. And she’s really interested in the idea of instituting rights for future generations.
That was Dr. Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas recorded July 18, 2012.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.