Berry, Jackson Team Up to Tackle Sustainable Agriculture, Assert Importance of Liberal Arts

Nora Kipnis

To kick off this year’s Convocation series, author Wendell Berry and acclaimed scientist Wes Jackson met in Finney Chapel on Tuesday, Sept. 10 to discuss environmentalism, sustainable agriculture and the role of a liberal arts education. Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics David Orr moderated the conversation, though he started out by saying that moderating a conversation between Berry and Jackson is “like choreographing a buffalo stampede.” The conversation was indeed forceful, with a level of connection and deep understanding between the two that was unstoppable. They frequently left the original topic of conversation behind to launch into a riff of inside jokes and passionate speeches on the environmental and personal benefits of living in a sustainable way or to encourage the audience to ask questions that have more than simple answers.

From a disciplinary standpoint, Berry and Jackson seem like an unlikely pair to be taking on environmentalism together. Berry is a fiction writer and poet who has been honored with a National Humanities Medal and is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, as well as a Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Wes Jackson is an esteemed scientist, writer and sustainability activist who founded The Land Institute and in 1992 received a MacArthur Fellowship. He studied genetics at North Carolina State University and founded the undergraduate environmental studies program at California State University, Sacramento — the first of its kind in the country.

Despite their different career paths, the connection between the two runs deep. Their professional and personal relationship has been evolving since the late 1970s. Both are interested in sustainable agriculture and policy, Jackson on the practical, scientific side and Berry from a lifestyle perspective. Both are environmental activists who grew up on farms — Berry in Kentucky and Jackson in Kansas. Berry’s writing often focuses on a simple, agricultural life and reverence for the land. Jackson, he claims, has helped him in the writing process when scientific information was necessary. “I’m a scribe,” he said at the Convocation, referring to how his friendships, particularly with Jackson, have given him information to round out the precise detail in his writing.

Jackson, in turn, has profited from the keen eye of a writer and reader in order to find new conceptual frameworks for thinking about environmental science and the interaction between humans and nature.  It was Berry, for example, who introduced Jackson to Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Burlington” which deals with nature and asks the reader to “consult the genius of the place in all,” a line which Jackson saw as a commentary on how the particularities of the landscape work perfectly to fulfill the ecological needs of the area. As an example, he asked why we raze both prairie and rainforest to plant soybeans when the ecology of both biomes already works perfectly with the given environment. The junction of literature and science has informed the pair’s understanding of human nature as well. Berry’s close reading of a Han Jenny passage on the random placement of a raindrop led both of them to question the use of the word “random” in the first place. This topic sparked a discussion on the virtues of ignorance — the interest in those as-yet unanswerable questions — and a book called The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge edited by Jackson and fellow writer Bill Vitek. This idea has attracted considerable attention in the philosophical community.

Their work blends literary tradition and scientific thought and shows their view about how the humanities and natural sciences can and must direct the course of sustainable agriculture. Jackson stated during the Convocation that compartmentalization led to avoidance of the big problems going on with the environment.

Berry said the purpose of a liberal arts education is to help people understand how to live in a diverse world with diverse problems and find a calling or a vocation, rather than focusing on one specific area of specialization and searching for a job. This sort of education, in his view, should include what we consider the “crafts,” or the ways to truly support oneself while being respectful to the environment: farming, cooking and shoe-making. Berry sees it as a problem that we accept mediocrity in mass-produced necessities and overlook those who put care into handcrafting those necessities, while at the same time exalting art, music and literature. Modern specialization has driven universities to focus on science, technology, engineering and math research, known as STEM. “I call it SMET,” joked Berry. Berry additionally expressed concern that the need for research to boost funding has led to a lack of attention on education. He also called for a return from the urban lifestyle to a more agrarian one that involves careful use of small, individually-owned plots of land. This ideal lifestyle would involve a process of communion with the land — paying attention to nature’s signals — as well as self-sufficiency.

Orr asked both of them how one might “sell” an agrarian worldview in an urbanized world full of what Jackson calls “technocratic fundamentalists.” Neither had a good answer, but both agreed this is an important question to keep in mind — again, Jackson said that the best questions are the difficult ones. The consequence of not answering this question is unimaginable, yet according to Jackson, our method of using the earth has benefitted us for 10,000 years, and a reversal isn’t going to happen overnight. Therefore, he drew attention to the need for defined limits on our use of natural resources. Berry stressed that we need to learn to have courtesy for the land, cultivating a relationship much like one would have with another person.

For Jackson, the existence of an environmental studies program to begin with is indicative of a failure of the liberal arts tradition, which should have long ago addressed the problems of climate change. While agriculture is the second largest source of atmospheric gas, environmental programs largely leave this and other problems to agricultural universities to deal with. Meanwhile, he spoke of a gap between morality and legality in terms of how we treat nature — it’s legal to remove mountaintops, reduce biodiversity with enormous crops, use dangerous pesticides and frack — but at what cost, he asked?

“American agriculture is running a huge overdraft,” Berry said. In his opinion, the solution to that infrastructural quandary is not just for agriculturalists to figure out. It’s a question for students of all disciplines and a liberal arts education should not ignore the massive problems at hand. According to Jackson and Berry, the arts and sciences working in tandem will be an invaluable resource when tackling this subject.