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Let’s get ‘creaturely’: A new worldview can help us face ecological crises

April 4, 2019

tractor and horses

Photo credit: Licensed from Adobe Stock.

by Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen, originally published by Resilience.org

No farmer has ever gone out to the barn to start the day and discovered that a baby tractor had been born overnight. For farmers who work with horses, the birth of a foal would not be surprising.

That observation may seem silly, but it highlights an important contrast: Machines cannot reproduce or maintain themselves. Creatures can.

The tractor comes out of the industrial mind, while the horse is creaturely. The tractor is the product of an energy-intensive human-designed system, while the horse is the product of an information-intensive biological process that emerges from earth and sun.

The implications of this difference are rarely acknowledged in the dominant culture, but we believe they are crucial to explore, especially with new political space opened up by the Green New Deal for discussing ecological sustainability and economic justice.

In the short term, humanity needs to devise policies that respond in meaningful ways to today’s multiple, cascading ecological crises (including, but not limited to, rapid climate disruption), which present risks now greatly accelerated and intensified well beyond previous predictions. If that seems alarmist, we recommend “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” for details.

To put uncomfortable realities bluntly: In ecological terms, things are bad, getting worse faster than anticipated, leaving humanity with increasingly limited options. Everyone agrees that there are no quick and easy fixes, but we want to push further: Do not expect any truly sustainable fixes to emerge from the industrial mind.

That’s why we believe it’s crucial to discuss not only policy but the need for a new worldview, one that can expand our imaginations. The distressing realities of our moment in history need not be the end of our story, if humanity can transcend the industrial and get creaturely.

Creatures—humans, other animals, plants, and microbes—are all products of a rich, integrated evolutionary history. Unfortunately, something in our big brains has too often led us to see ourselves as set apart from the rest of the larger living world—to think of “human” as so different from “nature” that we believe ourselves to be separable from the ecosystems on which our lives depend. The Industrial Worldview, deeply rooted in this delusion, defines much of our day-to-day existence and suffocates our imaginations.

What if we embraced a Creaturely Worldview as a corrective? This would challenge not only the dominant culture but also some in the environmental movement who are committed to industrial thinking and its accompanying technological fundamentalism. The current debates about the Green New Deal might be more productive if everyone started by considering this question: Which provides a better standard for our choices, the Creaturely World or the Industrial World?

(Before proceeding, a footnote: We are not the first to ask this question, of course. In some sense, indigenous and traditional people who resisted the Industrial World have long advocated for a Creaturely Worldview. The Amish rejection of some of the products of the Industrial World reflects a faith in the Creaturely. The agrarian writer Wendell Berry, one of our touchstones in this enterprise, has spoken of the costs to people and land in the countryside with the “change from a creaturely life to a mechanical life” that accelerated after World War II. With that acknowledgement of our roots, back to the argument.)

First, remember that the Creaturely World had a considerable head start. Creatures have been here some 3½ billion years. The Industrial World has existed for only 250 years, about 14 million times shorter. By linear comparison, that’s roughly the difference between an inch and 220 miles.

We argue for the Creaturely based not just on time but more importantly on the greater creativity and efficiency of nature’s ecosystems, compared with the limited vision and mixed record of human cleverness. The Creaturely World features self-organizing renewability (remember the horse and foal) emerging from the integrated structure of ecosystems—what we might call the “natural integrities.”  A tall-grass prairie ecosystem, for example, is not a random collection of species but the result of natural selection that produces species interacting with each other and with the abiotic world in ways that efficiently utilize the available resources. The Industrial World erodes those integrities, requires human attention to maintain, and is non-renewable. For the Industrial World to work, dismemberment of integrated nature is required.

The Creaturely World is information-rich; the genetic code of organisms stores enormous amounts of information. People routinely speak of living today in an information age made possible by digital technologies, but this human-generated breed of information is only a tiny fraction of what is found in the DNA of the Creaturely World. The fact that human inventions are relatively information-poor is typically obscured by our use of highly dense energy to compensate.

A perfect example is anhydrous ammonia as a source of nitrogen fertilizer for modern agriculture, the product of what energy scholar Vaclav Smil has called the most important invention of the 20th Century, the Haber-Bosch process. Natural gas is the feedstock most often used to turn tight-bonded atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia. This industrial process “solved” the problem of soil nitrogen fertility and declining supplies of natural fertilizers such as guano. Unfortunately, after being spread over millions of acres of grain-producing fields, the surplus industrial nitrogen finds its way down the slopes and into the waterways until it meets the ocean waters, where it creates huge dead zones. On the way downriver, cities spend millions of dollars to get it out of drinking water, in some places failing so dramatically that people have to drink bottled water.

Lake Erie algal bloom

Algal bloom in Lake Erie. NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, Creative Commons License.

Haber-Bosch does its assigned job of increasing crop yields, but with a climate-changing cost: It uses fossil energy to generate the 200 to 400 atmospheres of pressure and temperatures of 750 to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit required to produce ammonia from the natural gas feedstock. In contrast, the biological process of nitrogen fixation in various plants operates at four-fifths of one atmosphere of pressure and at ambient temperature, relying on 21 enzymes that are the product of the DNA code—drawing on the natural integrities of the Creaturely World. Thus the Industrial World’s nitrogen production substitutes fossil-energy for information, disrupting ecosystems’ integrities with a non-renewable process that contributes to ecological degradation, from the mining of the fuel to the acceleration of global warming.

This is an example of a larger rule: Ecosystems are far more creative than human systems. Consider a modern city, the product of the human-generated information used to build the housing, businesses, infrastructure, and transportation networks that allow millions to live in close quarters, often with exciting results (both constructive and destructive). All that excitement leads us to ignore the fact that these cities of the industrial age are made possible only through massive expenditures of fossil energy and other resources, some of which come from the other side of the planet. Meanwhile, natural ecosystems are home to a much more expansive variety of creatures living in far more complex relationships, requiring none of that fossil energy to maintain. Natural ecosystems can maintain themselves for countless millennia using only solar flows, while cities draw down millions of years of concentrated energy in a relative blink of an eye. Which model provides a standard for our future?

Here is an idea that is counterintuitive in the modern world: Highly dense energy limits the human imagination. Yes, all that fossil energy has subsidized a tremendous amount of science and art, expanding dramatically what we know about the world and building an expansive trove of stories about it. But rather than imagining how we might use that energy to build a sustainable future, we have rushed to use it in ways that enriched some quickly, impoverished others slowly, and left us facing a future that is speculative, not guaranteed. As we come to the end of the fossil-fuel epoch, as a species we seem to lack the collective imagination to break free.

Another challenge to the conventional wisdom: The Industrial World acts as if public policy is made by humans and those policies determine how we use energy, but in fact that highly dense carbon, once unleashed, sets policy and drags us along. We did not build the contemporary world by making choices about how to use energy; highly dense energy dictated the shape of the contemporary world, in which we make choices that have been constrained by the industrial mind. The choices we do make within the Industrial Worldview matter very much—we can opt for more or less destructive paths—but in the long run, it is the worldview that has to change.

Let’s pause to answer a reasonable concern: Are the two of us zealots? Do we want to give up on everything humans have ever built? Are we calling for a mystical return to the Paleolithic tomorrow? No to all those questions. Are we proposing to “let nature take its course,” and stand by while billions of people die in such a transition? Certainly not. Advocating for a shift in worldview is a plea for new ways of thinking, not a celebration of misanthropy. Rather than throwing up our hands in despair because imaginations have been so limited in the Industrial Era, we suggest that the dominant culture start identifying and attempting to follow the patterns of the Creaturely World—not an atavistic return to any particular moment in the past but rather attention to the lessons of evolutionary history.

An example is The Land Institute (TLI) in Salina, Kansas, where both of us have worked since 2015 with the Ecosphere Studies program. The term “creaturely” doesn’t appear in the organization’s mission statement, but the Creaturely Worldview informs its work.

For more than 40 years, TLI researchers and teachers have advocated for nature as the standard for grain farming, as they work to develop an information-rich agriculture that mimics the vegetative structure of an information-rich native prairie (known as Natural Systems Agriculture). As part of a larger agro-ecological movement, this project is developing perennial grain polycultures (grain crops that need not be planted every yeargrown in diverse mixtures), a more creaturely approach to agriculture than the annual monocultures in industrial fields. In addition to reducing soil erosion, those perennial grains would sequester more carbon, and adding legumes to the mix sponsors biological nitrogen fixation, removing the need for the Haber-Bosch process and its accompanying emissions.

Annual vs perennial roots

Roots of annual wheat (left) compared to roots of perennial wheatgrass (right). Image by Jerry Glover, care of The Land Institute. 

In this work, TLI staffers recognize that every day they use the products of human cleverness and industrial society—booting up computers, carrying tools to the research fields in pickup trucks, transferring pollen in three natural gas-heated greenhouses, and burning fossil fuel to warm labs and offices—all in the hopes of developing crops that can endure without all the trappings of the Industrial World and make possible a transition to truly sustainable agriculture.

The big test that’s coming: Once we have these new species and varieties, will growing them at the scale necessary to feed people require maintaining the industrial infrastructure that brought them into existence? We believe the answer is No, that their creatureliness will persist without a need for human intervention. These species could be grown by people who never touched a computer, and could be maintained without the artifacts of the Bronze and Iron ages. The Industrial World can’t say that of many, if any, of its achievements.

We realize that we cannot get to perennial polyculture agriculture without some of the tools of the Industrial World. We continue to use fossil fuels, though over time we hope we can supply more of the power for this transition period with solar and wind technology. But we cannot be naïve about “renewable” energy, and the Creaturely Worldview can help us understand why.

First, the easy part: No combination of renewable energy sources can power the existing Industrial World. Rational planning must include not only replacing fossil fuels with renewables but also dramatically reducing our consumption. If we are using renewable energy to try to produce enough electric cars to continue our current transportation system, for example, we are only digging the hole deeper, not finding ways out. An enforceable cap on carbon at the mines, the wellheads, ports of entry, and forests seems necessary, which means we’ll also need a fair rationing system.

Second, the hard part: There are limits to renewable energy technologies’ ability to replicate themselves. At the risk of unnecessary repetition: The Industrial World is not self-renewing. Working against instead of with the efficiencies inherent in natural integrities, means that a considerable amount of energy that so-called renewable technologies produce must go into mining and manufacturing the non-renewable materials required for that infrastructure. That’s a losing game. Wind turbines and solar collectors built with fossil-fuel infrastructure will not be easy to maintain or reproduce when that fossil energy is gone.

What does that Creaturely Worldview have to offer here? We can begin by scrutinizing proposals under the Green New Deal umbrella, most of which embrace “green-energy cornucopia” thinking that keeps us entranced by the industrial mind’s illusion that we can sustain unsustainable living arrangements. As even many of its supporters understand, the problem is not that the Green New Deal is too ambitious but that it is not ambitious enough. Virtually all politicians, and even many who identify as environmental activists, embrace a growth economy and techno-optimism. As difficult as it is in mainstream political circles, we must challenge those dogmas and imagine a transition to a more Creaturely Economy.

A Creaturely Worldview requires dramatic changes in social and political arrangements. One obvious shift would be reducing the size of farms and increasing the farm population, recognizing that we can better feed ourselves by relying on a sufficiency of people rather than on capital and dense energy. Repopulating the countryside would require something like a new Homestead Act, creating an opportunity to correct the extermination and exploitation of both peoples and ecosystems that was woven into the first version in 1862.

Of course there’s a clear need for short-term industrial productivity as the transition unfolds, and that there may be a place for the Industrial World in our future—but only if it is clearly subordinated to the Creaturely World. Wind and solar energy are a good example of that: We’ll need them in the transition period, but our reliance on them should shrink (unless, by magic, wind turbines and solar collectors start having babies) as we get closer to the Creaturely goals.

Obviously, a Creaturely Worldview doesn’t have all the answers to all problems. A worldview doesn’t solve problems but rather shapes the way we understand questions, and guides our search for answers. While articulating a vision for the future we draw upon our imaginations, which cannot be divorced from our evolutionary history. The way we describe the future is always partly new and partly rooted in that history. With that in mind, we might think of the Creaturely World as a kind of New Paleolithic, the next step forward after the ephemeral fossil-fuel epoch has run its course.

In such a Creaturely World, there will be less of many material things that many of us (including the authors of this article) have grown accustomed to, but potentially more of the one thing the Industrial World could never produce: a sense of being at home and cherishing our origins in a universe that is not just a place but also a story.

We are but one part of that story, and our place in it should feature earth as our creator, our defender, and—with proper restoration of the Creaturely—our redeemer.