A Conversation with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson
Posted Aug 9, 2012 by Wes Jackson
By Joshua Yates: This excerpt is reprinted with permission from The Hedgehog Review 14.2 (Summer 2012).
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...
Wes Jackson is President of The Land Institute, which he founded in his native Kansas in 1976. He is the author of several books and has been a Pew Conservation Scholar and a MacArthur Fellow, received the Right Livelihood Award (called the “alternative Nobel prize”), and was named one of “35 Who Made a Difference” by the Smithsonian.
Wendell Berry lives with his wife, Tanya, on a small farm in Kentucky. His newest book is New Collected Poems, published by Counterpoint. A collection of twenty of his short stories, A Place in Time, is forthcoming from the same publisher.
Joshua J. Yates is Research Assistant Professor of Sociology; Director of the Program on Culture, Capitalism, and Global Change; and Managing Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.