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.

Jackson: Yeah.

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?

Jackson: Probably.

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.

Anderson: Ah.

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 45 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.

Saul: Right.

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: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s some­thing that John Fife and Max More back at square one would agree on.

Saul: Yup.

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.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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