Episode 22: Wes Jackson
Dr. Wes Jackson is the founder and director of The Land Institute, a non-profit dedicated to rethinking agricultural practice and creating new farming systems which result in conservation and ecosystem resilience. Wes’s conversation begins with the soil and rapidly grows to address how we make choices about the massively complex and intertwined systems we live within–there is definitely a hint of resonance between Wes Jackson, Timothy Morton, and David Korten. The problem of scientific fundamentalism makes an extended appearance and Wes presents a thorough critique of many of the ideas put forth by Robert Zubrin, Max More, Ariel Waldman and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Colin Camerer. Hubris, creativity, limits, and the fallacy of unlimited growth are also major themes in our conversation. In fact, nearly everything we have discussed in this project connects to to Wes Jackson’s conversation, whether explicitly or implicitly, and this episode should give you a nice jolt of systems thinking.
Also, I drop a Radiolab reference when Wes mentions the Haber-Bosch process. If you’re interested in hearing more about Haber-Bosch, you can listen to their episode here.
Artwork by Eleanor Davis.
Both Jackson and Zubrin have one thing in common: a completely distorted picture of what technology is and what it can do.
Zubrin goes out on a limp with the least speck of an expectation that a certain technology might one day be available, that this will be certain and unavoidably lead to certain outcomes of implemented technology. That’s the same kind of reasoning that brought us the ever-elusive flying car. To give an example: Carbon Nano fibres have been shown to be strong enough to build a space elevator (google it if you’re unfamiliar with the concept). Given that, you can go on and calculate energy expenditure of getting stuff into orbit with it, cost of transport to other planet etc. pp. … And that’s basically what Zubrin does when he asserts that resources from other planets will fill the gap if something runs out of earth. (Even though I would object to this statement nevertheless.)
This kind of extrapolation is a great tool for speculation, for science fiction of the best kind – but it is useless for planning. Planning must be bound to the realm of the possible, of what is firmly within our grasp.
Jackson’s mistake is the opposite. Instead of far-reaching grandeur, it is technological myopia. It is not too much to expect that all nitrogen fertilizer could be provided without any fossil fuels whatsoever. The energy requirements of agriculture are small, even in an agriculturally dominated country like the US. (Yes, you read this right. The US has huge agricultural areas compared to its population. Its population density is half of that of Asia – despite the sparsely populated stretches of Siberia, the steppes stretching from Kazakhstan to Afghanistan, the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas. If the US were to measure up with standards in Europe or Asia, it would need almost a billion more inhabitants.)
The processes required for agriculture (and also in any other industry) are much more flexible than they might seem, because only the cheapest, most efficient and profitable ways of carrying out those processes is used at any one time. Upset the system, and you change the game. That’s how tar sands suddenly became a viable source of oil, even though they had not been counted even as resources until just a few years ago. (Certainly not a good development, but an exemplary one.)
The Haber-Bosch process can be carried out without any natural gas, in fact that’s what was done in the early years in Norway. Hydrodams provided excess power for electrolysis of water, the hydrogen thus generated was turned into ammonia. (And left heavy water as a by-product, which played a major role in the German nuclear power program during WWII.) Given the amount of excess wind power available these days, there will be ample opportunities for a purely electric haber bosch process. A similar story is phosphorous, which can be sourced from sewage or even sea water (which is where the phosphorus ends up) – but today, both ways still lose out against mining guano or other cheap resources. Farm equipment can be entirely converted to electric motors – if you’re willing to install some modest infrastructure to support it.
There is no way to deny that those possibilities exist. It is not some kind of technophilia or fundmentalist/quasi-religious faith in technology, but simply those thing we know we could do – but currently don’t, because we don’t need to. Because they are the second best alternative. Only when you go beyond that, when you have to rely on developments that have yet to be made, that you can rightfully claim that some people put excessive faith in technology. But before all that, one must be open to the possibilities that truly exist and can be developed at any time without any doubt concerning their feasibility.