Saturday, March 2, 2013

Consulting the Genius of the Place

Wes Jackson's 'Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture' ought to be required reading by virtually everybody (though it could be helped by a touch of smarter editing).

It makes a simple, but cogent, case that we live by way of deficit and have done so ever since the invention of an agriculture, ten thousand years ago, based on crops made of annual, rather than perennial, plants. This deficit has been disguised first by our capacity to move elsewhere as soils collapse, secondly by improving plant varieties and thirdly by huge (and increasing) artificial inputs of non-renewable energy (actual and transformed) like the ability to convert natural gas into fertiliser, without which, it is estimated, 40% of the world's current population would be unfeasible!

Annual plants tend towards monoculture and are grown by disturbing the soil. Such disturbance can be managed more or less effectively but virtually never without incurring soil loss - either of its nutrients or its volume or both.

Perennial plants, precisely because they require no uprooting, sink deeper, more extensive roots and tend to develop rather than to deplete soil. Their diversity helps ensure greater resistance to pest and greater resilience to climate shock.

The challenge now is to breed varieties that can achieve similar grain weights as annuals. It is a challenge to which The Land Institute in Kansas, founded by Jackson, is dedicated. They make progress and expect to have their first viable cropping plant in a decade.

But this scientific challenge sits in a deeper cultural and social context - that of an agriculture that sits within nature's limits, rather than imposes itself beyond those limits, and thus becomes a model for how a sustainable economy might function, equipped to addressing human need rather than untrammelled aspiration and persistant 'growth' (that within a finite, recycling system cannot be anything other than a 'short term' fantasy).

If the split from the world came first through agriculture perhaps Jackson hopes it can be healed through a renewed agriculture: one that consults and lives into the genius of particular places rather than constricts them within the binds of human fantasy. He quotes his friend and collaborator, Wendell Berry, to great effect, when he reminds us that Berry said of his fellow settlers of the American landscape that they came with 'vision' but did not 'see'.

What is so impressive in Jackson's work is the combination of the practicalities of having grown up in a farming context with the practicalities of applied science that has given rise to a wisdom that is disciplined by the limits of sight rather than the extravagance of vision. Like 'money', energy let loose has made a great many things possible whilst disguising their actual costliness.



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