The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 14, No. 2 (Summer 2012)
A Conversation with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson
Joshua J. Yates
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 14.2 (Summer 2012). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
Why has the term “sustainability” become so popular, and is it useful?
Berry: I’ll go out on a limb, and Wes can saw it off. We’re stuck with this word because of the obvious need to sustain the things that we’re not sustaining. But by itself, the word doesn’t mean very much because no word means much by itself. If you’re going to make use of this word, you have to find a context for it in which it can mean something. You can look around and study examples. You can find here and there forests that have been sustainably managed, so far as we can tell. You can find farms that are not running off a lot of topsoil after rains. If you can get it particular enough, you can talk about sustainability and make a little sense. But it’s a matter of getting it into sentences that say something actually verifiable in a context. And I think we have a long, long way to go.
Jackson: The first paper I wrote that described our current work was published in our Land Report and was titled, “The Search for a Permanent Agriculture.” I’d read about the Catholic Church’s idea of “permanence” as a kind of virtue. But “permanence” wasn’t quite right. When I published the paper outside The Land Report, I changed the title to “The Search for a Sustainable Agriculture.” The term must have been floating around in 1978.
I’ve been asked to define the term and give examples. My response has been, “well, give me a definition of justice.” The idea of justice arose in a historical moment, probably out of the idea of fairness, or the perceived lack of fairness. It arose, as I understand it, among the Hebrews, about the time of the minor prophets. Maybe that’s where we are today with “sustainability”—it is a term we the people have resorted to because of the perceived lack of sustainability in our society.
Ultimately it comes back to Wendell’s idea that it is best to have a particularity in order to know what we’re talking about. It is a value term, and I’m in favor of keeping it, but we need to protect its meaning, protect it from being co-opted.
What does genuine sustainability look like? How would we know we have achieved it?
Berry: Sustainability is found in nature’s own dynamic permanence. You can have a permanent pasture—but it’s permanent in a relative sense. You can keep it permanent during your tenure. That is, if you don’t plow it or over-graze it. And this “permanence” doesn’t keep it from changing. It’s necessarily changing all the time.
This is not entirely incompatible with management if you’re doing your best to do the right thing. I’ve restored a modest amount of hillside pasture, and I know it’s possible under a grazing regimen to improve the cover. But things are also going on that you can’t account for. I remember when a portion of the hillside behind my house had a lot of moss on it. Then the moss went away and grass came. Then after a while, broom-sage showed up, and you ordinarily would lime it for that, but the hillside is too steep to lime, so there was nothing to do but wait it out. I waited, and it went away. Something’s happening, you see. I have no idea what, but this is a dynamic resource. It’s changing, but it’s not changing in reference only to me or my use of it. All you can do is make certain decisions that affect it within limits. You can decide not to over-stock it; you can decide to move your stock on or off it at a certain time, that sort of thing, but the sustainability of it is inherent in it, not in the manager. The manager is always going to fall far short of understanding what’s going on in a pasture.
Jackson: The only test is always time-dependent. Thinking about sustainability with the quarterly report in mind, or even one or five or ten years, is different from contemplating the fact that during all interglacial periods of the Pleistocene, Kansas was prairie. There is Homo sapiens time, agricultural time, industrial time. For agricultural time I think we must look to natural ecosystems as the best standard, look at how they have worked over millennia. They have evolved in ways to buffer for extremes over eons. They have stood the test of time and are useful for human thought.
Berry: The natural ecosystem is one measure. But the other necessary measure for humans is the longevity of memory on the land. If we could maintain four generations of continuous attention in a family or neighborhood lineage, then we’d know more about sustainability.
My brother lives on a farm that’s been in my family since before the Civil War, and we do have some memories of what has happened there, so we have a kind of a measure, but that’s a cultural artifact. It comes from what Wallace Stegner called the “sticker” tradition in our history. The stickers have been the ones who stayed, who came wanting to stay, not those who came to plunder and then move on.
So you’ve got to have this conversation forever going back and forth, measuring the human performance against the land in its natural state. This is not science; I don’t know what you’d call it. It can be science at certain points. You can study and examine the unploughed prairie, and that’s science. And then you can compare that to the exhausted slope and the exhausted field, and that’s science. But that conversation going back and forth between human action and nature is scientific only up to a point. Beyond that it’s cultural. Questions have to be asked that aren’t scientific.
Could you unpack the following quote from the Land Institute's website?
If we don't get sustainability right in agriculture first, it won't happen anywhere. It won't happen in the materials sector nor the industrial sector in general. Agriculture is fundamentally ecological in nature. Agriculture has the science of ecology standing behind it, a science devoted to discovering how ecosystems work. The material and industrial sectors do not.
Jackson: If our interest is sustainability, where is there to look but to nature? And it seems natural to look first to agriculture to make the fit since it is the closest link we have to nature. But in our time it has become more distant through industrialization.
Sustainability in agriculture will require a side-by-side comparison with nature for a standard. How else can we evaluate what we intend to do with a bulldozer or the GEM [Giant Excavating Machine] of Egypt? You don’t look to the Shell Oil Company for a response. You don’t look to the computer industry to tell you. Only ecology can provide a standard, not the industrial sector. Ecology is a discipline with a real economy that can inform a way to go because ecology will give us the best understanding of nature’s economies.
Berry: The whole issue of measurement is screwed up because we don’t have a basis to start from. Wes and I have talked a good deal about this.
If you are going to know what you are doing in a given place, you need to start with an inventory of what is there, what is going on there. And then, if what you do changes the inventory, you know something exactly. Wes and his people study the prairie, and the result is not just a list of species and creatures. The examination also involves long observing and thinking. Interest, necessarily, is not just in the species, but in their interactions. But you’re also talking about the harvest of sunlight and the storage of it, and the way the prairie receives and manages and stores the rainfall. So to answer the plain question of the sustainability of a place, you have to begin by asking what is, or was, going on in the natural ecosystem that agriculture starts from. That is a vital question, and I don’t think it’s enough asked.
Jackson: As gatherers and hunters, we were firmly within nature’s ecosystems. With the development of agriculture, we moved out of phase, and in industrial times, increasingly so. But agriculture is the place to start if we are to move back into phase. That is why our effort is called “natural systems agriculture.” We have a chance then to approach a real standard and from our efforts are sure to arrive at a new source of metaphors for thinking about the rest of the economy.
Speaking of metaphors, what about various cultural or religious traditions, or our arts and humanities? Do they provide standards? Are they important for thinking about sustainability?
Berry: What do religion and culture, what do the arts and humanities in general, have to do with sustainable land use? In the present structure of our intellectual life, this is a meaningless question—they don’t have anything to do with sustainability at present. The assumption is that we’ll turn that problem over to the engineers, and you’re not going to find an engineer who can easily adopt the standards of religion or the arts.
Jackson: This is why I’m so dissatisfied to see the arts and humanities back off from the practical issues because what we’re talking about is art. Take Amish farms. There are some very good ones and some very bad ones—I’m not making a categorical approval of Amish farming. What makes the good ones so good is that they possess a coherent structural arrangement not at all unlike the structural arrangement of a novel or a book. You need to decide what goes where, and how much of what is where, and so on. So this is art, the practice of art. It’s a very high practice, and nobody is acknowledging it.
Berry: Right, and meanwhile, we’ll let the churches be in charge of getting people to heaven, and they won’t have to worry about our economic life at all. And the arts will concern themselves with nature but only as subject matter, only as a source of metaphors. That’s wrong, in my opinion. I think all the disciplines gather under the meaning of economy, the making of the household, the making and maintenance of the human household, and that involves everything.
When you’re talking about the land use economies, you’re talking about the fundamental economies. What we are talking about are the arts of life, and the fundamental arts of life are the arts of land use. We have preferred to think of the arts of life as the arts of living, the code of hospitality to guests, good table manners, and so on. But the issue is more economic and more serious than that. So if we began to think about all the arts of life, then we would maybe have the beginning of a real criticism. Are these good arts or bad arts?
And the engineering arts also are economic arts. They are the way that we construct, so to speak, the household of the human economy. And to turn the construction of that household over to a bunch of materialist specialists is a serious mistake.
Jackson: This puts me in mind, Wendell, of your poem, “For the Hog Killing” (see side bar).
Berry: You see there was a whole system of practical acts that gathered in respect for the hog. In the culture that I grew up in, one of the firm laws of hog killing was never to make them squeal. If they squealed after you shot them, you had done a bad job. You had hurt them. Doing it well was an act of reverence—a practical, economic act—but at the same time, it was an act of reverence for the creation and for living things. You’re not going to find a big slaughterhouse with the ethical imperative, “don’t let them feel it.”
A friend sent me a piece once about a livestockman who had gone into a frozen pond to rescue a calf that had fallen through the ice. You can’t justify that economically; he was risking pneumonia, even death. But the code was, “this animal is dependent on me.” And he felt that just as keenly as if the calf had called him by name and said, “help me.” (If you hang around livestock long enough, you’ll sometimes get that message: “do something, help me!”) He’d be the kind of livestockman who would pay the correct kind of attention to his animals, and there might be in the end an economic payment. This to me is instructive.
Jackson: But all this comes together with an ecological worldview, properly understood. Within the ecosphere are ecosystems, and within ecosystems are organisms as well as the physical part of the world—water, air, the earth’s crust, soil—and the social interactions of people and with our animals and plants and fungi and bacteria. It is a container, but it is more than that. The whole, what the ancients must have considered holy, has properties of its own, emergent properties, and depending on our behavior or practices, some are seen to be evil, others good. Bring a bulldozer to a Kentucky mountaintop, lower the blade and hit the throttle, and all sorts of unexpected emergent properties will go beyond the boundary line.
Berry: Bad emergent properties, bad surprises, on that scale are the result of cultural failure—the unwillingness, even the inability, to be a good neighbor to one’s neighbors. As I knew them, hog killings were accomplished by neighbors working together. And what those people understood perfectly—and I don’t think the religious connection was ever brought out in church—was that you knew if you loved your neighbor, you had to get out of your chair. If I sit here in my chair and I say, “neighbor, I love you,” what the hell difference does it make? You have to be able to help. And when you’re needed, you have to go.
The old ethic—our rule in work at home—was, “nobody is done till everybody is done.” And when it was tobacco harvest, you knew you were going to be there till you and all your neighbors were done. You were going to be working together; you were going to be sweating together. We didn’t go around talking piously about loving each other, but we did love each other. It’s like a football team: you’ve been through a lot together; you know each other’s motions. You look at the figure of your neighbor on the horizon at his work, and you recognize every gesture with this profound sympathy that you feel in your own flesh. You know what he’s going to do. This is as intimate as knowing how to dance together.
Somebody once asked an Amish farmer I know, “what does community mean to you?” He said, “when my son and I rest our horses from plowing in the spring, we usually stop them at the highest point of our farm. From that standpoint we can see thirteen other teams at work. And I know that if I get sick or debilitated or die, those thirteen teams will be at work on my farm.” So this is structural and practical, you see. But it’s also obedience to Scripture.
There are many people who are increasingly attracted to the local, agrarian vision you both advocate. One danger seems to be confusing a genuine recovery of reverence with the adoption of a well-meaning but shallow romanticism. How do we avoid the confusion?
Berry: By doing the work, and by liking it. I wrote an introduction to a book of photographs made in 1973; it’s called, “Tobacco Harvest, an Elegy.” And it shows my neighborhood—my children and I were in it—and we were exchanging work. (That neighborhood is gone now—they are all either old or dead.) One of the members of that neighborhood was a small man who had been somewhat crippled by a childhood disease. In his working life, he probably never weighed 125 pounds, but he did as much hard work as anybody. We had a public showing of those photographs at my daughter and son-in-law’s winery. Old men stood in front of those pictures and wept. But this fellow stationed himself beside one of the photographs, and he was explaining it to people. I heard him say, “it was hard work. There wasn’t any way you could keep it from being hard, but you wouldn’t believe the fun we had.”
If we once had genuine neighborliness, lived closer to the land, and possessed the “arts of life” to some degree, why didn't it last? In short, why wasn't that way of life sustainable? And, if it wasn't sustainable before, how can we hope that we could either recover it again now or sustain it at this point in our history?
Berry: This is a difficult question. There are a number of reasons why we’ve lost touch with the land and its traditions. For starters, we have had for generations now the doctrine of labor saving that has devalued, even disvalued, physical work. And then we’ve had this inflated value attached to education and the professions—sedentary work. But farmers have also experienced terrible economic times.
My grandfather was born in 1864. He was just coming to the age of marrying and starting his family—the age when each generation ought to have the economic wherewithal to improve the farm—at the time of the depression of the 1890s. And then it was bad through the first decade of the twentieth century. There was a little bump up during the First World War. By the 20s, we were back in an agricultural depression. Then came the Great Depression of the 30s. In 1940 my grandfather was 76 years old. It was too late for him. My father went home to farm in the 20s, but there just wasn’t the income. And that was when he went to law school. He told a reporter once, “if I had not been practicing law in 1931…I believe they would have sold the farm for taxes, because the tobacco crop that year, which was a good one,…brought less than enough to pay the taxes.”
You don’t get the generational succession that you need to sustain a way of life out of that kind of economic history. I remember my grandmother telling me, “honey, don’t you ever farm.”
Jackson: There is another dimension, one we have paid too little attention. We’ve appreciated neither the lure nor the power of high-density carbon and the technology it has been able to both sponsor and use. This kind of energy is so compelling.
With agriculture, we began to use the low-density carbon of the soil. Amory Lovins calls it “the young unpulverized coal of the soil.” We started that mining operation 10,000 years ago. We used the higher density carbon found in trees, which by burning we got the Bronze and Iron ages. That was 5,000 years ago. Then 250 years ago we used coal, and the density goes way up again. Then in 1859 we have Drake’s oil well, followed by natural gas. Now we can move these last two forms of carbon through pipelines.
Berry: And it’s transportable in small volumes, which gives us the automobile.
Jackson: So, we have to pay attention to the imperative—what I call the “3.5 billion-year-old imperative.” It was then that life began. All living organisms are carbon-based. We all just go for it. I use the example of bacteria on a petri dish with sugar. The bacteria just grow by division, eating their way to the edge. Bacteria on that petri dish aren’t thinking; they’re just eating. A fruit fly in a flask just eats and breeds. Deer without predators, their numbers are going to grow too. Humans have not demonstrated that we’re any different, especially when it comes to using the highly dense carbon for economic growth. Without predators, given our breeding power and with penicillin, we’re little different than bacteria on a petri dish. So, both our members and our artifacts grow.
Problem is we have little intuition for this. We’ve not had to be very conscious of this imperative until industrial times. It wasn’t until some 250 years ago that we even had to start thinking about it, and we mostly still don’t.
Berry: You know, that petri dish analogy is really kind of delightful because what we got five hundred years ago when colonization of the “new world” began was the substitution of a petri platter for the petri dish. It’s become a great carbon buffet, and we live in an age of voracious feasting on all the carbon we can get our hands on. Only now we’re beginning to worry it won’t last, and that’s why you get these desperate “substitutes” like ethanol.
Jackson: That certainly is a part of the overall equation. Ethanol is a derivative of the perception of abundance. It is carbon coming out of the soil and the corn plant and going into the gas tank.
Berry: Wes, it’s an exploitation of an abundance we don’t even have.
George Orwell famously said, “to see what's right in front of one's nose means a constant struggle.” What stands in our way of seeing our situation clearly?
Jackson: We have a difficult time seeing the forest for the trees. We experience the separate episodes of extreme weather—there are periods of drought such as in Texas or 150-mile-an-hour winds in LA or unusual snowfall or melting glaciers. Looking at the “trees,” we tend to say, “well, we’ve always had those events.” Of course we have. But you have to get people thinking about their frequencies and the severity of all the individual events. Unfortunately, it may take a lot of these events to begin to change people’s minds and get them to see the larger pattern.
What role does human desire play next to the power that comes from high-density carbon?
Berry: Well, you can jack up human desire until it’s limitless. You can jack it up to the point where it disregards even the limits of consumption. But we have a cultural tradition; we have a humane tradition that’s concerned with what the proper definition of humanity is. And we’ve ignored it.
That tradition says that you must restrain yourself, and that there are social forms for restraint—marriage is one of them. Just because you have the capacity to look with desire on every desirable woman doesn’t mean that you ought to try to sleep with every one of them. Limitlessness—of greed, of “growth”—quickly becomes just silly.
But, ultimately, this is generosity. The marriage vows say “forsaking all others,” and people who are for “liberation” look with disfavor on that phrase, “forsaking all others.” But forsaking all others actually is fidelity to all others. It’s taking care and thought of all others. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to forsake them in their hour of need or that you’re going to be unkind, or unneighborly, or unfriendly, or even unappreciative.
Jackson: Wendell, I’m remembering your conversation with a friend, when you asked about the community dance, the square dance. If you’re doing a square dance, you do-si-do with your partner, you promenade, and then you return back home.
Berry: You dance with all the other women.
Jackson: You dance with all the other women and the women dance with all the other men, and there’s a certain kind of energy that comes from that, but in the dance you always come back home. The dance captures cultural necessity.
Berry: It acknowledges and allows the transmission of sexual energy around the community, but within established limits and subject to the requirement to return home.
But isn't the genie out of the bottle? We obviously can't go back to square dancing.
Berry: I object to the word “back.” In fact, some people are still square dancing. So it’s present. But even the past can be learned from.
Jackson: Perhaps that square dance represents an encoded language of behavior necessary for maintaining order in a community. It is artfully symbolic of rules. Embedded within is the necessity to save appearances, to preserve order and harmony with the pleasure of the spirit and the body acknowledged. Perhaps the square dance is a product of a coherent culture.
Berry: We need a new respect for propriety of scale and the law of return, both of which are essential, and they are closely related. Sir Albert Howard understood what he called “the law of return” as one of nature’s fundamental laws. It requires that whatever nutrients and organic materials are taken from the land must be returned. This probably is the fundamental law of sustainability, and it depends on getting the scale right, which usually means fairly small scale.
In industrial meat production, the animals are fed so far from the fields where their feed is grown that their feces and urine cannot be returned. What should be a source of fertility and production then becomes, instead, a pollutant. The whole industrial food production system, which includes the industrial sewage system, violates the law of return in just that way.
So the scale of our economic life, for that and other reasons, has to be limited. Maybe every young person who has been a farmer or in love with farming has wanted more land. But it’s hard in Holmes County, Ohio, which is the largest Amish settlement in the country, to find a farm bigger than about 125 acres. There’s an amount of land that you can farm optimally with horse power. You’ve got to find your optimum set of balances within that prescribed territory. Instead of expanding, you must diversify and complicate the structure of the farm.
A friend used to say for every cow that you got, you can have one sheep—and never know the difference because cattle and sheep graze differently. That’s complicating the structure.
There are farmers who have prospered through difficulty, and it’s partly because they’ve accepted their boundaries. They don’t plunge; they don’t “leverage.” Their acceptance of a limited acreage enforces the best use of what they have.
Jackson: And it’s diversity with complementarity. If there were thirteen different teams at work out there, and there wasn’t “loving your neighbor as you love yourself”—people willing to come together as one—then all you’d have is diversity. We need both working interdependently. As important as it is, diversity alone isn’t enough.
The mission statement of the Land Institute, most of which Wendell wrote, says: “when people, land, and community are as one, all three members prosper; when they relate not as members but as competing interests, all three are exploited.” I have had more people that have wanted to change it, especially newcomers. They want to know if we can’t come up with something more specific and closer to what we actually do.
Berry: I didn’t know that.
Jackson: I had someone recently say, “that mission statement doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t tell what we’re going to be working on for perennial corn and so on.” I said, “okay, write a new mission statement. Go ahead.” What that objection illustrates is how far the culture is from appreciating the issue of interdependence.
The mission statement implies the scientific work we are doing is not just for science or profit. Ultimately, the interdependence between people, land, and community must be acknowledged. Most of the emergent properties of an ecosystem are uncontrollable. They go beyond the boundary. It is not good enough to say that the boundary of consideration must overlap the boundary of causation. We have to acknowledge that consequence almost always goes beyond our stated boundary, which means that our boundary was too limited at the outset.
To paraphrase the environmental historian J. R. McNeill, the history of human civilization that began with settled agriculture can be characterized as the history of one unsustainable way of life after another. Jared Diamond goes so far as to call the invention of agriculture “the worst mistake in history.” Is the problem agriculture itself? If so, can humanity ever be truly sustainable?
Jackson: Thinking of agriculture as a mistake is a good place to start. It’s been shown to be beyond the cultural stretch of most of humanity to do agriculture right century after century after century. There have been exceptions—F. H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries comes to mind. Small societies have been able to pull it off here and there. But sooner or later somebody will show up on a piece of land and do something stupid that will degrade it. Today, with monocrop fossil fuel intensive agriculture, we’re asking of ourselves something that can’t be sustained.
Berry: Some people who have lived in places where the ecological limits are visible and accepted because there’s no escape from acceptance have achieved pretty admirable balances. They have learned to restrain themselves within natural limits.
If humans have only ever approached sustainability in small-scale communities scattered here and there across history, and only then because they were forced to live within the strict limits of scarcity, how realistic can it be to expect that our world–with all its seven billion increasingly urbanized and globalized people trying to live on high-density carbon–could ever become sustainable? Again, if we couldn't manage it in the past, what grounds are there for being optimistic now?
Jackson: At the margin are countless good examples, and it is from this margin that I imagine will be the “saving remnant.” Who are they? They are the ones who have “dug in” to celebrate their lives by focusing and working at the local level. Most are not politically active, I suspect, because they are busy, which creates a problem. They don’t have much of a constituency. Many of them can be rightfully accused of being self-absorbed, but their practices make them a source of hope. Of course, they are still “plugged in,” but their thoughts are ahead of the dominant culture.
Berry: We’ve got examples, but you’re not under any obligation to be an optimist. And you’re not under any obligation to construct a hope for the whole human race. What you are required to do is to be intelligent. And that means you’ve got to have an array of examples you want more or less to understand. Some are not perfect, and others are awful, and to be intelligent you’ve got to know why some are better than the others. As we said at the beginning of the conversation, that means you’ve got to think in particular about particular examples.
Jackson: I read an interview with Wendell before we met. In that interview, Wendell was asked the same question. I have used that same line ever since, “I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful.” And as long as we have the good examples, we can be hopeful. Someone once said that optimism and pessimism aren’t arguments. They’re just two different ways to surrender to simplicity.
Berry: One of them says, “everything is going to turn out fine, so you don’t need to worry.” The other one says, “you might as well give up because it’s inevitable.” I hate that word “inevitable.” I often need to remember the Edwin Muir poem, “The Island.” It ends this way:
Though come a different destiny,
Though fall a universal wrong
More stern than simple savagery,
Men are made of what is made,
The meat, the drink, the life, the corn,
Laid up by them, in them reborn.
And self-begotten cycles close
About our way; indigenous art
And simple spells make unafraid
The haunted labyrinths of the heart,
And with our wild succession braid
The resurrection of the rose.