This weekend I attended a lecture at Prescott College by noted eco-agronomist Wes Jackson. For decades, Jackson has been breeding grain crops that function similarly to native grasses in his home state of Kansas. He’s now recognized as one of the leading researchers in sustainable agriculture, and the days before his talk here were filled with a buzz usually reserved for jam bands and gem shows.
As befits a man named one of the most important people of the century by Life magazine, Jackson is a big thinker: he believes that solving the ecological crisis will require a change more historic than the Rennaissance, the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution, and this change must start with the way we cultivate food. Ever since the birth of agriculture some twelve millenia ago, we’ve tended to subsist largely on annual crops grown in a monoculture. Today, two thirds of worldwide agricultural production is comprised of crops that have to be replanted every year, requiring massive energy input and irreparable damage to the soil and water.
The answer, according to Jackson, lies in growing perennial plants in a diverse growing environment – in other words, mimicking natural systems to produce maximum yield with a minimum impact. The Land Institute, Jackson’s 30-year-old organization, is doing just that: painstakingly breeding annual varieties of cereal crops like wheat and sorghum that will serve as the basis of an entirely new model for food production.
While the Land Institute employs a certain amount of biological know-how to grow its wondercrops, it could hardly be described as a biotech company. Like many on the forest green end of the spectrum, Jackson is skeptical of the potential of technology to solve our problems. He called our tenacity to the gospel of science a much more dangerous fundamentalism than the Christian or Muslim varieties people like to talk about.
In a critique of Amory Lovins’ push for an eco-efficent capitalist society, he cited the 19th-century british economist W.S. Jevons, who pointed out that efficiency merely frees up more capital for further expansion. In other words, the money Wal-Mart saves by using biodiesel and solar panels is going straight towards building more Wal-Marts… hardly a sustainable proposition, no matter how “green” those new stores are.
Jackson’s argument strikes at the heart of our current dilemma. To invoke the famous Einstein quote, we can’t get ourselves out of the ecological crisis with the same level of thinking that got us here in the first place. If, as Jackson predicts, Lovins-style ecocapitalism won’t take us there, where should we look? How can we transition from a centuries-old paradigm of continual growth to the state of economic equilibrium that the word “sustainability” implies? Even Jackson seemed to come up short for answers to this question, evading and fumbling as audience members approached it from a few different angles.
It certainly won’t be easy. But whether we find the political will to impose limits to our growth, or those limits are imposed upon us by natural constraints, it seems fairly certain that we’re entering an era of dramatic change. Wes Jackson is a beacon, one of the brightest lights around working to ensure that this change is beneficial to humans and ecosystems alike.