Strawberry moon and summer solstice

Beautiful, orange, almost-full moon this morning at the Delta outpost.  Meadowcreekers are most interested in the longest day of the year tomorrow–when the moon will be full.  A full moon on the summer solstice hasn’t happened in 70 years, according to those who keep track of such things.

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Here’s what one of the cognoscenti says about it:

The 2016 North American summer solstice happens on June 20, 2016 at 6:34 PM EDT. That’s the very moment when, essentially, the sun stands still at its northernmost point as seen from Earth. Its zenith doesn’t yearn north or south, but waits patiently at the Tropic of Cancer before switching directions and heading south again. This is where the word solstice comes from; the Latin solstitium, from sol (sun) and stitium (to stop).

It’s the day of the year with the most sunlight, the grand dame of long summer days. Even though technically it is only the first day of summer, it may actually be the best one of all. In New York City, we will have a whopping 15.05 hours of daytime. (You can check your day length at the Farmer’s Almanac sunrise and sunset calculator, if you’re so inclined.)

The summer solstice alone is iconic enough. It’s a day with a time-honored history rife with pagan celebrations and all things Stonehenge. But this year we get the big beautiful bonus of a full moon, which hits its peak on the same day. This hasn’t happened in 70 years.

“Having a full moon land smack on the solstice is a truly rare event,” says Farmer’s Almanac astronomer Bob Berman. “We probably won’t push people off pyramids like the Mayans did, but Slooh [a live-streaming global network of telescopes] will very much celebrate this extraordinary day of light with fascinating factoids and amazing live telescope feeds.” (See below.)

Meanwhile, adding a touch of poetry to the whole shebang, the June moon was known as the Strawberry Moon to early Native American tribes, who measured time by things like the moon, rather than a grid on a piece of paper or an electronic device. The full moon that happened now marked the season of strawberries – as it still does. More and more people have started harkening back to these more-seasonal full moon names; it’s an especially lovely practice.

(Read more about the full moons here: Full moon names and what they mean.)

Meanwhile, Slooh along with the Farmer’s Almanac will have a live broadcast of the summer solstice/strawberry moon one-two punch from their flagship observatory at the Institute of Astrophysics in the Canary Islands. You can view it here … or better yet, go outside, gaze up and pay homage to the heavens above.

Supersalesmen, food and belief

Recently, the Resilience Project was invited to visit Malawi–the poorest country in Africa. It’s a lush and beautiful country populated mostly by small farmers.  Our job was to develop a model marketing plan for small producers in Malawi.  Most farmers love to farm, not sell.  That’s why cooperatives can be helpful.  They enable farmers to band together to hire folks to do the selling, so that the farmers can concentrate on production.

Farmers-Market

What small producers often don’t realize is the difference between selling and marketing.  Good marketing is a system of feedback from the customer to the producer so the producer modifies the product to meet the consumers’ needs.  The goal of marketing is to make selling superfluous.

Many small farmers are finding that they can sell much more than just food.  They can sell an experience that promotes health.  When they sell a tomato or a guava, they can provide much more than the large company.  Small producers can often sell a product which is fresher, tastier, healthier and comes from a family who really cares about the well-being of their customers.

Large companies often don’t have products which can compete with the small producer.  Their products have to be tough so they can be shipped long distance and look good on the grocery shelf for days.  Small producers can sell tender produce picked at the peak of nutrition and bred for taste, not shelf life.

So large companies have to employ supersalesman.

Supersalesmen sell themselves first, then their product.  They sell a story about how unique and remarkable they are. Then they tell stories about their product—for instance, how the soil and the plants were lovingly tended, how persistence resulted in triumph.

Supersalesmen are never in doubt. People are more likely to believe in something if they see others believe strongly in it.  Supersalesmen know this. So whatever they believe, they resolve to believe it strongly and passionately. That gets you to drop any last doubts about what they’re selling to you.

They can say, “This is the best” with a straight face. And with perfect confidence. Because they truly believe their product is the best.

Supersalesmen know a high price is often seen as proof of value.  The reality is that many people don’t want to buy the cheapest brand available. They want to be associated with Gucci, not Sears.  Supersalesmen recognize small farmers often don’t charge as much for their products as they should.   The supersalesman creates the perception that he or she is simply worth more than you. If you price yourself like a Hyundai while others price themselves like BMWs, people will see you in a dimmer light, even if you’re better than the competition.

Small producers can learn from the supersalesmen.  We have a product which is much better than theirs and should command a higher price.  Since we have a product we believe in, so will our customers.

Unfortunately supersalesmen are invading the world of local, sustainable and organic foods.  Many farmers markets have folks who sell supermarket cast-offs as if they had grown them. Luckily most of us can identify them for the evil they are.  And we can alert others to their presence and root them out..

Grit and resilience in narrow mountain hollows

Driving through the beautiful, green mountains of Eastern Kentucky, we stop the truck now and then to talk to local farmers.  Their joy, independence and persistence are infectious and inspiring.  Grit is the psychological equivalent of resilience.  A person with grit is able to survive and thrive through a variety of disturbances, similar to a resilient food system or community.  Individuals with grit arise in very dysfunctional families.  A farmer with grit may survive and thrive in a declining community.

Appalachian_Outlaws_about-EGrit and resilience depart company, however, when we look at sustainability beyond and outside the individual.  Resilient systems at such scales depend on qualities beyond the grit of individuals.

Resilience Project staff are on a research trip in central Appalachia.  We’ve met lots of farmers with grit and determination to develop systems which survive and thrive in the face of disturbance.  With some, however, the system will end with them.  Their children have moved on to other endeavors and they haven’t succeeded in recruiting their neighbors into their system. Their systems lack what ecologists call redundancy.  They are so independent their system will die when they do.

Other ecologically sound farmers here are tightly connected to their communities.  They are part of multigenerational families who are marketing and processing locally.  They use rotational grazing, integrated pest management, and build their soil organic matter.  They focus on creating healthy food for themselves and their community.

Such Eastern Kentucky families are a very small minority in the region. Other families have become dependent on government welfare checks, drugs and unhealthy foods.  Coal mining by large outside companies has supported a huge population which lacks land for locally organized productive enterprises.  Dark, narrow hollows are chock-a-block with trailers and ramshackle housing and no space for even a garden.

We are beginning to see how Eastern Kentucky can have resilient farms amidst low health and high poverty.  Two parallel and opposite cultures have diverged in Appalachia.  One with grit and resilience.  The other propped up by well-meaning charity.

These correlations are the opposite of what we have found in other regions.  In most places, high resilience of food systems is associated with good health and low poverty at the county level.  But all counties have pockets of lower health and higher poverty.  Maybe Eastern Kentucky is just an extreme version of many of our communities.  Resilient and dependent cultures seem to coexist in many places.

We’ll continue our observations for awhile, but the future looks steep and rocky here.  No matter how tough a seed, it needs at least a little soil to grow and reproduce.  Little good soil is available to expand the few resilient agricultural systems of Eastern Kentucky.  The culture of dependency is steep and rocky land on which to build resilient communities.  Especially when the superficially attractive culture of drugs and welfare and unhealthy foods is allowed to capture and enslave new generations.

You’re a part of Nature, act like it.

 

Cities have done a good job of destroying natural systems.  Some city folk are so out of touch with nature, they see it as something totally different from Man.  The only solution they see is to remove people from Nature if we want to save it.  They want to save Nature as an untouched, pure oasis, unsullied by the hands of humankind.

REMOTE-3What they don’t realize is that pristine Nature does not mean untouched by man. A recent study shows that our impact on the planet didn’t simply take off with the Industrial Revolution, but was actually observable many thousands of years before in the Late Pleistocene, in the form of species extinctions linked to movement of people from Africa into Asia, Europe and the Americas.

The researchers say the most significant example of this is the dramatic reduction in megafauna between about 50,000 and 10,000 years ago, which had dramatic effects on ecosystems in terms of things like seed dispersal.  The original settlers of Europe, Asia and the Americas killed off megafauna wherever they went.

The advent of agriculture put even greater evolutionary pressures on plants and animals, creating “unprecedented and enduring impacts on species distributions”. But these impacts didn’t just lead to extinctions. The kinds of animals humans favored – such as domesticated dogs, plus sheep, goats, chicken, and cattle – surged in numbers.

Humans also colonised islands, which had big effects seeing as islands’ natural ecosystems lack “the resilience of continental biomes”. As new species were introduced, indigenous ones were overpowered. The expansion of trade from the Bronze Age onwards has compounded many of these effects, and all long before the Industrial Revolution kicked off.

In other words, simply by colonising new land and farming animals we wanted to eat, we had an impact on every single part of the planet.

The researchers say the discovery of this long-term human environmental impact means we should take a broader and more pragmatic approach to conservation efforts – as clearly it’s in our nature to alter nature, and we’ll need to plan accordingly if we realistically want to help save the planet from environmental threats.

“If we want to improve our understanding of how we manage our environment and conserve species today, maybe we have to shift our perspective, by thinking more about how we safeguard clean air and fresh water for future generations and rather less about returning planet Earth to its original condition.”

According to the researchers, we should focus on the good we can do for the sake of the planet as it is now, rather than aiming to restore a long-gone oasis that only exists now in our imaginations.

“Rather than an impossible return to pristine conditions, what is needed is the historically informed management of emerging novel ecosystems to ensure the maintenance of ecological goods and services.”

Cumulative archaeological data clearly demonstrates that all humans transform their environments.  It’s in our nature.  It’s what we do.

“Now the question is what kind of ecosystems we will create for the future. Will they support the well-being of our own and other species or will they provide a context for further large-scale extinctions and irreversible climate change?”

The evidence of archaeology also argues against the inclusive, grassroots, indigenous approach to Nature.  The only way to preserve ecosystems is a top down approach which convinces and enlists the average person in enjoying and preserving natural ecosystems.

Man, left to his own devices, has always destroyed ecosystems.  Unfortunately, only in places where an enlightened few have led campaigns of conservation and preservation have endangered species ever been restored to resilience.  So get out there an organize, cajole and work for conservative innovation to integrate man with Nature.

 

I have decided . . .

Some folks find it hard to say “I have decided to . .[plug in go to Kentucky, follow Jesus, farm, move to Meadowcreek or fill in the blank].”  But it’s a foundation of personal resilience and personal resilience is the foundation of farm and community resilience.  Everyone has doubts, but at some point you just have to put them aside and go with your gut.  It was a pretty easy decision yesterday to leave the hot and muggy Delta and head up to the Ozarks.  This morning at Meadowcreek you can see your breath, its that chilly.

70826842.nBdH9c4G.AmishBoyThe cool air blowing past me from one window even made the moisture in my breath condense inside.  The warm molecules of water lost their energy and changed to a gas right before my eyes.  Pretty fun.  So I decided to just blow air in and out for awhile and enjoy the Zen of cloud creation.  I’ve decided to not decide for awhile.

The best way to make decisions is with someone who loves to collect facts, but can’t decide.  Last night we needed to decide what time to leave for Kentucky.  I didn’t want to decide for everyone, so I just stated some facts:  nine and half hour trip, like to get to Natural Bridge before dark, want to stop a few places on the way, etc.  Then MRS said, OK, let’s leave at 7.

She’s one of the most resilient folks I know.  She has no problem with decisions.  Making decisions are easy for her because if she fails, she just picks herself up and tries another tack.

Sometimes she really should collect more information before she acts.  Some would call her impulsive.  From chaos research, we know we are all bundles of conflicting impulses.  Adolescents are especially prone to following impulses without much thought.

Resilient societies have mechanisms to help the young learn to choose appropriately from their many impulses.  The Amish give responsibility to their children before they even enter  adolescence.  Amazing to see 10 and 12 year olds manage huge equipment on an Amish farm.  Adolescence doesn’t get a chance to take hold.

Resilient societies dissolve when they are unable to direct the impulses of adolescents.  Eric Hoffer said it well:

Perhaps a modern society can remain stable only by eliminating adolescence, by giving its young, from the age of ten, the skills responsibilities, and rewards of grownups, and opportunities for action in all spheres of life.  Adolescence should be a time of useful action, while book learning and scholarship should be a preoccupation of adults.  It would be also particularly fitting were the training and coaching of the young done by retired skilled craftsmen, technicians, industrialists, scientists and politicians.

Notice he said retired politicians.  Politicians who have not yet retired can harness the impulsivity of adolescents of all ages to destroy all resilience of a society.

Advice for the next President

America will have a new President in a few months.  What should that President do about food and the environment?  Resilience project staff will be deciding just that at a national meeting of sustainable agriculture organizations in Maine in August.

We’d like to bring along your ideas to the meeting.  So tell us what you think the President should do.  Make a comment here or send us an email (meadow@deltanetwork.org) or call us at the Resilience House (870-363-4711) or come by Meadowcreek anytime if you want a long policy discussion.

And share this with your friends, so we get even more ideas.

Specifically, we are looking for input in three areas:

  1. First Hundred Days:  Changes the new President can make immediately without any further act of Congress (no new laws, no new money).  We are looking for low hanging fruit with a big bang for the buck.  These recommendations should send a strong message about how the new President will work hard to create a resilient food system, resilient communities, a resilient nation.
  2. Immediate Budget Requests:  The outgoing Obama administration will have produced a draft budget, but that budget will go through major editing by the new administration.  This is an immediate, must-do task for the new President.
  3. Input for Administration’s Farm Bill Proposals.  Not quite as urgent as the first 100 days administrative actions or the immediate budget request actions are recommendations for the 2018 Farm Bill. If a new Administration hopes to have any input going into the farm bill debate, it will need to have its proposals on the table by late 2017 or early 2018, meaning that they have months and not years to get up to speed and be prepared.

If you’ve followed our work over the last few years, you probably have guessed the Resilience project will focus on recommendations to help farmers help the planet by creating better soils by pulling carbon from the atmosphere.

However, in August in Maine, we’ll be developing recommendations on all sorts of topics, including:

  • New and Minority Farmers
  • Good Food (local, regional, food access, organic, product labeling, etc.)
  • Conservation and Environmental Stewardship
  • Farm Safety Net Reform
  • Food Safety
  • Fair Competition and Contract Reform
  • Agricultural Research
  • Immigration Reform

So send us your ideas on any policy changes in anything which impinges on rural America and the food and environment of all Americans.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

 

Practice resurrection

Embracing chaos to encourage transformation is one of the most difficult parts of resilience.   Productive people like stability.  They like things predictable and consistent. They don’t like risky and dangerous policies.

Resilient folks, in contrast, know things will change and work hard to incorporate that change in their farm, their community, their politics.  Resilient folks like to stir things up now and then.  Resilience Project staff are off to Kentucky this weekend, hoping to stir ourselves to new realizations about health, poverty and resilient food systems.

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Every time you head to Kentucky, you need to reread Kentucky’s most famous farmer, Wendell Berry.  He has a wonderful poem focused on transformation.  Read and share:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

—————

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, by Wendell Berry

Perennials for a resilient agriculture

Most agricultural systems abuse the land and force farmers to use more and more pesticides and fertilizer. Resilient agricultural systems mimic rather than contradict ecological principles.  Wes Jackson, who founded The Land Institute about the same time Meadowcreek was founded, has spent 40 years advancing research in and public understanding of ecological agriculture.  Read and share his ideas on creating more resilient farming, recently published by In These Times.

DSC_3975Q: For almost four decades, you have been a leading proponent of transforming the dominant agricultural system based on annual monoculture to one based on ecological principles. What inspired your belief in the need for this fundamental change?

Wes Jackson: In 1977, soon after The Land Institute was founded, I read a U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report about effective use of federal funds for soil and water conservation. Looking at some of the numbers, I noticed that soil erosion was then as bad as it was when the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) was formed in the 1930s. How could that be? The SCS had built thousands of miles of terraces and grass waterways. The organization had a great esprit de corps—with a team ranging from stenographers to PhDs, all dedicated to the common task of soil and water conservation. It was a nationwide effort. In Kansas alone, each of our 105 counties has a conservation district.

Shortly after reading the report, I took my students on a field trip to the Konza, a never-plowed native prairie in northeastern Kansas. There was no apparent soil erosion beyond natural replacement levels, no fossil fuel dependency or chemical contamination, no dependency on commercial fertilizer.

Those two experiences in short order—the GAO study and the field trip—set me on a journey to understand more completely the history of Earth abuse through agriculture. I had read a few seminal works, but decided to dig in a bit more and came to appreciate that soil erosion is a persistent, millennia-old problem.

Q: What accounted for this dramatic difference between native and farmed prairie?

WJ: Nature’s prairie is about the opposite of the vast acreage of such annual monocultures as corn, sorghum, sunflowers and soybeans, which usually feature soil erosion along with, in industrial times, the use of fossil fuels for traction and commercial chemicals. Nature’s prairie features perennials grown in mixtures. There is no plowing (and, therefore, little to no soil erosion), no planting every year, no fossil fuels necessary for growth, no chemical fertilizers, no insecticides, no herbicides—all of which are deemed necessary for grain monocultures.

Q: You have spoken of agriculture as the “10,000-year-old problem.” What do you mean by this?

WJ: As the ice retreated some 10,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean, agriculture began—first with wheat, an annual. Later, rice, another annual, was domesticated in the Orient, and still later, corn, an annual, in Mexico. These three grains are the world’s top three crops. Today, some 70 percent of our calories come from these and other grains grown on about 70 percent of our acreage, both domestically and globally. Reflecting on nature’s perennial polyculture of the American prairie, I wondered whether we could, through breeding, develop an agriculture based on perennial grains and, through the application of ecological knowledge, grow them in mixtures. Could such an arrangement grant us the efficiencies inherent within the natural integrities of a prairie ecosystem? In other words, could those processes, so prevalent in nature’s ecosystems, be brought to the farm? If so, we might be able to solve the 10,000-year-old problem of agriculture rather than relentlessly pecking away at problems in agriculture associated with annuals.

In 1978, I wrote an essay for the Friends of the Earth publication Not Man Apart on the history of Earth abuse due to agriculture. I suggested building an agricultural system based on the way the prairie works, though acknowledging that it might take fifty to a hundred years. To achieve this, I advocated a twofold effort: (1) crossing current high-yielding grain crops with their wild perennial relatives and (2) domesticating promising wild herbaceous perennial species.

Q: And this approach lies at core of The Land Institute’s mission?

WJ: Yes. In the early years, many viewed such a proposal as impossible. Now, nearly four decades later, with results in our fields and published papers, we are beginning to see the fruits of our persistence. We have attracted additional intellectual and financial support, and there is increased reason to be optimistic now, with the growing belief that soil erosion, fossil fuel dependency and chemical contamination can end in the foreseeable future. We move with confidence, knowing not only that natural ecosystems generally have greater net primary production than the human-managed systems that replace them, but also that they sequester carbon. Ecosystems are our elders, our best teachers, having evolved over millions of years. The ancient dualism between agriculture and nature can come to an end.

Our work is getting attention, enough so that I think at times it now has a life of its own. Financial support has now made possible an annual budget of about $5.4 million. Through an additional funding source (The Malone Family Land Preservation Foundation), we support fourteen graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at colleges and universities around the country. Some are domesticating wild perennials, some are crossing wild perennials with annual grains, some are doing ecological studies including soil biology, and still others are involved in a global inventory of promising wild candidates to domesticate and produce grain.

Three of our staff scientists have answered an old question: Why did our ancestors not develop perennial grains? The answer lies in what geneticists call “genetic load” or “mutation load,” which is not as much of a problem for annuals since they self-fertilize and can quickly purge their lethal mutants and fix a trait desirable to humans, such as resistance to seed shatter. Perennials, on the other hand, are primarily out-crossers, and because they tend not to accept their own pollen, their mutation load accumulates. We now know how to purge that genetic load thanks to current knowledge of molecular genetics and our modern computational power.

I would rather not use computer language as a metaphor for biological processes, but if we allow the word “hardware” to stand for any annual or perennial grain, then the perennial represents new “hardware” for agriculture. With new hardware comes new software potential. Where does it come from? Well, largely out of that broad discipline of ecology and evolutionary biology. When ecology is stuck with annual hardware, its utility is limited because of the presence of annual disturbances. But now the gap between ecologists and agriculturalists can be more completely closed. Agriculturalists, driven by the need to feed the world’s citizens, have had the burden of being prescriptive for ten millennia. Ecologists, by contrast, over the last 150 years or so, have had the luxury of being descriptive. Their job has been, like basic science generally, to understand how the world is or works—in this case, to study ecosystems.

This is a great moment in history, this merging of these two disciplines made possible with the new hardware. In my view, it represents the most essential merger in recorded history. Of course, this required “standing on the shoulders” of countless others over the millennia.

Q: How do genetically modified organisms (GMOs) fit into this new paradigm?

WJ: GMO work is best characterized not as a recent innovation, but as an extension of human cleverness, tracing back to the reductionist period of Bacon and Descartes in the early seventeenth century. In recent times, it has become part of the “smart resource management” approach to the world. It is more or less irrelevant to our work since perennialism, by contrast, is a way of life, not the result of a single gene. The GMO era, in that respect, has been a kind of distraction. What if we had devoted a comparable amount of time and money to achieving an adequate food supply by looking to nature as a standard or measure? Right now, agriculture is the number one threat to wild biodiversity, and land use is number two as a source of greenhouse gases.

GMOs do not represent a paradigm shift. Nor does our work in the greenhouse and field where, with every selection cycle, we are simply changing gene frequencies as has been the case for ten millennia. In such a manner, our populations are being genetically modified.

AW: In China, India and other developing countries, farms are generally small in scale. How applicable is the polycultural/perennial approach to small-scale cultivation?

WJ: Perennial grain polycultures can bring benefits at any scale. I imagine a time, independent of farm size, where perennial mixtures produce perennial grains. They will be, as now, primarily grass seeds, legume seeds, maybe sunflower seeds, and a few others. But they will be grown together at whatever scale, providing chemical diversification for the land. Diversity lowers the risk of a field-wide epidemic leading to a crash because overcoming the resilience that such diversity affords requires a tremendous enzyme system on the part of either insect or pathogen species. Beyond that, there are the integrated efficiencies, such as biological nitrogen fixation, tight nutrient cycling, and so forth. Polycultures are not new. They have been used in annual grain systems on scales large and small for millennia.

Q: You have often referred to the entrenched interests that stand in the way of progress toward a more ecologically harmonious and less abusive form of agriculture. What are these interests, and how can we reverse the damage they are causing?

WJ: I am not very good at devising strategies to end the power of destructive interests. I do think we have to start with a basic understanding of the history of life on Earth. All organisms are carbon-based; the best evidence holds that life started about 3.4 billion years ago. So, from the beginning, organisms have gone after energy-rich carbon. Plants fix atmospheric carbon, and animals eat. So far as we know, no species has ever practiced restraint in the pursuit of energy-rich carbon. Squirrels and ants store food for the winter, and we store grain and other foods for short periods. We use energy-rich carbon to power our societies. So powerful is this ancient imperative that even small efforts to put a cap on fossil carbon are met with fierce resistance by both sellers and users.

Now and then, we get exercised about the social justice problem—some more so than others. But as serious as that problem is, there is a larger problem: we are all dependent on economic growth. A cap on carbon seems essential if we are to stop the abusive practices associated with relentless economic growth. It seems easier to oppose social justice than to acknowledge limits, and here, once again, we encounter the 3.4-billion-year-old imperative. I suspect that fully living within our finite ecosphere into the foreseeable future is or will be the most formidable challenge our species ever has or will ever face. Social justice is certainly important, but it is not enough.

Q: People today are geographically and psychologically detached from their food sources. How great of an obstacle is this to mobilizing for change?

WJ: The disconnect is serious. I grew up on a farm in the Kansas River Valley, near Topeka. We grew most of our own food, some twenty-seven crops in all in the 1930s. We butchered our own animals—cows, hogs, chickens, turkeys. We cleaned up our plates. Nearly all farmers know that soil erosion represents the destruction of much of the foundation of food production. But then comes the highly dense carbon era. Labor was replaced by capital combined with highly dense carbon. In industrial societies, that era of shared values and common work is mostly gone. The lack of a sufficiently large constituency of people who feel the connection to the creatures and soil that sustain us makes change hard. The industrial mind has its way, which makes it hard to head off the confinement of animals in warehouses.

Aldo Leopold, the great ecologist and author of A Sand County Almanac, once said that there are two spiritual dangers from not owning (or, he could have said, living on) a farm. One is the belief that heat comes from the stove, and the other is the belief that food comes from a grocery store. Away from these real sources, one can find it easy to dismiss the idea of limits. Awareness of ecological fundamentals is critical for everyone, not just farmers. Much less than a century ago, the agrarian world was familiar to, and valued by, all. Once we developed institutions and practices that were almost totally dependent upon the imperative of fossil carbon, people became disassociated from the land and the creaturely world that sustain us. We need more people on the land. I am not talking about mere nostalgia now, but a practical necessity.

Q: The Great Transition uses scenarios to structure thinking about a plausible, desirable future. What is the best-case scenario for fifty years hence?

WJ: Long before 2070, the agricultural paradigm on which we are at work here at The Land Institute and increasingly elsewhere—now on five continents—will have enough of a life of its own to sustain itself. Some might say it does so now. By then, widespread perennial grain polyculture will have demonstrated that soil erosion will one day be a major problem of the past. Fossil fuel dependence will have shrunk to near zero, as will dependence on harmful chemicals. The native prairies and forests will have increasingly become the standard against which we judge our agricultural practices. Agriculture based on nature’s principles is about more than food security. My late friend Chuck Washburn, a metallurgist, once said to me, “If we don’t get sustainability in agriculture first, it’s not going to happen.”

Agriculture ultimately has the discipline of ecology and evolutionary biology behind it. Materials-based sectors have no such discipline. So I envision a future wherein food being produced by a resilient system that mimics nature’s economy serves as a model for society in general.

The transformed agricultural system we have in mind in our work would be information- rather than energy-intensive. A study of natural ecological systems should enhance our ability to imagine expanded possibilities for a future in which people, land, and communities interact as one to create shared prosperity, rather than compete in ways that undermine the well-being of the whole.

To ask agriculture to point the way forward for cultural and economic transformation seems like such a tall order that it receives little attention. But as we solve the 10,000-year-old problem of agriculture, our imaginations are sure to soar, for adequate solutions will be mimicking nature’s ancient economies. Agriculture may be the best place to begin, given that land use is the number two source of greenhouse gases, behind power plants and ahead of all transportation. The biggest component of agriculture is grain production. So if we draw attention to saving our soils and use the advancement of knowledge out of ecology and evolutionary biology, perhaps we can begin to get a grip on what we must know and do to shift toward a truly ecological paradigm. By 2070, I believe such a shift can be regarded as the way to go. Any industrial agriculture still with us will simply be on the wrong side of history.

I keep coming back to the 3.4-billion-year-old imperative. Before the fossil carbon era, we ran directly on sunlight with biological information for collection and dispersal. I think there is a general law: highly dense energy destroys information, both cultural and biological. Use of fossil carbon has allowed us to wage a war against the food landscape, the rainforest, and biodiversity wherever we can. The consequence of that biota loss has been a dangerous simplification, a loss of information, both cultural and biological. We call for public policy. But, as I see it, public policy is more of a derivative than a cause. Whether we can accelerate positive change fast enough to respond effectively as we head toward a population of 9 billion remains an open question.

Q: What are your aspirations for The Land Institute in this scenario?

WJ: Gary Snyder’s poem “For the Children” at the end of Turtle Island talks about how the hills of statistics go up, up, up, even as we all go down. He concludes, “In the next century or the one beyond that, they say, are valleys, pastures, we can meet there in peace if we make it. To climb these coming crests one word to you, to you and your children: stay together, learn the flowers, go light.” So, what are my aspirations? The Land Institute is contributing to those hills of statistics in that we are using tractors, farm equipment, combines, labs, and much more. It seems that we are going in the wrong direction along with everyone else. Our material- and energy-consuming research requirements have forced me to wonder, will the new varieties and new species we bring into existence be dependent on the technological array that brought them to the farm? My answer is “no.” Their creatureliness will still be there and available for the most primitive farmers of our agricultural history. The industrial world can’t so confidently say that about its renewable technologies: wind machines, solar collectors, and the like.

This all underscores the necessity to find analogs in nature to help our descendants on their journey to a more creaturely life, as the extractive economy fades into the past. Should that journey on the material side to create more efficiency and renewables be slow, we will at least have a better chance of keeping ourselves fed on the other side of the hills of statistics. Is that a “large enough aspiration”? Well, it is a start. A shift in collective consciousness must include the end of population growth (even contraction) if we are to take seriously the necessity of ecospheric healing.

All of this will require different ways of thinking about science. Artists will come front and center in the minds of scientists, not for nicety, but for the practical necessity of helping us all expand our imagination as we expand our collective consciousness.

If we can grant priority to the ecosphere as our creator and our protector, we will also want to look downward in the hierarchy of the sciences to ecosystems, to organisms, organs, tissues, cells, molecules, and atoms. We will want a new synthesis, a new understanding of our place in the world. Doing so, we will want to ponder the twelve laws of integrative levels (first articulated by James Feibleman in 1954). Reading and studying these laws will serve as “finger exercises” to assist the mind as finger exercises limber up the fingers of the pianist. In my view, the current field of environmental studies falls short of truly integrated, inclusive thinking. Perhaps ecosphere thinking can be more fulfilling. At any rate, we need a fundamental reconstruction in our thoughts.

Q: Who do you see as your key allies—present and future—in driving this transformation, e.g., environmental organizations, anti-poverty advocates, civil society at large, an awakened citizenry?

WJ: In one sense, there is no “them” or “us.” We are all in this together. In another sense, some have and will join the struggle, others not. Once a person has joined the struggle, so to speak, then let that person follow his or her passion. This makes us colleagues. None of us will know how our paths will converge on this journey. I don’t expect every agricultural researcher to want to work on herbaceous perennial seed-producing polycultures. We have always taken a long time horizon in our work. If here-and-now agriculturalists want to work on improving the software for the annual hardware, go ahead. Such research is needed.

The point is, we do need a shared vision built on ecology, which is nature’s economy, if we are to replace the industrial mind whose primary features are consumerism, accumulation, and extraction. The ecosphere has, to date, been more beautiful than useful. To expand the ratio to increasingly favor the beauty side will require healing.