Jackson, Wes (1936 – ) American Environmentalist and Writer
Wes Jackson (1936 – )
American environmentalist and writer
Wes Jackson is a plant geneticist, writer, and co-founder, with his wife Dana Jackson, of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. He is one of the leading critics of conventional agricultural practices, which in his view are depleting topsoil , reducing genetic diversity, and destroying small family farms and rural communities. Jackson is also critical of the culture that provides the pretext and the context within which this destruction occurs and is justified as "necessary," "efficient," and "economical." He contrasts a culture or mind-set that emphasizes humanity's mastery or dominion over nature with an alternative vision that takes "nature as the measure" of human activity. The former viewpoint can produce temporary triumphs but not long-lasting or sustainable livelihood; only the latter holds out the hope that humans can live with nature, on nature's terms.
Jackson was born in 1936 in Topeka, Kansas, the son of a farmer. Young and restless, Jackson held various jobs—welder, farm hand, ranch hand, teacher—before devoting his time to the study of agricultural practices in the United States and abroad. He attended Kansas Wesleyan University, the University of Kansas, and North Carolina State University, where he earned his doctorate in plant genetics in 1967.
According to Jackson, agriculture as we know it is unnatural, artificial, and, by geological time-scales, of relatively recent origin. It requires plowing, which leads to loss of topsoil, which in turn reduces and finally destroys fertility. Large-scale "industrial" agriculture also requires large investments, complex and expensive machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and leads to a loss of genetic diversity, to soil erosion and compaction , and other negative consequences. It is also predicated on the planting and harvesting of annual crops—corn, wheat, soybeans—that leaves fields uncovered for long periods and thus leaves precious topsoil unprotected and vulnerable to erosion by wind and water. For every bushel of corn harvested, a bushel of topsoil is lost. Jackson estimates that America has lost between one-third and one-half of its topsoil since the arrival of the first European settlers.
At the Land Institute, Jackson and his associates are attempting to re-think and revise agricultural practices so as to "make nature the measure" and enable farmers to "meet the expectations of the land," rather than the other way around. In particular, they are returning to, and attempting to learn from, the native prairie plants and the ecosystems that sustain them. They are also exploring the feasibility of alternative farming methods that might minimize or even eliminate entirely the planting and harvesting of annual crops, favoring instead the use of perennials that protect and bind topsoil.
Jackson's emphasis is not exclusively scientific or technical. Like his long-time friend Wendell Berry, Jackson emphasizes the culture in agriculture. Why humans grow food is not at all mysterious or problematic: we must eat in order to live. But how we choose to plant, grow, harvest, distribute, and consume food is clearly a cultural and moral matter having to do with our attitudes and beliefs. Our contemporary consumer culture is out of kilter, Jackson contends, in various ways. For one, the economic emphasis on minimizing costs and maximizing yields ignores longer-term environmental costs that come with the depletion of topsoil, the diminution of genetic diversity, and the depopulation of rural communities. For another, most Americans have lost (and many have never had) a sense of connectedness with the land and the natural environment ; Jackson contends that they are unaware of the mysteries and wonder of birth, death and rebirth, and of cycles and seasons, that are mainstays of a meaningful human life. To restore this sense of mystery and meaning requires what Jackson calls homecoming and "the resettlement of America," and "becoming native to this place." More Americans need to return to the land, to repopulate rural communities, and to re-learn the wealth of skills that we have lost or forgotten or never acquired. Such skills are more than matters of method or technique, they also have to do with ways of relating to nature and to each other. Jackson has received several awards, such as the Pew Conservation Scholars award (1990) and a MacArthur Fellowship (1992).
Wes Jackson has been called, by critics and admirers alike, a radical and a visionary. Both labels appear to apply. For Jackson's vision is indeed radical, in the original sense of the term (from the Latin radix, or root). It is a vision not only of "new roots for agriculture" but of new and deeper roots for human relationships and communities that, like protected prairie topsoil, will not easily erode.
[Terence Ball ]
Berry, W. "New Roots for Agricultural Research." In The Gift of Good Land. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981.
Eisenberg, E. New Roots for Agriculture. San Francisco: Friends of the Earth, 1980.
Jackson, Wes. Altars of Unhewn Stone. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987.
——. Becoming Native to this Place. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.
———, W. Berry, and B. Coleman, eds. Meeting the Expectations of the Land. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984.
Eisenberg, E. "Back to Eden." The Atlantic (October 1989): 57–89.