Soils and Souls: The Promise of the Land

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A poet, an economist, and a biologist walk into a barn in Kansas and start talking. What do you get when you cross their ideas?

Answer: Hybrid vigor.

OK, the joke might not quite work unless you’re an agronomist (and maybe even the agronomists aren’t laughing), but it captures the importance of the conversations at The Land Institute’s annual gathering in Salina, KS. In the search for alternatives to our dead-end industrial agriculture system, Land Institute researchers are pursuing plant breeding programs that just may be the key to post-oil farming. But beyond the science, “The Land” — that’s how everyone there refers to the Institute in conversation — provides a fertile space for mixing the ideas of people as well as the genes of plants. In both cases, the hybrid vigor — the superior qualities that result from crossbreeding — is exciting.

With the rain providing an intermittent backbeat on the barn roof throughout a Saturday in late September, the 2010 Prairie Festival began with three talks — by poet/novelist Wendell Berry, economist Josh Farley, and biologist Sandra Steingraber — that were insightful on their own, but even more intriguing as an intellectual mash-up. The three were telling the story of how sin brought us to this place, how we must redefine success if we are to atone, and how essential that change is for our own safety. I had come expecting those kinds of insights and analyses, but surprisingly I left the barn that day with one revelation burning in my brain: While evil lurks in many places, it is most concentrated in fossil fuels.

On Sunday morning, Wes Jackson, The Land’s co-founder and president, played the role of ecologically evangelical preacher. We do indeed face challenges, Jackson testifies, but there is a better way to be found in Natural Systems Agriculture. Perennial polycultures can deliver us from that evil.

But before getting to the solutions, we have to understand the problem, which starts with sin.

 

Sin

Wendell Berry, who farms in his native Henry County, Kentucky, has become a kind of poet laureate of the sustainable agriculture movement, exploring culture and agriculture in verse, short stories, and novels. Establishing himself as a leading critic of industrial farming with his 1977 non-fiction book The Unsettling of America, he has been relentless in his analysis of the disastrous consequences of a consumption-obsessed, profit-driven society on both the human and the natural world.

The lanky Kentuckian began his talk by noting that he is not from Kansas, and therefore would speak about his home state, the place he knows and loves. That reflects one of Berry’s core themes, that the universal principles we articulate must be lived in intensely local fashion; one of his most well-known sayings is, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”

Wherever we are living, Berry argues, we’re in trouble as a consequence of a “land-destroying economy” that pursues “production-by-exhaustion.” That’s most clearly visible in the rapacious destruction of the land’s biotic communities in mountaintop-removal coal mining in his part of the world, Berry says, but also true of agriculture most everywhere. Extracting fossil fuels from the ground is dangerous, and so is the way those fuels are used to work the ground in farming.

The mining of the forests and soil, along with the extraction of fossil fuels, may have started innocently, but since the European conquest of the Americas, “It took us only a little more than 200 years to pass from intentions sometimes approximately good to this horrible result, in which our education, our religion, our politics, and our daily lives all are implicated,” Berry tells the packed house in The Land’s barn.

“This is original sin, round two.”

The sin comes not just in the greed that drives exploitation but the lack of attention we pay to “what is not obvious” — the way we so often ignore the complexity of the world beyond our powers of observation and our failure to recognize the consequences of our inattention. Berry argues that when it takes 1,000 years for nature to produce one inch of topsoil, human farming practices that erode that soil are not simply bad practices but an act of desecration.

While Berry doesn’t hesitate to condemn the corporate henchmen who direct much of this destruction and the politicians who enable them, his point is that “the carelessness of our economic life” means we all play a part in that desecration. We are, in fact, all sinners against the integrity of the ecosystem.

Despite the severity of the critique, Berry articulates “authentic reasons for hope” that sound simple but require much of us.

“We can learn where we are, we can look around us and see,” he suggests. We also can rely on land health, “the capacity of the land for self-renewal,” and work at conservation, “our effort to understand and preserve that capacity.”

Berry doesn’t look to educational, political, or corporate institutions for much help in those efforts, suggesting that we instead look to “leadership from the bottom” that can be provided by groups and individuals “who without official permission or support or knowledge are seeing what needs to be done and doing it.”

As a writer, Berry thinks not just about our actions but about our words. He argues that slogans such as “think globally, act locally” are of little value and that terms such as “green,” which are too easily exploited by corporations for marketing, are downright dangerous.

“What gives hope is actual conversation, actual discourse, in which people say to one another in good faith, fully and exactly, what they know, and acknowledge honestly the limits of their knowledge,” he advises.

 

Success

Josh Farley found that saying exactly what he knows has rarely helped his career as an economist. Walking the grounds of The Land before his talk, he told me that the more he studied neoclassical economics, the more he realized that free-market ideology couldn’t account for ecological realities. Most of his advisers counseled him to stick to the dogma of the discipline, but Farley managed to finish a Ph.D. and stay true to his calling. Seeking out other mentors, he hooked up with Herman Daly, a central figure in “ecological economics” and ended up co-writing with Daly the 2003 text Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications.

Now teaching at the University of Vermont, Farley is part of a small but growing group of economists who don’t simply treat the “environment” as a component of the economy but instead ask how we can construct an economy that can balance what is biologically and physically possible with what is socially and ethically desirable.

The first step in that, Farley told the Prairie Festival audience, is to dispense with some of the mythologies and mistakes of neoclassical economics.

High on the list of mythologies is the notion that our affluence is the product of the wonders of the capitalist market economy. Farley reminds us that capitalism developed alongside the exploitation of fossil fuels, first coal and then oil and natural gas.  Our productivity is the result not of the magic of the market so much as the magic of fossil fuels. Given that a barrel of oil can do the work of 20,000 hours of human labor, Farley says, such dramatic expansion of productivity is not so magical after all.

Markets also make mistakes. Humans use all that energy to transform our ecosystems faster than they can recharge or be restored. Resources are mined and waste is spewed according to the dictates of the market, not the limits of the natural world. Farley points out that there’s no feedback loop in the market economy that stops us from destroying the planet, nothing that resets the prices of goods to reflect that destruction. That’s a problem, Farley says, in his trademark understated fashion.

As a result, we get confused about terms such as efficiency, Farley says. Before fossil fuels, when humans lived almost exclusively on the energy of contemporary sunlight, one calorie burned by a worker could create 10 calories of food, but now we use 10 calories from oil to create one calorie of food. And remember that the market has no way to account for the disastrous consequences of burning all those fossil fuels. And we’re increasingly dependent on non-renewable resources for the food we need to live. That’s efficiency?

But perhaps most dangerous is the story capitalism tells us not about the natural world but about us. Glorifying greed, capitalism tells us we are nothing more than “atomic globules of desire” and that “we’re individuals, apart from community, and all we want is more and more and more.” We need, Farley explains, a different conception of success.

To cope with these problems, Farley sets a modest goal: “A fundamental redesign of our economy.” Sounds naïve, but if we don’t find a way to do that, well, remember that the economy is based not on the “laws of economics” dreamed up by free-market ideologues but on “laws of nature” that we can’t dream away.

 

Safety

As a biologist, Sandra Steingraber has long studied the negative consequences of our inattention to human intervention into the natural world for individuals and ecosystems. She describes those two different trunks of the environmental movement: The focus on toxins’ effects on organisms, which first hit the public radar with the publication of Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring; and the focus on larger ecosystem effects, of which global warming/climate disruption are the gravest threat and which hit the public consciousness first with Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature in 1989.

Steingraber is best known for her inquiry into the effects of those toxins, an investigation that has been intensely personal; she is a cancer survivor, and her 1997 book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment, examined the lines of evidence that establish connections between cancer and chemical contamination. Recognizing that both trunks amount to a “de-creation of life,” Steingraber has decided to turn to what she believes is the source of the problems.

Says Steingraber: The two trunks — “the toxification of all life” and “the dissolution of the whole life support system on which the planet rests” — have one root, fossil fuels.

“When you light [fossil fuels] on fire, you destroy our life-support system through the creation of heat-trapping gases,” she explains. “When you turn them into synthetic chemicals with the power to break chromosomes and tinker with brain cells and hormones, you destroy children.”

This realization has led Steingraber, a visiting scholar at Ithaca College living in upstate New York, to get involved with the movement to stop hydrofracking, a controversial method of getting at natural gas in shale that involves blasting millions of gallons water, sand and chemicals deep into the ground to force gas out of the rock. That process, she says, is another version of mountaintop-removal and deep-water drilling, another desperate attempt to extend a fossil-fuel economy that is fundamentally unsustainable. In such a world, no one is safe. We all live downstream.

 

Nature as measure

In the talks of Berry, Farley, and Steingraber — three very different people with very different backgrounds and training — the common thread is the recognition of the centrality of fossil fuels: to the desecration of land and communities, to the economy’s distortion of our sense of success, to the threats to the health of each of us and the ecosystem.

In that Kansas barn, friends of The Land gathered out of a belief that there are alternatives, and that nowhere is the pursuit of those alternatives more important than in agriculture, the way in which we feed ourselves. For many at Prairie Festival, the research being conducted at The Land is a key to our hopes, and those hopes are bolstered in Wes Jackson’s talk, which traditionally closes out the festival.

Jackson, who grew up on a Kansas farm before earning a Ph.D. in plant genetics, gave up a comfortable university teaching position to start The Land in 1976. His talk reflects both his roots on the farm and his specialized training, but there also are strains of the preacher in his presentation, as he speaks of both sin and redemption.

That redemption in agriculture can come, Jackson preaches, from recognizing that industrial farming — annual plants cultivated in monocultures, dependent on fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides — has greatly expanded yields but at the cost of increased soil erosion and decreased soil fertility. That “failure of success” as Jackson calls it, leaves us no choice but to look to nature for guidance. Rather than mimicking industrial processes, farmers have to ask how natural ecosystems hold soil and ensure fertility. Wheat farmers in Kansas should be looking at the prairie for inspiration not a factory assembly line.

That is the core of Natural Systems Agriculture, taking nature as measure. The key to The Land’s research program is breeding perennial grains — whose deeper roots help hold the soil in place — that can produce adequate yields to feed us. Those perennials would ideally be planted in polycultures — mixtures of plants that to help control pathogens and weeds without petrochemicals.

While this research is the heart of The Land, Jackson speaks as much about solidarity as he does about science, about the commitment it will take to see this through. Prairie Festival is in part about an exchange of information between the invited speakers, The Land’s staff, and guests. But equally important is the role of this annual gathering in creating what Jackson calls “a consecrated community” that is committed over the long haul to the project of an agriculture that can reverse the erosion and depletion of the soil and provide a model for reversing the larger degradation of the planetary ecosystem.

If that project is to succeed, it will have to combine the traditional wisdom that farmers acquire in the fields with the specialized knowledge that scientists develop in the laboratory. But Jackson knows it also requires faith, and he ends with a preacher’s charge to the congregation.

Our task, he says, is to “save the soils as we save our souls.”

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest books are Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out.