Sep 04, 2021
This is an excerpt from the keynote address for the online conference on "Changing Configurations and New Directions" at Ajeenkya DY Patil University in Pune, India, on July 27, 2021.
The stability of the Earth's ecosystems, and hence the future of the human species, depends on people recognizing and responding to multiple, cascading social and ecological crises that can easily overwhelm our imaginations. We need to cultivate restless and relentless minds to deal with unprecedented analytical questions and moral challenges if we are to go beyond the failed approaches of our current politics. This requires a sense of history deeper than we typically see in current debates. Since the advent of agriculture more than 10,000 years ago, humans have been a "species out of context." That awareness will help us formulate "questions that go beyond the available answers," which are necessary if we are to fashion effective responses to the crises. In this presentation, Robert Jensen highlights a half-century of work by one of his elders, Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Kansas (USA), to suggest approaches to analyzing the threats at this moment in history. This lecture draws on Jensen's 2021 book, The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability (University Press of Kansas) and a forthcoming book co-written with Jackson.
Introduction: Restless and Relentless
I have lived an extraordinary life. I don't mean that, as an individual, my life has been anything special. In fact, most days I have to work hard to get to ordinary.
But I was born in 1958 in the United States, the richest society in the history of the world, at a time when people--not only in the U.S. but all around the world--expected endless economic expansion. This has been a period of human history marked by an extraordinary level of more--lots more people and lots more stuff made possible by lots more energy. Although the wealth of the world is not distributed equally or equitably, global politics and economics in my lifetime have been based on the assumption that there could be enough for all to live comfortably, even affluently, consuming at unprecedented levels, no matter how many of us humans might be roaming the Earth's surface.
But things change. The United States is still the richest society, for the time being. Affluence is still considered the norm to strive for all around the world, for the time being. But that dream of endless expansion has left us facing nightmare scenarios for the future. Dramatic change is inevitable.
Today we face multiple, cascading ecological crises, including but not limited to rapid climate destabilization, accelerated species extinction and loss of biodiversity, chemical contamination of land and water, and soil erosion and degradation. These realities will require our species to down-power, either consciously through rational planning or as a result of larger forces beyond our control. Coming decades--not in some science-fiction future, but in the lifetimes of many of us--will be marked by permanent contraction. If there is to be a decent human future--perhaps if there is to be a human future at all--we must face the inevitability of fewer people consuming less energy and fewer material resources.
No one knows how the species will get there. No one knows if we can get there through rational planning. But our chances of maintaining a significant human presence on Earth, living in some fashion that we could call humane, will be enhanced if we let go of illusions about growth, whether they are tied to "drill, baby, drill" or a "Green New Deal." The end of the fossil-fuel era is inevitable, and no combination of renewable energy sources can fuel continued expansion.
The scale and scope of the challenge is unprecedented, and beyond the reach of conventional policy proposals. But we can enhance our chances of success by cultivating restless and relentless minds.
Restless, in the sense of never feeling settled or secure, because there is no security, something that vulnerable people understand and eventually will be a daily reality even for the affluent. Relentless, in the sense of being open to questioning every assumption, doubting every conclusion, pursuing every challenge--because the moment we think we've figured things out is the moment we will make our biggest mistakes.
Restless and relentless because we will fail often and need to develop the resolve to persevere, and because when we get something right it means that we'll become aware of another set of problems just ahead.
We should cultivate restless and relentless minds not just because of the challenges we face but also to foster a more joyful participation in the Creation.
Wes Jackson is the most restless and relentless mind that I know. He is an elder in two significant projects of the last half of the 20th century--shaping early environmental education programs and then building an important sustainable agriculture research institution. These have positioned him well for his third act: a blunt and honest reckoning with the fragile future we face.
Jackson's awareness of the beauty and complexity of the world started on his family's farm. His formal education in biology, botany, and genetics deepened that reverence. Both everyday experience and scientific knowledge have been part of the process by which Jackson came to see the distress of ecosystems, starting with agriculture.
For the past four decades, Jackson has suggested that we focus not just on problems in agriculture, but contend with "the problem of agriculture." Ever since humans became dependent on those annual grains, Jackson points out, we've been drawing down the ecological capital of the planet beyond replacement levels. From that observation flows what I consider to be Jackson's most important aphorism, his description of contemporary humans as "a species out of context."
For most of our evolutionary history, we were foragers who lived in small, relatively egalitarian bands that spent less time working to secure food and shelter than we do today, what anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called "the original affluent society." Surplus, ownership, and hierarchy were rare, existing only in places that were particularly resource-rich.
The advent of large-scale grain agriculture, followed by what we call civilization, changed all that. We began working harder in more unequal societies, often with poorer diets and an overall reduction in human health. Agriculture led to settled communities, cities, empires, and the modern nation-state, and along the way, we got writing and an expansive, permanent record of human creativity in the arts. We also got hardened inequality, not only in economic systems but also in patriarchy and later in white supremacy. We got air conditioning and we got global warming. We got social mobility and the ability to leave behind small communities when they limit our personal development, along with the erosion of a sense of stability and meaning as communities atrophied.
We keep trying to remake humans to fit into contemporary societies. We might want to start asking how to remake contemporary societies to better fit humans. There's no going back to foraging as our primary economy--not with nearly 8 billion people on the planet--but we can go forward with our evolutionary history in mind.
Jackson sees dramatic changes coming, many of them potentially catastrophic but also some that will be healthy. In the meantime, there's work to do and a world to enjoy.
There's a saying in what is sometimes called the minimalist movement that "less is more"--a good life is not only possible but more likely when one reduces consumption. Fair enough, but I think it's more honest to say "less is less, but less is OK."
It's easy to recognize that people in affluent societies own too much stuff and that an excess of stuff can be more of a burden than a blessing. But we also should recognize that there are advantages to having access to lots of energy and materials. Anyone who has ever spent all day digging a hole or a trench with a shovel, a task that a backhoe could accomplish in a matter of minutes, knows that sometimes lots of energy is easier on your back.
But life is tradeoffs, and we too often focus on the positive effects of energy and materials without considering the drawbacks. There's no way to identify every cost and benefit, but we don't even try to do full-cost accounting, in terms of the ecological, political, and psychological consequences of our technologies. We routinely emphasize the benefits and ignore the real costs.
Honest full-cost accounting would consider all these complexities of contemporary societies--the pluses and the minuses--so that we can start to make rational collective decisions about what we want to hang onto during the down-powering. This will not be easy, and often it will not be fun. Down-powering will mean suffering, even if we can manage to become more humane in caring for each other.
We need to rethink our ideas about affluence, about what constitutes a good life. Sahlins puts it bluntly: "[T]here are two possible courses to affluence. Wants may be 'easily satisfied' either by producing much or desiring little."
Less is less, but less has to be OK because we have no choice. The sooner we realize that the more time we have for rational planning to reduce the pain of a transition to a new way of organizing our lives.
Jackson was out walking on his property in Kansas one spring day and called me with a simple question: "Why is this not enough?"
Jackson ticked off a list of the plants he had cataloged on the walk and described a spider web between two trees that he had been studying. He talked about all the questions about those organisms that arose as he observed them.
"Why is this not enough?"
All of this--the seeing, the smelling, the pondering, the emotions that arise in us when we talk about it all--can be enough. We can find the authentic underpinnings of meaning and purpose in our own engagement with the world around us. If we can be satisfied with what the ecosphere gives freely to us--if that truly can be enough for us--perhaps we can find the strength to ask the hard questions and the imagination to go beyond the available solutions. Our restless and relentless minds can get to work.
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