Take Nobody’s Word for It: A Conversation with Wes Jackson
February 20, 2022 • By Robert Jensen
WES JACKSON’S DISTINCTIVE CONTRIBUTION to a sustainable agriculture — the idea of perennial grains grown in mixtures — has been recognized with a MacArthur Fellowship, a Pew Conservation Scholars award, and the Right Livelihood Award. He co-founded and then for four decades led The Land Institute, which started as an alternative school and developed into a research center working with plant breeders, agronomists, and ecologists around the world. A Kansas farm boy who earned a PhD in genetics, Jackson has a great deal to say about what science is and is not. His ideas, articulated without academic jargon, are grounded in the everyday worlds of farm and lab, combining folk and modern science with a heavy dose of humility. To deal with the multiple cascading ecological crises we face, Jackson argues for recognizing that what we don’t know is far greater than what we do know. It’s time, he says, to soberly “study the exits.” The interview below is an adaptation of one of the episodes from our Podcast from the Prairie.
ROBERT JENSEN: In the cultural debate about science, some people say, “I believe in science,” and others reject the scientific consensus on climate change or evolution by natural selection. The discussion assumes that science is a single practice that everyone understands. Can you tell us why you disagree?
WES JACKSON: Science is a way of knowing, a way to find out what the world is and how the world works. Both “is” and “works” are useful here. Science’s primary contention is that verifiability has to run ahead of almost everything else. If someone does an experiment, it’s fair to ask, “So, how did you get those results?” That isn’t the case in all claims to knowledge, most notably in religious systems. That focus on verifiability goes back to 1660, when the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge was founded. Its motto: “Nullius in verba,” which translates as “take nobody’s word for it.” Folks who have done a scientific experiment not only have to report findings but show how they did it.
RJ: So, in everyday life we could be more or less scientific depending on how much we want to understand how things really work?
WJ: I think science may be the purest thought about what the world is. When we talk about how the world works, then the idea of utility — how people can harness nature — comes creeping in. When we focus on economic value in particular, then that brings problems, especially in a capitalist society.
RJ: Let’s start with your early experiences with science. On your family’s farm outside of Topeka, back in the 1930s and ’40s, there were agricultural scientists from Kansas State University offering advice and collecting data. Your family referred to them as the men “down from the college.” Did you admire them?
WJ: I looked up to them but as ordinary adults, as having no more status than a local farmer. These agricultural extension people didn’t posture in ways that suggested they were somehow superior to the rest of us. They were there to help, like an electrician or a carpenter who might have a certain posture but didn’t claim elevation beyond ordinary humanity.
RJ: So, you didn’t grow up with some dewy-eyed notion of scientists in white lab coats. When you went to college you majored in biology, then a master’s degree in botany, and then a PhD in genetics. If you didn’t grow up always wanting to be a scientist, what led you into the sciences?
WJ: When you realize there are lots of people trying to understand very basic things about the world, it’s exciting. It was amazing to me to hear about Einstein and how he began to think about the speed of light. In my case, I took a genetics course and, man, that was a wonderful course. Growing up on a farm surrounded by animals, I had always been interested in heredity. You see similarities and differences within species. Well, how did all that diversity come to be? That monk in Brno, Gregor Mendel, working in his garden and laying out experiments, gave us a theory of heredity. He delivered his first lectures in 1865 but his work did not get rediscovered until 1900, and that’s the beginning of genetics. That was fascinating to me.
RJ: After leaving university teaching, you co-founded The Land Institute in 1976. As the institute grew, you were no longer doing the bench science, the plant breeding, but did you still feel like a scientist?
WJ: I think if you’re going to call yourself a scientist, then you ought to be doing experiments. And doing experiments is no different than, say, electrical work. I can do some of that work — I could wire my house and the outbuildings — but not feel like an electrician, because I couldn’t work at the higher level of an experienced electrician. In the same way, I don’t necessarily still feel like a scientist. But the bigger point is that it’s important not to think of yourself as special because you can do a job. We are simply human beings who are interested in certain things. In graduate school, I saw a certain kind of posturing attached to “I am a scientist” by people who felt pride in the title. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of your work, but I questioned their sense of elevation.
RJ: There’s a difference between pride in your work and the kind of arrogance that suggests your work is special. When you were a scientist, you never thought of yourself as particularly special?
WJ: No. For one thing, there were some people doing really amazing work, and I didn’t see myself as comparable to them. But there are also people in the trades who do amazing work, who have some kind of special gift. I don’t like assigning more or less value to what each of us is doing. That has a way of being divisive, of separating some of us from the rest who are trying to make a go of it.
RJ: About the house you built back in the 1970s, the house you still live in. You didn’t have a lot of money back then and you built most of it from scratch with help from friends and family. Did you wire that house yourself?
WJ: Most of it, although my brothers helped. I don’t think I asked them. They just showed up with their tools because they knew that would be useful. They did that for anyone they knew who was building a house.
RJ: Was that wiring up to code?
WJ: Well, maybe not, but I don’t worry about it starting a fire. I don’t skimp on the size of the wire, and I always put in adequate breakers. You see somebody doing work of that kind, you see how it’s done, and then you do it.
RJ: Growing up on a farm, you had to learn something about a lot of things, in part because there wasn’t money to hire people. Today, most people rely on experts. Almost nobody can wire their own house. You grew up in a simpler time in the sense that people who wanted to apply themselves could learn things like how to wire a house.
WJ: My dad did a lot of wiring for folks, and I asked him once, “How did you learn to wire?” He said, “You just look at the box and it’ll have the diagram there.” There was more complicated electrical work that he couldn’t do. But basic house wiring, anybody can do that. Just read the box and the instructions. But you’re right, it’s not as common for people to do that these days.
RJ: Back to science. You have a lot of respect for the accomplishments in science. You think science is one of the most reliable ways we have of investigating the world. But you’ve also been a critic. So, I want to get your reaction to two different assertions. The first is, “Science is helping to destroy the world.” The second is, “Science is necessary to save the world.”
WJ: First of all, we’re not going to destroy the world. Even the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 66,000,000 years ago did not destroy the world. But you mean a severe reduction in options for future generations that might lead to human extinction. Science has been part of that problem. We have the ability to destroy ourselves quickly with nuclear weapons. We also are putting too many chemicals into our bodies that our tissues have no evolutionary experience with, and those consequences will unfold slowly. But it’s also true that I’m taking a couple of medications that are helping me lead a life that is, I hope, productive. I’m grateful for that science. But I think we place way too much faith in technology. There’s a kind of technological fundamentalism at work in the world: too much dependency on technological shortcuts that are supposed to make us healthy, wealthy, and wise.
RJ: We live in a world that bathes us in petrochemicals. Why is this dangerous?
WJ: Over the past 200,000 years, we’ve evolved to live in a world that doesn’t include them — they’ve appeared in the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. Also, when our species shifted from being gatherers and hunters to farmers, our diets changed, not all for the better. When agriculture was invented, about 10,000 years ago, we became a species out of context. We’ve been living as farmers for less than five percent of the total history of Homo sapiens. When our ancestors started producing food in a dramatically different way, it changed the way we lived, and dramatically altered our ecosystems. The environment which gave rise to us was no longer there.
RJ: Those synthetic chemicals, mostly petroleum-based, were developed by scientists. The synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides allowed dramatic increases in yields. But industrial agriculture has also been destructive. How do we tame the science that can do so much damage?
WJ: First of all, I think it’s important for us to recognize that we’re far more ignorant than we are knowledgeable. There’s a lot more that we don’t know compared with what we do know. Some people start with the idea that knowledge is adequate to run the world, believing that we can know enough or learn enough to foresee and correct technology’s negative consequences. The idea that we are going to be able to head off every threat coming our way is dangerous. But because there’s been enough gee-whiz science that works, people find it easy to believe that all we have to do is keep coming up with more gee-whiz science. There’s an old saying that nothing fails like success, because you tend not to learn much from success. The internal combustion engine was a success that gave us speed and power, and carried us toward problems we may not be able to solve, notably global warming.
RJ: When you argue for an ignorance-based worldview, you’re obviously not celebrating stupidity but calling for intellectual humility. Some years ago, you hosted a conference to develop the idea. Explain that worldview.
WJ: Wendell Berry warns against using the language of science to appropriate the unknown: to think we can see all the patterns in the world. We can’t, and it’s hubris to think we can. A more careful approach to knowledge is to recognize that what we don’t know is far greater than what we do know, which should help us to remember lessons learned from past failures, to build in second chances, and to keep the scale small. In other words, we need to spend more time studying the exits.
RJ: You are suggesting that a better understanding of science could teach us to recognize limits.
WJ: Yes, and we should recognize this in human affairs also. We think we know how to organize a society, and we may have good intentions. But we should pay attention to the “counterintuitive behavior of social systems,” the phrase Jay Forrester used in a 1971 paper. He argued that we don’t really understand the dynamic behavior of complex social systems and so we develop policies that can end up doing the opposite of what we intended. How many times have we started a day thinking we knew how things would go, and we end up surprised at the end of the day? I was talking to a person who is doing some work on my barn about the effect of COVID-19 on stores that sell building materials. At first, the stores apparently decided not to order more stock because they figured people were not going to be able to work in construction during the lockdown. Well, it turns out that people stuck at home wanted more material to work on their houses, and the stores had to scramble to meet the demand. Why does that happen so often if we’re so smart? If we start any endeavor by recognizing our ignorance, then we tend to be more cautious.
RJ: Is an ignorance-based worldview predicated on cultivating a great deal more humility?
WJ: I think that is the beginning of wisdom. We have to make choices, but too much of our language describes being dead certain. People say that we need a positive outlook, but too often that really means hoping for a miracle. We have a culture that is dazzled by the big promises and then, when something doesn’t work, just moves on to the next big promise.
RJ: You count yourself as an environmentalist, which we think of as a modern movement. But you also harken back to lessons learned on the farm from previous generations — people who might not have thought of themselves as environmentalists. How much of what you learned from your parents and other farmers dovetails with today’s environmentalism?
WJ: I have thought so often about the 25 or so different crops on our farm back in the 1930s. My dad made notes like, “Good yield, no market.” Or, “Insects took the crop.” Those notes acknowledged the need for that diversity. The land is no longer in the family, and when I drive by that acreage today it’s one crop, soybeans. The fences are all down. I wonder to what extent some of the weeds that grew along those fences harbored insects that might have helped control other insects that threatened the crops. I don’t know — I’m ignorant on that — but I do know the key to making it through the Depression and during World War II had to do with diversity. I asked my mother once, after my dad had died, “Did you ever really make it?” I meant: Did we ever really make money? She said no. That’s the story of farming. You’re living with lots of uncertainty.
RJ: Your family’s farm had enough different crops that you could lose one of them in a given year and still get by.
WJ: Right. And we may not have made much money, but we had the chickens and the hogs and the milk cows, and a diversity of grain and vegetable crops. There was always something to eat, something to sell. And that’s true for an ecosystem as well: health resides in the diversity of species it harbors. That’s probably one reason why I recognized early on that the ecosystem was a necessary conceptual tool for thinking about life in general. And that led me to think about a sustainable grain agriculture built on perennials in polycultures. It comes out of giving so much importance to diversity and the concept of the ecosystem.
RJ: Why have modern farms become less diverse?
WJ: Let me tell you about what I did this morning. With the help of two of our staff here at The Land, I loaded up four head of cattle that I own on a trailer. Those cattle are creatures that evolved to be watchful of predators, just like most animals. I had one cow that just would not go within the panels we had set up. She seemed to have a memory of when I would load up cattle before. I had another cow that would not go into the confined area any farther than she could escape from. I eventually figured out a way to trick her in, but the larger point is that humans and other living things have had to be wily to survive. So, what has happened to humans? Why does is seem like as a species we are getting less intelligent. Why do we now have just a few crops on a farm, often just corn and soybeans? Why did we stop counting on diversity? It’s not very wily of us. Those decisions are about profit margins and crop insurance and a lot more. But it’s hard for me to see how this can go on for another half-century without our paying an even bigger cost somewhere.
RJ: Your parents had a lot of knowledge about that farm, but you’re saying they also knew the limits of that knowledge.
WJ: It’s important to be experimental. I remember we had turkeys for a while, which roosted on a windbreak of sorts and were very good at catching grasshoppers, which we thought would help the crops. Well, we lived along two highways, and there were grasshoppers on the other side of the road, and the turkeys didn’t pay too much attention to the highways. They would cross the road, and you would hear the screech of tires, and there would be dead turkeys on the highway. There’s nothing wrong with eating roadkill, but it didn’t take long for us to decide to just sell the rest. On a farm like ours you were always doing something in an experimental sort of way. Part of the problem today is that we have too much energy, mostly fossil fuels. That’s why I say that highly dense carbon destroys information, cultural and biological. The more energy we use, the less diversity there tends to be, and the cultural information about farming with diversity within ecological limits is lost. And the biological information in all those diverse crops is lost.
RJ: Is that how you see farming after World War II — energy driving out that traditional cultural knowledge and biological diversity?
WJ: Highly dense carbon makes war on information, cultural and biological. I think there’s a relationship between information, energy, and scale. As the scale of farming goes up, made possible by all that energy, a lot of the information embedded in all that diversity disappears. That looks to me like cultural decline, not progress. As ecologists know, diversity is not always your friend, but you’ve got to have it. When you have one crop that matures at one set time, you can harvest and sell it on the market all at once. That’s convenient, but it makes you vulnerable to crop failure. Diversity may mean more work, so in that sense it’s not your friend, but it protects you from catastrophic failure.
RJ: The application of science through engineering and technology has created the potential for that large-scale farming. It has created the chemicals that make that kind of farming possible, but with disastrous consequences for both landscapes and rural people, along with dangers for consumers. In what ways do we still need science?
WJ: With genetics and the computational power now available, we can work to foster diversity instead of destroying it. To be sure, all that computational power and the labs require burning highly dense carbon. But I don’t want to see this research abandoned because we need it to have a shot at feeding ourselves in a sustainable way. You could say that’s a contradiction, but that’s what makes life so rich. I’ll quote Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, authors of The Dialectical Biologist, who said that what we need in science is “a strategy which sees the unity of the general and the particular through the explanation of patterns of variation which are themselves higher order generalities that in turn reveal patterns of variation.” In other words, you may think you have it all nailed down, but you don’t. It’s about living with the uncertainty, and always looking for those patterns. What does this say about my earlier statement: Highly dense energy destroys cultural and biological information? Is that true? Yes. Does highly dense energy also help us create new knowledge, new understanding? Yes. If we’re looking at crop production in the Kansas River Valley in the 1930s and ’40s, even into the ’50s, then diversity was a friend to the farmer. Today, if one wants to be a farmer in that valley and make a living in the get-big-or-get-out economy, then diversity can be your enemy. That’s because a sufficient number of people have been replaced by a sufficient amount of capital.
RJ: Can that change again?
WJ: I think we’re destined to live in a sunshine future without all of that dense energy: to go back, in other words, to living off sunlight. The experimental nature of folks like my parents is going to come in handy in that future.
RJ: Some would call it folk science. But I want to come back to modern science, with laboratories and expensive equipment. Is there a role for modern science in an ecologically sustainable future?
WJ: Yes, but it requires restructuring the assumptions of a knowledge-based worldview. We can’t evaluate technologies on a simplistic standard of efficiency. We have to do full-cost accounting. I’m quoting Lewontin and Levins again: the boundaries of consideration have to better map to the boundaries of causation. When we consider buying a tractor, we have to think not just about what it costs us out of pocket but what effects it has on landscapes and other people, from the mining of the ore through the processing. We have to acknowledge that this economic system will continue to want to turn out stuff, and we’ll be told it’s always getting more efficient. But we need to ask what is sufficient to live decent lives, rather than buy into the notion that all this consumption is okay as long as we are getting more efficient. We need the kind of science that can help us manage that.
This interview is adapted from an episode of Podcast from the Prairie, a project of Perennial Films in collaboration with the New Perennials Project and The Land Institute. It was produced by Michael Johnson, Bob Sly, and Bill Vitek. Episodes are available online on all the podcast platforms, including SoundCloud. The transcripts of Podcast from the Prairie will be published as an open-access online book by New Perennials Publishing later in 2022.
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Robert Jensen is an emeritus professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He collaborates with New Perennials Publishing and the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College.
Jensen is the co-author, with Wes Jackson, of An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, which will be published in September 2022 by the University of Notre Dame Press. He is also the host of “Podcast from the Prairie” with Jackson.
Jensen is the author of The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability (University Press of Kansas, 2021); The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (2017); Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (2015); Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (2001).
Jensen can be reached at email@example.com. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw