System Versus Ecosystem: Kansas' Sustainability Rockstar Wes Jackson

Apr 8, 2016

With his silvery hair, his sun-and-wind-weathered skin, formidable stature and a booming, resonant voice, Wes Jackson steps out of his pickup truck in a blazer, radiating confidence. But 40 years ago, when he'd just given up a tenured professorship in California to set up shop in rural Kansas with the goal of transforming not just agriculture but the way humans live, he was appropriately daunted by the scale of his own ambition.

"I did it with a lot of doubt," he says with a laugh. "Especially in the middle of the night."

Today, the 80-year-old recipient of the MacArthur Foundation's Genius Grant and founder of the Salina-based Land Institute is a revered thinker on the cusp of retirement. But in the 1970s, he was a geneticist at California State University-Sacramento. Life was good. But something was drawing him back to Kansas, back to the land and in some ways, back in time.

He and his wife wanted their children to grow up connected to nature, to the production of food. He'd grown up on a farm near Topeka in the 1940s. "On the back of a hoe handle," as he puts it. Living according to what he calls the holy dictate of spare temperance, with frugality, feeling he had plenty because nothing was wasted, not even a half of an egg gone uneaten. 

Jackson sees humans as essentially tribal beings. As a geneticist, he sees is as the way our bodies and minds have evolved. Small town life in rural America was the last holdout of that ancient relationship to each other and to the universe, he says.

"We've increasingly become a species out of context. Out of the context that shaped us."

But it was more than that. Farms, to Jackson, were still a poor substitute for what came before them: the prairie. 

At 16 years old, he worked on a ranch in South Dakota. And the prairie, still somewhat preserved in parts of South Dakota, was a revelation perhaps more spiritual than scientific. He experienced a "high charge" seeing the beauty of the prairie, which he calls his first "prairie fix."

Later, as a professor, he took his students on a trip to the Konza Prairie.

Wes Jackson believes that nature provides a model for the best systems.
Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com

He remembers thinking, "Here is a system that does not require fossil fuel, we're not applying chemicals that we've not evolved with. Here there's no soil erosion beyond natural replacement levels." In other words, nature had already solved the problems that post-agricultural civilization had created.

His goal, from that moment forward, was to build a new kind of agriculture based on the way natural ecosystems work, with the prairie as a model. Even today, that's what the Land Institute's all about.

But Jackson's famously said that he isn't interested in nitpicking about the details of how we do agriculture; his critique is of agriculture, period. As in, the whole shebang.

Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com

"The human has been around with the big brain for 150-200 thousand years, and all but about 5 percent of that time we've been gatherers and hunters. We started agriculture and it required living with the idea that nature is to be subdued or ignored if we are going to eat."

He adds that "almost everything we do in modern agriculture is wrong."

Upon his return, that didn't make him hugely popular in his native rural Kansas, he says.

"Look," he says, "being a rural Kansas farmboy myself, I wasn't surprised at what kind of conversations were being had at coffeeshops throughout not just rural Kansas, but rural America. Like, man this is crazy. And what does he mean the problem of agriculture?"

But in his defense, he says, "I've never once criticized a farmer." 

He sees producers and consumers alike as caught within a system, one that goes beyond agriculture and extends to the economy and politics of the industrial mind. He likens our condition to Stockholm Syndrome, where someone who's been taken captive begins to sympathize and even side with his or her captors.

"In a way, we are all Patty Hearst," he says.

Is it hard to reconcile his love and nostalgia for life in rural Kansas with his critique of agriculture, on the whole?

"I have trouble reconciling almost all my life, quite frankly. I mean, I get in my pickup truck and I drove to Kansas City from Salina yesterday, and I'll turn around and go back today. I'm gonna spend a lot of highly dense carbon for this trip. You see, this is the problem. We're all caught within this system. Now look, I'm glad to be alive. If it had not been for Penicillin way back when I was a kid, if it had not been for a lot of the accouterments of modern civilization, I would not be here. That doesn't mean it has not come at a cost."

But it's with a lot of optimism that he retires from his position as president of the Land Institute. He's particularly encouraged by the ground-swell of interest in sustainability. 

"I've been to a lot of places, coast to coast," he says. "The world has become increasingly uncertain about how much  longer this can go on. Not only how we practice agriculture, how we live in the world. Whether we're talking about power plants or transportation or climate change, we know at some deep level that this is ephemeral."

Portrait Sessions are intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in and around Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews

Gina Kaufmann is the host of Central Standard. You can reach her on Twitter, @GinaKCUR.